Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Winter Walk through the Forest Preserve

Augie finds animals looking for food in the cold.  He finds a deer, a squirrel, and a woodpecker!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Three Stars from the Thirties

Claudette Colbert, "Cleopatra," 1934.
Claudette Colbert actually made a great Cleopatra in the 1934 film, of the same name, directed by Cecil B. DeMille.  It's a tough role.  The Queen of the Nile has to be seductive and devious, thinking she is in control of her and Egypt's fate, while at the same time she's very naive about Roman politics.  She leads both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony to their doom, in a way that seems utterly convincing.  Warren William is familiar to many movie buffs as a smooth talking, somewhat duplicitous leading man in many early talkies; he seems too smart for his own good in this film as Caesar, thinking he controls Cleopatra when she is really controlling him.  Henry Wilcoxon as Antony is less nuanced; he's just a drinker, fighter, and lover who seems honestly baffled when first his Roman generals desert him, and the Cleopatra flees to save her own skin at his expense.
Randolph Scott, "Roberta," 1935.
Randolph Scott was so well known for his many roles in Westerns that seeing him in romantic comedies is sometimes a surprise.  I forget he was great in films like "My Favorite Wife."  In the 1935 film "Roberta" he stars alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  It's a silly film with a complicated plot - in France tagging along with Astaire's band, American football player Scott finds out his aunt, who owns a wildly successful haute couture, dies, leaving him the shop.  He ends up in a romantic triangle between his snooty girl visiting from back home and the shop's manager, played by Irene Dunne.  It's the main plot of the film, with Astaire and Rogers (who plays a counterfeit Russian duchess - see, the plot is complicated) relegated to the singing and dancing interludes.  I missed the ending - but I'm guessing Scott ended up with Dunne and either they both returned to America or he stayed to help run the shop!

Priscilla Lane, "The Roaring Twenties," 1939.
Priscilla Lane was one of the five Lane Sisters, four of whom were singers and actresses, and three of whom made the successful jump to the Silver Screen in the 1930s.  Priscilla had the biggest career, appearing in over 20 films, including the classics "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Saboteur."  In "The Roaring Twenties" she's the young ingenue Great War-veteran-turned-bootlegger Jimmy Cagney falls hard for; but she instead marries one of his war buddies, a young lawyer on his way to become a District Attorney.  Conflict ensues.  As in all of her roles she's sweet and likeable, the girl the hero makes sacrifices for and sometimes loses to a better man. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Four Villains, One Hero

Gail Patrick, "My Man Godfery," 1936.
 I love Gail Patrick.  I think she's great at playing believable "other women" who are really just misunderstood.  In "Godfrey" she's the older sister who thinks that Godfrey - a rich man willing to play a butler - has a secret.  Turns out she was right, but not in the way she thought.  She's smart but too cunning for her own good.  In Godfrey she learns a lesson about misjudging people, something a lot of people in the 1930s needed to also learn.
Sterling Hayden, ""Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," 1964.
The perfect portrayal of the paranoid conspiracy theorist.   "Purity of Essence."  What frightens me about "Strangelove" is how slow the responsible people are to recognize the insanity around them, and how much power wackos like Hayden's Gen. Ripper have over the rest of us.
Burt Lancaster, "Sweet Smell of Success," 1957.
Burt Lancaster, a gossip columnist along the lines of Walter Winchell, wants to break up his younger sister's romance to a musician; he uses Tony Curtis, an amoral publicist, to pull the strings.  Lancaster spends much of this film lying through his teeth and then being appalled when people don't believe him.  He's a snake.

Ann Blyth, "Mildred Pierce," 1945.
In "Mildred Pierce," Ann Blyth portrays the meanest, most ungrateful child in the history of cinema.  Her mother rises from poverty to create something of a restaurant empire, all so her daughter can lead a better life.  But Ann, as Veda, is dismissive of her mother's struggles, as if wealth just appears, and is even disdainful of her mother's attempts to protect her.  When she gets slapped late in the film, we cheer, because she deserves it.

Humphrey Bogart, "The Maltese Falcon," 1941.
Bogart, as Sam Spade, is the hero of "The Maltese Falcon," but he's not a really great guy.  He never really grieves for his dead partner; he's sympathetic to Mary Astor, but quickly gives her up for the Archer's murder, telling her sarcastically that he'll "wait for her."  He's cynical and bitter and hard-boiled, the way our detective heroes ought to be.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Powell and Loy in "Love Crazy"

      Myrna Loy and William Powell starred in six "Thin Man" films as Nora and Nick Charles, but they also made a few other films together, including this funny screwball comedy.  In 1941's "Love Crazy" they are a married couple celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary when a series of miscommunications results in them splitting up; Powell then pretends to be crazy to keep Loy from being able to divorce him, and to give him time to win her back.  It's a silly movie that benefits from a great supporting cast. 

Myrna Loy, "Love Crazy," 1941.
      Gail Patrick plays an old flame of Powell who just happens to also live in the same apartment building; they have a funny slapstick scene where they get stuck in an elevator.  Patrick played a tough-as-nails "other woman" in a number of great films, including "My Man Godfrey" and "My Favorite Wife." 

      The other great character actor here is Jack Carson, as a muscle-bound neighbor Loy attempts to use for "revenge" against Powell.  Carson made a career playing the often more extroverted, funnier, and interesting sidekicks in many great films, sometimes playing a good-natured cad.  He's especially great in "Mildred Pierce" and Hitchcock's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."

William Powell, "Love Crazy," 1941.
      A final note about "Love Crazy." At the end of the film William Powell has to pretend to be his own sister after escaping from an insane asylum (this is a screwball comedy, after all).  To do the scene he had to shave off his trademark mustache, and this is the only time I remember seeing hm on screen completely clean shaven.  He looks strange!

Monday, November 4, 2013

"The Goddess"

It's nice to be surprised by a film or performance that has somehow flown under my radar.  This past weekend I watched "The Goddess," a silent film from China from 1934.  I first heard of the film while watching "The Story of Film: An Odyssey," by critic Mark Cousins, on Turner Classic Movies.  That documentary series is one man's interpretation of the history of film.  Instead of looking at film as an American phenomenon, he's looking at how cinema spread across the world and sort of cross-pollinated different film cultures.   He spent some time talking about "The Goddess" and its star, Lingyu Ruan, in a recent episode.
Lingyu Ruan, "The Goddess," 1934.
In the film she plays a prostitute in modern day Shanghai, trying to support her son and give him a better life.  She ends up getting involved with a brutal pimp, but she tries to secretly save extra money for a possible escape.  She uses the rest of the money she earns to send her son to a good school; when the other parents discover her secret, they try to force her son out.  The Principal tries to intervene on her behalf, but is forced to resign.  When the mother decides to leave town with her son, and try to start a new life, she finds her secret money has been stolen by the pimp.  She confronts him, he ignores her pleas, and she strikes him over the head with a bottle, killing him. 

Sent to jail, the now ex-Principal finds her and tells her he will take care of her son and get him a proper education, leaving her with some comfort.

It's a brutal film.  The love she shows for her son, and the compassion of the school Principal, is almost crushed by her circumstances.  Today many prostitutes are seen for what they really are, victims and not criminals, and how she defends herself against the pimp would be seen as self-defense.  But in this film, in 1934, she's treated like a degenerate criminal. 

She even considers herself degenerate, which is one of the most moving parts of this film.  Lingyu Ruan portrays a woman who thinks so little of herself, but in reality she is the strongest and most compassionate person in the story.  And it's almost a relief when the Principal recognizes her strength.

Sadly this actress committed suicide a year after this film was made.  She was subjected to much of the same scorn from the people of China, because she was a film actress, as was her character of a prostitute.  I'll be looking for a deeper biography of her and I'd like to see more of her films.

Monday, October 14, 2013

"Oz," "Ted," and "The Hobbit"

I caught up on some films this weekend, and interestingly all three films featured - and relied on - heavy use of computer effects to create not just special effects but also actual characters.

I found "Oz The Great and Powerful" a nice example of director Sam Raimi's work.  Many of his films seem to feature an under-achiever who is expected to step-up his game and become the hero the other characters need to survive; "Spider-Man" especially comes to mind.  "Oz" is no different, as James Franco plays a Kansas con-man whisked away to Oz, where he is mistaken as a great Wizard who will save the good people from the wicked witch (and her increasingly more powerful sister).  Oz must first convince himself he can be that savior, helped along by Glinda the good witch and an assortment of interesting sidekicks.  

Sam Raimi has his stamp all over the look of the film, from the compositing and layering of images to the framing of action sequences.  It feels like a Raimi film - I even thought of "Darkman" while watching certain sequences.  And because it's a Raimi film I got carried away by the energy of the storytelling, and over-the-top performances, even if it did become a bit cliched near the end.  

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" doesn't have the gravitas of "Lord of the Rings."  Bilbo goes along on a quest as something of an unwanted side-kick.  The dwarfs he's tagging along with don't think he's much of an asset as he can't fight.  Of course he eventually gets the Ring from Golum, a blade that glows around Orcs, etc. and he saves the dwarf king and saves the day, setting up the second film. 

It was fun!  I watched it with my 6 year-old and he was engrossed in the battles, the scenery and Bilbo's journey.  In a lot of ways this felt like part of a serial.  There's little overly dramatic or complicated about this tale, but the adventure makes it a fun experience.

"Ted" is basically a "Family Guy" episode with different characters.  It became unexpectedly sappy at the end, as the magical bear tries to patch up the relationship between his "boy," Mark Wahlberg, and his girlfriend, Mila Kunis (who interestingly plays the Wicked Witch of the West in "Oz").  I laughed hysterically at the Sam Jones "Flash Gordon" bits.  The rest of the gags were hit or miss, like much of "Family Guy." 

What these films all have in common (besides Ms. Kunis in two of the three) is fully formed, computer generated characters.  "Oz" featured a computer generated talking glass doll, a wisecracking flying monkey, and a Wicked Witch; "The Hobbit" has trolls and orcs; and "Ted" has a wisecracking teddy bear.  The Wicked Witch had the toughest time of portraying real emotion, I think, because it's trying to incorporate Ms. Kunis' actual emotions.  It's still easier to create an animated character, like a teddy bear of porcelain doll, that we can connect with than it is to create a "realistic" person - like the witch - that is completely realistic.  The evil White Orc in "The Hobbit" sneers and snarls, but he isn't really human. 

Other attempts at animated main characters haven't fared well, but I expect to see it soon.  A full cast of computer generated characters that look "real" probably isn't too far away.  But looking at these three films it's clear that films can succeed with these "fake" characters as long as there's real emotion.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren, "The Pride and the Passion," 1957.
Sophia Loren plays a Spanish peasant fighting against Napoleonic French occupiers in this odd historical drama.  Cary Grant is an English sailor helping the Spanish in their war against the French; his mission is to move a giant canon to a fortress town so he can blow up the walls and help the Spanish take back the city.  The leader of the Spanish peasant forces is played by Frank Sinatra - I guess his New Jersey-Italian heritage made him "ethnic" enough to play a Spaniard.  He and Loren are involved at the start of the film, but perhaps it's just the cause that keeps them together.  Loren falls in love with Grant, of course; but when he offers to protect her when the battle begins - she can stay with him at the canon, while the peasant army fights the French soldiers - she chooses instead to fight alongside Sinatra.

It's an interesting film, the kind that doesn't get made much anymore.  It's a footnote to history turned into a big budget feature film, with a romance crafted out of thin air to attract some stars and create some melodrama.  I miss these types of films!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Notorious," 1946

Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" is one of the films that cemented my love of classic cinema, that made me a true cinephile, along with "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Casablanca."

Ingrid Bergman, "Notorious," 1946.
What fascinated me about "Notorious," which takes place immediately after World War Two, was the complexity of the characters.  Ingrid Bergman plays a German-American woman whose father, at the beginning of the film, is convicted of wartime crimes against the United States.  She has a reputation of being a party girl, which may be exaggerated, and of being a heavy drinker.  Already she's a complicated character.  When OSS agent Cary Grant  recruits her for a secret mission in South America, the details of which he doesn't yet know, he immediately falls for her beauty, but is wary of her reputation.  Again, complicated.  Their romance, if there will be one, won't be easy.
Cary Grant, "Notorious," 1946.
Eventually it's revealed that her mission is to seduce Claude Rains, a Nazi industrialist living in exile, and happens to be an old friend of her deceased father.  Grant's superiors suspect Rains and his friends of being up to no good, and they need Bergman to get close to him to find out.  This strains her budding relationship with Grant, and it's only made worse when Rains asks Bergman to marry him.

The plot involving the Nazis is really just a MacGuffin.  (It turns outRains and other Germans are perhaps trying to create an atomic bomb, mining Uranium and hiding the ore in wine bottles in Rains' basement.)  What's important is Bergman's love for Grant, and his love for her in return.  But how can he love her when she is with another man - even if it's "just a job?"

Like I said, complicated, especially for 1946.  I credit much of this to Ben Hecht's superb script.   He also wrote "Spellbound" for Hitchcock is listed as an uncredited writer on many of Hitch's films. 

Grant eventually rescues Bergman from Rains, who discovers she is an agent and slowly poisons her.  There is a great scene at the end of the film where Grant is carrying Bergman down a staircase and Rains, afraid his co-conspirators will find out she is a spy, "helps" Grant down the stairs and out the door.  But at the car, Grant shuts Rains out, leaving him alone to his certain doom.  It's the prefect ending to a film where the intentions of the characters are so complicated.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Two Blondes

Grace Kelly, "To Catch a Thief," 1955.
Grace Kelly only starred in about a dozen films; three of them were for Hitchcock.  I prefer her roles in "To Catch a Thief" and "Rear Window," where she gets to play something of an accomplice to the main male characters, as opposed to "Dial M for Murder," where she is the target.  But in all of these films she is smart, beautiful, and of course "classy."  I don't know how else to put it. 

Jean Harlow, "The Public Enemy," 1931.
"The Public Enemy" was a big film for Harlow, as it was for Cagney.  His big scene is where he shoves the grapefruit in his girlfriend's face.  He's coming up in the (gangster) world; all she does is nag nag nag.  So he ditches her.  Why not?  He's got Jean Harlow waiting in the wings.  They make a good on-screen couple.  Both brash and photogenic, with similar penetrating eyes. 
Something I forget about "The Public Enemy" - it takes place in Chicago.  Except for a few stock footage shots of the El, streetcars, and a stockyard, though, and a reference to Kedzie street here and there, it's hard to tell.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Five Stars of the '30s, '40s, and '50s

Jean Arthur 

Jean Arthur, "The More the Merrier," 1943.
"The More the Merrier" is a great home-front wartime comedy from 1943 that addressed a very real problem; housing shortages in Washington DC and other centers of politics and industry.  Jean Arthur advertises her spare room for rent, and character actor Charles Coburn weasels his way into the apartment, even though Arhur was looking for a woman renter.  Coburn recognizes that Arthur doesn't allow herself to have much fun, so when Joel McCrae shows up also looking for a room, Coburn rents him half of his room.  Coburn works as something of a matchmaker, orchestrating screwball situations for McCrae and Arthur to get to know each other.  It's really funny!  Lots of spit takes and slamming doors, misconstrued situations and even some good social commentary.  And Arthur and McCrae make a good romantic couple.

Glenda Farrell

Glenda Farrell, "Goldiggers of 1935," 1935.
Glenda Farrell often played hard boiled characters, whether as a reporter, a gold digging secretary, or even tough as nails gangster molls.  I wasn't really aware of the breadth of her career until I caught a recent retrospective of her work on Turner Classic Movies.  She appeared in important supporting roles in many early seminal 1930s films, including "Little Caesar," "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," "The Match King," and "Lady for a Day."  Later she would star in many, many smaller films, in a series of films as girl reporter Torchy Blaine,  and layer in her career finding an enduring life on TV.

Kim Novak

Kim Novak, "Vertigo," 1958.
I don't think I quite got Novak's beauty in this sketch.  She's like a ghostly china doll in "Vertigo" in the early scenes, when Stewart still believes her to be Madeleine, before he believes she jumped from the bell tower.  There's something about her eyes that I didn't get.

Maureen O'Hara

Maureen O'Hara, "The Foxes of Harrow," 1947. 

For so many years I only knew Maureen O'Hara from "The Quiet Man."  But of course she's had a long and varied career, and she played many variations of "haughty" women, including this odd film from 1947.  She's the daughter of a wealthy landowner in pre-Civil War New Orleans who is wooed by gambler Rex Harrison.  She reluctantly agrees to marry him, but it turns out to be a difficult marriage because of Harrison's unconventional approach to wealth and work.  I really enjoyed the early scenes in this film.  Harrison is a real scoundrel, and O'Hara is simply stunning.  Unfortunately the film became more of a dull domestic drama and lost my interest by the last act.   

Edward G. Robinson

Edward G. Robinson, "Little Caesar," 1931.
Edward G. Robinson shot to fame in this role, modeled after gangster Al Capone.   It amazes me that he was able to avoid stereotyping and go on to appear in such different genres as biopics, dramas, and even comedies.  I did this quick trace/sketch from a great close-up late in the film when he realizes he can't betray his friend, an old partner who is trying to leave the life and go straight.   Robinson just looked devastated and lost. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Show Boat" (1936); Two Sides of Elizabeth Taylor; and Joan Fontaine

"Show Boat" 1936

Hattie McDaniel, "Show Boat," 1936.

Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson overshadow the leads in 1936's "Show Boat," directed by James Whale for Universal.  Irene Dunne plays the singer who gives up her fame to follow her gambler husband, riding the ups and downs of his winning and losing streaks, until she eventually leaves him and returns to the stage.  Dunne is great in the part. 

But it's Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson that really stand out for me.  This version of "Show Boat" doesn't gloss over the racial plot point that forces Dunne's mentor from leaving the show; Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan) has "mixed blood" and is therefore a Negro, and she's married to a white man.  Her husband pretends to have Negro blood as well, so they avoid jail, but they are forced to flee the show, allowing Dunne's Magnolia to become a star. 

Paul Robeson, "Show Boat," 1936.

Director Whale gives Robeson and McDaniel plenty of screen time early in the film, not just as foils for the white stars, but as real, developed characters with their own backstory.  It's fun to watch them act against each other.  And of course Robeson's rendition of "Old Man River" is phenomenal, and it's given proper visual treatment by Whale.

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, "Suddenly Last Summer," 1959.

Here are two visions of Ms. Taylor, from only seven years apart, showing what tremendous range and skill she had as an actress.  In "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959) she plays a young woman in a mental institution, suffering from memory loss and general hysteria, scheduled for a lobotomy by Dr. Montgomery Clift.  She's suffering from trauma (spoiler alert) after seeing her cousin mauled to death at a beach resort.  The cousin was gay and trolled for conquests using the beautiful Liz, and his mother - played icily by Katherine Hepburn - wants to keep this under wraps, so she's happy to lobotomize her niece.  It's a strange, dark, psychological drama.   

Taylor is vulnerable and beautiful; scenes of her at the beach, dressed evocatively as "bait" for her cousin, are striking.

Elizabeth Taylor, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," 1966.

She won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966).  She's an alcoholic, the wife a history professor who is stuck at a middle rung of his career.  The fact she's the college president's daughter makes her extremely bitter about her husband's failure to advance; and (spoiler alert) their inability to have a child has also taken much of the love from their marriage.  She has turned to other men at the college searching for something she can't get from her husband, leaving their relationship hollow. 

It's a classic performance.

Joan Fontaine 

Joan Fontaine, "Letter from an Unknown Woman," 1948.
In the melodrama "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (1948) Joan Fontaine plays a young woman in early 20th Century Austria infatuated with a self-centered pianist.  She basically stalks him until he notices her; they have a brief affair, she gets pregnant, and he goes on a worldwide tour, where he promptly forgets about her.  She marries a generous man who accepts the child as his own, but she can't get over her infatuation, and when she bumps into the pianist, years later, she can't help but fall for him again.  But he doesn't even remember her! 

The husband (spoiler alert) leaves her because of the infatuation, the child dies of consumption (or something just like it), and she dies in a convent - and writes all of this down in a letter, delivered to the pianist after her death.  What a whopper!  He had a son and never knew it; he had her in his arms again, and didn't know who she was.  And Fontaine is great in the role as someone longing for someone and something she will never fully have.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Retired" 16mm Film Projection and Editing Equipment

Retired 16mm film projection and editing equipment from my personal collection, including a Bell & Howell projector, a single gang sync, and a splicer. 

Photographed using Canon Powershot SX280 HS, a nifty "point and shoot" camera with a nice zoom and manual aperture.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three Stars: Arden, Henreid, Kelly

Eve Arden

Eve Arden, "Comrade X," 1940.
Eve Arden plays a smart-mouthed girl reporter in this Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer penned comedy.  The big stars are Clark Gable as an investigative reporter black-mailed into marrying strident Communist Hedy Lamarr (as if one needs to be blackmailed into that marriage).  He's supposed to get her out of Russia because she's a target of a potential purge.  It's a funny film with patented Hecht/Lederer banter, in many ways reminiscent of "The Front Page."  And Eve Arden is great in her supporting role as the "best friend" gal pal who might be a better reporter than Gable.

Paul Henreid

Paul Henreid, "Deception," 1946.
Paul Henreid plays Bette Davis' cellist husband in this psychological drama.  She's an artist who has been living the high life as the "companion" of demanding, eccentric maestro Claude Rains.  When she marries Henreid she tries to keep her life with Rains secret (hence the title), but Rains butts into their life, writing a concerto for Henreid to perform.  What is Rains' motive? To destroy the young couple, or to help a new protege?  Will Davis ever come clean to Henreid?  And can Henreid's fragile psyche manage the drama AND perform the concerto?  It's a good, complicated Warner Bros. drama.


Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly, "An American in Paris," 1951.
I could sketch Gene Kelly all day.  This is from late in "An American in Paris," as he watches Leslie Caron leave with her French cabaret singer for a boat to America.  He's brooding.  He's serious.  And he's about to dance his "ballet." 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dick Powell, Susan Hayward X 2, and Jane Greer

Murder, My Sweet

Dick Powell, "Murder, My Sweet," 1944.
This is Powell as Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe in "Murder, My Sweet,"  the great adaptation of "Farewell, My Lovely."  I like Powell as Marlowe, especially in the scenes with the big bruiser Moose Malloy, the guy looking for "his Velma" that sets the story in motion.  Powell is both hard-boiled and sardonic, as only someone who had been through the Hollywood trenches as he had could be.   


They Won't Believe Me

Jane Greer, "They Won't Believe Me," 1947.
"They Won't Believe Me" is a screwy film noir starring Robert Young as a cheating husband.  That's putting it lightly; he cheats on his nagging, but innocent, wife first with nice-girl Jane Greer; then when forced by his wife to take a job out of town, he cheats on his wife with bad girl Susan Hayward.  

Susan Hayward, "They Won't Believe Me," 1947.
The wife kills herself; Susan Hayward dies in a car crash; and Young gets blamed for both deaths.  Greer tricks him into turning himself in.  At his murder trial, she sees he's really innocent, but unable to overcome his guilt (and satisfy the Production Code) he tries to kill himself, but he's shot and killed before he can finish jumping out the window.  The verdict, read post mortem?  Innocent.  Like I said, screwy film. 


Deadline at Dawn 

Susan Hayward, "Deadline at Dawn," 1946.
Talk about screwy, "Deadline at Dawn" needs multiple flow charts and power point slides to explain the plot.  A sailor gets accused of murder and Susan Hayward plays the dance hall girl who, along with a philosophical cabbie, try to figure out if he actually killed her.  Maybe he imagined it?  Or maybe it's the gangster, or the blind piano player, or any one of a dozen other real and false leads.  Susan has lots of crazy lines and Paul Lukas is great as the cabbie. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ruth Chatterton and Harold Lloyd

Ruth Chatterton, "Female," 1933.

Ruth Chatterton was a star of the late 1920s and early 1930s, often appearing in risque roles as strong, independent women.  In "Dodsworth" (1936) she stars opposite Walter Huston as a vain wife unwilling to accept her age; she takes advantage of a European trip with her retired, wealthy husband (Huston) to have affairs with other men, looking for an upgrade in social status by maybe marrying a count.  I think her character is a little shallow and intentionally unsympathetic.  We could have felt more for a middle aged woman who finally gets to break free from mid-western mores; instead she's drawn simply as a cheating wife.  But she's still great in the role.

In "Female" (1933) she plays a more complicated character; this time as head of an auto firm (in "Dodsworth" it was her husband's company!).  She's unmarried and can't seem to find the right man.  They are all either too simpleminded or too fawning.  When she finally meets her match, it's a man who is unwilling to play second fiddle to such a strong woman.  Unfortunately the Hollywood pattern required her character to ultimately succumb to his demands, willing to get married and let HIM run the company while she has the kids.  Later on I think she might have instead forged some kind of compromise, maybe running the company and getting married at the same time, but in this film, so close to the institution of the Production Code, perhaps the studio played it too safe. 
Harold Lloyd, "The Freshman," 1925.
I almost did a sketch of Harold in his trademark straw hat, cocked at an angle.  But I liked the way he looked in the leather helmet.  This is the part of the film where he tries out for the football team, repeatedly kicking the ball over his own head.  With "Safety Last!" (1923), "The Freshman" (1925) is Lloyd's other masterpiece of silent slapstick.  I think I got his glasses just right . . .

Monday, June 17, 2013

Films Noir by author David Goodis

Friday nights this month (June 2013) Turner Classic Movies is showing films noir grouped by a certain author and/or screenwriter.  This past week featured films adapted from works or written by David Goodis.  I had seen his most famous film adaptation, "Dark Passage" (1947) starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, many times, and I have also seen "Shoot the Piano Player" (1960) a number of times.  But I never tied the two films together, and I had never seen other, more rare, Goodis works.  This night included "Nightfall" and "The Burglar," both from 1957. 

It was interesting to consider the different approaches the Hollywood studio system and the French New Wave approached Goodis' work.  "Dark Passage" has some realism with its location shooting, but the star power still required high studio production values.  "Shoot the Piano Player," however, has the low budget, immediate feeling of a film entirely shot on location, on the go, as if trying to keep up with the story. 
Marie Dubois (Lena), " Shoot the Piano Player," 1960.

I was really impressed with the acting of Marie Dubois as Lena, the barmaid who tries to help Charlie, the piano player, out of a jam in "Shoot the Piano Player."  Charlie falls in love with her and, at first, she keeps him at a distance.  It was fun watching him romance her and watch her reel him in.  Ultimately she is the one who pays the price for Charlie's poor choices, dying in a shoot-out between gangsters and Charlie's hoodlum brothers.
Dan Duryea, "The Burglar," 1957.
Actually, many of Goodis' main characters are unlucky, often made worse by making poor choices in desperate circumstances.  Dan Duryea as Nat in "The Burglar" successfully robs an expensive piece of jewelry, but he lets himself get seduced by a woman who's just after the loot. And it turns out her partner is a dirty cop who is also seducing Jayne Mansfield, Nat's ward.  Things do not end well for poor Nat.  Duryea was great as a crook alternately in charge and smart enough to pull of a complicated heist, then quiet and searching for something more lasting than his life on the run.  
Jayne Mansfield "The Burglar" 1957.
Mansfield almost steals the film in a short montage enjoying a day at Atlantic City, on the beach and on the amusement park rides.   She almost seems a love interest in the film, and her "dating" of the dirty cop a betrayal.  It's a complicated performance.

"The Burglar" was also interesting as bridge between "Dark Passage" and "Shoot the Piano Player."  It's a little less polished, and more desperate felling, than the big studio film, and a little more like the gritty "Shoot the Piano Player."  Praise goes to TCM for such interesting programming.

(all sketches by J. Betke)

Monday, June 10, 2013

"Bride of Frankenstein" and "The Petrified Forest"

Bride of Frankenstein

Elsa Lanchester, "Bride of Frankenstein," 1935.
Colin Clive "Bride of Frankenstein," 1935.

In "Bride of Frankenstein" (dir. James Whale, 1935) one can't help but feel for the Monster (Karloff.  He's thwarted at every attempt of a peaceful existence.  His creator, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), reluctantly helps devise a bride for his earlier creation, helping the devious Septimus Pretorious, the guy who really put the "mad" in mad doctor.  And of course the female creature they piece together (Elsa Lanchester) wants nothing to do with the Monster, and why should see?  She sees him as a beast, as everyone else does, and not the gentle giant who was kind to the old blind man. 

The Petrified Forest

Bette Davis, "The Petrified Forest," 1936.

Humphrey Bogart, "The Petrified Forest," 1936.
"Petrified Forest" is just as famous for Humphrey Bogart's breakout role as the gangster Duke Mantee as it is for the tepid love story between philosopher/writer/drifter Leslie Howard and waitress Bette Davis.  Of course we are drawn to Duke, a "man of action," as opposed to Howard's Alan Squier, who is a bit of a loser.  (His desire to be a writer was stymied by a well heeled wife? C'mon.)  He spins a good yarn to Davis' Gabrielle, whose love of French poetry and desire to see her mother's France (and be a painter) makes her a sucker for someone like him.  Squier then "helps" Gabrielle by asking Duke to shoot him, leaving his life insurance policy for the girl, so she can go to France.  He "takes action" by committing virtual suicide.  Uggh.  I get it, self-sacrifice and everything, but it's such a passive attempt at nobility.  He could have also capture Duke and written a book about it!  At least Duke, who gets killed in a shoot out, dies trying to live!