Category: Essays

Jul 28 2014

‘The Cossacks’ on TCM

John Gilbert had risen to the top ranks of Hollywood stars by 1928. Under contract to MGM, the most glamorous studio in the world, he was a favorite of director King Vidor, who directed him in five pictures including the acclaimed The Big Parade (1925) and the swashbuckling costume adventure Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), and screen superstar Greta Garbo, who starred opposite him in Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Love (1927). He was poised to take the mantle of screen heartthrob after the death of Rudolph Valentino, and MGM, which didn’t always see eye to eye with the often outspoken and critical star, poured on the production value for The Cossacks, his follow-up to Love and his most expensive film to date.

Based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy and set in a romantic fantasy of the barbarous central Russia, The Cossacks stars Gilbert as Lukashka, the educated, pacifist son of a bloodthirsty Cossack chieftain (Ernest Torrence). “The woman man,” he’s called by the village men. “The man who will not fight.” After enduring ridicule and abuse, he finally turns and transforms into the fiercest warrior in a village of fighters who live to make war with the Turks. MGM built a massive Cossack village set in Laurel Canyon and bragged in press releases that they had brought 112 real-life Cossacks from Russia (they lived in the village during production). Money was lavished on costumes and location shooting (very little was shot in the studio) and a spectacular special effect involving an epic landslide across a mountain path. “[W]hile it has its artificial vein,” wrote New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall, the production “is sometimes quite impressive because of the earnest attention to the atmospheric detail.”

Plays on TCM on Tuesday, July 17

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Jul 24 2014

Sex in Cinema: Surprises from the Archives

How much sex can you handle? We were overwhelmed by just how much we found in our odyssey to create a Sex in Cinema infographic for Fandor. Who knew the rich history of sex in the cinema that went all the way back to the first short films shown to audiences?

Okay, a little context here.

‘The White Slave Trade’

When me and my fellow film history mavens and Keyframe contributors Dennis Harvey, Shari Kizirian and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo first embarked on the Sex in Cinema research project, we divided up the continuum and each tackled a specific era in depth. When we reconvened a few weeks later and compiled our research, we were faced with an overwhelming variety of films, sub-genres and oddities, far more than could be squeeze into the visually-oriented infographic. Any one of our surveys could have blossomed into a feature in its own right.

Much paring and editing was called for and many interesting streams and curious eddies in the churning waters of cinematic sex were necessarily left out of our final map. Did you know that white slavery dramas were a sensation in the early days of silent movies? That long before the drive-in exploitation market took off, independent exploitationeers promised salacious thrills in cheap, tawdry films that they personally hauled across the country? That Ang Lee has thoughtfully and sensitively challenged more sexual taboos than probably any other major filmmaker today?

Continue reading at Keyframe

See the full Sex and the Cinema infographic at Fandor here

Jul 16 2014

‘King & Country’ on TCM


Joseph Losey was riding high on the international acclaim of The Servant (1963), the director’s first collaboration with screenwriter Harold Pinter and second film with actor Dirk Bogarde, when Bogarde presented him with the script of a small television play called Hamp. Set in World War I, it’s a war drama with no battle scenes, the story of the court-martial of a young, uneducated working class soldier who, after three years in the trenches of World War I, simply walked away from the front lines in a hopeless attempt to walk home. Bogarde was very much interested in the project. He had served in World War II and recalled the trauma his father suffered after his service in World War I. He sent Losey to the Imperial War Museum and gave him a copy of “Covenant of Death,” a book of photographs and paintings of World War I. Some of those photos found their way into the film, framing the story with images of death and devastation on the muddy battlefields.

Losey handed the script to Evan Jones, who had previously scripted Eva (1962) and These Are the Damned (1963) for the director. With Losey’s blessing, Jones jettisoned the teleplay and returned to the source, and at his request added a kind of Greek chorus of soldiers to provide an additional perspective to the ordeal of the trenches. Bogarde, an author in his own right, also contributed to the script, rewriting some of his scenes and providing the background of experience, all of it uncredited on the film but acknowledged by Losey in later interviews.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Friday, July 18

Jul 15 2014

‘The Criminal Code’ on TCM

The Criminal Code (1931) refers to the unwritten law of prison: a convict never rats out a fellow convict. They have their own rules of justice behind bars. It’s both the title and the defining premise of a 1929 Broadway drama, a socially-relevant play that makes a case of prison reform, and it became an accepted convention for all subsequent prison films.

Harry Cohn bought the play for Columbia, a small studio that competed with the major Hollywood players with its relatively meager resources. Columbia didn’t have a stable of bankable stars under contract or the money for a big slate of expensive pictures but Cohn had big ambitions and he produced a couple of major pictures every year, usually with talent hired from other studios on a per-picture basis. He signed up-and-coming Howard Hawks for a picture and he offered him the project. “It had a great first two acts, then a bad third act,” explained Hawks to Peter Bogdanovich, and he brought in screenwriter Seton I. Miller (who had scripted the 1928 A Girl in Every Port and Hawks’ 1930 sound debut The Dawn Patrol) to rework the drafts penned by the original playwright, Martin Flavin. Hawks didn’t like sentiment in his films and had Miller play against the overtly sentimental scenes with brusque dialogue, a kind of tough-guy shorthand that acknowledges the emotion without making a show of it.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Thursday, July 17

Jul 07 2014

Fab film at 50: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

The rock movie was never the same after A Hard Day’s Night opened 50 years ago, on July 6, 1964. The Beatles black-and-white comedy, which is being re-released in theaters for the anniversary, immediately became the cheekiest, wittiest, most inventive film in the then-fledgling rock and roll movie genre.

Before A Hard Day’s Night, there were two basic approaches to the rock movie. Neither demanded much in the way of creativity. There was the Elvis model, where you cast a pop star in a dramatic or comic role and shoehorned a few songs between the scripted scenes, and the “Beach Party” model, where singers and bands simply dropped into a movie to perform a number and then quickly disappeared.

A Hard Day’s Night was something different. The Beatles played themselves, in a tongue-in-cheek fantasy of a day-in-the-life of the band. They were real and unreal at the same time, goofing their way through the world as a way of dealing with the insanity of superstardom, and they were likable and funny and just a little impertinent. If this isn’t how they were in real life, it’s how we wanted them to be.

Continue reading at Today Entertainment

Jul 06 2014

Hal Hartley Explores New Voices in ‘My America’

In 2012, Baltimore’s Center Stage, the State Theater of Maryland, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by soliciting scores of American playwrights, both established veterans and emerging voices, to answer the question “What is my America?” with a short monologue. Fifty pieces were ultimately commissioned and director Hal Hartley filmed them all for Center Stage. Twenty-one of these pieces are woven into the feature My America.

'My America'

This is not a collection of Hartley film shorts, at least not in the way we think of a “Hal Hartley” film. Whether working in short film or feature-length modes, Hartley’s voice is unmistakable and he put his camera in service to the word, or more precisely the lively, playful interplay of words. Imagine a college grad student’s reworking of a screwball comedy with a deadpan approach and Godard-ian flourishes. Conversation, debate, argument, lecture, philosophical musing, and the odd poetry of intellectual discourse in the measured cadences of call and response and cyclical talk, those are the heart of Hartley’s cinema and until now he’s written his own screenplays.

My America, a collection of monologues, raps and one-way conversations by American playwrights grappling in one form or another with the identity, the dreams and the realities of the American citizen, is Hartley engaging with other voices.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Jul 04 2014

‘Assault On Precinct 13′ on TCM

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is not John Carpenter’s first feature–he made his debut with Dark Star (1974), a college project he began at USC with fellow student Dan O’Bannon and expanded for theatrical distribution–but it is Carpenter’s first real solo outing. As writer and director, it’s his project from start to finish, and you can see it as a transition picture, between the hungry young student filmmaker of Dark Star, tossing together a project on a shoestring with friends, and the assured, commanding young professional of Halloween (1978) crafting a fully-realized feature with the control of a master storyteller. Assault on Precinct 13 is where he announces his influences, finds his strengths, and begins to develop his style.

Ostensibly an urban crime thriller of street gangs gone wild, Assault on Precinct 13 is a siege picture, a cross between a Howard Hawks western and a horror film. The model for the screenplay came from Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo, specifically the setting of a small group of lawmen and civilians holed up in a sheriff’s office under siege from a gang of gunfighters. “Assault on Precinct 13 came together very quickly,” Carpenter told Robert C. Cumbow. “An investor from Philadelphia had some money and said, ‘Let’s make a movie.’ And I said, ‘Let’s go,’ and I wrote the script in eight days. I wanted to do a western, but I wasn’t able to do a western, and it was the closest thing to it.” For Assault, Carpenter transforms the sheriff’s office into a small police station in a desolate, nearly abandoned Los Angeles neighborhood. The station is in the process of being shut down while the personnel is being transferred to a new station across town, and this practically abandoned building becomes the fort where a group of cops, criminals, civilians and office workers barricade themselves against an attack by a nearly faceless gang.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays Saturday, July 5 on TCM

Jun 29 2014

‘The Forbidden Street’ on TCM

Fiery actress Maureen O’Hara got a homecoming, or something close to it, with The Forbidden Street (1949), a romantic drama of status and sacrifice and blackmail in Victorian England. The Irish actress had been busy in Hollywood since her stateside debut in the 1939 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, shooting all of her British period pieces on Hollywood sets. But for The Forbidden Street, 20th Century Fox shipped the production over to Fox London to make use of studio funds frozen in Great Britain. It wasn’t quite Ireland but O’Hara was in an unhappy marriage to Will Price, a former Hollywood dialogue director and a drunk, and was glad for the break.

Based on Margery Sharp’s 1946 novel Britannia Mews, The Forbidden Street stars O’Hara as Adelaide Culver, a headstrong woman from an aristocratic London family who defies her mother (Fay Compton) to marry her handsome music tutor, Henry Lambert (Dana Andrews, in a professorial beard). It’s an impulsive act by a nave young woman and she ends up shunned by her family, unhappy and alone in the slums of Britannia Mews until she meets Gilbert Lauderdale, a dead ringer for her Henry (and also played by Andrews) but a far warmer and more loyal fellow. As Henry, Andrews is overdubbed with a distinctive English accent (no credit is given), while his familiar voice returns as the amiable Gilbert. O’Hara, meanwhile, slips from a cultured, educated English accent to cockney as she remains in The Mews (as the locals call it).

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays Tuesday, July 1 on TCM

Jun 27 2014

‘The Big Broadcast of 1937′ of TCM

The Big Broadcast of 1937 was the third film in the popular music-comedy revue series of Big Broadcast movies and the first film that Jack Benny made under a new contract with Paramount Pictures. Benny had appeared in a dozen of so movies, dating back to his big screen debut as master of ceremonies in the early sound feature The Hollywood Revue of 1929, but he had made his fame on radio and The Big Broadcast of 1937 was, as the title suggests, built around the radio stars of the day. Benny plays Jack Carson, manager of a failing radio station desperate to find a hit show, and George Burns and Gracie Allen are the station’s primary sponsors Mr. and Mrs. Platt. A regular variety show of co-stars show up to fill out the film, from comics Bob Burns and Martha Raye to singers Shirley Ross and Benny Fields to bandleader Benny Goodman and esteemed orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Paramount assigned the reliable contract filmmaker Mitchell Leisen to direct. A former art director and costume designer famed for his inventive and flamboyant creations for Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) and The Sign of the Cross (1932), Leisen moved into the director’s chair in 1933 and became one of the studio’s most reliable and versatile directors. He had a knack for musicals, comedies and romantic dramas, all made with a stylish elegance and light touch.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Saturday, June 28

Jun 26 2014

How Indie DVD Label Shout! Factory Has Survived the Digital Age

If physical media is dying, as the business pundits have been telling us for years, then someone forget to send the memo to Shout! Factory.

Born ten years ago out of the DNA of the original Rhino Records crew, Shout! Factory is the pop culture geek squad of home video and it has carved out a niche in the home video industry—actually, a few niches, from horror and science fiction to cult movies to classic TV.

Last year, the company released over 300 titles on Blu-ray and DVD, including a handful of remastered John Carpenter special editions and an impressive box set of Bruce Lee films (everything but “Enter the Dragon”) on Blu-ray and DVD. Coming up in 2014 is a deluxe set of 16 Werner Herzog films on Blu-ray (slated for the end of July) and a complete “Halloween” box set, from Carpenter’s original to Rob Zombie’s revivals, produced in partnership with Anchor Bay (scheduled for release in the fall – just before Halloween, of course).

Shout! is just as committed to releasing television shows on disc, from the complete run of “Hill Street Blues” to collections showcasing Steve Martin TV specials, Mel Brooks on the small screen, and the incomparable and innovative TV work of Ernie Kovacs.

John Carpenter's 'Prince of Darkness'

While the major studios have slowed the pace of disc releases to a trickle, at least where classics and catalog titles are concerned, to focus on digital distribution, independent labels are filling the void. Olive Films released a slate of classics from the Paramount catalog on Blu-ray, from John Wayne’s pre-”Stagecoach” B-westerns to Betty Boop cartoons to cult noirs like “Cry Danger” and “Sleep My Love.” Twilight Time has been delivering limited-run Blu-ray releases of films from the Sony and Fox collections for a few years now. Kino, known for foreign imports and silent movie classics, has just created a Kino Lorber Studio Classics line for films licensed from the MGM Home Video catalog, with films like Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution” and Blake Edwards’ “The Party” making their Blu-ray debuts this summer.

And of course there is Criterion Collection, the gold standard for classics on Blu-ray and DVD. Founded in 1984, Criterion sets the bar for home video presentation with its commitment to high-quality digital masters (often created with the participation of the filmmakers and directors of photography) and supplements, starting back in the days of laserdiscs, when it introduced the audio commentary track on the 1985 release of “King Kong.”

Clearly there is still a market for Blu-ray and DVD in the age of streaming and digital downloads. “There definitely is an audience for it,” said Cliff MacMillan, a disc producer who pursues acquisitions for the Shout! Factory classics and Scream Factory lines. “Just like there is an audience for the Criterion Collection. Just the first week’s pre-orders on the ‘Halloween’ set are amazing.”

Continue reading at Indiewire

Jun 16 2014

‘Man Bait’ on TCM

Originally released in Britain as The Last Page, the title Man Bait makes this 1952 British crime drama sound like a femme fatale film noir, an aspect that director Terence Fisher emphasizes even as the script has other ideas.

The “man bait” of the title refers to Diana Dors, a curvy young blonde promoted as Britain’s blonde bombshell, but top billing goes to American actor George Brent, who plays John Harman, the proprietor of a London bookstore that specializes in rare books and collectible volumes. He’s married and faithful to his invalid wife, oblivious to the adoring looks of his assistant Stella (Marguerite Chapman). The 19-year-old Dors is the store’s receptionist Ruby, a party girl who is constantly late for work and only keeps her job thanks to the paternal affections of Mr. Harman. Those affections take a rather dangerous turn when a close-quarters work session after hours erupts in a passionate kiss. While Ruby is content to shrug it off after he pays to replace her ripped blouse (not torn by him, mind you, but on the corner of a file cabinet), Ruby’s conniving boyfriend sees the potential for a big payoff and his mercenary scheming leads to blackmail and murder. Peter Reynolds plays the seductive and ruthless Jeff, the ne’er do well who pushes the young and easily-manipulated Ruby, and Raymond Huntley is memorable as the fussy clerk with an unrequited crush on Stella.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Monday, June 16

Jun 01 2014

Go west, young comic: ‘Million Ways’ should learn from ‘Blazing Saddles’

It’s been a long time since American movie audiences have saddled up and gone out to a big-screen comic western. “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane is trying to make them do just that with “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” which opens Friday. MacFarlane plays an amiable coward in a pioneer town where death lurks behind every pratfall. Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson also star.

Convincing moviegoers to find a home on the range won’t be easy. The last genuine success on the comic side of the genre came 40 years ago with the much-beloved “Blazing Saddles.”

“They can’t make that movie today because everybody’s so politically correct,” director Mel Brooks told Yahoo! Movies about the classic film.

He expanded on that idea with HitFix: “Comedy has to be outrageous. It has to be the jester whispering the most salacious things about that dancing girl into the king’s ear.” Seth MacFarlane agrees with Brooks: “I think comedy should not be polite. Comedy should be risky.”

MacFarlane’s tastes lean toward the rude and the randy, but he could take a few lessons from Brooks and his “Blazing” frontier farce.

Know your western clichés
In “Blazing Saddles,” Frankie Laine belts out the hilariously painful similes of the spoofing theme song (“He rode a blazing saddle…”) with the same gravity he brought to “The Gunfight at O.K. Corral,” “3:10 to Yuma” and all the other leathery tunes he sang for the classic westerns. That sets the stage for a film that never met a cowboy convention it didn’t lovingly skewer. Brooks’ goofs on Gabby Hayes and Randolph Scott may be lost on modern audiences but MacFarlane has a whole new generation of westerns to lampoon, from “Dances With Wolves” to “Unforgiven” to “Deadwood.”

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