Category: Essays

Aug 29 2014

‘Don’t Turn ‘Em Loose’ on TCM

The violent and energetic gangster thrillers that thrived in the early sound era were all but forbidden after the production code was imposed in 1934. The studios responded by transforming them into social dramas and promoting the forces of law and order and moral values into the leading roles. That’s more or less the approach of the 1936 drama Don’t Turn ‘em Loose, which takes on corruption and incompetence in the parole system through the story of brutal criminal Bat Williams, played with a cunning charm by Bruce Cabot. He pours on the sincerity while making his case for early parole then pulls a heist the very day he’s released, killing a man in the escape with cold-blooded efficiency. But he has a double life. To his family, he’s Robert Webster, globe-trotting engineer working jobs in Europe and South America, his cover for when he’s on the lam or in prison.

Lewis Stone takes top billing as the father, a schoolteacher whose resemblance to Judge Hardy from the Andy Hardy movies is only enhanced by his penchant for making speeches and moral proclamations, and Nella Walker has a remarkable resemblance to Fay Holden, who played Ma Hardy in the MGM series.

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Plays on Saturday, August 30 on TCM

Aug 22 2014

‘Pay or Die!’ for TCM

Allied Artists had such success with their 1959 picture Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger as the infamous mobster, that the studio teamed up again with director/producer Richard Wilson for another Italian mobster movie, this one set in early 20th Century New York City. Pay or Die! (1960) is based on the true story of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, an Italian American police detective who earned the respect of the immigrants in Little Italy and formed the Italian Squad of the police department in 1905 to battle the Mafia.

Ernest Borgnine plays Joe as a dedicated officer determined to win over the largely Sicilian immigrant population of his neighborhood, a group that brought its mistrust of the police with them from the old country, where police corruption was rampant. Though 17 years in America, he still speaks in stilted, somewhat broken English, a holdover from his self-taught American education, but he overflows with praise for the melting pot of America. Borgnine spoke fluent Italian and had no trouble with the Italian dialogue, which was peppered through the dialogue with the Little Italy locals.

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Plays on Saturday, August 23 on TCM

Aug 21 2014

Rediscovery: Orson Welles’ ‘Too Much Johnson’

Joseph Cotten channels Harold Lloyd in 'Too Much Johnson'

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the slapstick stylings of Orson Welles, the boy wonder of Broadway!

Not exactly how we think of Welles, is it? We know he had a rich career both on radio and on the New York stage before he made Citizen Kane, but the few comedies he made were far outnumbered by the dramas and the thrillers and the literary adaptation. Yet after his first attention-getting success with Voodoo Macbeth for the WPA, Welles took a sharp turn to farce with his follow-up, Horse Eats Hat, which also had the honor of presenting Joseph Cotten in his first starring role.

There is no film record of Horse Eats Hat or any of his stage comedies and, though he had developed a few proposals for screen comedies, no producer ever took him up on them. So apart from a few cheeky supporting roles, a couple of TV appearances and fragments from unfinished projects, the record shows Orson Welles as a grand artist of serious subjects and baroque tastes.

That alone is reason enough to hail the discovery, restoration and presentation of the long-thought-lost Too Much Johnson, a tribute to the silent slapstick shorts of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. It is an unfinished project in its own right but is nonetheless complete enough in this “The Films Reimagined” form to reveal a side of Welles so rarely exhibited to the public. That it was made three years before Citizen Kane makes it an invaluable find, a glimpse of the artist exploring the new medium of film with a natural affinity for the possibilities inherent in cinema. But that’s a matter of historical scholarship. What matters to the rest of us is that Too Much Johnson is funny, clever, cheeky, inventive and genuinely accomplished, which makes it worth watching on its own modest yet playful merits.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Aug 18 2014

‘The Spellbinder’ on TCM

Lee Tracy was Hollywood’s specialist for fast talking shysters, con-men, and underhanded newspapermen in the 1930s. With his nasally voice, staccato delivery, wise-guy manner, and diminutive size, he had a knack for comic characters and he was kept busy playing cynical reporters and press agents during the pre-code era. He was also a heavy drinker with a reckless lifestyle off screen, which ended more than one studio contract. By the mid-thirties, Tracy was without a studio and freelancing on smaller films. He made The Spellbinder (1939) for the B-unit of RKO and journeyman director Jack Hively, who rose up from the editing room to the director’s chair.

Jed Marlowe is a classic Tracy role, a silver-tongued lawyer who befuddles witnesses on the stand and manipulates juries with theatrics, but apart from the shenanigans behind the scenes of the first trial (he pays off a small company of actors to play his client’s family in court) there’s no comic twist here. He’s a cynic when it comes to law but a doting, protective single father when it comes to his teenage daughter Janet (Barbara Read). She adores him and plays hooky from finishing school to watch him defend his client Tom Dixon (Patric Knowles) for murder. Knowles was a handsome British import whose poise and confidence landed him a few leading roles but mostly was relegated to supporting parts. He played drama, comedy, and adventure with equal success. For The Spellbinder he played another of his specialties: the charming cad.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, August 21

Aug 17 2014

‘The Second Time Around’ on TCM

Go west, young widow. That’s the advice that Debbie Reynolds takes in The Second Time Around, a lighthearted family western set in the early days of the 20th century, when New York City was the height of modernity and Arizona was still a territory in the final throes of the wild west. Reynolds is Lucretia “Lu” Rogers, the inspired mother of two young children who wants nothing more than to follow the dream she shared with her late husband: to take their family west and raise them in the wide open spaces of the last American frontier. And so she does, leaving the children in the temporary custody of her mother-in-law and traveling to the town of Charleyville, Arizona, to set up housekeeping so she can bring the children out. When plans don’t work out, she takes a job as a ranch hand on a tiny spread owned by the flinty but soft-hearted Aggie Gates (Thelma Ritter), a tough old bird who takes a maternal interest in Lu.

Steve Forrest co-stars as Dan Jones, the devilishly charming proprietor of the Lucky Devil who takes an instant interest in Lu, and Andy Griffith is the gallant Pat Collins, a rural farmer with a plainspoken decency behind his trademark drawl and rural homespun manner. It’s another man entirely, however, who changes the course of her life: the crooked, bullying sheriff of Charleyville, who so rouses Lu’s ire that she challenges him in the town’s first election after Arizona is admitted as the 48th state in the nation.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Wednesday, August 20

Aug 05 2014

‘Hi, Nellie!’ on TCM

Paul Muni won fame for his versatility on both stage and screen, transforming himself almost completely for his roles, and for the seriousness of his dramatic portrayals. His career spans from the ambitious thug turned gangland boss in Scarface (1932) to historical figures in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) to the aging doctor dedicated to helping the urban poor in The Last Angry Man (1959). For his sixth film, the 1934 release Hi, Nellie!, Muni took on something different: his first screen comedy.

Hi, Nellie! is a newspaper picture, a genre that thrived during the depression thanks to its high energy press room scenes, hard-boiled reporters, snappy patter, and street-smart sensibility. Muni plays Samuel “Brad” Bradshaw, a tough, up-from-the-streets editor of a big city newspaper, taking on the task with the soul of a reporter and a code of ethics that balances headline scoops with responsibility to the news.

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Plays on TCM on Wednesday, August 6

Aug 02 2014

‘The Unknown Man’ on TCM

The first act of the 1951 crime picture The Unknown Man plays out like a classic courtroom drama with a social commentary heart. Walter Pidgeon is big business lawyer Bradley Mason, “the best civil lawyer in town and one of the finest in the country,” in the words of Joe Bucknor (Barry Sullivan), our narrator and conflicted District Attorney. Brad is coaxed by an old law school buddy into defending a young man (Keefe Brasselle) with a long criminal record who is on trial for murder. Mason is no criminal lawyer but he reveres the law and, afraid that this inarticulate, hotheaded young man may be railroaded into a conviction for a crime he didn’t commit, he takes the case. That’s just the beginning of Mason’s story, however. Questions linger in his mind after the case and he discovers just how nave he is when it comes to the reach of crime and corruption in his city.

Though it’s not exactly your typical crusading attorney story, The Unknown Man circles back to courtroom drama for the climax. By then, however, the road to justice has taken some complicated detours into the shadows of film noir territory. The syndicate became a presence in urban crime films after World War II and here it looms over the story, invisible but powerful and run by an unknown mob boss who may or may not even exist. Our moral, honest hero Bradley Mason is determined to find the truth.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on Sunday, August 3 on TCM

Aug 02 2014

‘Curse of the Pink Panther’ on TCM

After the death of Peter Sellers in 1980, Blake Edwards made the unexpected decision to revive the Pink Panther film franchise by creating not one but two sequels simultaneously without the defining presence of Sellers in the lead as Inspector Clouseau. Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), the first of the two, utilizes previously unseen footage shot for previous Pink Panther features for a kind of memorial for Clouseau, who is sent once again to solve the robbery of the Pink Panther diamond (the jewel stolen in the original The Pink Panther (1963) and disappears, apparently dead in a plane crash. A reporter interviews friends, foes, and colleagues of the legendary detective, allowing Edwards to use classic clips from the series.

Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) picks up the premise months later and spins it into an attempt to launch a new character under the Pink Panther brand. Clouseau’s boss and nemesis Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) is directed to use a supercomputer to find the world’s greatest detective to find France’s greatest detective. Since only a complete moron on the level of Clouseau has any hope of figuring him out, he reprograms the computer search for Clouseau’s perfect match: the worst detective in the world. Enter Sergeant Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass) of the New York Police Department, a walking disaster area that his commanding officer is overjoyed to pack off to Paris. Immediately upon reporting to duty, his clumsiness sends Dreyfus to the hospital.

Continue reading at Tuner Classic Movies

Plays on Saturday, August 2 on TCM

Aug 01 2014

Who are the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’?

So you know Captain America and Thor and Spider-Man and all those cool mutants from The X-Men. But just who are these Guardians of the Galaxy, as in the stars of the new film opening Friday? Some interstellar Avengers spin-off? Rejects from a Star Wars sequel? Are they even superheroes?

Marvel Comics is taking a big leap outside of its comfort zone of fan-favorite costumed heroes with this fairly obscure group of oddball anti-heroes. If early buzz and initial reviews are any indication, it’s going to pay off. The Guardians of the Galaxy promises to be the liveliest, most playful cosmic blast since the first Star Wars.

You don’t need to know the players to enjoy the ride, but all of the maverick characters had a history in Marvel comics before writer Dan Abnett and artist Andy Lanning plucked them from various corners of the Marvel Universe, tossed them together, shook vigorously, and sent them to the far reaches of the galaxy in 2007. Here’s a quick introduction to the team.

Peter Quill / Star-Lord, aka the human one (Chris Pratt)

Marvel-ous backstory: Introduced in 1976, the original Star-Lord was a NASA astronaut who was transformed into an intergalactic hero by mysterious forces.

Movie origins: Self-proclaimed galactic outlaw Peter Quill was orphaned young and scooped up into space by intergalactic soldiers of fortune. No surprise he grew up reckless, cocky and mercenary.

He got skills: He’s a marksman, a daredevil space jockey, and a con man. And he travels with his own soundtrack of 1970s pop tunes.

Heroic precedent: The charming rogue-for-hire with a souped-up space ship and a soft spot for underdogs is in the Han Solo mold with a dash of Captain Kirk. He does have that thing for green-skinned chicks, after all. Which brings us to…

Continue reading at Today.com

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

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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

teaser

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.

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Plays on TCM on Friday, July 18

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