Announcing the Criterion Blogathon

Daniel S Levine:

An announcement: I will be contributing to the Criterion Blogathon. As a fan of Criterion and their incredible releases for several years now, there was no way I was going to miss this! I will be writing a column on Jean-Luc Godard’s A WOMAN IS A WOMAN, which is sadly OOP, but should not be forgotten. I can’t wait to watch it again and start writing on it.

Originally posted on Criterion Blues .....:

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We are pleased to announce the first annual Criterion Blogathon!

The blogathon will take place November November 16th to 21st, and I have the pleasure of co-hosting with two of my favorite bloggers and favorite people: Kristina from Speakeasy and Ruth from Silver Screenings. This is not their first rodeo, as they’ve hosted numerous fantastic Blogathons. Earlier this year they hosted the Great Villain Blogathon and the Beach Party Bash Blogathon. What’s great about these two is that they turn these Blogathons into events, which is what we are planning for November.

Just last year, The Criterion Collection celebrated their 30th anniversary. That’s an amazing accomplishment for a physical media label. They began with laserdiscs, transitioned to DVDs, and now are the top boutique label for Blu-Ray/DVD. They have established credibility with their film choices, ranging from mainstream classics to some of the best art films the world…

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4 Film Favorites: Jerry Lewis Collection

When I saw Jerry Lewis get his hands cemented in front of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, the only film of his I had ever seen was The Nutty Professor. Again, this was a case of just not growing up with his films available to me and, as I grew into a film fan myself, I never really thought of rushing to get acquainted with Lewis.

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But a few weeks ago, I spotted Warner Bros.’ 4 Film Favorites pack of Lewis movies. Considering these sets are only $10, I decided to pick it up and that was definitely a good decision. The set is cheaply put together (I can’t stress enough how much I despise cases with DVDs stacked), but the films themselves are enjoyable and present Lewis at his most audacious.

The Bellboy (1960) is the oldest film in the set and runs a scant 71 minutes. I have no idea how he got Paramount to let him make this, but apparently it was made just to please Paramount after he requested Cinderfella (which I wish was here) be delayed until Christmas 1960. It is a brilliant near-silent comedy, with Lewis’ trademark fourth-wall breaking gags at the center. I just wish it was a bit longer.

Next up is The Ladies Man (1961), which is sort of every man’s fantasy (or at least what Lewis thinks is every man’s fantasy). He plays Herbert H. Heebert, who has lost his girlfriend. He thinks women are terrible, but then he gets stuck working at a boarding house… of only women. Hijinks ensue and George Raft makes an awkward appearance.

The Errand Boy (also 1961) might be my second favorite film in the set, since I love movies about movies. Here, Lewis is Morty, an awful errand boy for Paramutual Pictures who is supposed to report on the activities of his colleagues to his bosses. It features a famous scene where he takes over the board room, ordering around empty chairs. Brian Donlevy (who I had no idea was still alive in 1961 – he lived until 1972) appears as the studio boss.

Lastly, there’s another showbiz comedy, The Patsy (1964). Lewis’ follow-up to The Nutty Professor isn’t actually that funny but still rather interesting. He plays another Stanley (the same name as his Bellboy character), who is recruited by a team of handlers whose star has died in a plane crash. The team tries to build Stanley up as a star, even though he’s completely incompetent. Along the way, he falls in love with the secretary of the team, played by the beautiful Ina Balin.

The Patsy is much more plot-heavy than the other films and is surprisingly not that funny. Perhaps that’s the point. Stanley’s awful jokes are actually awful. He really can’t sing. He has no stage presence. Had Lewis made Stanley funny, the story wouldn’t work of course. Stanley only becomes a success when he gets to run his own life.

Each disc is a direct re-issue of the original Paramount DVDs, including all the bonus material. There’s plenty of funny outtakes and deleted scenes (which are often funnier than scenes that landed in the film – the best is Peter Lorre not being able to shoot a rifle in time during The Patsy filming). Unfortunately, there’s no behind-the-scenes documentaries and the commentaries really don’t help. Singer Steve Lawrence keeps Lewis from actually telling us anything remotely interesting in the commentaries and laughs at every single gag. They are grating and annoying. You can skip them.

George Stevens’ ‘Quality Street’ with Katharine Hepburn

It’s August, which means only one thing: TCM’s Summer Under The Stars programming is in full swing. Friday was Katharine Hepburn’s day and, while I should have been excited, it was a bit of a bummer. They mostly played things I’ve seen before and stuff they play repeatedly. There was only one title that really caught my eye, which was a 1937 RKO film directed by George Stevens called Quality Street.

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Based on a 1901 play by J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan) and co-starring Franchot Tone, this is a unique film in Hepburn’s early oeuvre. It centers on Phoebe Throssel (Hepburn), who fears that she is destined to become an old maid like her sister Susan (Fay Bainter, Jezebel). She hopes that Dr. Valentine Brown (Tone) will propose marriage, but he goes off to fight in the Napoleonic wars.

A decade later, he returns to Quality Street to find the Throssel sisters teaching and assumes that Phoebe has given up on romance. Rather than convince him that she hasn’t, Phoebe creates Livy, an alter ego to woo Brown. But Livy isn’t the kind of woman for Brown, so Phoebe, Susan and maid Patty (Cora Whitherspoon) struggle to keep Brown around before Phoebe loses her chance forever.

Quality Street was clearly made as an attempt to soften the image of Hepburn as Bringing Up Baby was still a few months away and Sylvia Scarlett earned mostly negative attention in 1935. Quality Street does succeed in showing a much softer side of Hepburn, but the script by Allan Scott (Top Hat) and Mortimer Offner gives much better jokes to the supporting cast. Yes, that is Eric Blore playing a character who isn’t a butler. And there’s a hilarious trio of old gossiping women lead by Estelle Winwood. Tone is also his typical dashing, witty self.

This is also early in Stevens’ career, but he’s already showing a flair for turning lightweight material into an interesting film. There’s some unique camera movements, specifically in the very opening when he takes full advantage of the stage. The camera moves in and out of the house without cuts.

Still, this 80-minute movie is a breezy, forgettable affair. It was fun to catch and see an early attempt by Hepburn to step outside drama. But this is hardly her best work. After all, she made Stage Door the same year and that’s a much more memorable film.

Bernard Herrmann: Tension Through Music

Even if you have a passing knowledge of classic films, you know who Bernard Herrmann is. OK, there might be a chance that you don’t know his name, but you certainly know of his music. Today, Herrmann is best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock, although it was actually Orson Welles who brought him to Hollywood.

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Herrmann scored Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941, but he also scored The Devil And Daniel Webster that year and competed against himself. He won for The Devil and it was his only Oscar win. He competed against himself again in 1977, when his scores for Brian De Palma’s Obsession and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver were both nominated.

Oddly enough, Herrmann was never nominated for his most famous works. His scores for Hitchcock are now legendary and forever linked to the images the Master of Suspense gave us. Herrmann understood Hitchcock like John Williams understands Steven Spielberg today. That’s partly why the scores after for Hitch’s films after his break-up with Herrmann feel like pale imitations to the sounds we hear in North By Northwest or Psycho.

The composer is the subject of an upcoming documentary called Lives of Bernard Herrmann, which is being directed by Brandon Brown and features an interview with classic film aficionado Alec Baldwin. He also interviewed Herrmann’s eldest daughter, Dorothy, to get some unique insight into Herrmann. While his music has always spoken for him, this film should help introduce Herrmann as a person to many and not just as a name in the credits. It also explores why his work has been such an inspiration to today’s composers. Brown is hoping to complete the film by Summer 2016 and is raising funds on Indiegogo. You can donate right here!

#NoirSummer: Nicholas Ray’s ‘A Woman’s Secret’

One of the joys of this Summer of Darkness has been to learn that film noir comes in all shapes and sizes. Since there’s no definitive be-all-end-all definition for the term, what a film noir is to one person might be different to another. A Woman’s Secret, directed by Nicholas Ray and based on Vicki Baum’s novel Mortgage on Life (which is actually an insanely great title), pushes what we expect from noir.

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Perhaps the only thing that makes the 1949 film – the third Ray directed that year – a traditional “film noir” is the fact that it begins with the shooting. Only at the very, very end of the 85-minute movie do we finally learn the truth. And bizarrely enough, the truth and the lie give us the same answer. Former singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) did shoot her protege, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). So the real question is, did she intend to shoot her.

At first, Marian tells everyone that she did try to kill Susan. However, piano player Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) knows that Marian would never try to kill anyone, so he tries to convince Inspector Jim Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) of the truth. What makes this different from other noir films is that it’s much lighter and even takes us to Paris at one point. But Ray and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (co-writer on Citizen Kane) keep some of the common threads. We hear stories from different perspectives and there’s extra twists along the way.

Without giving too much away, A Woman’s Secret surprisingly does have a happy ending. Marian doesn’t actually go to the electric chair for a crime she didn’t commit. Even though Susan should have died, she doesn’t. Luke actually gets the girl he wants. It definitely feels like a cheeseball ending that no character in the film really deserves.

That said, it’s a fun film thanks to the turns by its leads. O’Hara is perfectly cast as Marian, taking charge when she needs to, while Douglas brings enough wit to carry the film. Grahame’s character undergoes the biggest changes, swinging from “little girl in the big city” to a femme fetale who’s playing everyone while still in bed.

A Woman’s Secret is by far not a great movie, but fans of the stars in it will enjoy. There’s not much for Ray fans though, sadly. It doesn’t have much of his subversive charm or unique perspective on behavior found in his later films.

The stars from my Grandparents’ perspective

I’m a third generation movie fan. My maternal grandparents were movie fans. While I never met my mother’s mother and I was far too young when her father died, they are still teaching me the magic of movies. Whenever I visit my uncles, I dig through the VHS collection and always seem to find new movies to see. Last time I was there, I saw this bizarre Clark Gable/Norma Shearer movie called Idiot’s Delight. It’s a pretty odd movie and, one day, I’ll have to pick up the Warner Archive DVD.

My grandmother was an autograph hound. She was like those women you see screaming at the movie premiere at the beginning of Singin’ In The Rain. Even though she was in Boston, the Hollywood stars still visited and she also wrote to get signed photos.

We have three or four little books filled with autographs from the stars of the 1940s. Some of them are remarkable, others are nearly faded beyond recognition. But the very fact that I can touch books that were also touched by the people in movies I watch is fascinating to me. It makes you realize that these were people, not just figments of our imagination. My absolute favorite is the Katharine Hepburn autograph.

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Here’s a very formal signature from Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s sister and his Yankee Doodle Dandy co-star:

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My grandmother’s movie memorabilia collection also includes some cool programs, which can really help you understand how every aspect of going to the movies used to be an event, especially if it was a “big” movie. Here’s the program for The Song of Bernadette. This must have been for a roadshow engagement after the Oscars, since it does mention Jennifer Jones’ Oscar win, I believe.

Loving film really is in my blood, even if it took me awhile to discover it once I moved beyond just Star Wars. I never met my grandmother, but I feel as if seeing these autographs, I do in some small way.

‘It’s Always Fair Weather,’ Except When It’s Not: The Musical Gets Cynical

Welcome readers to Movie Mania Madness and thanks to the Classic Movie History Projects hosts Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Fritzi of Movies, Silently for this event. Flicker Alley is also sponsoring it, so check them out (and buy their awesome Chaplin Mutual set). This is my first contribution to a blogathon, so thanks to everyone for welcoming me to the fold and a chance to write about one of my favorite musicals and one that certainly has historical importance.

Three war buddies arrive home after World War II and since they each lead very different lives, they probably won’t see each other for years. So, they commit to meeting again in 10 years, only to discover that their 1955 selves are much different from their 1945 versions. It’s a story of disappointment and the importance of coming to terms with yourself. But it certainly doesn’t sound like the idea for a musical, which makes It’s Always Fair Weather one of the most unique musicals ever to come out of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit.

On its face, It’s Always Fair Weather should have just been a sequel to On The Town, with writer Betty Comden and Adolph Green looking at how the lives of their three sailors turned out. They even had Gene Kelly starring and co-directing with Stanley Donen. But something happened along the way. Their script and songs became cynical, embracing the idea that youthful dreams don’t always become reality. A subplot mocking television creeped in, which only seemed fair because it was being made in Cinemascope, a process that only existed to keep television down. Kelly went along with it all, probably because of his sour mood at the time. Things were getting worse for him before they could get better in the mid-1950s, so why not make a movie that encapsulated that.

Kelly stars as Ted, who served in the army with Doug (Dan Dailey) and Angie (Michael Kidd). They all have big dreams after coming home from the war. Ted wants to be a lawyer, Doug dreams of studying painting in Paris and Angie wants to become a gourmet chef. In a traditional musical, things may have gone like they dreamed, but It’s Always Fair Weather goes in the opposite direction. Ted became a boxing promoter with gambling problems. Doug went into advertising, dealing with stress at work and at home. Angie is stuck owning a burger joint in Schenectady and has a large family.

Even though their lives have changed, they still meet up at their favorite bar 10 years after the war ended. Not only do they learn that nothing went right, but they also learn that they hate what they all became. Still, it is not the disappointment that interests Jackie (Cyd Charise), who works at Doug’s ad firm. Looking like she popped out of the more beloved MGM musicals, Jackie falls in love with the romantic idea about the reunion of three “friends” and insists that they appear on television for another reunion.

It’s Always Fair Weather came out at such a unique point in American history. It’s 1955, the heart of the Eisenhower age and the Cold War is just getting started. The Korean War ended two years ago and McCarthyism hadn’t quite died down yet. In this environment, musicals were already dying out, as manifested by the fact that MGM wouldn’t let Kelly film Brigadoon in Scotland the year before. But musicals were still supposed to be escapism from all this. If moviegoers wanted to face reality, they saw films with Marlon Brando (who coincidentally, only appeared in Guys and Dolls in 1955) or James Dean or Westerns with John Wayne. You don’t go to a musical starring Gene Kelly for a dose of realism.

It also comes in the face of the idea that American men came home from wars to lead happy lives. Today, the reality of post-war life is more publicized, as we hear about issues at VA hospitals or rising veteran homelessness. But in the post-World War II society, the fact that not all men had a family to come home to right after the war and a job that made them happy wasn’t talked about. And if it was – again – it wasn’t expected to be the subject in a musical.

Kelly was forced to make the film in CinemaScope. While he’d already starred in Brigadoon, that was directed by Vincente Minelli. Donen had also previously worked in CinemaScope on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But Kelly began to embrace the wide frame, playing with what they could show. Cinematographer Robert J. Bonner, Kelly and Donen often show the audience three scenes in one shot to give us the simultaneous feelings of the men. There’s even the fantastic “I Shouldn’t Have Come” scene, when they squash and stretch the frame into corners of the full image.

There’s one truly glorious, classic MGM music moment in the whole film – “I Live Myself,” but even this reveals something different in the songwriting from Comden & Green. Kelly’s character doesn’t sing about how beautiful and lovely Cyd Charise is. Instead, he sings about himself. This is an “all about me” musical even in its brightest moments. Cynicism while still sweet. And just after that, we have Dan Dailey’s showstopping “Situation-wise,” another self-centered song about how his character is tired of the life he leads. (Michael Kidd’s solo song – about how hard it is to raise a full brood of children – was cut from the final film and appears on the DVD.)

Even in the end, It’s Always Fair Weather refuses to end in the way old MGM musicals used to. Sure, Kelly’s character gets the girl, but everyone still has to move on and live their lives. It’s a happy ending in the sense that at least no one died. But it ends with three guys realizing that you don’t have to be best friends to love each other. It was also proof that the “musical” is not a genre, but a medium to use to tell a story, even a serious and cynical one.