Announcement: The Classic Movie History Project (2015)

Daniel S Levine:

I’ll be participating in my first blogathon and I’m certainly excited. I do love history and its connection to film. My topic is “It’s Always Fair Weather,” which is the most cynical musical ever made.

Originally posted on Once upon a screen...:

One of my favorite blogging events of 2014 was the Classic Movie History Project, which was the brainchild of Fritzi Kramer at Movies, Silently.  I, along with Ruth of Silver Screenings, co-hosted the event with Fritzi and we’re all back for a bigger and better second edition.

Following is the official announcement, which was written by Fritzi.  Included throughout this post are the gorgeous event banners – designed by Fritzi.  Ruth has done lots of behind-the-scenes work already and I’ve…uh…been sitting on the sidelines looking pretty.  Or…looking in any case.  But really, I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of this and will promote the heck out of it in hopes you’ll join us.  So, without further ado…

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The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon (2015)

We are tickled to announce the second edition of the Classic Movie History Project. I am once again joined by my wonderful co-hosts, Fritzi…

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‘The Belle of New York’ with Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen

It’s hard to see your favorite stars stumble through a bad movie, especially when it has so many good names attached. That’s the case with The Belle of New York, a seemingly tossed-off Arthur Freed production from 1952. It stars Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen and was directed by Charles Walters. There’s even lyrics by Oscar winner Johnny Mercer. Despite all these names, there’s a sense of boredom throughout, even when Astaire is literally dancing on air.

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The plot is brain-numbingly simple. Playboy Charlie Hill (Astaire) falls head over heels in love with Salvation Army member Angela (Vera-Ellen) and, despite their differences, she ends up falling in love with him. And… that’s it. Oh, there’s some funny business with Charlie first having to prove he’s a responsible man and then missing their wedding, but all that just seems to be business to set up musical numbers.

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And the musical numbers are just as dull. “Seeing’s Believing” has Astaire doing a Harold Lloyd-inspired bit on the Washington Square Arch, as he floats up into the air. But the dancing he does while up there isn’t that adventurous. “Oops” feels like it was rehashed from the Astaire/Rogers movies and “A Bride’s Wedding Day” song is a bit routine. (Although the ice skating dancing is pretty neat.)

The best number in the film – and the only logical excuse for watching it – is Astaire’s last solo number, “I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man.” Instead of describing it, you can just see it here:

In one of the That’s Entertainment films, they showed an alternate take with the one that landed in the movie. It gives you an idea of how well rehearsed Astaire was.

Another highlight of the film is the performances from character actors. Keenan Wynn and Majorie Main pop in to provide Astaire with some friends and excuses to push the plot forward.

The Belle of New York has some interesting ideas in it, but was poorly executed. Process photography had just not reached a point where it could be used so heavily in a cheap film like this. I will say this though, Vera-Ellen is not only gorgeous, but was an undervalued dancer. The choreography in this film might not have showed off her skills (or Astaire’s) well, but she sure is great in Three Little Works and White Christmas.

Blu-ray Review: Walt Disney’s ‘Old Yeller’

Even though I grew up on Walt Disney’s animated classics, the Disney Studios live-action films didn’t really interest me for whatever reason. That was probably because I thought that the only live-action movies I needed to see were the Star Wars films. So anyway, I didn’t grow up with Old Yeller (1957). I never had it on tape. I never had it on DVD. If I saw it on the Disney Channel as a toddler, I don’t remember. I don’t recall ever seeing it in school. So when I finally decided to join the Disney Movie Club last month, I made sure that I picked up Old Yeller on Blu-ray to fix another one of my “cinematic crimes.”

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Since the story of the film is so well known, it would be pointless to go over it again. Instead, I’ll focus on why I think it’s such a great film. It’s because of how serious it takes its subject. Like The Yearling before it, Old Yeller isn’t just about a boy and his friendly animal – it’s about the relationship between the two. In The Yearling, it was a boy and his fawn. Here, it’s a boy and his dog. Travis (Tommy Kirk) hates Old Yeller at first, but then learns to love him. In the end, he must shoot the dog after it comes down with hydrophobia.

Old Yeller would simply not be made today because family films overall like these are not made. Director Robert Stevenson (Disney’s go-to helmer for live action movies) and writers Fred Gispon (who wrote the novel) and William Tunberg don’t completely eradicate humor from the story, but they handle it as delicately as any great adult drama should be. And it helps that the performances they get from the small cast are truly moving. Even Spike the Dog, who plays Old Yeller, gives a strangely delicate performance. How the filmmakers managed to get the perfect expressions from that dog, I’ll never know.

The film is also incredibly moving because Travis’ relationships with younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) and mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) are just as important. All three (four if you count Old Yeller) main characters are so well defined over the course of just 84 minutes that we become a member of the family. None of them are just caricatures, created just for film. These are realistic people (and animals) that we all know in life.

Old Yeller is also a perfect film to cover on Mother’s Day. I’m starting to finally appreciate McGuire, especially after seeing her here and in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion. She plays the perfect mother here, helping her children realize the importance of their actions and why they must grow up. It’s tough to do on screen, but she makes it look easy without being preachy.

The Disney Movie Club exclusive disc looks fine for a film of its age, but the big disappointment is that none of the two-disc DVD’s bonus features are presented here. NONE. I can’t stress that enough. So if you have the DVD, don’t get rid of it. The disc does have subtitles, but these aren’t accessible on the menu, which only presents “Play” and “Chapters.” It’s an awful disappointment that all that content created for the DVD isn’t here. (I’ll also say that there’s absolutely NO EXCUSE for Old Yeller not to be available on Blu-ray for the average consumer who doesn’t want to join a movie club.)

Old Yeller is one of the cherished classics in the Disney library. I truly wish I had grown up with this film and its important lesson that life moves on. You can’t dwell on the sadness forever.

Trailer for Woody Allen’s ‘Irrational Man’ is out

One of my professional goals is to interview Emma Stone in person. She has an incredibly charming presence on the screen and is – if I may say so – really beautiful. She’s in another Woody Allen movie, Irrational Man, which hits theaters in July. The trailer was just released and I did a longer story about it at TheCelebrityCafe.com. Please check that out.

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Here’s the trailer:

I will freely admit that I did kinda like Magic in the Moonlight, which I reviewed here. Yes, it’s not a great Woody Allen movie, but it was fun for me. Then again, I haven’t seen it since its theatrical run. Irrational Man looks like it will be much better, although that whole “older man after younger woman” thing does get tiring.

Billy Wilder’s ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ starring James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh

James Stewart was born to play Charles Lindbergh, who became the first pilot to fly solo from New York to Paris in May 1927. The only trouble was that the opportunity didn’t come for Stewart until 1956, when he was already 47, almost twice as old as Lindbergh when he made the famous flight. But Hollywood never let a little thing like age stop an actor from playing the role of a lifetime.

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Stewart got to play Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, which was finally released in 1957 by Warner Bros. Although the definitive film of Lindbergh’s flight could have been made much earlier, filmmaking technology had reached a point to make that possible. It also helped that Lindbergh had published his own definitive account in his acclaimed 1953 book of the same name. This provided screenwriters Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes and Billy Wilder with the perfect outline for the film.

The Spirit of St. Louis is an odd film in Wilder’s filmography. Even though Wilder was already working on his own terms by 1956 – especially after the success of The Seven-Year Itch at Fox in 1955 – he still took the incredibly intensive job of directing a film that offered no surprises for the audience. It also offered him little chance to inject his trademark sexual innuendos and humor. But Wilder did find some gags in Lindbergh’s humble beginnings and gave character actors a chance to shine alongside his big star. Overall though, it does seem like Wilder just agreed to do it for the money and producer Leland Heyward enjoyed having a name in the director’s seat. Seeing Lindbergh take off is one of the most exhilarating moments in ’50s cinema and only a filmmaker with Wilder’s skills could pull that off.

Stewart also gives a good enough performance that it is surprising that he wasn’t even nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Sure he couldn’t have beaten The Bridge on the River Kwai‘s Alec Guinness, but roles like these usually would garner some kind of attention. Perhaps the film’s lukewarm response when it came out hurt his chances. All these years later though, it’s easy to see that Stewart put everything he could into playing Lindbergh. He definitely is way too old for the part and the blonde hair looks awful, but there’s no other actor who could bring out the boyish charms of Lindbergh. I also highly doubt that another actor could carry an hour of film in a cramped space like he did.

The film’s Oscar-nominated special effects also keep the film entertaining. It just looks so authentic, even though you can occasionally see blue outlines around the windows. Still, because so much second unit footage was shot at the real locations, it adds to the experience of seeing Lindbergh’s flight.

This isn’t a “Billy Wilder Movie” in the sense that we think of one, but it is still a classic Hollywood biopic that’s more enjoyable than modern movies that feel a need to present moral conflicts in every life. It sticks to the subject – Lindbergh’s history-changing flight – and doesn’t go beyond that. Sure, Wilder could have tried to make a movie about Lindbergh’s own questionable beliefs, but that’s not what The Spirit of St. Louis is about. It’s a movie about one of the truly inspiring moments in American history that we can be proud of without any reservations.

‘The Blue Dahlia’ starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake

There’s nothing more joyous than discovering a new movie that you just love. On April 10, I finally watched George Marshall’s noir masterpiece The Blue Dahlia, which aired on TCM during its Oscar month. That’s because the film’s script, by Raymond Chandler, was nominated for an Oscar. I could not believe that I hadn’t seen it before.

Released in 1946, the film has all the noir traits you expect. Alan Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a Navy pilot who comes home from the war, only to find that his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), is cheating on him with nightclub owner/mobster Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). After walking out on her, he runs into a mysterious woman (Veronica Lake), who later turns out to be Eddie’s wife, Joyce. While away, Helen is mysteriously murdered. Who killed her? Was it Eddie? Did Johnny somehow make it back to kill her? Was it hotel house detective “Dad” Newell (Will Wright)? Or was it Johnny’s friend and fellow war vet Buzz (William Bendix)?

While on his journey to find out the truth, Johnny runs into a number of seedy people, as if Chandler has some kind of “quota of darkness” he needs to hit in his script.

The Blue Dahlia, which gets its name from Eddie’s club, isn’t quite as perfect as Double Indemnity or Out of the Past because it does have the wrong director at the helm. Marshall was much better at comedies than serious films, so the movie isn’t quite as dark as it could have been. Still, Marshall does an admirable job, even if he isn’t as showy as better known auteurs.

Ladd and Lake, who made several noir films together, are also a perfect match, even if Lake doesn’t come into the picture until much later than expected. Bendix and Da Silva also give really good performances in their supporting parts. I’m not sure how Academy voters saw the script as the only thing good enough for a nomination when Bendix is giving a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod.

Marshall can’t completely kill Chandler’s well-layered script, which is surprisingly easier to follow than other noirs. Whatever flaws it may have (which are few), The Blue Dahlia is still a classic noir and I’ll be watching for the next time it shows up on TCM.

‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ starring Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford

I’m currently going through the 2006 The Marlon Brando Collection, which I picked up a few weeks ago. While the set does include Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s fantastic adaptation of Julius Caesar, the rest of the films are completely new-to-me. Yes, I have somehow never seen the ’62 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. The other three films are The Teahouse of the August Moon, Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Formula.

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There is a good reason why I haven’t seen the others so far. Reflections in a Golden Eye is a pretentious, painfully slow movie from John Huston. The next one I checked out was Teahouse, which was painfully bizarre.

Based on John Patrick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play and directed by Daniel Mann, Teahouse is set in Okinawa just after the end of World War II. Captain Fisby (Glenn Ford) is assigned to help democratize the village of Tobiki. He has the help of translator Sakini (Brando), but quickly learns that the residents would much rather have a teahouse than a school. They would also rather have their women become geishas after Lotus Blossom (Machiko Kyo) arrives. Col. Purdy (Paul Ford) is so angered by the lack of progress that he later sends psychiatrist Captain McLean (Eddie Albert) to check Fisby out, but even McLean is convinced to do other things besides his assignment.

Watching this film today is incredibly uncomfortable. Brando at least tries to be more respectable than Mickey Rooney would be in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but he is terribly miscast. Comedy was always Brando’s kryptonite and having to do it under all that make-up only highlights that. Supposedly, Brando spent two months in Okinawa to get accents and acting right, but he couldn’t fix his comedy skills.

It’s also sad to see Machiko Kyo wasted as just a pretty face. She starred in some incredible Japanese films, including Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Gate of Hell. In Teahouse, she does little more than chuckle and wrestle Glenn Ford.

Speaking of Ford, he’s the one consistently bright spot. His banter with Paul Ford (who is reprising his Broadway role) is particularly funny. You also end up wishing that Eddie Albert came in earlier.

The film does work on one level at least. It’s a blistering satire of America’s occupation of Japan. This actually makes it relevant today, because we still assume we can sweep into anywhere around the world and the people there will just accept democracy. Sure, the way Teahouse goes about making this point seems a bit weird, but the message is not one to ignore. We need to be more caring about the needs the people want, not what we want them to want.

Warner’s DVD of this MGM movie includes a neat featurette called Operation Teahouse, which shows the cast and crew arriving in Japan.

Teahouse was a huge success on both stage and screen with audiences in the ’50s. But it would be interesting to see this topic handled today with Japanese actors. Sadly, we’re a bit too serious today to laugh about things like occupying other countries, which might explain why Teahouse has fallen into the dustbin of history.