Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Welcome, Classic Film Lovers!

Welcome to Sister Celluloid: Where Old Movies Go To Live! I’m so happy we found each other! Here, it’s all about classic films—and you! It’s a dialogue, not a monologue. Please take a look around, and jump in on every story that interests you. Stop by often, as I’ll be adding lots of great history, news, interviews, photos etc. And I’ll be running contests for fabulous prizes like vintage jewelry, great books and terrific DVDs and CDs! Please scroll through, dig in and pipe up! I’d love to hear from you!

STREAMING SATURDAYS! In GREEN FOR DANGER, Alastair Sim Mines a Deep Vein of Wartime Fear

Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we embed a free, fun movie for you to watch right here! This week: Green for Danger, a British thriller set in a wartime hospital.

During World War II, lots of filmmakers turned their lenses toward the battlefield, churning out glorious tales of valor and heroism. But two Brits chose instead to mine the greatest hopes, the deepest dreads and the biggest sacrifices of those who remained behind.

The writer/director team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who produced films under the banner of Individual Pictures, were sort of a workingman’s Powell and Pressburger. Time and again, in more than 40 movies across four decades, they cannily captured the current mood of their country—always with wit and brains to spare, but never quite the same way twice. “Versatility was always our curse,” Gilliat once mused, reflecting on why they never fell into fashion with the film-school set.

By 1940, the pair had already written the screenplays for two classic thrillers: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich. But as the war closed in, their work hewed much closer to home—anticipating the rise of what’s condescendingly called kitchen-sink realism—with films such as Millions Like Us, set in an aircraft factory, and Waterloo Road, a gritty portrait of the homefront in south London.

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But it was one of their post-war films, Green for Danger, that most vividly crystallized their country’s wartime anxieties, thanks to an insightful script, the moody camerawork of Wilkie Cooper, and a cast and crew still deeply unsettled by the events of the preceding years. Trevor Howard had been honorably discharged from the British Army in 1943, due to unspecified emotional issues. Sally Gray was working on only her second film after a five-year hiatus following a breakdown. And Leo Genn, a Cambridge-educated barrister before he became an actor, had fought valiantly with the Royal Artillery, earning the French Croix de Guerre. He then helped investigate and prosecute Nazi war criminals—which required him to visit the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.

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Shot mostly at Pinewood Studios in 1946, Green for Danger—adapted from a novel by Christianna Brand, whose husband was a military medic—was the first commercial film made there after the war. But it’s set in August 1944, when “Doodlebugs” or buzz-bombs were still falling all over southeast England.

Early in the film, the local postman is strafed by an air attack and brought to the hospital with seemingly treatable injuries—but dies mysteriously on the operating table. The ensuing investigation targets the anesthesiologist, Barney Barnes (Howard), who’d earlier lost a patient under similar circumstances.

But then things get even more complicated: At a local dance attended by hospital staff, a nurse sprints up to the balcony, tears a record off the turntable, and calls out to the crowd that the postman’s death was no accident—and that she knows who killed him. Then she bolts off into the windy night to retrieve the evidence. In a genuinely harrowing scene worthy of Val Lewton, she frantically slips in and out the shadows until finally, one overtakes her.

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Now, with at least one confirmed murder on its hands, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) out to investigate. In stark relief to the deepening anxiety all around him, this is a man who coolly lives in his head, believing it’s the smartest place on earth. Wry and sardonic, he takes guiltless glee in his unnerving effect on the doctors and nurses.  “My presence lay over the hospital like a pall,” he confides to the viewer. “I found it all tremendously enjoyable.” And just like that, we find ourselves falling for a character whose smugness would be off-putting in the hands of almost anyone else. We even feel for him when, while up in bed reading a murder mystery, he breaks into a self-satisfied grin at guessing the killer—only to peek at the last page and discover he’s wrong.

Time and again, Cockrill’s droll irreverence cuts through the mounting tension, as bombs fall outside, suspicion grows claustrophobically thick within the walls of the hospital, and the two lead physicians, Dr. Barnes and Dr. Eden (Genn), spar over the affections of nurse Freddi (Gray). When they finally wind up brawling on the floor, the good inspector pulls up a chair and lays odds.

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The undercurrent of loathing between the two men runs through the entire film, pitting the blue-collar Dr. Barnes against the former Harley Street surgeon at every turn. (But then it wouldn’t be a British film without class issues bobbing up somewhere…) And the smoothly predatory Dr. Eden has no scruples about taking advantage of the growing unease to press his advantage. In fact, his honest compassion toward an emotionally fragile nurse whose mother was killed in a bomb attack is pretty much the only thing that rescues him from total heel-dom.

But somehow, with his soothing bedside-manner baritone, Genn makes even smarm seem elegant. And his skirmishes with the rougher-edged Howard, whether the two are on their feet or on the floor, make us want to pull up chairs ourselves.

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Of course, amidst all this romantic intrigue, there’s still a murderer at large, against an irresistible backdrop: What should be the safest place in the world has become the most dangerous. “What appealed to me was… the rhythmic ritual, from wheeling the patient out to putting him out and keeping him out (in this case, permanently), with all those crosscutting opportunities offered by flowmeters, hissing gas, cylinders, palpitating rubber bags, and all the other trappings, in the middle of the Blitz, too!” Gilliat told Geoff Brown in his book Launder and Gilliat.

This potential for mayhem was precisely what terrified the British censors: They sent a letter to the producers advising against making the film, worried that wounded soldiers would avoid military hospitals out of fear that killers were running loose among the staff. Through the grace of the movie gods, that letter was never received (or perhaps it somehow… disappeared). The censors then banned the completed film on the same grounds. But in both cases, their qualms were rooted in Brand’s original novel, which is set in an army hospital, whereas the film moved the action to civilian turf. That seemed to calm the guardians of the gates, and the movie was released with only minor cuts. What’s left is 85 minutes of near perfection. Enjoy!

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

STREAMING SATURDAYS! This Week, THE ASTONISHED HEART: The Flip Side of BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we bring you free, fabulous films for you to watch right here!

Ah, Noel Coward’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER! An achingly realistic portrait of the repressed, thwarted love of Laura and Alec, two grown-ups too fundamentally good and decent to act on feelings that are stronger and deeper than any they’ve ever known.

Now imagine that Alec had grown sick and tired of being so damn noble and dependable and had given in to his every urge, and to hell with the consequences. That’s pretty much what happens, with dreadful results, in The Astonished Heart, the 1950 film version of Coward’s play.

Even some of the cast of David Lean’s classic show up here three years later—though this time around, Celia Johnson is the betrayed wife rather than the woman who’s tempted to stray. And Joyce Carey is the sympathetic secretary rather than the fussy matron at the railroad lunch counter.

The Astonished Heart began life as part of Coward’s Tonight at 8:30, an anthology of 10 works performed over three nights. Coward starred with Gertrude Lawrence in the original stage production in 1935, and he took over the lead in the film after Michael Redgrave bowed out.

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On the rare occasions this movie is discussed at all, the talk usually turns to how miscast Coward was—too fusty and dusty and altogether improbable as Dr. Chris Faber, a renowned, respectable psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with the wild, impetuous Leonora Vail (Margaret Leighton), an old school friend of his wife Barbara (Celia Johnson). But Coward’s discomfort, his awkwardness, is part of what makes the whole thing work for me. This is a man who has lived entirely in his head, viewing passion as a disorder to be diagnosed and cured rather than an emotion to be felt and explored. He believes that to be swept away is to be lost. And for him, it turns out, that’s true.

As you’d expect from Coward, this is also a keen study—a warning, even—of how horribly things can go wrong when two people take each other for granted and no longer see each other, or even themselves, for all they are.

Early on in the film, Leonora asks Barbara about her husband: “Tell me seriously, do you adore him?” Amused at the very thought, Barbara replies, as if correcting a schoolchild, “I love him very much.” And that’s the end of that.

Later that evening, Chris teases Barbara that she’s welcome to skip a lecture he’s giving: “I can’t be pompous and important with you watching like a sharp, critcal lynx, waiting for me to split an infinitive.” Somewhat alarmed at the portrait he’s painted, she rears back, and then confides, “Chris… you’re very important to me whether I’m there or not. I just wanted to… suddenly mention it.”

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Soon after, Barbara is called away to her mother’s, and Chris steps in as a last-minute substitute to accompany Leonora to the theatre. While they don’t strike any romantic sparks, Leighton and Coward do have an odd chemistry. You can see how this guarded, buttoned-up man would be drawn to such a free spirit, and how she would take it as a personal challenge to loosen him up and win him over. If only it had stayed so playful.

When Barbara returns several weeks later, she discovers the initials “LV” peppered throughout the good doctor’s appointment book. Chris has become deeply involved—a bit moreso than Leonora—and his wife suggests that he take his lover away on a trip to work things through. (Thus defying the more traditional approach of reaching for the nearest, heaviest frying pan, thwacking the errant husband swiftly and repeatedly over the head with it, and digging a large hole in the backyard. But perhaps I’ve said too much.)

The trip ends about as well as you’d expect it to—actually worse. This is all foretold in the opening scene, as the movie unfolds in flashback.

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The Astonished Heart was co-directed by Anthony Darnborough and Terence Fisher; the latter went on to become one of Hammer Films’ most prolific horror directors, but little of that crisp pacing is present here. It’s a bit plodding at times: First we’re here. Then we’re here. Now we’re over here. But that’s a minor flaw in the hands of the luminous, doe-eyed Johnson and the brittle, vulnerable Leighton. When they made her, the mold simply broke on its own, as it was a bit too fragile to begin with.

Actually, they have the best chemistry of anyone in the film. If the whole thing had focused on these altogether fabulous women getting caught up on their schooldays, I would’ve been perfectly content. Both are in their absolute prime, and Leighton’s sly edginess plays off perfectly against Johnson’s warm open-heartedness. (The two would team again two years later as sisters in the undersung Christmas classic, The Holly and the Ivy; here’s a link to that one.)

Also featured in the cast, as Chris’s assistant, is Graham Payn, Coward’s real-life companion. How differently he might have written The Astonished Heart today.

On that sad note, here’s the film.

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you free, fabulous films! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another? 

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Lucille Ball and George Sanders in Douglas Sirk’s LURED

Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we bring you free, fabulous films to watch right here!

This week it’s Lured, a nifty 1947 potboiler starring Lucille Ball and George Sanders. (Who apparently had a fling during filming. And if they hadn’t, I’d have absolutely no respect for either one of them.) Rounding out the cast are Sir Cedric Hardwicke; Charles Coburn, who manages to seem English without, thank God, ever attempting an accent; the ever-dastardly Joseph Calleia; Boris Karloff, gleefully sending up his horror image; George Zucco, in a witty turn as, of all things, a policeman; and Alan Mowbray, who makes me giddy every time I see him. (Sometimes I actually let out a little yelp when he suddenly appears.)

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One of Douglas Sirk’s earlier American films, all his hallmarks are lavishly displayed: gorgeous style, subversive wit, and a super-strong female lead. The gaspingly gorgeous Ball plays a London taxi dancer who goes undercover for Scotland Yard after her best friend is murdered by a Jack the Ripper-like serial killer.

Hoping to lure the madman into pursuing her, she encounters a veritable parade of creeps. She also runs into Sanders, a local nightclub owner who’s such a cad (surprise!) that he flirts with one woman on the phone while holding another in his arms. (And gets away with it. Because… George Sanders.)

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Okay, that’s all I’m gonna tell you, kids! But if you crave more George Sanders after this, and who wouldn’t, check out his full-length album of romantic songs here!

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

When Classic Stars Were All Around Us

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

I’ve never been great at heeding that advice from Wordsworth, and for classic film lovers, it gets harder every year. What remain behind, of course, are the movies that sustain us. But there was a glorious time when so many stars were still here, long after their film careers had waned. There they were—on talk shows, and TV dramas, and sometimes, on Broadway.

Years ago, I saw Aren’t We All? with my Mom, and remember every second about that night. I wore a simple bright yellow sheath with French-cap sleeves, and shoes so fabulous (who knew they made torture devices in size 8?) that I had to take a taxi to the theatre, which was only, like, four blocks from my school. And I pulled the tickets from my envelope-clutch purse, in ivory with a pale yellow button where it closed over.

About a half-hour before the show, what appeared to be an ordinary checkered cab pulled up. But out stepped Claudette Colbert, in a white and peach houndstooth suit, probably Chanel—and ivory pumps almost exactly like mine! Suddenly my cramped and tortured toes found a reason to soldier on! But even in her heels, she was so tiny. Then with a smile and a wave, like Cleopatra channeling Moses, she parted the sea of admirers and swept into the theatre.

During the play, a somewhat creaky drawing-room farce by Frederick Lonsdale, I just sat there and stared at Jeremy Brett and Claudette thinking ohmygodohmygodohmygod. I’ve always worshipped Claudette, and I had a huge crush on Jeremy, which, knowing my crazy love for Colin Clive and Leslie Howard, led my mother to muse, “Oh, hon, you definitely have a type!” (And it turns out Howard played the Brett role in the original 1932 production.)

And rounding out the amazing cast were Rex Harrison, Lynn Redgrave and George Rose! Heaven can not only wait, it can stay on hold indefinitely.

After the show, my mother reminded me we had three dogs to get home to, so I dared not linger too long by the stage door. But I stalled for just a couple of minutes, pretending to fumble for subway tokens in my purse, which, like all my bags, was big enough that you could actually picture things getting lost in there, perhaps forever. (Years later I gave it to charity and imagine the new owner was like, “Oh, look! A comb and a compact!”)

And then—yes, yes!! Jeremy Brett glided out of the theater, in a white summer suit and azure shirt open at the collar. And he saw me, pretty much with “I love you” written all over me. He raised his eyebrows, waved, and nodded a little “hello.” He smiled at me so warmly my knees buckled, which is a dangerous thing in three-inch heels. Then he sidled into a taxi as if it were a waiting chariot.

I remember, when we lost Lynn Redgrave, reminiscing with my Mom about that magical night, and how Lynn was the last of that luminous cast. And then last year, I lost my Mom.

And the memories—what remain behind—are where we’re left to find strength. But oh, for the days when we had so much more than that…

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Myrna Loy and Ann Harding Fight It Out in THE ANIMAL KINGDOM

Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, bringing you free, fabulous films to watch right here!

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This week: 1932’s The Animal Kingdom, which, had it been made two years later, would have sent everyone in the Hays Office scurrying for their scissors.

Directed by Edward Griffith with an uncredited assist from George Cukor, the film had been thought lost for years, until historian Ronald Haver, on the hunt for excised footage from the 1954 version of A Star Is Born, found a print and a negative tucked in the back of a Warner Bros. vault. It seems that in the mid-1940s, the studio had bought the rights from RKO to shoot a remake, but eventually shelved the idea along with the film and completely lost track of it. (And yes, you and I take better care of our DVDs and tapes than the studios often took of the actual films.)

Based on a play by Philip Barry (after Holiday and before The Philadelphia Story), it stars Leslie Howard and Ann Harding as Tom and Daisy, who were happily living together as lovers until Tom’s father (Henry Stephenson), a wealthy publisher, tugged on the reins—convincing Tom to move back home, “live respectably,” and take over the family business.

Allied with Dad is Cecilia (Myrna Loy), who’s eager to marry the son with the suddenly-bright prospects. When she’s warned that Tom’s been “wasting his life from the cradle,” she responds wryly, “Aw… it must have been pathetic to see him wasting it at three!” And BAM. Just like that, Myrna Loy—the real Myrna Loy—is born. No wonder she called this one of her favorite films.

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After years of toiling away as “exotics” and one-dimensional bad girls, Loy was loaned out—or should I say paroled—from MGM for this fabulous role. Mind you, she’s still bad, gaspingly so at times, but she’s also herself. And at 27, she’s already so damn good, she makes no actressy attempt to win the audience’s sympathy. She knows exactly what she is—a social climber and a golddigger—and she goes all in, with wit, brains and elegance to burn.

Early on, Cecilia wins her man, but not his heart. Daisy, a deco goddess if ever there was one, is still lingering languidly in the background. Awaiting a visit from Tom, she muses, “Behold, the bridegroom cometh. And no oil for my lamp, as usual. A foolish virgin me. Oh, foolish anyway.”

And on that note, let the games begin!

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Ida Lupino and Joan Fontaine Fall For THE BIGAMIST

Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we embed a free, fun movie for you to watch right here!

In 1953’s The Bigamist, Edmond O’Brien scrambles up and down the California coast, shuttling between two wives. If I’d been anywhere in the vicinity, it would have been three. But enough about my love of Eddie.

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In the film, Ida Lupino, who also directed, plays Phyllis, an L.A. restaurant hostess and the more sympathetic of the two wives. And that was my main gripe: not that she took the plummier role (why wouldn’t she?), but that her rival (Joan Fontaine) was subtly frowned upon for being a—gasp!—business woman, and a damned good one. So, of course her husband became a bigamist! He was lonely and emasculated and blah, blah, blah… Really, Ida? You, of all people, ran with that tired old trope? (And by the way, in real life, the anything but hard-hearted Joan left her entire multi-million-dollar fortune to an animal shelter.)

Here’s the thing, though: in other ways, the movie is pretty subversive, especially for a noir. O’Brien, unlikely as it may seem (except for those of us who adore him), is kind of an homme fatale—unable to get control of his emotions and his life, he ends up making two kind, trusting women absolutely miserable. He’s the irrational, random force that wreaks havoc on their otherwise sane, centered lives. The women know what they want and where they’re going (at least until they learn the truth), but he’s a freaking wreck. Throw in the fact that he’s being stalked by Santa Claus—Edmund Gwenn plays an adoption agency investigator looking into his domestic life—and you’ve pretty much stood the movie world as we know it on its head.

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With this film, Lupino became the first woman in the modern era to direct herself in a major film — partly, she recalled, to cut down on the budget. She used separate camera crews and a variety of lenses for each wife, to highlight their differences and heighten the feeling of intimacy the audience had with each of them. Lupino said directing herself was the biggest challenge: “It was difficult for me to determine the quality of my performance, so I relied on Collie… who would signal to me when I was doing something I would not like.”

“Collie” was Lupino’s ex-husband Collier Young, who wrote the screenplay and remained her partner in their production company, Filmakers (yes, with one “m”). Oh, and they cast his new wife, Fontaine, in the film — also throwing in a cameo for his mother-in-law. Some couples carry the idea of amicable divorce a little too far…

A few more tidbits before I turn you over to the movie: The Bigamist was one of the first films to use product placement; the shoestring budget was bolstered by fees from Cadillac, Coca-Cola and United Airlines. And the scene with the tour of the movie stars’ homes? Those were their actual homes. There’s also a little inside joke in that scene, but I won’t give it away…

And now, enjoy!

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

Don’t Ditch Those DVDs and Tapes! They’re Your Only Permanent Pass to the Movies

If you want to make sure a movie you love is always there for you, you’ve gotta own it. Period.

More and more people are being sucked into cyberspace for all their viewing needs, like modern-day versions of Carol Anne in Poltergeist. Because who needs old-school media when you’ve got HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix and a zillion other streamers? You do, my dear. Look at it this way: When your lease is up and you have to move, streaming media is the friend who kinda helps you pack, but mostly just rifles through your record collection. Physical media is the friend who helps you haul that ratty sectional sofa down from your fourth-floor walkup.

Streaming services are especially fickle friends when it comes to classic film, which seems to occupy a narrower niche every year. The uber-classics like Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz will likely always be online somewhere, but most titles have much shorter shelf lives, and many never make it onto platforms at all. Some streamers, like TCM, HBO Max and the Criterion Channel, do much better than others, but out of necessity, movies cycle in and out all the time. (Oh and PS: When you “buy” a movie on, say, Amazon, you’re only paying for a limited license to view it for an indefinite period.)

I don’t know about you, but when I wake up at three in the morning and only Kay Francis and William Powell in Jewel Robbery can calm my fevered mind, I don’t want to be clacking away on my keyboard or fumbling with the remote, hoping it’s still on one of my streaming subscriptions somewhere. I want to pop in the disc, hear that comforting little whirr, and sit back and bask in the Deco glow of 1932, knowing Kay and Bill are mine forever.

And if you still have your VHS tapes, come sit here by me. I have lots of titles that never made it to DVD, either for a perceived lack of audience interest or because the rights hurdles they cleared the first time were harder to leap over in the next round. These include gems like Kevin Brownlow’s Buster Keaton and Hollywood series, as well as old biographies such as Laurence Olivier: A Life and a bunch of 1930s movies likely deemed unworthy of a new life on DVD.

If your VCR has conked out, used ones are super cheap online, but new DVD-VCR combos have gotten pricier as the demand dwindles down to dinosaurs like me (even the New York Times crossword writers hate on us). So only you can decide if it’s worth the hunt and the money to watch the tapes you’ve hung onto. (Oh and screw the ridicule.)

If storage space is an issue, consider high-quality DVD cases that let you ditch all the packaging. I realize that using these is blasphemous to some people, but they’ve kept my movies safe for decades; I stick to the smaller cases and shelve them vertically, away from moisture, heat and sunlight. I keep the liner notes worth saving in a small box. (Alas, there’s no equivalent storage workaound for VHS tapes.)

Want to add to your collection? If you can spring for new DVDs of classic films, great—it reminds media companies that there’s still a market for them and encourages them to maintain their libraries and churn out the odd restoration or two. If you can’t, there are plenty of outlets for cheap used ones, including flea markets, thrift and charity stores, library sales, and of course online sellers. Even some drugstore chains and supermarkets sell DVDs, and classics sometimes pop up in their bins, so don’t pass them by.

One of my favorite online sources is the eBay store of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library (username friendslibrary), where 100% of proceeds go to this fabulous cause. (As you might imagine, they also have tons of books.) The eBay charity store (just enter “charity auction” in the searchbar) also has lots of other nonprofits selling DVDs, though the percentage earmarked for charity varies.

If you prefer your DVDs free, check back to this website in a while. I inherited my Mom’s DVDs after I lost her last summer, and since we were movie kindred spirits, there are some I already had. I’ll be keeping hers, and giving mine away. But I don’t have the heart to plow through that process just yet.

In the meantime, keep the ones you have. Streaming services can take down content whenever they feel like it, but your own personal stash of movies? Oh no, they can’t take that away from you…

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Teenage Linda Darnell Is Tyrone Power’s DAY-TIME WIFE

Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we bring you free, fun films to watch right here!

This week: 1939’s Day-Time Wife!

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Early on in this odd little confection, Jane (Linda Darnell) finds out her husband Ken (Tyrone Power) is running around with his secretary (Wendy Barrie). So she breaks a super-heavy Deco lamp over his head, drags his half-conscious body out to the hallway, and changes all the locks.

Oh wait that’s what I’d do.

What Jane does is decide to meet the competition head on, by getting a job as a secretary herself, to see what they’ve got that she hasn’t got. (And the answer, this being Linda Darnell we’re talking about, is absolutely nothing.)

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“If a woman can’t hold her man, then it’s her own fault!” she tells her much-married friend Blanche (Binnie Barnes). “I’m going to hold mine!”

Okay I’ll wait here while you go to the sink and retch. But do come back—because this really is a fun little film…

For starters, the man who plays her new boss is Warren William—who still somehow manages to bring the Pre-Code years after the Hays Office was staffed to the rafters. (“I’d like you to think of me as a sort of an… an ineligible eligible bachelor,” he purrs to Jane over dinner, leering elegantly as only he could do.)

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This was just Darnell’s second film after Hotel for Women; she was a last-minute replacement for Loretta Young, who sniffed at second billing. Darnell was just shy of 16 when she played the 25-year-old Power’s wife—and sometimes, despite the warpaint, she looks it. (Calling Darnell’s mother a stage mother is like calling a tsunami a passing wave. She happily lied about her gorgeous daughter’s age to get her foot in the studio door, and she was so relentlessly pushy—even by Hollywood standards—that she was eventually banned from the lot altogether.) But she’s already a total pro, with terrific comic timing and great chemistry with her co-star, whom she’d re-team with for The Mark of Zorro, Brigham Young and Blood and Sand.

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Years later, director Gregory Ratoff (perhaps most famous as Max Fabian, the producer in search of a good long burp, in All About Eve) recalled that on the rare occasion Darnell went up on her lines, Power would do the same, to take the pressure off her. And their genuine affection for each other is just as palpable on screen as it was off. In fact Power was one of the few bright spots in her ill-starred life; her complete story is here.

I’ll say no more about the film except to assure you that Jane triumphs in the end… but I’m guessing you knew that…

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

Paul McCartney’s Way with Women (In Song)

Happy Birthday, Sir Paul! And in his honor, I’d like to focus on a part of his much-mined legacy I’ve not heard too much about: his story-songs about women.

Let’s start with “Eleanor Rigby,” still one of the most evocative songs ever written, and a novel unto itself. (I know Paul is Catholic, so Father McKenzie was probably not marriage-eligible, but I can’t hear that song without wishing he’d thrown off the collar so he and Eleanor could rescue each other.) On a broader note, it’s about the deep chasms of loneliness anyone could feel, in an era of post-war upheaval when all the “pulling together for a common cause” has long since come apart. But what you see most vividly is Eleanor. Has there ever been a lonelier image set to song than that of a straggler in the back pew who “picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been” as the happy couple sets off on their new life together?

And Paul was 24 when he wrote it. I mean Jesus. John Lennon had apparently advised against the downbeat ending, but Paul held fast.

“Eleanor Rigby” was something of a lonely song to record as well: none of the other Beatles played on it (shades of Yesterday earlier), though George and John chimed in on vocals. And the strings were producer George Martin’s idea—reportedly inspired by those he’d heard in… wait for it… Psycho.

Similarly, none of the Beatles played on “She’s Leaving Home,” though John sang the chorus. This stunner seems completely out of place on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (much as “Eleanor Rigby” did on Yellow Submarine) but to me it’s the best cut on that legendary album. “Silently closing her bedroom door… leaving a note that she hoped would say more…” The stark imagery throughout the song captures everything.

The song was loosely based on a story Paul had read in the Daily Mirror about a 17-year-old runaway, but her interior life, and the mystified grief of her mother and father, were purely Paul’s creation. (The very act of acknowledging the feelings of — gasp! — her parents, even wryly, was enough to make this song revolutionary for 1967.)

Martin was tied up on another project, so Paul turned to Mike Leander to produce the song, once again bringing in strings to underscore the mood. “[George] was busy and I was itching to get on with it, I was inspired,” Paul told Playboy in 1984. “I think George had a lot of difficulty forgiving me for that. It hurt him, I didn’t mean to.” You’ve gotta love a man who’s still wracked with guilt about hurting a friend, almost 20 years on. (Did I mention he was Catholic?)

Brian Wilson cried when Paul played it for him, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ned Rorem called it “equal to any song that Schubert ever wrote.”

Most heart-rending break-up songs are written from the perspective of the dumpee. “For No One” splits the difference between the man left behind and the woman out there creating a life without him. “She wakes up, she makes up, she takes her time and doesn’t feel she has to hurry, she no longer needs you…”

Paul recalls writing the song in the bathroom of a Swiss chalet while on vacation with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher, as their relationship was falling apart: “I suspect it was about another argument.” And yet he wrote it as much from a woman’s perspective as a man’s.

During the recording session, Paul asked Alan Civil, the soloist on the French horn, to play a note that stretched beyond its normal range, to strike the perfect mournful tone, which recording engineer Geoff Emrick said resulted in “the performance of his life.” In terms of his bandmates, this was yet another virtual solo for Paul, with Ringo adding some light percussion. 

I admit I was reluctant to put “Lady Madonna” in here as I’ve never liked the song and it always felt like something of a put-down. But a recent interview with Paul changed my mind.

“I think women are very strong, they put up with a lot of shit,” he told the UK’s Far Out magazine. “They put up with the pain of having a child, of raising it, cooking for it, they are basically skivvies a lot of their lives, so I always want to pay a tribute to them.”

Paul’s own mother, a midwife in Liverpool, was also an inspiration here, as elsewhere in his music. (She’s the one he references in “Let It Be,” though it’s been wrongly assumed to be the more iconic Mother Mary.) “It’s really a tribute to the mother figure, it’s a tribute to women,” Paul told author Barry Miles for the book Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. “‘Your Mother Should Know’ is another.” Yes, that little music hall-style ditty is the one where Paul, in the midst of a particularly turbulent generational war, “was basically trying to say, your mother might know more than you think she does. Give her credit.”

In researching “Another Day,” I was shocked — though I shouldn’t have been — to see how many (male) music critics sneered at it, in one case likening it to a jingle for underarm deodorant, and generally dismissing it as trite.

The single was released three months before Paul’s second solo album, Ram — and just as his former bandmates were turning out All Things Must Pass and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It was deemed far too lightweight to compete. Yes, how could a song about a woman’s interior life have any gravitas?!? These are pretty much the same kind of myopic misogynists who sniffed at “women’s pictures” during the classic movie era. In fact this song pretty much is a women’s picture. “At the office where the papers grow she takes a break… drinks another coffee and she finds it hard to stay awake, it’s just another day… So sad, so sad, sometimes she feels so sad.” It’s loneliness and depression set to a slight samba beat.

Lennon snidely referenced “Another Day” in his song about Paul, “How Do You Sleep?”: “The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you’ve gone it’s just another day.”

But Denny Seiwall, the session drummer on Ram, called it “Eleanor Rigby in New York City.” And I’m guessing that most women whose strength and sanity are being sucked slowly dry by jobs and relationships going nowhere will see themselves much more clearly in this song than in, say, “Instant Karma.”

None of this is to take away from all the other gorgeous ballads Paul wrote. But there’s something about these story-songs, all centering on women, that reveals such a deep understanding and compassion. With them, he created characters wholly outside himself, something not many songwriters do, and not nearly that well.

To close out this birthday tribute, here’s Sir Paul — no entourage, no crew, no bullshit — strolling through JFK Airport a couple of years ago, ticket and luggage in hand. Safe travels always, you beautiful man…

What’s Your Classic Movie Intervention?

Okay here’s a question for all of you, who, like me, feel movies from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. What classic movie character would you like to stage an intervention for? Who makes you want to reach into the screen and say “Don’t do it!” I don’t mean warning someone about an imminent danger, like “Don’t go down the basement!!” I mean something the character is doing or not doing, or perhaps the way they’re living their lives, that’s just breaking your heart or making you crazy.

For me, two come to mind right away: Fran (Ruth Chatterton) in Dodsworth, throwing away her husband, one of the best and most attractive men in the world, for a string of Eurotrash milquetoasts, and Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury) making the terrible mistake of turning around and staying the night in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’ve seen that movie roughly ten times, but that scene only once: I literally have to leave the room for about two minutes until it’s over. I can’t even fast-forward past it because you can still kinda see it. (I realize, of course, that both these films are based on novels, so maybe I have to leap into the books to save these ladies as well.)

Similarly, I spend much of Random Harvest, which I love but oh my God, screaming at Paula (Greer Garson), pining away for her amnesiac husband (Ronald Colman), “Just tell him!!” Though as my Mom would wisely point out, as with most plot contrivances that drive you insane, “Then it would be a really short movie.” And at least her story ends happily, because we all know that being long-suffering, noble and self-sacrificing is a sure-fire ticket to romantic bliss.

Sad to say there are many, many more, but I’d rather turn the floor over to my movie tribe.

So… what classic movie character do you most want to save from themselves?

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