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!

Reel Infatuation: Rod Taylor in SUNDAY IN NEW YORK

Ladies! Traveling around New York, you’re likely to run into all kinds of guys. Take, for instance, the manspreader: Not even Dame Helen Mirren was safe from him. And The Nicest Man in America™ actually was him.

Then there’s Oscar Shapeley, who’s certain your emphatic rejections are just a playful way of heightening the romantic tension before your unconditional surrender.  (I was recently stuck next to this guy on a trip to Rochester. As he was finally getting off the train in Rome, NY, he leaned in and grinned, “Would you like me to take you to Rome?!?” And then he laughed so hard a bit of gack flew out of his mouth. Because it was literally the funniest thing anyone has ever said.)

There’s also the out-and-out perv, who makes you long for the subtle, sophisticated stylings of Mr. Shapeley. And the guy who seems to have last enjoyed the thrill of bathing sometime during the Carter administration. And the one who’s wolfed down so much garlic he’s travel-banned in Transylvania.

But sadly—tragically, even—you know who you’re never gonna run into?

This guy.

Remember when you’d sit around with your friends, imagining the perfect guy? Kind and decent, but not dull. Strong, but not overbearing. Smart, but not show-offy. Funny, but not a loudmouth. Protective, but not condescending. Exciting, but not dangerous. Gorgeous, but not vain. Is that so much to ask?!?

Not for Rod Taylor it isn’t.

In Sunday in New York, he slips easily into the role of Mike Mitchell, a music writer on a day trip to the city. Who hooks up, literally, with Eileen Tyler (Jane Fonda) on a crosstown bus, when her boutonniere gets snagged on his jacket. She should have that thing bronzed.

After an awkward parting and a fateful reunion—there’s that bus again!—they’re caught in a downpour and run for shelter.

Eileen is in town visiting her big brother Adam (Cliff Robertson), seeking sanctuary after her frustrated fiancé (Robert Culp) cools on her for not sleeping with him. Adam dutifully encourages her to remain chaste—and swears on his “sacred honor” he’s doing the same. But when she discovers a black negligee hanging in his closet, all bets, sacred or otherwise, are off.

And there sits this man. Good God. Could anyone blame her for deciding it’s time to jump in? Still, she’s a bit clumsy and naive, and Mike soon realizes she’s doing what she thinks she should be doing, not what she is comfortable doing—or has ever done before.

All her quirks and fears and vulnerabilities are flung out there like that ratty blue robe she pretends is her mother’s, to ward off predatory males. But he doesn’t pounce on them, or mock them. He loves them. He loves her. He honors her. And protects her, even from himself.

And when they argue over shifting sexual morés, he clearly relishes batting it back and forth with her. Yes—gasp—he even loves her mind!

Mike Mitchell is pretty much the perfect man: strong, smart, funny, gorgeous and insanely honorable. For me, the movie’s only false note was that he had a sometime girlfriend back in Philly who would let him stray beyond a three-foot radius.

I had been hounding TCM to show Sunday in New York since they started their festival. So when they finally did, in 2014, I was there before the doors opened, like the people who camp out overnight for the latest iPhone except this was for something important.

My friends Kay and Kathy arrived soon after—and the daylight pajama party was on! We’d just spent three days staring at screens, scarfing down all manner of sugary sin, and sleeping only at the odd moment there wasn’t a movie playing somewhere. As we waited for the house lights to dim, we gave in to our giddiness—hugging, swaying, and belting out the film’s signature tunes: “New York on Sundaaaay… big city takin’ a nap… Hellooo… what sweet magic brought you my wayyy…” Somewhere back east, Peter Nero’s ears were ringing. Or bleeding.

The woman sitting behind me huffed so hard she blew my hair off my neck: “I hope you’re not going to be doing that during the movie!” This to someone who’d rather streak through Holy Communion than talk in a darkened theater. But in the last scene, when Rod is gazing up at Jane, hugging the world’s luckiest pillow, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I sighed. Out loud. And yup, she shushed me, complete with spittle.

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Later that spring, Kay and I had Sunday brunch at the restaurant where Eileen and Mike go to haggle over the cost of mending his jacket. Now the Rock Center Café, it looks much as it did more than a half-century ago. “Oh my God, this is the door where they went in!” I sputtered as I wobbled up the steps.

From everything I’ve seen and read of him, I’ve always had the feeling that playing the perfect man was not much of a stretch for Rod Taylor. There’s a reason he could do it without a molecule of effort.

In 1963, when Sunday in New York was made, Fonda was still finding her way out from under her father’s shadow, deeply insecure, and battling bulimia. She has said that working with Taylor was the first time she enjoyed making a movie or dared to believe she could really act.

“Jane and I got on so beautifully, and we never stopped laughing, on screen, off screen, just laughing all the time,” Taylor also recalled. “And shooting in New York… that was fantastic, cops stopping traffic, and everybody going ‘Ooh, ahh!’ when I kissed Jane… just a wonderful experience!”

He even managed to make Tippi Hedren’s nightmarish stint on The Birds bearable. “Rod was a great pal to me and a real strength. We were very, very good friends,” she said. ‘He was one of the most fun people I have ever met, thoughtful and classy. There was everything good in that man.”

Here’s a more modest take, from the man himself: “Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter were very pretty fellows, and that was the trend. I was one of the first of the uglies to get lucky… I wasn’t good-looking enough to really pull off some of the roles that I was put into!”

Rod Taylor died just a few months after the Sunday in New York screening at TCM, and I haven’t been able to watch it since. You know that wonderful feeling of seeing someone you love on the screen and knowing they’re still out there somewhere? And then suddenly they’re gone, and that feeling is even more horrible than the other feeling was good? With Rod Taylor, I’m still working through that.

But ladies, if you haven’t seen this movie, you must. And guys, watch it and make mental notes—kind of the way I do when I see Edith Cortwright in Dodsworth. Because that’s the thing about old movies: They give us something to shoot for.

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This article is included in the Reel Infatuation blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. For more, click here!

Reel Infatuation 2017

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN! The Cast and Creator Open Up at a Sneak Preview of the Finale

While we were falling in love with Jessica Lange, she was falling in love with Joan Crawford.

“She was such a treasure,” said Lange at a Q&A hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, following a sneak preview of the Feud: Bette and Joan finale. “She was never given the credit she was due. And when I went back and watched her films, she was a lovely actress, very subtle… obviously she had a style, that MGM style, but underneath it all, she was very real.

“People think of the glamour and the Hurrell photographs”, she added, “but there was so much more to her than that and it was thrilling to discover.”

Lange said she felt pressure to do right by Joan, who has been camped up and torn down for decades now. “I don’t think she got a fair shake from her daughter or from the film that was made,” she said, not daring to utter the name of the movie or the daughter, lest Faye or Cristina spring full-blown from the floorboards. “I do think she was maligned and she never got an opportunity to defend herself, of course. We dealt very fairly with Joan and created a character with all her strengths, vulnerabilities, peevishness, humanness. I hope in some way that brings another dimension to the way she’s seen. I hope we created a different idea about this woman, who was quite extraordinary.”

feud-62Focused mainly on the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,  the miniseries captures an especially unhappy, even desperate, time in the careers of Joan, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon, who skipped the Q&A), and director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina). As far as the studios were concerned, Aldrich’s sin was that his films, though often critically praised, were commercial flops. Joan and Bette’s sin was that they continued to breathe past 40.

“I’m 52 and I feel like I’m just getting started, but for Bette and Joan, they were done,” said Feud creator Ryan Murphy, who also directed and co-wrote a few episodes. “And I just think about how unfair that is. I think the saddest thing in life is lost potential.”

“They all came together at a time of great need, trying to resuscitate their careers, keep themselves relevant and valid,” said Molina.

Lange agreed: “I think that’s typical of especially what happens to a women’s career at that point. You’re still in there scrapping and fighting and thinking, ‘This next role is going to bring it all back. This next role is going to make a difference.’ You think it’s out there but it isn’t, and yet you address the situation as if you still have some kind of control. This thing of struggling to resurrect something that is long gone is where the real human sadness of it exists, the poignancy… there’s still that thing of trying to hold on.”

The early days on the Baby Jane set held the promise that its long-feuding stars might forge a truce, or even—dare we dream?—some sort of brittle friendship, based on, if nothing else, the acres of common ground they shared: four marriages, difficult daughters, and decades of grappling with shortsighted, abusive studio bosses who built fortunes on their talents, wrung every ounce of work out of them, and threw them away like squeezed lemons at the first signs of age.  (When Baby Jane was first pitched to him, Jack Warner—who had 15 years on Bette and 12 on Joan—sneered, “No one will pay to see those two old broads act.”)

But circumstances conspired against them—in the form of powerful gossip mavens like Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) and even their own director, who feared a Bette-Joan alliance could blunt his power on the set. A feud, on the other hand, could spark their performances and generate buzz for a film he had little confidence in.

feud-54“Aldrich was definitely complicit, but he was also a victim of forces as well,” said Molina. “He was reluctantly drawn into stoking the fires of that feud.  He was morally a complex man, I think that’s a polite way to put it… but he was also an unloved child in Hollywood. That scene where he asks Jack Warner, ‘Do you think I’m capable of being great?’ and he’s told, very blandly, ‘No’… it’s the question we all want to ask and we all fear the answer. So he was a victim but he was also complicit.”

“They were all pawns in one big confusing rat race,” added Catherine Zeta Jones (Olivia de Havilland). “You have all that fragility put onto the set, like a whole bunch of thoroughbreds, and Jack Warner is the jockey deciding which one to favor.”

Happily, the Feud set was much less fraught than Baby Jane‘s. “The atmosphere was the antithesis of what the story was about,” Molina laughed. “It was very relaxed. There’s an old saying among athletes—I’m not saying I’m an athlete in any way, but I’ve heard them say it!—that you get better when you work with the best, with people who have something to teach you. When we first started, I was petrified—with me it always starts out 50 percent excitement and 50 percent dread—but there was an effortlessness about this.” 

Murphy credits much of the happy set to the fact that half the directors and many of the writers and other offscreen talent were women—a much higher quotient than the usual (criminally small) ratio. “Much less ego and drama!” he laughed.

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“When I did The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, the woman who was supposed to direct the Marcia Clark episode got sick, and I stepped in for her,” he recalled. “And I wasn’t really happy with the results. And I thought, ‘Why didn’t I have nineteen women in my Rolodex I could have called to direct that?’ Now I make a point of hiring as many women as possible.”

When work on Feud began, the long slog of election season was nearing an end—and so, many hoped, was the daily bruising of one sleazy Trump outrage after the next. “It looked like Hillary was going to be our next President, and then about halfway through filming, we got what we got,” Murphy said. “And it was such a wake-up call for me. At first, this series felt a little bit like a time capsule to me… like, aren’t we past all this now—the misogyny, the sexism? And then it was like, no, it’s not over. And I could feel the women on the set getting madder and madder at the outcome and at what was already unfolding.”

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But if Murphy and company couldn’t give the country a happy ending, they could give Bette and Joan one—sort of. (Warning: The next paragraph is a mild spoiler.)

In the finale, a gravely ill Joan dreams she hears laughter in the living room. She gets out of bed and moves slowly, warily toward the source… and sees Warner and Hopper knocking back a few at the card table. Soon Bette arrives, and after a little while, it’s just the two of them. And they say what we’ve always wanted them to say. That they wish they’d been kinder. Less self-protective. They wish they’d gotten it right. “But, it’s not too late!” Joan says, reaching across the table. “We can start now!” And Bette, a bit startled, smiles and nods. With that, Mamacita (yes, she’s back!) gently wakes her frail charge, wraps her arms around her and shepherds her back to bed.

“I felt like I wanted to give them, and the fans, that closure,” said Murphy. “That photograph, when they started filming Baby Jane, where they’re sitting and chatting—what if it had stayed like that?”

“When I first came out to Hollywood, I interviewed Bette and she told me, off the record, how she really regretted that she and Joan didn’t somehow work things out,” he added. “People conspired against their becoming friends, and there were also romantic entanglements and rivalries…

“All of the older actors I’ve interviewed, at the end, they were all talking about that kind of regret,” he said. “If you love someone, tell them. If you’ve hurt someone, make it up to them. People you love, people you’ve fought with, if only you could sit with them and say I’m sorry, I screwed up… okay now I’m getting choked up.”

Even more so when he revealed he dedicated this series to his grandmother. “She raised me, and she reminded me so much of Bette Davis, and I would watch her movies and feel her around me,” he remembered. “So in a way I’m reconnecting with her. That’s why I put that line in the last episode, when Pauline is talking about how older people become forgotten, and she tells the young guy who’s interviewing her, ‘Call your grandmother.'”

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You do the same, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Or call someone you’ve fallen out with, and make it right. Bette and Joan would be proud of you.

Can’t get enough of Bette and Joan? Read about why they should have been friends (written years before Feud!). And about Bette’s other feud—with dogs; her fabulous fundraiser for homeless pets, which drew half of Hollywood; and her surprisingly honest pitch for war bonds! And read about how Joan stepped in for her fallen friend, Carole Lombardher hilarious turn in Torch Song; and the advice she doles out lavishly in her booksome of which is oddly practical, and some of which is just odd…

Photo credit for shots from the stage: Alejandro Kiesel.

BRIEF ENCOUNTER: The Rain, the Sane, And Mainly Lots of Pain

When I was invited to join the “April Showers” celebration of rainy movie scenes, the first one that came to mind wasn’t something like this…

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or this…

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or this.

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You see, I’m Irish. So of course I thought of this doomed, guilt-ridden duo.

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The scene in Brief Encounter where Laura (Celia Johnson) tears through the wet streets after getting caught with Alec (Trevor Howard) is the flip side of every rain-drenched romantic scene ever filmed. Because this isn’t romance—it’s love. Sacred, fierce and terrifying, an untold blessing and an unholy mess.

“I’m an ordinary woman,” Laura says early on. “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”

And yet here she is, fleeing a stranger’s flat, where she’d gone to meet a man who was a stranger only weeks before.

After bolting from the safety of her homeward-bound train at the last second, Laura rushes to meet Alec at his friend Stephen’s apartment, where he stays every Thursday while working at the hospital. But when they hear Stephen’s key in the latch—he’s home early, with a nasty cold—Laura hurries out the back way, down the tradesman’s staircase.

Stephen (Valentine Dyall) hears the scuffling—and, smugly sizing up the scene, picks up the scarf Laura left behind, letting it dangle from his fingers. “This is a service flat… it caters to all tastes,” he smirks, all but oozing a trail of slime across the carpet. “You know Alec, you have hidden depths I hadn’t suspected…”

Laura, meanwhile, is flying through the strange streets in the middle of a downpour, heading anywhere at all as long as it’s away. (“I felt humiliated and defeated and so dreadfully ashamed…”)

Finally,  too tired to keep running but in no shape to go home, she huddles into a callbox at a tobacco shop and concocts a story for her husband, with a quick-witted nimbleness that appalls her. (“It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly. So very easy, and so very degrading.”)

Wandering back out into the night, she takes refuge on a park bench, where she lights a post-non-coital cigarette and—thinking of her husband—feels ashamed even for doing that. (“There was nobody about… I know how you disapprove of women smoking in the street… I do too really but I wanted to calm my nerves, and I thought it might help.”)

But her guilt is just getting started: “I sat there for ages, I don’t know how long. Then I noticed a policeman walking up and down a little way off. He was looking at me rather suspiciously…”

When he approaches, it’s clear he’s just concerned: “Feeling all right, Miss? Waiting for someone? Don’t go and catch cold now… it’s a damp night for sitting about on seats!”

She assures him she’s fine, and was just about to get up to catch a train.

“I walked away, trying to look casual, knowing that he was watching me.”

“I felt like a criminal.”

And in this grim, rainy scene, Robert Krasker shot her like one. The cinematographer (who also teamed with David Lean on Odd Man Out and won an Oscar for The Third Man) shadows Laura up and down the dark streets like her own accusing heart. And in the callbox, as she lies to her trusting husband, she’s set in stark, near-black relief against the bright lights of the cheery shop on the other side of the glass. Any shlub with a camera could conjure noir out of guiltless sex, but only a genius could find it in sexless guilt.

(P.S.: If you crave a bit of Noel Coward where the illicit lovers really let their id flags fly, get hold of The Astonished Heart, also starring Celia Johnson, but this time as the betrayed wife. It’s enough to convince you that, however frustrated they might have ended up, Laura and Alec got it right.)

This article was written for the April Showers blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Steve at Movie Movie Blog Blog. For more, click here

 

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The Legendary BEHIND THE DOOR Is Out On Blu-ray, and You Can Win a Copy!

Kevin Brownlow called it “the most outspoken of all the vengeance films.” It’s also one of the most daring and disturbing. And now—finally—it’s available on DVD.

Irvin Willat’s 1919 masterwork, Behind the Door, has been gorgeously restored through a  collaboration of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia. And Flicker Alley releases the Blu-ray disc on April 4th.

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The restoration—the most complete version of the film since it was released almost a century ago—was a years-long labor of love. The print was meticulously pieced together using a copy of Willat’s original continuity script and every known film source element—including some critical action sequences tracked down from actor Hobart Bosworth’s personal collection.

Because the movie was made in the US right after World War I, you can imagine how the battle of the protagonists—patriotic American Oscar Krug (Bosworth) and monstrous beast Lieutenant Brandt of the Imperial German Army (Wallace Beery at his Wallace Beeriest)—shapes up. What you can’t imagine is the shockingly brutal turn of events that ensue when Krug’s ship is captured by the Germans and his wife (Jane Novak), who has sneaked aboard, is kidnapped and dragged onto their U-boat, leading her heartbroken husband to seek bloody revenge. If you think you’ve seen it all but you’ve never seen this film, trust me, you haven’t seen it all. (Warning: You may never be able to watch The Champ the same way again.)

Photoplay said of Behind the Door, “it took courage to make such a picture as this, for it is a ‘he-picture’—no pap for puking infants.” Though a few adults in the audience might have felt their lunch making a return appearance as well. But the film is as gorgeous as it is graphic: Willat used color tinting in unusual ways to underscore emotion and move the narrative along. And its 70 minutes seem to fly by in less time than it takes to boil an egg.

Here’s  a peek at the trailer:

As part of the roll-out, you can purchase Behind the Door at $10 off the regular price. Meanwhile, the fabulous folks at Flicker Alley have teamed with some classic film websites, including ours, to give away copies of this gorgeous print, which also includes scads of bonus materials:

  • The Russian version of Behind the DoorThe re-edited and re-titled version of the film that was distributed in Russia, with musical accompaniment by composer Stephen Horne, who also scored the English-language version on the DVD;
  • Outtakes from Behind the DoorFeaturing music composed and performed by Horne;
  • Restoring Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door”: A behind-the-scenes look at the restoration;
  • “Kevin Brownlow, Remembering Irvin Willat”: An in-depth interview with the legendary film historian and honorary Academy Award® winner on Willat’s career;
  • Slideshow gallery of stills and promotional material from Behind the Door;  and
  • Souvenir Booklet: Featuring rare photographs and essays by film historian Jay Weissburg, Rob Byrne, president of the SFSFF board of directors, who did the yeoman’s work of the restoration, and Horne.

One lucky winner will receive a copy of Behind the Door on dual-format Blu-ray/DVD from Flicker Alley. The contest is open to all US and Canadian residents and ends April 12, 2017, so hurry!

When you enter the contest by clicking below, you’ll be given the option to follow Sister Celluloid on Twitter—and I do mean option. But I hope you’ll give us a follow and join more than 2,000 movie-crazy people already at the party, sharing pix, comments, links and live-tweet events. 

 CLICK HERE TO ENTER! 

And good luck!

The Annual Oscar Memorial Reel Fiasco: Who Got Snubbed This Year

Okay boys and girls, it’s time for our annual Sister Celluloid tradition: filling in the massive gaps in the Oscar memorial reel!

Granted, this was a horrible year. That old cliché that celebrity deaths come in threes? Yeah no. Sometimes it felt more like tens. The most common posts on social media consisted of a single word: No. As in, Not him. Not her. Not another one.

So the producers had an overwhelming job this time. But instead of acknowledging what a hideous year it was—and giving the memorial segment the time it deserved—they blew it again.

Couldn’t they have cut down on the lame-ass patter, contrived stunts or commercials to honor the long, long list of people we loved and lost? Good God, you could drive that stupid tour bus they spent 10 minutes on through the gaping holes in that “tribute.”

But hey, not to worry: the Academy assures us there’s “an extended photo gallery of filmmakers, artists and executives”on its website! Can you think of a more depressing Hollywood fate than being an also-ran in the freaking memorial reel? “Hey, Mom, I’ll bet Dad’s glad he devoted his whole life to his craft—he’s number 121 in the slideshow! Really, just keep clicking, you’ll get there!”

A friend once kidded that I only watched the Oscars “when some old guy was getting an award.” Which wasn’t true. I also watched for the old ladies. But a few years back, in a further kick in the teeth to classic film, the Academy ghettoized the Governors Awards for lifetime achievement—and doesn’t even bother to televise them. So now I watch the Oscars mostly for the memorial reel—and then clack away at my spittle-flecked laptop to honor all the fabulous people they didn’t bother to acknowledge.

You didn’t have to be from the classic era to be snubbed—but as usual, it helped. Among the missing actors were Gloria DeHaven, Alan Young, Ruth Terry, Robert Vaughn, Madeleine Lebeau, Michele Morgan, John McMartin, Gordon Kaye, Anne Jackson, Steven Hill, Brian Bedford,Tammy Grimes, Bernard Fox, Rita Gam, Richard Bradford, Joan Carroll, Billy Chapin, Dick Davalos, Patricia Barry, Marvin Kaplan, Al Molinaro, Francine York, Van Williams, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Vaughn, Fritz Weaver, Madeleine Sherwood, William Schallert, James Stacy, Doris Roberts, Alec McCowen, Burt Kwouk, Barbara Hale, Fyvush Finkel, Robert Horton, Jon Polito, Garry Shandling, Charmian Carr, Maggie Blye, Larry Drake, Miguel Ferrer, Alexis Arquette, Florence Henderson, Richard Hatch, Bill Henderson, Teresa Saldana, Kevin Meaney, Noel Neill, Jinpachi Nezu, Joseph Mascolo, Frank Pellegrini, Joe Santos, Gil Hill, Ron Glass, Jack Riley, Peter Brown, Nicole Courcel and David Huddleston.

Overlooked filmmakers included Guy Hamilton (as in “Bond. James Bond.”), Pierre Etaix, Giorgio Albertazzi, Don Ireland and Herschell Gordon Lewis.

I’m counting on you, dear readers—as you did in 2015 and 2016—to take note of the ones I missed, in comments. Let’s honor them all—and never, ever hold our breath for the Academy to do so.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day! Grab Your Sweetie—And One of These Cards!

Happy Valentine’s Day and lots of love to my classic film family of friends!

Still looking for that perfect card, or maybe you—gasp—you forgot the big day is today? Feel free to grab one of these, created just for you.

And whether you’re still searching for love or are lucky enough to have found it, I hope your day is a lovely one!!

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Godspeed, John Hurt

What if 2016 wasn’t just a horrible year, but the beginning of horrible, period? 2017 is off to an awful start, with the passing of John Hurt the latest piece of unbearable news to come thudding on the doorstep.

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He was so much more than just an insanely versatile actor. He gave everything he had to this world, in every way he could. Aside from his brilliant career of more than half a century, Sir John also devoted massive amounts of his time and talent to great causes, including Greenpeace, the WAVE Trauma Center for victims of violence in the north of Ireland, and Project Harar, an Ethiopian medical charity he became involved with after playing the disfigured John Merrick in The Elephant Man.

My own introduction to this amazing man came in Catholic school, of all places, when we got to spend one blessed afternoon watching a great movie instead of listening to Sister Mary Arthur boom at us from behind her massive desk and even bigger glasses. (Thank you, God!) The film, as you may have guessed, was A Man for All Seasons, and Hurt played the sniveling, villainous Richard Rich, who perjures himself for a cushy post, helping doom Thomas More (Paul Scofield) to the chopping block. (“Why, Richard,” More tells him. “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?”) Good Lord, he was a creepy little bastard! So why did I develop such a huge crush on him? Like I didn’t have enough Catholic guilt?

Not long after, our local PBS station showed The Naked Civil Servant, where Hurt disappeared into the role of flamboyant British writer Quentin Crisp. But there was something about those eyes… Wait. Hold it. That guy was this guy? Another head-exploding moment soon followed, when PBS aired I Claudius, with Hurt pulling out every crayon in the crazy box as Emperor Caligula (but he was so fabulous you missed him when he was murdered). So, just to recap:

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And he was just getting started!!

The man who betrayed a saint and and knocked off half of Rome became the leader of the rabbits in Watership Down. A desperate heroin addict in Midnight Express. A doomed space traveler (who got “indigestion” way too early in the movie—and later parodied his role in a Spaceballs cameo) in Alien. A brilliant wastrel in Heaven’s Gate. A prisoner of his own body in The Elephant Man. The head propagandist in Nineteen Eighty Four. A dogged detective in Crime and Punishment. An obsessed writer in Love and Death on Long Island. A hero’s weather-beaten sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (He was the only one who insisted on reading the script before signing on. No one else did “because Steven [Spielberg]—you know, ‘God’—was doing it. And I said, ‘Well, I need to have a little bit of previous knowledge even if God is doing it.'”) An ex-con struggling for a new start in Night Train to Munich. A mystic wand-maker in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. A proud, betrayed MI-5 boss in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. An Elizabethan scribe in Only Lovers Left Alive.

The only thing these characters have in common is the actor who played them all. No one but John Hurt could have. Still, I have only scratched the surface of his work. And you get the feeling he had, too.

We will never see his like again, in a million different guises, with only a singular soul in common. Godspeed, Sir John. And thank you for every crazy, beautiful thing.

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‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’: A Musical Salute to the Fabulous Men of Classic Film!

My annual salute to the men we all love… Wishing a happy and peaceful holiday season to my classic film family!

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Merry Christmas, my wonderful classic-movie family of friends!!

Here’s a little ditty I wrote, sung to the tune of All I Want For Christmas Is You, celebrating some of the men we all love so much! I say “some” because if I included them all, all I’d get for Christmas is carpal tunnel syndrome.

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I hope you like it! Here goes:

I don’t want a lot for Christmas
There is just one thing I need—
All my favorite classic-film gents
Underneath the Christmas tree!

Silver tinsel may be lovely
Tucked among the red and green,
But it isn’t half as nice as
Presents from the silver screen!

Clark and Cary and Tyrone,
I just want you for my own!
Make my wish come true!
Baby all I want for Christmas
Is you… and you… and you…

William Powell and Buster Keaton,
Bogie, Coop and Colin Clive!
I’ll be decked out…

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Behind the Scenes of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and THE BISHOP’S WIFE!

You’ve watched the films a million times, you’ve laughed, you’ve cried… wanna go behind the scenes? Let’s sneak a peek backstage at It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife! Oh and need some help toweling off, Jimmy? We’re right here!

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That’s not your run-of-the-mill fake movie snow Jimmy’s dabbing away during the 90-plus-degree shoot in mid-July—that’s state-of-the-art fake movie snow! Director Frank Capra, an engineer by trade, was fed up with the white-coated cornflakes that usually subbed for snowflakes, which crunched so noisily underfoot they often drowned out the dialogue, requiring hours of redubbing.

So he toiled away in the lab with RKO’s special effects man, Russell Sherman, to create a blissfully silent concoction called Phomaide, which combined the foam used in fire extinguishers with water and sugar. And then they blew some 6,000 gallons of the stuff all over the set, which was a wonder unto itself: 75 houses, stores and factories, a parkway lined with 20 full-grown live oaks, and a Main Street running three full city blocks, all sprawled across four acres. At the time, it was the largest set ever built for a movie.

The one crucial element it almost didn’t have? James Stewart—just back from the war, battling depression, grappling with uncertainty about his future, and not all that sure he was up to playing a role that hit a little too close to home. The man who talked him into it? None other than Mister Potter himself, Lionel Barrymore.

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Oh and these scenes from rehearsals will give you some idea of what the temperature was really like—not only on the set but between Stewart and Donna Reed, who eventually warmed up to each other even though Jimmy was originally skeptical about Capra’s choice to play Mary Bailey. (Okay now think hard: Can you picture anyone else in that role? Granted, we have the benefit of hindsight and fifty or sixty viewings.)

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A year and a half later, Cary Grant laced up a pair of ice skates for his role as the Angel in The Bishop’s Wife though a shorter, bespectacled stunt double did most of the heavy twirling. (Two of the kids from It’s a Wonderful Life also made the trip: Karolyn Grimes packed away Zuzu’s petals to play the bishop’s daughter, and Bobbie Anderson, who was young George Bailey, popped up in the snowball-fight scene.)

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For a film with such a celestial story arc, it was bedeviled with complications right from the start. Grant was originally cast as the Bishop, with David Niven as the Angel and Teresa Wright in the title role. But producer Sam Goldwyn took one look at director William Seiter’s original rushes, hated what he saw, and fired him. (For his part, Seiter had earlier directed an undersung Christmas miracle called I’ll Be Seeing You; that full movie is here.)

By the time they were set to re-shoot with a new director, Henry Koster, Wright was pregnant and was replaced by Loretta Young, and Grant had prevailed upon Koster to let him swap roles with Niven and play the Angel. How could the director resist, when Grant looked like this parked behind a harp?

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But preview audiences were still unhappy with the result, and Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were brought in to punch up the script. That helped win over the critics, but moviegoers mostly ignored this little Christmas gem when it finally opened. Maybe because by then, it was February.

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Or maybe people were just trapped inside their houses. Here’s how New York City, for instance, looked when The Bishop’s Wife premiered there in 1948, in the midst of one of the snowiest winters on record for much of the country. No need for Phomaide here!

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And on that downy-soft note…  may all your Christmases be white! (Unless you don’t want them to be. Or you live in a place where that would just be, well, odd.)

Remembering Billy Chapin, Who Saw Us Through THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

More than half a century after shielding his little sister through the most monstrous night of their lives, John Harper left the world on her birthday.

Billy Chapin—who, as John, all but carried The Night of the Hunter on his slight shoulders—died on December 2, the day Sally Jane Bruce, who played Pearl, turned 68.

nightofthehunter-59From the moment we meet him, it’s clear John Harper is an old soul, something his father Ben—a robber with a bullet in his shoulder and the law fast on his heels—is counting on. He stuffs $10,000 in stolen cash into Pearl’s doll and entrusts both the girl and the money to her brother:

Ben: Listen to me, son, you gotta swear. Swear means promise. First, swear you’ll take care of little Pearl, guard her with your life, boy. Then swear you won’t never tell where the money’s hid, not even your Mom.
John: Yes Dad.
Ben: Do you understand?
John: Not even her?
Ben: You got common sense. She ain’t. When you grow up, that money’ll belong to you. Now stand up straight, look me in the eye. Raise your right hand. Now swear, “I’ll guard Pearl with my life.”
John: I will guard Pearl with my life.
Ben: And I won’t never tell about the money.
John: And I won’t never tell about the money.

Seconds after he gravely recites his vow, John is suddenly a child again for one brief, awful moment—almost doubling over in agony.as his father is knocked to the ground and dragged away in handcuffs.

But then he sets out to keep his promise, against what turn out to be nightmarish odds.

After Ben is hanged, his former cellmate—a self-styled preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum)—follows the missing money straight to John’s front door, quickly courting and winning his gullible mother, Willa (Shelley Winters) and his trusting sister—but never John, who realizes he must now try to protect not only Pearl but Willa as well.

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nightofthehunter-51Normally you wouldn’t give much for the chances of an 11-year-old boy against a six-foot-one psychopath—or for the chances of a child actor against the outsize Mitchum, in his best (and favorite) role. But even as Mitchum looms over him, swallowing him in his shadow, Chapin holds his own, and the screen. He conveys the deep seriousness of a child forced to grow up, or at least try to, in a matter of minutes, but he’s still so vulnerable it hurts. He pulls you so hard into his terrifying world that even if you’ve seen the film before, you’re knotted up in fear every time you watch it.

At first, Powell tries to cajole the children into confiding in him about the hidden money. He’s so unnervingly persistent that even John—who’s developed more cunning than any child should have to—blurts out more than he ought:

John: You ain’t my Dad! You’ll never be my Dad!
Powell: When we get back, we’re all going to be friends and share our fortunes together, John.
John: (screaming) You think you can make me tell, but I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!

Horrified by the lapse in his defenses, he slaps his hand over his mouth to keep from revealing anything more. But it’s already too late: Powell now knows the money is somewhere in the house—and John knows where it is.

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At this point, the hapless Willa is dispensible to her husband. After she disappears under the water, her throat slit wide and her blonde hair swaying like sea grass, John and Pearl are at the preacher’s mercy. And he hasn’t any.

Powell convinces the neighbors that Willa ran off with another man, but John knows better. And when the preacher hauls them to the table for another grilling about the money, John, his jaw set firm, all but wills Pearl to keep her mouth shut. But when she’s badgered to the point of tears, he can’t bear it. Playing for time, he says the money is buried under a stone in the fruit cellar. Powell grabs a candle and marches them downstairs ahead of him—only to discover the floor is solid concrete. Enraged, he throws John across a barrel and holds a switchblade to his throat: “The liar is an abomination before thine eyes!”

Terrified for her brother, Pearl screams, “It’s in my doll, it’s in my doll!” The preacher rears back and laughs, “The doll—why sure, the last place anyone would think to look!” Seizing on the brief distraction, John snuffs out the candle and knocks a shelf of preserves onto Powell’s head. Then he grabs Pearl, who’s clutching her doll, and pulls her up the stairs and out into the night.

In one of the most terrifying odysseys ever set to film, they run for the river, where John hopes to get help from his friend Birdie, who doesn’t trust Powell either. But after stumbling across Willa’s body while fishing, he’s drunk himself into oblivion in the barge house. (Moral of the movie so far: grown-ups are either useless or lethal.) With the preacher in pursuit, John drags out his father’s old skiff, shoves it off the shore and sets out with Pearl for… anywhere, as long as it puts distance between them and their homicidal hunter. And just as he pushes off, Powell plunges into the river, knife raised, letting go an ungodly shriek as his prey flee to the safety of the open water.

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The river is their sanctuary, and for a few days they follow the currents, ever farther from what was once home, foraging or begging for food by the water’s edge and sleeping wherever they can, surrounded by nature both ominous and soothing. Some creatures are as vulnerable as they are, others are plotting a kill.

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Finally, exhausted and hoping to find a soft place for the restless Pearl to lay her head, John steers the boat to shore, toward an old barn with an open hayloft. But just as he’s about to set his bone-weary body down, he hears the preacher hymn-singin’ in the distance, as the horse he stole lopes lazily along; he can take his time, he’ll catch up with them eventually. And with a mix of horror and heartsick resignation, John half-whispers:

“Don’t he never sleep?”

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He quickly wakes his sister, bundles her back into the boat, and they return to the river. As the sun rises, their skiff drifts ashore, its young-but-old oarsman barely conscious and his sister fast asleep. They wake to see a wiry old woman hovering over them. “You two youngsters get up here to me this minute! Get on up to my house! Mind me now, I’ll get my switch!” Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) barks. She’s already got a house full of cast-off children, and now “two more mouths to feed.”

Pearl takes to her immediately, but the battleworn John is still wary, and who can blame him? Still, she’ll turn out to be his savior—no man is a match for a Gish with a gun—and when she dispatches the preacher—who comes to claim “his children”—to the state troopers, John can almost believe he’s home at last. At Christmas, with no money or gift to give, he wraps an apple in a lace doily and shyly hands it to Miss Cooper. “That’s the richest gift a body could have,” she tells him, and he beams back at her. Now John is not only safe, but knows he’s safe. At last he, and we, can breathe.

About 10 or so years ago, UCLA devoted a special evening to The Night of the Hunter, including a panel hosted by Preston Neal Jones, author of Heaven & Hell to Play With, an oral history of the film. During the Q&A that followed, an audience member asked if anyone knew where the extraordinary Billy Chapin had disappeared to. Turns out he was in the audience. When Jones pointed him out, he stood briefly, acknowledged the waves of applause, and quickly slid back into his seat while everyone else was still standing, eager to escape the gaze of the crowd, however much affection it held for him.

You can only wonder how Chapin felt that night, seeing the boy up there on the screen, brutally robbed of his youth and almost his life. Like John Harper, his childhood was short-circuited, though in somewhat less monstrous fashion. He’d been acting almost since the day he was born—that’s him as the baby girl in Casanova Brown—but made just one more film after The Night of the Hunter, then did some television and fled the business at 15. Scant information is available after that, other than hints at a “troubled”life. He never talked publicly about his work, and in the acknowledgements for his book, Jones said Chapin “gave the project his blessing, although for personal reasons he was unable to participate.”

I hope when he returned home from UCLA that night, in the stillness of his solitude, he was able to realize how much he meant to people. And I wish, like John Harper, he could have found safe harbor. We all need a Miss Cooper. I wish, somewhere in this cold world, Billy Chapin had found his.

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Billy’s real-life little sister, former child actress Lauren Chapin, has started a Go Fund Me campaign with the modest goal of $2,000, to pay for his memorial. If his performance in The Night of the Hunter is seared on your heart as well, or his splendid work in other films has moved you, now is your chance to give something back to him. Please consider donating if you have the means; to learn more, please click here for details.