Posted on 85 Comments

Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon Has Arrived!

Happy Birthday, Audrey Hepburn!

This extraordinary woman was born 90 years ago today, and to celebrate, we’re launching Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon! A heartfelt thank-you to all the writers helping us explore so many aspects of her amazing life.

hepburn-blogathon-11

hepburn-1And we’re so honored to welcome a very special guest —Audrey’s son, Luca Dotti, author of the New York Times bestsellers Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen and Audrey in Rome. “I’m touched and delighted that so many writers are celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday,” he told us. “I look forward to reading the variety of topics on her films and her life which are covered here.” Luca also wrote the moving and insightful foreword to Robert Matzen’s brand-new book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in World War II, an incredible story beautifully told—which will leave you even more in awe of Audrey.

Three lucky participants will win a copy! On May 8, we’ll draw the names and notify the winners.

dutchgirl-1

I’ll be writing about this fascinating book, and the author will be sharing his thoughts on what it was like to spend so much time “with” Audrey, compared with his other stellar subjects, including James Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn and Carole Lombard.

So without further ado, let’s get this party started! 

The event runs from May 4 to May 7, so be sure to check back often for the latest entries as we add live links. And if you’re participating, just grab one of the banners at the bottom and link back to the blogathon in your article.

hepburn-blogathon-5

Here’s the list of topics:

Sister Celluloid: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII
Robert Matzen: Spending time “with” Audrey as a subject, compared with other stars
Moon in Gemini: The Nun’s Story
Poppity Talks Classic Film: The Unforgiven
Diary of a Movie Maniac: Bloodline and Love Among Thieves
The Story Enthusiast: Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto
Caftan Woman: Charade
Realweegiemidget Reviews: Robin and Marian
Three Enchanting Ladies: Funny Face
The Stop Button: Secret People
Love Letters to Old Hollywood: Love in the Afternoon
The Midnite Drive-In: The Children’s Hour
MovieMovieBlogBlog: My Fair Lady
Popcorn and Flickers: How Audrey Met Givenchy
Stars and Letters: Cher’s Letter to Audrey
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films: A Salute to Audrey
Thoughts All Sorts: Roman Holiday
The Pale Writer: Audrey’s early career and How to Steal a Million
Champagne for Lunch: The Nun’s Story and Robin and Marian
Critica Retro: Paris When It Sizzles
Cinematic Scribblings: Two for the Road

hepburn-blogathon-banner-1

hepburn-blogathon-banner-4

hepburn-blogathon-banner-2

 

Posted on 16 Comments

The Ever-Infuriating Oscar Memorial Reel: Who Got Snubbed In 2019?

I used to slog through the bloated Oscar show every year just to see the honorary awards for Lifetime Achievement, which were grudgingly doled out to classic stars and directors the Academy had criminally ignored throughout their careers. But then a few years ago, they banished them to a smaller event that’s not even televised. (“You’re being honored for decades of brilliant work? Hey, we’ll be sure to post a link on YouTube!”) Then this year, they planned to squeeze the Cinematography, Editing, Live-Action Shorts and Makeup/Hairstyling awards into commercial breaks. (They claimed they were “forced to,” but somehow when folks like Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron blasted them for it, they backed down. So “forced to” was really more like “try to get away with.”)

If they shaft living Academy members this shamelessly, God help those who are gone. Which brings us to our annual list of snubs from the Oscar memorial reel.

As usual, they somehow found time to get several publicists in there, and who among us doesn’t count their press releases among our favorite film moments. But they left out Stanley Donen. I actually had to rewind the whole thing to make sure that was true. How long would it have taken to make a last-minute addition for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar winner?!?

Just as a palate cleanser, to get that awful taste out of your mouth, here he is accepting his award in 1998, and throwing in a little soft shoe:

Also snubbed were actors Verne Troyer, Ricky Jay, R. Lee Ermey, David Ogden Stiers, Charlotte Rae, Hugh Dane, Scott Wilson, Dick Miller, Jo Andres, Anthony Vajna, Eunice Gayson, Philip Bosco, Michele Carey, Peter Donat, Douglas Rain, Louise Latham, Dolores Taylor, Sondra Locke, Bob Einstein, Pamela Gidley, Harry Anderson, Liliane Montevecchi, Vanessa Marquez, Ken Berry, Bibi Ferreira, Carmen Argenziano, Joe Sirola, Nita Bieber, Kristoff St. John, Clive Swift, Louisa Moritz, Kevin Barnett, Verna Bloom, Robert Mandan and Louis Zorich; writers Harlan Ellison and Christopher Knopf; producers Arnold Kopelson, Meg Randall, Alan Johnson, Gary Kurtz and Philip D’Antoni (who produced Bullitt and won an Oscar for The French Connection); directors Stan Dragoti, Michael Anderson, Vijaya Bapineedu, Larry Brand and Lewis Gilbert; composer Arthur B. Rubinstein; stuntman Jimmy Nickerson; and designer Hubert de Givenchy.

Classic film always seems to get slammed especially hard in the memorial reel, which gets more painful as there are ever-fewer artists left to honor. Left out along with Donen were Donald Moffat, Allyn Ann McLerie, Mary Carlisle (still an active supporter of classic film when she was over 100), Connie Sawyer (whose career spanned ten decades), William Phipps, Tom Reese, Dewey Martin, Jean Porter, Liz Fraser, Jerry Maren, Carol Channing, Kaye Ballard, Chuck McCann, Julie Adams, Joseph Campanella, Patricia Morison, Clint Walker, Rose Marie, and Charles Aznavour. And Gloria Jean and Susan Miller, who, 77 years after co-starring in W.C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, died five days apart.

Whenever they’re called out on their slights (even overlooking Oscar winners), the Academy’s stock responses are: the show is so very short on time (while still managing to fit in lame bits, canned banter, and endless commercials), and there’s a longer list on the website. But all that does is set up a creepy A-list/B-list for dead people. (Does this never end in Hollywood?) It’s gotten to the point where pre-show lobbying campaigns have become a sad annual ritual.

I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as they keep dissing people, we’ll keep trying to honor them here. And the ones we miss, please point out in comments so we can add them (the timeframe is from last year’s March 4 telecast to tonight’s show).

Godspeed and heartfelt thanks to all of them—from the little people out here in the dark…

Posted on 2 Comments

TINTYPE TUESDAY: TCM Brings THE WIZARD OF OZ Back to Theaters!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY! This week, we’re off to see The Wizard of Oz on the big screen, courtesy of TCM and Fathom Events. For tickets, just click here!

But before heading out, let’s take a peek at what was really going on behind the curtain. The Kansas tornado was nothing compared to the blizzard of cast and script changes—not to mention the many mishaps, including a couple of near-fatalities. Even Toto didn’t escape unscathed…

Dorothy: Both MGM unit head Arthur Freed and music maven Roger Edens fought for Judy Garland, but Louis B. Mayer—who often derided the painfully insecure teenager as “my little hunchback”—pressured producer Mervyn LeRoy to do whatever it took to land Shirley Temple for the lead. Fortunately, all attempts to get 20th Century Fox to loan out the wildly popular moppet went nowhere. (However, the long-standing rumor that MGM offered to swap the services of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for Temple is false; Harlow succumbed to renal failure in June 1937, before MGM even had the rights to the book.) Deanna Durbin, whom Mayer openly preferred to Garland, was also considered—but because the film initially had a sub-plot involving Betty Jaynes, another operatic singer, she was dropped from the running. So Mayer had to “settle” for Judy.  (Oh and her ruby slippers were originally silver, as they were in the book. But in the age of Technicolor, red won out.)

The Scarecrow: Buddy Ebsen was the first loose-limbed, lanky dancer to step into the role, which would have worked out much better for him, as we’ll soon see… but Ray Bolger ultimately carried the day (and the hay). He also carried lines on his face from the rubber prosthetics for more than a year after filming ended. For that kind of grief, you’d think they’d have left his original dance number—longer, trippier, and choreographed by none other than Busby Berkeley—in the film:

The Tin Man: Much to his disappointment, Bolger was first cast in this clunkier role. If he’d only had the heart… but he longed to be the Scarecrow, the part he’d seen his childhood hero, Fred Stone, play in the 1902 Broadway show—which is what inspired him to hit the boards in the first place. “I’m not a tin performer—I’m fluid!” he reportedly pleaded to LeRoy, who finally caved in, allowing Bolger and Ebsen to swap roles. Ebsen was an absolute peach about the whole thing, even teaching Bolger the “wobbly walk” he’d perfected in rehearsals. But no good deed goes unpunished, and this one almost killed him: after about a week of breathing in the toxic aluminum powder that covered his “tin” face, Ebsen was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. (At first, Mayer—who assumed other people’s morals were as low as his own—thought the actor was faking an illness as some sort of contract ploy. So he dispatched his minions to the hospital—where they found Ebsen strapped into an iron lung.)

sis-wizardofoz-11 sis-wizardofoz-17

When Jack Haley, on loan from Fox, arrived to replace him, the make-up artists were much more careful: they protected his face with a thick layer of white greasepaint and diluted the aluminum powder into a paste. (Oh, and they never told him why his predecessor left the film—on a stretcher.) Ebsen didn’t vanish entirely, though: his voice can still be heard in the group vocals, as there was no time to re-record them.

And given all the gruesome drama surrounding the Tin Man, perhaps it’s appropriate that they used chocolate syrup to produce his tears—a technique later used by Hitchcock for the blood circling the drain in Psycho.

The Cowardly Lion: Bert Lahr’s costume was made of actual lion pelts—and weighed almost 100 pounds. The valiant wardrobe team did their best to rinse the sweat out of the sopping-wet suit at the end of each day, but, in the words of one unlucky staffer, “it reeked.”

The Wicked Witch of the West: Initially, the witch was fashioned along the glamorous lines of the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When she morphed into something decidedly more hag-like—including green skin, a long, pointy nose and a wart or ten—Gale Sondergaard, MGM’s original choice, pointed her pumps toward the exit. Margaret Hamilton was cast just three days before shooting began. Told by her agent she was up for a part in the film, she asked which one. “The wicked witch—what else?” he helpfully replied. (That 10% they get? It ain’t for morale-boosting!)

sis-wizardofoz-13 sis-wizardofoz-12

She didn’t get much more respect after she signed on: her dressing room was a makeshift canvas tent, while Billie Burke had a hideaway that MGM dreams are made of. “She had a pink and blue dressing room, with pink and blue powder puffs and pink and blue bottles filled with powder and baby oil—and pink and blue peppermints,” Hamilton later recalled, admitting that she sometimes popped in for a nap on the glamorous Glinda’s days off.

And God knows she needed the rest, as she proved to be the second casualty on the set: In the scene where she seems to disappear in a cloud of fire and smoke, she very nearly did. At the last minute, a moving platform was supposed to lower her out of harm’s way, but her cape got snagged and she was trapped amid the flames—which fed on the greasepaint and copper makeup slathered on her face, arms and hands. Before she could be pulled free, the fire had seared into her skin, leaving her with second- and third-degree burns. Wise woman that she was, she later refused to do a post-production pick-up scene that involved a flaming broomstick. So they had to make do with maiming her stand-in: the smoke mechanism exploded, burning and permanently scarring Betty Danko’s legs.

The Wizard of Oz: After Ed Wynn refused the part because it wasn’t big enough, MGM turned to W.C. Fields, who thought the paycheck wasn’t big enough. During a few protracted rounds of haggling—they offered $75,000, he wanted $100,000—the producers burned while Fields fiddled. They finally gave out and offered the role to Frank Morgan.

Oh and here’s a story you might have to close your eyes and click your heels together to believe, but some swear it’s true, and if it isn’t (which is probably the case), it should be: When wardrobe staffers went scavenging through second-hand stores to find the perfect tattered coat for Morgan, they returned with an armload of samples for Victor Fleming to choose from. He settled on one he thought conveyed just the right touch of “shabby gentility”—and, idly turning out the pockets, found a label with L. Frank Baum’s name on it. An MGM publicist reportedly contacted the tailor and Baum’s widow, who confirmed it was his (he did live in L.A. for a time), and the studio presented her with the coat at filming’s end.

sis-wizardofoz-19 sis-wizardofoz-20

Toto:  Shirley Temple may never have made it to Oz, but she did meet Toto five years before Garland did. Terry the terrier appeared in 16 films, including Temple’s Bright Eyes, as well as Fury, The Women and George Washington Slept Here. In Tortilla Flat, she re-teamed with Morgan and Fleming, and in Twin Beds, she reunited with Hamilton. Her $125 weekly salary for Oz was more than double than that of the Munchkins, who each earned $50 a week. And as it turned out, Terry should have gotten combat pay: one of the Wicked Witch’s heavy-heeled henchmen stepped on her tiny paw and broke it, sidelining her for several weeks. After filming, Garland, who’d fallen in love with the dog, wanted to adopt her, but the owner wouldn’t… surrender Terry.

All of which bring us to the director. Or directors. Richard Thorpe, whose previous work consisted mainly of quickie westerns, was first at the helm, but LeRoy felt he was shooting the film more like a low-budget oater than a lavish fantasy, rushing scenes along and not giving the production the care it deserved.

While he searched for a replacement, LeRoy left the project in the tender hands of George Cukor—who, in his brief stint as caretaker, made some critical changes. First, he ditched Garland’s blonde wig and heavy glamour-girl makeup, which made her look ridiculous and feel worse.

sis-wizardofoz-15 sis-wizardofoz-14

He also told Garland to relax and simply be herself—a lovely, vulnerable teenage girl—which was just what the part called for. Then he did something less crucial but pretty fabulous: he brought in Adrian to design the Wicked Witch’s costume. Which, if you peer beyond the black-on-black, is a real work of art, with its lace bodice, cut-out mutton sleeves, and pouch dangling fetchingly from the hip. To her pointy hat, Adrian added a long, silky-sheer scarf that floats menacingly behind her, like an ill wind.

sis-wizardofoz-2 sis-wizardofoz-1

Cukor was never meant to stay on when production began in earnest; he was due over at Gone with the Wind. Victor Fleming took the reins in October 1938, and oversaw everything but the sepia-tone scenes (including the Over the Rainbow number) that book-end Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. But the following February, he was called away suddenly… to direct Gone with the Wind after Cukor was fired. Fleming’s close friend King Vidor came aboard to gently shepherd the crucial Kansas scenes through to completion, but never publicly acknowledged his involvement until after Fleming’s death in 1949.

sis-wizardofoz-22

And as if Fleming didn’t have enough on his mind during the shoot, he also had to protect Garland from her scenery-chewing companions on the Yellow Brick Road, seasoned old vaudeville pros who were none too excited about surrendering the spotlight to her (as she laughingly recalls in a clip from The Jack Paar Show, below). Ironically, her only close friend on the set was Hamilton, a former kindergarten teacher who gave her some much-needed mothering.

Whew! There’s enough material behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz for a whole other movie… but in the meantime, enjoy seeing the original again on the big screen!

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a weekly feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

Posted on 9 Comments

The Oscar In Memoriam Reel: Who Got Snubbed This Year?

Another year, another botched attempt by the Academy to honor its own.

For a lot of movie lovers—classic-film fans especially—Oscar’s memorial-reel slights have become a cringe-inducing annual tradition. I don’t know if Bette Davis really did name the statuette Oscar because his backside resembled her husband’s. But when it comes to honoring those who’ve given so much to the movies, Oscar certainly makes an ass of itself.

The usual excuse for the snubs is that it’s a time issue: they simply can’t fit everyone we lost in the past year into a brief little montage. But here’s the thing: They’re the ones who decide to set aside so little time to honor people who’ve devoted their whole lives to their craft.

The producers could easily have cut out a production number (another lame bit where “real people” mingle with actors?), shorten the canned banter at the podium, or even—dare I say it?—eliminate a few commercials (“Walmart-inspired” movies? Really?). But they chose not to. So please, this year, spare us the “if only we had the time” lamentations, which are about as genuine as Eve Harrington’s humble acceptance speech at the Sarah Siddons Awards.

Still, somehow, no matter how pressed for time they are, they always manage to squeeze in a few agents or publicists. Cuz that’s what we tune in for, right? (“Honey, I’d be happy to get up and make you a drink, but I think they’re gonna show that guy from Rogers & Cowan!”)

The Academy has a much longer memorial slide show on its website, which includes all those who didn’t make the cut for the broadcast. But when the Hollywood A list/B list crap carries over to dead people, it’s frankly kinda creepy.

That said, here’s the list of oversights I noticed, including some glaring ones from classic film. Not all of these folks were primarily in film, but they all made a mark there. And even excluding the part-timers, the list of omissions is long:

Oscar winner Dorothy Malone, Dina Merrill, Bradford Dillman, Connie Sawyer (who had pretty much the longest career in film history), Nanette Fabray, John Gavin, Michèle Morgan, Heather Menzies-Urich, Stephen Furst, Juanita Quigley, Ty Hardin, Suzanna Leigh, Della Reese, Robert Guillaume, Jay Thomas, Glen Campbell, Michael Nyqvist, Adam West, Powers Boothe, Darlene Cates, Lola Albright, Jim Nabors, Leonard Landy, Anne Wiazemsky, Gastone Moschin, Elena Verdugo, Roy Dotrice, Michael Parks, Wendell Burton, Curt Lowens, Lorna Gray, Frank Vincent, Aleksey Batalov, Louis Zorich, Jean Rochefort, Daliah Lavi, Richard Anderson, Don Gordon, Anne Jeffreys, Robert Hardy, Clifton James, Federico Luppi, John Hillerman, Mireille Darc, Red West, Ann Wedgworth, Elsa Martinelli, Peter Sallis, David Ogden Stiers, Emma Chambers, John Mahoney, Reg Cathey, Jerry Van Dyke, Jean Porter, Marty Allen, Lassie Lou Ahern, Donnelly Rhodes, Rose Marie, directors Bruce Brown and Tobe Hooper, composer Dominic Frontiere, and choreographer Danny Daniels.

One bright spot: Eddie Vedder did a beautiful job with Room at the Top, fittingly a song by Tom Petty, who also deserved a place in the memorial reel. He wrote the soundtrack to She’s the One (featuring the much-covered Walls), and his music set the mood for so many films, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jerry Maguire and Silence of the Lambs. (Jonathan Demme had sweet, unsuspecting Brooke Smith bop along in the car to American Girl as a kind of emotional shortcut; he wanted the audience to instantly like her.)

Please add in Comments anyone else who was overlooked (and remember, in this case, the “year” runs between the last Oscar broadcast on February 26, 2017 and today); let’s make sure they’re all honored somewhere, even if just in our little film family.

Posted on 1 Comment

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.

feud-17

“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.”

feud-63

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.'”

feud-35

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.

Posted on 7 Comments

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.

 

Posted on 13 Comments

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.

nightofthehunter-54

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.

nightofthehunter-62

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.

nightofthehunter-29

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.

nightofthehunter-37

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?”

nightofthehunter-23

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.

nightofthehunter-31

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.

Posted on 6 Comments

MoMA Presents “Leo McCarey: Seriously Funny,” Covering the Undersung Director from the Silents Onward

“I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds, I like a little bit of the fairy tale. As long as I’m there behind the camera lens, I’ll let somebody else photograph the ugliness of the world.”
—Leo McCarey

If you’re anywhere near New York this month, prepare to walk in the clouds. On July 15, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) launches “Leo McCarey: Seriously Funny,” a retrospective that runs from his roots at Hal Roach Studios to near the end of his storied career.

sis-mccarey-5

“My entry drug to movies was Laurel and Hardy, so I always responded to McCarey’s work,” said MoMA assistant curator Dave Kehr, who pulled the series together with film historian Steve Massa. “His heart, the wonderful slowness of gag development, and the sense of what a complete worldview the man had—starting out with a couple, then widening to community, then country, then world, then God.”

The son of a fight promoter, McCarey took a few turns in the ring himself before settling down to study the law. But after making it all the way through USC law school, he came to his senses. Unable to resist the call of the industry bubbling up all around him in Los Angeles, he signed on as Tod Browning’s assistant in 1919, and joined Roach as a gagman a few years later—after keeping him in stitches during an early-morning game of handball.

McCarey eventually rose to head of production, promoting a distinctly humanist, story-driven style of comedy. Even his most outrageous movies have a certain logic to them—it’s like a game of Mouse Trap, where the boot innocently tips the ball… setting everything else into crazy motion. McCarey’s vision meshed nicely with actors like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—whom he paired for the first time—as well as then-cameraman George Stevens, who fought so hard against mindless slapstick that Roach eventually fired him.

“I have a theory—the ineluctability of incidents,” McCarey once explained. “If something happens, some other thing inevitably flows from it. Like night and day follow each other, events are linked together, and I always develop my story in this way, in a series of incidents, of events which succeed each other and provoke each other. I never really have intrigue.”

With the dawn of sound, McCarey moved into features, turning out classics like Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap. But true to his roots in the silents—where scenes were mostly roughed out and then filled in on the fly—his films retained a certain seat-of-the-pants quality. If his characters often seem to be making things up as they go along, perhaps it’s because the director—who often doubled as the writer—did just that.

“I think probably seventy-five per cent of each day’s shooting was made up on the set by Leo,” Bing Crosby recalled of Going My Way.  A sometime songwriter, McCarey would dream up scenes and bits of business as he noodled away on the piano. While it occasionally drove the crew crazy, it gave his films a lively spontaneity often missing from more formulaic fare.

“There was a lot of improvisation, and trust, between McCarey and his actors,” said Kehr. Even studio executives took his freewheeling style on faith, as seen in this extraordinary inter-office memo from RKO’s Milton Howe in 1948. It’s hard to imagine a studio giving a director this kind of leeway today:

sis-mccarey-22

In 1937, McCarey’s string of hits was broken in dramatic fashion with what is now considered one of his finest films,  Make Way For Tomorrow, the story of an elderly couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) who lose their home during the Great Depression.

And here’s a spoiler alert/public service: the relentlessly depressing film ends with none of the five no-good-bastard children rescuing their parents—forcing them to spend their final years apart. It’s a great film, but best viewed with a fistful of Zoloft. (TCM once aired it on Christmas Eve. No really. “Gee, Dad, thanks for the tie! And hey, Aunt Sue, that was some great pumpkin pie! Now let’s all hang ourselves!”)

Make Way for Tomorrow got him fired from Paramount,” noted Kehr. “He went long, and the marketing department had no idea how to sell this incredibly sad movie.

“Every great artist has that moment where they have to contemplate, ‘What if everything I believe is wrong?” he added. “For McCarey it was, ‘What if there is no protection in family and community, and what if God isn’t there?'”

After his ouster, McCarey bounced back with a vengeance, winning an Oscar for his first outing with Columbia, the screwball classic The Awful Truth. But when he accepted the award, he still had Make Way for Tomorrow on his mind—saying he’d won for the wrong movie.

“He pretty much invented the situation comedy with The Awful Truth,” said Kehr. And he semi-invented Cary Grant—who fine-tuned the comic persona that would serve him for the rest of his career by mimicking some of the director’s expressions and even his speech patterns.

And despite his deep Catholic faith, McCarey never shied away from good old-fashioned lust. “Attraction is the initial driver and then it deepens from there, but sex is still always important,” noted Kehr. Take the final scene of The Awful Truth: sure, after talking things over, Jerry (Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) could get a good night’s sleep and rekindle their romance at a later date, when all the legal issues have resolved themselves—but why not fling open that stubborn door, banish the pesky cat and do it right now?

McCarey followed up with another of the most grown-up romances ever set to film: the pitch-perfect Love Affair, which both Dunne and Charles Boyer called the highlight of their Hollywood careers.

During the 1940s, McCarey’s two best films brought his faith front and center. In Going My Way, the charismatic young Father O’Malley (Crosby) Toora-Loora-Looras his way into the good graces of the older, more traditional Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and into the hearts of pretty much everyone: 1944’s highest-grossing film snagged seven Oscars, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture—and McCarey’s share of the profits gave him the highest reported income in the country that year. Crosby reprised his role for The Bells of St. Mary’s, where he matched wills with the gentle, luminous Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict. (And if you don’t cry at the end, please don’t even speak to me.)

The MoMA series kicks off with a bang—or maybe a smoosh: an evening of silents accompanied by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Topping the bill is Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century—once thought to be lost but for a few fragments, but discovered last year almost in its entirety and lovingly restored by Serge Bromberg. Directed by Clyde Bruckman and supervised by McCarey—with Stevens behind the camera—the two-reeler features the mother of all pie fights, with more than 3,000 creamy confections flung before the soggy credits roll.

sis-mccarey-1
Pie fights had already become a slapstick cliché—Buster Keaton forbade them in his films—but The Battle of the Century was something epic. This was pie nihilism. (Pie-hilism?) And typical of Laurel and Hardy, as well as McCarey and Stevens, it was somehow rooted in realism.

“It wasn’t just that we threw hundreds of pies,” Laurel once recalled. “That wouldn’t have been very funny… We went at it, strange as it may sound, psychologically. We made every one of the pies count. A well-dressed man strolling casually down the avenue, struck squarely in the face by a large pastry, would not proceed at once to gnash his teeth, wave his arms in the air and leap up and down. His first reaction… would be of numb disbelief, then embarrassment and a quick survey of the damage done to his person. Then indignation and a desire for revenge would possess him. If he saw another pie at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it up and let it fly.”

Before disappearing for decades, the film became a favorite of John Ford, Harold Lloyd and James Agee. Even Henry Miller was moved to marvel, “There was nothing but pie throwing in it, nothing but pies, thousands and thousands of pies and everybody throwing them right and left.”  Rounding out the opening-night bill are the silent shorts Mighty Like a Moose starring Charley Chase, Should Men Walk Home? with Mabel Normand, and Putting Pants on Philip, which marked Laurel and Hardy’s first official pairing. (That one and The Battle of the Century also feature a baby-faced Eugene Pallette, before sound films let his frog flag fly.) The next day, film composer and historian Ben Model steps in to do the musical honors for the same program.
The series also includes a second program of Laurel and Hardy; another featuring McCarey’s last four films at Roach; and two bills showcasing the comedies of Max Davidson and Chase, who was a mentor to the director.

 

Feature films include favorites such as Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful TruthThe Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, Love Affair and that rarest of all birds, its successful remake, An Affair to Remember. But MoMA also tosses in a few off-speed pitches, such as Let’s Go Native, with fashion designer Jeanette MacDonald and cab driver Jack Oakie stranded on a tropical isle with the entire cast of a Broadway musical (oh, that old chestnut), and Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys, McCarey’s penultimate film, where Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward find their quiet suburban lives upended by the arrival of an army missile base. And in a gorgeous restoration from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the director returns to his boxing roots and teams with fellow Roach graduate Lloyd for The Milky Way.

Also airing is the Library of Congress’s new scan of the rarely seen 130-minute cut of Good Sam, which differs quite a bit from the 112-minute version in wider circulation. But Gary Cooper’s saintliness and wife Ann Sheridan’s exasperation are still pushed to their limits as every freeloader in town takes advantage of his kindness and generosity—giving the film a bit of a subversive “no good deed unpunished” edge.

sis-mccarey-23

Good Sam is another great portrait of marriage,” said Kehr. “With the brother and the kids and the house falling apart, they’re trying to get one night together. The unmistakable desire they have for each other, it’s not very 1948.”

But it’s very McCarey. Other directors may serve up more self-important film school fodder, but his unpretentious, deeply personal movies are the ones you live with. Is there anyone who’s seen The Awful Truth or The Bells of St. Mary’s just once?

“He had an amazing ability to communicate emotion, which is what other artists like Renoir admired about him,” Kehr said. “But it seems as if everything he represents has vanished from contemporary film.” For 17 glorious days this month, MoMA’s bringing it all back.

“I love when people laugh, I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in,”McCarey once said. “It’s larceny to remind people of how lousy things are and call it entertainment.”

(For the complete series schedule click here.)

Posted on 4 Comments

THE NITRATE PICTURE SHOW: When the Screen Glistened with Real Silver

There’s a reason they call it the Silver Screen.

In the early days, reels of nitrate film contained actual silver. Most of these precious spools were melted down by studios for their metal content or neglected until they turned to dust, liquefied or burned in warehouse fires.

But not all are lost—and earlier this month, the passionate film-preservation team at the George Eastman Museum painstakingly culled prints from archives around the world for the second Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester, New York.

Sneaking away for a brief weekend, I rode past the sprawling old mansions on East Avenue, slid into my seat at the Dryden Theater, and slipped into silvery heaven. Suddenly I was no longer covering classic movies—I was actually back there, when they were new.

And gorgeous.

This year’s offerings included Otto Preminger’s Laura, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, George Sidney’s Annie Get Your Gun, the Library of Congress’s print of Powell-Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann, Martin Scorsese’s personal copy of David Lean’s Blithe Spirit

…and Jean Negulesco’s noir classic, Road House. Because waking up to Richard Widmark at 10:00 on Sunday morning is my idea of church. Even if he is vaguely homicidal. In this typically stunning nitrate print, when he was lurking in the background as Ida Lupino purred her smoky vocals, he actually was in the background, so multi-layered and deep were the images.

The final film of the weekend—the Blind Date with Nitrate, not revealed until it appeared onscreen—was Edwin Carewe’s 1928 version of Ramona , starring Dolores del Rio as the put-upon heroine and Warner Baxter as the head of a Native American sheep shearing team. (I kept waiting for him to say, “You’re going to go out there a lowly sheep shearer, but you’ve got to come back a star!”) Del Rio was at her most luminous, and the print reflected the kind of yeoman’s effort the Eastman staff puts into tracking down films: it was a German copy of an American movie unearthed from a Russian archive, where it had resided since Soviet film scholar Georgii Avenarius brought it home as a “trophy” after World War II.

sis-nitratepictureshow-12

Before I headed home, projectionist Ben Tucker gave me a tour of the booth, which is clearly his second home. The closed-head projectors—which keep the film safely tucked inside—were installed when the theatre opened in 1951; valves and shutters protect the highly flammable nitrate reels from the hot beams of light that could ignite them if they stop rolling for even a second. “If the film so much as slows down, I have to flip a dowel to cut off the heat source,” Tucker said, shuddering at the prospect.

That love of film and the deep desire to protect it ran through the whole weekend like a gentle but constantly humming current. This may be the most civilized film festival I’ve ever attended—but not in a raised-pinky sort of way. There was no pushing, no shoving, no “look at me” types, no rushing around. It was like wandering into a big old house on a hill after a long journey, and discovering hundreds of people from all over the world who are of like mind and heart. You may never have been here before, but you’re home.

And no one is trying to sell you anything—though the museum does have a gift shop full of film fare at much-too-tempting prices. (When I teased her about the store being dangerous, the checkout woman said, “I know! I think the only reason they keep me on staff is because I buy so much!”)

The one troubling aspect of the whole festival? There’s no “Annual” in its name. It’s like falling in love on a first date and then agonizing over whether he’s going to call you again.

But mercifully, they’ve already announced that the third Nitrate Picture Show will be held next year on May 5th through 7th.

See you there.

Posted on 1 Comment

MOMA Launches a Spectacular Series: Universal Restorations & Rediscoveries, 1928-1937

Friday the 13th just got lucky.

That’s when the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) kicks off its fabulous series, “Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928-1937,” which runs from May 13 through June 15.

sis-universal-12

With several gorgeous prints newly struck by the studio, “this seemed a good opportunity to look at the Carl Laemmle Jr. years—which are greatly undervalued—and show how really audacious they were,” said MOMA’s adjunct film curator Dave Kehr, who pulled the program together. “He was very conscious of trying to create art, of doing something unique. He bought truly daring properties and was willing to take the kind of chances a lot of other studios weren’t.”

Derisively known as Junior—the running joke was “The son also rises”—Leammle was widely written off as merely the beneficiary of his father’s notorious nepotism. (Ogden Nash dryly observed, “Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle.”)

But Junior had a vision—and a plan to see it through. “He cut the number of movies Universal produced by 40% and started focusing on pretty spectacular films he thought would enhance the image of the studio,” Kehr noted.

universal

“In a way, he was reacting against Irving Thalberg, who’d once worked for his father and went on to create almost a production line at MGM, with a strict formula and brand,” he added. “So, for example, where Thalberg fired Erich von Stroheim and drastically cut Greed to ribbons, Junior hired avant garde directors who were considered even crazier, like Paul Fejos—who, before he made the classic Lonesome, had only made one obscure feature, in Budapest.”

Other European émigrés who found a home at Universal—as well as the freedom to spread their wings and hone their own styles—included William Wyler, a distant Laemmle cousin himself, whose A House Divided and The Good Fairy are featured in the series, and John Stahl, whose Only Yesterday—the first film adaptation of Letter from an Unknown Woman—will be shown, along with the popular Back Street and the sophisticated soaper Seed. James Whale has five films in the program, including the lush and mesmerizing The Kiss Before the Mirror and the restoration of a longer version of The Road Back—which Charles Rodgers, who replaced Junior, slashed in an effort to appease the Third Reich and retain the German film market. (Much more on the new print in a future article.)

American directors were also free to let their film flags fly—including John Ford, whose Air Mail will be screened in the series; the wildly energetic Tay Garnett, on tap with Okay, America; and the darkly brilliant Edward L. Cahn, who’ll weigh in with three films, among them his newly rediscovered masterwork, Laughter in Hell.

So much energy crackled through Junior’s brief reign—such a sense of wonder and adventure, of discovering everything movies could do and say and be—that his story deserved a fairy-tale Hollywood ending. But it got a depressingly real one: in 1936, when cost overruns on Whale’s Showboat forced Universal into the grubby hands of its creditors, the Laemmles were drummed out of the studio Carl Sr. had founded in 1912.

With this sensational series, MOMA has added an uplifting coda to the story. It’s hard to pick highlights from a program that reads like one long highlight reel, but here goes:

  • The series opens with a dazzling new two-color Technicolor print of John Murray Anderson’s King of Jazz, the first time the full-length version will be seen in over 75 years. (And to give you some idea of Junior’s breadth of taste and style, he produced this film the same year he made All Quiet on the Western Front.) Ironically, the big production number is Rhapsody in Blue—and blue was the one hue Technicolor couldn’t capture. “They played around with it a lot and finally got a sort of gray-green—but if you squint, it looks blue,” laughed Kehr. “But more importantly, the production values are absolutely spectacular.”
  • A major new restoration of Fejos’s Broadway, featuring the long-lost Technicolor finale. The film’s million-dollar budget shows up in every shot, as the world’s largest camera crane wends its way through the uber-Deco sets. This is another visual feast from start to finish—and don’t be surprised if your surroundings seem unbearably drab when you get home.
  • I love James Whale with the fire of a thousand suns, so I’ll be there for all five of his films—The Road Back and Showboat,  of course, as well as Remember Last Night?, The Kiss Before the Mirror and By Candlelight. Among them, they offer a good sampling of his strengths: long, languid tracking shots that loom in for a more intimate view, effortless sophistication, a deep humanity, and an unabashed but grown-up romanticism. The former set designer was also stylistically adventurous; when he decks out a  drawing room, you want to move in. That’s especially true in the dark and sumptuous The Kiss Before the Mirror, which opens with a long, winding shot of Walter Pidgeon’s flat as he prepares for a tryst with Gloria Stuart. Walter’s never been my idea of a dream date, but I’d have an affair with him just for that apartment. The other two lesser-known titles—Remember Last Night? with a baby-faced Robert Young and By Candlelight, starring Paul Lukas as a somewhat oily leading man—are luscious confections deserving of more attention.
  • Three dark, edgy dramas from Cahn: A brand-new print of Law and Order, a gangster film disguised as a western starring Walter Huston and co-written by his son John; Afraid to Talkperhaps the most cynical crime drama of the era, where pretty much the whole town’s on the take including the district attorney; and Laughter in Hell, which opens with Pat O’Brien killing his wife and her lover and careens downhill from there. “It’s very much along the lines of La Bete Humaine,” said Kehr. “They cut the last reel because it was too much. It was so grim it pretty much ended Cahn’s career. He wound up directing the Little Rascals.”
  • A House Divided. Wyler, who started at Universal as a messenger in 1923, was already a potent creative force just eight years later. Part Ibsen and part Freud with a heavy dose of Oedipus thrown in for good measure, the film stars Walter Huston as a brutal fisherman, Kent Douglass as his (what else?) sensitive son, and the fragile and luminous Helen Chandler as Huston’s mail-order bride (whom he sends for roughly 15 minutes after losing his wife). If you know Wyler mostly from his later, lusher work, this stark drama might surprise you. “Wyler was a better director before he met Sam Goldwyn,” mused Kehr. Well, certainly a grittier one: the film starts out bleak and literally descends from there, following Huston’s character to the floor when he’s laid low with a grievous injury.
  • The Good Fairy. Wyler directed the studio’s biggest non-horror star, Margaret Sullavan, in Preston Sturges’s adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s bonbon about a woman who invents a husband to protect herself from her predatory millionaire (Frank Morgan)—only to meet a struggling barrister with the same name (Herbert Marshall). This is Marshall at the height of his champagne sparkle, before he was relegated to stuffier roles. But in real life, Wyler got the girl, marrying Sullavan during the shoot.
  • There’s Always Tomorrow. Later remade with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, this early version stars Frank Morgan as a middle-aged, neglected executive and Binnie Barnes as a former employee who’s always been in love with him. “By the early thirties, Morgan was already starting to age out of leading man roles, but he had that brief period…” said Kehr, his voice drifting off. “And he’s just incredible in this.”
  • The Last Warning. German director Paul Leni helped set the style for Universal’s classic horror films, with works like The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs. His final effort, a lavish murder mystery set backstage at a Broadway play, has been digitally restored and will feature a live piano score.
  • Seed was the first of what I call Stahl’s “reluctant adultery trilogy”—sure, these people are stepping out on their spouses, but they feel really, really bad about it. No Pre-Code casually-falling-into-bed romps for these folks. In Seed, the guilt-racked husband (John Boles) strays with the subtly spectacular Genevieve Tobin, and really, who can blame him? (Well, his daughter, a gaspingly young Bette Davis, for starters.) Stahl followed up with Back Street and Only Yesterday, which are also in this series. Both are terrific films, but require a high tolerance for women who drive you insane with their self-sacrifice. Honestly, you’ll want to reach through the screen and shake them, early and often.
  • Little Man, What Now? Frank Borzage’s only film for Universal stars Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery (formerly Kent Douglass) as a secretly married couple struggling through the poverty of post-war Germany. The backdrop of rising militarism, though only hinted at, makes this one of the earliest American films to even allude to the Nazis. Borzage and Sullavan would later reteam at MGM for three much more highly polished affairs: Three Comrades, The Shining Hour and The Mortal Storm. But this earthier film, with the director’s classic love-over-adversity theme at its heart, shows them both at their best.
  • Two early Lew Ayres films. Before he got all wholesome and earnest on us, Ayres had a bit of an edge, which is very much on display in Garnett’s breakneck-paced Okay, America, loosely based on the life and times of Walter Winchell, and Monta Bell’s Up for Murder, about a naïve young reporter who becomes entangled with his publisher’s jaded mistress (Genevieve Tobin). Both are steeped in the kind of gaudily corrupt urban stew that was something of an obsession for Junior.

Here’s the link to the entire series. If you make it there, look for me. I’ll be the woman with the wrinkled dress and mussy hair—from sleeping behind the bar at the pub across the street between films, just to make sure I don’t miss anything.

All photos courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art; all rights reserved.