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September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis: 1925 - 2010

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It was back in 1969, when I was a Freshman at New York University, that a group of film students went to be in the audience of the Dick Cavett Show. Our reason for being there was to see guest Federico Fellini. I was sitting in one of the higher levels of the balcony. Prior to Feliini, was Cavett's other guest, Tony Curtis. As Curtis was coming on the stage, Mardik Martin was shouting out, "Hey, Bernie! Bernie Schwartz!" Maybe you had to be there, but it seemed funny at the time.

Curtis was at the Cavett show to tout The Boston Strangler, a film I never took the time to watch until much later. Once I did see the film, I regretted the snobbery I had at the time that kept me from seeing it theatrically. From that dramatic peak, Curtis' star was on a decline, although good opportunities did appear in films I did see during their initial release, The Last Tycoon and Insignificance. I even saw Lepke on the big screen.

The screen cap above is from Who was that Lady?. The film is not one that that will be mentioned in most articles about Curtis that have appeared, or will appear, at this time. What makes this film worth a look is that it is one of the handful Curtis made with then wife, Janet Leigh. The film, a comedy, offers a look at some of the political paranoia of the era, with a 1958 play filmed in 1960. More relevant though is the ease in which Curtis was able to suddenly glide from comedy to drama and back again, especially in scenes with the frequently underrated Dean Martin. Tony Curtis always knew he had solid acting ability. It took some of us a while to realize that, too.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:44 AM | Comments (1)

September 28, 2010

The Bravados

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Henry King - 1958
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

"I'm a stranger here myself." The line spoken by Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray, is repeated four years later by Gregory Peck. The screenplays for that film and The Bravados were both by Philip Yordan. That it appears in a film directed by Henry King may be a nod towards Ray's recycling some dramatic footage from King's Jesse James for a scene in Ray's True Story of Jesse James. The Bravados fits in thematically with Henry King's other films about characters who are driven by a singular thought, although it twists that theme from one of pursuit of a higher ideal to one of a personal descent.

There is what I think of as a visual correlative that works on two levels. Much of the film takes place at twilight, and frequently the characters are filmed in shadow or in silhouette. This motif serves as a reminder of the ambiguity of the main characters, the presumed hero, Gregory Peck, is not entirely good or altruistically motivated, while the bad guys, particularly Lee Van Cleef and Henry Silva, reveal redeeming qualities. Additionally, one might interpret the film as a reflection of a filmmaker who may have understood that he was at the twilight of a long career at age 72. Henry King was one one of the few directors still active from the silent era, yet he proved himself capable of handling the contemporary story elements of Philip Yordan and the demands of filling the CinemaScope screen.

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Gregory Peck rides into town to witness the hanging of four men that he has chased for six months. The men, he was told, raped and killed his wife. The night before the hanging, the four outlaws escape, taking with them the daughter of one of the townspeople. Peck joins the posse in pursuit. Along with the posse is Joan Collins, the woman Peck almost married about five years earlier. The posse stops at the Mexican border. While Peck goes crosses a geographical border, he is urged to cross personal borders earlier. At one point, Joan Collins tries to convince Peck to let the past be, and to discontinue his pursuit. After Stephen Boyd has raped the woman he abducted from the town, Collins can't get Peck to kill the outlaws soon enough. The ending is more incisive than The Man who Shot Liberty Valance with its conclusion of "print the legend". The Bravados ends with Peck gracefully accepting the accolades of a hero, in spite of his newly found knowledge and appropriate self-doubts.

Lance Mannion has written about the emphasis of Catholicism in The Bravados. While Henry King's own Catholic faith has served him personally and to varying degrees as a foundation for several of his films, again he chooses not to impose those beliefs on the viewer but instead allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Where there is an emphasis is with repeated shots of a statue of the Madonna and child, as well as key shots of women caring for a young child. The mother and child motif also carries over in connecting Peck with Van Cleef and Silva.

Working again with cinematographer Leon Shamroy, the look of The Bravados is naturalist, Henry King is comfortable with CinemaScope to play with some of the possibilities of perspective, forcing the viewer to actively watch the film. Examples include a shot near the beginning of the film that includes a deputy seen in the foreground looking at Peck riding in the distance. Stephen Boyd peers out of the jail window, almost proportionate to the movie screen which serves as a frame within the camera frame, vertically broken by the jail cell bars. There are also extreme close-ups of Peck, Collins and the others, something that filmmakers shied away from when CinemaScope was first introduced. Interestingly, in one of his interviews, Henry King had thought that the then new wide screen process would eliminate the need for close-ups of the actors. Henry King may have been an old hand at making movies, but he proved himself open to what could be done with the new technology.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:47 AM

September 26, 2010

Coffee Break

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Nina Ivanisin in A Call Girl (Damjan Kozole - 2009)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:28 AM

September 23, 2010

Captain from Castile

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Henry King - 1947
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

Those lips. Those hips. Those eyes. Those thighs. I've seen Jean Peters in several films previously, but it wasn't until I saw her debut performance that I understood why Howard Hughes would do what he could to move heaven and earth in wooing the actress from Hollywood stardom to his very private life. My favorite performances would be this film, Anne of the Indies and Pickup on South Street, where Peters plays the good bad girl. Whether playing the part of a pirate, a prostitute, or in this film, a servant girl, the characters are united by the strong will, sense of independence, but also an innate sense of fairness that elevates them above those who are considered superior based titles or official position.

Throughout Captain from Castile, Peters wear a crucifix. It's a sign of Catana's faith in inquisition era Spain, but also a more literal kind of sign that helps draw attention to the low cut blouses Peters wears, just low enough to offer a small peak of cleavage. There's also a scene with Peters dancing solo, the camera at ground level to offer a quick view of Peters' legs while swirling around for an appreciative male audience. Again, Henry King would demonstrate his knack for taking new talent, and in this film a true acting novice, and bring out the qualities that would ensure stardom.

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What I also found interesting is that in regards to faith, Captain from Castile is a continuation of some of the themes found in other Henry King films. Many of the plot elements hinge on the effect of the Inquisition on both Tyrone Power's lead character, Pedro De Vargas, and Lee J. Cobb's Juan Garcia. De Vargas and Garcia both escape from Spain following the death of their parents, victims of Diego De Silva, a high ranking official who uses his authority from both the King and the Church to settle personal grudges. De Silva is contrasted with Father Bartolome who epitomizes a more humanistic form of institutionalized Christianity. That the Inquisition would be used to represent a certain kind of evil might be considered an easy plot point, yet King and screenwriter Lamar Trotti go beyond that by questioning the proselytizing of Indians of "the New World".

In a conversation with an Indian, a former slave of De Silva's, De Vargas is asked to justify the Spanish invasion, enslavement and imposition of religious beliefs. De Vargas states that Spain is bringing in the one true faith to replace idol worship. The response is that the Indians believe in the same god under a different name. The film ends with De Vargas marching along with Herando Cortez to an unknown destiny or fate. What struck me about Captain from Castile, at least the way I understood this film is that underneath the veneer of Hollywood spectacle was a suggestion of subversiveness regarding the sense white European privilege and the notion of manifest destiny.

Shot on location in Mexico, Captain from Castile is a more natural looking film, with none of the flamboyant use of color as in The Black Swan. The film also is indicative of some of the negative aspects of Henry King as noted by Andrew Sarris, with a longer running time and a slower pace. Still, the film is worth seeing for Jean Peters first time out as an actress. There is also what I assume was a visual gag that went unnoticed by the censors. One of the conquistadors has stolen some gems, and De Vargas is assigned to seek out the thief. The thief revealed, takes his hand down into the front of his pants where a bag with the treasure is hidden. Maybe I'm reading too much into that moment, but I think there's a joke there regarding the family jewels.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:53 AM

September 21, 2010

The Song of Bernadette

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Henry King - 1943
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

(Darryl) Zanuck was in the service at the time and was not suppose to participate in business of any kind. But the studio was Zanuck's whole life and soul. He was in the service for a couple of years and came home on leave just as I was finishing Bernadette. I had it the way I wanted it - with no visions. Zanuck came in for a chat and said, "Nobody is suppose to know this, but, as a matter of curiosity, I had to look at your picture last night. What I want to know is, what did the girl see?"

I said, "I'm going to show it no more times than I have to show it. I made it this way purposely."

He said, "I'll tell you what you have to do. You're going to have to put in the vision the first time she sees it and you're going to have to put it at the last. If you don't let the audience see that, they'll throw rocks at you. If anybody else in the world was playing that girl, I wouldn't give a rap. But that girl actually sees something and I found myself leaning over my chair, trying to find out, trying to see what she saw."
- Henry King

Is seeing, believing? And is it necessary to see something to make it true? Henry King's decision to alter his film based on the suggestion of Darryl Zanuck was undoubtedly correct commercially. Yet, in seeing this film again after many years, and reading about King's original intentions, the film as it stands is self-contradictory. On a basic level, The Song of Bernadette is a recounting of the life of a young woman who may, or may not, have seen the Virgin Mary. Arguably, what the film is about on a deeper level is the need of some form of tangible proof to validate faith. Had Henry King made the film without the cutaways to the Virgin Mary, the subject of Bernadette's visions would have been left wide open for the audience to draw their own conclusion.

It is impossible, at least for myself, not to watch any film about faith, any faith, and not think of Paul Schrader and his own theories regarding how faith is, or should be, depicted on film. For Schrader, the austere films of Robert Bresson would successfully represent the transcendent, while the other extreme would be represented by Cecil B. DeMille and what Schrader called "over-abundant means". Henry King thought of himself as an entertainer rather than an artist. Even without Linda Darnell, seen from a distance as "the beautiful lady", one would never think of The Song of Bernadette as Bressonian. Yet the nudges instigated by Zanuck don't quite push the film into DeMille territory either, even with the insistence of Alfred Newman's choral accompanied score. If the film as it stands tilts in DeMille's direction, we are talking about films made by directors of the same generation, with careers that run almost parallel.

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What makes The Song of Bernadette work is both Henry King's sincerity, and something that I've mentioned before, what I call his generosity of spirit. There is a sense of respect for the characters without regard to their points of view. Even though the film was made in such a way that the viewer has to accept Bernadette's version of the truth, as we see what she sees, the other characters are allowed to express themselves, whether they believe or not, without being made to appear foolish. The only exception is near the end when the Mayor of Lourdes tries to ingratiate himself on Bernadette prior to her leaving to live in a convent, claiming that he was the only one to believe her visions. Even Vincent Price, chief among those who wants to dispute any claims attributed to Bernadette, many pointedly not claimed by her, may possibly have a change of heart and mind at the end of the film, It is a change brought about by self-realization that with nothing left to gain or lose in the process, Price has to find out for himself if the spring water will bring about a cure for his physical and spiritual maladies.

When I talked to Henry King in Telluride, he had mentioned that he had converted, and became a Catholic at around the time he made The White Sister. I mention this because King's own faith served as a catalyst in making The Song of Bernadette, and also because one of the most poignant scenes recalls The White Sister. In the silent film, Lillian Gish has already taken her vows to be a nun, and refuses to return to her old life, even when she learns that her finance, Ronald Colman is alive. In The Song of Bernadette, Antoine, the young man who many assume will be the man Bernadette will marry, sees her before she goes to the convent. Antoine states his intention not to marry under the guise of taking care of his aged mother. It is clear that Antoine chooses a presumably celibate life to mirror Bernadette own celibacy imposed by the church. Again, as in some of his other films, Henry King is interested in the characters who either defer or sacrifice the easier or more expected life for the more difficult to attain ideal.

Faith in The Song of Bernadette is something personally realized rather than imposed. In the final half hour of the film, with Bernadette in the convent, there is the suggestion, hinted at in other scenes, that the institution of the church stifles belief even more than it encourages faith. As Henry King has mentioned, Jennifer Jones was cast in the title role because she appeared to be seeing rather than simply looking. It certainly aided the audiences that Jones looks almost plain, and had little hesitation in smearing dirt and mud over herself in one scene. The character of Bernadette is so humble, so plain spoken and without guile, that the distance between Jennifer Jones and the young women who have portrayed Robert Bresson's saintly characters is not all that far.

I have often explored religious themes in my pictures but I've never tried to be preachy or holier-than-thou. I feel that the motion picture is the greatest medium of expression that has ever been in the history of the world or will ever be again. I'm just so sorry that the people making motion pictures today don't recognize that you can change the culture of the world with motion pictures."
- Henry King

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:29 AM | Comments (1)

September 19, 2010

Coffee Break


Guy Pearce in Traitor (Jeffrey Nachmanoff - 2008)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:16 AM

September 16, 2010

Raging Phoenix

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Deu suay doo
Rashane Limtrakul - 2009
Magnolia Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In a more perfect world, Thai martial arts films would have the equivalent of John Ford, or Vincente Minnelli, or at least another Prachya Pinkaew. What I mean by this is someone who knows exactly where to place the camera, so that when watching the film, there is no second guessing, at least from myself. It's not that Rashane is bad, as much as there were too many times when there seemed to me better choices to have been made in the framing of much of the action. While the fight scenes were never as visually incoherent as, for example, what Brett Ratner does with Jackie Chan in the Rush Hour movies, neither is there the clean, clear framing with minimal editing that Prachya has in the best moments of Ong-Bak or Chocolate.

And it's not that Rashane had a lack of visual ideas. What makes Raging Phoenix frustrating is that there are some very unique sets where the action takes place. Various abandoned locations - a small amusement park, an old, elaborate church, and the ruins of a building seemingly in the middle of nowhere are among the settings. One of the rooms in the villain's underground fortress is bathed in a phosphorescent blue. The only newish building in the film is a small, modern looking house by the beach, which I wouldn't mind calling home. The only weak spot is a CGI created pit, extremely large and deep, connected by several overlapping, rickety bridges made of wood and rope. It's only in what tangentially resembles the real world that there is a sense of danger.

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Raging Phoenix was largely designed to be another showcase for Yanin Vismistananda, popularly known as JeeJa. There is more acting here than in her debut, Chocolate. JeeJa plays a young woman, Deu, who has had a bad day of being dumped both by her boyfriend, and by the rock band where she was the drummer. Deu handles her pain by getting drunk, not tipsy, but the kind where standing is impossible, and one gets sick in the stomach. Deu is almost kidnapped by some people driving around in a van, lead by the obligatory (in Thai movies) ugly ladyboy. She is rescued by Sanin, who fights several bad guys at once. Sanin and his pals, Dogshit, Pigshit and Bullshit, have united to fight someone named Jaguar, who has been kidnapping attractive young women. The young men have lost the women they love to Jaguar, and are seeking revenge. Deu joins the men, learning their unique form of martial arts that involves drinking copious amounts of alcohol. The sequence devoted to Deu learning how to drink and fight from Sanin is the best realized section of Raging Phoenix.

Sanin is played by Kazu Patrick Tang. In the DVD supplement with some of the cast and crew discussing the film, Tang speaks in French. I was wondering if Luc Besson, with his frequent collaboration with Chinese and Thai martial artists, knew of Tang. As it turns out, Tang had a supporting role in Danny the Dog, released in the U.S. as Unleashed. In an elaborate fight scene, Tang demonstrates his proficiency with a combination of Parkour, hip hop dancing, and Muay Thai boxing against a team of guys on deadly powerskip devices with serious cutting edges, hopping around like a gang of malevolent kangaroos. Tang spent four years of doing nothing but training prior to the filming of Raging Phoenix. With the apparent retirement of Tony Jaa, Tang is another young man who could well be a new action movie star.

The form of martial arts performed by Deu and the gang is called Meyraiyuth. The inspiration comes from Drunken Kung Fu. It's a fictional form of martial arts that combines break dancing and other forms of choreography, both in dance and fighting. The fighting is superb. It's the filming of the fighting that is disappointing with the camera too far to the side, or too much cutting when allowing the camera to show the action in longer, continuous takes would have been better. As for JeeJa, she's allowed to show a bit more range as an actress here, and could well have comic potential indicated in her first big scene - Hell hath no fury like a female drummer who has no problem tossing away the sticks in the middle of a set in a crowded nightclub. JeeJa, all 100 pounds of her, definitely has the martial arts moves. What's next is a filmmaker who can make full use of her acting chops.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:52 PM

September 14, 2010

The Black Swan (1942)

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Henry King - 1942
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

(Darryl) Zanuck gave him the material to read over and a couple of days later (Ben) Hecht came in and said, "I have some radical changes I want to make. I want to create a new character, change around the plot." He talked about how we wanted to give it some flair and romance. He said, "It'll make a real fine story." We agreed that he had something. So he got the job. He said, "Ten days from today I'll come in with the first draft of the script." Ten days later he came in with a first draft and that draft was the first draft, the last draft and everything else. Once we were in production we did make one little change, something that just wasn't doing what I thought it should do, and Hecht came in and made a little modification. And that was The Black Swan, which I thought was one of the most entertaining pictures I was ever connected with.
- Henry King

The Black Swan is indeed entertaining. Leon Shamroy rightly won an Oscar for his Technicolor cinematography with a use of color that primarily recalls the artwork of Howard Pyle, especially in the use of red for Tyrone Power's costumes. Briskly running at less than ninety minutes, the film is another reminder that Henry King could make a film that was both fast and funny. While King gives credit to Ben Hecht for the screenplay, I have to assume that the other credited writer, Seton Miller, still had some contributions to the film. Keep in mind that the last time Miller and Hecht shared screen credits, it was almost ten years ago on Howard Hawks' sometimes savagely comic Scarface.

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Just like in Scarface, there are comparisons of men to apes here. The insults fly fast and furiously between Power and Maureen O'Hara. Coining an original expression, in the hopes that Power would be executed by hanging, O'Hara calls him a "gallows dancer". The more O'Hara tries to resist, the more Power tries to force his affection, stating, "I always sip a bottle of wine before I buy it". O'Hara bites Power. Power socks O'Hara in the jaw. Carrying her over his shoulder, Power unceremoniously dumps O'Hara to greet his old friend and pirate mentor, played by the larger than everyone Laird Cregar. The Black Swan might look like a children's adventure film, but the double entendres are definitely adult.

Cregar plays Sir Henry Morgan, recently rehabilitated from pirate to bureaucrat, making sure Jamaica is safe for British interests. Power is recruited to be Cregar's seafaring enforcer. Resisting the call to convert to more legal private enterprise are George Sanders and Anthony Quinn. Sanders is virtually unrecognizable with his mop of red hair, facial hair and false nose. Quinn hardly says anything in spite of his star billing, mostly grinning with promised menace, and seeming to enjoy just being part of the ride. Ten years later, Quinn would have a bigger role opposite O'Hara in another pirate movie, George Sherman's entertaining, Against All Flags. Reportedly, Power had hoped by look as much like a real pirate as possible, and he is a bit grubby looking in the opening scene, tortured by Fortunio Bonanova, the purple clad Don Miguel. Darryl Zanuck, always mindful of Power's female fans, allowed Power to have a thin, drooping mustache. Power's costume is a combination of Zorro and proto-Village People. It should be no surprise that the film ends with Power finally winning the heart of O'Hara, but its the exchange of insults and injury that constantly amuses.

While not as consistent a collaborator as editor Barbara McLean, Leon Shamroy did some of his best work with Henry King. The Black Swan is filled with the orange glow of sunrises and candle lit windows. if one can glance away from Power and O'Hara trading barbs, there are flowers of the deepest primary colors in the background. Not only was Leon Shamroy one of the first cinematographers to shoot in the then new three strip Technicolor process, he was one of the first to pounce on the artistic possibilities. There are some flaws - a process shot is of two ships at sea, neither of them moving, and a scene with black character actor Clarence Muse is cringeworthy. Otherwise, the real pirates of the Caribbean are here in all their joyful glory.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:39 AM

September 12, 2010

Coffee Break

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Evelyn Brent in The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg - 1928)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:46 AM

September 10, 2010

A Yank in the R.A.F.

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Henry King - 1941
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

A Yank in the R.A.F. was not a propaganda picture. It was a story worth telling, a story that was happening. At the time, North American Aviation in Los Angeles was building trainers (airplanes). Canada and England bought a tremendous number of them for their training programs because England was already in the war. They couldn't build, they had to buy outside. Civilian pilots here would fly these trainers up to a little place in Montana, just at the Canadian border. You couldn't violate international law, so the Canadians would throw a rope across and tie it onto the trainer and tow it over the border.
- Henry King

One of the footnotes to the history of World War II is that the United States was officially neutral during the years that saw Nazi troops march across Europe, and conduct bombings of Britain. The first scene in A Yank in the R.A.F. illustrates that point, and sets the tone for a film that alternates between screwball comedy and more sober, and sobering, scenes of war. Tyrone Power flies in a trainer, in spite of international law, claiming to confuse Trenton, Ontario, Canada, with Trenton, New Jersey. At one thousand dollars a flight, he next takes the job of flying a plane to England. A planned overnight visit to London changes when he bumps into old flame, Betty Grable. It becomes apparent that Grable has never forgiven Power for a past indiscretion, real she says, imagined says he. They bicker, he catches her nightclub act, they bicker some more, he tries to kiss her, she calls him a worm, and fade out as the two clutch each other tight.

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Discussing Samuel Fuller's China Gate, Andrew Sarris describes how "the distinction between the personal plot and its political context evaporates with the first leggy sprawl of Angie Dickinson". One might make the same case for A Yank in the R.A.F. where the first image of Betty Grable is of her famous legs. The camera follows the legs, out of the car, displaying the top of the stockings, panning across the sidewalk to some steps and back again to the car before tilting up to a medium shot of Grable in a military uniform. Betty is doing something, not exactly made clear, in supporting the war effort in England, and performing a nightclub where R.A.F. officers pull rank to get a good view of her. At the same time, Betty Grable virtually steals a whole movie from top billed Tyrone Power.

Evidently, Henry King must have loved Betty Grable, too. I can't recall Tyrone Power getting the kind of close-up Grable gets, virtually filling the screen. Visually, even though the tone is never quite that serious, the film looks very noirish with dramatic lighting and deep shadows. At one point I thought that Power was going to morph into his character in Nightmare Alley, and run off to the nearest carnival to become a sideshow geek. Most of the story is devoted to Power chasing after Grable, while fending off his rivals, who also happen to the men he's flying with on bombing missions over Germany.

Henry King was a pilot himself, who would fly around in search of locations for his films. Still, for all of his passion regarding aviation, A Yank in the R.A.F. has to be regarded more as a personal project for producer Darryl Zanuck. Real wartime footage was commissioned for the film, and one of the cinematographers was future director Ronald Neame. The film went through several changes from inception to final release. The British government objected to Tyrone Power's character dying at the Battle of Dunkirk, believing it would discourage future American volunteers. Henry King added a couple of musical numbers when Betty Gable was cast to take advantage of her talents. I would have to disagree with King's statement - A Yank in the R.A.F> was certainly propaganda, albeit without hectoring the viewer regarding anyone's point of view. There was some unintended prescience on the part of King and Zanuck. Considering the ubiquity of her image, especially on airplanes, it may have seemed to some that Americans were fighting World War II on behalf of Betty Grable.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:43 AM

September 08, 2010

Alexander's Ragtime Band

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Henry King - 1938
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

In the first scenes of Alexander's Ragtime Band, Alice Faye has platinum blonde hair, a thick smear of lipstick, and the kind of appearance might best be described as vulgar. Alice Faye didn't quite look like Alice Faye. There was something familiar about the brassy blonde with the attitude. After a few minutes, I concluded that Alice Faye was virtually impersonating Jean Harlow. This might not be too off the mark considering that Harlow was originally considered to star with Tyrone Power and Don Ameche in In Old Chicago, and might have been cast had Henry King not been aware of Harlow's fading health. What little bit of a story exists in Alexander's Ragtime Band begins as a Pygmalion narrative with Alice Faye developing some fashion sense to go along with her singing voice, only to leave Power and Ameche in the dust for Broadway stardom.

I'm admittedly not a fan of Irving Berlin's song. I have no problem with his getting an Oscar nomination for his love song, "Now It Can Be Told", performed by Don Ameche in his best attempt at basso profundo. The Oscar nomination for Best Story for Berlin is egregious. There is no story. The film is really a collection of Irving Berlin's songs strung together with a wisp of a narrative involving Faye, Power and Ameche drifting in and out of each other's lives. Story can be summed up as a catalogue of ways Alice Faye and Tyrone Power can be kept apart before finally coming together in the final reel.

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The film actually originated as a biography of Irving Berlin. In retrospect, it is perhaps a good thing that such a film had not been made considering that Berlin lived to be 101 years old, and in 1938, the best had yet to come. I am also not sure if Daryl Zanuck and Henry King would have been the best people for such a film. Elements of Berlin's early life suggest to me that he would have been better served at Warner Brothers with Raoul Walsh or Michael Curtiz at the helm. In an early scene, the camera hones in on Berlin's name as the composer on some sheet music of the title song. Faye, Power and Ameche find their first professional success performing "Alexander's Ragtime Band", but no mention is made of the guy who wrote the song. Powers plays the fictional Roger Grant, who after the title song is refered to as Alexander or Alec for the rest of the film. There's also the suggestion of artistic conflict in Power's character, a classically trained violinist who finds fulfillment with popular music, much to the chagrin of his mentor, played by Jean Hersholt. A collection of songs on film can be filmed with some kind of dramatic heft, perhaps best most recently realized when Julie Taymor created Across the Universe from the Lennon-McCartney songbook. In Alexander's Ragtime Band there is no drama in wondering when Tyrone Power will realize that Alice Faye, and not Ethel Merman, is his one true love.

The film is something of a showcase for Merman. This is a more slender, even sexy Ethel Merman. She has the pipes that she was always famous for, but she's not the woman who verged on self-parody or punchline known for her brief marriage to Ernest Borgnine. Merman might not have been conventionally attractive, but her first shots suggests that there was potential if she was photographed in just the right way. For myself, its enough to want to take any opportunities to see her other films from the Thirties. Most of the time, the camera simply records Merman singing "Blue Skies" and "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody". Of more visual interest is seeing Merman in a flesh revealing outfit as a devil, with a chorus of female devils, performing "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil". An unintended and ironic reading could be given to the song "Marching Along with Time", a deleted number included as a DVD extra, as the formerly innovative Irving Berlin would find himself considered old fashioned when rock became the dominant form of popular music.

As popular as the film was, and to some extent remains loved by some, this is visually a less interesting film from Henry King than his versions of Way Down East, or Seventh Heaven with its exquisitely lit shots of Simone Simon. There is one faintly clever scene that initially appears to be filmed at the army base where Power and Jack Haley are stationed in 1917, with the camera pulling back to reveal the set of the Broadway show, with Haley singing "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning". There is also an interesting scene on a train. Alice Faye's character has walked away from her career, and taken to traveling throughout the country. She is on a train where someone has a portable record player. The camera pans along the faces of the other passengers listening to the song "Remember" at what seems to be a late hour of night. The camera stops on Faye. The song is used to express her inner feelings. For a few bars though, Faye sings along with the record. Or perhaps, in more conventional movie musical terms, Faye is singing to the audience. What ever the case, Faye stops singing, and the record again serves as a narrative device. It may be fitting that the most interesting moment in a film devoted to a song writer closely associated with Broadway takes place far away from the stage.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:47 AM

September 06, 2010


It's that time of year at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. The answers provided depend in some cases on how one reads or misreads the questions.

1) Classic film you most want to experience that has so far eluded you.

Experience or simply watch? If you mean experience, I wish I was Mark Damon going down on Christiane Kruger in Little Mother by Radley Metzger. As far as watching a classic film, I'm still hoping someday to see It's Trad, Dad once during my lifetime.

2) Greatest Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release ever

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As far as I'm concerned, nothing I've seen from Criterion holds a candle to AnimEigo's DVD release of Imamura's Black Rain. Colored subtitles, lots of notes, an alternate ending, and an interview with Takashi Miike who was an assistant to Imamura.

3) The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon?

The Maltese Falcon.

4) Jason Bateman or Paul Rudd?

Slightly more enthusiasm for Rudd.

5) Best mother/child (male or female) movie star combo

Prof. Huxley, please be more precise. Are we talking on screen or biological mothers and children? On screen: Josephine Siao and Jet Li. Biological: Jane Birken and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

6) Who are the Robert Mitchums and Ida Lupinos among working movie actors? Do modern parallels to such masculine and no-nonsense feminine stars even exist? If not, why not?

Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh.

7) Favorite Preston Sturges movie

Christmas In July

8) Odette Yustman or Mary Elizabeth Winstead?

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Mika Nakashima

9) Is there a movie that if you found out a partner or love interest loved (or didn't love) would qualify as a Relationship Deal Breaker?

It happened during an argument with some guy about Citizen Kane. Not a serious relationship, but the young woman who was friends with us both tried to end the argument by saying, "It's just a movie".

10) Favorite DVD commentary

Renny Harlin on Driven, explaining how he edited Sylvester Stallone out of what was suppose to be his movie.

11) Movies most recently seen on DVD, Blu-ray and theatrically

DVD: Man in the Moon (Basil Dearden - 1960). Theatrically: I Hate Luv Storys.

12) Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates?


13) Favorite DVD extra

Alternate endings.

14) Brian De Palma’s Scarface— yes or no?

I believe this was asked previously, Prof. Huxley. I lived in Miami Beach, all Scarface, all the time. I prefer the Hawks version.

15) Best comic moment from a horror film that is not a horror comedy (Young Frankenstein, Love At First Bite, et al.)

The moment in Psycho when you're not sure if the car will sink.

16) Jane Birkin or Edwige Fenech?

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17) Favorite Wong Kar-wai movie

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In the Mood for Love

18) Best horrific moment from a comedy that is not a horror comedy

The dropped baby in C.R.A.Z.Y..

19) From 2010, a specific example of what movies are doing right…

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird got a theatrical release in the United States.

20) Ryan Reynolds or Chris Evans?

Gene Evans

21) Speculate about the future of online film writing. What’s next?

I'll be writing about Asian horror movies on my blog in October. If I get a press pass and screeners, I'll be writing about the Starz International Film Festival in November.

22) Roger Livesey or David Farrar?

Oh, like I watch Michael Powell movies for the men?

23) Best father/child (male or female) movie star combo

On screen: John Huston and Faye Dunaway. Biological: John Mills and Hayley Mills.

24) Favorite Freddie Francis movie (as Director)

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors

25) Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth?

Bringing Up Baby

26) Tina Fey or Kristen Wiig?

Margaret Cho

27) Name a stylistically important director and the best film that would have never been made without his/her influence.

Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes has influenced several filmmakers. Not quite his best, but an influence on Dario Argento's Tenebre.

28) Movie you’d most enjoy seeing remade and transplanted to a different culture (i.e. Yimou Zhang’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.)

I think Walsh's A King and Four Queens, essentially a comedy of manners in cowboy garb, offers some possibilities.

29) Link to a picture/frame grab of a movie image that for you best illustrates bliss. Elaborate.


I think the scene with "Can't Buy Me Love" from A Hard Day's Night speaks for itself quite nicely.

30) With a tip of that hat to Glenn Kenny, think of a just-slightly-inadequate alternate title for a famous movie. (Examples from GK: Fan Fiction; Boudu Relieved From Cramping; The Mild Imprecation of the Cat People) You mean like Gone with the Breeze?

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:19 AM

September 05, 2010

Coffee Break

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Lee Tracy, Rose Hobart and Charles Farrell in Lilliom (Frank Borzage - 1930)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:49 AM

September 03, 2010

In Old Chicago

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Henry King - 1938
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

First, the history: There is a city called Chicago. There was a massive fire in Chicago in 1871. Otherwise, In Old Chicago is pure blarney. Even with credit to the Chicago Historical Society, Henry King's film is as factual as Fargo or The Blair Witch Project.

The first two-thirds or so makes for a fairly entertaining mix of comedy and drama with some musical numbers thrown in. Most notably, the film was the first to have three relatively fresh actors, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche in one film, and at under two million dollars, an expensive film at that. The three became top stars at the then new 20th Century-Fox. In contemporary terms, it's somewhat similar to two young actors who had made names for themselves in independent films heading the cast for James Cameron's Titanic. The main difference between Titanic and In Old Chicago is that Alice Faye shows off less skin than Kate Winslet, but she gets to perform a furious can-can.

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The first part of the film is mostly about the O'Leary family, widow Molly, and sons Jack, Dion and Bob. And indeed, there was a family name O'Leary, and the film has the right address, but again, history ends there. Mostly the film centers on Dion (Tyrone Power), the rogue who takes advantage of others to make as much money as possible with the least effort, and the upstanding Jack (Don Ameche), the original pro bono lawyer. Alice Faye plays a popular showgirl, whom Power woos first as a business partner, and later wife, owning the biggest bar in town. Unfortunately, the bar is in the bad part of town, with high crime, and old wooden buildings that newly elected Mayor Jack mentions could easily catch fire. Mother O'Leary also owns a cow named Daisy that has a big kick.

Those most studious of American history will remember that, once upon a time, Chicago represented the western part of the United States. There is Northwestern University in nearby Evanston. For those who forgot that there was a pre-continental U.S. of A., Chicago will always be part of the midwest. In any case, the operative word here is west. Until the conflagration, In Old Chicago is actually a western with fewer guns and more top hats. That point should be made clear by one of the the musical numbers, with a chorus line in oversized cowboy hats. Entertainment trumps history with some very contemporary songs and the chorus girls in majorette uniforms. What attention was paid to historical accuracy is lost to anachronisms personified by Alice Faye and her legs. Of additional entertainment value is the inclusion of Andy Devine as Power's tagalong pal, Pickle, and Rondo Hatton as the bodyguard to Brian Donlevy's villain of the piece.

As for the fire, what may be the most amazing part might be the logistics involved in the filming. Journeyman director H. Bruce Humberstone was responsible for the special effects, but most of what is on screen is real fire with stunt men and crowds, filmed in a forty acre area not far from Beverly Hills. Credit should be given also to Oscar winning Assistant Director Robert Webb, the one primarily responsible for the second unit work. There's a trick to organizing chaos, with the extended ladder of a fire truck knocking down a wagon, making its way through a jam of vehicles and people trying to escape the blaze. Shots of stampeding cattle from a nearby pen almost serves as a parody of the scenes of people forcing their way through the streets. It's easy, almost habitual, to feel blase about Hollywood magic, even that from the days before computer generated effects. As a person somewhat more knowledgeable about the filmmaking process, I am awed by the work that must have been involved. Considering the state of fire fighting in 1871, it's a wonder not more of Chicago was burned down.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:52 AM

September 01, 2010

The Winning of Barbara Worth

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Henry King - 1926
MGM Region 1 DVD

Nothing in The Winning of Barbara Worth is as visually striking as the first shots. A woman is seen burying someone in the desert. There is a painterly quality to the composition of this shot, this lone woman leaning over the shovel stuck in sand. A full shot reveals her wagon, and the the mound where a body of, presumably her husband, is buried. A blonde little girl walks around with a doll. It isn't until after disaster strikes in the form of a sandstorm that we realize that the little girl is the title character.

As if to remind contemporary audiences that often the people who need most to learn from history ignore past lessons, The Winning of Barbara Worth is about the forces of nature being more powerful than human arrogance and greed. The big set piece is of a boom town flooded by the river that is supposedly under control. The businessman who finances the dam argues that calling for the need to reinforce the dam will only cause fear and panic. Additionally, an Indian prophesy is simply superstition. I'm not sure if anyone watching the film now wouldn't think of Hurricane Katrina and the images of New Orleans when watching this film.

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The Winning of Barbara Worth is also of interest as being the first significant performance by Gary Cooper. Mostly accumulating bit parts over the years, Cooper was originally hired as a bit player by Henry King until another actor dropped out of the production. Much of the Cooper persona is already here. At a town dance, Cooper is shyly gazing at the couples on the floor. A previous scene has established his feelings towards Vilma Banky, the grown up Barbara Worth. City slicker Ronald Colman tries to swoop in on Banky, and has been dancing with here in this scene. Moments later, Cooper is standing in a doorway, too hesitant to make a move. Colman and Banky walk through the doorway towards a patio while Cooper remains almost in the shadows, too shy, or perhaps too much of a gentleman, to make his presence or his feeling known.

For me, the most surprising aspect of this ambitious production was the amount of humor tossed into the midst of disaster. A group of pioneers stuck in a sandstorm find a corset and panties flying into their faces, the belongings of Barbara Worth's mother. During the big flood, there is a running gag involving a man in a wheelchair, unable to move while the rest of the townspeople are running or riding out of town. During this same sequence, a man quickly grabs some clothing, and runs away from the camera, completely naked - one of the rare examples not only of nudity in silent era Hollywood, but male nudity at that. Even film critics of the time found some of the humor of the film questionable, although Henry King would be the first to say that he never made films for New York critics.

More characteristic of King is the scene near the end. The financier, Greenfield, has been nearly washed away by the flood, and has been rescued, covered in mud. He is nonetheless welcomed into Barbara Worth's home, now teeming with small, ragged tots who have escaped from their destroyed homes. The Winning of Barbara Worth is ultimately less satisfying than some other films in Henry King made in his career. There are enough moments that serve as reminders that Henry King's best strengths as a filmmaker are more intimate than epic.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:45 AM