Coming up in December

Scenes that confuse viewers…pencils rolling, helicopters swirling and frogs flying– what do these things have to do with the movie’s story?

Same name different person…there are two Martha Stewarts: one is an actress, and the other is not.

The time Hedy was arrested for shoplifting…in 1966 Hedy Lamarr starred in a sensational real-life drama.

STAR of David…appreciating David Selznick and A STAR IS BORN.

Christmas Carol(e)s…singing the praises of four lovely actresses.


Year in review…
remembering 2016 and classic movies.

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Join me in December!

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Essential: THE PURPLE PLAIN (1954)

Gregory Peck worked with an American director and a British crew when he made THE PURPLE PLAIN. The film’s subject matter meant something personally to the actor. At the time many Hollywood stars only did British pictures when their American careers were in decline. You might say they were shopworn– a kind euphemism for washed up or has-been. But Peck was never washed up or a has-been. He occasionally made British films in between his bigger assignments in the U.S., because he wanted to attach himself to stories he considered to be of merit.

In this film he is paired with yet another newcomer to the screen. Her name is Win Min Than, and she was discovered at a party by a friend of the director. At the time Win was married to a high-ranking politician in Burma, and this was the only motion picture she would ever make. Because she’s so new to the medium, she has to rely on Peck’s guidance, like Audrey Hepburn did in ROMAN HOLIDAY, as well as her own natural instincts. The result is that we’re not getting a highly artificial, extremely mannered actress in this role. She is very realistic and vulnerable.

The plot is fairly straightforward. A flyer in the war is haunted by personal demons, which includes the loss of a wife who was killed in London. Upon his arrival in Burma, he meets Win and tells her he doesn’t really want to live. But this begins to change as he spends the next few days with her. He starts reaching out to her in order to strengthen his own sense of self.

In the next part, he goes out to fly a mission with two other men. Soon their plane experiences engine trouble and goes down. One of the men has been critically injured, and it’s up to Peck to get them safely back to civilization.

In Burma Win learns about the plane’s disappearance. She receives moral support from a missionary woman (Brenda De Banzie) who has faith the couple will be reunited. De Banzie plays a type of Christian we’ve seen in other movies that take place in remote settings. In some scenes, she is slightly over-the-top and appears with very thick pasted-on make-up; almost a caricature– a melodramatic woman with religious fervor. But it works when contrasted against Win’s much less pretentious, more earthy characterization.

Back near the crash site, one of the men has committed suicide. The tragedy causes Peck to develop an even stronger will to live, and he soldiers on. Finally, he makes it to a river where he is saved. With help, he goes back to get the other flyer who’s still alive in the jungle.

Earlier in the film there’s a line where Peck says he really doesn’t long for home, and we believe him. For him, home is a state of mind wherever he may be. And in the same way, a Gregory Peck movie is a state of mind, too. Especially THE PURPLE PLAIN, where a human life has been reinstated and brought back to paradise.

THE PURPLE PLAIN was directed by Robert Parrish and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Programmer Natalie Webb

Natalie picked three films from the 1940s:

THE LETTER (1940)

This mystery is the movie that made me really appreciate Bette Davis for the first time. Her character is abnormally well developed and complex for this genre and time, and it is one of the most gripping performances I’ve ever seen.

On an eerie moonlit night, Mrs. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shoots a man, calmly sends for the authorities, and goes back into her house where she begins work on a lace shawl. Her claim of self-defense is questioned when an incriminating letter surfaces, and Leslie must adjust her story. Her web of deception becomes as complicated as the lace she continuously crochets, and we the audience discover piece by piece the truth behind Leslie’s actions.

The tension and suspense are present in this movie from the beginning all the way to the climactic end. Even if you aren’t a Bette Davis fan, you’ll appreciate this film for its camerawork, intriguing setting, and the mesmerizing story.

*****

THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)

I saw this suspenseful film for the first time on a dark November night several years ago. I’d only seen one other Jean Brooks film, and thought I’d give this one a try. Before I knew it, I had been swept into the mysterious plot, anxious to see who the murderous “Leopard Man” was.

Jean Brooks plays a nightclub singer looking for attention in this Val Lewton film. During a publicity stunt gone wrong, she accidentally unleashes a black leopard on the town, and it isn’t long before the gruesome killings begin. However, suspicions arise as to whether it is the leopard, or the work of a maniac. Soon, it becomes clear that no one should be trusted, anyone could be the infamous “Leopard Man.”

I love this movie, because it is a marvelous exhibition of a lesser known actress, Jean Brooks. If you’ve never seen her before, she is definitely worth looking into. Once you start watching, you won’t be able to stop until the culprit is revealed!

*****

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

This is one of the greatest suspenseful film noir movies ever made. Starring the legendary Barbara Stanwyck alongside Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, this movie will hold your attention until the last dramatic minute.

The plot centers around an insurance salesman (MacMurray) who is persuaded into helping a beautiful and mysterious woman murder her husband and collect his life insurance money. In an effort to collect double, they decide to stage a strange freak accident to employ the “Double Indemnity” clause and get twice as much money. But it only works if they can prove his death was really an accident.

To me, some of the greatest movies are the ones that manipulate the way you think. You may find yourself rooting for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as they plot their crime, holding your breath as they are questioned, wondering if they will pull it off. In short, this film convinces you to sympathize with murderers, effectively making you cheer on the villains. Any movie that can manipulate your thinking that much deserves a watch! Besides, it’s worth seeing just to hear all the hilariously quotable things Fred MacMurray says! You’ll enjoy this movie, as sure as 10 dimes make a dollar!

 

Essential: ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953)

Some films are pure in their message, and yet so entertaining. It’s not surprising they do well with contemporary audiences, and also with audiences decades later watching for the first time. That’s what makes something a classic, if you ask me. And there can be no better example of classic film making than William Wyler’s ROMAN HOLIDAY.

A large part of the pureness of this film is due to its two remarkable stars, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. There isn’t anything less than sincerity in their performances. Even when Peck is trying to mislead Hepburn in order to get the story of the year, his character is still strangely genuine. It doesn’t matter that this is a romance between a reporter and a royal princess; it’s a romance between real human beings. The story might have been mishandled by other actors, but these two can do no wrong with it. Maybe they were really playing a part of themselves on screen, and that’s why it’s so magical.

Hepburn would win an Oscar for her work and she shot to super stardom because of this film. But Peck brings great skill and a quiet strength to his role. He almost seems to be underplaying and letting her lead the emotions of the situation. In fact Peck seems very conscious of what his character represents, and in the final scenes, where they have a bittersweet parting, it still manages to be a happy ending because Peck’s earnestness assures us it has to be.

William Wyler would direct Peck five years later in the western THE BIG COUNTRY; and he would direct Hepburn twice in the 60s, in the remake of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR and in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION. Arguably, those later productions do not contain the kind of pureness we find in ROMAN HOLIDAY.

Sometimes filmmakers put whatever they can into a motion picture, just to make it work. The labor involved is evident. Other times, it is easier and just flows on to the screen beautifully. And what we get out of it is a most pleasant surprise.

ROMAN HOLIDAY is available on Paramount home video.

Programmer Tisher Price

One of Tisher Price’s favorite actresses is Clara Bow. She watched her first Clara Bow movie two years ago on TCM, and has quickly become an expert:

IT (1927)– Clara Bow had been in the movies since around 1924, maybe sooner but her breakthrough role made her an overnight sensation. She was dubbed the “It” Girl, and apparently “It” isn’t explained, I think those who have seen this knows that it meant sex appeal. Bow appears with her signature dark red henna hair, and a carefree, unchained attitude as a flapper in the rise of the flapper craze. Clara clearly steals the show, and she is unforgettable. She came up with an idea for one of the scenes that was purely her genius which blew her director away. It’s where she is behind the desk at a department store, when the new boss who is very handsome and she has the hots for walks in one day. In a matter of 30 seconds, Clara’s close ups first showed her looking lustfully at the boss (keep in mind Clara was still relatively young, so the director thought it was creepy at first), next she has a dreamy look in her eyes for the women in the audience portraying how they would feel if they saw the man of their dreams. Then the third face went childlike and innocent for the grandmas so they wouldn’t think she was a bad girl. Clara Bow’s expressive face made her a star and made the movie a big success.

THE WILD PARTY (1929) is as fun and comfortable as Bow looks in the movie. The first time I watched it I very much enjoyed it and thought Clara Bow was a natural, only to learn it was of nightmarish proportions. Since it was her first talkie, things changed–and how! The intro of the talkies was the death blow to many silent actor careers who looked good on screen but had an unpleasant speaking voice. Some fared well with the transformation, like Norma Shearer who sounded “perfect.” All the female actors wanted to sound and talk like Norma Shearer. All though Bow’s voice had a heavy unpleasant almost plebeian accent, she passed the voice test. This was just the beginning of a medium Bow could not get over.

The hanging microphones became the bane of Clara’s sanity. She was continuously “at war” with these microphones, hovering above her distracting her many times to the point of pure frustration, tears, and panic. Along with this new technology, the mics would pick up every noise very easily…the scene where the girls go to the wild party, dressed scantily, dancing all in a line shuffling feet–the sound of feet sounded like crunching over the mic, so scenes had to redone, actors were to be QUIET during shooting which Clara found unsettling. She wasn’t too crazy about her voice, fully aware that she sounded unschooled. She was a pro, though.


THE SATURDAY NIGHT KID (1929) was Bow’s second talkie. Once again she seemed like a pro, performing effortlessly. If the microphones hovered over her in every shot, it didn’t show on her face. The movie starred two up and comers who had “accents more pronounced than her own.” They were Jean Arthur (who unfortunately was criticized for having a voice like a foghorn) and Jean Harlow, who had a very thick Brooklyn accent. Due to her growing phobia of talkies and the mics, Clara tried punching back at them with her fist tearfully and frustrated. She was starting to come undone at this time, getting to the point where she developed a nervous disorder where she couldn’t get out one line without being reduced to tears. She would open her mouth and nothing would come out.

CALL HER SAVAGE (1933)– Clara had a family, but she went thru a gamut of problems before thinking hard about doing anymore films. She was seeing a psychiatrist for countless mental ailments, some real and some imaginary physical pain. In this film, she plays Nora ‘Dynamite’ Springer, an irreverent party girl who is wild in her nature, because, and this might be seen as racist these days–wild because it turns out she is a half breed Indian. She turns to drinking, fighting, flightiness, and trouble making– embarrassing her conservative father who disowns her after she unwittingly marries a playboy just to get back at her dad for controlling her life. It was a movie chock full of drama, the rise and fall of Nora Springer who makes bad choices in life, drinking to dull her pain, one tragedy after another. This is my all time favourite Bow movie for two reasons. It was the first Clara Bow movie I ever saw thanks to TCM’s Pre-Code spotlight in 2014. Secondly, it shows a healthier, saner, beautiful Clara Bow whose acting skills seemed to have improved greatly after a short hiatus from movies. After this she did one more film before retiring at the ripe old age of 25.

Essential: THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (1952)

During Darryl Zanuck’s years at 20th Century Fox, he made a handful of films based on Ernest Hemingway’s stories. This is probably because Zanuck identified with the author’s wanderlust and sense of adventure. If Zanuck had not been a movie mogul, he might have been another Hemingway.

The first adaptation Zanuck did of a Hemingway work was UNDER MY SKIN. It was produced in 1950 and filmed in black and white. But two years later, when it came time to adapt the writer’s celebrated short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (which Hemingway himself considered to be one of his finest stories), a much larger budget was allocated.

The budget allowed for stunning Technicolor; on-location filming along the French Riviera and in various parts of Africa; plus a star-studded cast. Gregory Peck was chosen to play the main character, who is essentially a stand-in for Hemingway. And a trio of leading ladies were hired that included Ava Gardner, Susan Hayward and Hildegarde Neff. The film was exquisitely made and wowed critics as well as audiences. It became one of the year’s most stylish films to see, and deservedly earned two Oscar nominations.

Significantly, Casey Robinson’s script expands on the possibilities suggested by the source material. Gardner’s character was not in the original story, and she was invented as a nod to one of Hemingway’s great loves. When the hero goes into the jungles of Africa, he gets infected and is near death. A woman in his party (Hayward) tends to him. In an increasingly delirious state he reflects on the beginning and end of his marriage with Gardner, as well as a rebound relationship with Neff.

The scenes where Gardner has left Peck, and he finds her again driving an ambulance during the war, is probably pieced together from another work, ‘A Farewell to Arms.’ And some of the safari scenes are reminiscent of ‘The Macomber Affair.’ So what we have is a collection of Hemingway’s greatest hits representing his passions and his sorrows. And that’s not a terrible thing, because it makes for a compelling motion picture.

THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO was directed by Henry King and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

 

 

Programmer Gipper

With a screen name like ‘Gipper,’ it makes sense that today’s programmer would select four Ronald Reagan films. In a private message Gipper told me he wanted to focus on the actor’s Warner Brothers output. Specifically, he said “I think they are a good representation of his career. They show how he could do comedy as well as dramas.”

BROTHER RAT (1938) —- He met first wife Jane Wyman while filming, and it shows they had chemistry both on and off screen. It was also his first comedy, based on a popular Broadway play.

DARK VICTORY (1939) — his first “A” picture with major stars like Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart (both Oscar winners). Though he received fifth billing, he held his own and gives a great performance despite being in only a few scenes.

KNUTE ROCKNE ALL-AMERICAN (1940) — Again, despite not appearing in the entire film, he gives his most memorable performance. A role he fought for and won (with help from Pat O’Brien).

KINGS ROW (1942) — It’s considered his best role and an outstanding performance. The scene when he discovers his legs have been amputated and utters ‘Where’s the rest of me?’ (the title of his 1965 autobiography) was done in one take.