Coming up in January

Classic resolutions…things movie characters resolve to do in 2017.

Jane Wyman melodramas…it’s Jane’s 100th birthday.

Occupations seldom represented in movies…not everyone is a lawyer or a doctor. Or a drug dealer.

A discussion about BYE BYE BIRDIE…TCM message board poster RayBan chats with me about a popular musical.

Interiors and memories…two films by the same director elicit different reactions.

Dennis Morgan & Jack Carson…remembering two buddies at Warner Brothers in the 40s.

Pauline Kael’s observations…sometimes what a film critic says is exactly right.

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Join me in January!

Essential: THE FRANCIS EFFECT (2014)

This type of documentary probably appeals to two main groups. The first group would be die-hard Catholics who feel Pope Francis is the best thing since sliced bread from heaven. They believe he will help restore the Church to glory. The second group would consist of lapsed Catholics who are checking back in to see if improvements are really occurring.

The documentary was made in 2014, about a year after Francis assumed power. So, technically, while a lot had happened in those initial twelve months, it was a relatively short window of time to effectively gauge anything substantial about the holy man and his actions. It should also be mentioned that this is a propaganda piece. It features reporter Sebastian Gomes (pictured below, shaking the pontiff’s hand); and is produced by Salt + Light, a Canadian Catholic media group.

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Though somewhat lopsided in its presentation of facts, I think it is to the filmmakers’ credit how they include counterclaims– or at least questions of doubt that may arise about the new papal authority. For instance, we are asked if this is just a honeymoon phase with Francis, and if he will eventually be flummoxed by the deep-rooted hierarchical issues that drove his predecessor out of power and into a self-imposed, historic early retirement. Also, there is some concern that Francis focuses less on Scripture than other popes. It is questioned whether he may lead followers to a weakening of the Church’s moral center because of his relativism with statements on homosexuality and the role of women.

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The film also touches on scandals that have affected the Church in recent years. The clerical abuse cases are gone over, and so is the financial reform of the Vatican. No quick solutions are rendered. But we do get a sense that Francis’ journey is a profound one. He has a very specific vision of what his place is in history. And how he can reach the people who share his faith, even if it’s been severely tested.

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THE FRANCIS EFFECT can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Year in review 2016

TCM has scheduled its annual In Memoriam programming on the 29th of December. Several more beloved stars of the golden age have left us, and they will be honored. People like Gloria DeHaven, a talented golden age star of Hollywood, whose career peaked in the 1940s and 50s. I did a special series on her a few years ago.

TCM will also be honoring stars from more recent decades, including George Kennedy. His skill as a performer is evidenced in almost every genre. He appeared in all four AIRPORT films during the 1970s. If that doesn’t earn him a special page in a movie trivia book, I don’t know what does.

With TCM I celebrate Gloria and George, as well as the others whose films are airing on the 29th. There are some whose films are not being shown– Noreen Corcoran; George Gaynes; James Douglas; Ken Howard; Anne Jackson; Doris Roberts; William Schallert; Hugh O’Brian; Pierre Etaix; Zsa Zsa Gabor; Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. I salute them, too.

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Besides looking back, this is also a time to look forward. I have a few special series planned for the coming months. There will be columns that focus on legends whose last screen work receives little fanfare. (How does someone go from being a big splash to being mostly forgotten?) And I will continue to cover the on-going trials of Hedy Lamarr. Let’s face it– Hedy was always news. Even after her death, she continues to cast a very powerful spell over classic movie lovers.

Plus I will keep celebrating the films of David Selznick; start looking over Pauline Kael’s reviews; and at some point, I want to shine a spotlight on the achievements of the poverty row studios. There’s a lot of interesting stuff ahead. Happy New Year!

Essential: WAR CHILD (2008)

This film will probably make you cry. I cried at the horror of what children go through in war. And I cried at how a Sudanese war child named Emmanuel Jal survived it and chose to use his experiences to inspire others. So you might say these were tears of sorrow followed by tears of joy.

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Emmanuel is kind of a human chameleon. My guess is he became that way, because in order to survive, he had to quickly adapt. If you look at images of him now, eight or nine years after this documentary was produced, he has evolved even more as an artist and as a human being. In fact, you might never know what sort of background he had in the 1980s and 1990s. He’d likely tell you his evolution is not complete, but it’s certainly been remarkable.

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What I love about this documentary is how it’s not done as a propaganda piece, though it certainly could have been. And it’s not done to promote the music he creates as a hip-hop musician. In fact, he seems too smart and too sincere to be crassly commercial. But the music is definitely featured on the soundtrack, and it’s a large part of his identity. He tells viewers the music is his way to remember his people, what they went through, and how he can educate as well as entertain today’s audiences. You might say it’s about putting down a gun and picking up an instrument or a microphone and letting the song overtake the violence.

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Another great thing about this documentary is how the editors have spliced in footage of Emmanuel as a child. His mother died and his father was arrested, so at a tender age he and thousands of orphans were taken off to refugee camps. International news reporters “discovered” him in the camps. Because his personality was so vivid as a youngster, he was a natural on camera– there is interesting footage of him being interviewed by CNN and other news organizations. This is juxtaposed with his modern-day visits to children in schools, where he tells the kids what happened to him. Some of it is shocking.

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At one point, he talks about how he and the others were used to gain the sympathy of U.N. relief workers. This was done to make sure the U.N. gave them food and other supplies. But the U.N. was unaware that the kids were also being trained as soldiers to kill. Emmanuel describes how he and his peers wanted revenge on those who had slaughtered or imprisoned their parents. So they became warriors fixated on a cause. A lot of them moved around from one African region to the next and were shot in battle. It makes Emmanuel’s survival all the more astonishing.

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WAR CHILD can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Christmas Carol(e)s

Carole Lombard began her screen career as Carol Lombard. Somewhere along the way she picked up an extra ‘e.’ Once when she was traveling across the ocean, she pretended to be a Scandinavian princess. But Fred MacMurray knew she was really an actress playing a role, and after she realized she couldn’t fool him, she fell in love with the guy.

Carole Landis‘ movie career started in the late 30s. She was blessed with beauty, poise and plenty of natural talent. At one point she inherited a baseball team in Flatbush, but Lloyd Nolan got in the way. This occurred after she had lived in a cave with Victor Mature.

Carol Burnett is known for her variety show on television. But she has appeared in movies, too. She’s worked with people like Dean Martin, Lucille Ball, Harvey Korman and Alan Alda. She never worked with Tarzan, but she could yell just like him.

Carol Channing enjoyed great success in the stage version of ‘Hello Dolly.’ She also found time to appear on screen. For instance, she played Clint Eastwood’s girl in THE TRAVELING SALESLADY; and she was thoroughly entertaining in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. She even got mixed up with Jackie Gleason in SKIDOO. But after a while, he told her to skidaddle.

 

STAR of David

As an independent producer, David Selznick made important films in the 1930s and 1940s. The 1937 version of A STAR IS BORN was one of his greatest successes.

He had made a similar picture four years earlier at RKO– WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?– directed by George Cukor. But Cukor did not want to do another Cinderella story about an actress, so the new project was handed over to William Wellman. A team of writers collaborated with Wellman on the main points, but David’s goal of doing a ‘message film’ about Hollywood drove everything.

The message was one the remakes tend to ignore– that Hollywood is about real people, not just fabricated situations. David envisioned A STAR IS BORN to be almost semi-documentary.

He purposely did not hire a glamorous star to play the neophyte performer; he chose Janet Gaynor, who could believably portray a humble and self-effacing fish out of water. Similarly, a popular matinee idol was not chosen to play the leading man. Instead, Fredric March was hired to project the inner frustrations of an actor ‘losing it.’ David selected real stars who were not going to behave like pretend stars on the screen.

The most dramatic component of the story was the suicide scene and its immediate aftermath. Should Norman’s death be sacrificial and heroic, or should it be simple yet anguished? The production code office was consulted. David did not want to glamorize Norman’s death with a scene that would overtake the picture and its message about the death of a real man.  Also, when Esther (a.k.a. Vicki Lester) accepts her award at the end, is she accepting it as herself, a new and possibly artificial Hollywood personality; or as the wife of a great but failed star?

It’s clear that in his memos, David Selznick counted on Janet Gaynor’s technical expertise to get the moment at the end across realistically. And in a letter thanking Fredric March after the picture was finished, he realized that they did succeed in giving the audience an honest look at what life in the movies is all about.

 

Essential: THE JEWISH CARDINAL (2013)

My grandmother’s family was Jewish. They converted to Catholicism when they came to America. So in that regard, I identify with the main character of this movie, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was a man from a Jewish family who embraced Catholicism, despite fundamental differences between the Judaic and Christian cultures.

THE JEWISH CARDINAL, also known as LE METIS DE DIEU, is a French telefilm. The production values are outstanding and most of it seems to have been shot on location. Settings include the Archdiocese in Paris where Lustiger worked, as well as the Vatican where he was occasionally summoned to meet the pope; and of course, Auschwitz which figures prominently in the last third of the story. The title in French means ‘half-breed’ or ‘cross-breed’ of God. Lustiger called himself a metis when describing his dual faith.

Lustiger’s position as a high-ranking cardinal met with controversy. In this dramatization the conflicts he experiences are realistically portrayed by Laurent Lucas. Lustiger often ran the risk of alienating traditional Jews who might have felt he betrayed the faith by accepting Christ as the messiah; and Christians who might not have been much different from Nazis in their anti-semitism. It was a fine balancing act; he was in the middle of issues that involved both groups– especially the acknowledgment of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.

This film was made by a Jewish director, which is to its advantage. It delicately explores the anti-semitism of Catholics as well as the wiseness of Catholics who recognize the connection their church has to Jewish faith and culture. But more critically, the story examines problems that occurred in the mid-1980s when Carmelite nuns refused to move a convent they had established at Auschwitz. Lustiger and his contemporaries had meetings to address the situation, but the nuns (the film’s villains) had no intention of leaving. This became a political nightmare as well as a religious and cultural dilemma. In some ways, the pope supported the nuns so their convent and the church’s presence in Poland could stand in defiance to Communist control over the country.

Eventually, Lustiger was able to reach the pope on not only a spiritual level, but an emotional and patriotic one. For as we know, Pope John Paul II was really Karol Wojtyla, a Polish-born man. Auschwitz signified the suffering of Jews (which could be interpreted as a symbol of the suffering of Jesus) but it also signified the suffering of the Polish people under the Nazis. The film ends with Lustiger’s death, but not before telling us the pope did convince the nuns to relocate their convent to a nearby location. The film’s conclusion also underscores the fact that Auschwitz did not become a center for Christian matyrdom, but rather a museum about Jewish history.

When I finished watching the film, I felt the Catholic church might be compared to Communism. Members of the Church (the Carmelite nuns in this case) try to tell the world how to believe (by erecting a cross at Auschwitz) in the same way communists and atheists try to tell the world how not to believe. Also, in several instances, it seemed as if these holy men were grappling with earthbound concerns as opposed to higher spiritual ones.

THE JEWISH CARDINAL was directed by Ilan Duran Cohen and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.