Early Technicolor

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I recently had the opportunity to view the 1930 Eddie Cantor musical comedy Whoopee!, and while I cannot recommend watching it in its entirety (due to its not being a fine example of the genre and its extensive racism), I must say that there is something very interesting about the way it was filmed. I am talking about the two-strip Technicolor process that it and more than 35 other full-length feature films employed between the years of 1929 and 1931, when Hollywood was aggressively experimenting with techniques to maintain and bolster movie attendance in the early days of sound film.

During this period, musicals were the novelty of the moment, and Hollywood produced them in abundance, although audiences quickly overdosed on them.  Whoopee! boasts a number of still-recognizable songs, such as Eddie Cantor’s performances of the suggestive “Makin’ Whoopee” and the tamer “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”  There is also dancing, with a chorus of cowboys and cowgirls … Read the rest

Double Indemnity (1944)

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Double Indemnity (1944). Directed by Billy Wilder. Starring Fred MacMurray (as Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (as Phyllis Dietrichson), and Edward G. Robinson (as Barton Keyes). Screenplay by Raymond Chandler.

Double Indemnity manages to do something many may have thought impossible: it makes the insurance business seem sexy, exciting, and dangerous. In this film noir, insurance salesman Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) drops by the house of Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck) to renew her husband’s auto policy one afternoon, and eventually, due to his sleazy infatuation with Mrs. Dietrichson, he consents to forging new life insurance papers for her husband that she can use to cash in on an enormous sum once she has tidily eliminated him. It does not take long for the seemingly decent Neff to succumb to Mrs. Dietrichson’s wiles, and soon he is masterminding the plot not only to kill Mr. Dietrichson but to do it in the most profitable way: via a double … Read the rest

Movies from the Trenches: Marx Brothers Memoirs

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Review of two Marx Brothers memoirs: Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx (1959) and Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber (1962)

If you are searching for information about how the Marx Brothers made their films or how some of their most famous routines developed, you will probably be disappointed by both Groucho and Me and Harpo Speaks!  In their respective autobiographies, neither Groucho nor Harpo Marx is really interested in providing us with a behind-the-scenes look at their film work.  Harpo is, it must be pointed out, particularly generous with descriptions of the siblings’ theatrical tenure and their early days on the road. Astonishingly, though, neither brother really spends much time dissecting his later work in Hollywood.

Yet there is so much rich and wonderful detail given here about the private lives of these two famous Depression-era film stars.  Harpo focuses much of his narrative on his youth in New York and subsequent astonishing entrance into the famed … Read the rest

Movies from the Trenches: SF Symphony’s “Vertigo”

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On February 12, 2016, the San Francisco Symphony screened Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) at Davies Symphony Hall with live orchestral accompaniment.  Live accompaniment is a popular trend in vintage movie presentation: in similar fashion, a national tour of The Wizard of Oz with live orchestra made the rounds in the summer of 2015, and the San Francisco Symphony plans to perform the ET soundtrack in March of 2016.  It seems to me that Vertigo is probably one of the most desirable films to see and hear in this way.  Its astonishing score by Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator, is a symphonic landmark and Herrmann’s personal favorite of his many compositions.  Given the high quality of the music (let alone of the film itself, which was ranked number one on Sight and Sound’s 2015 poll of the greatest movies ever made), this seemed the perfect opportunity for me to explore the phenomenon of live soundtrack recreation.

Live accompaniment in the … Read the rest

42nd Street (1933)

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42nd Street (1933).  89 minutes.  Directed by Lloyd Bacon.  Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley.  Starring Ruby Keeler (as Peggy Sawyer), Warner Baxter (as Julian Marsh), Bebe Daniels (as Dorothy Brock), George Brent (as Pat Denning), Guy Kibbee (as Abner Dillon), Ginger Rogers (as Ann Lowell), and Dick Powell (as Billy Lawler).  Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

42nd Street is the first of four movies whose musical sequences Busby Berkeley directed for Warner Bros. from 1933 to 1934.  Prior to 42nd Street, Berkeley had directed theatrical productions and short sequences for Eddie Cantor musicals, but 42nd Street was a different sort of vehicle, both for Berkeley and for Hollywood.  According to Leonard Maltin, by 1933 movie-going audiences, which had been inundated with musicals since the birth of sound film technology a few years earlier, had grown tired of song-and-dance productions.  As a musical that was also a backstage story, 42nd Street offered a fresh … Read the rest

Alice in Wonderland (1933)

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Alice in Wonderland (1933). 77 minutes. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Starring Charlotte Henry (as Alice), W. C. Fields (as Humpty Dumpty), Cary Grant (as the Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (as the White Knight), Edna May Oliver (as the Red Queen), Edward Everett Horton (as the Hatter), and Charles Ruggles (as the March Hare). Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies.

The 1933 Alice in Wonderland is an important early sound attempt at transforming a fantasy children’s novel into a live-action full-length feature film.  It conflates Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass to bring us a sprawling tale of a girl’s fantastic journey through the strange landscape of her dreams.  The screenplay was adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and the visually inventive William Cameron Menzies, and the cast features some of the brightest stars of Golden Age cinema. The film was, however, considered a flop at the time of its release and has never … Read the rest

Holiday Inn (1942)

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Holiday Inn (1942). 102 minutes. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Starring Bing Crosby (as Jim Hardy), Fred Astaire (as Ted Hanover), Marjorie Reynolds (as Linda Mason), Virginia Dale (as Lila Dixon), and Walter Abel (as Danny Reed). Story and songs by Irving Berlin. Choreography by Danny Dare.

Holiday Inn is a clever, Christmas-oriented spin on the “let’s put on a show” variety of Golden Age musical. It features Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as New York stage entertainers. Along with Virginia Dale, they form a song-and-dance trio that at the beginning of the film is slated for its farewell performance. Lila Dixon (played by Dale) plans to marry Jim Hardy (played by Crosby) and retire with him to a farm in Connecticut, but on the evening of their last show she reveals that she is in love with Ted Hanover (played by Astaire) and keen to keep on singing and dancing with him.  Crosby recovers quickly and in stride in a … Read the rest

Cat People (1942)

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Cat People featured image. Detail from original movie poster.

Cat People (1942). 73 minutes.  Directed by Jacques Tourneur.  Starring Simone Simon (as Irena Dubrovna Reed), Kent Smith (as Oliver Reed), Jane Randolph (as Alice Moore), and Tom Conway (as Dr. Louis Judd).  Produced by Val Lewton.

For a B-grade horror movie about a woman who can transform into an animal, Cat People is a surprisingly sensitive and human story.  This film achieves much more than we would expect from a typical B picture.  In fact, it offers a mixture of subtlety, sophistication, and inventiveness that would be difficult for any movie to achieve.  All throughout we hear the mysterious, part-feline protagonist Irena Dubrovna Reed articulate her loneliness, her need for warmth, and her fear that something evil resides within her.  As she puzzles over her true nature, we watch her marriage to her newlywed husband Oliver deteriorate and see how its demise fuels her longing and isolation.  It would appear that her relationship with Oliver is the only substantial … Read the rest

Dames (1934)

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Dames (1934). 91 minutes. Directed by Ray Enright. Musical direction by Busby Berkeley. Starring Dick Powell (as Jimmy Higgins), Ruby Keeler (as Barbara Hemingway), Joan Blondell (as Mabel Anderson), ZaSu Pitts (as Matilda Ounce Hemingway), Guy Kibbee (as Horace Peter Hemingway), and Hugh Herbert (as Ezra Ounce). Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

Warner Bros. could have called this movie Gold Diggers of 1934 and its title would have made at least as much sense as the one they settled on.  Much like the Gold Diggers movies, which I have reviewed previously (here and here), Dames focuses on characters who scheme to get their hands on an impressive sum of money and the way their lives intertwine with characters who are plotting to raise funds to put on a spectacular musical — all played by the usual Busby Berkeley suspects.  The first set of schemers is Matilda and Horace Hemingway, who stand to inherit millions … Read the rest

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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"The Lady From Shanghai" featured image. Detail from the original Italian movie poster.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947). 88 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles.  Starring Orson Welles (as Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (as Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (as Arthur Bannister), and Glenn Anders (as George Grisby).

The Lady from Shanghai is a sophisticated film noir about the difference between reality and illusion, but one could also say that it is a movie about creepy people doing creepy things in creepy places.  For the first-time viewer, it may seem most like a film that is struggling to be coherent in spite of its leaving the audience with many unanswered questions, such as: what does the husband know and when?  What are we to make of the wife’s mysterious past in Shanghai, her smoldering glances, and her inexplicable moodiness?  Did she marry her husband to protect a secret?  Is she in danger?  With dialogue such as “Everything’s bad.  You can’t fight it” and “It’s a bright, guilty world,” we might wonder where the characters’ bleak … Read the rest