The Blue Angel (1930)

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The Blue Angel (1930). 99 minutes. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Starring Emil Jannings (as Professor Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (as Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (as Kiepert, the magician), Hans Albers (as Mazeppa, the strongman), and Reinhold Bernt (as the clown).  Songs by Friedrich Holländer and Robert Liebmann.

Roger Ebert concludes his review of The Blue Angel by placing its characters in historical context: “You can glimpse the sadomasochism of the Nazi pose in the strange relationship of Professor Rath and Lola Lola.”  Although there are no explicit allusions to Hitler’s political movement in the 1930 film, Ebert’s suggestion that a creepy Nazi power dynamic is evident in the Jannings-Dietrich portrayal is provocative and probably accurate.  The Blue Angel was originally released in the years just before Germany’s official transformation into a Nazi state, and it surely picks up on those larger cultural currents.  But the film is also a weird sort of backstage musical that leaves a bad taste … Read the rest

Ball of Fire (1941)

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Ball of Fire (1941)

Ball of Fire (1941). 111 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Katherine “Pussyfoot” O’Shea), Gary Cooper (as Professor Bertram Potts), S. Z. Sakall (as Professor Magenbruch), Richard Haydn (as Professor Oddley), and Dana Andrews (as Joe Lilac). Screenplay by Billy Wilder.

If you have ever seen Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, you will immediately notice the similarities between it and Ball of Fire, whose screenplay Wilder also wrote. Both involve characters going on the lam in conjunction with mob activity, a sexy nightclub singer with a ridiculous name (Sugar Cane in Some Like It Hot, Pussyfoot O’Shea in Ball of Fire), and men who have to transform themselves temporarily into their opposites in order to secure a woman’s affections.  In Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon don female attire, with dirt-poor Curtis additionally and intermittently posing as a playboy millionaire in order to woo singer Marilyn … Read the rest

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

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Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). 64 minutes. Directed by Boris Ingster. Starring Peter Lorre (as the Stranger), John McGuire (as Michael Ward), Margaret Tallichet (as Jane), Charles Halton (as Albert Meng), and Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Joe Briggs).

Stranger on the Third Floor is a noir curiosity from 1940, cited by many as the first entry in the genre’s classic period, which spanned roughly from 1940 to 1959. I would say that it stars Peter Lorre, except that he barely appears or even talks in the movie until three quarters have elapsed—and yet Lorre was such an impressive actor at the time that he received top billing nevertheless.

Lorre is the reason to see this movie. He plays the weird and enigmatic Stranger, a curious fellow whom protagonist Michael Ward suspects of murdering a neighbor.  Lorre’s early silent appearances as the Stranger—lurking on the front stoop of Ward’s building, peeking out of a door on Ward’s apartment landing, peering … Read the rest

Notorious (1946)

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Notorious (1946)

Notorious (1946). 102 minutes.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Starring Ingrid Bergman (as Alicia Huberman), Cary Grant (as T. R. Devlin), Claude Rains (as Alex Sebastian), and Leopoldine Konstantin (as Madame Anna Sebastian).

Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is commonly described as an espionage thriller, but it is also a profound psychological drama and an ethical one, too—a movie that is not merely about notorious people but also about how we treat them.  It ranks with Vertigo and Rear Window as one of Hitchcock’s finest films.

At first we think we know who is notorious in this movie.  The film begins at the American trial of a famous Nazi spy.  We watch as his sentence is read, then see his daughter, Alicia Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) exit the courtroom. Surely the Nazi is the notorious one? But it turns out that the notorious person at the center of this story is not a Nazi: it is lovely Alicia Huberman.  We may come … Read the rest

King Kong (1933)

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King Kong (1933). Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Starring Fay Wray (as Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (as Carl Denham), and Bruce Cabot (as Jack Driscoll). Special effects by Willis O’Brien. Musical score by Max Steiner.

King Kong is an adventure film about a director (Carl Denham) who enlists a down-and-out actress (Ann Darrow) to join a crew of men and sail to a mysterious island location, where he plans to make a film.  He eventually tells his crew that the people who live on Skull Island, his destination, confine themselves to one part of the island, separated from the remaining territory by a large and ancient wall.  It is not immediately clear what lives beyond the wall, but Denham plans to film it.  We soon learn that the natives use the wall to enclose a monstrous, eighteen-foot-tall gorilla, whom they call Kong.

Early on in the film, Denham and his crew observe that the ancient forefathers … Read the rest

The Marx Brothers’ “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” and Popular Music

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Synopsis: Erin Elisavet Kozak, “The Marx Brothers’ ‘Everyone Says “I Love You’” in Film and Popular Music.” Published in The Discographer Magazine, vol. 3, no. 5 (April 2016): pp. 3-12.

When Peter Bogdanovich spoke with director Leo McCarey in the late 1960s about McCarey’s film Duck Soup (1933), Bogdanovich remarked: “A lot of people think it’s [the Marx Brothers’] best picture: there’s no harp or piano playing, no interludes, no love interest—those things slowed up their other comedies terribly…” The earlier Marx Brothers picture Horse Feathers (1932) contains all of the elements that Bogdanovich singles out as weaknesses, in particular musical interludes; but while many people might consider Duck Soup to be the Marx Brothers’ greatest cinematic achievement, the musical sequences in Horse Feathers, featuring Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s “Everyone Says ‘I Love You,’” boast some of their most memorable material.

In the first half of this article, I argue that the musical interludes of Horse FeathersRead the rest

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