The Actors: Rare Films Of Clara Bow Volume 3

We finished watching The Actors: Rare Films Of Clara Bow Volume 3 last night. Kid Boots was a cute Eddie Cantor vehicle. Clara Bow was Cantor’s character’s love interest. They made for a pairing. They actually had chemistry. She brought a breezy, natural quality to a simple role that would have been forgettable except for her. Cantor was funny with the faces and some mild slapstick, but the talkies unfettered his voice, and the marriage of his sound with his image showed how his star power vaulted him out of vaudeville. I never mind hearing any of his jokes that were hoary years before he said them. Maybe Boardwalk Empire will inspire an Eddie Cantor revival.

His silent is a stronger picture than The Saturday Night Kid talkie on the same disc, which we watched the other night.  The latter is a curiosity for containing Bow’s speaking voice and featuring three actresses at different stages of their careers–sweet Bow looking a little matronly-but-hot near the end of hers, Jean Arthur whose career wouldn’t pick up speed until the following decade when she hit her mid-to-late thirties, and soon to be a hit Jean Harlow in a bit role in a couple of scenes, including a rooftop party scene where she gets an edit that assures she does not upstage the leading ladies. The film is another adaptation of the play Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em. The first featured Louise Brooks. The second is directed by her ex.

An extra stuck on the disc got to me. There’s an excerpt from Paramount on Parade. Clara Bow sings I’m True to the Navy Now. She looks and sounds great, so the snippet teases of what might have been if Paramount and life had treated her better.  She does look up at times, but she is making flirtatious eye gestures, so she might not be showing microphone fear, and her choreography appears to be designed to diminish blocking worries. Whenever she sings, she stays in one spot and sways and undulates her arms. When she marches or fully dances, her naval chorus takes over the vocals. When the seamen lift her up at the end, I got teary seeing the screen queen looking happy and getting feted as she should have. She has such an innocence onscreen, and that makes me both sad and mad that these scenes may read differently to snarky modern audiences familiar with the false smear against her.

Some kind soul has uploaded a VHS transfer copy of her performance to YouTube. You’ll find it below.

For the Love of Film (Noir) Bloggers

It’s almost time for you to put on your reading glasses! In one week, the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon starts. From throughout the film blogosphere, writers are banding together for a great cause–to raise funds for film preservation. Every day more bloggers are answering the call to write about and raise funds for film noir. Their efforts are organized by The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films. I’m participating, and so are the others below.

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy
Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder
Ed Howard of Only the Cinema
Patricia Schneider at The Lady Eve’s Reel Life
Vanwall Green at Vanwall’s Land
Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark
Joshua Ranger of AudioVisual Preservation Solutions
Donna Hill at Strictly Vintage Hollywood
Ben Kenigsberg at Time Out Chicago
David Steece of Randomaniac
Beth Ann Gallagher at Spellbound
Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee
Jacqueline Fitzgerald of Film Noir Blonde
Bill Ryan at The Kind of Face You Hate
Betty Jo Tucker of Reel Talk Movie Reviews
R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector
Peter Gutierrez at Tribeca
Bob Fergusson at Allure
Steve-O at Film Noir of the Week and Back Alley Noir
Brian Darr at Hell on Frisco Bay
DeeDee at Darkness to Light
Hilary Barta at Limerwrecks
Hedwig Van Driel at As Cool as a Fruit Stand
Paula Vitaris at Paula’s Movie Page
Jacqueline T. Lynch at Another Old Movie Blog
Tinky Weisblat of In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens
Doug Bonner at PostModern Joan
Kevin Olson at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
Gareth at Gareth’s Movie Diary
Meredith of Or Maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax
Java Bean Rush
John Greco of Twenty-Four Frames
Vince Keenan at
Ivan G. Shreve of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Darren at The Movie Blog
Brandie of True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film
Mat Viola of Notes of a Film Fanatic
Joe Thompson from The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion
Bill Wren of Piddleville
Ms. Zebra of Germans Like Heavy Make-Up
Bryce Wilson of Things That Don’t Suck
Arthur S. at …thispig’s alley
Gautam Valluri of The Broken Projector
Christian Esquevin of Silver Screen Modiste
Caroline Shapiro at Garbo Laughs
Neil Sarver of The Bleeding Tree
John Weagly of Captain Spaulding on Skull Island
Hind Mezaina of The Culturist
Toby Roan of 50 Westerns from the 50s
David Cairns of Shadowplay
Craig Porlock of The Man from Porlock
Edward Copeland on Film
Laura of Laura’s Misc. Musings
Machelle Allman of Venetian Blond
Nicholas Pillai of Squeeze Gut Alley
Ben Alpers, Ray Haberski, David Sehat, Tim Lacy, and Andrew Hartman of the U.S. Intellectual History Blog
Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies
Mr. K of Mr. K’s Geek Cornucopia
Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine
Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles
The Derelict, at both Libertas and Dereliction Row
Noel Vera of Critic After Dark
MIchael Cusdin of Cinema Ramble
Kristen Sales of Sales on Film
Trish of I Wake Up Screaming
Dr. Morbius of Krell Laboratories
Jaime Christley of Unexamined Essentials
Gordon D of Blog THIS, Pal!
Kurt Norton and Paul Mariano of These Amazing Shadows Blog
David Ehrenstein of Fablog
Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun
Glenn Kenny of Some Came Running
Lou Lumenick of the New York Post
Catherine Grant of Film Studies for Free

If you are a film noir fan or plain movie buff, then you are in for a treat. Such a unique American genre will inspire equally unique reflections and reactions. You might even be inspired to check out some new-to-you films or revisit old favorites, and if you’re already inspired to contribute fiscally to the blogathon, here is the official donation link.

Added to the Must Watch List: Pina (2011)

I haven’t seen Black Swan yet, but I want to. From the trailer, it looks like a blender mix of Persona, The Red Shoes, Single White Female, and Gypsy. Natalie Portman suffered for the role in the way that wins an actress awards; she studied dance for over a year, and she lost at least twenty pounds to conform to the standard ballerina body-type that more than hints of self-denial, discipline, and eating disorders. Nothing about the film looks subtle. As a psychological horror film, I bet it will entertain as well as some other Grand Guignol films, but I’m not sure it will have the lasting camp or star power of its over-the-top sisters like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I’ve read that Black Swan does not have a lot of actual dancing in it.  I’ve seen Portman’s red carpet pics as she attends each award ceremony.  People are saying she’s a shoe-in to win the Oscar. There is so much hype about Black Swan, and I do not begrudge anyone involved their success or attention, but there’s another dance movie due to be released in the US soon that will get a soupçon of attention in comparison, and I don’t find that fair since it looks to be far more innovative and original than Black Swan. It’s Wim Wenders‘s Pina.

Here’s the trailer:

When I saw it, I thought about how so many times the movies do not get dance right. A film like The Red Shoes gets lauded because it works as a film and as a collaboration between media. Its filmmakers understood they were incorporating another art form, and they offered moviegoers and dance aficionados another way to view dance. The fantasy of film blended with the fantasy of dance, and where they met offered a new (sur)reality, and Moira Shearer‘s movements did not have to be hidden outside of the box of the screen because she could dance. Subject, casting, and forms were melded to create a masterpiece that inspires little girls to try ballet to this day. The cautionary tale they witness only echoes for the adults in the audience. Little girls see beauty and success on screen.

When I saw it, I was impressed by how Wim Wenders got it right. As a fan of choreographer Pina Bausch, he got to work with another artist that impressed him, and she got him thinking about new ways to show an older form. He frees her pieces from a stage or one setting and puts them places both simple and minimal (like their original stagings?) or in the midst of a bustling city or in the great outdoors. He takes advantage of the camera as a framing device to draw our eye to certain pieces of the performance or setting, but his camera isn’t static, and he pulls back to open up the scenes more and lets us see the full bodies of real dancers. In her choreography, she expresses different states of human emotion and the human condition. He gives her work a grander physical scale by blowing up her dancers and pieces to larger than life-size and by presenting everything in 3D. We may not be able to get to a city or country where we can watch a Bausch piece live, but Wenders’s format choice gets us closer to the experience of live theatre by freeing the dancers from his screen.

Pina Poster

For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon

For the Love of Film Noir Dame Medium Size

This month I’m participating in the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon. I caught on to last year’s too late to participate, but eighty-one other film bloggers raised $30,000 in donations and matching funds for film preservation. Two early shorts were saved.

This year’s beneficiary is the Film Noir Foundation. Headed by Eddie Muller, the foundation promotes the “cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement.” They organize screenings and festivals like Noir City, and they fund film restoration and preservation.

I’m excited to help a local organization restore a film, which probably will screen at the Castro Theatre when done.  The blogathon’s organizers (Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) have announced which film everyone’s efforts will save. It’s The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). My husband and I watched this noir on a VHS tape via inter-library loan a couple of years ago, and the film has stuck with me despite seeing it in that diminished state.

For one thing, the plot is based on a true story that occurred not far from where we live. Back in the thirties, a department store heir was kidnapped and then gruesomely murdered. The real life incident outraged the public, and many formed an unruly mob outside the county jail where the suspects were being held. They wanted vigilante justice; they wanted to lynch the murderers.

I don’t want share further details in case you want to be surprised by the film’s ending, but I’ll tease you with this next tidbit. Director Cy Endfield filmed some of the most terrifying, fictionalized mob sequences I’ve ever seen. Those scenes will stay with you and stick in your mind.

So will Lloyd Bridges‘s portrayal of sociopath Jerry Slocum. If you’re a fan of Robert Mitchum‘s portrayals of Max Cady (Cape Fear) or Harry Powell (Night of the Hunter), then Bridges work in The Sound of Fury will impress you as well.

Though he’s better know for his TV work or his stints in the Airplane! series today, the Sound of Fury shows he had a great cinematic presence, especially when given material that worked his acting chops. Slocum is not a buy-the-numbers villain. Bridges shows what extreme narcissism can do to a man’s psyche, how it can detach him from others, how it can lead him to pleasure seeking and easy money, how it can lead him to mercilessly pursue that lifestyle, and how it even can lead to murder. Bridges pulls no punches, and he never once shows the weakness of rationalizing a killer or making him likable. Bridges is riveting as Slocum because Bridges shows how easy it is to be evil.

If I have not worked you up enough for the blogathon, then watch its commercial below. It’s full of sexy, seamy, smokey, slap-happy scenes of film noir.

Le Schpountz (1938)

This weekend a cattle call was held for Steven Soderbergh’s new film Contagion. I thought about going and trying to be an extra. Then I read an article about Saturday’s casting session. Thousands of people showed up. All were hoping to be caught on camera a moment and thus be immortalized or at least earn some bragging rights and easy dough. When I saw a picture of the lines and read that non-union extras would make $64 a day plus meals, my own little fantasy went poof. Everyone who loves movies would love to be in one. I’m no exception, but I have a strong practical side, and it asked me, “Why lose hours waiting to audition for something that even if won would amount to so little?” Perhaps I was influenced by the latest movie I am watching, Le Schpountz.

Le Schpountz stars beloved French comedian Fernandel. He is the title character. Schpountz seems to be a hard word to translate. One source says it means simple-minded, while another describes it as a country bumpkin, while a third states it’s a person with an overblown sense of self-importance. Marseillais filmmaker Marcel Pagnol became familiar with a schpountz on the set of Angèle. Convinced he was an undiscovered star, a local man pestered Pagnol and his crew daily. They grew tired of his antics and gave him a fake contract which promised him not just any role, but one that was supposed to be Charles Boyer‘s.

Le Schpountz echoes Pagnol’s experience. Fernandel plays Irénée. He toils away in his uncle‘s shop daydreaming of a better life. When a film crew experiences car trouble and stops to buy a pan, Irénée is convinced a divine intervention has happened. Still in his pajamas he hops on the back of their car to follow them. Once he befriends them, he rushes back home and dresses in his best suit to present himself to them properly. He needs their validation, and he performs a number to show them his talent. He doesn’t realize they are mocking him, and he is taken when presented a contract offering fantastic terms that no diva or divo ever had the presumption to demand. He will go to Paris to his stardom.

Here is the majority of the scene where the concept of a schpountz is explained:

The filmmakers are presented as an arrogant sort. They know the excitement their presence generates, and they know that a good number of the people they meet will want something from them–affirmation, yet those people drawn to the crew can recognize their own fault in others, but not themselves. They are comedic, but ultimately more sympathetic.

And everything turns meta when Irénée auditions. After all he is Fernandel, and Fernandel has presence and he can entertain. We laugh at his antics not only because his character is silly, but also because such silliness is played with great skill and charisma.

I was too tired from my Utah trip to finish the film the other night, but I’m looking forward to watching the rest with my husband tonight. I’m eager to see what happens to Irénée when he reaches Paris. He can live the dream for all of us, wherever Pagnol decides it takes Irénée.

The Bore Who Came To Dinner

The Man Who Came to Dinner Poster

My husband and I went on a holiday movie spree between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. In order to make the roster, the film had to be at least set during a holiday. It needn’t be a holiday classic. I kept putting off watching one of his selections, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). I’d seen it before when I was much younger, and I wasn’t excited to watch the film again. To me the film should have been called The Bore Who Came to Dinner.

Monty Woolley plays the title character, Sheridan Whiteside. He’s a wit and a well-known radio personality. He milks his fame travelling the country giving lectures and enjoying the hospitality of the famous and/or rich. Basically, he’s a 1940s version of a media darling, save for the darling part. He’s really a holy terror who gives tongue lashings to those he perceives as beneath him or annoying, which would be most people. The few he spares are those rare folk as or more famous than himself. He sickeningly fawns over that small lot.

The plot starts with him visiting a small Ohio town to give a lecture. Before he does, a businessman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell) are to host him at dinner. The husband wasn’t looking forward to the dinner, and it turns into a disaster even before it can happen. Whiteside slips on their icy front steps, promises to sue them for criminal negligence for a frightful sum even by today’s standards, and takes their home hostage as he recovers.

He’s accompanied by his personal secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis). She’s the film’s female romantic lead. The break in her schedule gives her a shot at romance. She gets to know a local reporter Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). His writing skills go beyond the headline. He’s a budding playwright. Cutler comes to love him and his work, which she champions to an uninterested Whiteside.

It’s interesting to see Davis in the sort of working girl role that Joan Crawford tended to play. Cutler’s role needed someone softer than Crawford, and Davis plays her as the reasonable presence in the household. She’s intelligent, capabale, and underneath her professional shell–nice. Most of her wardrobe are practical and plain, appropriate for a personal secretary. There are no flashy clothes or expensive fabrics that an image conscious star would want.

Davis looks on the older age range of acceptability for the role. Her hairstyle while typical for their period tends to look a little aging and matronly by today’s standards. Her hairdo isn’t as unflattering as Norma Shearer’s in The Women.  Travis was slightly younger than Davis, and the camera registers a slightly greater age difference.

This stresses the relationship may be Cutler’s last shot at love. She prepares to leave Whiteside, who refuses to break in a new secretary. He meddles in her love life as well as with the children of his hosts. The film’s second half deals with his machinations, their results, and the fall-out. Since this is a holiday comedy, I don’t think it’s spoilery to say things eventually work-out, but I never buy into the redemption of Whiteside. It’s not completely the fault of the original source material.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote the play version of The Man Who Came to Dinner as a tribute and a vehicle for their friend Alexander Woollcott. For the American public, he has the lustre of having been part of the Algonquin Round Table. Kaufman and Hart were inspired by a real-life incident in which Woollcott took over Hart’s home like Sheridan Whiteside takes over the Stanley’s. They knew how Woollcott could entertain and terrorize, and they wrote some sharp lines that reflect that fact.

The fault lies more with Monty Woolley’s performance. He positively revels in Whiteside’s nastiness too much. His white teeth flash beneath his mustache when he clearly enunciates each insult like the bared teeth of a nippy terrier. Whiteside is a man whose intellect and achievement lifted him up from where he started as a cub reporter. The character has a lot of hubris about that, but where lies his charm? I’m not claiming the character has to be softened, but one of the shades needed for the performance is missing. A man like Whiteside is only allowed to continue his bad behavior because he charms, he has to let us in on his side, make us conspirators.

Woolley never does that, so Whiteside’s redemptive moment falls flat. When he gets that figurative mirror held up to his face and is shown all the horrible things he has done, I never got the sense that he was sorry. It seemed more like he couldn’t think of himself of capable of being that base and had to act to compensate for his almost shattered self-image, especially since he reverts back to type at the film’s end. Mr. Stanley was right to grouse about the bore coming to his dinner!

Amália Rodrigues & Fred Astaire

I’ve been enjoying NPR’s 50 Great Voices series, and the holiday break gave me a chance to catch up with some missed episodes, including their piece on Amália Rodrigues. Since I’m half Portuguese, I enjoy finding instances where Portuguese and American culture collide, mix, and transmute. Rodrigues embraced other cultures’ musical traditions in order to offer her unique spin on fado, and that combined with her voice and emotive range turned her into an icon celebrated long past her death. The NPR reporter brought up an anecdote involving Rodrigues and Fred Astaire that I hadn’t heard before.

Rodrigues went to New York for a risky throat operation. Doctors weren’t sure if her voice would recover from the procedure. Depressed, Rodrigues considered killing herself with sleeping pills. Instead she ended up watching Fred Astaire movies in her hotel room. The man that had gotten so many Americans through the Great Depression by offering some hope and cheer via the big screen worked his magic through the small screen.  He helped Rodrigues through her depression. She didn’t kill herself, and she underwent what turned out to be a successful surgery. Her voice fully recovered, and she returned to Portugal, and her subsequent concerts added to her legend.

A clip of the singer performing Barco Negro in the film Les Amants du Tage (1955) follows. While the film is French and in French, she keeps her lyrics in their original Portuguese. The camera breaks away from her to further the plot by having characters translate her song for the female lead, and once they’ve said enough for the song to resonate for both leads and the film’s audience, the cameraman wisely returns to Rodrigues for the song’s climax. Her charisma is palpable. For English subtitles, click the closed captioning box.

Charlie Chaplin Drag

Thanks to Project Rungay, I discovered designer John Galliano used comedian Charlie Chaplin as chief inspiration for the staging of his latest menswear show. It started with a model in Charlie Chaplin drag popping out of a clock reminiscent of the one from Modern Times while a sound excerpt from another Chaplin film, The Great Dictator, played.  Then as the dance beats took over various Chaplins paraded down the catwalk joined by Buster Keaton and maybe Max Linder. Eventually recognizable icons gave way to pretty boys who looked like they had escaped from a German Expressionist film via a late 80s night club. I’m not sure the show was cohesive in styling or even in its references, but it is a curiosity to watch as you can see below.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Pass

I bought my San Francisco Silent Film Festival pass today. Last year I missed the festival. I chose to do something else, like get married and take a honeymoon, that month instead. I’m returning to a newly expanded festival.

Traditionally the festival’s opening night was on a Friday, while Saturday and Sunday offered full days’ worth of screenings. This year the festival opens on Thursday night, and and Friday eases us into the weekend with screenings starting in the afternoon. Saturday and Sunday still sport all-day screenings.

That means this is the year I pack a cushion! My pass entitles me entry to all sixteen films. Previously attending opening night required purchasing a ticket for just that night.

While some of the films are available on DVD, there’s nothing like seeing them on a large screen accompanied by live musicians with an appreciative crowd. In some ways, this film festival is a music festival as well. Orchestras, ensembles, and solo artists have prepared their own scores to accompany the films. The popular Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra returns as do Stephen Horne, Dennis James, and Alloy Orchestra. I do not remember hearing the Matti Bye Ensemble, Donald Sosin, or Chloe Veltman before.

Crowd watching is fun. Some attendees turn the theatre aisles into a catwalk, and they dress in real or repro vintage. Those willing to put in the most effort will be done up from head-to-toe in period appropriate garb and styling. Usually there are a lot of flappers in attendance, but every so often someone appears to be from the teens. The silent film fashionistas sit on the main floor in order to garner the most looks and compliments.

Most of this year’s films look to be from the twenties, a reminder that many earlier films have been lost. For those interested in preservation, two FREE matinées from the series Amazing Tales of the Archives act like mini-courses. On Friday, June 16 at 11:30 AM, preservationists discuss lost and found films. On Sunday, July 18 at 10 AM, another set offer First the Bad News. . .then the Good!

The featured films are international in origin. The US is represented by The Iron Horse, The Cook, Pass the Gravy, Big Business, The Flying Ace, The Strong Man, The Shakedown, and The Woman Disputed. A Spray of Plum Blossoms, a Shakespeare adaptation, showcases Chinese silent cinema. Italy has Rotaie, a romantic tragedy. Germany scores two representations with the newly restored and extended Metropolis and the Louise Brooks cult favorite Diary of a Lost Girl. Denmark and Sweden have a co-entry with Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. The USSR experimental Man with a Movie Camera will be sure to confound. And France closes the festival with L’heureuse mort.

For those needing to know more about film, a book table will proffer all sorts of goodies, and there will be many author event signings. This latter schedule seems to be updating constantly, so I recommend checking the official festival blog for exact details. That blog is also great for all sorts of musings and facts concerning the festival and silent film in general. In fact, the festival brochure decorating this page was appreciatively re-appropriated from that other blog.

Susan and God (1940)

Norma Shearer may have turned down the role of Susan because she thought the role aging (She couldn’t admit to being old enough to have a teenaged daughter), but she would have shown better instincts for avoiding such an unlikeable character in order to protect her screen persona.

Joan Crawford shows no such compunction. She throws herself into the role, and at times she appears to be playing Norma Shearer playing Susan. If you’ve seen Norma Shearer playing the fast-talking, scatterbrained heroine of Noël Coward‘s Private Lives, you’ll know what I mean. Compare those heroines’ mannerisms.

Susan is a nasty piece of work. A socialite, she follows every new fad, always eager for a new experience and never once thinking of the shattered family she left behind. She joins a movement and claims to have found God, and in the name of her new calling, she plays with her friends’ lives. She zeroes in on their weaknesses and indiscretions and then confronts them to confess their sins to their peers.

Susan herself is guilty of spiritual bypass. The only sin she’ll confess is touching up her hair, but she’s neglected her daughter and let her husband (Fredric March) slide into alcoholism with nary an effort to save him. She’s too busy focusing on herself and “saving” others.

It’s only when March’s Barrie strikes a deal with Susan that she deigns to spend any time with her family. If Barrie cannot stay sober while Susan lives with them for the summer, then he finally will grant her the divorce she’s been haranguing him for. Over the season, he hopes to win back his wife and give his daughter a mother, while Susan awaits his relapse.

Frankly it’s hard to see why Barrie still carries a torch for Susan, even if she’s Crawford during her most glamorous period, but it’s easy to see how badly their socially inept daughter Blossom needs her mother. Rita Quigley‘s Blossom is heartbreaking in how easily she lights up and then gives up whenever Mother’s momentary attention is withdrawn. It’s for her sake you’ll wish for Barrie to win his wager.