dancer

Let’s fight the Monday Mehs with THE TAP AWAKENS!

Let’s fight the Monday Mehs together! I guarantee THE TAP AWAKENS by Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox will bring a smile to almost anyone’s face. The group rearranges famous STAR WARS songs into a jazz medley, complete with a tap dancer to add percussive elements.

You don’t have to be a huge STAR WARS fan to enjoy the band’s performance. I consumed the original trilogy as a kid; I owned merchandise like action figures and slept in branded bed sheets; and I played STAR WARS instead of cops and robbers with friends, but I can’t claim they’re what turned me into a film fanatic, even with Han Solo being my first cinematic crush.

Awareness of and exposure to STAR WARS are hard to avoid. The movies are part of our shared cultural consciousness. They’ve been rereleased for home and theatre viewing repeatedly, which has allowed these fan favorites to be passed down to multiple movie-going generations. The songs will be familiar to you.

What’ll be new is seeing their performance turned into an vaudeville-style number and envisioning gold-clad, high energy Sarah Reich as a dancing, female C-3PO. If her enthusiasm or that image doesn’t bring a smile to your face, you might need more caffeine to get you through the rest of today!

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Happy Easter!

Ann Miller Easter Top Hat 1946

Easter greetings from Spellbound HQ! I hope yours was lovely. For a last moment of celebratory fun, here’s Easter Parade star Ann Miller wearing a truly unique variation of the Easter bonnet. Inside her floral, hinged top hat sits a real, living rabbit. Miller and rabbit look nonplussed, and the actress does her best to make the look chic.

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Review: Debra Paget, For Example (2015)

Beautiful, classic film era actress Debra Paget never quite became an A-list star. Despite being in some high profile films, she was mostly relegated to genre roles, usually playing exotic parts and often wearing skimpy and skin-tight costuming. Filmmaker Mark Rappaport chose her as the subject of one of his latest video essays, Debra Paget, For Example (2015), that’s part career biography, part examination of studio era Hollywood, and part personal digression into side topics or characters that interest him.


Rappaport performs a sort of archaeology with classic film elements. The majority of his movie is comprised of clips from Paget’s films. He allows some excerpts to play straight through, while with others he creates new scenes by making collages with with his selected images and moments. At times the material shown simply supports the biography. Other times it’s used to illustrate points. Because of the material he’s working with, a video made in his Paris apartment on a Mac with Final Cut Pro has an expensive, glamorous look. Aspirational DIY filmmakers could be inspired by how easy it would be technology-wise to create their own movies without ever leaving home.


When the documentary opens, Rappaport repeatedly superimposes the 2oth Century Fox logo over Paget’s face. This happens first in black and white and then in Technicolor. During her fifteen year film career, she was a contract player for the studio for eight years. Those were her career’s glory years. She once was third in the volume of fan mail received there, only being bested by Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. Getting beyond the surrealism of a logo appearing and disappearing through fade and reverse fade over her visage, the imagery suggests she was part of the studio, branded by it, and never bigger than it. She will always be part of its story and vice versa.


The director narrates the documentary and he attempts to provide a female companion voice by having Caroline Simonds periodically speak Paget’s thoughts. Simonds never really says anything to counter to Rappaport’s narration. Instead her lines bolster his point of view. Her lines don’t always ring true or come from a female point of view.


Rappaport brings up that in Paget’s film debut, Robert Siodmak‘s film noir Cry of the City (1948), it is weird that a fourteen year-old is the romantic love interest of thirty-eight year old Richard Conte‘s character. Simonds retrogradely asks, “Why is my mother allowing this?” Paget’s mother was a stage mother and pushed all of her children into performing careers, but her father was part of their family life. Either parent could have reviewed her potential roles and rejected parts or scenes. Ultimately that’s not the perspective of a fourteen year-old girl. Someone that age tends to think they’re more grown-up than they are. Paget might have thought Conte ancient as the young feel about anyone that much older than them, or she might have been so excited about playing such a dramatic role that the age difference might not have been on her mind, or she could have had an age inappropriate crush. Those are possibilities.


The filmmaker points out that Paget is repeatedly cast as older than her age. She later plays a college coed when she’s really high school age. There’s a suggestion that she was pushed into maturity working in an adult business. There’s a suggestion of how movies do sell us illusions. There’s a suggestion that the commodification of her charms had begun.


Rappaport evaluates Paget’s talents. In “her very first shot in her very first film,” he sees skill. “She knows how to walk across a room. Not as easy to do as you might think.” He praises her for being able to cry on demand. Essentially he goes on to say and show she could act, dance, and sing. She might have had a very different career as the musical film biography of John Philip Sousa Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) showed, except musical movies were on their way out.


The dark-haired-but-blue-eyed Paget found herself the studio’s go to woman for ethnic roles. She played Middle Eastern, Native American, South Sea island, and East Indian parts. For some films, she’d wear contact lenses to turn her eyes brown. She hated that because Kleig lights would heat the lenses up. Her thoughts on having her skin darkened for roles might not be recorded. Rappaport creates a sequence showing her many exotic parts. Not only does it highlight the absurdity of the films she was cast in, but also it acts like an odd sort of fashion show, and while the castings and characters were ethnically tone deaf, there’s a pleasure in seeing a beautiful woman wearing outlandish fashions in glorious Technicolor that makes everything prettier than it should be.

He discusses how sexualized her roles were. There’s the aforementioned skimpy and skin-tight outfits. In the Biblically inspired Ten Commandments (1956), her character was a sex slave, and the costuming had her braless. In Fritz Lang‘s The Indian Tomb (1959), she performs a bump and grind dance routine more suited to Las Vegas stages. Because of her image, Rappaport mentions how Paget was the first crush of many a boy. Those crushes may or may not have been innocent. I’m sure there was many a lad (and a lassie) who didn’t know why they adored the actress, who were getting a hint of what their budding sexualities were. Rappaport chooses to focus on the masturbatory fantasies she inspired. No mention is made of those who may have been influenced to be like the Paget they saw on the screen, a very different kind of wanting.

When the director digresses, parenthesis appear on the screen. They look like crescent moons, tying into the exotic mysticism of some of Paget’s parts. Digressions can be relevant, like when he compares Paget to Maria Montez, “The Queen of Kitsch.” Montez’s roles surpass Paget’s in outrageousness of performance and costuming as a montage shows. He appoints Paget “The Princess of Kitsch,” and then he says that one person’s kitsch may be another’s nostalgia, and he seems not to want to rob anyone of their pleasure in that nostalgia. Momentarily, he’ll focus on other performers because of their Jewishness or sexuality, Paget being the launching pad to that discussion. Despite the tangents, Rappaport covers a lot of of her life in little more than a half hour.


Even if I didn’t always agree with Rappaport, Debra Paget, For Example was a fun way to spend time. I’d seen the actress in multiple movies, but I’d never investigated her, and the documentary piqued my interest in seeing more of her films. I enjoy kitsch and camp. Within films not successful at being what their creators hoped them to be and getting remembered for the wrong reasons, there were performers like Paget working hard to make something out of a role and lucking into starring in moments of stunning imagery.

Note: I watched this movie as a paid subscriber to Fandor. You can view it here.

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The Silent Film Fanatic TCM Film Festival Preview!

TCMCFF 2015 Steamboat Bill Jr Poster

Classic film circles are abuzz about March’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. This year’s theme is History According to Hollywood, and many movie buffs are guessing what film favorites fitting that theme will screen. While the festival is only about a month away, its full schedule has not been announced yet. I’ve gone over what titles have been released to create a silent film fanatic preview.

The Grim Game Harry Houdini Fight Still

Harry Houdini in The Grim Game from the Kevin Connolly Collection

Rumored as lost, the Harry Houdini vehicle The Grim Game (1919) is another silent film with a strange-but-true rescue story. A retired juggler named Larry Weeks bought a complete print of the film back in 1947 from the Harry Houdini estate. He had shown it a few times, and he had been unwilling to sell it to any inquirers. In 2014 film scholar and preservationist Rick Schmidlin got a tip that Weeks owned the movie and successfully negotiated for TCM its purchase. Schmidlin oversaw the restoration, and it will make its world premiere at the festival.

The Grim Game is notable for being one of Houdini’s few feature films. Houdini stars as Harvey Hanford, who gets framed for murder. As if the stakes of clearing his name were not high enough, he must rescue his kidnapped fiancée, too. Like a number of Douglas Fairbanks‘s a films were designed to demonstrate his athleticism, Houdini’s movie offers him plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills as an illusionist, escape artist, and stuntman. There’s a dramatic airplane sequence that draws on his reputation as an aviator. The film sounds like a fun popcorn entertainment offering us a glimpse of a major 20th century performer at a career high.

Rick Schmidlin will be a special guest at the screening, and composer Brane Živković will conduct his score for the film live.

Lois Weber's Suspense Split Screen Still

One program gives the rare chance to watch films hand-cranked through a projector just like audiences of yesteryear. It’s The Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Films from 1902-1913. Showing movies in this manner relies on the projectionist’s ability to match his hand-cranking rhythm to the action depicted onscreen. If he cranks too fast, a sad scene can become a comedy, and if he cranks too slowly, a comedic scene plays at a dirge tempo. Hand-cranking is a test of hand-eye coordination and endurance.

For this screening, shorts in 35mm prints will be presented. Titles include a color-tinted version of Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon (1902), the Edison Company’s narrative leap forward The Great Train Robbery (1903), D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), and Lois Weber’s split-screen thriller Suspense (1913).

Managing Director of Preservation and Foundation Programs for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Randy Haberkamp will be a special guest at the screening.

Steamboat Bill Jr.

Buster Keaton‘s Steamboat Bill Jr. has two world premiere aspects. The comedy underwent a restoration that’s never been screened publicly before, and composer Carl Davis will conduct his brand-new score live. I see both of these as added bonuses of a film that would have pulled crowds even without them. Silent comedy is often a gateway to silent film for the non-fan, so this is a great film to introduce or sway a classic movie fan to silents, and Buster remains a strong name brand to current silent film fanatics.

In Steamboat Bill Jr., Buster plays William Canfield Jr., the newly returned from college son of  a paddle-steamer captain. He’s not the big strapping lad his father hoped would help him crush his competitor. Worse, Bill falls in love with the competitor’s daughter. This Romeo and Juliet tale contains one of Buster best known stunts that’s among his most dangerous. Look for an in-joke about his iconic pork pie hat. Between the stunts and laughs, if you’re not on Team Buster when you start this film, you’ll likely be at its end.

Charlie Chaplin's Limelight Mirror Still

Technically Limelight (1952) is a talkie, but it will interest silent film fanatics because Charlie Chaplin produced, wrote, directed, composed its music, and stars in the movie.  It has a Buster Keaton cameo as well. Limelight is historic because it’s the only feature film both performed in. During the silent era, they appeared in a First National promotional short, Seeing Stars (1922). They played themselves at a celebrity banquet.

Chaplin intended Limelight to be his last picture. Even if it is not an autobiography, it was a highly personal film. He set it in 1914, the year of his film debut, and a time of change since that was right before World War I. He used to perform in music halls early in his career, so the London music hall settings of Limelight were familiar to him. Some suspect his alcoholic, downwardly mobile clown was based on his father, but Chaplin claimed actor Frank Tierney inspired the role. Whatever the truth, the character was a theatrical archetype. Everything about the film shows a man looking back at the past.

The movie is more bittersweet and hopeful than it may sound. It mixes drama and comedy, as does the best of Chaplin’s work. His character Calvero rescues a ballet dancer played by Claire Bloom from a suicide attempt. His old man nurses the girl back to health, and each finds a friend and confidante. They encourage each other to attempt a comeback. They take to the stage again, and they embrace life again.

Actor, producer, and author, Norman Lloyd, who appears in Limelight, will be a special guest at the screening.

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