January 2010


I’m really glad that it looks like both Greg and James are back to posting on a somewhat regular basis. Not just because I’ve been busy lately and haven’t had much time to update (well, that, too I guess), but because I’m going to continue to be busy with Faulkner February.

I’m doing Faulkner February HARDCORE this year. It’s more than just reading a few books. I’m turning it into a whole project. Seven books (which means 50 pages a day). It might interest you guys, though, because I will also be watching the Faulkner films I can get my hands on (without putting down cash, which is tight right now).

This doesn’t mean I won’t be updating here for the next 40 days at all. I will be. Just not as often as I used to. But as soon as Faulkner February is over, I will definitely be back to the old schedule.

So head over to my other blog, thoughtful.thinking.thoughts if you’re interested. I start my reading tomorrow.

Year: 1955

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Cast: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Katie Johnson, Danny Green, Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker

Alec Guiness (best known as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1977 film Star Wars) leads a group of criminals as Professor Marcus, a criminal mastermind with an impeccable reputation and a knack for planning and executing flawless heists.  Until now….

This delightful film begins very unassumingly as we get to know a doddering, innocent old woman as she reports on a U.F.O. siting to the police.  She nearly forgets her umbrella as she saunters out of the police station.  She returns home to her parrots and her lopsided old house only to find someone has taken an interest in renting one of her available rooms.  The man at the doorstep seems innocent enough to the naive old woman.  Actually, the same could be said about the man.  He too feels she is innocent enough, but he may very well regret meeting the petite octogenarian that stands before him.  When he explains that he and four other amateur musician friends merely want the use of the room for short while to practice their music she happily agrees.  Of course the man at the doorstep requesting the use of her room is Professor Marcus, and he has a much more insidious plan than he is willing to admit.

Better stop there.  It is better to stop before giving too much away.  Part of the fun of the movie is not knowing how it will all unfold, but trust this reviewer, it is a good time and the first five minutes certainly don’t leave an viewer expecting what they’ll find in the last five minutes!

The Ladykillers is a timeless story that deals masterfully with the viewers expectations, and in so doing is very entertaining.  The film is written in such a way that just when you think you know what to expect, you are surprised, and even if you do predict the next portion of the story, it doesn’t matter, because the execution of each plot point is so entertaining that the time just flies by as you watch the film.  In fact, the screenplay earned William Rose an Oscar nomination.  A nomination he well deserved it seems, for this material in the hands of an inexperienced screenwriter might have just ended up overly silly or zany. While moments of this film surely are zany, a balance is achieved in which there is still some suspense and some danger, but ultimately just good entertainment for all.  There were so many ways this film could have gone wrong, and I don’t know why, but I kept wondering if it would.  Perhaps it is because so many modern movies are often so predictable and generic.  This film isn’t, and it goes places you wouldn’t initially expect.  One might expect the aforementioned parrots to repeat something incriminating for instance.  After all, it seems so many screenwriters are unable to avoid the temptation of using a parrot for just that purpose.  The physical comedy could have ventured too far into silliness in a plot such as this, but that was also used in moderation.  In some ways, it is the perfect use of restraint that made this movie so worth the time spent watching it.

Modern Hollywood could take notes from this perfectly balanced and delightfully performed little dark comedy.  I recommend it for a fun evening.

I saw Pitfall, Deported, Fly-By-Night, and Cry Danger over the weekend. I’ll see four more later this week. On opening night, Eddie Muller opened the festival with this brilliant tribute to film noir called “The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir”:

Amazingly, this wonderful video was edited together by a 20-year old girl named Serena Bramble. Her homage brought the house down.

Yeah, I’m a few days late on this one. Like I said, I was really busy making that facebook page and all.

Sadly, we’ve lost another great actress of the classic era. Jean Simmons died on Thursday, just a little over a week short of her 81st birthday.

Simmons started her career on the screen in small roles in B-pictures before moving up the ranks in Hollywood. Soon she was getting supporting roles in major films with major directors, like Michael Powell and David Lean. Soon she was playing the leading lady in a variety of roles, from Shakespeare to noir to biblical epics.

She worked diligently in film throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, and she then moved on to many television projects, including the miniseries North and South and the popular television show Murder She Wrote.

She’s known for her more popular films, like Black Narcissus and Great Expectations, but since this is Obscure Classics after all, I want to hit on a few of her lesser remembered films.

Angel Face is a fantastic noir that Simmons made with film noir heavyweight Robert Mitchum. It has an intentionally slow pace that builds the suspense for a wallop of a conclusion. Mitchum is, as always, pretty great. But it’s Simmons who really anchors the movie. She’s definitely nuts, but she’s so calm about it that it’s really downright eerie.

So Long at the Fair is a strange film, based on a supposedly true story (the details on it are sketchy and hard to pin down). This time Simmons is playing a sane person who everyone thinks is crazy, and it’s a more frantic performance than the one in Angel Face. It works as both a bizarre mystery and as a strong costume drama.

Yeah, I’ve been spending all this time I should have been posting making a facebook page for the site. Well, not really. Just the past day or so. The rest of the time I’ve spent being crazy busy and having a standoff with my bitchtastic computer. But I assure you, normal updates are on their way back.

But, for now, just go over to facebook and become a fan. All posts made here will be shared on the facebook page as soon as they’re up, so you regular facebook followers will be able to see if we have an update up or not, and that way you don’t have to check the site every single day, as I’m sure you all do. Wow, that was a really long sentence. If I get rid of some of the capitalization it would look right at home in a Faulkner novel.

Speaking of Faulkner, stay tuned for the new blog I’ll be starting in the next week, Faulkner February. Yeah, that’s basically what it sounds like.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Obscure-Classics/265663449853?v=wall#/pages/Obscure-Classics/265663449853?ref=sgm

Photobucket

Eddie Muller’s annual film noir festival starts next week in San Francisco and I am fired up. The film noir expert and author of books like Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir has a fantastic lineup this year. Several screenings will involve movies that have yet to see a dvd release. This year’s theme is “lust and larceny” and it will be the first time I’ve attended the legendary Castro Theatre. For those interested, you can go to this website and see the program:

http://noircity.com/noircity.html

If you’ve listened to one of Muller’s audio commentary’s on a film noir classic, then you know how informative and entertaining he can be.

Photobucket

Year: 1945

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ann Richards

Three years before Dieterle used Jones and Cotten to make his masterpiece Portrait of Jennie, he put together what you might call a dry run with this little gem. Love Letters at its simplest could be called a riff on Cyrano. During WWII, soldier Alan Quinton (Cotten) is writing exquisite notes to the love interest of his buddy Roger Morland — played by Robert Sully. The latter is a crude lothario, lacking in intelligence and grace. His absence of written skills would be a handicap if Alan wasn’t there to do him the favor. The object of Roger’s lust is a beautiful young woman named Victoria (Jones). The two met only briefly in England during shore leave, but Alan’s missives cause her to fall in love with Roger from afar. Cotten’s G.I. — despite his good intentions — finds himself clamoring for Victoria as well, a development that would be difficult to explain to his own girlfriend. No matter, the impetuous Roger marries Victoria making his pal’s conflicted angst superfluous.

During a particular skirmish, Alan is critically wounded and sent to England with an honorable discharge. He convalesces at his parents home in London. With his military identity gone, our protagonist is at a loss to occupy his days. To make matters worse, he finds out that Roger was killed in a marital spat by Victoria. Apparently Roger’s bait and switch did not please his wife. Alan inherits a deceased aunt’s country home in Beltmarsh, a place he used to love as a boy. Having no other plans and just wanting to get away, Cotten’s character decides to take a train and check the place out. His brother suggests they attend a party to celebrate so Alan can leave town on a positive note. The former G.I. is over served during the bash and Dilly (Ann Richards) — the apartment’s tenant — feels badly for the brooding Alan. His drunken confessional concerning the guilt over Roger’s death and the deception of Victoria strikes a chord within Dilly. She makes the connection between his object of desire and her own friend Victoria Singleton. Ms. Singleton killed her husband, went into shock, and was committed to an institution for a year. The young woman has recovered in every way save for her amnesia concerning what happened the night of the murder. Dilly has been kind enough to share her home with Victoria until she decides to move on.

Dilly whispers some clues to the inebriated Alan about what he should be prepared for in Beltmarsh. It seems Roger and Victoria had lived in a neighboring village. The day before his trip, our hero does some archival research on the particulars of the murder. His curious nature and continued jones for Victoria compel him to seek her out. When he finds Jones’ character, he discovers that his feelings weren’t misguided. How does he explain to this beautiful creature of his dreams that his correspondence set in motion events that led to such a heart-breaking tragedy?

One of my local theaters is dedicating the month of January to Jennifer Jones. I’ll be seeing some other pictures and writing reviews as my own tribute to an acting icon. Love Letters has critics who call it sappy, too much like a soap opera. The plot is a little convenient in some key areas, but I found Jennifer sparkling in all her b & w glory.

2009 was yet another tough year when it comes to celebrity deaths. Much like 2008, there were quite a few upsetting and shocking deaths (Natasha Richardson, David Carradine, Michael Jackson, Brittany Murphy). There were also, as usual, several deaths in the classic film world, but perhaps this year wasn’t as upsetting as last year, when we lost film giants like Paul Newman and Richard Widmark. Nevertheless, we lost several wonderful and memorable contributors to classic film. As usual, I can’t right something for the many people who passed away, but here are just a few that hit me hard.

Early this year we lost the wonderful character actor Karl Malden. He was 96 years old, one of the oldest of the great actors left. He didn’t have the movie star looks to be a leading man, but he was easily one of the best actors throughout the latter part of the classic era, turning in several incredible supporting performances. He won an Academy Award for his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, and received another nomination for On the Waterfront. These are easily his two most famous performances, but he was also amazing in movies like I Confess, Gypsy, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Baby Doll, which is my personal favorite performance from him.

Director Robert Mulligan is best known for To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an excellent film. It is easily his best film, but unfortunately a lot of his other films are overlooked, and he made many good ones. I’m pretty fond of Love With the Proper Stranger, starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen. It’s a really strong romance and Mulligan worked with the chemistry between Wood and McQueen so well. Fear Strikes Out is also an really good film, one of the better biopics of the era. He also did an excellent job with the uniquely structured Same Time, Next Year.

Dorothy Coonan is probably best known as Mrs. William Wellman. They were married for 41 years, until his death. But before she married Wild Bill, she made a few movies. She was a dancer and chorus girl in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. But her most impressive work onscreen is in her husband’s film Wild Boys of the Road, in which she plays a young girl living her life on the railroad, hopping freights. It’s an honest movie about the Depression, and Coonan’s performance is quite affecting.

Ricardo Montalban is mostly remembered for his later work in Fantasy Island and The Wrath of Khan, but he made a few good films back during the classic era. He costarred in a few really good musicals in the late 1940s (On and Island With You and Neptune’s Daughter) as well as Battleground, a very good World War II movie from 1950. He also starred in Latin Lovers with Lana Turner. It’s not a particularly good movie, but I’m fond of it.

Jane Bryan’s career was pretty brief. She only made 18 films and worked only between 1936 and 1940. But in that four year period, she had supporting roles in some really wonderful films, like Marked Woman, The Old Maid, and Each Dawn I Die. She was extremely charming in the lead female role in the crime comedy A Slight Case of Murder.  Bryan had a really great, understated screen presence, but she married in 1940 and quite the business for good.

James Whitmore is one of my favorite character actors from the 1950s. He was in John Huston’s caper drama The Asphalt Jungle, and he more than held his own among a really impressive ensemble cast. He also costarred with Montalban in Battleground. Whitmore had a screen presence that was really electric and versatile. He went from films like The Asphalt Jungle to musicals like Kiss Me Kate and Oklahoma.

I wrote about Jones’ death a few weeks ago when it happened. She’s one of my all time favorite actresses, who could handle both comedy and drama with amazing skill and ease. From Portrait of Jennie to Cluny Brown, she was simply dazzling to watch on screen. She was also great at going from the good girl (in something like Since You Went Away) to the bad girl (her fiery performance in Duel In the Sun). Her talent is simply unforgettable.

050. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)
The Roaring Twenties is one of the most amazing gangster dramas of the classic era, but it’s probably the least recognized among the “big” ones. Few gangster films have a leading character as likable as James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett. And because he’s so likable, his downfall is absolutely heartbreaking. This probably is the most emotional of all the major gangster films of the era. The film is about more than just Eddie’s downfall, though. It’s about the downfall of the country, how is went from the fun Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression. And it has one of the most fantastic closing lines of all time. “He used to be a big shot.”

049. Men In White (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
As with Life Begins, Men In White is a fascinating look at how things were so much different in the medical world in the 1930s. But it’s also one of the most daring films to come out of the pre-code era. It’s not just about sex and violence. It tackles some really important social issues of the time. The topic of abortion was so taboo they had to tip toe around it in the dialogue, even during the pre-code era. It was a bold move, and the films handles it delicately but honestly. It’s an emotionally powerful film in more ways than one.

048. Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937)
Few actresses could do screwball comedy as well as Carole Lombard (Fort Wayne native, thank you very much). There were many gifted comic actresses in the 1930s, but I think Lombard was at the top of the list, and I really can’t imagine anyone else playing Hazel Flagg in Nothing Sacred. She really carries the movie, being sweet, funny, and likable despite the fact that we know she’s lying the whole time. Fredric March was no screwball slouch either, and the pairing of these two is absolutely perfect. I enjoy the way it often buck romcom norm, as with their first kiss, which we don’t even see. It’s amazing how director William Wellman was able to make a kiss we didn’t even get to see so incredibly romantic.

047. Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1937)
Believe it or not, it took me awhile to warm up to Mannequin. I know, right? A Frank Borzage movie I didn’t love instantly. It took a few viewings for me to appreciate and really see the beauty in the love story between Joan Crawford’s Jesse and Spencer Tracy’s Hennessey. It’s a very slow build. Jesse starts the relationship married to another man, and Hennessey loves her from afar. But it turns out her husband is a pretty big loser, so she divorces him. Hennessey pursues her, she resists, but then they marry. Jesse doesn’t really love Hennessey at this point, and they both know it, but they figure that love will grow. And it does.

046. The Man In Possession (Sam Wood, 1931)
The Man In Possession might be the sexiest pre-code film I’ve ever seen. Of course, like most pre-code films, it uses sly innuendos and the like, but even then it’s a lot more blatant and in-your-face about its sexuality than most films from the era. There’s a moment where Irene Purcell’s Crystal wakes up in the morning, obviously sated and worn out from a night of lovemaking with Robert Montgomery’s Raymond, and the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. And it’s pretty much ripped in half. That’s probably the most blatantly sexual moment in all of pre-code film. Thankfully, though, there’s more than just that to the film. It’s a clever, very funny comedy. And it has Robert Montgomery. Which is always good.

055. Bad Girl (Borzage, 1930)
Frank Borzage won his second Academy Award for Best Director for the Depression romance Bad Girl. The brilliance of his work in this film is the simplicity. It’s a very small, private love story that probably was probably more than a little like a lot of love stories happening in real life at the time, so he knew not to be too over the top and flashy. The movie is very down to earth and it feels stunningly authentic. Not only is it an excellent love story, it’s also an incredible depiction of life during the Depression, from the tenements to the slang.

054. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)
Baby Face is, without a doubt, essential pre-code viewing. It’s hard to find a leading female character more pre-code than Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily (seriously, what is up with the worst of the pre-code dames being named Lily or Lil? That was also Jean Harlow’s name in Red Headed Woman, and she might actually have Stanwyck beat for the most pre-code). Even during the era, that weren’t a lot of films that celebrated a woman’s ability to get to the top by getting on her back, and Baby Face was one of them. Lily sleeps her way to the top, and she’s completely unapologetic about it.

053. It’s Love I’m After (Archie Mayo, 1937)

It’s Love I’m After is another nutty love-square romantic comedy, only it’s not quite as totally frakking insane as Four’s a Crowd. Nevertheless, it’s a flat out awesome romcom, with stellar performances from the whole cast. Unlike Four’s a Crowd, you can be pretty certain from the beginning who’s going to end up with who, despite the couple swapping (and at one point it almost becomes a love pentagon when Davis’ character starts to cozy up to DeHavilland’s dad), but it’s fun to watch them get there. It also has one of the best lines ever in a comedy. After being particularly mean to DeHavilland, only to have her delight in his criticisms, Leslie Howard says, “You don’t suppose I’ve awakened her ‘slap me again, I love it’ complex?”
052. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
No doubt I’ll get a few “What the hell? WAY TOO LOW!” comments because City Lights isn’t in my top 50. But I still love it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be on this list at all. Chaplin continued to make silent films into the sound era, and proved that true emotion and love could still be expressed without words. It’s a film about true selflessness. The Tramp works to earn money for the Flower Girl’s operation even though he knows there’s a huge chance she won’t want him once she sees he’s not the millionaire she thinks he is. It’s a simple story, but a moving one, and it proves that you don’t need a lot of frills to make an effective romantic comedy.

051. Camille (George Cukor, 1936)
Greta Garbo’s performance as Marguerite in Camille my be the  most famous of her career. While I don’t think it’s her best performance, it’s certainly the ultimate Garbo role, the sacrificial bad girl, and she even gets to slowly die in this one. Yeah, sounds like a downer, but it is an incredibly romantic and ever moving film. And Garbo’s performance is really fantastic. She’s charming, she’s sexy, she’s sad. And Robert Taylor makes for a wonderful younger leading man. They’re a good pair, with strong chemistry. If you like Moulin Rouge, you’ll like this. Because it’s basically the exact same story.

Next Page »