Blessed Event (1932)

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This post is in conjunction with the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by two of my favorite people in the blogosphere: Jessica Pickens of Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay Affleck of Lindsay’s Movie Musings. Head on over and check out the terrific entries from a great roster of contributors.

When people think of fast-talking, hard-boiled reporters they think of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday; William Powell and Spencer Tracy in Libeled Lady; Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe.

But my ultimate fast-talking reporter is Lee Tracy. Continue reading

My 12 Favorite John Lennon Songs

It doesn’t seem possible that 72 years ago, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century was born. It was on a night the Nazi’s bombed Merseyside, and his Aunt risked the danger to run across town to be with her sister at the Green Street Hospital. (Her steely fearlessness would influence John in so many ways.)

There is something almost prophetic in the fact that his turbulent, angst-filled life began on such a night; things were never going to be normal for John Lennon.

And that life, although tragically short, begat a lifetime of music that continues to inspire and influence people the world over with its message of love, hope and the belief in human unity.

John, always ebulliently self-effacing, would be quick to slag off a comment like that, and for good reason. Our culture martyrs and projects and idealizes public figures often to the point of breaking them in half–only to turn right around and punish them for their imperfections. True to form, in penitence for our actions we deify them when they’re no longer with us. This was certainly the case with John. But even though he’s been gone for over 30 years now, at least we have his musical legacy to hold on to and to hand down. A legacy that began 72 years ago today.

And so here, in no particular order, are 12 of my favorite John Lennon compositions. 12 because 10 is simply impossible, and it’s a Sophie’s Choice to really leave out *anything* from a list like this. But the operative word here is “favorite”, so don’t lash into me for neglecting certain obvious masterpieces (Just because Norwegian Wood and Imagine aren’t here doesn’t mean I don’t adore them!) These are the songs you’ll find at the top of my iTunes most-played list.

Jealous Guy
(1971, Imagine)
Why: It’s an honest, soul-bearing plea for forgiveness. All of us have been guilty of being ‘jealous guys’ in one way or another.

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
(1965, Help)
Why: An early example of Lennon’s desire to dig deeper than the packaged “Beatles” image. Highly Dylanesque, definitively Lennon.

In My Life
(1965, Rubber Soul)
Why: Quite possibly the most perfect song ever written; at the very least, one of the saddest.

Please Please Me
(1962, Please Please Me)
Why: It’s a fun, early rocker with Lennon squarely as the leader of his band. It’s also wonderfully subversive: the call to “please please me” is innocent under the Fab Four image, but … we all know what he’s really talking about.

Rain
(1966, B-Side to Paperback Writer)
Why: Probably the Beatles’ best B-Side, it a trippy, looping experiment of a song, and opens the possibilities for Lennon’s challenging Tomorrow Never Knows.

Don’t Let Me Down
(1969, B-Side to Get Back)
Why: Because it’s sexy.

Ticket to Ride
Why:  Come on, like this song really needs a reason.
(1965, Help)

Out of the Blue
(1973, Mind Games)
Why: The redemptive power of love is hauntingly, and of course, beautifully, captured.

Strawberry Fields Forever
(1967, Magical Mystery Tour)
Why: Because even after hundreds of listens, it still startles me with its dark, mystic winsomeness. Any Lennon’s lyrics are at their trippy best.

Dear Prudence
(1968, The White Album)
Why: Quite possibly my favorite song of all time, I have very warm memories of lying on my bed, rewinding this song on my cassette player over. And over. And over. I love every blessed second of it.

I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
(1969, Abbey Road)
Why: I know it’s repetitive, and not Lennon’s best on the Abbey Road album, (that crown rests with “Come Together”) but I’m sorry, this song is s-e-x-y.

Beautiful Boy
(1980, Double Fantasy)
Why: It’s the perfect bedtime lullaby, and a beautiful love letter from father to son. (In this case, Sean Lennon, who also shares his papa’s birthday today!)

The Director's Cut: Past, Present & Future

Johnny Depp in ED WOOD (1994). “I’m Directing!”

So. Chances are you’re here, reading these words, because you have some sort of affinity for classic films. Black, white, color, VistaVision, CinemaScope, 35mm, 70mm, cinerama and even smell-o-vision. And as a fan of celluloid cinema (something facing extinction with the onslaught of the now commonplace DCP and the possibly soon-to-be commonplace 48 FPS) you are probably familiar with the work of director Chuck Workman. Even if you don’t know his name. In 1986, Workman created a short film entitled Precious Images, commissioned to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Director’s Guild of America. The film won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 1987, where it was screened during the Oscar ceremony. Classic film-lovers, however, possibly know it better for its second incarnation: 100 Years at the Movies.

This re-imagining of Workman’s original film was produced by Turner Classic Movies in 1994 and has been embraced, emphatically, by movie fans worldwide. The split-second splices of cinema’s greatest moments flicker, like flickers, and burn into our consciousness, like the celluloid matter they were magicked from. 100 years of history in eight minutes… it’s a film fan’s feast.

What few people are aware of is the fact that last year, in honor of the Directors Guild of America’s 75th Anniversary, Workman was commissioned to produce another short film in the vein of Precious Images. The result is called Directors Cut, and encompasses not only film, but television as well. And while it may not be as emotional and nostalgic as the TCM production 100 Years at the Movies, I highly recommend giving it a look.

I daresay you’ll end up looking twice:

Chuck Workman’s Director’s Cut

The Director’s Cut: Past, Present & Future

Johnny Depp in ED WOOD (1994). “I’m Directing!”

So. Chances are you’re here, reading these words, because you have some sort of affinity for classic films. Black, white, color, VistaVision, CinemaScope, 35mm, 70mm, cinerama and even smell-o-vision. And as a fan of celluloid cinema (something facing extinction with the onslaught of the now commonplace DCP and the possibly soon-to-be commonplace 48 FPS) you are probably familiar with the work of director Chuck Workman. Even if you don’t know his name. In 1986, Workman created a short film entitled Precious Images, commissioned to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Director’s Guild of America. The film won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 1987, where it was screened during the Oscar ceremony. Classic film-lovers, however, possibly know it better for its second incarnation: 100 Years at the Movies.

This re-imagining of Workman’s original film was produced by Turner Classic Movies in 1994 and has been embraced, emphatically, by movie fans worldwide. The split-second splices of cinema’s greatest moments flicker, like flickers, and burn into our consciousness, like the celluloid matter they were magicked from. 100 years of history in eight minutes… it’s a film fan’s feast.

What few people are aware of is the fact that last year, in honor of the Directors Guild of America’s 75th Anniversary, Workman was commissioned to produce another short film in the vein of Precious Images. The result is called Directors Cut, and encompasses not only film, but television as well. And while it may not be as emotional and nostalgic as the TCM production 100 Years at the Movies, I highly recommend giving it a look.

I daresay you’ll end up looking twice:

Chuck Workman’s Director’s Cut

San Francisco (1936) and The Art of Disaster

Aside

Songbird Jeanette MacDonald falls for the charming rake Clark Gable in W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936)– the biggest grossing picture of the year.

This post is in conjunction with Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence’s Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, which today salutes soprano superstar Jeanette MacDonald.

Strictly entre nous: I’m not a fan of MacDonald.  I am a fan of opera, thank you very much indeed (I begged–and won–for my parents to take me to see Le Nozze di Figaro at the LA Opera at age 16) but I’d much rather listen to Irene Dunne’s falsetto’s than the fluttery MacDonald’s. (MacDonald’s voice is superior, but Dunne’s has personality.) MacDonald, however, is the leading lady in the 1936 melodrama San Francisco, alongside Clark Gable  and Spencer Tracy (big fans of both, for the record), and she delivers a solid performance. But that is not the point of this post. The point here is that San Francisco features a very famous disaster sequence that I have long admired, and have decided take a closer look at it here. The production, being an MGM production, is the high-gloss, spared-no-expense spectacle you would come to expect from the studio, but Woody Van Dyke’s direction keeps things snappy and tones down the melodrama… which is *textbook* melodrama: Chorus girl and aspiring opera singer is torn between her love of her art and her love of her man, set against the disaster of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake– and then, somewhere towards the third act, this decidedly MGM production becomes as realistic gritty as anything you might have seen over at Warner Bros. Only, the bad guy isn’t a machine-gun slinging Warner Bros gangster- its mother nature.

W.S. Van Dyke (left) watches as Jeanette MacDonald performs the film’s anthem, San Francisco.

Under the supervision of MGM’s head of special effects, and true master of the art, James Basevi, and edited together by montage expert Slavko Vorkapich, seven decades on it holds its own as one of the most powerful special effects sequences ever filmed. Its camera tricks are still rooted in the real world, and therefore tangible. Not the least bit cartoonish, Basevi and Vorkapic recreate one of the greatest disasters in American history by grounding monumental special effects with humanity. Sure, the effects trump the story (even Clark Gable himself hated the soppy lines) and to this day one of the common flaws in disaster flicks is that story is often an annoying necessity keeping us from what we paid our 15 bucks for (or, in 1936, 25 cents. Discuss.) but with effects like these the viewer scarcely feels cheated.

I’m not a film academic, but I have watched this particular sequence– rather compulsively– again, and again, and again over the years, and in my opinion it stands out, and stands the test of time, for two specific reasons.

The first being, the disaster sequence itself is not concerned at all with the film’s protaganists. From Basevi’s greatest special effects moments (The Good Earth, The Hurricane) straight up to today’s biggest effects extravaganzas, disaster sequences feel obligated to pivot around the main characters.  While Basevi’s films work, today it has become something of cookie-cutter conformity:

BANG, BANG! *close up of leading man* BANG BANG! *close up of leading woman* BOOOM! *tender moment between the two in which they reconcile their issues*

James Basevi (far right) with Salvador Dali (center…duh) during production of Spellbound, on which they collaborated on the famous dream-sequence.

San Francisco is a marvelous anomaly. The sequence is book-ended by the protagonists’ dysfunctional affair, but they play no real role in the event. MacDonald queues the sequence, then fades out, and when the sequence is over, Gable brings us back to the narrative. Therefore, freed from any loyalty to the narrative, what we get are two minutes that feel like a prototype of cinema verite.  We don’t know any of the faces in the disaster sequence, which makes in particularly real. The people we see are the victims, the unnamed masses of any disaster– natural or manmade– brief glimpses of fellow humankind in their last seconds of life and it succeeds in what disaster films have long since failed in doing: making us aware of our mortality.

The second reason Basevi and Vorkapich hit a home run here, is their shared vision: Basevi’s technical wizardy and vision, and Vorkapich’s keen talent of threading together images into powerful collage movement, sound, and light. Vorkapich makes full use of Basevi’s monumental effects: the city hall collapsing; the dance hall splitting in two; the streets of San Francisco buying itself in brick and mortar. But he balances it with startling, unexpected close-ups and the human figure. A little girl’s crying face fills the frame, and is cut quickly with the side of a brick building toppling down onto her.  Human movement blurs these frames, and behind them we see debris, mayhem, and dying bodies. It’s a mixed media canvas, and the composting of film trickery and photo-journalistic sensibilities results in something that is disturbing and uncommonly affecting.

What Basevi accomplished in 1936 might be archaic in today’s world of 48FPS and mind-bending virtual technology– but the more advanced technology becomes, the further it alienates itself from what Basevi achieved in spades in 1936: true, human reality.

(Side note: the Visual Effects category was not introduced to the Academy Awards until 1938, hence no Oscar for Basevi. The film did, however, win for Sound Recording.)

The Paradise Club deconstructs onto itself.

The city of San Francisco follows suit.

Basevi’s stunning effects shots are grounded by harrowing closeups of unknown, unnamed victims.

Vorkapich’s editing turns the disaster sequence into a cinema verite-esque, jumbled montage of movement, shadow, and sound.

Another example (perhaps the most terrifying) of Vorkapich’s fast cutting between innocent victim and the anger of mother nature.

The images of Vorkapich’s montage become avant garde, almost, symbolic snapshots of life, interrupted and utterly destroyed. The most affecting, in my opinion, the image in the top left corner: the fleeing blur of a man reveals a still body behind him.

James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Today is James Cagney day on Turner Classic Movies and over at Sitting on a Backyard Fence, bloggers worldwide have rallied together to tip their hat to one of the biggest bad-asses ever to grace the screen.

I love bad-asses. No, not this newfangled generation’s overinflated sense of importance that has managed to give every Tom Dick or Harry the belief that, because of the number of Facebook friends they have or the number of people who follow them on Twitter that they are bad-asses.

No. You’re not. You know why?

James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Because THIS guy could knock the stuffing out of your designer-label-wearing LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME I’M SUCH A BAD ASS narcissistic kisser.

In my humble opinon, James Cagney is the ultimate bad-ass. And not for any one specific reason. Yes, his onscreen persona is often tough-as-nails. But, it’s also charming. Even when he’s the most sociopathic lunatic you’ve ever laid your eyes on… there’s still something undeniably likeable about him. He smashes grapefruits into women’s faces. And he’ll kill a man for his mama. On screen, Cagney is, indeed, capable of ANYTHING.His dangerous charm is part of what make Cagney’s best villains so deeply villainous, and what made him perfectly adept at playing lighter, romantic roles. While people might generally only think of Cagney as a “you dirty rat” mobster (a line that he actually never uttered onscreen), his range is terrific. You’ve got Angels With Dirty Faces, a film ending with one of the most unforgettably harrowing images ever filmed—Cagney’s demented, I’m-going-to-hell-and-I’m-proud-of-it close-up; a wholesome musical like Yankee Doodle Dandy with some of the best fancy footwork you’ll ever see; a charming romantic comedy like The Strawberry Blonde; a political comedy like One, Two, Three, with Cagney in a comic tour-de-force; and a sexy pre-code like Blonde Crazy.

Blonde Crazy isn’t one of Cagney’s best known films, and it isn’t one of his best (it’s no White Heat, let’s just say that), but it’s one of my favorites because Cagney is a sparkling firecracker in this fast, fun, frivolous precode. Cagney is young—terrifically young—as this is one of his first leading roles, coming hot on the heels of his star-making turn in The Public Enemy, and he is nothing but a ball of hotheaded charisma and, with the equally as hotheaded Blondell at his side, makes for a presence that is quintessential Cagney: rough, tough, yet somehow tender.

Being a bad-ass, you see, is not synonymous with being an ass-hole. Big difference. One that, for me, is wonderfully illustrated in the much overlooked Blonde Crazy. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, a director whose roster includes some of the very best precodes, Blonde Crazy is a rather average melodrama about a conman (Cagney) his partner in crime (Blondell) and their on-again-off-again love affair. After hooking up at a hotel (legitimately: they were coworkers) Cagney coerces Blondell to go into business with him on the small con. Cagney’s a know-it-all wiseguy who thinks he can take the world with his brains… and Blondell’s legs. He’s right, too. They run a successful racket with Blondell as the Venus Fly Trap and Cagney the guy pulling the strings. Until, of course, inevitably, Cagney gets pulled in by another con artist. You know what happens: he loses a load of lettuce and does anything to win it back. Including exacting revenge of the guy who suckered him.

The plot is light, the dialogue even lighter, but what makes this film sparkle is the pure starpower of Cagney and Blondell. Little touches, like Cagney’s adorable habit of calling Blondell “honey”, or as he pronounces it, “huuuuuuun-eeee”, playing around with Blondell’s undergarments, or my favorite: the beaming delight on Cagney’s face when Blondell, also beaming, smacks his face. Flirting doesn’t get much sexier than that.

And that goes for Cagney too.

Super sexy pre-code duo of James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931)

Joan Blondell shows Cagney what she thinks of him with a playful slap to the face.

Cagney plays around in Joan Blondell’s boudoir

Cagney notices a noticeable posterior…

Sexy Joan Blondell

.

A white-hot young Cagney

Blonde Crazy shuts with Cagney’s unforgettably cheeky line “If I had the wings of an angel, honnnney: over these prison walls I would flyyyyyy.”

My Man Van

Van the man Heflin (1910 – 1971)

It’s day 6 of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence, a month-long celebration of Turner Classic Movies’ much-loved Summer Under the Stars festival. Each day, the network is featuring a movie star with a marathon of their films, and each day Sittin on a Backyard Fence is playing host to a roster of bloggers who are sharing their thoughts on it. Today the spotlight is on Van Heflin, one of my all time favorites. This post was originally published two years ago, but it felt right to dust it off in honor of my man Van.

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So the other night I’m halfway through my second glass of Shiraz and I’m hit with a sudden craving. You know what I mean … that inexplicable, sudden, maddening craving that is generally fulfilled by processed sugars . Or complex carbohydrates. Or MGM musicals. Or all three, really, who am I kidding? MGM musicals, after all, have much in common with my empty-calorie companions: there is little, if any, nutritional value but boy-oh-boy if they don’t make you feel good! So last night I satisfy the itch by tearing through my DVD library looking for something to hit the spot … hidden in the back is ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, from 1946.

TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946) – screen caps pulled from LikeTelevision

Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson, Angie Lansbury and Van Johnson in an MGM technicolor extravaganza? That tingly sensation took hold. This was gonna be a great night.

Problem was, I purchased the DVD from a grocery store checkout line and the quality of the video transfer was shameful, and especially disappointing because I really wanted the bright, popping, obnoxiously potent pigments of the original print. (Kinda like getting animal crackers when what you really want is a big fat oreo.)

It’s not like I was expecting Ghandi, OK? And Hollywood biopics of the 40s and 50s are particularly notorious for flouting fact in favor of fiction so I was ready to take the plot of ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, the supposed story of the life of Jerome Kern, with a grain of salt. All I wanted was musical delirium and was quite prepared to fast-forward through the gosh-oh-gee-ain’t-life-swell scenes to get my fix.

But the fast-forward button was foiled by one Van Heflin.

Dammit.

Now I was going to have to pay attention. I’m sure all of us have certain favorites who more or less dictate whether or not we’re going to give a movie a shot. Van Heflin is absolutely one of mine. Even if my finger is about to switch the off button, if Heflin walks into the frame I have no choice but to watch. He simply leaves me no choice in the matter.

Original 1946 movie poster for TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY. If you’ll notice, Heflin’s cartoon looks suspiciously similar to Beethoven. (What a role THAT would have been!)

To some, Van Heflin may look like a “squat-faced kumquat” (<– © my Mother) but, I beg to differ. Maybe I’m just a sucker for squat-faced kumquats, but Heflin possesses a  just-the-right-side-of-danger bad-boy edge that never fails to make my toes curl. The bobby-soxers may have swooned for Van Johnson when he makes his toe-tapping cameo in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, but this gal’s swooning heart belongs to the other Van.

One never quite knows what to expect when Heflin steps into a picture. Is he going to melt my heart or murder my grandmother? Heflin toes the line between kindness and cruelty, danger and delight, with ease and dexterity … for it is perfectly clear that he is entirely capable of both. Suffice to say, Heflin is not a granny killer in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By (nor is he in any of his films, so I don’t know why I’m so gung-ho on the analogy) but Heflin’s very likeable role as Kern’s mentor and friend is still shadowed with his unique brand of roguish charm. Was this effect augmented by the fact that in Till the Clouds Roll By Heflin is surrounded by 1-dimensional, superficial character cut-outs? (Even darling Robert Walker is a bit of a yawn.) Well … perhaps. But I wager it’s due to the fact that Heflin is an absolute powerhouse of an actor, a total scene-stealer, and more often than not simply ends up walking away with any picture he’s in.

Once upon a time, Louis B. Mayer took one look at Heflin and told him flat-out, “You’ll never get the girl at the end [of the movie].” Heflin said, “I just didn’t have the looks and if I didn’t do a good acting job I looked terrible.”

Well, Mr. Mayer? Taking inventory of Heflin’s show-stopping performances in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Johnny Eager, Possessed, The Prowler, Black Widow, Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, I think what you’ll find staring you back in the face is a prominently raised middle finger.

The object of Joan Crawford’s crazed affection in Posessed. (My favorite Heflin film.)

His best roles are the 40s noirs that demanded a new breed of leading man. John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart weren’t matinee idols, but they smoldered on screen and Heflin was perfect for the postwar realism that American audiences, sobered by War, demanded. The Robert Taylors of the world found themselves having to toughen up their image while guys like Hef were ahead of the curve. There is a confidence, even swagger, to Hef’s complete command of himself on screen, giving full credit to the credence that confidence is sexy. Not only do we believe that Joan Crawford is dangerously obsessed with him in Possessed… we totally get it.

Whatever Heflin may have lacked in conventional good looks mattered nothing. His undeniable appeal was rooted deep within and his performances, when viewed today, are still fresh and exciting. Overlooked today as, sadly, his work tends to be, Heflin was without doubt one of the finest actors to first emerge on the scene of postwar American cinema… and one hell of a cool cat.

With Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers