Wednesday, April 16, 2014

FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965)

 Robert Aldrich's FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965) is a story of struggle, team work and survival. With a splendid cast, the diverse array of characters adds to this solid story. Based on the 1964 novel of the same title, written by Elleston Trevor, this film was not exactly a big hit at the box office at the time. But since then, it has slowly become a favorite among many classic film fans... including me.

Our story begins via an aircraft en route to Benghazi, which today may evoke a very different image than this film's take back in 1965. We are immediately placed within the twin-engine Fairchild C-82 aircraft carrying oil company cargo and passengers, piloted by veteran aviator Frank Towns (James Stewart) and co-pilot/navigator Lew Moran (Sir Richard Attenborough). The rest of the passengers/cast:

Captain Harris... (Peter Finch)
Heinrich Dorfmann... (Hardy Kruger)
Trucker Cobb... (Ernest Bourgine)
Crow... (Ian Bannen)
Sargeant Watson... (Ronald Fraser)
Dr. Renaud... (Christian Marquand)
Standish... (Dan Duryea)
Bellamy... (George Kennedy)
Carlos... (Alex Montoya)
Tasso... (Peter Bravos)
Gariele... (Gabriele Tinti)
Bill... (William Aldrich, brother of the director)
Farida... (Barrie Chase)

Due to an abrupt sand storm, the engines each blow out and they make a crash landing in the desert. Upon sudden impact, cargo is dramatically shifted, resulting in the immediate deaths of a couple of the passengers and leaving one heavily injured. The remaining team soon reveal their differing personalities and often conflicting views on survival tactics. This adds to the tension as we dig deeper into each of the character's own views on how to live and who to follow.
 There are many films that depict tales of survival and triumph with an impressive ensemble cast. Ronald Neame/Irwin Allen's THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), John Sturges' THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944) come to mind. But this film does a particularly marvelous job of exploring the complexities of each of these unique characters. We get to know these characters more so than simply what they do for a living. We see their strengths and frailties- the warts and all.

FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is deeply layered in shades of gray. When Captain Harris dutifully goes out to survey a dangerous situation when a small group of bandits camp nearby, we see that Harris is a strictly 'by-the-book' military man who refuses to compromise, even at high risk and when it means his own demise. But we respect him for going out on his own terms. However, in sharp contrast I find enormous disrespect for Sergeant Watson when he refuses his direct order to accompany Harris, his British Army superior. And yet it is the cowardly and smug Watson who avoids being murdered by the bandits due to his own path to survival.

Ernest Bourgnine's portrayal of the slow-witted foreman, Trucker Cobb is a genuine and fantastic performance. With more expression than dialogue in several of his scenes, we peek into the soul of Cobb. And as such, we invest great compassion for his misguided motivations, despite that leading to his painfully ill-fated ending. 

The triangle of tension and social dynamics amongst Moran, Towns and Dorfmann is a main example of how complex these characters get. Brilliantly portrayed by Attenborough, we first see navigator Moran as a simple peace maker. There is incredible tension between the 'old-school' pilot Towns and Dorfmann, the straight-laced aeronautical designer. These two are complete opposites in every way, and power struggle becomes a huge point of contention several times throughout the story. Moran is able to convince Towns that he must concede to Dorfmann, no matter how much Towns finds him disagreeable and insulting. He persuades Towns that Dorfmann's far-fetched idea to rebuild a new airplane from parts of the crashed plane is likely their only hope. In the process of swallowing his pride, Towns deflects by verbally ripping into Moran. While Towns took full responsibility and guilt for the plane crash from the beginning, he now rages against Moran- stating that his alcoholism that may be to blame for their ill-fated situation.
 Stewart does an impeccable job of portraying this very human character of this traditionalist aviator. He is not simply the leader whom everyone follows without question, as one would often see in many of his roles. Not unlike when George Bailey is tested by his dire situation before Clarence drops in (from Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), we see a very conflicted and tortured role in Frank Towns. Stewart's portrayal of Towns realistically goes deep into this man's anguish and desperation as when one is pushed to their extreme limits yet resists for the sake of survival... and not just for the fulfillment of his own continued existence, but for the entire remaining lot of survivors.

Without revealing a humdinger of a spoiler towards the end of the film (I shall refrain for any of you who have not already seen this intriguing film), I will instead assert another notable feature and theme to this classic... aviation. As the first grand daughter of two pilots myself (both my mother's father and my father's father were pilots til their last days), I'm a huge fan of aviation. I grew up going to "Fly-Ins" and Air Shows and watching planes being built from scratch in hangars. My fascination with flight started early as my first experience was in a 2-seater 'single engine' at the mere age of 6 weeks. Knowing that James Stewart was an avid pilot in real life, simply added more enjoyment for me- as I watched the evolution of this airplane 'rising from the ashes.' Sadly, it was the famous real-life stunt pilot Paul Mantz that lost his life in the making of this film.

This post was my contribution to the JAMES STEWART BLOGATHON hosted by the ever talented Rick of the insightful blog, THE CLASSIC FILM and TV CAFE. Be sure to read all the talented bloggers' entries to this fun blogathon...
www.classicfilmtvcafe.com

 

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Yellow Brick Road to TCMFF 2014

 I belong to a select group of obsessed film geeks aka "Old Movie Weirdos" that watches classic film at a dizzying pace. We eat, breathe and sleep old movies. We talk about it, we blog on it, we spend our hard-earned cash on it. Undeniably, we watch it. There are many ways one can get their fill of ole black and white classics. But for many of us, we have discovered a common home to enjoy these films... Turner Classic Movies.

I have happily taken pleasure in my cinema addiction via TCM ("Turner Classic Movie channel") for years. Then the good folks at TCM started an annual film festival to bring all of us "old movie weirdos" together. This year marks the 5th annual celebration as such and the 20th anniversary of this marvelous network. Living in the middle of the country and as a married, working mom of 4 teenagers, this annual trek to Hollywood was simply not feasible. After pinching every penny, and months of obnoxiously obvious hints to my poor dear husband, he gave me the ultimate birthday present- a trip to TCM Film Festival! My birthday was November 14th- the very day TCMFF passes went on sale. 

So here I am, little over a week from my first ever trip to Hollywood, California and my very first TCM Film Festival. The official schedule of screenings and events has been released and thus the planning and re-planning has begun. I've heard of the long lines, the near-misses and finely-tuned  strategies involved in this process from other like-souls who have made this journey before me. My strategy? Make my favorite picks in each time block then happily 'go with the flow' when any of those well-laid-out plans fall through. My goal? Have the time of my life as this Kansas gal makes this magical journey to Tinseltown, meet up with friends (my modern-day online 'pen pals' oft from far, far away) and who knows... perhaps some celebrity sightings as icing on the cake?!

Here is my 'well-laid-out plan' of a schedule:

Thursday:
2pm- "Meet TCM" at the Egyptian Theatre
5pm- Welcome Party/TCM at 20 Exhibit at Roosevelt
7pm- 5th AVENUE GIRL/ plan B: 7:30pm- AMERICAN GRAFFITI poolside with discussion
9:45pm- THE HEIRESS/ plan B: 10pm- JOHNNY GUITAR

Friday: (this is the day I will camp at the TCM Chinese IMAX)
9am- THE THIN MAN (The Thin Man on the big screen! O.M.G.)
noon- TOUCH OF EVIL
3pm- MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS with discussion from Margaret O'Brien
6pm- DOUBLE INDEMNITY
9pm- BLAZING SADDLES with discussion from Mel Brooks (Dream come true!!)
midnight show- ERASERHEAD at Chinese Multiplex 6, discussion from Patton Oswalt (very cool...)
*plan B- my back-ups are "A conversation with Richard Dreyfuss" and WHY WORRY? with conversation from Suzanne Lloyd, Carl Davis 
 
Saturday:
9am- CITY LIGHTS or STELLA DALLAS- complete toss up
11:45am- GODZILLA: The Japanese Original (how could I NOT see Gojira on the big screen?!)
3pm- HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (with LEGENDARY personal-fave Maureen O'Hara live!!)
6:15pm- THE NUTTY PROFESSOR with discussion by Jerry Lewis or plan B: A HARD DAY'S NIGHT with discussion by Alec Baldwin or... plan C: THE MUPPET MOVIE with discussion by Bill Hader (this time slot I'm kinda more interested in seeing the presenters than the movie itself)
9pm-ish: this slot is a free for all for me- no real commitments at this point

Sunday:
9:15am- Academy Conversations: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or... sleeping in & brunch (perhaps plan B may rule by day 4)
noon: Judy Garland: A Legendary Film Career
4:30pm- THE QUIET MAN with discussion by Nancy Schoenberger (no brainer here!)
7:30pm- THE WIZARD OF OZ or... THE LODGER with Mont Alto Orchestra - This a toughie. As a Kansas gal, I want to see Oz on the big screen since I've only seen it on tv, especially with the 75th anniversary. Then again, I've never seen Hitch's THE LODGER on the big screen with Mont Alto Orchestra live musical accompaniment either. Aargh!
9pm- Official Closing Night Party!

I'm both exhilarated and exhausted already just thinking about this incredible event. Not sure how I'll cover some basics with this frenetic pace, like going to the bathroom or eating. But I'm certain even with a four day diet of popcorn, it will all be completely worth it. See ya at the movies, fellow "Old Movie Weirdos"!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Kansas Silent Film Festival (2014)

Hollywood. New York City. San Francisco. These are some of the locations you probably think of when it comes to classic film. But what if I told you Kansas should be in this list? While many folks consider places like Kansas as more of a "fly over state," or only associate any classic film via Dorothy and Toto, Kansas actually offers much more, with a rich history in early film. As the birthplace of early film greats like Buster Keaton, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Louise Brooks, Claire Windsor and Zasu Pitts, Kansas is also home to the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Recently I attended the 18th installment of this annual fest.
On the final weekend of February, this year's festival kicked off to a warm reception in the midst of a bitterly cold Kansas climate. Taking place at the Washburn University in Topeka, the schedule began that Friday evening with a robust schedule welcomed by and overture by Jeff Rapsis and introductions by film historian, Denise Morrison. Here's the weekend's full schedule...
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Friday, 2/28: (start at 7pm)

FELIX IN HOLLYWOOD (1923) -produced by Pat Sullivan/ live music by Rodney Sauer

ELLA CINDERS (1926) -starring Colleen Moore/ live music by Marvin Faulwell and Bob Keckeisen

DOUBLING FOR ROMEO (1921) -starring Will Rogers/ live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Saturday, 3/1: (starting at 10am)
 *Focus on Early Animation...

Animation Compilation (circa 1900) including: THE ENCHANTED DRAWING, AESOP'S FABLE, HEY DIDDLE DIDDLE.../ live music by Marvin Faulwell

THE ADVENTURES OF DOLLIE (1908) -starring Gladys Egan/ live music by Marvin Faulwell

THE PATSY (1928) -starring Marion Davies/ live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

 *Focus on Hollywood on Hollywood...

MODELING (1921) -animated short by Max and Dave Fleischer featuring Koko the Clown/ live music by Marvin Faulwell

BUPPY BUMPS PUTS A BEANERY ON THE BUM (1918) -cartoon by Eral Hurd/ live music by Rodney Sauer

CRAZY TO ACT (1927) -starring Oliver Hardy/ live music by Jeff Rapsis

DEVIL HORSE (1926) -starring 'Rex the Wonder Horse'/ live music by Jeff Rapsis

PREHISTORIC POULTRY (1917) -animated short by Willis O'Brien/ live music by Bob Keckeisen

SOULS FOR SALE (1923) -starring Eleanor Boardman and Richard Dix/ live music by Marvin Faulwell

[6th annual CINEMA DINNER]

 *Focus on Charlie Chapman- A Salute to the Little Tramp's Centennial 

CHARLIE ON THE WINDMILL (1916) -animated short by Movca Film/ live music by Jeff Rapsis

THE MASQUERADER (1914) -short feature starring Charlie Chaplin

MODERN TIMES (1936) -starring Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard/ with musical soundtrack
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This was my 2nd year to attend this wondrous fest. Joined by my hubby Gary, our pal Trevor (aka Trevor @tpjost via twitter), and Meredith (aka @meredithriggs39 and her dad), we regaled in the festivities. We always look forward to seeing familiar faces including Kansas Silent Film President, Bill Shaffer, at this lovely fest. Unfortunately, the Kansas winter blizzard kept our dear Nebraska friends Nikki (aka @nikkilynn4 on twitter) and her husband Brian from joining us.
I fully enjoyed this robust line-up of silent treasures. I think it was a lovely treat to enjoy some very early silent animation pieces, in addition to the typical shorts and features. For example, it had been a very long time since I had seen 'Felix the cat' as I had only seen partial clips, not any full-length animation segments as I had that evening. I enjoy the way film historian Denise Morrison introduces each film choice with some background history and trivia that never fails to fascinate me.

The only negative aspect of this event was namely the weather. This resulted in us leaving early on Saturday evening, thereby missing the experience of the Charlie Chaplin salute of MODERN TIMES and the two accompanying shorts. With the sole exception of DEVIL HORSE (1926) due to its overt racism against Native Americans that was unfortunately a sign of the times, all the features in this festival's line-up were a complete joy.
The highlights of the weekend included seeing Clarence G. Badger's DOUBLING FOR ROMEO (1921), a delightful poke at 'making it in Hollywood' in a thoroughly humorous Will Rogers style, and Marion Davies' hilarious physical comedy antics in King Vidor's THE PATSY (1928)... both featured live music from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. But just like last year, the most treasured segment of this year's schedule was the Cinema Dinner. This time we were treated with silent film pianist Jeff Rapsis' presentation of a 'lost' Pickford film, THEIR FIRST MISUNDERSTANDING (1911) that was discovered in a New Hampshire barn! For more info on this incredible recent rescue: click here Each of the table settings came with a framed Pickford photo as a charming souvenir. I certainly didn't leave empty handed. In addition to my memories of this enchanted weekend spent with fellow silent film aficionados, I also picked up some classic film jewelry, and an 8mm film reel set of William Beaudine's Mary Pickford classic SPARROWS (1926)! 
I highly recommend attending this film festival for any film fan, but especially for you classic and silent film obsessives. With exception of the Cinema Dinner, the entire weekend is always free. Yet the future success and continued survival of the Kansas Silent Film Festival is reliant upon donations, so I encourage you to consider giving, as generously as you are able...    

Saturday, March 22, 2014

James Garner as "Maverick" (1957-1960)

 James Garner is one of those rare Hollywood actors who has made such an incredible impression on the silver screen with an illustrious career spanning decades, that he is easily recognized to this day by multiples of generations and by millions across the world. You can count me in as one of his biggest fans. In addition to an active filmography of over fifty films beginning in the mid-1950's, Garner was equally popular in a very active career in television. He is one of the first to skillfully master both the big and small screen mediums so successfully. One of my favorite television roles for Garner is the charming western comedy, "Maverick"(1957-1960).

Born in Norman, Oklahoma as James Scott Bumgarner, in 1928, his childhood had a hefty share of challenges. As the youngest of three boys, James lost his mother Mildred (who was said to be part Cherokee) at the very early age of five years old. The boys lived with family until their father remarried. This stepmother was physically abusive for years to the point that young 14 year old James finally stood up to this deplorable woman with a violent altercation that ended the marriage. His father left the boys behind and moved to LA. By sixteen, James joined the Merchant Marines. He enjoyed the physical activity and camaraderie but rejoined his father in LA to enroll as a popular student at Hollywood High. This reunion did not last long as he returned to Norman less than a year later. There he excelled in sports, not academics at the local school but never graduated (he did earn his GED later). Instead, he returned to the army where he felt more at home.

In the National Guard he served 7 months stateside then he served in combat in the midst of the Korean War for another 14 months in the standard army. He even earned 2 different Purple Heart medals for his injuries during the war. Thereafter, a friend convinced him to take on a non-speaking role in the Broadway production of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" (1954) where he carefully studied the acting methods of co-star Henry Fonda. This led to a series of small television spots and a contract with Warner Brothers (in 1956), which followed with some film work. Without any notification or permission, Warner Brothers took the liberty of changing his name from Bumgarner to Garner.
His big Hollywood break came along when he was offered the part of  Bret Maverick on the television series, "Maverick" in 1957. Created by Roy Huggins, this television series took the popular and frequent TV genre at that time of the western, yet gave it a whole new twist. Instead of taking a straight-forward good guy (typically a law man of some sort) who takes an unswerving interest to run the bad guys out of town, "Maverick" took a fresh approach that was instantly popular thanks to the charm of its leading man, James Garner. The role of Bret Maverick was a lovable cad... a gambler traveling town to town in search of profit via a deck of cards. And while he was often the source of the bad guys' undoing, it was never his primary objective. Maverick is actually a rather lazy character, never seeking out conflict. He'd rather sneak out of town to seek his next fortune than have a 'shoot out at the OK Corral.' But ultimately he always revealed that he's a good guy after all; even if grudgingly, in the end.

James Garner, on his role as 'Bret Maverick': "I'm playing me. Bret Maverick is lazy: I'm lazy. And I like being lazy."
The show also featured Bret's brother Bart (portrayed by Jack Kelly, 1957-1962) and later a British-accented cousin, Beau (portrayed by Roger Moore, 1959-1961). While Bret and Bart were supposed to be a brother team on equal star billing, audiences were so taken by Garner's handsome looks, charisma and dry-wit charm that Bret quickly became the clear favorite. As popular as James Garner was in this role, his contract with Warner Brothers ended abruptly in 1960. Warner Brothers suspended Garner without pay in the midst of a writer's strike. But he sued and won; thereby freeing him to pursue higher-paying film roles, just as he was rapidly becoming a household name. 
While his part on the "Maverick" series ended in 1960, this was not his last nor only time to play this character. He also portrayed Bret Maverick in 1957 in one episode of "Sugarfoot" (1957-1961), in 1979 in one episode of "Young Maverick" (1979-1980), and again in 18 episodes of "Bret Maverick" (1981-1982). When the Bret Maverick role was reprised as a major film in 1994 starring Mel Gibson as the lead, it was James Garner who co-starred as 'partner' Marshal Zane Cooper with equal charm and appeal.   

Over the following five decades, James Garner went on to star in memorable film and television roles such as THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964), MURPHY'S ROMANCE (1985) (for which he was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe), THE NOTEBOOK (2004) and TV series "The Rockford Files" (1974-1980). Some of my favorite Garner films are his fun comedies from the 60's like THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963), MOVE OVER, DARLING (1963), HOW SWEET IT IS! (1968) and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (1969). While James Garner has been an active and very hard-working (despite his joke quoted above regarding laziness) actor for decades, he is most widely recognized for the early role that launched his career into super stardom, "Maverick."
 On a personal note, I must add that I highly respect this man not only for his acting talents but also for his integrity as an individual. He has been a long-time supporter of civil rights and humanitarian causes, and active in politics. On August 28, 1963 he joined over 200,000 Americans for the infamous 'March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom' to get an up-close view of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspire the crowds with his "I Have A Dream" speech. He was joined by fellow civil rights supporters like Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. In one of the longest real-life romances in Hollywood, he met his wife Lois Clarke at an Adlai Stephenson campaign rally in 1956 and they married just 2 weeks later. I truly enjoy following their daughter Gigi on twitter (@MavrocksGirl) and I recommend following her engaging and compassionate (gee, I wonder where she gets those lovely qualities) timeline, especially for you James Garner fans like me!
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This tribute to James Garner's role as "Maverick" is my humble entry to the delightful blogathon, BIG STARS ON THE SMALL SCREEN as hosted by the fabulous How Sweet It Was site. Please read all the other entertaining and informative blogger entries in this wonderful gem of a blogathon!

   

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Perry Mason via Warren William

Perry Mason. Raymond Burr, right? That super popular TV series from 1957-1966 about the stern defense attorney who always nabbed the real criminal by the end of the show, right? No, not him. There was another Perry Mason character adaption decades prior- as Warren William took on the role on the big screen originally, in four films from 1934-1936. 
The Perry Mason role is a fictional character of a bright and determined defense attorney based on a series of novels and short stories by Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970). He knew a thing or two about courtroom drama from his years practicing law in California. Gardner was an interesting character himself.  He grew up in the rough and tumble world of the Gold Rush days in the Klondike and other mining towns. At the age of 21, with no formal education, he passed the California bar exam. He also spoke fluent Chinese and took on many Chinese clients in the early years. For supplemental income, Gardner started writing in the 1920's with mysteries, adventure tales and westerns for pulp fiction magazines (such as the "Black Mask") under pseudonyms. He had a bankable penchant for writing so he continued at a prolific and successful pace. In 1933, the Perry Mason character was born (the name was inspired by the publisher, Perry Mason & Co., of his childhood favorite magazine, Youth's Companion) with two stories, "The Case of the Velvet Claws" and "The Case of the Sulky Girl."
With tremendous success of this character via pulp fiction novels, the first Perry Mason film released with Alan Crosland's THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (1934) starring Warren William as Perry Mason. Also starring:
Mary Astor... as Bessie Foley
Allen Jenkins... as Sgt. Holcomb
Grant Mitchell... as District Attorney Claude Drumm
Helen Trenholme... as Della Street, Mason's loyal secretary
Helen Lowell... as Elizabeth Walker
Dorothy Tree... as Lucy Benton
Gordon Westcott... as Arthur Cartwright

In THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (1934), our mystery begins with (yup, you guessed it) a howling dog, a neighbor's window and a rather unnerved man plus his wild story that the barking dog is an omen of a death. He pleads for Mason to write his will, making the lady next door his beneficiary. Perry Mason takes the case as he's intrigued by all the odd facets of this encounter. In short time, both the mysterious man and his beneficiary are missing- now Perry Mason must unravel the clues including a humdinger of a identification mix-up. 

This is the first time we see Perry Mason on screen which is a real treat for several reasons.. for one, the novels do not go into great detail to describe the Mason character in physical form so we get to experience him without any prejudice. For another, we also see a new side of actor Warren William. This straight-laced, all-business character is rather unlike his Lone Wolf or Philo Vance characters. And it goes without saying, watching Warren William in a flick is always a real treat! 
While the first film sticks fairly closely to the novels, the next three take a departure. Second in this series of William as Mason films is Michael Curtiz' THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE (1935). But mystery is still the name of the game as a woman (Rhoda Montaine) comes to Mason for help as she reveals that after remarrying, she discovers her first husband is still alive. Perry Mason goes to resolve the matter with the first husband (Gregory Moxley) only to find his dead body.

By now, THE THIN MAN (1934) had launched to great success and it's influence was apparent. Instead of the completely straight and serious Perry Mason translation as in the first film, this one injected a more comedic and lighter tone that was also reflected in the supporting cast roles. Now Warren William was transitioning with a confidence that would continue into his next films. 
Supporting Cast:
Warren William...as Perry Mason
Margaret Lindsay... as Rhoda Montaine
Donald Woods... as Carl Montaine
Claire Dodd... as Della Street, still Mason's secretary
Allen Jenkins... as Spudsy Drake, Mason's whacky sidekick (note the big difference from the last film)
Phillip Reed... as Dr. Claude Millbeck
Barton MacLane... as Chief Detective Joe Lucas
Wini Shaw... as Doris Pender
Warren Hymer... as Oscar Pender
Olin Howland... as Coroner Wilbur Strong
Charles Richman... as C. Phillip Montaine
*Errol Flynn... as Gregory Moxley

*This film is notable as Errol Flynn's first American film appearance. He's seen twice: once as a non-speaking part of a corpse and then again as a more animated role as a flashback to this character.
As the third film in this series, William reprises the Perry Mason role in Archie Mayo's THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS (1935). In this who-dunnit mystery meets screwball comedy, Mason takes the case when a 'lucky legs' beauty contest goes awry then the scam artist who organized it skips town with the prize money and he later shows up with a knife in his chest. The antics and one-liners abound in this one. And to witness the 'Thin Man' influence, simply note Perry Mason's appearance on the floor due to a alcohol bender and the influence is unmistakable. Yet it's undeniably a departure from the straight-laced Mason from the Gardner's novels.  
Supporting cast:
Genevieve Tobin... as Della Street, Mason's secretary yet again with a new actress
Patricia Ellis... as Margie
Lyle Talbot... as Dr. Doray
Allen Jenkins... as Spudsy Drake, and his goofiest version yet
Barton Maclane... as Bisonette
Peggy Shannon... as Thelma Bell
Porter Hall... as Col. Bradbury
Anita Kerry... as Eva Lamont
Craig Rynolds... as Frank Patton
Henry O'Neill... as District Attorney Manchester
Charles C. Wilson... as Police Officer Ricker
Joseph Crehan... as Detective Johnson
Olin Howland... as Dr. Crocker

Warren William's final cinematic take on the Perry Mason character is William Clemens' THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1936). This one is unique because we see Perry Mason marry his long-time secretary, Della. But in true Perry Mason form, even their honeymoon is not complete with a mystery and a dead body to mix it up. Mason finds himself taking the case at gunpoint. And after the dead body shows up, it's he himself who is entangled as a suspect. While this storyline is weaker, the snappy one-liners are fun and Warren William always delivers a charming performance.
Supporting cast:
Claire Dodd... returning as Della Street, Mason's secretary and now "the Mrs."
Wini Shaw... as Eva Belter
Bill Elliott... as Carl Griffin
Joe King... as George C. Belter
Addison Richards... as Frank Locke
Eddie Acuff... as Spudsy Drake (note the change-up)
Olin Howland... as Wilbur Strong

It's interesting to watch the evolution of this Perry Mason characterization in the four films under Warren Williams' masterful craft. No doubt it is often more of a manifestation of its times than a strict reflection of Gardner's writings. Guaranteed, this is a Perry Mason unlike the Raymond Burr of more recent history. But if you're a fan of Warren William as I am (if you're not familiar with his talent- by all means, check him out!) and if you're unfamiliar with his Perry Mason roles, any of these films in this series is worth a viewing.

This was my contribution the Sleuthathon Blogathon hosted by the talented blogger Fritzi at Movies Silently. Please read all creative talents that are participating in this fun blogathon.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Alfred Hitchcock's BLACKMAIL (1929)

This past week I had the privilege of seeing the last silent film of Alfred Hitchcock, BLACKMAIL (1929.) As part of the Downtown Classic Film Series at The Lawrence Arts Center, here in my town of Lawrence, Kansas, this screening was a real treat. I have seen several silent films in this "downtown Lawrence" series and this experience was no less special.

BLACKMAIL (1929) stands out both as Alfred Hitchcock's final silent film but also as his first 'talkie.' Come again? You see, after Hitch started production of BLACKMAIL (1929) as a silent film, British International Pictures decided a sound version was needed in addition to appeal to the demands of audiences' curiosity for the new technology. But not all theaters were equipped for the sound version (only about 20% of British theaters), so both silent and sound versions were released across theaters at the same time. When I heard the silent version of this landmark Hitch thriller- a film I had never seen prior- was coming to my town with the famous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra live musical accompaniment, I was all in.
In the same fashion of what has become part of our own Kansas silent film tradition, my pork pie-wearing pal and fellow-Kansan Trevor (aka @tpjost on twitter) joined us for the event. After enjoying our scrumptious gourmet burgers and alcoholic milkshakes at the local eatery The Burger Stand, Trevor and I joined my hubby Gary for the evening's screening. To a nearly sold-out audience, fellow silent film supporter Bill Shaffer, President of the Kansas Silent Film Festival amongst other credits to his name, kicked off the event.
Long before actresses like Kim Novak, Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren, there was an archetypal Hitch blonde named Anny Ondra. Even in silent form back in 1929, BLACKMAIL holds all the signature key notes of a Hitch classic... murder, suspense, thrill and an alluring, sophisticated blonde whose sensual appeal is in direct contrast with an icier motive. Our story begins with femme fatale Alice White (portrayed By Anny Ondra) who is beautiful and charmingly expressive. She meets her loyal and straight-as-an-arrow Scotland Yard detective boyfriend Frank Webber (portrayed by John Longden) for a 'tea and a show' date. But at the bustling tea house she quickly comes up with an excuse to ditch her beau by purposefully starting an argument. She has her sights set on a date with another man.
Soon after, and with the anticipation of forbidden fruit, she leaves with her secret beau Mr. Crewe, a painter she secretly agreed to meet. They leave together, unaware as Webber looks on. Crewe invites her up to his artist studio apartment, as a pesky and menacing man named Tracy (Donald Cathrop) bothers them on the street. In his studio, Crewe shows her his artwork, she playfully paints a simple figure then he convinces her to pose in a ballerina outfit. Her bold behavior at first turns timorous but she complies. Soon she nervously realizes she may have gone too far, so she returns to changing back into her outfit as she arrived in. Crewe seizes the moment to show his true and unscrupulous colors. He grabs her, attempting to rape her. We see them struggling behind a curtain. In the struggle, her arm desperately flays about and desperately finds a knife near a loaf of bread. Soon it becomes clear that Crewe will no longer be a threat. In shock from the traumatic events that occurred just moments prior, she numbly puts back on her clothes, paints over her name on her signed artwork and grabs her bag to remove any evidence of her presence that night. She walks the streets in an empty gaze until morning; slipping in quietly to her flat as her landlord assumes she's been in bed all night.
Detective Webber joins his Scotland Yard colleagues to investigate the findings of Crewe's studio and his lifeless body. He stops abruptly as he discovers what he recognizes to be one of his girlfriend's gloves and he swiftly tucks it into his pocket before anyone else sees it. Meanwhile, Alice joins her parents at the breakfast table at their shop downstairs. They chatter on the buzz circling around town of the murdered man just around the corner. Alice is barely hanging on; trying to conceal her dark secret.

Webber arrives and discreetly reveals her glove to Alice. He remains incredibly loyal and protective of her, despite her obvious indiscretions.  Before she explains the full details of her connection to the murder, Tracy arrives. Not only does he recognize her from the night before from walking in with Crewe to his studio, but he also has a glove to reveal... her other missing glove of the pair. He minces no words in declaring his intentions. Thus the blackmail process commences.

I won't share with you how successful the blackmailing worked out for Tracy, nor how Alice dealt with her tormented feelings in conflicted morality, nor how Webber handled both of them while juggling his duties as a detective. You'll have to watch it for yourself to see how the rest of the story plays out. After all, this is a Hitch film so a little suspense for such a deliciously dark secret should be expected. 
BLACKMAIL(1929) may have been Alfred Hitchcock's last silent film but it was not the first Hitch film for Anny Ondra. Earlier in the same year, they teamed up for MANXMAN (1929.) But when adding sound to BLACKMAIL (1929), Ondra's thick Czech accent from having spent her childhood in Prague proved to be too much. So actress Joan Barry 'dubbed' her voice for all the speaking parts, off camera. Despite her talent and beauty, that heavy accent ended Ondra's British film career but she continued a long and successful acting career in Germany (more than 88 films in her lifetime). She was also known for her 2nd marriage, to German boxing great Max Schmeling (from 1933 until her death in 1987.) Interestingly, this screening took place within a day to the 27th anniversary of her death.  
I couldn't help but notice the timing of Ondra's marriage, in 1933, to Schmeling and their continued residence in Germany for decades thereafter. Could it be possible that Anny Ondra and/or her husband Max Schmeling were... nazis?! I explored further and thanks to my overall ignorance on the topic of boxing, I learned a great deal about Schmeling. This was a simple and modest man and along with his beautiful movie-star wife, they became Germany's celebrity "it" couple. Max hung out with artists, filmmakers and writers. To build his boxing career on the world-stage, Schmeling spent time competing in America, which led to his heavyweight champion status and infamous fights with Joe Louis. (Yes, he's THAT guy.) I had a vague knowledge of this famous fight; one that was promoted as "Black vs. White" and "American vs. German" at the height of the nazi propaganda machine.
This German victory was a source of pride for Hitler, appealing to his deep racism, and he used Max as a world trophy to that end- flying him back home in the Hindenburg and requested Schmeling continue to positively promote Germany across Europe and across seas. Anny Ondra even followed the Louis match-up with the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbel himself. It seemed obvious that Ondra and Schmeling were the nazi party's favored darlings. But some stories put a murkier light on their allegiances. For example, after a re-match between Louis and Schmeling in 1938 resulted in a Louis victory, it was that same year that Schmeling hid two teen sons of a Jewish friend in a hotel room for a couple of days while he pretended to be too ill to receive visitors. He was successful in sneaking the boys out of the country, to safety. Additionally, in 1954 Schmeling visited America and took the opportunity to visit with Joe Louis, from which they remained friends until Louis's death in 1981; even paying for a portion of his funeral.
So were Anny Ondra and husband Max Schmeling nazis? Or party patsies? Were they playing the game or being played? Or perhaps they were pampered survivalists who chose to ignore their moral compasses unless reality struck too close to home?

Alfred Hitchcock's BLACKMAIL (1929) is an intriguing film that pushes the ethical envelope with a background story beyond the life of the lens that is equally as fascinating and replete with moral complexities. For you Hitch fans, yes there's a wonderfully climatic chase at the end- which takes place in the Egyptian exhibit of the British Museum. And of course, it would not be complete without a Hitch cameo. That's charmingly placed in there, too...        

Saturday, February 8, 2014

week 2: 31 DAYS OF OSCAR Blogathon!

We have now entered into the 2nd week of the 31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON! Aurora (@citizenscreen) of Once Upon A Screen, Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula's Cinema Club and Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled bring you this mega blogathon celebrating the very best in cinema! To coincide with Turner Classic Movie's (TCM) month-long broadcast of all things Oscar, 31 Days of Oscar...
tcm
The blogging trio decided to amp up the fun to this year's event by adding a different theme to each of the five weeks. And for this 2nd week, we celebrate all the various contributors that add flavor to a film... the writing, musical score and songs, costumes, choreography, the cinema photography, art direction... basically, anything goes this week. With so much emphasis generally placed upon the performances and overall direction of a film, we wanted to devote a week to all the talented artists and craftsmen of film that don't always receive such a bright spotlight. And yet, we all know these masterpieces would not be the classics they've become without them. So now we humbly sing their praises!

Here are this week's list of bloggers extraordinaire...

First up, we get all glammed up as Kimberly (@GlamAmor) from GLAMAMOR brings us her latest entry for Style Essentials with "Ava Gardner is Dressed to Kill in Vera West for 1946's THE KILLERS"

Continuing in a fashionable theme, Kay (@KayStarStyle) from MOVIE STAR MAKEOVER reminisces on the best red carpet style successes from the Oscars with "Retro Red Carpet Review" 

CAFTAN WOMAN (@CaftanWoman) revisits the fourteen original songs introduced by Bing Crosby, nominated for Best Song Oscars over the course of his film history in "Sing A Song of Oscar"  

Minoo from CLASSIC MOVIE HUB BLOG (@classicmoviehub) takes a twist on the auteur theory with cinematographer master "Gregg Toland: The Second Genius of CITIZEN KANE"

Margaret (@MargaretPerryKH) of the MARGARET PERRY Blog takes a look at the Oscar nominated writing partnership and long-lasting friendships between the Kanin/Gordon writing team and Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin write for the silver screen's dream team"

Fritzi (@moviessilently) of MOVIES SILENTLY reflects back on the writing of the uniquely categorized nominations of the very first Oscars in "The Silent Oscars"

Kelly (@popcornnmovies) of ...ON POPCORN AND MOVIES devotes her post to the beautiful 2005 film adaption that practically swept all the "art" categories with six Academy Awards nominations, "MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA... in need of no words..."

THE VINTAGE CAMEO (@vintagecameos) waxes melancholy on the Oscar categories that have gone extinct with "Forgotten Oscars: Best Dance Direction"

IMAGINEMDD (@ImagineMDD) gets musical with her favorite Oscar song winners: "15 Great Early Best Original Song Oscar Winners" 

Jack Deth posting on PAULA'S CINEMA CLUB lends huge kudos to 1976 Best Costume Design Oscar winners Milena Cannonero and Ulla-Britt Sonderlundin in, "Costuming BARRY LYNDON (1975) by Jack Deth"

Constance from SILVER SCENES Blog joins in with a delightful tribute to the entertaining editor with perfect comedic timing best known for his Disney films, "Editor- Cotton Warburton"

Victoria (@miss_vicki) of GIRLS DO FILM offers up a wonderful review of two films of the same story with Oscar winning results like Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design with, "The Spectacle of MOULIN ROUGE"  

Angela (@MaterialGirl850) over at THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE orchestrates a melodic perspective on the magical relationship between film and song with, "The Power Of An Original Song"

Thanks so much to all of our wonderful bloggers for contributing their splendid write-ups! Be sure to read and comment on their blogs. Here's the full schedule of each themed week...

WEEK 1 - the weekend of Feb 1-2 - the topic: (read all the posts here->) SNUBS! 
WEEK 2 – this weekend of February 8-9 – the topics are:  Music, Costumes, Cinematography, Writing, etc.  You name it, it’s in!
WEEK 3 – the weekend of February 15-16 – Actors!  Lead and supporting take center stage!
WEEK 4 – the weekend of February 22-23 – The Directors!  
WEEK 5 – the weekend of February 28-March 1 – THE MOVIES!  

That's right- with three more weeks to go, there's still more time to join in the blogging fun! Since we're taking turns hosting, you can submit topics either by leaving comments on any of our blogs, via twitter or by email.  We kindly ask that you please include the following:
  • Title and link to your blog
  • contact information
  • Topic
It would also be great if you can include any of the event banners included in this post on your blog to help us promote the event.
SO – write to your heart’s desire!  Write one post or several on each topic.  But write!  And join us.

Happy Blogging, Oscar fans!