Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Walk around the Studio Lots in 1938

In a recurring feature of Photoplay magazine, "We Cover the Studios," columnist James Reid meanders around the various studio lots seeing what film productions are in progress and keeping his ears and eyes open to anything that may be of interest to the readers of his column. In this March 1938 issue quite a bit of his news has interest for classic film fans and so his article has been reprinted here ( in part ) : 

The Baroness and the Butler is the picture that brings Annabella, the French star, to the American screen. Opposite her is William Powell. She asked for him as her costar after meeting him in Paris on his recent trip abroad. It was carefully explained to her that he was under contract to another studio. She still couldn't see why the costardom couldn't be arranged. It was arranged. Annabella is that persuasive, even in person. (P. S. She is blonde with lively brown eyes.) 

Powell looks rested after his long vacation trip. But you can't be around him without sensing that he still is low-spirited. He says, "From now on, I'm going to do only two pictures a year. That's enough, if the two are good. If I rush through five a year, only one of the five may be good. This way, people can expect more by seeing me less. Also, there is such a thing as trying to do too much. I've seen it happen: people overworking, wrecking their health, even dying." . Though he still may be playing comedy, he is not forgetting Jean Harlow. 

Again, as in My Man Godfrey, he is a butler. The setting, however, is Budapest — where the People's Party elects him to the same Parliament in which his baron-employer (Henry Stephenson) serves. We see the scene in which the baron, who doesn't know how to lace his own shoes, begs Bill to reconsider, while the baron's daughter (Annabella) upbraids Bill for being a "traitor." Bill blithely replies that he expects life to go on as before, when the parliament isn't in session. Before the scene begins, Bill, standing close to Stephenson, absent-mindedly plucks lint off Stephenson's coat. He is so used to being a butler now that he even buttles between scenes.
We look in on Stage 22, to see what Bette Davis is doing, in the curls and crinolines of nearly a century ago, in Jezebel. Bette, it seems, is coming up to a death scene. 

She and Director William Wyler are having an argument. A friendly verbal bout but — still a bout. Willie isn't satisfied with Bette's make-up for the scene. She "isn't pale enough"; she "doesn't look tired enough." Bette is arguing that she has done death scenes before, has always worn this kind of make-up, and has "always looked realistic." 

Neither can convince the other. Finally, Bette says, "Willie, don't tell me you won't listen to reason! Don't tell me I'll have to go temperamental on you!" She flounces off to her portable dressing room, as if she's going temperamental here and now. 

Wyler, with a gleam in his eye, stalks after her. He takes off her door the white board with the name "Bette Davis," turns it over, prints something on it, then hangs it back up. The sign now reads: "Simone Simon." Bette flings open the door to see what he is doing, and unwillingly laughs. But she isn't changing her make-up until make-up expert Perc Westmore (already sent for) arrives, to referee the argument. 

They still are waiting for Westmore, and the business manager is shredding his hair over the production delay, as we head for the Warner back lot and the set of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Here, another business manager is rendering himself bald over production delay. The picture is in Technicolor and, because of lighting problems, they can work only five hours a day. And today there are nine hundred people on the set, and it takes an hour to line them up for one "take." 

This is a vast set — a market square in Twelfth Century England. In the center of the square towers a primitive gallows. All about the square are extras in tatters, representing the angry populace, being held in check by other extras in the chain-mail uni- forms of medieval soldiers. At one side stands a silken pavilion, housing nobles who have come to watch the sport of seeing Robin Hood hanged — Robin Hood being played by Errol Flynn, who has Olivia de Havilland for his Maid Marian. 

Two cameras are filming the scene, from different angles. Sun reflectors have to be set for each of them. Then, because of the size of the set, Director Michael Curtiz has to do his directing via a loud-speaker. Between his accent and the echoing acoustics the extras have their troubles, finding out what they are supposed to do, and when, and where. 

The extras, after standing around and being pushed around for an hour, aren't up to being excited when Robin Hood is finally trundled into the square in a two-wheeled cart. Curtiz calls for a retake, meanwhile delegating an assistant director to bawl then- out in plain English. The second take is better. The third is perfect. But by that  time the business manager, incredulously feeling the top of his head, fails to find a single hair to tear.

To find more stories like this, check out the other posts in our series - Movie Magazine ArticlesEnjoy! 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nugget Reviews - 21



Colossus of New York ( 1958 ) Elct.


A little boy sends his dad, a scientific genius, to his death and then the grandfather preserves his son's brain for humanity's sake, later putting it in the head of a 10-foot tall robot. John BaragreyMala Powers, Otto Kruger, Charles Herbert, Ross Martin. Paramount Pictures. Directed by Eugene Lourie. 

First off, the title is completely misleading. There is no colossus and very little of New York is to be seen. There is just a 10-foot tall robot that is truly spooky, and an even more terrifying little boy ( played by Charles Herbert ) who is devoid of feeling. The film has lots of potential but anything worth expanding upon in the script was dumped in place of gimmickry. Why did the grandfather put his son's brain in the body of an enormous steel waterproof robot in the first place? Why did he make him strong enough to break steel and hypnotically electrocute people? He even made the robot have ESP! 

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Hud ( 1963 ) 14k


A wayward young man finds himself at odds with his father and his nephew when it comes to morals and how to run a cattle ranch. Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, Brandon de Wilde. Paramount Pictures. Directed by Martin Ritt. 

Hud is often touted as a classic and, judging from its cinematography, I can see why it was considered groundbreaking. But as for entertainment it fails to make the grade, being just a dreary b/w melodrama ( although watching Newman is a pleasure no matter what film he is in ). Hud is supposed to be the bad boy that you love to hate, but he really isn't all that "bad". The poor guy is looked upon as a menace by his father and his nephew and even if wanted to change, they certainly weren't about to give him half a chance in doing so. 

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Mr. Horatio Knibbles ( 1971 ) 14k


A little girl, neglected by her family, befriends a large walking talking invisible rabbit named Mr. Knibbles. Leslie Roach, Gary Smith, John Ash, Anthony Sheppard. Children's Film Foundation. Directed by Robert Hird.  

During the 1950s-1980s, the Children's Film Foundation of England released a number of television movies aimed at 6-10 year old children. Mr. Knibbles is one of those films that a British tyke would have seen back in his youth and then completely forgot about as he got older, only remembering fragments and wondering "What was the name of that movie with the little girl dropping letters off in a tree trunk to have mailed by a squirrel?" I don't blame Mary for believing in the giant rabbit - her parents weren't worth befriending. What decent family would hang dirty paintings of lovers in their dining room? 

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The Happy Time ( 1952 ) 14k


In 1920s Quebec a young boy learns about life and love from his father, his uncles, and his grandfather...all of whom have a zest for romance. Charles Boyer, Bobby Driscoll, Louis Jourdan, Marsha Hunt. Stanley Kramer Productions. Directed by Richard Fleischer.

Like most stage-to-film adaptations, The Happy Time was dismissed by critics at the time of its release because it failed to equal the appeal of the original stage production. It's a very entertaining film, however, especially to those of us who cannot compare it to the original. Boyer and Jourdan are delightful, it has a gentle sprinkling of humor, and Richard Fleischer's direction is lilting. Listen to the title song and see if you can guess who is singing it. 

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The Slime People ( 1963 )  Fool's Gold 


A band of swamp creatures create an impenetrable bubble covering Los Angeles and then emerge from the ground and spear's LA's citizens to death...for no other reason then because they're slime people. Robert Hutton, Les Tremayne, Robert Burton, Susan Hart. Joseph F. Robertson Productions. Directed by Robert Hutton.

This is one of those films that are so bad they turn into comedy. Robert Hutton was a fair actor in his day but, judging from The Slime People, he had no skill in directing. The movie has too many silly plot inconsistencies and a poor cast. Worst part : it seems like one third of its 76 minute runtime is all "filler" shots of actors walking, close-ups, etc. What slime! 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

7 Faces of Dr. Lao ( 1964 )

"Mike, let me tell you something. The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you're tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That's real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that's circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart...every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand...every time you stop and think, 'I'm alive, and being alive is fantastic!'....every time such a thing happens, you're part of the Circus of Dr. Lao."

In a game of solitaire the passerby frequently notices a card play that you yourself neglected to see. The obvious is often hidden among the familiar. For the townfolk of Abalone, Arizona, it took a Chinaman and the strange attractions of his miserable looking little circus to open their eyes to see the value in their small town, their own suppressed desires, and the corrupted nature of the town's businessman, Mr. Stark.

Tony Randall gives a tour-de-force performance as Dr. Lao, an ancient Chinese ringmaster who journeys to the sleepy town of Abalone to share his circus of marvels with its residents and, in turn, create a life-altering effect on the community. These marvels include Medusa, Pan the God of Joy, Merlin the Magician, Apollonius of Tyana, and a talking serpent. Each of these attractions act as a mirror, reflecting the hidden personalities and desires of the character viewing it. 


For librarian Angela ( Barbara Eden ), a step into the tent of Pan, the God of Joy, made her realize just how lonely she had been since her husband died, and how strongly she desired the affections of the local newspaperman Ed Cunningham ( John Ericson ). The town's greedy businessman ( Arthur O'Connell ) finds a remarkable resemblance of himself in the face of a snake, while for the vain widow, Mrs. Cassin, a visit to the tent of the seer, Apollonius of Tyana, a blind man cursed to tell only the truth, provides insight into her empty future. 

"Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like the day before yesterday. I see your remaining days as a tedious collection of hours full of useless vanities. You will think no new thoughts. You will forget what little you have known. Older you will become, but not wiser. Stiffer, but not more dignified. Childless you are, and childless you will remain. Of that suppleness you once commanded in your youth, of that strange simplicity which once attracted men to you, neither endures, nor shall you recapture them."

"You're a mean, ugly man!" replies Mrs. Cassin.

"Mirrors are often ugly and mean. When you die, you will be buried and forgotten, and that is all. And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction, your living might have accomplished, you might just as well never have lived at all."
7 Faces of Dr. Lao was based upon a short novel by Charles Finney written in 1935 entitled "The Circus of Dr. Lao". Like the main character in the story, Finney was himself a newspaperman who lived in a dusty outpost in Arizona during the Great Depression. He wrote the novel while he was in his thirties and was going through a period of doubting whether humankind did indeed have any spark of nobility in their souls or were merely "vicious, possessive, vulgar animals" as shyster Stark puts it. Hence, the entire novel is cynical and dark, and, depending on whether you read it before or after viewing the film, you will find it better or worse than the MGM adaptation. 

Charles Beaumont, a veteran screenwriter best remembered today for his imaginative Twilight Zone scripts, found merit in Finney's story and, interestingly enough, decided to combine the best elements of the book into a family film. He had difficulty peddling it to the studios, until he offered the script to producer-director George Pal, a great lover of science fiction, who was delighted with the project.
The first twenty minutes of the film meanders along and impishly teases the audience to continue watching. However, once Dr. Lao's circus arrives, those who were willing enough to pay the price of time for admission were amply rewarded. It is then clear that the story offers much more subsistence then your average family drama. Like The Wizard of Oz7 Faces of Dr. Lao combines fantasy and allegory with children's fare, all neatly wrapped into one appealing package. 

"My specialty is wisdom. Do you know what wisdom is?" - Dr. Lao

"No sir." - Mike

"Wise answer." - Dr. Lao


Tony Randall shines in his performance of the mysterious Chinaman, keeping a smile on his face and a glint of mischief shining in his eyes while he alternates his mode of communication from stereotypical Chinese pidgin talk to eloquent English. In addition to Dr. Lao, it is Randall disguised in the garb of most of his mystical creatures...including Medusa. His most touching role is that of Merlin the Magician, an old man who fails to find an audience among all the skeptics calling his magic simply "parlor tricks". 

Make-up artist William Tuttle won an Special Achievement Oscar for his remarkable make-up work on this film and Jim Danforth was also nominated for the keen visual effects ( the snake is especially fun to watch ). 

Rounding out the cast is a selection of great character actors including Royal Danno, Frank Cady, Minerva Urecal, John Qualen, and John Doucette. 

There is a proverb that states that youth is wasted on the young, and, in regards to some children's films, that is true. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a simple film, at moments childish, that is often overlooked by adults but beneath its garb of innocence it offers a philosophical tale of self-reflection that makes it well worth watching. We could all do with a visit to Dr. Lao's Circus of Marvels. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt ( 1956 )

"Put them all together they spell M-U-R-D-E-R!" 

The jigsaw pieces seen on the poster to Beyond a Reasonable Doubt certainly capture the essence of this film - it's a puzzler. Fritz Lang directed a marvelous little thriller that keeps its audiences delighted in trying to out-guess the various twists and turns in the plot....right up until the electrifying finale. 

Sidney Blackmer portrays a publisher who is opposed to capital punishment, and so, to publicly expose the frailty of circumstantial evidence involved in most cases, he persuades his future son-in-law, novelist Dana Andrews, to be framed in the murder of a stripper....with the intention of providing proof that all the evidence used in the case was planted. However, things go dreadfully wrong and Andrews finds his life on the line when he really is accused of the crime.

"It's a weird, crazy idea, but that's the reason it intrigues me."

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was fairly well received by critics upon its initial release and has since become a minor noir classic, in no small part due to the popularity of Fritz Lang. This film turned out to be his final Hollywood production and he left for Europe before it was even completed, leaving Gene Fowler Jr. with the task of editing it down to 80 minutes. 
The film has all the elements you would expect in a noir - moody monochrome tones, a disentranced protagonist, a few seedy locales, and numerous plot twists. Even the now requisite nightclub singer is thrown in for good measure. 

Joan Fontaine, who appeared in very few noirs, gives a good performance as Andrew's fiancee, distraught at the thought that her sweetheart may very well end up in the electric chair for a publicity stunt gone awry. However, it is Dana Andrew's performance that really makes the plot believable. He was going through some personal problems at the time of filming but he didn't let that interfere with his performance quality. Also cast is Arthur Franz, Barbara Nichols, and Sheppard Strudwick ( certainly one of the busiest character actors of the 1950s ). 

This post is our contribution to The Film Noir Blogathon being hosted by The Midnite Drive-In. Be sure to check out this link for more reviews of classic film noirs. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

My Name is Julia Ross ( 1945 )

Quiggy, of The Midnite Drive-In, is hosting The Film Noir Blogathon this week, celebrating those atmospheric black and white thrillers commonly known as "noirs". 

Noirs have long been a favorite genre of classic film fans, most likely because it was a style of filming that is no longer seen in films today. Noirs were a short-lived genre. They originated in the late 1930s, were perfected throughout the 1940s, and then petered out by the late 1950s. However, within that twenty year span nearly 750 noirs were released, many of which are counted among the best films ever made.

We would like to turn the spotlight on My Name is Julia Ross ( 1945 ) which was certainly one of the best film noirs to come out of Columbia's B-movie unit. It was a Gothic thriller along the lines of Gaslight with an equally engrossing script, a great cast ( Dame May Whitty adds prestige to any film she appears in ), and remarkable production values, especially considering its budget. 

Nina Foch stars as Julia, an unemployed London secretary, who is hired to become a live-in assistant to a kindly old lady ( Whitty )....or so she was told. In truth, she was hired because of her amazing resemblance to Marion, the dead wife of the old gal's psychotic son Ralph, portrayed with aloof malevolence by the scar-faced George Macready. Mother and son are plotting to convince the town that Marion is still alive, but has gone mad, and is on the brink of committing suicide. 

"You haven't forgotten us again, have you, Marion?"
My Name is Julia Ross was directed by Joseph H. Lewis who was an old hand at cranking out low-budget westerns on a weekly basis for studios such as Universal, RKO, and Monogram. Lewis viewed each production he was assigned as a chance to hone his directorial skills and experiment with lighting, camerawork, framing, and other stylistic devices. During the mid-1940s, Columbia began a "fewer and better" B-movie initiative with a bigger budget ( $200,000 ) and a shooting schedule of 12 days, twice as long as the average western that Lewis was accustomed to filming. 
When Lewis first read the script to the film he knew he had a gem in the making, and so, with such time and resources at hand, he made the most of his experience and lavished his attention on creating a stand-out B-noir. The result was striking. Like most noirs, Lewis builds on the suspense of the film visually using dramatic camerawork and compositions filled with shadows to create a sinister atmosphere. 

"Why try to save her? Let her die. That's what we want." - Ralph
"Don't be stupid, Ralph. If she's taken poison, we must act as though we cared." - Mama

B-movie productions done well always seem more impressive than full-length features because, like a short story, there is no room for wasted words or action. The editing is measured precisely and each scene counts towards furthering the story. My Name is Julia Ross certainly packs a punch in its brief 65 minute run-time. It also offers a foretaste of Lewis' later work, which included two more classic noirs - Gun Crazy ( 1950 ) and The Big Combo ( 1955 ). 

The preview footage of My Name is Julia Ross impressed the front office at Columbia so much that they decided to release the film as a top-of-the-bill feature. It was a wise decision because the picture earned nearly $4,000,000 in box-office returns. 

Be sure to head on over to The Midnite Drive-In to check out more reviews of famous film-noirs through the ages. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game

This man is entreating his gal to make love to him but, being a little tramp, she wants to play coquette with him instead. We've made this edition of the game nice and easy and gave you not one, but two (!) actors to see quite plainly in this screenshot. Now it's your turn to put on your thinking cap and try to remember in which film you've seen these two characters. Good luck! 

Don't know what this game is all about? Then check out the rules to the Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie game ( and the prize ) here!

GAME OVER. 

Elizabeth is the winner with her guess of Interrupted Melody ( 1955 ). Eleanor Parker portrayed the opera singer Marjorie Lawrence in an Oscar-nominated performance. In this scene she is dressed as Carmen for an operatic performance of "Carmen" onstage. Congratulations Elizabeth! 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Take Me Out to the Ballgame ( 1949 )

" Like a hotdog covered with mustard, Or an amateur hometown play, Like a circus parade or lemonade, It's strictly USA. 

These are the lyrics to just one of the many exuberant songs to be heard in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's baseball themed musical of 1948. 

Bobby-sox idol Frank Sinatra, and the star of the tap field, Gene Kelly, were a great pair of sailors in Anchor's Aweigh ( 1945 ), and so they teamed up again for this outing ( or should I say "inning"? ) on the baseball diamond, this time donning the knickers and knee-highs of ballplayers. When they aren't leading their team, the Wolves, to victory, they're singing and dancing on stage as vaudevillians. Eddie O'Brien ( Gene Kelly ) feels the greatest thrill when he has an audience to entertain, whereas Denny Ryan ( Frank Sinatra ) finds nothing as absorbing as a baseball game.....that is, until K.C. Higgins ( Esther Williams ), the shapely new manager of the Wolves, comes along and sends his heart flying out of the ballpark. 
MGM loaded the bases for Take Me Out to the Ballgame with a stellar cast, gorgeous Technicolor, and memorable songs by Adolph Green/Roger Edens/Betty Comden, but the film fails to make a true home run. 

Esther Williams gave an adequate performance as Miss Higgins but she failed to make a splash ( not surprisingly since she didn't have a pool to swim in ). Judy Garland could have done wonders with the part. Also, this project was Busby Berkeley's last full assignment as director and, while he directed it with his customary flair, the script he had to work with could have featured less romance and more baseball fun. However, there are a few curve balls thrown in that give it an added punch ( Kelly does an especially rousing tap sequence to "The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore" ) and it offers a wonderful foretaste of the fun to be had in On the Town, released just four months later. 
Take Me Out to the Ballgame was a box-office success upon its release and it was because it did so well that the big brass at MGM gave Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly the green light for On the Town, Kelly's directorial debut. All three of the Sinatra-Kelly films were made within the "Arthur Freed Unit" at MGM and really showcased the wonderful talent that the studio had during the late 1940s. Helen Rose and Valles created some eye-popping turn-of-the-century costumes and the production design was top-notch. 

Also cast in the film were Betty Garrett ( who reprised her man-hungry role in On the Town ), Jules Munshin, Edward Arnold, and Tom Dugan. Keep your eyes peeled for an uncredited appearance by Danny Kaye too, he's reading a newspaper on board the train. 
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