King Kong

When a film (or its star) rises to the status of cultural icon, it’s easy to forget why it became a part of the social fabric. We may forget Fay Wray’s scream is almost primal in its intensity. We may forget the feverish pace at which the story unfolds once Kong appears. What we don’t forget is the remarkable moves and expressions of the giant ape. Unlike the other popular film monsters of the era — most notably Dracula and Frankenstein — Kong was created entirely by visual effects. The is it real, is it not real quality of the film continues to capture our imagination.

The granddaddy of all big-creature visual-effects movies, King Kong (1933) is still studied today for its impressive layering of techniques to achieve the most convincing look for that particular shot. Chief technician Willis H. O’Brien (“O.B.”) used combinations of stop motion animation (Kong consists mostly of this technique), glass shots (literally paintings on glass), rear projection (sometimes multiple screens used simultaneously), and miniatures (often mixed with full-sized objects to enhance the sense of distance).

To the viewer, none of this matters. What matters is the willing suspension of disbelief, and the sense that Kong has a real personality. If you feel sorry for Kong and his inability to fit in with the modern world, it’s because you believe at some level he is a sentient being with real emotions.

This newly mastered print of King Kong should help restore the movie to its rightful place in film history. Even in a scratchy third-generation television print, we responded to Kong as a believable character. With the remastered print, we can clearly see his surroundings. The jungle looks as though it might have leaped from a Gustave Doré illustration. The intricate multi-plane compositions enhance the dramatic tension as the hero and heroine flee for their lives.

RKO took a big chance on this film. Near bankruptcy, the studio bet everything on the success of its “ape picture.” Fortunately, King Kong was a monster hit. Depression-era audiences responded just as we do today to visual-effects monsters (think Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy). If the effects are innovative enough, and the creatures are believable enough, we’ll keep coming back for more.

The new Blu-ray edition has the movie and special features on a single disc. The special features include two first-rate documentaries: I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper, as well as RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World. The Blu-ray looks great and is very close to how the movie must have looked in the theaters back in 1933.

If you buy the Blu-ray or DVD, try advancing the Kong action scenes one frame at a time. There are a few places within the film where you can see a metal stand or measuring apparatus positioned next to Kong — but only for a single frame.

King Kong
(1933; directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (Collector’s Edition DVD), $26.95 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Monday, March 19 at 11:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Freaks

One of the more unusual Hollywood studio films from the 1930s is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). It’s often dismissed as an exploitation film or a cheap attempt at sensationalism. In fact, it’s neither. Browning, best known for having directed Dracula the year before, had run away to join the circus when he was 16 years old. He worked as a talker (popularly, though incorrectly, known as a circus “barker”). He also worked as “The Living Corpse” and performed as a clown with Ringling Brothers.

Browning chose real-life circus freaks for many of the roles in the film, not so much to exploit or sensationalize their presence, but to portray them as he had experienced them — as ordinary people with mostly ordinary lives. By contrast, the other characters in the film are portrayed as greedy, arrogant, and intolerant. They’re the real freaks. From this point of view, Freaks is the opposite of an exploitation film. Andrew Sarris has argued it’s “one of the most compassionate films ever made.”

As entertainment, Freaks has its ups and downs. The circus freaks aren’t always convincing. They’re amateur actors, after all. Unfortunately, some of the professional actors aren’t much better. Former silent star Olga Baclanova has a heavy Russian accent that tends to get in the way.

On the plus side is Browning’s skill in weaving suspense and horror elements into the narrative. He does this without undercutting his central thesis that the freaks are better adjusted and more tightly bonded in friendship than the outsiders. As a former circus talker, Browning knows audiences want to stare at the freaks, even as they want to turn away in disgust. He uses these contradictory emotions to build to an exciting finish. A scene where the freaks sincerely accept an outsider as “one of us” evokes similar mixed emotions, both for the character in the film and vicariously for the audience.

This film isn’t for everyone. If you can move beyond the sub-par acting and shock-horror overlay, you’ll find a serious exploration of what it means to be a kind and generous person, no matter which cards life has dealt for you.

Freaks
(1932; directed by Tod Browning; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, March 12 at 8:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, April 6 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Captain Blood

Captain Blood (1935) is the first of three exceptional swashbuckling films from an unlikely trio: director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and actor Errol Flynn. While the other two films — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — are better known, Captain Blood is in many ways the superior film because the trio hadn’t yet settled comfortably into the format.

Known to be hard working, but temperamental, Curtiz was an odd choice to direct a pirate movie. The genre hadn’t been popular since the Douglas Fairbanks films of the 1920s, though it experienced a sudden resurgence in 1935 with the release of both Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty. This was Korngold’s first original film score, and it forever associated his name with classic action-adventure films. The three films just wouldn’t be the same without Korngold’s rousing scores. And 26-year-old Flynn wasn’t supposed to play the title role that propelled him to fame almost overnight. Robert Donat had been the first choice based on his success the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo. He turned down the part because of poor health.

The studio wasn’t able to spend a lot of money on this project. If you look closely, you’ll notice the ships in the battle scenes aren’t full size. Instead, Curtiz and cinematographer Hal Mohr used miniatures, process photography, and clips from the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk.

Though clearly a product of Hollywood, this film has an international pedigree. Curtiz had fled his native Hungary in 1918 when the communist regime nationalized the film industry. Korngold, the son of a well-known music critic, had emigrated from Vienna earlier in 1935. Flynn grew up on the Australian island state of Tasmania. And co-star Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, though her parents were British.

Captain Blood
(1935; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & DVD)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, March 3 at 7:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, April 11 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Double Indemnity

The best film noir centers on fate. Characters are destined to commit a crime because they can’t escape their past. Or a fatal flaw keeps them from seeing the obvious truth, so the tension builds as we’re unable to warn the characters, as we might be able to do in real life.

Double Indemnity (1944) is almost a textbook film noir. The voice over and flashbacks reinforce the inevitability of the outcome. We already know Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) has committed a crime, has been shot, and will likely be caught. As we watch the flashbacks, we accept the inevitable outcome, knowing nothing can prevent him from being used by Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck).

With the whodunit out of the way, we can sit back and enjoy the unfolding story. Walter’s self assurance and mocking humor are seen for what they are — a cover for a weak character that’s no match for Phyllis’ cunning manipulation.

Double Indemnity was only the third film that Billy Wilder had directed, though he had already made his mark in Hollywood as a writer for such classic films as Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), and Ball of Fire (1941).

The movie is based on a James M. Cain story which first appeared in 1935 in Liberty Magazine. Cain was not available to work on the screenplay, so Wilder called in novelist Raymond Chandler, who is best known today for creating the character of private detective Philip Marlowe.

Chandler had a great ear for dialogue. He also knew how to successfully extend a metaphor far beyond what anyone thought was humanly possible. Wilder knew how to take a complicated plot and make it completely understandable when transferred to the screen. He was also a master of restrained cynicism. Together they wrote one of the best scripts of the 1940s.

Here’s a small sample:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter: Sure, only I’m getting over it a little. If you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say about ninety.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter: That tears it.

With Double Indemnity, everything works together in lockstep — the script, the direction, the acting, the lighting, everything. Elements from this movie are copied and adapted every decade, as new directors strive to rekindle the magic. None have surpassed it. And why bother? When we have the original to enjoy and cherish.

Double Indemnity
(1944; directed by Billy Wilder; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $29.98 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Thursday, March 1 at 1:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Grand Illusion

What can I say to convince you to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), if you haven’t already seen it? (If you have already seen it, you won’t need convincing). This quote from Orson Welles should do it, “If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett once asked Welles what his favorite films were. Welles answered, “Grand Illusion and something else.” The story goes that large numbers of people tried to track down this other film, they thought was titled Something Else.

Grand Illusion is a truly great film. It’s enriched by Renoir’s sincere compassion for humanity. It has outstanding moments of comedy and tenderness. There’s wartime intrigue and even a hint of romance (not easy for a story that centers around an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp). The title unlocks some of the thematic layers in the film. There’s the illusion the aristocracy will be able to return to their former roles after WWI. There’s also the illusion that the equalities of war will remain completely intact after the war. Renoir embraced the democratic movement that swept away the autocracy, but at the same time, he was nostalgic for the manners, decorum, and traditions that would be lost. Renoir’s best films view human behavior as complex and even contradictory. Employing improvisation even in a tightly structured film such as this one, he strived for a realism that still felt natural and spontaneous.

This film is also notable for its appearance by silent film director Erich von Stroheim, whose realistic style influenced Renoir and motivated him to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t until late in the production schedule that Renoir learned he would be able to cast Stroheim in the part of Captain von Rauffenstein. In his autobiography, titled My Life and My Films, Renoir explained how Stroheim affected both the role and the film:

His part, which at first was a very minor one, had been greatly enlarged because I was afraid that, confronted by the weighty personalities of Gabin and Fresnay, he would look like a lightweight. In art, as in life, it is all a question of balance; and the problem is to keep both sides of the scales level. That is why I took liberties with von Stroheim’s uniform, which was quite out of keeping with my realistic principles at that time. His uniform is authentic, but with a flamboyance quite unsuited to the commander of a POW camp in the First War. I needed this theatrical façade to counterbalance the impressive simplicity of the Frenchmen. There are instances of stylization in La Grande Illusion, despite its strictly realistic appearance, which takes us into the realm of fantasy, and these breaks in illusion I owe largely to Stroheim. I am profoundly grateful to him. I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale.

Ultimately, what makes Grand Illusion a powerful film is its optimistic message that differences can be bridged through goodwill and understanding. It isn’t a pro-war film because it doesn’t glorify war, and it’s not even an anti-war film, though Renoir in 1937 paradoxically declared himself to be both a pacifist and strongly opposed to Hitler’s aggression (a paradox he addressed in one of his first Hollywood films, This Land Is Mine). For Renoir, war is simply the ideal theatrical stage to show how men can overcome their differences in class, language, race, education, and politics.

Grand Illusion
(1937; directed by Jean Renoir; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (out-of-print DVD)
Lions Gate
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Wednesday, February 28 at 7:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Hamlet

Until Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), Shakespeare films were considered to be box office poison. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and Romeo and Juliet (1936) lost money, despite having top Hollywood stars in the leading roles. Studios were all in favor of releasing an occasional prestige film, even if it took a loss, but previous adaptations of the Bard suggested the audience wasn’t ready.

Olivier made Shakespeare acceptable by taking a more cinematic approach. Hamlet was photographed and lit like a deep-focus film noir. The camera glides along the dark halls and winding steps as though it was a living, breathing person. Through a subjective use of the camera, Olivier treats the audience as a voyeur — we feel we’re spying on a family coming apart at the seams. This is very much in keeping with Olivier’s Freudian interpretation of the play. Olivier even suggests a possible Oedipal relationship between Hamlet and his mother. Hamlet is seeking to eliminate a rival as much as he is seeking revenge for his father’s death.

This production is also innovative in Olivier’s use of a voice over for Hamlet’s soliloquies. If the soliloquies are meant to be Hamlet’s inner thoughts, then a voice over is a more natural representation than having the actor speak his thoughts out loud. Would Shakespeare have approved? We’ll never know, though it’s a technique that wouldn’t have been practical on the Elizabethan stage.

Hamlet won four Academy awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Olivier), Best Black and White Art Direction/Set Direction, and Best Black and White Costume Design. The film was praised for its magnificent photography with Olivier given much of the credit for deciding to film in black-and-white rather than in color. Olivier’s previous Shakespeare film, Henry V (1944), was photographed in Technicolor. Years later, Olivier revealed during a television interview that he was having a quarrel with Technicolor at the time, and he chose to shoot Hamlet in black-and-white out of spite — not for creative considerations. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to imagine how this film could be any better in color. It remains the definitive film adaptation of the play, though Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) comes close. Branagh filmed the entire four-hour play, where Olivier had to throw out about ninety minutes of the text in order to make the movie more appealing to a general audience.

Hamlet
(1948; directed by Laurence Olivier; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price $19.99

Wednesday, February 28 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

It Happened One Night

Can one film save a failing movie studio? If the film is It Happened One Night (1934), it can. Columbia Pictures needed a hit in order to survive, and it was a gamble for the studio to spend $325,000 on this project, especially since several bus-related movies had recently failed at the box office. Fortunately, everything clicked, and It Happened One Night became the sleeper hit of 1934. It went on to become the first film to sweep all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Yet immediately after she had completed filming her scenes, Claudette Colbert had told her friends, “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world.”

If you know director Frank Capra’s later comedies, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), you may be surprised by the restrained sentimentality in this one. Part of what makes this comedy so enduring is its in-your-face banter that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Robert Riskin wrote the screenplay, based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The script moves at a quick pace, and its self-deprecating humor resonated with depression-era audiences who were trying to cope with financial pressures.

Here’s a scene between Peter Warne (played by Clark Gable) and Alexander Andrews (played by Walter Connolly):

Alexander Andrews: Oh, er, do you mind if I ask you a question, frankly? Do you love my daughter?
Peter Warne: Any guy that’d fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
Alexander Andrews: Now that’s an evasion!
Peter Warne: She picked herself a perfect running mate – King Westley – the pill of the century! What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d done it yourself, long ago.
Alexander Andrews: Do you love her?
Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

Some film historians cite It Happened One Night as the first screwball comedy. Whether that’s the case depends on how you define a screwball comedy. It opened earlier in the year than Twentieth Century (1934) and The Merry Widow (1934), yet it was released one year after Duck Soup (1933) and two years after Trouble in Paradise (1932). It’s certainly one of the first screwball comedies and easily one of the best.

It Happened One Night
(1934; directed by Frank Capra; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $24.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, February 27 at 3:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Magnificent Ambersons

Is Ambersons better than Kane? If you’re talking about the first part of the film, then the answer is yes. The problem with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which Orson Welles directed just a year after Citizen Kane, is it was re-edited and given a happier ending. In his book Orson Welles, Joseph McBride quotes Welles as saying:

About forty-five minutes were cut out — the whole heart of the picture really — for which the first part had been a preparation . . . The film has a silly ending . . . just ridiculous . . . It bears no relation to my script.

Welles didn’t exaggerate about the missing 45 minutes. At its sneak preview in the spring of 1942, the film ran 132 minutes. After a re-edit, second preview, second re-edit, and third preview, the studio released it at 88 minutes — on a double bill with a Lupe Velez film. Welles was filming in South America at the time, presumably unaware of the extent of the changes. Almost all of the last part of the film was scrapped, a new ending was shot, and some earlier scenes were trimmed, including what had been a long and intricately conceived dolly-shot of the party at the mansion.

Compared with Kane, Ambersons has a more seamless visual and narrative flow. Speaking of Ambersons’ fluid style, Françoise Truffaut wrote, “This film was made in violent contrast to Citizen Kane, almost as if by another filmmaker who detested the first and wanted to give him a lesson in modesty.” The two films do have a lot in common including deep-focus photography, overlapping dialogue, and a tightly integrated musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

In its present form, The Magnificent Ambersons is a flawed masterpiece. Up until the last few minutes, it holds up well. The ending is abrupt and inconsistent with the rest of the story, but on the whole, Ambersons is a very satisfying film. Look for the sleigh ride scene, which is an unparalleled mix of dialogue, movement, and music. It may be the finest piece of nostalgic fictional film ever recorded.

The Magnificent Ambersons
(1942; directed by Orson Welles; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $14.96 (DVD)

Monday, February 26 at 8:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you looked at the cast list for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), you couldn’t be blamed for passing it by. How could Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy be well served by the likes of James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney?

What you wouldn’t know from glancing at the cast list is that this film was co-directed by Max Reinhardt, the famed Austrian theatrical producer and director. His stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considered to be without equal, and he brings a fairytale quality to this production that goes far beyond any other film rendition of the play. The lighting, special effects, costumes, and sets combine to create a magic that’s rarely seen on the screen.

As for the casting, the Warner Brothers contract players are generally competent in their roles. Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good as Puck, though the up-and-down cadences he gives to his lines can be irritating. As Titania, Anita Louise looks just as we imagine a fairy queen should look. And Victor Jory has the commanding presence we expect from an Oberon. Even so, it’s the imaginary world the actors inhabit that grabs our attention. The choreographed movements of the creatures, the light that shimmers from the forest floor, and the misty veils that separate the viewer from the spectacle that unfolds — those are the qualities that make this a must-see film.

Also notable is the accompanying music. Most of it is based on Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was inspired by the play. There wasn’t enough of the composition to fill the 114 minutes of music needed for the film, so composer Erich Korngold supplemented it with passages from other Mendelssohn compositions. Reinhardt had worked with Korngold previously and brought him over from Vienna for this film. It was Korngold’s his first project in Hollywood. He went on to become one of the top film composers of the 1930s and 1940s. His credits include the rousing scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).

This film was a critical and box office flop. It did so poorly, Warner Brothers canceled Reinhardt’s contract for two additional films.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(1935; directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Sunday, February 25 at 5:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Sunrise

If you’re going to write about classic films, you have to stick your neck out — and take the chance others will stick their tongues out in response. OK, here goes. As much as I love Citizen Kane (1941), I think Sunrise (1927) is the better film. In fact, it may be the best film ever made.

If you’re not acquainted with the great silent films, such as Sunrise, Napoleon, October, and Greed, you may wonder how any film that’s missing an important component such as sound could possibly be superior to the best films that have the full palette of creative possibilities. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Silent film became a highly expressive art form precisely because it lacked sound. If you listen to your favorite songs on the radio, are you upset they don’t have accompanying pictures? Is a Vermeer painting incomplete because it doesn’t have a soundtrack? By the late 1920s, film directors had established a rich visual vocabulary and were continuing to explore new possibilities. That was cut short in 1927 with the marriage of film with sound. And there was no turning back.

Released on the cusp between the silent and sound eras, Sunrise (1927) played in theaters with synchronized music and sound effects via the newly developed Western Electric Movietone sound-on-film sound system. Even so, it’s a pure silent film. The story is told visually with a minimal number of intertitles. The director F. W. Murnau had complete control, just as Welles would have for Citizen Kane. Murnau had impressed Hollywood with his previous films from Germany, including Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926). Though produced in Hollywood, Sunrise looks and feels more like a film from the German studio, UFA.

Murnau was trained as an art historian, and he brought a painter’s eye to all his films. Sunrise in particular is stunningly beautiful. In a 1958 Cahiers du Cinema poll, it was voted “the most beautiful film in the world.” Welles used his film techniques to move the characters and story forward, but Murnau was ultimately the more talented director because his techniques were more tightly integrated into the fabric of the film.

Some of the techniques are almost breathtaking in their originality and subtlety. For example, when the husband walks through the marsh, the camera follows him, then moves on ahead to discover the woman he is secretly meeting. The camera movement feels exactly right, as though it was taking the same steps we would take if we were there in the middle of the action. Other techniques are almost invisible to the viewer, yet the end result is a stronger visual composition that creates the right mood for the characters or the ideal space for the story to unfold.

For example, Murnau wanted to have deep focus shots, similar to the ones Welles would use in Citizen Kane. A painter could easily achieve the effect, but the lenses and film stocks of the 1920s couldn’t quite do it. So Murnau cheated. He created the illusion of extreme deep focus by playing with the perspective. He placed midgets and small tables in the back of the room to make it appear as though the focus was extending further than it really was. He also placed furniture up front that was larger than it would normally be, in order to simulate a closer focus than was physically possible. All for a single shot.

Fortunately, you don’t have to dig below the surface like this in order to enjoy Sunrise. This is an extremely accessible film where everything serves a single goal — to tell a simple story in the best possible way.

Sunrise
(1927; directed by F. W. Murnau; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
20th Century Fox
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray & DVD combo)

Thursday, February 22 at 2:15 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Last Picture Show

Some film historians lament that we’ll never recapture the magic of a film noir, screwball comedy, or musical comedy. There’s some truth to that, but why would you want to? Ideally, you learn the lessons from the past and apply what’s equally good from the present. That’s not possible, you say? One of the best examples it can be done is The Last Picture Show (1971).

Peter Bogdanovich, the film’s director, spent years studying and interviewing the top Hollywood directors, including Orson Welles, John Ford, and Howard Hawks. His articles, books, and monographs are a vital part of the canon for anyone interested in film history. In addition, his documentary Directed by John Ford is still the best introduction to that director’s work. In the early 1970s, Bogdanovich successfully make the transition from writing about films to directing films, just as Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer had done previously. His first fictional film directed under his own name was Targets (1968). Made on a shoestring budget, it was structured around the chance opportunity to use Boris Karloff in the lead role.

Bogdanovich’s next film, The Last Picture Show, was one of the best American films of the 1970s. He applied many of the lessons he had learned from the classic film directors, especially Ford and Hawks. The measured pacing, open landscapes, and directness of the performances echo such films as The Grapes of Wrath, Red River, Wagon Master, and Rio Bravo. Yet Larry McMurtry’s script is thoroughly modern both in its moral sensibilities and sexual frankness.

There’s also a masterful blending of themes relating to change and nostalgia. Just as the small Texas town is changing and declining (represented by the closing of the only movie theater), the film is an elegy to an old style of filmmaking that’s rapidly disappearing (also represented by the closing movie theater). The older films are emblematic of an America that was beginning to lose its innocence, just as the town’s kids lose their innocence as they confront the complexities of adulthood.

Bogdanovich doesn’t quote Ford and Hawks directly. Instead, he borrows stylistically and alters the lessons to suit the material. The result is a stunning piece of filmmaking that should stand the tests of time.

The Last Picture Show
(1971; directed by Peter Bogdanovich; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $124.98 (Blu-ray, as part of the America Lost and Found: The BBS Story)

Tuesday, February 20 at 2:15 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Stagecoach

Greatest Western of all time? Most influential Western? Archetypal Western? Stagecoach (1939) may be all three, depending on your point of view. John Ford hadn’t made a Western since 3 Bad Men (1926) and was eager to make another. Stagecoach was originally slated to be shot in Technicolor with David O. Selznick as the producer. Selznick wanted Gary Cooper to play the part of the Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich to play the part of Dallas. Ford disagreed, broke with Selznick, and teamed instead with producer Walter Wanger. Ford had already planned to cast John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. He cast Claire Trevor as Dallas.

Stagecoach was both a critical and financial success. Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols created a quintessential Western with easily understood moral distinctions that pit right against wrong and an underlying yearning for traditional open-sky freedoms. Yet it was also a subversive Western that turned the tables on many of the genre’s clichés. As Joseph McBride explains in his definitive Ford biography, Searching for John Ford, “Stagecoach literally was a political vehicle for Ford and Nichols, a way of looking at America’s past and present. This meta-Western can be read as a justification of American Manifest Destiny on the eve of World War II, a scathing critique of capitalistic corruption and Republican hypocrisy, and a celebration of the egalitarian values of the New Deal.”

McBride recounts the impish delight the pair displayed when they spoke with a New York journalist, just days before the opening:

“We’re particularly attached to this one,” said Nichols, “because it violates all the censorial canons.”

“There’s not a single respectable character in the cast,” declared Ford. “The leading man has killed three guys.”

“The leading woman is a prostitute,” Nichols added.

“There’s a banker in it who robs his own bank,” Ford noted.

“And don’t forget the pregnant woman who faints,” Nichols went on.

“Or the fellow who gets violently ill,” said Ford, referring to the drunken doctor.

From our perspective, Stagecoach looks and feels like a conventional Western expertly put together. There’s no fluff. Ford was famous for cutting out dialogue and expository scenes that weren’t absolutely necessary to the plot or the development of the characters. Even though his style was strikingly different from Ford’s, Orson Welles referred to Stagecoach as his “movie textbook.” Welles said he watched the film “over forty times” in order to learn how to make movies. While preparing to direct Citizen Kane (1941), he studied Stagecoach each night for more than a month, often accompanied by one or more of the technicians at RKO.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood movies from the 1930s and 1940s, don’t pass this one by. Even if you don’t care for Westerns, you’ll find this one rich in history with multi-dimensional characters real enough to walk out from the screen. That Ford was able to release both Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 was an incredible accomplishment, followed by The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home in 1940, and How Green Was My Valley in 1941. With these and many other outstanding movies to his credit, Ford would become the greatest director in the history of film.

Stagecoach
(1939; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Monday, February 19 at 12:45 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Citizen Kane

Sometimes the conventional wisdom is true. In this case, Citizen Kane (1941) really is one of the best films ever made. Another bit of conventional wisdom is that Welles wasn’t able to direct another great film after Kane. That bit of shared knowledge is not true.

Kane is the only film where Welles was given complete control — and close to unlimited resources — to make the film he wanted. But how could a 25-year-old novice pull off what many have called the great American film? Here’s how Welles explained it in a 1966 interview conducted by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J. A. Pruneda for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma:

I owe it to my ignorance. If this word seems inadequate to you, replace it with innocence. I said to myself: this is what the camera should be capable of doing, in a normal fashion. When we were on the point of shooting the first sequence, I said, ‘Let’s do that!’ Greg Toland answered that it was impossible. I came back with, ‘We can always try: we’ll soon see. Why not?’ We had to have special lenses made because at that time there weren’t any like those that exist today.

Kane is a virtual catalog of visual and aural film techniques that give it a level of energy few films are capable of sustaining. Yet the real accomplishment is the tight integration of those techniques. Yes, the techniques are there to impress the audience, but more importantly, they’re there to fill out the characters and story.

Welles was young, but no babe on the woods. The studio gave him complete freedom because of his meteoric rise in radio and the theater. His radio drama of War of the Worlds had literally scared some listeners into believing there was a real invasion from Mars. And he had earned the moniker, “Boy Wonder of Broadway,” by staging such experimental productions as a Macbeth set in Haiti with an all African-American cast, a modern-dress Julius Caesar, and a production of the jazz opera, The Cradle Will Rock.

In his article for Action Magazine 4 (1969), titled “Citizen Kane Revisited,” Arthur Knight wrote that Welles spent hundreds of hours studying past films, first at the Museum of Modern Art and later on the RKO studio lot. Welles was particularly drawn to John Ford’s films. He watched Stagecoach over and over again, in order to analyze each shot. Though he downplayed the notion in public, Welles knew how to break the rules because he had taken the time to learn the rules in the first place.

Welles brought almost all of Kane’s actors, as well as music composer Bernard Herrmann, from the theater. Being new to Hollywood, they were eager to show what they could do. Though a veteran of Hollywood, Greg Toland was the perfect choice for director of photography. He was just as willing to experiment.

It’s a wonder it all came together. Here the credit goes to Welles and fellow-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Citizen Kane has a depth of character and narrative flow that matches its technical fireworks. If you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate. It’s one of a handful of films that shows what the medium is truly capable of producing.

Citizen Kane
(1941; directed by Orson Welles; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Bros.
List Price: $64.99 (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $34.95 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Friday, February 16 at 4:00 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, March 23 at 4:00 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the least appreciated of the top screwball comedies, in part because director Leo McCarey isn’t as well known as directors Frank Capra, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or even Howard Hawks. His best comedies include Let’s Go Native (1930), Duck Soup (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and The Awful Truth. These comedies share a relaxed feel, seamless construction, and almost unequaled comic timing. McCarey was quite willing to improvise on the set, yet his films stay focused, which isn’t always the case with directors who improvise. Of course, it helps if you’re working with top talent. McCarey directed some of the best work of The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, and Eddie Cantor.

McCarey shifted away from comedy in the 1940s. During the war years and into the 1950s, he specialized in competently made, often sentimental dramas, such as Love Affair (1939), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and An Affair to Remember (1957). Throughout his career, McCarey brought a human touch to his films that was both sincere and discerning. According to Andrew Sarris’ book The American Cinema, “Jean Renoir once remarked that Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director.”

The Awful Truth is based on Arthur Richman’s 1921 Broadway play of the same name, which was also the basis for a 1925 silent film and a 1929 sound film. The same story was remade as a musical in 1953 with the oddly appropriate title, Let’s Do It Again.

Because McCarey could make the characters so believable and likeable, almost from the start, he and screenwriter Viña Delmar were able to infuse the dialogue with an intelligence and grace you rarely see this side of Lubitsch. Here’s an example of the lines given to the main actors, Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner) and Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner):

Lucy: You’re all confused, aren’t you?
Jerry: Aren’t you?
Lucy: No.
Jerry: Well you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool… but I’m not now.
Lucy: Oh.
Jerry: So long as I’m different, don’t you think that… well, maybe things could be the same again… only a little different, huh?

If you like comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941), you’re almost sure to like this one. It’s a rare treat.

The Awful Truth
(1937; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95

Monday, February 12 at 12:45 p.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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