Monday, June 29, 2009

Now Playing - Las Vegas Story - 1952

This ad for “The Las Vegas Story” (1952) is a bit different from the usual print ads we’ve shown here before in that it carries this sidebar of photos from the film along with the splashy artist’s rendering.

This was rising star Jane Russell’s sixth movie, and her attributes are displayed in the sketch like a trademark. Victor Mature and Vincent Price are her co-stars and the three create romantic triangle in what is also sort of a murder mystery and a musical. Hoagy Carmichael shows up, so it’s not your typical film noir. Just what this film is seems to depend on your viewpoint, and the ad, with both photos and sketch, likewise tries to cover all bases.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Books on Movies

Nearly a month ago MovieMan0283 at The Dancing Image began an interesting meme with his very detailed and thoughtful post about his favorite books on film.

I’ve been brooding on this topic, and reading the terrific blogs of others who’ve contributed to this meme, but I’m at a loss as to how to contribute. At the risk of sounding like a dolt, my own collection of film books is quite small, and despite all the ransacking of libraries I’ve done over the years, I can’t really say that any particular book has made that big an impression on me or been a powerful influence on my judgment of classic films.

I suppose there are probably five kinds of books that movie buffs have available to them. The first is subjective essays by professional critics. I’ve read very few of these and what I’ve read has never been a big influence on my own appreciation of film. This may only mean that I am too opinionated myself.

The second kind of book is more an objective encyclopedic survey of films. I find these to be more helpful to locate facts on films, which interests me more. One that comes to mind is “The Paramount Story” by John Douglas Eames (Simon & Schuster, NY 2002). This book has lots of detail on every single movie ever made at this studio, lots of photos, and also brief synopses of the plots of the films. Another book in this vein is “Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck” by Ella Smith (Random House, NY, 1985), which covers the films of her career, though provides more detail on some movies than on others, again with a lot of photos. These types of survey books are useful because they cover a lot of ground and give lots of facts. To anybody not interested in old movies, they might read like a car manual.

The third kind of book is the coffee-table type book on a particular film, like “Gone With the Wind” or “Casablanca”, full of photos, lots of fun for trivia fans, but usually not too in-depth. I’ve read a few of these, own a few, but again, can’t say they’ve provided any profound insight.

The fourth kind of book is the movie star biography or autobiography. Read lots of these, enjoyed some, but was always disappointed at the lack of coverage on the actual nuts and bolts activities on the set by these actors. Most of these biographies have a lot to do with the stars’ personal lives, in which I must confess (again, at the risk of sounding like a dolt), I am only minimally interested.

All the gossipy detail of love affairs and scandals is not going to tell me what I really want to know, which is, was that you or a stunt double in that scene? What is it like just sitting while they set the lights? What are the rehearsals like? Do you have a read-through around a table, like stage actors do? How many takes did that funny slapstick bit require? Was that little bit of business you did in that scene your idea, or did the director come up with it? Nuts and bolts of what it’s like to make a movie. That’s what I want to know.

I suppose it’s unfair to expect an actor to come home from work and write an essay about everything that happened on the set that day and what he feels about it. A plumber wouldn’t want to re-hash his day on paper and evaluate and analyze everything. He just wants to have a beer and unwind. I expect it’s the same for actors.

The last kind of book is the memoir of a particular movie. There aren’t too many of these, but I think it might be my favorite kind of film book. Three that I can think of off the top of my head are “The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind” (Alfred E. Knopf, NY, 1987) by Katharine Hepburn about her experiences on location shooting “The African Queen,” “The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries” (Newmarket Press, NY, 1995) by Emma Thompson about her experiences writing, being involved in production, and acting in “Sense & Sensibility”, and “To See the Dream” (Harcourt, Brace and Company, NY, 1957) by Jessamyn West on the filming of “Friendly Persuasion.”

These books are written in journal or diary form, and they give both factual detail and subjective opinion of what is happening. What makes these books so intriguing is that they are first-hand accounts of a particular film, and not the researched work by someone not involved with the film. These books tend to be more observant of small details, and more passionate in tone.

Hepburn’s book was written long after the filming of “The African Queen”, so it doesn’t have quite the immediacy of the other two books, but it carries her unique style of description and bold opinion. Thompson’s book is fascinating for the detail it gives on the day-to-day (nuts and bolts if you will) job of making a movie, and in some places, is drop dead funny. I’ve read it over a few times, and it remains a favorite.

West’s book on the making of “Friendly Persuasion” I’ll go into a bit more because I’ve only recently blogged on this film (see here), and because it’s an excellent book on many levels. She discusses not only film, but literature and contemporary (1950s) society. Both Thompson and West are writers, so they bring to their subject matter a certain ease and confidence in their ability to explain themselves.

West, however, is a neophyte when it comes to making movies, so her foray into this world is far more emotional and fascinated. Thompson and Hepburn are film veterans, so they have a slick way of glossing over what is old to them but might be completely new to us. West, in her unfamiliarity and bewilderment of the movie world, takes us on the journey with her and we see through her amazed eyes this strange way of life.

Jessamyn West, author of “The Friendly Persuasion”, the novel on which the movie was based, was originally not supposed to have any involvement with the film, which was fine by her because the book had been written ten years previously, she had moved on to other projects, and she was a kind of self-described loner who preferred her quiet life in northern California with her husband and her current novel.

Director William Wyler persuaded her to come down to Hollywood and help as a technical advisor and interpreter of the Quaker world, but she ended up writing most of the screenplay as well, with tweaking from Wyler’s brother Robert. This begs the question as to why Michael Wilson was eventually given the writing credit in the film when most of his script was actually trashed, but West never answers that question because it happened after she wrote the memoir. She also describes watching some scenes filmed that, unbeknownst to her at the time, were later dropped from the film.

West writes of the elegant Hollywood of the 1950s, of behind-the-scenes intrigue, lunches at The Brown Derby, the relationship between Wyler and his right-hand man brother, and of his assistant Stu, who was West’s guide to this strange world. West also ruminates on the Quaker world, and shares her amusement that Wyler and his staff seem to think she is like her main character of Eliza, even though West grew up in a modern southern California community of the 20th Century, far removed from Eliza’s Indiana of the Civil War.

West also writes a little of her own background, her years of her writing apprenticeship in bed while struggling with tuberculosis. She writes about her parents, and particularly with a rare mixture of humor and anguish over her mother who at the time suffered with mild dementia. West’s rambling stream-of-consciousness style covers a lot of ground, is at times very funny and at other times deeply moving and even tragic. Her writing style has a modern feel to it, quite unlike the more structured memoirs of decades ago.

She describes that first embarrassing shock of hearing the actors say her lines out loud, that feeling many screenwriters and playwrights feel when the words they’ve only heard in their heads are first heard out of the lips of someone they do not even know. It’s a spine-tingling, exciting, and vulnerable experience all at once.

She recounts battling chronic migraines, of floating in the hotel pool while the sound of Lucy and “Our Miss Brooks” floats from the televisions in the rooms. There is much self-deprecating humor as she compares the hotel pool to Walden Pond and herself to Thoreau in the wilderness. Robert Wyler is Bronson Alcott, and William Wyler is Emerson.

She describes taking Gary Cooper to a Quaker meeting, and how he seemed to enjoy the contemplative silence. Later she took Dorothy McGuire to a meeting, and astutely notes the difference in the two actors:

“He didn’t look about at all, but centered down into the silence. Dorothy, after her visit, spoke to me of the various attitudes and responses of the Quakers as she had observed them at meeting and of those she intended to use in her portrayal of Eliza in the meeting scene…Pragmatically, her way may turn out to be better than Cooper’s. But I understand Cooper’s way better. I must become the character I write about, not put a set of observations on paper. However, there is no necessity for using either method exclusively…Cooper’s method traditionally is regarded as the feminine one of intuitive identification; Dorothy’s as the masculine method of rational observation and selection. Dorothy was a craftsman, Cooper an artist, insofar as their methods were unmixed. But what method ever is?”

West writes of the scene she disliked, which she “cannot stomach” and that is the scene where Cooper and Tony Perkins get attacked by the Hudspeth girls. It’s a scene that stands apart from the rest of the movie, and now we can see why: West didn’t write it. It’s one of the very few remaining scenes from an earlier version of the script (which was originally a Frank Capra project).

West describes going on location, and of helping to choose extras to play Quakers in the meeting house scene. “First of all, you are choosing bodies and faces. You are choosing flesh. The camera will look at flesh, flesh which neither speaks nor acts. This is as near to an auction block for slaves as I’ve ever been….”

She describes Wyler’s directing of little Richard Eyer in the meeting house scene where the boy leaps up, shouting “God is Love!” to get attention. Wyler acted it out himself a dozen times, “each time he was eight years old.”

“I have watched him, too, directing a scene, with exactly that same self-forgetting love and admiration in his face you see I the face of a mother watching her -- unequaled -- child.”

These are the kind of first-hand, immediate and intimate musings you don’t get from the autobiography written many years later, colored by time and a changed viewpoint. You don’t get it from the coffee table books of movie stills and trivia, and you certainly don’t get it from the scholarly, but too detached writing of a professional critic. Unlike those other books, this kind of book tells you what it was like to make this or that movie. That’s all I want to know.

Monday, June 22, 2009

True Life Movies Pt 2 - Roughly Speaking - 1945

We continue our look at a couple of views of “true life” movies with “Roughly Speaking” (1945). Directed by Michael Curtiz, this fast-paced film with breezy dialogue punctuated by clever quips from leads Rosalind Russell and Jack Carson has similarities to “The Crowd” (1928) which we looked at last Thursday. The differences have to do more with tone and outlook than with basic content.

Unlike the spare, almost allegorical modern Everyman tale of “The Crowd”, “Roughly Speaking” is a cluttered scrapbook based on the memoir of Louise Randall Pierson. Both films study lives of trial and struggle, and bad breaks. “The Crowd” is somber, sensitive, and artistic. “Roughly Speaking” is more rollicking, uplifting, and though it covers some crucial episodes in time, is lighter fare.

Rosalind Russell’s character begins life as a daughter of a well-to-do New England patriarch in the early days of the 20th Century. When Father dies leaving debts, Miss Russell hitches her star to secretarial school (where the prim lady dean reprimands her for wearing a skirt that shows her ankles) and begins a wild ride of feast and famine for the next several decades.

A typically robust and hearty Alan Hale has a brief role as her first boss, who doubts a woman can do the job of typing letters in his shipyard office, but when she high kicks his hat off, he gives her a leg up in the business world. So to speak.

This occurs in New Haven, and when she and her roomie at the boarding house (where not a toilet is seen -- see the last post on “The Crowd”) date some Yale men, we hear the first of several choruses throughout the movie of the Yale fight song. You’ll have it memorized by the end of the film.

Her first beau proposes marriage, but she is a feminist and wants to support herself and does not want to quit her job when they marry. Her work ethic will come in handy in later years when she’s broke most of the time.

Her husband is a banker, a bit of a quiet drudge, but very stable, at least until he decides, after their fourth child is born, that he doesn’t love her. He leaves her, and we hear no more of him for the rest of the movie. But in the ebullient early days of the 1920s, Russell meets a new beau, played by Jack Carson with that wonderful deft way he had of playing both a good guy and a rogue. Mr. Carson doesn’t mind that she’s an independent woman or that she has four kids. He is a lazy loafer who needs a good woman to make him shape up, which is what happens. They have a great chemistry on screen and play well off each other. They look like they’re having fun.

One business booms, then busts. A lot happens in the parade of years. One of the children has polio, and we see her struggle with early paralysis to later being able to walk with a brace and a cane. Another baby is born. They move constantly to either better, or cheaper, digs according to their circumstances. The family is close and extraordinarily happy, joking at just about everything, even their bouts with poverty. Miss Russell and Mr. Carson get grayer in that artistic manner of the movie makeup artist.

A newsboy brings a big black headline to their porch that announces the Great Depression, and we have the stoic comment by Carson, “I guess the party’s over.”

But there is still the underlying all-American optimism that makes them bounce off the canvas, continuing to feed on the faith they have in themselves and their own ingenuity over a montage of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and “We’re In The Money.”
Finally by 1939, Carson gets a break, a job on the planning board of the New York City World’s Fair of that monumental year, but the rejoicing doesn’t last for long. At Russell’s 50th birthday party, where all the grown kids come home to help her eat cake and sing the Yale fight song, Rosalind Russell looks up from blowing out her candles to notice out the window over the fairgrounds that the Polish pavilion has turned off its lights. It’s a brief, but quietly dramatic moment in the film.

Young people seeing this film for the first time might not be aware of the significance of the statement, but it signals the beginning of World War II when Germany invaded Poland. Of all the foreign nations which sent exhibits to the New York 1939 World’s Fair, themed “The World of Tomorrow,” many Europeans could not return home once the war started. They were stuck there on the fairgrounds, in their native costumes, no longer trying to drum up business for countries that suddenly no longer existed.

Again, the wry comment by Carson, “Well, there goes the world of tomorrow.”

But the war puts the whole family on active duty. Who is not in the service is working in the shipyard. Miss Russell works in the office, as she did so many years ago, and Mr. Carson is a welder.

We have the final iconic scene where the boys are leaving at the train station, and the youngest, just 17, hands Mother and Father the permission slip for him to join the service. They have to put on their reading glasses now, and the makeup department has colored their hair completely gray. Russell and Carson capture beautifully the heartache and tension of the moment.

Afterward, the two aging empty-nesters sitting on the bench in the train station while the camera pulls back and they are lost in that crowd that threatened to swallow James Murray in “The Crowd,” argue about what would be the next business to start, a farm perhaps, and the movie ends in a hectic, though buoyant way.

This is the main difference between “The Crowd” and “Roughly Speaking,” the despair of one and the optimism of the other. One wonders how Murray’s character in “The Crowd” would have dealt with the Great Depression or World War II. Perhaps like the real-life actor who played him, he would have been long dead by then, crushed by his own inability cope.

Happier circumstances awaited Rosalind Russell, who after several years of comedies and minor dramas, this film began a turning point in her career where she was offered much stronger roles.

One might conjecture that “The Crowd” was made during generally good times, and during eras of political stability and a fair amount of prosperity, it’s easier to look at the hard side of life. During the Great Depression and the war, the movies were less eager to take a grim stance. Optimism was what was needed, or at least that’s what the movie studios perceived. After the war, movies got realistic again, but that was okay. We could take it by then.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

True Life Movies Pt 1 - "The Crowd" - 1928

We begin a two-part series today comparing two films which are similar, and completely different. That they are so similar, and so completely different, may not be ironic, just signs of the times. Perhaps the films are what they are simply because they were made when they were made. Today we examine “The Crowd” (1928), and we conclude on Monday with “Roughly Speaking” (1945).

Each film deals with a kind of “parade of years” theme which shows the main characters through many eras of their lives, and focuses particularly on the misfortunes they experience. Both handle this deftly, and with a remarkable degree of humor. “The Crowd” achieves a stark realism, despite its simplistic treatment, that is more artful, and perhaps is even more easy to relate to today than “Roughly Speaking”, which is so uplifting that we are inclined to remark “they don’t make films like that anymore”, something we usually do with heartwarming films of that World War II era that are so fun to watch, but which have very little resemblance to our lives today.

“The Crowd”, with its wry tone, could have been made yesterday rather than decades ago, and is often considered director King Vidor’s masterpiece. We follow the life of Everyman, an office worker named John Sims, from the moment he is born on July 4, 1900 (the symbolism here to put both the nationalistic stamp on our Everyman and therefore ourselves, and to put him smack at the beginning of our American Century), up to the late 1920s when the film was made, the heyday of The Age of Wonderful Nonsense.

The baby is born to a proud papa who predicts great things for him, but the march of time has different plans for our John. Even at the start of the movie depicting the birth, we may well be startled to see such unaccustomed realism in an era of filmmaking reliant on exaggerated pantomime, fantasy worlds, and mandatory happy endings. The doctor holds up an infant by his ankles (doll or baby?), and smacks his bottom as if to show the moment of birth in a tableau far more bold than anything that would have been filmed in the 1930s or 1940s.

When John is still a boy, he arrives home to learn of the death of his father. The scene where we see him, stunned, climbing the stairs toward the camera to his father’s deathbed is eerie and heartbreaking. We don’t know if having lost his father at a young age is what makes the adult John so lacking in direction. We only see as time goes on that he remains just as helpless as this in moments of decision or trauma.

John is played by James Murray, one of the most natural actors of the silent film era, whose performance in this film is sensitive and stunning. He hits all the right notes, from the humorous scenes, to the tragic ones. John works in an insurance company, and shots of his desk situated among a maze of others you may recognize as well in “The Apartment” (1960), which director Billy Wilder seemed to have taken for a model. All the shots of New York City have that wonderful natural and unselfconscious feel of 1920s films we’ve noted before that are so common in the backgrounds of the films of Harold Lloyd. There is no cozy and artificial feel of a set.

John is coaxed by a co-worker to come out on a double date to Coney Island. At first he must be persuaded. Gradually as they come down their giant office building in the elevator, John warms to the idea. (He is castigated by the elevator operator for not facing front, one of the many times John will suffer for not fitting in with The Crowd.) By the time they have reached the street, John, easily swayed, meets his date and becomes a party animal.

He and his pal take a moment to stare up the skirts of their dates as they climb to the upper deck of an open omnibus. They spend the evening at Coney Island amusement park, and on the sleepy ride home, John sees an advertisement placard directed at newlyweds who want to furnish their new homes. This gives him the impulse to propose marriage to his date.

Obviously, scenes such as this are meant to hurry the plot along, but it does not seem strange for John to be so easily influence by an ad. He is so easily influenced by everything.

His bride is played by Eleanor Boardman, who likewise gives a touching and realistic performance. There are romantic scenes on their train to their honeymoon destination of Niagara Falls, and in their one-room apartment by the El tracks. Soon, however, life intrudes on their bliss, first in the form of her mother and brothers, who seem to disapprove of John, and his foolishly boyish tricks. John is not much of an insurance “company man”. He is really a writer of advertising jingles, an habitual contest entry fanatic, a lazy strummer of the ukulele, an impulsive juggler, and a man so easily distracted by any of these things, that he is prevented from either advancing at work or helping his wife with the house chores. She must constantly, though gently, prod him and keep him to task like a child with ADHD.

(As far a realism goes, we might musingly note this film also shows a toilet in the bathroom, something which would be absent pretty much from all bathrooms and all mention in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. We even get to see the inside of the tank as John fumbles with it because the toilet is running. Decades pass, but some things never change.)

As the years pass, his boredom with his job, his failure to be a success wears on him and he becomes occasionally churlish. Then one of his contest entries wins, and for a moment we think his ship has come in. However, tragedy of unimaginable horror occurs, and nearly destroys them.

After that, just the business of getting up every day and finding a purpose to go on becomes John’s monumental task. He quits his job, and finds, then quits, several others, not being able to stick with anything. The title cards provide some excellent prose, observations on life more than descriptions of the action.

One tells us, “We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is…until we get out of step with it.”

Finally, his wife considers leaving him, frustrated by his whining refusal to accept a job offer. His brother-in-law tells him, “You’ve never been anything but a big bag of wind.” It’s true. A loveable guy, a fun guy, but maddeningly undependable, and a big bag of wind. John is shocked by his wife’s criticism, and comes close to taking his life, but instead takes a job wearing a clown suit, and a sandwich board advertising a restaurant, juggling to attract attention. It was just such a person he ridiculed early in the movie. Now, he is the clown, but absurdly grateful to get a job he can handle.

Success is usually measured in dollars in our society, but sometimes we might remember than finding a job that matches our skills is success enough for people out of step with The Crowd.

The end gives us that iconic scene of John, his wife, and their son watching a vaudeville show, as the camera pans back to show the fullness of the audience, as John and his family is lost in The Crowd. They are together, and for the moment, content, but we do not really know if it is a happy ending.

What many film buffs associate with this film is the real-life tragedy of its star, James Murray. King Vidor chose him personally for this film, admiring his natural abilities. Murray was a newcomer to film, reportedly insecure and overwhelmed by the sudden fame which greeted him when this film was released. Some felt he was really playing himself in this movie, and though he gave other good performances in films for the next few years, was unable to handle the pressure of a Hollywood career.

Murray became an alcoholic, and soon, like his character John Sims, could not keep a job. In 1936, he drowned in the Hudson River; though it is not clear if this was a suicide. He was 35 years old. Reportedly King Vidor was so moved by Murray and his tragic life, he would one day write a film script about him, but the movie was never made.

“Roughly Speaking”, which we’ll take a look at Monday, was based on the true-life memoirs of Louise Randall Pierson, but “true life” had a different feel to it in this 1945 movie than the hauntingly artistic reality of “The Crowd.”

If you’ve not seen “The Crowd”, now in the public domain, you can watch it in several parts beginning here on YouTube.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Drive-In Restaurants and Singing Carhops

Above we have Fred MacMurray pausing in the middle of his work day to have a beer at a drive-in restaurant in “Double Indemnity” (1944). Oh, the glamorous life of an insurance salesman.

The earliest depiction of a drive-in restaurant I can think of is “Moon Over Miami” from 1941 (covered here on this post from May 2008). Betty Grable and Carole Landis are singing carhops at Texas Tommy's in a rousing opening number dressed in cowgirl outfits. All their customers appear to be men driving convertibles, which is convenient because it lets us see the cowgirl outfits without obstruction. Think maybe that was what the director was thinking? Or just a coinkydink?

Just the thing you want to see come at you when you want a burger, apparently. Below we have a few more singing carhops in this 1950s short with scantily clad waitresses and leering male customers.

By the time “American Graffiti” (1973) came along, the drive-in restaurant carhop seemed to have become a symbol of the 1950s in movies and TV, yet we really don’t see them in too many movies of the era. Here’s a link to the opening scene of “American Graffiti which takes place at a drive-in restaurant in 1962. I don’t really know how common waitresses on roller skates were. That must have been difficult. Lots of customers accidentally covered in mustard and milkshakes, I imagine.

Evidently, at some point the clientele of drive-in restaurants seems to have switched from world-weary insurance salesmen plotting murders, and leering businessmen, to aimless teens pigging out on French fries and shakes in between drag races.

Below in this cartoon from 1956, “Rocket Squad”, which is a parody of “Dragnet”, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig tail a crime suspect in this futuristic space world to “Elsa’s Blast-Inn”. The push-button menu lists oleo as one of the sandwich condiments. Anybody remember squishing the capsule of yellow food coloring to turn the margarine from unappetizing white to faux-butter?

As long as we’re in the realm of cartoons, but shifting to TV for a minute, you might recall Fred and Barney bought a drive-in restaurant on a 1960 episode of “The Flintstones.” Also with singing carhops. “Here we come on the run with a burger on a bun….”

Some carhops skate, others dance and sing.

The A&W chain still featured drive-in style restaurants when I was young, but I think they’ve dropped them now. I don’t recall any of the waitresses either skating or singing. Just plunking the metal tray on the car door. Which was good enough when all I really wanted was my “Baby Burger” and my little mug of root beer.

What drive-ins do you remember? What other movies can you recall that featured scenes with drive-in restaurants?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reel Movie Collector

A while ago some bloggers on classic film gave us a glimpse into what their own collections looked like, posting photos of their shelves and boxes filled with videos and DVDs. A dentist from Springfield, Massachusetts amassed a pretty extensive film collection himself through the years, but not on DVD or video tape…on reels of film.

Howard E. “Doc” Burr collected around 2,500 films, including features, shorts, cartoons, newsreels, as well as posters and lobby cards and assorted move ephemera. Dr. Burr died last year at the age of 89, and his collection has been donated by his children to The Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Mass.

Have a look here for the Springfield Republican article of May 3rd by Pat Cahill which describes Dr. Burr’s treasure trove and the grateful archivists who will give his thousands of reels of film a prestigious new home, thereby making his collection accessible to the public. According to the article, there are at least 300 films among Dr. Burr’s collection that even the enormous UCLA film archives in Los Angels does not have.

Here’s another link to The Harvard Film Archive with a photo of Dr. Burr. We have to marvel at how much effort went into collecting films in an age before video or DVD, before Amazon and eBay and other Internet sites, when every sale or barter had to be done in person or through the mail. Perhaps one of the best things about hobbies is they require patience, and give the delight of anticipation. Dr. Burr must have enjoyed a fair degree of both.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Future is Now - 1955

Have a look at the world of tomorrow, or perhaps what in some cases resembles the world of the present, in this RKO short subject “The Future is Now” (1955), narrated by Dwight Weist. Part One is above, and concludes on Part Two below.

Though we have the usual Buck Rogers brand of fascination with kitchen gadgetry and video phones, there is a remarkable quality about this one-reeler that is strikingly thoughtful and genuine. The future it foresees with nuclear medicine and video tape, in which “a program can be recorded and played back at any time, immediately, if desired without any laboratory processing,” became a part of our lives a generation ago, and in which we have already traveled beyond that future miracle to a then-unforetold digital world.

Much of course is lauded here about nuclear power in an era when it was hoped and expected that weaponry would give way to peacetime uses, “serving mankind” is the common quote repeated here, with no mention of the “cons” amid all the “pros”. Though we might smile at the depiction of the enormous computer called a “mechanical” genius, and squirm a bit when the demonstration of hitting a field of vegetables with gamma rays prefaced by the sign “Warning - lethal source in use,” we have to admit, some of this foretelling of future miracles, and future problems, is fascinating.

Solar power here is not treated as a science fiction toy, but taken quite seriously, as the narrator notes, “Some scientists consider the sun a much more important potential source of power than the atom.”

And we may note somewhat ruefully how the narrator acknowledges that the so-called “second industrial revolution” sparked by computer automation in factories is “controversial” because it will eliminate jobs.

Demonstrations of guided missiles, of a patient taking what looks like a Barium swallow in front of a fluoroscope, and the father taking home movies of his child with a video camera and playing them back on his TV all give us pause to remember that whatever good or not-so-good aspects of our present-day lives, we stand on the shoulders of people who were true visionaries more than 50 years ago.

The narrator comforts us that “nothing will ever replace creative intelligence.” Awash in a sea of “reality” shows on our color, digital, high definition TVs with remote controls and TiVo, one wonders where it went.

How interesting that this short film shown in movie theaters does not make too many predictions about the future of motion pictures.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Off Topic - Happy Anniversary

Happy one-year annivesary to my twin brother's cartoon blog "Arte Acher's Falling Circus."

Walk Softly, Stranger - 1950

“Walk Softly, Stranger” (1950) re-teams Joseph Cotten and Valli from “The Third Man” (1949) in a film that is not quite Noir and not quite romance, but which is carried by the dependable understated and nuanced playing of both leads.

Drifter Cotten wanders into an anywhere-in-America factory town and for a minute we might wonder if this is going to be a Van Heflin in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) sort of adventure. Not quite. We don’t have the snap and sizzle of the true Noir of “Ivers”, but what we do have is a male lead more intriguingly ambiguous. We know Van Heflin is a sharp character right off the bat. But we don’t really know what Joseph Cotten is. Jack Paar, incidentally, has a small role as a co-worker.

Cotten picks out Spring Byington’s house seemingly according to some plan, and tells her a tale of it’s being his boyhood home. A lonely widow whose only son was killed in The War, she trustingly rents him a room in her house. Soon his comfortable teasing of her evolves into a warm almost mother-son relationship, but the thought that she might not be safe with him still lingers.

He accosts the elegant Valli, the daughter of the town’s wealthy manufacturer on the terrace of a country club party with the self-assuredness again of somebody following a carefully plotted plan. He spins a story of having a crush on her when she was a girl and he was the paperboy. We see he has designs on her, but the glimmer of surprise in his expression when he notices she is in a wheelchair makes us wonder if his plans are changing, or merely gelling.

Mr. Cotten is a gambler and a thief, hiding out from the mob. When his weasel pal played to a self-interested, nervous crescendo by the sinister Paul Stewart shows up with the even badder guys on his tail, the jig is up.

There are some pensive scenes with the lovely Valli as a depressed and bitter invalid after a wild debutante life of cocktails and skiing accidents, and how she becomes drawn to Cotten’s ingratiating bravado about the wheelchair. They fall in love, though we are more certain of her attachment than his, so steady is his reserved guise as a man with many angles, many hands to play, and more than one name.

The ending is improbable, but inevitable. You can’t leave a girl in a wheelchair, already sadder but wiser, alone without a date on New Year’s Eve. So, when the cuffs are on him at last, she declares will wait for him. It’s hard to say whether this cozy moment is better or worse than her just coldly walking past him into the distance and the end credits like she did in “The Third Man.” There was something awfully right about that, in an agonizing sort of way. But then, “The Third Man” really was Noir, and “Walk Softly, Stranger” is gray, groping in the dark.

Monday, June 1, 2009

New Billie Burke Biography

Billie Burke, who may be most remembered for her impossibly bubbly (literally) portrayal of Glinda the Good Witch in the “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) is the subject of a new biography by Grant Hayter-Menzies.

According to the press release issued by Mr. Hayter-Menzies, this is the first biography to be written about the glittering popular headliner-turned-character actress (though Billie Burke did pen her autobiography decades ago). Titled, “Mrs. Ziegfeld: The Private and Public Lives of Billie Burke” (McFarland & Co.), her stage career, her bittersweet marriage to Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., and her Hollywood roles are addressed as well as, according to Mr. Hayter-Menzies, “the common misperception that Billie was in person anything like the daffy women she played when she returned to Hollywood in 1932.” Other roles the author reviews include Burke’s Millicent Jordan in "Dinner at Eight" and her role as Cordelia Fosgate in "Sergeant Rutledge," her last starring screen appearance.

An interview with Mr. Hayter-Menzies on his earlier book about Charlotte Greenwood was featured in this blog post from 2007. For more information on his new Billie Burke biography, have a look here.

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