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, January 25 at 2:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Kid

You could go around in circles trying to decide who is better: Chaplin or Keaton? Setting aside personal preferences, they’re close enough to call it a tie. Chaplin taps directly into your emotions, while Keaton’s work is more cerebral. Two of Chaplin’s feature-length films tug at the heart strings more than the others. They are The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). City Lights is the superior film in almost every way, yet The Kid has a sincerity that makes it almost as powerful emotionally.

The Kid was the first feature produced and directed by Chaplin. By the 1920s, he could invest the time and resources needed to construct the film the way he wanted it. In his book Charlie Chaplin, Theodore Huff describes Chaplin’s creative process:

The scene in which Jackie makes pancakes and Chaplin rises from his bed in the suddenly improvised blanket-lounging robe, is said to have taken two weeks and fifty thousand feet of film to shoot. Even counting in the fact that two cameras were used (one negative was for Europe), this is exceptional footage for a scene scarcely a minute in length. But perfect timing and precision were desired and achieved.

Chaplin’s slow, methodical approach was confirmed by Jackie Coogan, who played the title role. In Brownlow and Kobal’s book Hollywood: The Pioneers, Coogan explained, “Sometimes we wouldn’t turn a camera for ten days while he got an idea.”

Coogan joined his parent’s vaudeville act when he was just two-years old, and Chaplin spotted Coogan when he was five. Chaplin knew right away he wanted to work with the young boy, but what kind of story would best show off his talents? The story Chaplin devised was close to his own childhood poverty. He modeled the Tramp’s dilapidated room after the room he had shared with his mother in the London slums.

Despite the grim surroundings and sentimental plot, there’s more than enough humor to tip the scales toward comedy. Highlights include Chaplin’s stationary running as he pretends to pursue the orphanage van, the Tramp’s dream of a heaven where everyone flies (including the dogs) with angelic wings, and the easy familiarity between Chaplin and Coogan.

The DVD features a new digital transfer using a print from the Chaplin family vault. The bonus disc provides three scenes Chaplin deleted from the film’s 1971 reissue. They further develop the background story of the boy’s mother.

The Kid
(1921; directed by Charles Chaplin; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Monday, January 25 at 1:30 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

His Girl Friday

Want to see the true genius of Howard Hawks? You only have to look as far as His Girl Friday (1940). As good as Ben Hecht’s play The Front Page was, it took Hawks (with Hecht’s assistance) to take it to the next level. Hawks talked about the origin of the film in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I was going to prove to somebody one night that The Front Page had the finest modern dialogue that had been written, and I asked a girl to read Hildy’s part and I read the editor and I stopped and I said, ‘Hell, it’s better between a girl and a man than between two men,’ and I called Ben Hecht and I said, ‘What would you think of changing it so that Hildy is a girl?’ And he said, I think it’s a great idea,’ and he came out and we did it.

Much has been written about the Hawksian woman, who can hold her own against a group of rowdy and insular males, but is no less feminine for being able to do so. For Hawks to convert a best-friend role to a best-gal role was almost second nature. Hawks did more than just change the gender of one of the characters. He kept most of the drama involving Earl Williams, the convicted murdered, but he also built up what would become the main concerns of the film — will Hildy walk out on Walter Burns, quit the Morning Post, and marry her fiancée? If the film has a flaw, it’s the wide swings between its dramatic and comedic threads. Fortunately, Hawks and Hecht interweave the two at such a frantic pace, we barely have time to consider the incongruities.

In a 1956 interview with Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Françoise Truffaut, Hawks spoke about the benefits of a fast pace:

I generally work with a faster than usual tempo than that of most of my colleagues. It seems more natural to me, less forced. I personally speak slowly, but people generally talk, talk, talk without even waiting for other people to finish. Also, if a scene is a bit weak, the more rapidly you shoot it, the better it will be on the screen. Moreover, if the tempo is fast you can emphasize a point by slowing the rhythm.

This film is often praised for its overlapping dialogue. Delivered in rapid-fire fashion — yet never seeming unnatural or forced — the script is a textbook example of how to engage the viewer with wit and style. The one-liners, causal asides, and occasional in-jokes make the first twenty minutes about as good as it gets. Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, and a fine supporting cast round out the talent for one of the finest comedies ever.

His Girl Friday
(1940; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $24.95

Sunday, January 24 at 4:30 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

Tuesday, January 19 at 2:00 p.m. eastern 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)

Friday, January 15 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, February 16 at 2:30 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, March 26 at 11:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Shop Around the Corner

Some stories are so good, they’re worth telling over and over again. Take, for example, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedy starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. It was remade in 1949 as In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. In 1963, it was converted into a Broadway musical, titled She Loves Me. And more recently, it was remade as yet another movie, You’ve Got Mail (1998) with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

At its core, the story is quite simple, which is why it’s so easily adapted. A man and woman, who dislike each other intensely in person, have each found love anonymously in a correspondence with a stranger. What they don’t know – and we do – is that they’re corresponding with each other.

The plot wasn’t entirely original to Lubitsch. Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson adapted it from a Hungarian play. Even though Lubitsch isn’t credited with the screenplay, he and Raphaelson worked closely to write the dialogue on all their collaborations. Here’s an example of the dialogue from the film:

Marton: Remember the girl I was corresponding with?
Pirovitch: Ah, yes . . . about those cultural subjects.
Marton: Well, after a while, we came to the subject of love, naturally, but on a very cultural level.
Pirovitch: What else can you do in a letter?
Marton: Pirovitch, she’s the most marvelous girl in the world . . .
Pirovitch: Is she pretty?
Marton: She has such ideals, such a point of view on things . . . She’s so far above the girls you meet today, there’s simply no comparison.
Pirovitch: So she’s not so very pretty.

In a letter to Herman G. Weinberg (written on July 10, 1947 — just months before his death), Lubitsch suggested his three best films were Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch cited The Shop Around the Corner as his best “human comedy.” He wrote, “Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer than in this picture.” He chose Trouble in Paradise for its style and Ninotchka for its satire.

While Lubitsch is the master of the sophisticated comedy, you don’t always identify with his characters in the same way you identify with the characters in the comedies of Frank Capra and Leo McCarey. That’s certainly not the case with this film. With its sparkling dialogue, winning performances, and measured pacing, it’s one of the best comedies of the 1940s.

The Shop Around the Corner
(1940; directed by Ernst Lubitsch, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, January 15 at 9:30 a.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)

Wednesday, January 13 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, February 28 at 3:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is one of Howard Hawks’ best and most personal films. Hawks was a master of taking on the conventions of a genre and adding deeper meaning to its clichéd elements. At the same time, he was able to reinvigorate the entertainment aspects of the genre, so the end result is a far richer film than you would expect. Only Angels Have Wings is a teeth-clinching adventure film about a band of outcast pilots who bravely agree to fly a South American mail run — in weather conditions that would turn back any other pilot.

As in later Hawks films, you’ll find the themes of loyalty, personal responsibility, and group cohesion. Underneath those themes is a web of complex personal relationships. And within those relationships, you’ll encounter the problem of how we deal with — or choose not to deal with — the issue of our own mortality.

In an interview published in the February 1956 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Hawks describes a scene where two of the pilots deal openly with the inevitability of death:

Adventure stories reveal how people behave in the face of death — what they do, say, feel, and even think. I have always liked the scene in Only Angels Have Wings in which a man says, ‘I feel funny,’ and his best friend says ‘your neck is broken,’ and the injured man then says ‘I have always wondered how I would die if I knew I was going to die. I would rather you didn’t watch me.’ And the friend goes out and stands in the rain. I have personally encountered this experience, and the public found it very convincing.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Only Angels Have Wings has a central life-affirming message and plenty of lighthearted moments. The pilots enjoy themselves all the more because they understand life can be fleeting. The audience’s misgivings are embodied in the Bonnie Lee character played by Jean Arthur. While she is initially repulsed by the men who appear to be insensitive to the loss of their friends, she comes to realize (as we do) that this may be the only way they can do their jobs and remain sane.

No other adventure film, that I’m aware of, does a better of job of presenting both the good effects (intense personal friendships) and bad effects (emotional scaring) that flow from a constant exposure to danger. Even more impressive is the film’s exploration of the intricate interplay between the good and bad effects. Insight into the human psyche on top of an exhilarating adventure story — what more could you ask from a Hollywood film?

Only Angels Have Wings
(1939; directed by Howard Hawks; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
TCM Vault Collection
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray), $24.99 (DVD)

Tuesday, January 12 at 7:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, February 29 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Sullivan's Travels

Many comedies include dramatic elements that tag along for the ride, just as many dramas provide comic relief to sweeten an otherwise hard-to-swallow message. Yet only a few films blend comedy and drama as effortlessly as Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

Preston Sturges, the film’s writer and director, was the best comedy writer of the 1940s. He was a master of handling contrasting elements, such as comedy and drama, high-brow and low-brow culture, and verbal and physical humor. Sturges also had a great ear for conversation. His characters could intellectually joust each other with elaborate turns of phrases and sudden twists of ideas. Yet everything comes across as being perfectly natural.

In Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McCrea plays the part of John L. ‘Sully’ Sullivan, a comedy director who wants to make movies with a deeper meaning. Against the better judgment of everyone around him, he decides to dress like a bum in order to experience real hardship. Veronica Lake plays the part of “The Girl” he meets along the way.

Here are some excerpts from the script:

Sullivan: Don’t you think with the world in its present condition, with Death snarling at you from every street corner, people are a little allergic to comedies?
The Girl: No.
Sullivan: Perhaps I don’t make myself clear.
The Girl: Say, how come you know a picture director well enough to borrow his car?
Sullivan: Well, as a matter of fact, I used to know most of those boys. But naturally, I don’t like to mention it in a suit like this. As a matter of fact, I used to be a picture director.
The Girl: Why you poor kid!
Sullivan: Don’t get emotional. I’ll be all right.
The Girl: What kind of pictures did you make?
Sullivan: More along educational lines.
The Girl: No wonder. There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open.
Sullivan: What are you talking about? Film is the greatest educational medium the world has even known. You take a picture like Hold Back Tomorrow . . .
The Girl: You hold it . . .

The Girl: I liked you better as a bum.
Sullivan: I can’t help what kind of people you like.

Policeman: How does the girl fit into the picture?
Sullivan: There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?

If you’ve read about the Sturges films, and haven’t seen any of them, you might assume they’re not for everyone. On the contrary, they’re real crowd pleasers. Some critics argue that Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges’ best, because — in addition to the humor — it successfully explores the fragile relationship between comedy and drama. This is one of his finest films, though being different from the rest, it’s like comparing apples and oranges when you try to rank it against his other great movies, such as Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).

Sullivan’s Travels
(1941; directed by Preston Sturges, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, January 12 at 2:45 p.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Many people are surprised that James Cagney’s only Oscar was for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). One reason is that the Academy doesn’t tend to reward performances in genre films, such as gangster, adventure, or science fiction films. It also doesn’t tend to reward performances in musicals, though Yankee Doodle Dandy was an exception.

If you think of Cagney’s roles in the gangster movies, it was his confidence that won you over. Only 5 feet 6 inches tall (short by Hollywood standards), Cagney could stare down anyone in the room. It’s just that kind of brash confidence that made him the perfect choice to portray George M. Cohan, who was just as cocky and full-of-himself in real life as Cagney was onscreen. Cagney also had the background needed to play the part. He started in Hollywood as a song-and-dance man, but was sidetracked into gangster movies when asked to switch parts at the last minute.

Cagney did get a chance to return to his song-and-dance roots with his role in Footlight Parade (1933). There, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he doesn’t come off as a polished singer or dancer. It’s his enthusiasm that wins you over. He becomes a terrific dancer almost be sheer will alone. If you’ve ever been told, “it’s not what you have; it’s what you do with it,” you’ll find all the proof you need in Cagney’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Of course, it takes more than a single strong performance to make a great film — particularly if that film happens to be a musical. Cohan’s deeply patriotic songs are real crowd pleasers, not just for their sentiment, but also because they’re the kind of songs that linger in the mind long after you first hear them. Though written for World War I era audiences, they were equally appropriate in 1942 when this movie was released — just months after Pearl Harbor. Even from our perspective, the songs and sentiment still ring true. Odds are you already know many of the songs from the film, which include “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (a.k.a. Yankee Doodle Dandy), “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Harrigan,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”

A heartfelt movie biography could easily fall on its face without a strong script. Credit here goes to Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, who adapted the screenplay from Buckner’s story. Director Michael Curtiz, whose Casablanca was released the same year, keeps the pace brisk with plenty of humor to take off the edge. Here are some snippets of dialogue:

Critic #1: I call it a hit. What’ll your review say?
Critic #2: I like it too, so I guess I’ll pan it.

George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

Newspaperman: He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants!

Sergeant on parade: What’s the matter, old timer? Don’t you remember this song?
George M. Cohan: Seems to me I do.
Sergeant on parade: Well, I don’t hear anything.

Michael Curtiz was perhaps Hollywood’s hardest working director in the 1930s and 1940s. He turned out an impressive 44 features for Warner Bros. from 1930 through 1939. Curtiz had an extraordinary range across a diverse group of genres. In addition to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, he directed Black Fury (1935), Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), and The Breaking Point (1950).

The new Blu-ray disc released on October 14 looks great — and it’s a big improvement over the previous DVD versions. The generous selection of extras is essentially the same as on the two-disc special edition DVD. Unfortunately, the extras are ported directly over in the same standard-definition video (480i). The exception is the 1943 Looney Tunes cartoon short Yankee Doodle Daffy. Like the movie, it has been upgraded to a very nice 1080p video. This Blu-ray is an excellent way to experience this top-notch musical drama.

Yankee Doodle Dandy
(1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.99 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Saturday, January 9 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, February 15 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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)

Tuesday, January 5 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Duck Soup

Marx Brothers fans usually fall into two camps: those who think Duck Soup (1933) is their best film, and those who think A Night at the Opera (1935) is their best film. The strongest argument in favor of A Night at the Opera is the stateroom scene. It’s the funniest sequence the Marx Brothers ever created. I’m in the Duck Soup camp. I think the slow portions of A Night at the Opera tend to drag it down a bit. And while no single sequence in Duck Soup quite matches the stateroom scene, it’s more consistently entertaining.

Much of the credit has to go to Duck Soup’s writers. Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby worked together on the story, and Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin provided additional dialogue. It also didn’t hurt to have Groucho (Rufus T. Firefly), Chico (Chicolini), and Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale) to deliver the lines. Here are some examples:

Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Mrs. Teasdale: Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don’t think I could handle any more.

Rufus T. Firefly: Now, what is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chicolini: Atsa good one. I give you three guesses.
Rufus T. Firefly: Now let me see. Has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia… Is it male or female?
Chicolini: No, I no think so.
Rufus T. Firefly: Is he dead?
Chicolini: Who?
Rufus T. Firefly: I don’t know. I give up.
Chicolini: I give up, too.

Prosecutor: Chicolini, when were you born?
Chicolini: I don’t-a remember. I was just a little baby.

Prosecutor: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.
Chicolini: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.
Prosecutor: No, I’m talking about taxes — money, dollars!
Chicolini: Dollars! There’s-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!

Duck Soup benefits by having a first-class director at the helm. Leo McCarey had directed many of the best Laurel and Hardy silent comedies. His previous sound comedies, especially Let’s Go Native (1930) and The Kid from Spain (1932), show an inventive and improvisational style that would blend well with the Marx Brothers. Unfortunately, Duck Soup was a flop at the box office. As a result, it was their last film at Paramount. MGM gave them another chance, though their freewheeling approach would prove to be at odds with the MGM factory system. Their comedies following A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are pale imitations of their earlier classic films.

Duck Soup
(1933; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Universal Studios
List price: $19.98

Thursday, December 31 at 6:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Doctor Zhivago

Sometimes it takes an extensive digital restoration to re-establish the greatness of a film. That’s certainly the case with Doctor Zhivago (1965). I’ve had a chance to watch the recent Blu-ray release of this popular classic, and it confirms that director David Lean was at the peak of his craft with Zhivago. It’s equal in epic stature to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). More surprisingly, it matches the rich characters and intimate drama found in Lean’s earlier films, such as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Hobson’s Choice (1954).

The restoration team at Warner Bros. faced some unusual challenges due to the poor condition of the original negative. Lean had wanted to film Doctor Zhivago in 65mm, but had to settle for 35mm. To maximize the print quality for the 70mm theaters, Lean agreed to strike the theatrical prints directly from the original 35mm A & B rolls—splices and all.

“The original negative, as it now exists, is in far less than stellar condition,” explains archivist Robert Harris in a posting at hometheaterforum.com. “Over the past couple of decades there have been abortive rescue attempts at best. But finally Warner Bros. has seen fit to properly digitally restore the film, bringing together the best of the surviving pieces of film.”

This restored version has caused me to reconsider my view of the film, now that it is available again as the director intended. I had written off Doctor Zhivago as a lesser work by Lean—overly emotional without a strong enough structure to sustain its ambitions. What I discovered was an intricate and quite believable drama set against the sweeping vistas of history. (It’s worth noting that the history presented isn’t entirely accurate. Russian poets weren’t politically repressed during the revolution. That didn’t happen until later, when Stalin came to power.)

The film does take some twists and turns that you won’t find in the novel, such as the opening and closing scenes where Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) is searching for Zhivago’s daughter. Lean and scriptwriter Robert Bolt had to reduce the massive work into a three-hour story that could fully stand on its own.

In the book The Making of Feature Films (1971), Bolt explained their approach:

If you are going to reduce a book to a twentieth of its length, you can’t go snipping out pieces here and there, up to nineteen-twentieths. You have to take in and digest the whole work to your own satisfaction and then say, ‘Well, the significant things, the mountain peaks which emerge from this vast panorama are such-and-such incidents, moral points, political points, emotional points, and those are all I can deal with in dramatic form–all I should deal with’…. Once the peaks have emerged, the problem is how to link them. You are under the necessity of inventing incidents which do not occur in the book–threads which will draw together rapidly a number of themes, where Pasternak might have taken 10 chapters.

Lean and Bolt were able to solve a problem that still plagues directors and screenwriters. How do you make a big-canvas movie without losing your focus on the characters and story? If you look at the list of inflation-adjusted all-time U.S. box-office winners, you can see that the top moneymakers were able to do just that. You can also see that Avatar hasn’t yet passed Doctor Zhivago in its inflation-adjusted theatrical receipts.

Doctor Zhivago
(1965; directed by David Lean; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $29.95 (Blu-ray), $21.95 (DVD)

Sunday, December 27 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, February 21 at 2:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

2001: A Space Odyssey

If the measure of a classic film is its ability to withstand the erosions of time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would have to be regarded as the best science fiction film of all time. Though we have moved beyond it chronologically, its predictive value still seems valid.

The decades-old special effects also hold up well. By comparison, George Lukas felt the need to repeatedly update the special effects and storyline in Star Wars (1977), despite the fact it was released nine years later. Science fiction films are especially prone to becoming dated. Both Woman on the Moon (1929) and Things to Come (1936) boldly depict a future that now seems forever bound to a distant past.

One of the reasons 2001 endures is Kubrick’s obsession with getting it right. When there’s an explosion in space, you don’t hear the sound of the explosion. That’s less dramatic, but completely accurate — there’s no air in space to carry the sound. Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke even poke fun at their quest for authenticity. One scene shows the lengthy instructions needed to successfully operate a zero-gravity toilet.

Kubrick did find a technical flaw just before the film was released. It would have been too costly to correct, so the mistake remains. During the flight to the moon, Dr. Floyd drinks food through a straw, in what we understand to be a weightless environment. If you look closely, you can see the food drop when he stops sucking on the straw. Since there’s no gravity, the food shouldn’t be falling back.

Another reason this movie seems contemporary is the remarkably detailed spacecraft and docking facilities. This is the first modern science fiction film in terms of the care and expense devoted to making space travel appear as lifelike as possible. It also didn’t hurt that the movie was shot in 65mm (Super Panavision 70), which provides nearly four times the resolution of a standard 35mm film.

A third contributing factor is the open-ended plot. The conclusion of the film is open to so many different interpretations, you’ll find a variety of websites claiming to “explain 2001.” Even if you accept the most plausible plotline (aliens monitor our technological advances and then help mankind to take the next evolutionary step), there is still a strong element of mystery.

The film combines an obsessive attention to detail with a poetic sense of greater possibilities. That the two can coexist is a testament to Kubrick and Clarke’s creative talents and their willingness to take a great leap of faith in the power of this extraordinary medium.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Saturday, December 26 at 2:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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