North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Saturday, November 1 at 10:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, December 29 at 2:15 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958) became a great film because of a misunderstanding. Charlton Heston had agreed to appear in a police drama for Universal Pictures, but only because he thought Welles was signed to direct it. Welles, in fact, had agreed only to act in the film.

In a 1965 interview with the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Welles explained:

Universal did not clear up his misunderstanding; they hung up and automatically telephoned me and asked me to direct it. . . I set only one condition: to write my own scenario! And I directed and wrote the film without getting a penny for it, since I was being paid as an actor.

Welles hated Universal’s scenario for the movie. He changed the locale from San Diego to the Mexican border. He also chose a supporting cast that Pauline Kael described as “assembled as perversely as in a nightmare.” It included Akim Tamiroff as a smalltime thug, Dennis Weaver as an outrageously inhibited motel clerk, Zsa Zsa Gabor as a strip club owner, and Marlene Dietrich as a madam. Heston plays an incorruptible Mexican narcotics agent, and Janet Leigh portrays his new bride. Welles turns in a towering performance as Hank Quinlan, a no-nonsense police captain whose hunches and leg twinges have helped put away hundreds of criminals.

Universal re-edited the film against Welles’ wishes before it was released in 1958. It received no previews and little fanfare. In 1998, Rick Schmidlin supervised a re-edit of the film, following the suggestions from a 58-page memo Welles had prepared after learning he wouldn’t have the final cut. Schmidin restored much of the material that was originally cut out.

This re-edited version is the film that’s currently available on DVD and shown occasionally on cable. It’s a big improvement over the theatrical release, both in the clarity of the storyline and the power of the imagery. Most famously, Welles had created a long, carefully timed tracking shot at the beginning of the film that ends with a dramatic surprise. Universal had cut the shot and placed the opening titles over what was left, greatly diminishing its effect. The re-edit restores this critical shot and places the credits at the conclusion of the story, as intended.

If any film can be referred to as baroque in its visual style, that film would be Touch of Evil. Even after 50 years, it continues to fascinate. Perhaps the most innovative film of the 1950s, it was decades ahead of its time. This is Welles’ third best film (after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and the most daring of his Hollywood films.

Touch of Evil
(1958; directed by Orson Welles, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $29.98 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Wednesday, October 29 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Kwaidan

What’s better than a chilling ghost story? How about four ghost stories rolled into one? Kwaidan (1965) is based on a collection of Japanese ghost stories published in 1904. The author was Lafcadio Hearn, a folklorist of Greek-Irish ancestry, who based his stories on translations of old Japanese texts.

Sixty years later, Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi transformed four of those stories into one of the most beautiful ghost movies ever made. Highly stylized with lavish sets and lighting effects that resemble surreal paintings as much as realistic settings, the movie is less frightening than dreamlike, with images that seep deep into your consciousness. Speak with anyone who has seen it, and you’ll discover it makes a strong impression. It’s fair to say the recent renaissance in Japanese horror films — sometimes referred to J-horror — can be traced directly back to this movie (and, to a lesser extent, to Ugetsu).

In each of the four stories, humans come face to face with the supernatural in the guise of materialized ghosts. How the humans react will determine whether they’ll be harmed by the experience. In the first story, “The Black Hair,” a man leaves his loving wife for a rich woman, realizes his mistake, and returns to find his wife, who is strangely unchanged. The second story, titled “The Woman of the Snow,” centers on a promise made by a woodcutter that he won’t reveal the phantom who saved his life with her icy breath. In the third story, “Hoichi, the Earless,” a blind musician tries to protect himself from the spirits of two warrior clans. His protection is to paint prayers all over his body. And in the last tale, titled “In a Cup of Tea,” a warrior sees the reflection of someone else when he gazes into his tea. Later, that same figure challenges him to a duel.

The DVD includes only the movie and theatrical trailer. Given that the film runs 161 minutes, I’m happy the available space on the disc is devoted mostly to the movie. Anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions, the transfer is a wonder to behold. Kwaidan leaves a lasting impression — but only if you’re able to see it in a richly detailed print.

Kwaidan
(1965; directed by Masaki Kobayashi; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95

Wednesday, October 29 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (1945) is the kind of competently directed Hollywood film from the 1940s that seems better each time you watch it. Like Michael Curtiz’s other outstanding drama from that decade, Casablanca (1943), everything seems to click — uniformly fine performances, a terrific script that never misses a beat, and a first-rate musical score (Max Steiner in both cases).

Joan Crawford won the title role only after it was turned down by Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. Shirley Temple was considered for the part of the teenaged daughter, Veda Pierce. Fortunately, fate (or good sense) prevailed, and it’s now hard to imagine anyone else in any of the roles. Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney, and an uncredited William Faulkner adapted the screenplay from the novel by James M. Cain. The movie downplays much of the sexual frankness of the novel, which Curtiz handles obliquely. You may recognize Cain as the author behind The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

A key strength of the film version of Mildred Pierce is that it doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. It begins with a murder and failed attempt to frame an innocent man — classic elements of a film noir. The distinct lighting and emotionally charged music also point to that genre. In the flashbacks, however, we’re thrown into an entirely different film genre, sometimes referred to as “weepies” or “women’s pictures.” Here we’re sympathetically drawn into the story of a woman struggling to give her children a better life. The arc of the film is the collision of these two types of movies. Ultimately, one of the genres has to win out, and it’s the interplay between the two storylines that makes this film especially appealing.

It’s also remarkable how the various elements mix together so seamlessly. The comic lines (delivered by Jack Carson as Wally and Eve Arden as Ida) reinforce what we’ve already learned about the characters. For example, Ida sums up Mildred and Veda’s relationship with this biting comment, “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” Similarly, Wally acknowledges his own failings when he says, “Oh boy! I’m so smart it’s a disease!”

While you can make a case against the restrictiveness of the Hollywood studio system, movies such as Mildred Pierce represent the best argument for the advantages. The film’s high-buff polish and overall consistency are a direct result of a well-oiled studio machine.

Mildred Pierce
(1945; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, October 27 at 12:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, December 1 at 3:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps (1935) is one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished early films. It’s also the movie that caught the eye of Hollywood, and the rest — as they say — is history. On the surface, it’s a story about spies and vital information that can’t fall into the wrong hands. Dig deeper, and you’ll find a thrilling adventure of a man wrongly accused of a crime (a favorite Hitchcock theme), as well as a romantic comedy that’s centered on an unlikely couple.

Based on a famous novel by John Buchan, the author was initially upset with the changes Hitchcock made for the film. Years later, he acknowledged Hitchcock had improved the story. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained his approach to adapting the story:

I worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Given Hitchcock’s remarks, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t feel disjointed. Hitchcock was such a skilled director at this point in his career, he was able to hold the episodes together through the strength of the characters and thrill of the chase. As in many of Hitchcock’s films, the origins of the crime or espionage are unimportant. We don’t care what the 39 steps are, and neither does Hitchcock. He even has to insert a few lines at the end to remind us what all the hubbub was about.

The film is filled with deftly rendered vignettes, such as the sequence with the farmer and his wife. Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) encounters them as he flees the police. Based on just a few gestures and glances, we immediately understand the couple’s relationship. When a handcuffed Hannay evades detection by joining a Salvation Army parade, and then is mistaken for a political speaker (he’s hustled onto the platform to improvise an election speech), we willingly go along for the ride. And when those same handcuffs bind Hannay with a woman (played by Madeleine Carroll) who despises him, we savor the improbable circumstances that ultimately bring the two together together. The 39 Steps is only 81 minutes long, but it has more thrills, comedy, romance, and understated wit than the vast majority of films you’ll see. As Hitchcock explained to Truffaut in the interview, “You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”

The two-disc-set DVD of The 39 Steps includes a bonus documentary titled The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock. It’s an excellent introduction to Hitchcock’s early British films, which include The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938).

The 39 Steps
(1935; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Thursday, October 23 at 2:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Mutiny on the Bounty

If you haven’t heard of the director Frank Lloyd, you’re not alone. Even though he directed, produced, and/or appeared as an actor in more than 180 films from 1912 through 1955, he isn’t well known. He is best remembered for his masterful direction of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Lloyd was the ideal choice to helm this true-life British naval mutiny from the late 18th century.

Born in Scotland, Lloyd watched his father install turbines and engines into all kinds of boats, including Tall Ships. His family traveled throughout Scotland, England, and Wales as his father looked for work. When Lloyd became a Hollywood film director, he searched for interesting tales about ships and the sea. Before being offered Mutiny on the Bounty, he had directed a surprising number of boat- and sea-related films, including The Sea Hawk (1924), Winds of Chance (1925), The Eagle of the Sea (1926), The Divine Lady (1929), Weary River (1929), and Cavalcade (1933).

Lloyd knew he could turn the incident into a rousing, yet deeply human motion picture. He later wrote:

When I finished reading Mutiny on the Bounty, I felt a definite excitement running through me. I knew I’d follow the simply history of a little ship – a character in itself – on a long journey. That aboard is a small group of men, courageous, sometimes sullen, always genuine. That the ship and the men reached Paradise and saw its beauty, were forced to leave that Beauty and mutinied. I knew that there was a thrilling adventure, a great and simple theme, the qualities of laughter and grief, and superb characters. And I knew that I could sell a combination like that to any audience.

The production was no small undertaking. It took two years to complete with a budget of almost two million dollars. Clark Gable had to be convinced to shave off his “lucky mustache,” because facial hair wasn’t allowed in His Majesty’s Navy at the time. Charles Laughton contacted the London tailor shop that had outfitted the real Captain Bligh 150 years earlier, in order to recreate Bligh’s uniform. The portly Laughton lost 55 pounds so he could match Bligh’s exact measurements.

The result is one of Hollywood’s best seafaring movies (John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home may be the very best). It was a huge hit for MGM, despite the staggering $1,905,000 budget. It went on to earn $4,460,000 at the box office and win an Oscar for Best Picture.

In 1962, the story was remade as Mutiny on the Bounty, with Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian and Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh. There’s a strange link between the two movies. Movita Castaneda, who played Fletcher Christian’s Tahitian wife in the original film, later married the real-life Marlon Brando, the Fletcher Christian in the remake.

The story was remade yet again in 1984 as The Bounty, with Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh. The 1984 film is the better of the two remakes. It also adheres more closely to the historical facts by portraying Bligh as repressed and authoritative, rather than mad and egotistical.

If you’ve seen only the usual print of this film on television, prepare to be duly impressed by the recently-released Blu-ray. It features a photochemical restoration of a recently discovered original nitrate camera negative. The print looks great with a consistently sharp image and smooth graytones. The audio is clear throughout, though there’s some shrillness in the louder portions, which is fairly common with movies from the early- to mid-1930s.

Both the Blu-ray and DVD include an interesting short, titled Pitcairn Island Today (1935), which shows the descendants of the crew and their living conditions on the island.

Mutiny on the Bounty
(1933; directed by Frank Lloyd; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.98 (DVD)

Wednesday, October 15 at 2:45 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Bringing Up Baby

I had a difficult time compiling my Top 20 Screwball Comedies list. The biggest challenge was where to put Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the end, I gave it the number two spot, right behind Duck Soup (1933). Andrew Sarris referred to Bringing Up Baby as the screwiest of the screwball comedies. In an article titled “The World of Howard Hawks,” which appeared in the July and August 1963 issue of Films and Filming, Sarris wrote:

Even Hawks has never equaled the rocketing pace of this demented farce in which Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century seem as feverish as Victoria and Albert. The film passes beyond the customary lunacy of the period into a bestial Walpurgisnacht during which man, dog, and leopard pursue each other over the Connecticut countryside until the behavior patterns of men and animals become indistinguishable.

Sometimes it can be instructive to analyze the structure of a comedy, and this one is ripe for that kind of analysis. The world of Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is dead or dying — dinosaurs, fossils, and museums. Huxley is almost as lifeless. He has no sense that life could be more than it already is. The world of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is just the opposite. It’s full of possibilities. In her world, the animals are very much alive. Her life is unpredictable because she’s willing to fail. And wouldn’t you know it, she fails a lot. This isn’t just an unlikely couple. This is a clash of world views. Neither world is complete unto itself, hence the need for a happy ending to merge the best qualities of both.

In the end — no matter the structure — either the dialogue, gags, and characters are funny, or they aren’t. Bringing Up Baby excels in all three. Hawks had a gift for drawing relaxed, seemingly improvised performances from his actors, especially in the comedies. Everything feels effortless and natural, even though almost all of it was carefully planned. Along with the fast pacing, there’s a rhythm to the dialogue that’s both realistic and engaging. Here’s an example:

Susan: You mean you want me to go home?
David: Yes.
Susan: You mean you don’t want me to help you any more?
David: No.
Susan: After all the fun we’ve had?
David: Yes.
Susan: And after all the things I’ve done for you?
David: That’s what I mean.

The two-disc special edition DVD of Bringing Up Baby features a digitally remastered print, as well as a commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whose comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) was inspired by the film. The second disc includes The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (1973), a first-rate documentary from Richard Schickel that mixes relevant clips from Hawks’ films with an extended interview with the director.

Bringing Up Baby
(1938; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $26.95

Tuesday, October 14 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, December 23 at 1:15 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) 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)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $27.95

Sunday, October 12 at 1:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, December 16 at 2:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is often cited as the very first film noir. Whether it is or not depends on your definition of a film noir. It has many of the elements we associate with the genre. On the other hand, director John Huston’s tight script and well-paced direction give it a lift that’s missing from the vast majority of film noirs.

This was Huston’s first directorial effort, and it’s one of the better first films from a Hollywood director. Huston’s father, actor Walter Huston, has a brief role as the ill-fated captain who delivers the all-important package. John Huston was working as a screenwriter for Warner Bros and was anxious to direct one of his own scripts. He chose Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel of the same name, which must have seemed an odd choice as the studio had filmed it twice already.

The 1931 version, originally titled The Maltese Falcon, was later retitled Dangerous Female so it wouldn’t be confused with Huston’s 1941 remake. As a pre-code movie, it incorporated some of the seedier elements from the novel, though it lacked the novel’s gritty atmosphere and dramatic tension. A second adaptation titled Satan Met a Lady (1936), starring Bette Davis, was directed with a lighter touch — almost as a comedy.

Huston’s version was a success largely due to his extraordinary skill in creating fully formed characters through dialogue. The script even pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, which is especially remarkable when you consider that Huston was bringing some of those conventions to film for the very first time. Here are a few examples:

Spade: You, uh — you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?
Brigid: I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.
Spade: The schoolgirl manner, you know, blushing, stammering, and all that.
Brigid: I haven’t lived a good life — I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.
Spade: That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.
Brigid: I won’t be innocent.
Spade: Good.

Gutman: I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.

Wilmer: Keep on riding me, and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, eh?

Gutman: By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.

In addition to launching the directorial career of John Huston, this film brought Humphrey Bogart from the second rank of actors and made him a star. His role as the hard edge — but not heartless — private detective Sam Spade would strike a chord with audiences and cause Warner Bros to seek out similar properties for Bogart. Without the success of The Maltese Falcon, the studio might not have been as eager to film Casablanca (1942) or The Big Sleep (1946).

Bogart’s role in The Maltese Falcon was originally offered to George Raft, who turned it down because he didn’t think the film would be important enough. Had Raft taken the part, Bogart might not have been considered for any of his later roles. And this version wouldn’t have been as successful or influential.

The upcoming Blu-ray looks terrific with deep dark tones in the shadows and an appropriate level of film grain. If you’ve only see this film over the years on a small television, you’ll be amazed at how wonderful it looks on a big screen.

An added bonus on the Blu-ray disc is a studio blooper reel titled “Breakdowns of 1941.” Who knew that Jimmy Stewart, Pat O’Brien, and James Cagney would laughingly curse after flubbing a line? I guess these actors were human after all.

The Maltese Falcon
(1941; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray, available October 5), $29.98 (Three-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Tuesday, October 7 at 9:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Red Shoes

A great film depends on everything coming together into an unlikely alignment. If a director, actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, composer, or other essential component is lacking, you may end up with only an interesting film that shows promise.

With The Red Shoes (1948), so many things that could have gone wrong, didn’t. Michael Powell could have chosen to use actors who could dance, rather than dancers who could act. His strategy was high risk, but promised to pay off big — if he could find the right dancers. Basing the story on a dark fairy tale from Hans Christian Anderson was equally perilous, unless Emeric Pressburger’s script could successfully emphasize the warmth and humanity of the ballet company, as much as their artistic spirit and integrity of purpose. And inserting a 17-minute ballet sequence, not at the end of the movie as an emotional climax, but near the middle to place the emotional conflicts into stark relief, would have been commercially foolish if not handled skillfully. That all these things succeeded so spectacularly, when any one of them could easily have failed, is a credit to those involved, but also a fortunate happenstance that all the participants agreed to come onboard.

Much of the audience’s empathy is dependent on the acting talent of Moira Shearer, who was just 21 years old at the time. A dancer at Sadler’s Wells (later renamed the Royal Ballet), Shearer wasn’t eager to put her dancing career on hold, as she explains in this 1994 interview with Brian McFarlane for An Autobiography of British Cinema:

I held out against that film for a whole year. The director Michael Powell was extremely put out by my continued refusal. It never occurred to him that a young girl wouldn’t be overwhelmed by his offer. But I didn’t like the story or the script, which seemed a typical woman’s magazine view of the theatre, and I also realized he knew very little about the ballet. Also, at that time, 1946, I had just started to dance the ballerina roles in the big classics and the last thing I wanted to do ‘was to interrupt this difficult work with a sugary movie.’ Powell bombarded me for weeks in 1946 and I remember thinking, ‘I have to get rid of this man.’ However, he finally got the message and went off in a huff, saying to me, ‘I am now going around the world to find the perfect girl for this part.’

He came back a year later; presumably he hadn’t found his perfect girl, though he had now engaged Leonide Massine and Robert Helpmann, both of whom I knew well, as dancer-actors and to arrange the choreography. Powell went on and on at me and I think he must have bombarded Ninette de Valois because she called me to her office and amazed me by saying, ‘For God’s sake, child, do this film and get it off your chest — and ours, because I can’t stand that man bothering us any longer!’ I asked one question, ‘If I do it, can I come straight back to Covent Garden when the film is complete?’ and her answer was, ‘Yes, of course you can.’ And I did — but not happily. There was a lot of jealousy and bad feeling. I’m afraid I was very naive. Helpmann told me later that the only reason de Valois wanted me to make the film was to give advance publicity in America for the first coast-to-coast tour of her company in 1949. Which, of course, is what happened.

Jack Cardiff also wasn’t eager to join the project. He had worked as the cinematographer for Powell on A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947), but wasn’t enthralled with the idea of photographing a movie about a ballet company. Powell asked Cardiff to regularly attend the ballet at Covent Garden, where he saw the possibilities of what he could bring to the film. One example was a special camera Cardiff designed that let him vary the film speed while the dancers performed. By slowing down their movements imperceptivity, he enhanced the visual impression they were soaring through the air or reaching extreme heights. Cardiff was probably the finest Technicolor cinematographer ever, and two of his films — Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes — are often cited as the best examples of what can be achieved with the Technicolor process.

Though risky, The Red Shoes was a financial success. In the U.S., it began quietly with a 110-week run at The Bijou in New York City and was then picked up for national distribution. It had a strong influence on Hollywood musicals. The extended ballet-like sequences in An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) might never have been approved without proof there was an eager audience for this merging of art forms.

The Red Shoes
(1948; directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD)

Sunday, October 5 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Merry Widow

Ernst Lubitsch had no equal when it came to crafting sophisticated comedies. One of the first sound-era Hollywood directors known and revered by the public, his “Lubitsch touch” represented the pinnacle of intelligent humor. His version of The Merry Widow (1934) still towers over other comedies.

As Herman G. Weinberg pointed out in his book The Lubitsch Touch, “This time the first ‘Lubitsch touch’ came right under the credit titles as a magnifying glass sought in vain to find the tiny mythical kingdom where the action takes place.”

Ostensibly based on the operetta of the same name (which Erich von Stroheim used as the basis for his 1925 silent film), Lubitsch and screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson essentially threw out the plot and started from scratch.

Jeanette MacDonald is the wealthy widow who owns 52 percent of every cow in the small country of Marshovia. Maurice Chevalier is the playboy prince who is given the task of wooing her back from Paris, so her riches will remain in the kingdom.

Supported by an outstanding cast of character actors — including Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Sterling Holloway, and Hermann Bing — The Merry Widow is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a feeling of nostalgia for a golden age of screen comedy.

I’m happy to report that this movie is finally available on DVD, though it’s available only as a Manufactured on Demand (MOD) disc. That’s a DVD-R format. As a result, it may not play properly on some PC-based DVD drives or DVD recorders. I had no problems playing it on my PC-based DVD and Blu-ray drives, though your results may vary. This MOD disc should be issue-free with most standalone DVD and Blu-ray players (the kind you connect to a home TV).

The video and audio quality on this disc is first rate. Warner has done an excellent job of transferring this film at a suitably high bit rate (8000 kbps for the video and 192 kbps for the audio). The image had plenty of contrast and detail, and the sound (especially important for the musical numbers) was clear and never shrill. It looked great projected onto a 100-inch screen. Highly recommended.

The Merry Widow
(1934; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable & dvd)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $18.95 (available as a Manufactured on Demand disc from WarnerArchive and WBshop)

Wednesday, October 1 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Informer

You wouldn’t normally think of John Ford as directing a low-budget art film, but that’s the best way to think of The Informer (1935). According to Joseph McBride’s excellent book Searching for John Ford, the project was rejected by Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. before RKO agreed to let Ford make it on a shoestring budget (the final production costs were $242,756). That meant almost no money for sets and only 18 days for shooting.

Rather than fret about the restrictions, Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and cinematographer Joseph August crafted a visual story that’s defined primarily through shadows, fog, and backlighting. The style is reminiscent of the great silent German expressionist films, especially those of F. W. Murnau, whose work Ford admired.

In his 1943 essay “The Writer and the Film,” Nichols explained how this approach was an excellent match for the storyline:

I had an able mentor as well as a collaborator in the person of John Ford and I had begun to catch his instinctive feeling about the film. I can see now that I sought and found a series of symbols to make visual the tragic psychology of the informer, in this case a primitive man of powerful hungers. The whole action was to be played out in one foggy night, for the fog was symbolic of the groping primitive mind; it really is a mental fog in which he moves. . . .

Though often shy and reserved in real life, Ford could be a hard taskmaster when directing. He had to fight RKO to cast former boxer Victor McLaglen as Gypo, the central character. As McBride explains in his book:

Ford directed McLaglen with cunning calculation, bullying and tricking him into giving a great performance. Since he wanted McLaglen to grope for his lines to convey Gypo’s slow-witted, half-drunken condition, Ford continually changed the schedule to keep McLaglen unfamiliar with his scenes and surreptitiously filmed what the actor thought were rehearsals. He would send McLaglen off to run his lines with cast member J. M. Kerrigan at the nearby Melrose Grotto bar, and then would abruptly call a tipsy McLaglen back to the set to shoot his scenes.

The result is paradoxically realistic and expressionistic. The Informer was a popular success and widely praised by the critics. Though it came in second to Mutiny on the Bounty for the Oscar for Best Picture, Ford took home the Best Director award. In addition, McLaglen won Best Actor, Nichols won Best Screenplay, and Max Steiner won Best Musical Score. Though some of the symbolism may seem heavy handed, and the ending a bit forced, everything else works terrifically. And it doesn’t appear to be made under severe financial restraints. All the choices seem to be natural extensions of the plot.

The Informer
(1935; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $59.95 (as part of The John Ford Film Collection)

Tuesday, September 30 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Scarface

Howard Hawks is the least appreciated of the great American directors. It took the critics from the Parisian magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s to recognize the consistent style and world view behind such dissimilar films as Scarface (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Air Force (1943), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), The Thing from Another World (1951), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Of Hawks’ many best-of-breed genre films, Scarface is the most underrated. Producer Howard Hughes withheld the film from circulation in the U.S. after its initial release, so it was almost impossible to see until the 1970s. You had a better chance of seeing the film if you lived in Paris than if you lived in New York or Los Angeles.

Scarface is far more complex thematically and visually than Little Caesar (1930) or The Public Enemy (1931), and much more satisfying. Tony and his henchmen attend a theatrical performance of Rain, another cautionary tale about a man who tries to impose his will on others. Tony has to leave the theater early, missing the downfall of the play’s tragic figure, in order to set in motion the events that will lead to his own downfall. Like the men in Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force, Tony and his gang react to life-threatening situations by creating their own rules of conduct and honor. The group is fiercely loyal until someone deliberately crosses the line to threaten the cohesiveness of the group. In virtually all his films, Hawks explores the interplay between individual initiative and group co-operation. It’s the dynamic push-pull between these two forces that drives the characters’ actions and moves the story forward to its logical conclusion. With the Hawks comedies, that universe is turned completely upside down.

Hawks and scriptwriter Ben Hecht populate the sets in Scarface with symbolic Xs and crosses. Look closely, and you’ll see them throughout the film, particularly at critical junctures in the plot. During the production of the film, Hawks ran afoul of the studio censors, who were repelled by the large number of murders and cold-hearted glee with which the gangsters carry out their revenge. Hawks was forced to insert a high-minded introduction and clumsy moral-indignation scene to soften what was thought to be a dangerously immoral film. Hawks also had to tone down the ending. He had wanted Tony (played by Paul Muni) to end face down in a pile of horse manure.

This isn’t just the best gangster movie ever made. It’s a landmark film of the early 1930s, and the first mature work by one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors.

Scarface
(1932; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
United Artists
List Price: $14.98

Friday, September 26 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, October 5 at 10:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Dr. Strangelove

It’s hard to write about Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) without resorting to superlatives. It’s the best comedy of the 1960s. It’s the best black comedy ever. It has the longest title of any Oscar-nominated film. Just as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) redefined optimism about the future possibilities of technology, Dr. Strangelove redefined pessimism about the current limitations of technology. In both films, technology is seen as an extension of human nature.

Kubrick started out to make a thriller about an accidental nuclear attack. But as he adapted Peter George’s novel Red Alert for the screen, he saw the comic potential in many of the scenes. He brought in Terry Southern to help turn the project into a dark satire bordering on farce. Kubrick and Southern conceived a very different ending. The story was to conclude with a giant food fight in the war room (look for a large food table in the background near the end of the movie). The characters would have thrown pies at each other in a visual reductio ad absurdum (Latin for “reduction to the absurd”). Kubrick went so far as to actually shoot that ending, though only stills from it survive today.

Peter Sellers plays three parts in the movie: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove. Sellers was originally slated to play a fourth part, that of Major T. J. ‘King’ Kong. Kubrick wanted to show the same personality was present at every stage of the process, from the President ordering a bombing to an airman personally delivering the bomb. Sellers was finding it hard to get the Texas accent right for the Major, so when he broke his leg about the same time, Kubrick decided to cast Slim Pickens for the role.

Kubrick had planned to premiere the film in December 1963, but delayed the opening because of the November 22 assassination of President Kennedy. Following his list of the contents in the survival pack, Major Kong says, “a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.” Pickens had originally mentioned “Dallas” as the city, but Kubrick had him dub in “Vegas” so as not to remind the audience of the assassination.

If you’re thinking about buying the DVD, check out the two-disc 40th anniversary special edition which includes the 2004 remastered version of the film, as well as a new documentary titled No Fighting in the War Room or: Dr. Strangelove and the Nuclear Threat.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
(1964; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95 (40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD), $38.96 (Blu-ray)

Friday, September 26 at 1:15 p.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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