Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent (1940) was Hitchcock’s second Hollywood film, though it was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film in the sense that it was the first true Hitchcock film made in Hollywood. Rebecca (1940) was as much David O. Selznick’s movie as it was Hitchcock’s, which may explain why Rebecca was the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Foreign Correspondent, on the other hand, is pure Hitchcock. It’s the story of an innocent bystander who becomes involved in an intrigue — a storyline exploited successfully in The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). It also blends suspense, comedy, and romance in a way that would later become synonymous with Hitchcock’s name.

All the actors seem perfectly cast, yet Hitchcock didn’t get his first choice for the title role. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he ended up with Joel McCrea:

In Europe, you see, the thriller, the adventure story is not looked down upon. As a matter of fact, that form of writing is highly respected in England, whereas in America it’s definitely regarded as second-rate literature; the approach to the mystery genre is entirely different. When I had completed the script of Foreign Correspondent, I went to Gary Cooper with it, but because it was a thriller, he turned it down. This attitude was so commonplace when I started to work in Hollywood that I always ended up with the next best — in this instance, with Joel McCrea. Many years later Gary Cooper said to me, ‘That was a mistake. I should have done it.’

Most moviegoers wouldn’t consider Hitchcock to be a trailblazer with special effects, though he certainly was. Take a look at the perspective-distorting zoom or the psychological application of color in Vertigo (1958). Or check out the use of electronic sounds as bird noises or advanced optical printing techniques to simulate large flocks in The Birds (1963).

Foreign Correspondent includes a spectacular shot near the end of the film where a plane is diving into the ocean. You see the water appearing closer, as viewed through the cockpit windshield. When the plane hits the ocean, the water suddenly rushes into the cockpit. All this is contained within a single shot with no apparent edits or special effects, so how was it done? This is Hitchcock’s explanation from the Truffaut interview:

I had a transparency screen made of paper, and behind that screen, a water tank. The plane dived, and as soon as the water got close to it, I pressed the button and the water burst through, tearing the screen away. The volume was so great that you never saw the screen.

Here’s an odd bit of trivia for you. In his article “The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, Part Three,” Raymond Durgnat writes that “Dr. Goebbels loved watching Foreign Correspondent.” Goebbels predicted it would make “an impression upon wide broad masses in the enemy countries.” Hitchcock later speculated that a print was probably brought in through Switzerland. Was this a case of an unscrupulous political manipulator recognizing the skills of a more benign artistic manipulator?

Foreign Correspondent
(1940; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray-DVD combo)

Thursday, May 5 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Fury

Fritz Lang’s first American film after fleeing the Hitler regime in Germany, Fury (1936) is a terrifying look at how good people can go bad when swayed by the darker instincts of a crowd. The incredible scenes where the mob tries to lynch an innocent man recall the workers frantically fleeing the city in Metropolis and the angry calls for justice against the child murderer in M.

David O. Selznick brought Lang to MGM in 1934. He languished at the studio for months and was nearly fired. Given one last chance, Lang was handed a four-page outline titled Mob Rule. MGM told Lang and writer Barlett Cormack they would need to develop it into a script for Lang to direct.

Lang didn’t speak English very well at the time, so he looked around for inspiration. He found that inspiration in the form of newspaper clippings, as he explains in a 1965 interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I followed a habit I had in Europe (and still have) of collecting newspaper clippings — I have used them for a lot of my pictures. We found a lynching case that had happened in San Jose, California, a few years before I made the film, and we used many newspaper clippings for the script.

Spencer Tracy turns in a gripping performance as Joe Wheeler, a man jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Sylvia Sidney portrays his loyal girlfriend. The film also provides early roles for long-time character actors Walter Brennan and Ward Bond.

While it would be easy to dismiss Fury as a transitional film where Lang is learning how to deal with the restrictions of the Hollywood studio system, I find it has an unusual rawness and intensity. Lang must have seen something in it. Fury was his favorite film among the ones he directed in the U.S.

Fury
(1936; directed by Fritz Lang, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Tuesday, May 3 at 9:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ninotchka

In a letter to film historian Herman G. Weinberg, director Ernst Lubitsch cited Ninotchka (1939) as one of his three best films. Lubitsch wrote, “As to satire, I believe I probably was never sharper than in Ninotchka, and I feel that I succeeded in the very difficult task of blending a political satire with a romantic story.” The letter was written on July 10, 1947 — just months before Lubitsch’s death.

Greta Garbo plays the part of Ninotchka, a stern, no-nonsense Russian envoy sent to Paris to check up on three representatives of the Soviet Board of Trade. She believes they are unduly influenced by capitalistic luxuries. Melvyn Douglas plays the part of Leon, a sophisticated bachelor who seems to have little more to do than experience the sights and sounds of Paris.

This time around, Lubitsch teamed with writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch to adapt a story by Melchior Lengyel. As you might expect from the talent involved, the script is full of comic gems. Here are some examples:

Buljanoff: How are things in Moscow?
Ninotchka: Very good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

Iranoff: Can you imagine what the beds would be in a hotel like that?
Kopalski: They tell me when you ring once the valet comes in; when you ring twice you get the waiter; and do you know what happens when you ring three times? A maid comes in — a French maid
Iranoff (with a gleam in his eye): Comrades, if we ring nine times . . .

Ninotchka: I am interested only in the shortest distance between these two points. Must you flirt?
Leon: I don’t have to but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it.
Leon: I’ll try.

MGM publicized the film with the tagline, “Garbo laughs,” ignoring the fact that Garbo had laughed in a previous MGM film, Queen Christina (1933). Ninotchka was a box office success and was later remade into the musical Silk Stockings (1957). After she retired from her film career, Garbo acknowledged that Lubitsch was the only truly great film director she had worked with.

Ninotchka
(1939; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Turner Classic Movies
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (DVD)

Tuesday, May 3 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, June 25 at 5:00 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) 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

Tuesday, April 26 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Wagon Master

When you see a list of the great westerns directed by John Ford, Wagon Master (1950) is rarely included among them. At first glance, it’s easy to see why. There are no big stars, such John Wayne or Henry Fonda, to prop up the movie. It’s less action oriented than other Ford westerns, such as My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). And on the surface, it appears to be less ambitious than your typical Ford film. Yet when Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ford in 1964 (the interviews are included in Bogdanovich’s book John Ford), the director explained that, “Along with The Fugitive and The Sun Shines Bright, I think Wagon Master came closest to being what I wanted to achieve.”

Ford wrote the original story for the film, which has an ease and flow that are unusual, even for Ford. Produced at the height of his creative talents, the casual style masks a message that was almost daring for its time. Fellow director Lindsay Anderson described Wagon Master as an “avant-garde Western” and one of Ford’s “most lyrical films.” And in Searching for John Ford, the definitive biography of the director, author Joseph McBride wrote:

Ford finds in Wagon Master the purity of a vanished era when faith in the American future was the stuff of everyday life, a time when, at least in his fervently romantic imagination, it was still possible for Americans to transcend the divisive forces of social prejudice. Wagon Master did not come with the usual trappings of a protest film, but that’s what it was, Ford’s indirect protest of the darkness, suspicion, and hatred that had enveloped America by the middle of the twentieth century. Rather than situating his morality play in the unfamiliar terrain of a present-day community of outcasts, as he clumsily attempted to do in Pinky, Ford wisely sets it in the time and place that feels most comfortable to him, what Charles FitzSimons called ‘Fordland.’

The movie tells the story of a group of Mormons who are seeking a new life in the West. While Ford portrays them sympathetically, he also shows how they’re forced to compromise their principles in order to defend themselves against violence. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. play two honest and hard-working cowboys who help lead the Mormons across a dangerous section of the country. Ward Bond, playing against type, takes on the role of Elder Wiggs, a Mormon elder who grows more tolerant as the journey progresses. Bond’s role in the 1950s television show Wagon Train was based on his portrayal in this movie.

A great film is the sum of its parts, and Wagon Master is strengthened by the steady accumulation of its character-defining gestures and situations. The genuine affection shown as Elder Wiggs apologizes to his horse, the viciousness revealed as Uncle Shiloh Clegg whips his sons into submission, and the unrestrained excitement displayed as the Mormon “sisters” blow their rams’ horns — it is moments like these that make John Ford a master storyteller.

Wagon Master
(1950; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98

Monday, April 25 at 11:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

As the follow-up to his most successful silent film (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) revives one of cinema’s most intriguing criminal masterminds. When we last saw Dr. Mabuse, he was driven insane by the collapse of his criminal empire. Eleven years later, he has progressed from a coma to only being able to write — first with unintelligible scribblings, then with arcane symbols and unrecognizable words, and finally with detailed instructions for carrying out devious crimes and acts of terror.

Meanwhile, we are reintroduced to Inspector Lohmann, the detective from M, Lang’s previous sound film. Lohmann has encountered the doctor’s name in connection with several puzzling investigations. Were these crimes perpetrated by the same group? And how could they involve a criminal mastermind who is physically incapacitated?

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a thrilling detective story, but also a not-so-subtle reproach of Hitler and the Nazis, who had just risen to power. It even foreshadows our own time with a diabolical character who commits terrorist acts — not for financial gain, but to create chaos and fear among the public.

In an interview with Mark Shivas, published in the September 1962 issue of Movie, Lang explains the origin of the project, and how the film was banned in Germany before it could be released:

In ’32, I guess, someone came to me and said, ‘Look, Mr. Lang, we have made so much money with Mabuse. . . ’ I said, ‘Yes, much more than I did. . . .’ He said, ‘Can’t you give us another Mabuse?’ So I started thinking about it and I said, ‘All right, what shall I do? This guy is insane and in an asylum — I cannot make him healthy again. It is impossible.’

So I invented, with the help of Mrs. Von Harbou, the next Mabuse — The Testament of Dr. Mabuse — and then said, ‘Now I am finished. Now I am killing him.’ I had been able to put into the mouth of an insane criminal all the Nazi slogans. When the picture was finished, some henchmen of Dr. Goebbels came to the office and threatened to forbid it. I was very short with them and said, ‘If you think you can forbid a picture of Fritz Lang in Germany, go ahead.’ They did so.

As Lang tells it, a few days after the ban was announced, he was summoned to meet with Goebbels, who told Lang that Hitler was a fan of Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Hitler wanted Lang to head up a group that would produce National-Socialistic films for the Nazi party. Lang feigned excitement over the offer, but fled to Paris that night. We have only Lang’s word for the meeting, which is at odds with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse having just been banned for its strong political content.

Whatever the truth, Lang left Germany and went on to have a productive career in Hollywood, directing such classics as Fury (1936), Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1945), The Big Heat (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). He returned to Germany to direct yet another Mabuse film, titled The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1961).

The digitally restored print on the Criterion DVD is ample proof that this is one of Lang’s best films. Originally 124 minutes, the restored version runs 121 minutes and is based on a German Film Institute print, with missing scenes supplied by prints from the Federal Film Archive (Germany) and the Munich Film Museum. In addition to the top-quality restored print, Criterion provides a second disc with the 94-minute French-language version of the film, which Lang directed simultaneously with the German-language version (Lang was fluent in French). Until 1951, it was the only version available for film historians. The second disc also features a 1964 interview with Lang, background on Mabuse’s creator (the character first appeared in print), and a comparison of the German, French, and American-dubbed versions.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood film noir, you’ll feel right at home with this film’s dark and menacing world. And if you’re a fan of detective and crime movies, you’ll enjoy Lohmann’s dogged determination and the intricate layering of the plot.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
(1933; directed by Fritz Lang; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (DVD)

Thursday, April 21 at 12:45 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Safety Last

It’s one of the most enduring images from silent comedy — Harold Lloyd grasps the hand of a massive clock as he hangs perilously over a busy street. The image became an emblem for the daredevil stunts that were popular during the era, in part because Lloyd appears so ordinary and out-of-place. The source for the image is Lloyd’s feature-film Safety Last (1923), which combines genuine thrills with intricately constructed humor.

In his tribute to the great silent comedian, titled “Harold Lloyd: A Rediscovery,” Andrew Sarris wrote that Safety Last:

. . . established for all time the spatial metaphor for an American rise to the top in the midst of a fear of falling. As Lloyd became known as the comedian who would do anything for a laugh, the character he played became known as the jazz-age climber who would do anything to succeed . . .

There is a wildly lyrical moment when Lloyd is swinging crazily from a rope, a moment that Keaton might have extended in time for its feelings of freedom and exhilaration. Lloyd treats this moment as an interruption in the ultimate climb, and quickly returns to the business at hand. On the other hand, Lloyd gives us glimpses of an impervious city, and this makes the spectacle more frighteningly real and majestically social. The spectacular climax of Safety Last undoubtedly influenced Chaplin’s cabin-teetering-on-the-cliff sequence in The Gold Rush (1925).

While Safety Last is one of Lloyd’s best features, it doesn’t blend the comedy and characters as successfully as his later silents, especially The Freshman (1925) and The Kid Brother (1927). The film is split into two parts: everything that leads up to the climb, and the climb itself.

The pre-climb portion provides some memorable gags and extended set pieces. One of the cleverest gags comes at the very beginning when we’re surprised to see Lloyd about to be executed by hanging (a hint at his coming ordeal with the climb). The visual elements are then deconstructed, almost Keaton-like, to show that each cliché — prison bars, rope, priest, and inconsolable mother — was misinterpreted.

Later, we see Lloyd as a sales clerk where he battles (sometimes quite literally) swarms of bargain-obsessed women. It’s one of the most laugh-worthy sequences from the 1920s. This too presages the upcoming climb, suggesting the obstacles he’ll encounter and the ingenuity he’ll need to complete his goal.

Safety Last
(1923; directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, April 20 at 7:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Mr. Arkadin

Mr. Arkadin (1955) has always been a difficult film for Welles fans. Visually and thematically, it plays out like a baroque variation on Citizen Kane (1941). Once again, Welles portrays a wealthy megalomaniac who attempts to control how others view him, even to the point of buying their adoration. But unlike Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin’s technical flaws prevent the story from completely jelling. It also hasn’t helped that the film could only be seen in blurry, incomplete prints with sometimes obvious voice-overs (Welles personally dubbed-in the voices for 18 of the minor characters). Most critics wrote off Mr. Arkadin as a failed attempt to rekindle Welles’ creative flames.

Even sympathetic Welles scholars felt the need to mix their praise for the film with a strong disappointment in its shortcomings. Here’s what Joseph McBride had to say in his book Orson Welles:

If The Stranger is self-parody, albeit unconscious, Mr. Arkadin is something more dangerous and more interesting: a work, like Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman or Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, in which the artist pushes his style past its limits, treating his most personal themes self-consciously, with a measure of irony, and in a manner not pretending to physical or psychological realism. The result, if successful, is a refinement of the artist’s themes to a high pitch of intensity, an intoxicating liberation. The given story is kept purposefully simple so as not to hinder the free expression of character and motif. The pitfalls of such excess are obvious, though for Sternberg and Ford the problem is less acute because on a basic level the concerns of the director and the general audience coincide . . . Welles pretends to no such level of common response, and in this we may see the essential failure of Mr. Arkadin.

We may be due for a major reassessment of this often overlooked film. Criterion has released a new three-disc DVD set it has optimistically titled The Complete Mr. Arkadin. The package contains no less than three versions of the film: the 99-minute Corinth version, which is the earliest English-language version; the 98-minute Confidential Report version, which is the European release that was completed by producer Louis Dolivet after he and Welles had split; and a new 105-minute comprehensive version that may be as close as we’ll ever come to what Welles had hoped the film might become.

The DVD set also includes a book version that in the true Wellesian tradition may — or may not — be a work by Orson Welles, since it appears to be “an unaccredited English translation of a French text adapted and translated from Welles’ writing by a friend and ghostwriter.” Intrigued? Welcome to the many mysteries that surround this unusual project.

Mr. Arkadin
(1955; directed by Orson Welles; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $49.95

Wednesday, April 20 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) 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)

Sunday, April 17 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Blue Angel

Ask film buffs about director Josef von Sternberg, and you may receive a blank stare. Others assume that The Blue Angel (1930), his best known film, was probably the work that brought him to Hollywood. In fact, Sternberg had already made a name for himself in Hollywood, directing such silent gems as The Salvation Hunters (1925), Underworld (1927), Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).

When Emil Jannings returned to the German studio Ufa following the advent of sound, he requested that Sternberg direct his first sound film. Once the script was written, Sternberg and producer Erich Pommer weren’t sure who should play the part of Lola, the cabaret singer. Ufa was about to spend half a million dollars on the production, so the casting for the part was critical. By chance, Sternberg saw Marlene Dietrich on stage in Berlin (he had attended the play to see another actor). In his book Josef von Sternberg, Herman G. Weinberg writes:

From the moment Sternberg noticed Dietrich on the stage he knew he had found his Lola, but neither she nor the heads of Ufa were sure she could do it. It took a lot of persuasion before she agreed to a screen test. Sternberg was pleased with it and Pommer, who always protected the artistic choice of his directors, approved the signing of Miss Dietrich.

The film was a big success in Germany. Sternberg had shot both German and English versions of the film. By the time it opened in the United States, Dietrich had already signed a contract with Paramount, where she and Sternberg would make six more films together: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), The Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935).

With Sternberg’s later films at Paramount, especially The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman, he crafted lighting techniques and a visual style that set him apart from other filmmakers. For Sternberg, the plot and characters are less important than the overall atmosphere. For lesser directors that would be a recipe for disaster, but for Sternberg, it set him free to explore and create films unlike any others, that are no less interesting than films driven primarily by plot and character.

Don’t worry, The Blue Angel doesn’t go that far. Plot and character are among its strong suits. It’s worth watching for a host of reasons, not the least of which are the outstanding performances by Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. This is the film where Dietrich first sings, “Falling in Love Again.”

The Blue Angel
(1930; directed by Josef von Sternberg; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Kino Video
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $34.95 (DVD)

Thursday, April 14 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Singin' in the Rain

Is there anyone into classic films who doesn’t like Singin’ in the Rain (1952)? Given that 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds had never danced before, and the script had to be written around a group of songs with little in common, it’s a wonder (and a tribute to those involved) that this would turn out to be the greatest Hollywood musical.

Reynolds received six months of intensive dance training before the production began. She had already shown her singing ability and plucky appeal in her previous films (most notably in Two Weeks with Love, where she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter).

Famed creative team Betty Comden and Adolph Green were given the near impossible task of crafting a storyline around a diverse selection of tunes from the 1920s and 1930s. Two songs, “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes,” were new to this production. “Make ‘Em Laugh” was adapted from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Gene Kelly performed in The Pirate (1948). The others were part of a catalogue of songs, acquired by MGM, that had been written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Singin’ in the Rain is filled with references to other films. The story centers around the period from 1927 through 1929 when the industry transitioned from silent films to “talkies.” There are allusions to particular films from that period. For example, the fictional film the characters are producing (titled The Dueling Cavalier) is based on an actual film, titled The Cavalier (1928). Like its fictional counterpart, it began as a silent film but was hastily transformed into a sound film, largely through the addition of poorly dubbed musical numbers. And in the Hollywood premiere sequence, the character Zelda Zanders, known as the “Zip Girl,” is meant to evoke the real-life Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl.”

Just as they borrowed songs and plot devices from earlier movies, co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly scavenged the back lot for suitable props from previous MGM movies. Debbie Reynolds’ car is Andy’s old jalopy from the Andy Hardy series. And the mansion where Gene Kelly lives is decorated with furniture and fixtures from Flesh and the Devil (1926).

The movie references extend to the musical numbers and film-within-a-film scenes. The “Gotta Dance” number echoes previous MGM musicals, including Words and Music (1948), The Pirate, Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). Gene Kelly’s musketeer movie at the beginning of the story recalls his earlier film, The Three Musketeers. And when Kelly brings Reynolds onto an empty sound stage and turns on the lights, it mimics his earlier film, Summer Stock.

While the movie references are fun for film buffs, the real joy comes from the memorable songs, exuberant dance numbers, and snappy dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be amazed to find how good a movie musical can be. Even if you don’t like movie musicals, you’ll probably like this one. Nothing else comes close.

Singin’ in the Rain
(1952; directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, April 13 at 4:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Wings of Desire

Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987) is an unusual film. It’s the story of the guardian angels who watch over the citizens of Berlin. One angel (named Damiel) yearns to become mortal, so he can experience firsthand what humans see and feel. On one level, this film explores universal themes: the loneliness of being human, the walls (both real and psychological) that prevent us from communicating, and the power of love to break down those barriers. On another level, this film can be an emotional challenge as it immerses the viewer into the often distressed thoughts of others.

It’s a fascinating idea for a film that’s beautifully photographed by Henri Alekan, best known for creating the fairytale-like imagery from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). The shots from the angels’ point of view are rendered in a luminous and tinted black-and-white, while the shots from the human point of view are rendered in color, adding an extra dimension to represent the additional qualities Damiel is seeking. There’s a terrific sequence in a library where a team of angels gently move from person to person hearing their thoughts and attempting to sooth their troubled souls. In another scene, an angel tries to dissuade a man from committing suicide. In several scenes, young children can sometimes see the angels, or at least sense their presence.

Peter Falk portrays himself in the film, as the actor known for playing the television detective Columbo. He is visiting Berlin to act in a film. Wisely, Wenders doesn’t overplay the film-within-a-film aspects of Falk’s role, but rather gives him a crucial part in the larger film that helps to bring many of the plot elements together.

This movie isn’t for everyone. The first half can be confusing as you maneuver your way through the fleeting human thoughts and sometimes swirling imagery. Director Wim Wenders and writer Peter Handke created much of the script on the fly, which gives the story an ethereal quality but can also make it hard to navigate. Let it wash over you, and don’t worry about connecting the dots. As the film progresses, you’ll soon find solid ground under your feet.

Wings of Desire
(1987; directed by Wim Wenders; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
MGM Home Entertainment
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD)

Monday, April 4 at 2:30 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

A Midsummer Night's Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 30 at 8:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The General

In one of the finest books ever written about comedic film, The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr refers to Buster Keaton as the most silent of the silent film comedians:

The silence was related to another deeply rooted quality — that immobility, the sense of alert repose we have so often seen in him. Keaton could run like a jackrabbit, and, in almost every feature film, he did. He could stunt like Lloyd, as honestly and even more dangerously. His pictures are motion pictures. Yet, though there is a hurricane eternally raging about him, and though he is often fully caught up in it, Keaton’s constant drift is toward the quiet at the hurricane’s eye.

The two Keaton qualities of motion and immobility are perfectly contrasted in The General (1927). It isn’t Keaton’s funniest feature (that honor would go to Seven Chances) or his most inventive feature (that honor would go to Sherlock, Jr.). It is, however, his best blend of comedy and drama, and an ideal choice for anyone who assumes silent comedy is synonymous with empty-headed slapstick. The General has its share of laughs, gags, and pratfalls, but there’s so much more.

Here Kerr eloquently describes the climatic final scene:

As The General must be the most insistently moving picture ever made, so its climax is surely the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy, perhaps for a film of any kind. . . With all forces moving and the panorama embracing river, steep slopes, and endless forest, the train’s belly begins to droop through the burned gap in the bridge, the gap splinters wide, the understructure pulls away as the great beast seems to claw at it, and in a serpentine curve that is as beautiful as it is horrifying the train goes down to the water with its smokestack vomiting steam, a dragon breathing fire even in death. . . The awe of the moment is real: we are present in some kind of history, if only the history of four or five minutes on a day when an actual locomotive, a true burning bridge, masses of breathing men, a verifiable landscape, and a cameraman were present. Visitors to Cottage Grove, Oregon, where the shot was made, still drop by the ravine to look at the fallen locomotive; the evidence of an event remains, is still somewhat numbing.

This film has a nuanced playfulness you rarely see in comedies. One example, among many I could cite, is the famous scene when Keaton reaches out to strangle his girlfriend in frustration and then decides to kiss her instead. Is there a single moment in film or literature that better sums up the difficulty of maintaining a romantic relationship?

Another scene involves Keaton’s beloved train (The General) starting up and moving while he is sitting on the elbow-like rod that connects the engine to the wheel. Keaton is lost in thought and doesn’t realize he is moving up and down, as well as forward, until the train picks up considerable speed. We laugh because he doesn’t sense the movement right away. We also laugh (or should laugh) because this gag works strictly in a silent medium. In the real world (or in a sound film), we would wonder why he didn’t hear the engine. The in-joke for Keaton and his 1927 audience is that this is a jab at silent film conventions. If you think I’m stretching the point, you only have watch Sherlock, Jr. (1924) to see Keaton poke fun more openly at film logic and the very vocabulary of filmmaking. That’s the wonder of Keaton’s genius — his movies are satisfying on so many different levels.

The General
(1927; directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Kino Video
List Price: $24.95 (DVD), $34.95 (Blu-ray)

Saturday, March 26 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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