Tag Archives: vintage film

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Going Hollywood (1933)

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Readers, it has been an unusually busy month! I apologize profusely for my lack of posts over the past 2 weeks, but between various film-related projects and trying to work to fund them, I have been lax with my blogging. But I am back, and ready to dive back in with another installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive!

This week’s selection is one of Marion Davies’ (and Bing Crosby’s, for that matter) more bizarre films. With a subtly creepy plot and a completely haywire and inexplicable dream sequence in the middle of the film, Going Hollywood is a movie that confuses, amuses, and drives the audience to want to watch it again and again.

Marion Davies plays Sylvia Bruce, a French teacher who, fed up with the teaching life, decides to follow her singing idol (Bing Crosby) across the country in an attempt to get him to notice her. The problem is, he is involved with a rather frenetic French actress named Lily Yvonne (Fifi d’Orsay), who is jealous of Sylvia and feels threatened by her. Much of the movie revolves around Sylvia and Lily going at each other, and Bing Crosby plays the oblivious and helpless man in the middle.

The dream sequence of the movie is one of the strangest things I have ever seen on film, and I am so happy that it’s on YouTube. I find myself watching it constantly, because it is so delightfully nutty that I can’t get enough. Here are some things to watch for:

  • The scary dancing scarecrows
  • The words PINK PILLS written on the roof of the barn
  • The gigantic daisies moving in unison

Without further ado, I give you “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines.”

Off the set, Marion Davies was known for her spot-on impersonations of Hollywood types. Her boss and companion, William Randolph Hearst, would often ask her to do these impersonations at parties to entertain guests and Marion would gladly oblige. This gift for mimicry became her signature around town, and was often worked into her movies both before and after sound came in. In Going Hollywood, she does a devilish impression of Fifi d’Orsay that is a real testament to her talent. I am sad to say that it is not online, but this is another reason to see the movie. It is brilliant.

Marion and Bing Crosby got along well, and often clowned together and pulled good-natured pranks on the set. A problem, though, was the fact that they were both predisposed to alcoholism and this took a toll on both of them during production. There is a moment during “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines” (the “Farmer Doakes” bit) where I suspected for a time that they had been drinking. However, a few months ago, I was lucky enough to hear some outtakes from “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines,” in which Marion flubs a line and reacts alertly, professionally, and soberly. She repeats the scene and nails the line, adding jokingly at the end “Can I go home now?” 100% Marion. I am now of the opinion that that scene was done without the influence of alcohol.

If there is one reason that this movie should be seen, it is for Bing Crosby’s beautiful, emotional, and heartfelt rendition of “Temptation.” Sung in a bar to Fifi d’Orsay, Bing gives this song meaning that I have never heard before. If you are a Bing Crosby fan, this is a must-see, and it shows without a doubt why Bing Crosby was as wildly popular as he was. The man could sing like no one else, and extract subtle meaning from the most obtuse lyrics. See this movie for this scene. You won’t regret it.

If you would like to order Going Hollywood, please do so here. Despite (or perhaps because of!) its bizarreness, it is great fun to watch.

See you next time!

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Live From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 3: THE GOOD BAD MAN (1916), Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove, THE EPIC OF EVEREST (1924), UNDERGROUND (1928), UNDER THE LANTERN (1928), THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF MR. WEST IN THE LAND OF THE BOLSHEVIKS (1924)

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Owing to a long day of movies yesterday plus a 2 AM blog post, followed by a 4 AM wake up call by my yowling cat and my actual alarm at 7, suffice it to say that I went into today’s movies feeling massively sleep-deprived. Fueled only by my enthusiasm (and several cups of coffee from the press lounge), I managed to watch all the movies on tap for today and am here, as promised, to report back on them for you.

Today was heavy on the dramatic titles, and indeed the festival this year is tending toward drama on the whole. The first film we watched is one I had seen before–Cinecon screened it this past year and I was sure to attend, as I adore Douglas Fairbanks in any role. This movie was The Good Bad Man, starring Fairbanks and the underappreciated Bessie Love who, in addition to her acting talent and good looks, has some of the most unusual and beautiful hair on the silent screen.

Bessie Love.

 

The Good Bad Man focuses on the experience of a Robin Hood-esque thief known only as “Passin’ Through,” who steals items and gives them to orphaned children. We soon learn that Passin’ Through grew up without a father, and over the course of the movie we learn who his father was, how he died, and how Passin’ Through ultimately avenges his father’s death and is able to marry the woman he loves. It is an interesting take on the Old West, and one that balances the film’s narrative and action beautifully. Fairbanks had a penchant for stories about ancestry and bloodlines, and Fairbanks himself supervised the script for this movie. It is a new restoration, and a lovely one. I hope it will be out on DVD soon so that the public can enjoy it as much as I have.

Next up was a program called Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove, in which the legendary film preservationist Serge Bromberg from Lobster Films chats with the audience about new discoveries from the archive. Today we had a special treat because not only did Bromberg show the piece de resistance of his presentation, the newly discovered footage from Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (originally found in Argentina by Fernando Pena and consisting of some uproariously funny new moments), but we also got a practical demonstration of the differences between modern film technology and nitrate…when Bromberg lit them both on fire, right there on the stage in front of the audience. The modern film stock remained intact, while the nitrate went up in large flames, soon becoming completely useless. Bromberg used this demonstration to relate the importance of film preservation and proper storage of films, if you have them at home. Very important information.

Nitrate deterioration. This is a huge issue in film preservation.

By this time my first cup of coffee was starting to wear off, and I was beginning to get exhausted again. My exhaustion was so great that I missed several minutes of the next two films. The Epic of Everest, which was a breathtakingly beautiful documentary look at the first attempt to climb Mount Everest, is quite a monumental film. The photography was stunning, the title cards were well written, and the film as a whole was very informative. I greatly enjoyed it and I look forward to being able to  see it again. This print and that of Underground, the next film on the program, came from the British Film Institute and specifically Bryony Dixon, the archive curator. Underground, the story of a shop girl with two suitors, is also an extremely advanced film for its day in terms of its storyline and effects. Its camerawork reminded me greatly of Hitchcock, complete with trick photography and psychological manipulation of the audience. It might also be classified as a bit of a proto-noir, having many of the dark thematic elements that became synonymous with the genre of film noir several years later. There were several moments in this film that made me gasp in suspense, which I think is the sign of a great film.

Under the Lantern,  with a plot centering on a young girl whose life keeps handing her one degradation after another, is a classic example of how German cinema looked when it came out of Weimar Berlin between 1921 and 1933. Intensely serious, often existential or philosophical plots emerge in this period, and it is some of the most influential filmmaking to come out of world cinema. Under the Lantern is long, consisting of 8 acts each focusing on a chapter of the girl’s difficult life, and it is tough on the soul. Though the film itself is very good and is standard German filmmaking for the time, it is dark and depressing, making it one for sensitive souls to try to avoid.

UNDER THE LANTERN (1928)

Lastly, another goofy Russian movie, this time about a young American who forms an “incorrect” opinion about the Bolsheviks and ultimately ends up advocating for them. It is a quirky, oddball movie, and perfect for a 10:00 showing. Unlike the movie from last night, this one had no one reading the subtitles aloud, so I was left to read the subtitles in Russian for myself, which was wonderful for me to be able to do. This was the only relatively light fare for the day, and I think if they had shown it earlier in the day, it wouldn’t have been very popular. There is something to be said for watching a strange movie when you are exhausted and too tired to think, and this was definitely a strange movie. One line, referencing the American putting a picture of Lenin up on his wall in the United States, made me laugh out loud. See this movie if you have previous knowledge of the Bolsheviks. You will get the joke.

That’s all for today, folks! Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow for the final day!

Live From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 2: AMAZING TALES FROM THE ARCHIVES, SONG OF THE FISHERMEN (1934), MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1928), THE PARSON’S WIDOW (1920), RAMONA (1928), COSMIC VOYAGE (1936)

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Today’s lineup featured an eclectic mix of American and foreign films, 20s films and 30s films, dramas, comedies, and science fiction fantasies. Today’s lineup truly embodies what I mean when I say that the festival takes a holistic approach to silent cinema–at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, anything goes and everything is celebrated.

First up today was a beautiful and informative presentation that the festival calls “Amazing Tales From the Archives.” A yearly program at the festival, it is always one of my favorite events, as the audience learns fascinating facts about our favorite films, and perhaps some that we may never have heard of. Today’s presentation was threefold–first, we heard from Bryony Dixon, the silent film curator at the BFI National Archive, who showed us some breathtaking nature documentaries from some of Britain’s most celebrated early film pioneers. We saw films from Oliver Pike, whose capturing of wildlife provided the inspiration for the current work of David Attenborough, and footage of bees from John Charles Bee-Mason, whose fascination with bees provided the first name in his hyphenated surname. We also saw astonishingly beautiful time-lapse photography of flowers in bloom, photographed by F. Percy Smith. Lovely to watch and a unique experience.

Following Dixon’s presentation was one on Edison’s famed Fred Ott’s Sneeze. Film fans and historians know this piece of footage well–but it turns out there is more to the footage than we knew about. After an extensive history of the 2-second film, we were given an extra few seconds that have just been restored to make a complete film. The extra few seconds are not online, so I will give you the original 2 seconds  of Fred Ott’s sneeze. It was very interesting to see the extra few seconds, and hopefully they will be online to share soon!

Finally, we were treated to a talk about Chaplin and the technology he used in his movies, given by Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and equally legendary Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt. Though Chaplin was initially opposed to sound film, that did not mean, Burtt and Barron tell us, that he did not use the latest technology. Focusing on his last two appearances as The Little Tramp in City Lights and Modern Times, the presentation showed us how Chaplin worked some of his movie magic. I was completely blown away when Burtt and Barron revealed how Chaplin achieved the iconic stunt of roller skating on a ledge in Modern Times. As it turns out, Chaplin used an innovative technique to create the illusion of this dangerous feat. Spoiler alert: Chaplin was not skating on a ledge at all. He painted a transparent ledge onto a piece of glass, and put that glass over the appropriate part of the camera, so that the audience would be privy to the optical illusion while he was on solid ground, in no danger at all. It worked. Take a look at the scene.

Absolutely fascinating.

Next up was a film from the China Film Archive called Song of the Fishermen. It dealt with the difficulties of a family in a poor fishing village in China, and was made long after sound films had become industry standard in Hollywood. As the presenter pointed out beforehand, silent films in China continued on for quite a long time due to the fact that the Chinese people were used to the silent films coming to them from Hollywood, and when sound films started to arrive, they couldn’t understand them. Subtitle technology had not been invented, and due to the Chinese people’s preference for silent films from abroad, Chinese studios also catered to this public demand domestically for much of the 1930s.

SONG OF THE FISHERMEN (1934).

Song of the Fishermen is quite a depressing movie, but a beautiful one. The leading lady, Wang Renmei, is a pleasure to look at and apparently was quite multi-talented. She trained at several elite voice and dance academies in China, and during this screening the festival dubbed her singing voice in whenever her character was to sing the “song of the fishermen.” Her voice is indeed elegantly trained, and the song catchy. It was a well made movie, though the audience definitely leaves feeling quite badly about life.

Next up was a bit of an odd movie–part light comedy, and part dark drama. Directed by Cecil B. De Mille, Midnight Madness is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew set in an African diamond mine, with several twists from comedy to drama and back again. It was quite unusual, and at times the leading lady, Jacqueline Logan, reminds the viewer of Clara Bow, and at other times she is reminiscent of a Hitchcock victim. I enjoyed the movie for the novelty of it more than anything, as I haven’t really seen anything else like it. Perhaps a second viewing would help me warm up to it a bit more, but as of right now, it was simply an amusing novelty.

The festival’s love for Scandinavian cinema continued next, with a screening of the Swedish drama (with some very funny bits!) The Parson’s Widow, about a new, young parson in a Norwegian village who has to marry the deceased parson’s elderly widow. He hatches a scheme to pass his fiancee off as his sister so she may live in the house with them until the old woman dies. But after a while, he begins to truly care for the widow. It is ultimately a sweet story of love and acceptance, and the plot is quite advanced for 1920. The woman who played the elderly widow was apparently quite sick during filming, and passed away shortly after the movie was completed. Nonetheless, she gave a remarkable performance. I really enjoyed this movie. It was tight and nearly flawless in its execution. Beautiful direction by Carl Dreyer and great performances all around.

After The Parson’s Widow came Ramona, a newly found print of the 1928 film starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter. There have been several versions of the Ramona story, including one with Mary Pickford made in 1910, but this one may be the best. It tells the story of a young girl who, after discovering she is half Native American, is free to marry the Native American man she loves despite her cruel adoptive mother’s reservations. It then turns into a story about the hardships they face as a couple, with love turning to tragedy. It is a very interesting story, and a wonderful movie. This particular print was found in the Czech Film Archive and restored beautifully. The original score played by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was also perfect for the film, and added a great deal.

Finally, a children’s science fiction movie out of the USSR in 1936 called Cosmic Voyage. Like China, Russia continued making silent films long after Hollywood stopped, and had a great silent film tradition that lasted through the 1930s. This film was a great choice with which to end the night, as the lighthearted nature of the plot about an experimental trip to the moon kept the audience engaged and excited at a very late hour. The Russian title cards (some quite ridiculous–my favorite was “You collect the atmosphere, and I’ll rescue the cat!”) were read aloud very enthusiastically, and at first I found it distracting as I wanted to read the title cards myself (I speak Russian), but after a while I realized how funny this man’s delivery was. I got really into it and by the end I had completely eschewed reading the title cards at all, in favor of listening to him. Great movie for 10:00 at night.

Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow for day 3!

 

 

JUNE ALLYSON: Not Just the Girl Next Door

Upon glancing at TCM’s schedule for this month, I was thrilled to see that the network is paying tribute to the wonderful June Allyson as their featured Star of the Month. In addition to her status as one of the most charming and charismatic stars at MGM, I have a special connection to June Allyson that makes me especially happy to see her honored this month. I will talk about that later in this post.

Known for her sweet, girl-next-door image, June Allyson reigned as one of the top stars of MGM in the 1940s and 1950s. In contrast to her wholesome, suburban persona onscreen, the girl who was born Ella Geisman grew up in poverty, raised by various relatives in the New York City projects. Despite a childhood accident that rendered her unable to walk for several years without a steel brace, she became a seasoned dancer and eventually began to land gigs in nightclubs and acting roles in musical short subjects with Vitaphone Pictures. In 1938, at the age of 21, she got her first Broadway role in Sing Out the News, and her first starring role came 3 years later in George Abbott’s production of Best Foot Forward.

Due to her performance in the Broadway show, MGM asked Allyson to appear in the film version that was in pre-production in Hollywood. She agreed, and made the trip west. Upon her arrival, she found that Best Foot Forward was going slower than expected, and she was cast in a tiny role in Girl Crazy (1943) to keep her occupied. This is June Allyson’s first appearance in a feature film.

Best Foot Forward came to fruition later the same year, and when Arthur Freed saw her screen test, he demanded that she be put under a long-term contract immediately. Allyson thrived at MGM, using her cherubic face, wide smile, and arrestingly husky voice to her advantage in such films as Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Good News (1947) and Little Women (1949).

With Peter Lawford in Good News (1947)

The trailer for Little Women (1949)

In 1945, June Allyson married heartthrob Dick Powell, much to the chagrin of Louis B. Mayer who thought Powell was bad for her studio image. She was placed on suspension, but she and Powell remained married until Powell’s death in 1963 and the couple adopted 2 children together. After Powell’s death, Allyson was invited to appear alongside old MGM rival Judy Garland on “The Judy Garland Show,” marking one of the most delightful episodes of the series.

Acting on a lifelong interest in medicine, in later life June Allyson committed herself to educating the public about gynecological and urological diseases in seniors, eventually founding the June Allyson Foundation for Public Awareness and Medical Research. She continued with this work until she died in 2006, at the age of 88.

Now for my connection to June Allyson. I was lucky enough to have met this wonderful woman in the summer of 1998, when I was 12 years old. My very obliging mother had taken me  halfway across the country to attend the Judy Garland Festival in Grand Rapids, MN, and June Allyson was the guest of honor that year. I remember her so vividly. Her spirit filled the room, her voice was warm, her character gentle and sweet. She loved children, so my sister and I were subject to great affection. I remember several big bear hugs, and she interacted with me with great tenderness and love. I felt that we were dear friends. I’ve carried that beautiful memory of June Allyson with me always, and I miss her dearly.

Don’t forget to tune in to TCM tonight for an evening with June Allyson! Showing tonight: Two Girls and a Sailor at 8:00 EST, Best Foot Forward at 10:15, and Good News at midnight.

TWO KATHARINES: The Childhood of Katharine Hepburn and the Shaping of an Icon

Today marks what would have been the 107th birthday of an incomparable legend. Katharine Hepburn, a persona so beloved and respected to have reduced hardened prop men to putty in her hands during her appearance on Dick Cavett in 1973, was a force to be reckoned with and everybody knew it. When Katharine Hepburn walked in the room, there was no question as to who was in charge. This was an individual who fought for what she wanted, demanded what she needed, and in the process singlehandedly redefined what it means to be a woman in Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn at the rehearsal for her appearance on Dick Cavett in 1973.

Hepburn famously said on an interview with Barbara Walters “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” Katharine Hepburn broke many molds during her lifetime, and defied societal expectations in a generation in which women were still expected to be subservient to men. And she didn’t do it alone.

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, the mother of Katharine Hepburn and a pioneer of women’s rights in Connecticut.

From her earliest childhood, Katharine Hepburn was taught to live the way she wanted to, and not give credence to what others might think. This attitude was instilled in her by her mother, the passionate suffragette and famed leader of Connecticut women’s rights groups Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn. Houghton Hepburn served as the president of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association and, after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, founded the American Birth Control League with fellow activist Margaret Sanger, the organization that later became Planned Parenthood.

In later life, the younger Katharine would remember her mother taking her along to suffrage rallies as a toddler, teaching her that the women there were doing all they could to fight for her future. Due to her mother’s work, the Hepburn family endured intense hostility from the neighbors–neighborhood children were often not allowed to play with the Hepburn children, and bricks were thrown through their windows on several occasions. But through it all, Mrs. Hepburn persevered, and passed on to her daughter the attitude that rights must be fought for and earned.

Katharine Hepburn with her mother and siblings.

Young Katharine never let go of the lessons of her childhood, and throughout her life fought many personal and professional battles, fighting hard and not backing down until she won. In her desire to be comfortable, she insisted on wearing pants almost exclusively, a practice seldom exercised in her generation. In her stalwart determination to not be restricted by what other people thought, she is widely credited with popularizing pants for women. In 1947, at the height of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist, Katharine Hepburn was one of the founding members of the Committee for the First Amendment, formed to protect and support the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Evoking her mother, and the women who fought for equal rights for women when she was a child, she delivered a speech written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo at the Hollywood Legion Stadium during a Progressive Party rally. Her own risk of being targeted by the Hollywood blacklist not holding her back, Katharine Hepburn once again stood up for what she believed in.

Her mother must have been proud.

Many thanks to Margaret over at The Great Katharine Hepburn for hosting this blogathon!

New Feature Coming to Backlots!

Backlots will be watching and reviewing titles from the Warner Archive Collection as part of a regular feature on the site.

Readers, I am proud to announce some good news regarding the site. Beginning next month, I will  be adding a new and exciting feature to Backlots, one that I hope will prove informative, entertaining, and that will keep Backlots firmly rooted on the pulse of what is new and exciting in classic cinema.

As part of a new collaboration with the Warner Archive, I will be watching and reviewing several titles from the collection each month for a feature entitled “Treasures From the Warner Archive.” I will provide backstories on the films, explore trivia bits, and perhaps host a few quizzes, polls, and competitions related to the Warner Archive titles over at the Backlot Commissary. I do hope that you, the reader, will participate in discussions in the comments section or at the Commissary, because I would love to hear from you! I will also be taking requests as to which films my readers would like to see reviewed, so please be sure to stay in touch if you have a specific Warner Archive title you would like to see reviewed.

The first two films are on their way, and I am pleased to announce that the first entry in this feature will be analysis of Polly of the Circus (1932), starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable, followed shortly thereafter by a post on The Woman in Red (1935), an oft-cited but rarely seen Barbara Stanwyck film.

Polly of the Circus.

The trailer for The Woman in Red.

The Warner Archive Collection is a real treasure for classic film fans. Established in 2009, it aims to manufacture classic titles on demand for consumers, focusing on films that have never before had a DVD release. Its library has been growing exponentially as it acquires the rights to release films from other collections, and its Netflix-type streaming system, Warner Archive Instant, is bringing classic films to a demographic that is accustomed to watching movies on the computer. It is a true honor to collaborate with such an innovative and forward-thinking company.

Keep your eyes peeled for the first installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive!

Romantic Comedy Blogathon Starts Tomorrow!

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May is upon us, readers, and you know what that means–it’s time for the Romantic Comedy Blogathon! Co-hosted by Backlots and Vince over at Carole & Co., the Romantic Comedy Blogathon runs from May 1-May 6 and is an opportunity for bloggers to swoon over their favorite romantic comedies and give us all a taste of that romance that classic Hollywood did so well.

We have a huge list of participants this year and we’re still accepting requests, so if you have something you would like to submit, let us know! This is shaping up to be a monumental blogathon, and I’m so excited to read all the entries.

For participants, there are two ways you may submit your post:

  • When your post is finished, link to this post. We will then post your link live on Backlots and Carole & Co. so all of our readers can go to your blog and read the entry.
  • Leave your link as a comment on this post.

In past blogathons I have accepted email submissions, but I find that sometimes emails get lost, so to keep all the submissions in one place I would like to have the entries linked or left as comments. My sanity thanks you!

Marion Davies in THE PATSY sums up how many entries we’re expecting.

If you have any further questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or email me or Vince, but if not…see you tomorrow for the Romantic Comedy Blogathon!