Sunday, February 23, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Little Women (1933) at the Egyptian Theatre

This afternoon I attended a wonderful 35mm screening of LITTLE WOMEN (1933) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

I have particularly special memories of past viewings of this film. The first time I saw it I was a teenager; it was Christmas week of 1976 at the Vagabond Theater, on a double bill with SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). That evening spent with two of my all-time favorite films remains a glowing movie memory decades later.

In the years since I've seen three other versions theatrically; I also saw MGM's 1949 version at the Vagabond, and then of course there were the more recent 1994 and 2019 adaptations. I'm also fond of the 1978 TV-movie. The 2017 BBC version is on my DVD shelf, but I've not yet seen it.

I've always loved the colorful MGM '49 version, with its splendid cast, and when I saw the 1994 version a little over a year ago, I was profoundly moved; I'd forgotten just how good it was. The 2019 version was an entertaining curiosity but relatively unsuccessful in my eyes, with poor character development.

As is often the case with my most favorite films, I almost find it difficult to put into words just what makes the movie so special. I can begin by saying that when I returned to the '33 version today, it cemented my belief that of the many adaptations of LITTLE WOMEN, 1933 is my favorite; if I could have only one film version of the story, this would be it.

This version is perfect from start to finish; it captures the book just as I imagined it when I first read (and re-read!) it, and it also feels the most like I felt when I visited the Alcott's home in Concord, Orchard House.

It's probably superfluous to say much about the familiar story, which concerns Meg (Frances Dee), Jo (Katharine Hepburn), Beth (Jean Parker), and Amy (Joan Bennett) growing up during and after the U.S. Civil War.

This script for this version, by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (and a host of uncredited names) flows perfectly. It doesn't attempt to cover every moment seen in the later films (Meg's hair burning before the party, Amy burning Jo's manuscript, Amy and Laurie falling in love), yet, especially compared to the jumbled storytelling of the most recent version, it feels complete. Everything feels organic, flowing seamlessly from one moment to the next, with the right amount of foreshadowing; for instance, we see moments such as Jo and Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) bickering early on which cause Jo's later romantic rejection of Laurie to make total sense.

And frankly, the movie is such an emotional experience to me as it is that I'm not entirely sorry some of the more difficult moments were excised from this telling, particularly Amy burning Jo's story and her subsequent fall through the ice.

Each performance feels to me as if the character has jumped off the pages of my well-worn copy of the novel. Hepburn's hoydenish, passionate Jo is truly the essence of the character, but the other actors deserve kudos as well. I love Dee's demure, thoughtful Meg and Bennett's spoiled Amy, and Parker is without a doubt my favorite Beth. Her final scenes with Hepburn are exquisitely played.

I used to find Montgomery's Laurie the weak link in the cast, but he's honestly grown on me over time, and I had no issues with his portrayal today; after having seen Timothee Chalamet's oddly childlike performance recently, Montgomery's take on the part looked all the better.

This is one of those movies where I was so completely immersed that when it ended I realized my brain hadn't drifted anywhere outside the screen and the story. And how many times today did I think "Oh, this is one of my favorite parts"?

I tend to cry when I'm moved by beautiful things, so I was definitely teary watching the film today; indeed, I found myself tearing up in anticipation of favorite scenes. The one which always especially reduces me to puddles is when Beth goes to thank Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson) for the piano.

I also love looking around the screen at things like Walter Plunkett's costumes and the set decorations; for instance, I noticed a detail for the first time today that I think is a bit harder to take in on a small TV screen. A sketch of the family which is first seen just before the telegram arrives about Reverend March being hospitalized later appears on the wall in Jo's room in New York. Then when Jo returns home, the sketch is hanging under the window in Beth's room during her final days.

Something else which made this viewing a little different is that in the years since I last saw it, we've been privileged to become friendly with Wyatt McCrea, the grandson of Frances Dee and Joel McCrea. I've seen other films with his grandparents in recent years -- such as McCrea's THE OUTRIDERS (1950) just a couple weeks ago -- but this one is such a favorite, it was a bit amazing to watch it and think "That's Wyatt's grandmother!" How incredibly special to have been part of this, close to nine decades ago; everyone on screen is gone now, yet as the years tick by, their work continues to touch hearts.

A fun side note: My friend Jane recently reminded me of an interview with Frances Dee in an old Films of the Golden Age magazine. Frances recounted calling up Katharine Hepburn in their later years to say hello and the name "Frances McCrea" didn't immediately click in Hepburn's mind, so Frances said "Kate, it's Meg!" and that clicked with Hepburn immediately.

LITTLE WOMEN runs 115 minutes. It was directed by George Cukor. It was filmed by Henry Gerrard, who was only 35 when he died the following year.

Those who've seen the 1949 version will find that it closely follows this earlier version, using the same script, with additions by Andrew Solt, plus the same musical score by Max Steiner. Walter Plunkett designed the costumes for both films.

LITTLE WOMEN is available on DVD. It also had a release on VHS, and it turns up periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

Most highly recommended.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Reap the Wild Wind (1942) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

Cecil B. DeMille's REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), which boasts a wonderful cast -- not to mention a famous battle with a giant squid! -- is available in a truly gorgeous Blu-ray print from Kino Lorber.

REAP THE WILD WIND may not be a great film, but it's quite enjoyable, and I find myself returning to it every few years. I first reviewed the movie on my blog in January 2009, and I saw it again in January 2015 as part of a UCLA series honoring producer-director DeMille.

This weekend I caught up with Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release from last fall, and I'm pleased to say I've never seen the film look so spectacularly good. As much as I love 35mm, the print I saw at UCLA was a bit rough at reel changes.

I was very impressed with the Blu-ray print; surely leading ladies Paulette Goddard and Susan Hayward never looked quite as beautiful as they do in this film, photographed in Technicolor by Victor Milner and William V. Skall. The Blu-ray shows the ladies off to perfection, right down to the roses in their cheeks, and everything else in the film looks wonderful as well.

Goddard stars as Loxi Claiborne, who lives in the Florida Keys of the 1840s; with her father deceased, it's Loxi who runs her family's shipwreck salvage business. King Cutler (Raymond Massey) is taking salvage business from Loxi and others in the community, as he always manages to arrive at shipwrecks first; little does anyone know that he arrives first because he causes the wrecks!

Loxi falls in love with a ship's captain, Jack Stuart (John Wayne), whose career has been interrupted by a Cutler-caused wreck; she's also attracted, though she's reluctant to admit it, to lawyer Steve Tolliver (Ray Milland), who runs a shipping business. Loxi and Jack's plans to wed are thwarted on more than one occasion, and then Jack unfortunately decides to throw in with Cutler rather than work for his rival Steve...

At the same time, Loxi's sweet cousin Drusilla (Hayward) is herself in love -- with King Cutler's brother Dan (Robert Preston). Dan sincerely loves Drusilla, but his brother's penchant for wrecking ships will ultimately lead to multiple tragedies.

The film is a bit odd in that Wayne and Milland's characters change significantly over the course of the story. Wayne's Jack Stuart starts out as a nice guy who appears to be a perfect match for the adventurous Loxi. Milland's Stephen, meanwhile, is a dog-toting dandy who is more taken with Loxi than she is with him.

Over the course of the movie, however, Wayne's character transforms into a frustrated man willing to work with someone who's pure evil, while Milland's Steve proves to be a quick thinker who is also good with his fists -- and more admirable and deserving of Loxi's love than Jack. This flip-flop really threw me the first time I saw the movie; it still surprises me a bit after multiple viewings, but at least I know to expect it now and the transitions thus make a little more sense.

Goddard seems to be channeling Scarlett O'Hara at times, with men on a string and her lack of concern for social niceties; she even says "Fiddle-dee-dee!" at one point. That said, it's hard to imagine Scarlett dressed down for sailing adventures like Goddard's Loxi, and Loxi is entirely more likeable than Scarlett. Among other things, Loxi genuinely cares about Drusilla, who one might say is the Melanie to Loxi's Scarlett. (Ironically, both actresses had tested to play Scarlett in the 1939 film!)

I especially love Hayward as Drusilla in this, and my biggest regret about the film is simply that I wished there had been more of her and Robert Preston in the movie.

With the film set in the 1840s and made in the 1940s, there are a couple wince-worthy moments, particularly when King Cutler tries to sell Jack on sailing a slave ship to Africa, but in the end that scene has the effect of underscoring how truly bad Cutler is.

That's brought home even more in Massey's final scene with Preston, which is a bit of a jaw-dropper, even knowing that Massey is playing a total reprobate.

The film is a bit overlong at 123 minutes, but that battle with the giant sea squid takes some time! The movie, incidentally, won the Oscar for Best Special Effects.

In the end, it's not a perfect film, but it's quite entertaining and, as described above, something I enjoy watching every few years. It's a good exemplar of big, colorful moviemaking of its era, and the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is definitely the best way to see it.

The cast also includes Charles Bickford, Lynne Overman, Louise Beavers, Martha O'Driscoll, Janet Beecher, Hedda Hopper, Victor Kilian, Elisabeth Risdon, Walter Hampden, and J. Farrell MacDonald.

The screenplay was by Alan Le May, Charles Bennett, and Jesse Lasky Jr., from a magazine story by Thelma Strabel. The score was by Victor Young. Costumes were designed by Natalie Visart.

Extras on the Blu-ray consist of the movie trailer, a trailer gallery for seven additional films available from Kino Lorber, and an extensive, enjoyable image gallery. I wish we'd been treated to a featurette or commentary for this film, but I can't complain too much given how much I enjoyed the beautiful print.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Around the Blogosphere This Week

Miscellaneous bits of news and fun stuff from around the internet...

...Earlier this month I wrote about a number of new announcements for this spring's TCM Classic Film Festival. Last week TCM made a few more announcements. I'm especially excited about Piper Laurie appearing at a screening of Douglas Sirk's HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL (1952) and a two-film tribute to Disney animator Floyd Norman, featuring THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963) and ROBIN HOOD (1973).

...Thanks to Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s for the alert that VCI Entertainment is releasing two Buck Jones serials on Blu-ray: GORDON OF GHOST CITY (1933) and THE PHANTOM RIDER (1936). (I got VCI's DVD release of the Jones serial THE ROARING WEST at Christmas.) Toby will be providing commentaries for the first chapter of each serial.

...Kino Lorber has been making daily Twitter announcements of upcoming releases. These include a 4K restoration of THE SHAKEDOWN (1929), a silent William Wyler film which I saw at the 2018 Cinecon Festival; Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939); and May 12th releases of a pair of three-film sets, Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II and the Barbara Stanwyck Collection. The noir set titles, a couple of which were previously released on DVD by TCM Vault, are THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951) with Claudette Colbert and Ann Blyth, which I reviewed in 2013, THE PRICE OF FEAR (1956) with Merle Oberon and Lex Barker, and THE FEMALE ANIMAL (1958) with Hedy Lamarr and Jane Powell. The Stanwyck films, which were released as part of a DVD set a decade ago, are INTERNES CAN'T TAKE MONEY (1937) and THE GREAT MAN'S LADY (1942) with Joel McCrea, plus THE BRIDE WORE BOOTS (1946) with Bob Cummings.

...Released last fall from the University of Kentucky Press: FILM'S FIRST FAMILY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE COSTELLOS by Terry Chester Shulman.

...Thanks to Stephen Vagg for letting me know about a profile he wrote of actress Helena Carter. Carter has been reviewed here in films such as SOMETHING IN THE WIND (1947), RIVER LADY (1948), and FORT WORTH (1951). I enjoyed learning more about her.

...In January I shared a column from CNET about solo moviegoing. Here's a different take on the same topic. It also discusses that the opportunity to focus on something uninterrupted during a theatrical film is good for brain health.

...At Journeys in Darkness and Light my movie pal Andy writes about his introduction to B Westerns, specifically George O'Brien in LAWLESS VALLEY (1938). I really enjoyed his description, and I appreciate the link to my review of the movie!

...Coming October 20th from Scott Eyman: CARY GRANT: A BRILLIANT DISGUISE. Can't wait!

...UCLA has announced three Mary Pickford silents will be remastered and released theatrically: THE LITTLE AMERICAN (1917), AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY (1918), and THE LOVE LIGHT (1921).

...Attention Southern Californians: THE CLOCK (1945), a romantic WWII drama starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker, will be a 35mm matinee screening at the Egyptian Theatre on Sunday, March 1st. Vincente Minnelli directed...A digital restoration of PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (1951), starring Ava Gardner and James Mason, is playing at the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles through February 27th. The Laemmle Royal is also hosting a screening of RIO BRAVO (1959) with Angie Dickinson present on Tuesday, February 25th. I've never been to that theater; unfortunately it looks like there isn't any parking available so that's a possible issue as far as being able to attend screenings there...

...More for Southern Californians: The Noir City Hollywood schedule is now available. I'll have a detailed look at the schedule for the festival, which opens March 6th, in a separate post here in the future...Overlapping with the Noir City schedule is a 35mm screening of Betty Grable in THE SHOCKING MISS PILGRIM (1947) at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater on Sunday afternoon, March 8th. I sure hope that one is going to screen again somewhere soon, as I'll be seeing the even more rarely screened, not-on-DVD FLY-BY-NIGHT (1942) at Noir City that afternoon.

...Notable Passings: Kellye Nakahara, who played Nurse Kellye Yamoto on the long-running TV series M*A*S*H (1972-83), has passed on at the age of 72...Biographer A.E. Hotchner has died at 102. Among many other books, he cowrote Doris Day's autobiography.

...For additional recent links of interest to classic film fans, please check out my February 15th roundup.

Have a great week!

Friday, February 21, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Black Angel (1946) - An Arrow Academy Blu-ray Review

The very special film noir BLACK ANGEL (1946) has just been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy.

I first saw this film in 2011, and in the years since I've been fortunate to see it in 35mm at the Noir City Film Festival in Hollywood and the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs.

BLACK ANGEL not only stands up to repeat viewings, it's one of those films which seems to grow richer each time I see it. It was thus a real joy to watch the film again, thanks to Arrow Academy's beautiful new Blu-ray print, which was restored from original film elements.

The screenplay for BLACK ANGEL was written by Roy Chanslor; like so many great noir titles, the script was based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich is the writer behind such favorite films as PHANTOM LADY (1944) -- which has some thematic similarities to BLACK ANGEL -- NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950), and REAR WINDOW (1954), to name just a few.

The plot concerns the murder of Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling, seen at right), the estranged wife of alcoholic pianist Marty Blair (Dan Duryea).

Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), who found the body, is promptly convicted of Mavis's murder. Kirk's wife Cathy (June Vincent) steadfastly believes in her husband's innocence, and Cathy convinces Marty to work with her to find the real killer.

Marty and Cathy manage to hire on as a pianist-singer act in a nightclub owned by Marko (Peter Lorre), their chief suspect. From there the plot takes a number of turns, with the biggest being an unexpected development just before Kirk is scheduled to be put to death.

I love everything about this film: The lead performances by Duryea and Vincent; the music; the stylish direction by Roy William Neill; Vincent's marvelous wardrobe by Vera West; and the unexpected resolution.

The movie is a two-track story, with one aspect focused on solving the murder and the other track depicting Marty's redemption; he leaves the bottle behind and falls in love with Cathy, then eventually realizes the impossibility of their relationship having a future, as Cathy continues to love her husband.

I've always been struck that in the wrong hands this film could have been either a maudlin tearjerker or completely annoying, but thanks to the script, direction, and especially Duryea's superb, sensitive performance, BLACK ANGEL is a richly rewarding and authentically moving experience. With several viewings under my belt, it strikes me that Duryea deserved an Oscar nomination.

His performance is all the more remarkable when one considers that he learned several piano pieces just for the movie; as just one example, Alan Rode points out in his commentary track that in the nightclub audition scene, Duryea and Vincent are performing "live." (Based on the commentary track info, IMDb's reference to Vincent being dubbed is incorrect.)

Vincent had a long career, beginning in movies in 1943 and continuing with TV guest appearances until 1976. She tended to play minor roles in "A" films, such as Deanna Durbin's CAN'T HELP SINGING (1944), with larger parts in "B" films such as MARY RYAN, DETECTIVE (1949).

Vincent is so good here that it's a bit curious to me that she didn't receive more lead roles as a result; I really like her performance in this. She's pitch perfect, evolving from quiet housewife to a determined woman with the confidence to pull off a successful nightclub act.

In addition to a strong performance, Vincent is quite beautiful in this, with lovely hairstyles and a first-rate wardrobe. I also love her hats! Vincent's appearance makes me think a bit of Jean Wallace in another great noir from about a decade later, THE BIG COMBO (1955).

BLACK ANGEL was filmed in black and white by Paul Ivano. It runs a perfectly paced 81 minutes.

The supporting cast includes Broderick Crawford as the detective working on the murder case; the cast also includes Wallace Ford, Mary Field, Freddie Steele, Ben Bard, Hobart Cavanaugh, and Marion Martin.

The plentiful extras on this new Blu-ray edition include an excellent commentary track by Alan K. Rode; a featurette on the film with historian Neil Sinyard; the original trailer; and an image gallery with stills and more.

The final edition of this Blu-ray will include a limited edition booklet with an essay by Philip Kemp. The booklet and reversible case cover art were not included in the advance promotional copy of the set which I reviewed.

A few more stills from this favorite film:

A highly recommended film and Blu-ray release.

Thanks to Arrow Academy for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Underwater! (1955) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Jane Russell stars in UNDERWATER! (1955), newly released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

I first saw this film almost exactly five years ago thanks to Turner Classic Movies. It was a real pleasure to return to this Technicolor "RKO Superscope" production, as the Blu-ray is exquisitely beautiful. This film was a great choice for Blu-ray, which shows off both the gorgeous cast and the underwater scenes to perfection.

Five years ago I rated the film as "pleasant" but somewhat tepid; while I still feel the film meanders, I think I liked it more this time around. The beautiful print added considerably to my enjoyment, and it probably also helped that I knew what to expect going in.

Russell and Richard Egan play newlyweds Johnny and Theresa Gray. They're in a cash crunch but decide to throw in with Dominic (Gilbert Roland), who was a Navy "frogman" with Johnny during the war, and search for a old shipwreck rumored to contain gold.

Beautiful but similarly broke Gloria (Lori Nelson) has a yacht they can use for the trip, and Father Cannon (Robert Keith), a priest, joins the crew, hoping they can recover religious relics from the wreckage.

Naturally the group runs into periodic problems, or there wouldn't be much suspense! A suspicious shark hunter (Joseph Calleia) and his crew pose challenges, as do actual sharks. The most nerve-wracking scene, in fact, finds Theresa stuck in the underwater wreckage while a shark circles nearby. Eeek!

Russell and Egan are appealing as Johnny and Theresa; by all accounts they were both just as nice offscreen, which is always good to know. (An acquaintance who knew Egan told me that he wouldn't take a role if he didn't want his five children to see the film; he married in 1958.) Russell occasionally speaks with a mystifying Latin accent of some sort, but most of the time she sounds like regular ol' Jane Russell.

The story definitely could have been better developed, particularly when it comes to Gloria; the way she ended up with the yacht is rather (deliberately?) vague, and a potential relationship with Dominic is barely hinted at. Roland was considerably older than Nelson, but he's in such fantastic shape that a relationship would nonetheless be entirely plausible.

As mentioned above, this time I knew the movie would be short on story from the outset, so I wasn't disappointed, and instead I just focused on enjoying the film's 99 minutes "hanging out" with the gorgeous quartet of lead actors, who all look fabulous in Blu-ray.

The movie has some beautiful underwater photography by Lamar Boren, while the rest of the film was shot by Harry J. Wild. The caliber of the Blu-ray may make it especially easy to spot the contrast of the scenes filmed in a water tank with those done on location, but at the same time, like everything else in the movie, the water tank scenes look very nice despite the obvious "movie magic."

UNDERWATER! was directed by John Sturges.

As previously stated, the Blu-ray looks terrific. The Blu-ray sound quality is also excellent. There are no extras on the disc.

UNDERWATER! may be weakly scripted and somewhat meandering, but I really enjoyed my return visit to this film thanks to the beauty of the print -- and the cast! -- and I'll watch it again in the future. I expect that some of my fellow classic film fans will find similar enjoyment from this Warner Archive release.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Child Actress Ann E. Todd Dies at 88

Classic film fans may not immediately recognize the name Ann E. Todd, but they surely know the face, as she appeared in countless films of the Golden Era.

Todd was born on August 26, 1931. It was just announced that she passed away on February 7th at the age of 88; obituaries may be found at The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline.

Here are just a few of Ann's many roles which will be recognized by classic film fans. She was Leslie Howard's daughter in INTERMEZZO (1939), seen here with Ingrid Bergman:

She was Walter Pidgeon and Virginia Bruce's daughter in STRONGER THAN DESIRE (1939)...

...and one of Charles Boyer's daughters, along with Virginia Weidler (center) and June Lockhart, in ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO (1940). The girls are seen here with Bette Davis, with Richard Nichols as their brother in the second photo:

She played Tyrone Power's little sister in BRIGHAM YOUNG (1940); she's seen here in front of Dickie Jones, Power, and Linda Darnell:

She was Linda Darnell as a child in BLOOD AND SAND (1941)...

...and Ceinwen in John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), pictured with Roddy McDowall:

She had a nice role as Ann Doran and John Ridgely's daughter in PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1945), seen here with John Garfield:

Ann was Jeanne Crain's daughter in the opening and closing scenes in the wonderful MARGIE (1946):

As Jeanette MacDonald's daughter, she was one of the title characters in THREE DARING DAUGHTERS (1948), along with Jane Powell and Elinor Donahue:

Ann was also Barbara Britton's kid sister in a personal favorite, COVER UP (1949), seen here with Helen Spring, Art Baker, Britton, and Dennis O'Keefe:

Other roles included THE BLUE BIRD (1940) with Shirley Temple, KINGS ROW (1942) where she played Ann Sheridan as a child, BEYOND THE BLUE HORIZON (1942) where she played Dorothy Lamour as a child, and ROUGHLY SPEAKING (1945) where she played Rosalind Russell as a child. She finished her acting career on TV's THE STU ERWIN SHOW (1950-53).

As I wrote a few years ago in my review of STRONGER THAN DESIRE (1939), Ann had a very interesting second career as a music librarian at UC Berkeley.

I'm very grateful for all the joy Ann gave us with her roles in so many marvelous films, and I send sincere condolences to her family and friends.

Links for my reviews of films in which Todd appeared: STRONGER THAN DESIRE (1939), CALLING DR. KILDARE (1939), BRIGHAM YOUNG (1940), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), THAT OTHER WOMAN (1942), PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1945), MY REPUTATION (1946), MARGIE (1946), THREE DARING DAUGHTERS (1948), and COVER UP (1949).