Thursday, May 31, 2018


The following is a slightly re-edited version of a piece that ran during the early days of this blog, posted on April 3, 2007, in which I took some time to acknowledge one of my favorite movie stars, the inimitable force of nature known as Patsy Kelly. Eleven years ago Netflix was yet to become the powerhouse force in streaming home entertainment that it now incarnates; it was still a strictly DVD-by-mail service that allowed as many as three DVDs at once to sit on your shelf for as long as you wanted, until such time as you said “I’ve never gonna watch these” and decided to send the back for three others in your ridiculously long queue. (The normalization of the word “queue” may have been Netflix’s great contribution to American culture during this time.) In those days, Netflix also allowed you to keep abreast of what your “Netflix Friends” were watching, which didn’t make me paranoid at all.

At any rate, if you can adjust to such nostalgic shifts in the text, you may enjoy this modest remembrance of Kelly’s talents, which was inspired by TCM’s showcasing of a recent spate of her films, including the charming There Goes My Heart (1938), in which she plays alongside Fredric March, Virginia Bruce and Harry Langdon as a working-class girl who unknowingly befriends the heiress whose family owns the department store where she’s employed; and the considerably more forgettable sketch-oriented comedy Nobody’s Baby (1937), in which she shares screen time with vaudeville comedienne Lyda Roberti, a Polish émigré who retired from movies after making only two more forgettable movies after Nobody’s Baby, only to die of a heart attack a few months later at the age of 31. Patsy Kelly’s indefatigable spirit dominates these movies, as it did many of the films she appeared in, regardless of the size of her part. That’s about as apt a distillation of her career as could be made, I guess, but as I am wont to do, in 2007 as well as today, I did go on…


So I innocently logged onto Netflix a few days ago, and I was greeted by a “Movie Note” from a Netflix Friend of mine who had evidently been paying far-too-close attention to my queue and my general tastes. Next to a picture of the cover art for a little-known screwball comedy from 1943 entitled My Son, the Hero was my Friend’s question/comment, jumping off the screen in a large, purple, impossible-to-miss font:

“What prompted this? Doesn't fit your normal Netflix rental pattern at all."

I stared at the question/comment for a few seconds, and then my own question/comments started a-percolatin’: “What is he saying, my fanatical Friend? That I don’t rent enough obscure comedies from the ‘40s? Did he know about the movie and decide that, amongst all of the late-period screwball comedies I could have chosen, this one was so far afield in quality from the others that it merited worried attention? Just how closely is my Friend paying heed to what I’m having sent home to me? (Not that I’m paranoid or anything, but…) Will he feel compelled to chime in again when the reputedly rotten The Life of David Gale (currently #32 with a bullet) finds its way to the surface of my ridiculously long queue? (I probably would.) And why would anyone’s rental patterns but your own (and perhaps even your own) be so fascinating as to merit a question/comment sent down the Netflix pipeline?

I hastily fired back an e-mail, explaining that though I didn’t realize it at the time, the movie was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a fact that I thought would satisfy my cinephile pal. But then I added the real reason-- “Besides, I’ve got a bit of a Patsy Kelly fixation these days”—and left it at that.

Imagine my surprise when my friend, whose knowledge of cinema, particularly Hollywood genre films, handily surpasses my own in a most complete and embarrassing fashion, shot back a curt reply:

“Who’s Patsy Kelly?”

I realized that if my film-soaked Friend didn’t know who Patsy Kelly was, then it was safe to assume that most casual and even passionately devoted movie buffs, not to mention the audience at large that creates $100 million hits out of movies like Wild Hogs and Norbit, wouldn’t know Patsy Kelly from Marjorie Main or Shirley Booth. (And they probably wouldn’t know who the other two were either.) One of the most popular comediennes in American movies in the 1930s and 1940s, Patsy Kelly, her early movies of this period largely
 unavailable on DVD, now seemed to be vaulted away in musty obscurity with the rest of the stars of a long-forgotten Hollywood.

Patsy was born Bridget Sarah Veronica Rose Kelly in Brooklyn, New York in 1910 and was given the nickname that would stick with her throughout her career by her brother. The actress was discovered by vaudeville star Frank Fay and by 1927 was on Broadway in Harry Delmar's Revels. She also starred on the Great White Way in shows like Three Cheers, Wonder Bar and two for producer Earl Carroll-- Sketch Book (1929) and Vanities (1930).

But after Wonder Bar in 1931, Hollywood, in the personage of producer Hal Roach, came calling, and he signed Kelly to a series of featherweight two-reel comedies co-starring Thelma Todd. Kelly, from the start never one to keep her mind to herself, is quoted as saying about her journey to the movie capital, “"I'll be a flop in movies. Besides, I don't like 'em, and I never did believe there was a place called Hollywood. Somebody made it up!" But it turned out to be a very real place indeed, and the Roach comedies ended up having a very popular run. The encyclopedic John McElwee has lots of good information about the Roach/Todd/Kelly/Pitts shorts in this detailed post on Todd at his blog Greenbriar Picture Shows. However, his comments re Kelly, who replaced Zasu Pitts in the shorts after money issues made it impossible for her to continue, are restricted to one sentence with which I must good-naturedly take issue: “Zazu’s easier to take than Patsy. Even a subdued Patsy (and Patsy was never subdued) is akin to root canal without benefit of anesthesia.” One man’s root canal, I suppose… The series ended after 21 films when Todd died in 1935.

Two years earlier, Kelly broke into features as Marion Davies' wisecracking sidekick in Raoul Walsh’s Going Hollywood, and over the course of the next 10 years she made nearly 40 more films, including The Girl from Missouri (1934), Page Miss Glory (1935), Pigskin Parade (1936), There Goes My Heart (1938), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), The Gorilla (1939), Topper Returns (1940), In Old CaliforniaMy Son, the Hero and Danger! Women at Work, all from 1943.

However, that momentum didn’t maintain. Cresting on a wave of popularity, the once–in-demand actress found herself nearly unemployable by the mid-1940s and ended up taking work as a domestic. Theories to explain why Hollywood was no longer interested in one of its most bankable comic actresses inevitably turn toward Kelly’s hard drinking. But others have claimed that it was her openness about her homosexuality that was most off-putting in a Hollywood that was still a good 45 years from setting a collective toe out of the closet. (She admitted to author Boze Hadleigh in his book Hollywood Lesbians (1996), which was published after the deaths of all the interviewees, that she was gay.) It was Tallulah Bankhead (hardly one to be taken aback by drinking or homosexuality) who ended Kelly's long creative dry spell by hiring her as support in the play Dear Charles in 1954. The two carried on a long, stormy and relatively above-ground relationship for years afterward.

Kelly was a fixture on television in the 1960s, making guest appearances on classic shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bonanza, Laredo and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She returned sporadically to movies as well, with featured roles in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and perhaps most memorably as Laura-Louise, one of the sinister coven who befriend Mia Farrow and then betray her to Satan in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). (Her admonition to a horrified Rosemary when the severity of the coven’s satanic plan is revealed to the new mother is one of the film’s comic highlights: “Oh, shut up with your ‘Oh, God!”s or we’ll kill you, milk or no milk!”)

She returned to Broadway in 1971 in the revival of No, No, Nanette with hoofers Ruby Keeler and Helen Gallagher scoring a huge success as the wise-cracking, tap-dancing maid and winning Broadway's 1971 Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actress for her performance in the show. She topped that success the following year when she starred in Irene with Debbie Reynolds and was again nominated for a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

Kelly (third from left) with Irregulars costars Edward Herrmann, Cloris Leachman, Karen Valentine, Virginia Capers and Barbara Harris

The actress ended her film career with two Disney movies that helped to prove that the era at the Mouse House dominated by producer Ron Miller wasn’t a complete disaster-- the original 1976 version of Freaky Friday, and the silly ensemble comedy The North Avenue Irregulars, in which Kelly butted heads (and purses and umbrellas) with a bunch of crooks as well as fellow irregulars Edward Herrmann, Cloris Leachman and Barbara Harris. Patsy Kelly died two years after the 1979 release of The North Avenue Irregulars, in 1981 at the age of 71, of cancer.

The North Avenue Irregulars marked the first time I ever saw Patsy Kelly on screen. (I might have run across her on TV as a kid, but if I did I didn’t remember who she was.) But in that movie I remember being enamored of her tough-old-broad shtick. I grew up around some tough old broads who reminded me a lot of Kelly, and so it’s no wonder I loved her. But it was only recently that I began to encounter Patsy Kelly in her prime, in the comedies and musicals that made her Hollywood name in the 1930s and 1940s. My Son, the Hero was made at the end of the first stage of Kelly’s movie career for Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer. It’s a likable comedy, somewhat turgidly paced (given the lickety-split speed of the movies that can be found at its roots), with a typically farcical plot—a low-rent bookie holes up in the mansion of an associate with his girlfriend (Kelly) and a bunch of their cohorts in an attempt to convince the bookie’s returning war-hero son that his old man is a moneyed big shot. Roscoe Karns as the bookie and professional boxer-turned-actor Max “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom as his gigantic good-natured henchman turn in some pretty snappy work amid Ulmer’s no-frills mise-en-scene (Maxie turns to the camera during one would-be frenetic episode and mutters, “What a screwy picture!”) But Kelly provides My Son, the Hero with whatever oomph that it has, and it seems a rarity among her credits that actually allows the dumpling-shaped actress to bring a bit of sex appeal onto the screen, albeit her own brassy variety.

Much, much better is the other Patsy Kelly vehicle I managed to see in the last month, the gee-whiz college romp Pigskin Parade, which, among other things, happens to be the film debut of Judy Garland. Of course, this bit of casting is probably now the primary reason why most people will pay any kind of attention to Pigskin Parade, along with the early peeks it provides of Jack Haley, Jr., an incredibly sexy Betty Grable, Grady Sutton, Stuart Erwin and even, if you look real close, Alan Ladd. It’s a very typical comedy of the period—lowly Texas State University is invited by Yale, due to a staff miscommunication, to participate in a benefit football game. Before the Ivy League hotshots can blush and correct their mistake, the hale and hearty lads and ladies of the tiny rural campus are fit to bursting with musical energy in celebration of their big opportunity. They even bring in a big coach from the East Coast, the lecherous Slug Winters (Haley), helmed by his no-bullshit pigskin aficionado wife (Kelly), to help guide the meat-and-potatoes squad to victory.

But one night, in a hilarious scene that spotlights her nimble physical ability, Kelly confiscates a flask of gin from a couple of frisky co-eds, gets ripped on it herself and is eventually discovered by her husband drunkenly swinging from a pair of gymnastic rings while the big rally dance roars away just one door over. Suitably berated by Slug, she steps into an adjoining workout room where the team quarterback is licking his wounds after being dumped by his best gal. Mrs. Winters tries to cheer him up by showing him how to take a hit on the field and ends up causing a stack of free weights to fall on him, crushing his leg.


Mrs. Winters, embarrassed by her drunken behavior, is quickly enlisted by her husband to help some of the other students scout for a new quarterback. They eventually make it to the watermelon farm outside of town where Amos (Erwin), who will become the team’s bullet-throwing replacement quarterback, lives. But before they find Amos, the audience is treated to another great Kelly moment, this one a deadpan reaction to the inexplicable musical stylings of Amos’s in-bred relative, who tells the group where Amos can be found, but not before letting fly with a bizarre vocal performance that must be seen to be believed—it’s like Dueling Banjos as it would have played on a Mayberry front porch instead of one found in James Dickey's deepest, darkest Tennessee.

Pigskin Parade is in many ways a very routine musical comedy, but it’s lifted up by its bootstraps (or should that be cleat straps) through the efforts of its excellent cast, of which Patsy Kelly is one of the main anchors. Hers is a tough, sassy demeanor wrapped up in hands-on-the-hips defiance and cat-o’-nine-tails tongue lashings, yet she’s always appealing and genuine underneath the salty exterior. I’d even say that she had a very personable kind of beauty about her in her ‘30s pictures, even up through her wild turn in My Son, the Hero

It may sound odd, but while I was watching and admiring her in Pigskin Parade, and hoping I’d get to see more of her very soon, I saw a very strange confluence in her—Kelly has a frisky ingenue's energy and comic timing, as well as the unglamorous physical appeal and brassy, barking bulldog quality of the best straight-up (no pun intended) broads. She was a worthy contemporary of that other great screen dame, Barbara Stanwyck, and though she never showed the range and greatness that Stanwyck did, she carved out her own niche and honored it time and again. While watching Pigskin Parade, I kept thinking that Patsy Kelly is who might result if time and space could be breached and science could find a way to deposit Maggie Gyllenhaal, with whom she shares grace and a certain physical resemblance, and the bull-in-a-china-shop spirit of Broderick Crawford in the same body. Kelly is also a wonder and a hoot to watch all on her own, and she deserves to be remembered by a lot more movie fans than actually know who she is today.

Patsy Kelly once told an interviewer, “In 40-odd years in show business, some years I could do no wrong, and some years I could do nothing right. Show business-- I owe it everything - it owes me nothing.” Who’s Patsy Kelly? You’d be doing yourself a big favor if you were to find out.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018


People always say it, and I often do myself: “Seeing (Movie X) on the big screen again was like seeing it for the first time!” This was emphatically not true for me last night when I took my daughter  to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood. (It was her first experience with the movie in a theater, however—more on that in a bit.)

I first saw 2001 about a year after it was released—this was the amount of time it usually took big new releases to make it out to our patch of sticks in the small Oregon where I grew up. That would put me at about the ripe ol’ age of nine years old when I took my first trip with Stanley Kubrick to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. The presentation was what it always was at the Alger Theater when I was a kid—images were projected on a screen, sound came from speakers behind the screen, and I was damn grateful for that. I had no idea of the point in technological breakthrough—70mm, Cinerama, stereo sound— where 2001 resided when it was shown elsewhere, and in 1969 I didn’t much care. I had read Arthur C. Clarke’s book and immersed myself in anything I could get my hands on about it in anticipation of actually seeing it for myself, but of course no amount of prep could have done the job. Regardless of how state-of-the-art the theater in which moviegoers saw it in 1968 might or might not have been, one thing was certainly true— this movie bore no resemblance to the bland musicals, stodgy adult dramas and bloated spectacles which had clogged American movie screens over the previous decade.

For my own part, I can’t say I knew exactly what I’d seen when I emerged from the dark onto the main street of my hometown (though at the time I probably thought I did). But I knew I loved it, and everything— movies, the world, everything— looked different afterward. Since that night in 1969 I’ve seen the movie many times in theaters much nicer than the Alger, including the Cinerama Dome, as well as in just about every adequate and inadequate format available on home video—laserdisc, Betamax, VHS, and commercial-riddled network TV.

But seeing 
2001: A Space Odyssey last night, in the “unrestored” 70mm print now circulating in cities around the US, a print which duplicates from the original negative the way the film was seen and heard in the best theaters upon its premiere, with no 2018-style enhancements, was a genuine eye-and-ear-opening experience. It seemed nothing like the way I saw it the first time, and in some really pronounced ways it felt as if I was seeing this movie, so familiar from countless exposures to it over the ensuing 49 years, for the first time.

And it was a thrill to take my daughter along for the ride. I spent some time beforehand trying to contextualize the state of American movies for her, and what audiences might have been inclined to expect before they sat in their seats and proceeded to make Kubrick’s cerebral consideration of the origins and evolution of civilization one of, if not the most unlikely hit in cinema history. (It was the #1 movie in terms of American box-office receipts among all releases in 1968, and of course it was re-released seemingly endlessly throughout the ‘70s, marketed to a user-friendly generation as “The Ultimate Trip.”) So I tried to put that thought into my daughter’s  head: pretend that you haven’t spent your entire life watching movies and TV shows and anime episodes which wouldn’t exist, at least in their current form, without the direct influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and instead try to see it not only the way you will see it, but also with a nod toward the way those people who had no idea what was coming once did.

Mission accomplished. In the dazed walk back to our car afterward, together we parsed out our theories of what 2001 was up to—the dawn of man, of consciousness, of utility; the appearance (and re-appearance) of some mysterious and influential semblance of the spiritual, and its influence on yet another iteration of human evolution as it assimilates into, expands and directs the function of human-generated artificial intelligence; and the emergence of some altogether new life-form, perhaps the first visitation of humanoid extra-terrestrial life, and the eruption of changes which it will inevitably set in motion. None of this seemed terribly perplexing to a young woman who, like many of the more thoughtful members of her generation, has been weaned on oblique genre-blasting, narrative-shattering approaches to storytelling. She welcomed the movie’s deliberately mysterious tenor, its disorienting spatial perspectives, and the grandeur of old-world civilization (Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian) imposed on decidedly new world technology which had been employed to seek out and discover equally old, yet strange and unfamiliar worlds. And we had a great time talking about all the newfangled techno-concepts which seemed far-out in 1968 (space stations, picture phones, electronically enhanced food preparation, to name but a few), but which are now, 17 years past the actual year 2001, part of our everyday reality.

What surprised me most seeing it last night was the degree to which the 70mm presentation of 2001:  A Space Odyssey enhanced the movie’s reputation as an overwhelming sensory experience. I have always had an admiration for the way the movie adheres to its matter-of-fact tone re space travel—zero gravity, the absence of sound, and even the tedium of traveling hundreds of thousands of miles through a star-spangled vacuum. All of these elements give 2001 a specific quality of detachment, the rendering of a giant leap for mankind as something on the order of the routine, which, given Stanley Kubrick’s overall aesthetic, would hardly be unexpected. But the journey of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) from Jupiter to Beyond the Infinite, in perhaps the movie’s most famously disorienting (“trippy,” if you must) sequence, enhanced by blinding rushes of light and ear-shattering  atonal chorales supplied by composer György Ligeti, is genuinely frightening and overwhelming, especially in this 70mm incarnation. My desensitized eardrums had no trouble with the overload—in fact, they welcomed it. But my dear daughter and her much healthier auditory system, despite earlier exposure to the movie’s intense use of amplified sound—for screeching extraterrestrial radio transmissions as well as the thunderous performances of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz”—was not, could not­ have been prepared for what the movie was, in this sequence, about to immerse her in. As a result, she came out the other side of it almost as rattled (though not as aged) as poor, haunted Bowman, himself put through a lifetime of aging in mere minutes. 

To those who have encountered 2001:  A Space Odyssey in 70mm before (and if you live in a metropolitan area you may have had many opportunities over the past 50 years since its initial release), all this “Ultimate Trip”-style talk might sound like old news. But even if you have seen it in 70mm before, chances are that the print you saw may have displayed some slight or even more significant wear-and-tear. Not so the newly minted print, which under the aegis of director Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. This is what Kubrick’s movie looked like on Opening Day 1968 in the biggest, spiffiest venues possible, light-years ahead of the little rundown movie house in Southeastern Oregon where I first saw it. For folks like me, who to this point, no matter how times we may have seen it, still really haven’t seen or heard it at its most spectacular, 2001:  A Space Odyssey in this new 70mm print retains the power to make a viewer look at this world, and those beyond, with eyes that feel new, shaking, challenging, altering sensibilities in a way with which no other movie has since been able to compare, even the ones Kubrick himself created within the long shadow of his pioneering monolith. The movie continues in Los Angeles and other cities for at least another week, through May 31 and perhaps beyond, though not into the Infinite. Make this ultimate trip while you can, before both time and space run out.


Friday, May 18, 2018

SHAMPOO (1975)



Monday, May 07, 2018


Yet another TCM Classic Film Festival is in the bank—the ninth out of nine I’ve been privileged to attend. For those who have a mind to, my extended coverage of the festival—not a blow-by-blow of everything I did, but a look at some of the highlights—is available at Slant magazine’s blog The House Next Door, the venue that has sponsored my TCMFF attendance for all of those nine years. As I have said many times, my classic movie education would be considerably less rich without the support  of my editor at Slant, Ed Gonzalez, and I would be remiss if he ever had a moment in which the truth of this statement was not perfectly clear in his mind. And as if by way of proving my gain, every year, in addition to the Slant piece, I like to look back on the things I now know that I didn’t know a week ago last Thursday. So, without any further delay, please feel free to peruse ten things I learned while attending TCMFF 2018.

RUTHIE TOMPSON IS ONE OF THE UNSUNG HEROES OF AMERICAN MOVIES  Ruthie Tompson was born in 1910 and, as a young girl, used to hang around outside the Disney Bros. studio on Kingswell Avenue in Los Angeles, where Roy Disney filmed her and some friends, footage she suspects was used for modeling the animation of the studio’s early Alice comedies. When she was 18, Walt Disney offered her a job in the ink-and-paint department where she helped complete the first full-length animated feature in movie history, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  It wasn’t long before she was promoted to final checker, a job which gave her the responsibility of reviewing animated cels before they were photographed on film, and then on to animation checking and scene planning, where her skill with guiding camera movements for animated films was noted and led in 1952 to Tompson being the first woman ever invited to join the International Photographers Union, Local 659 of the IATSE. Tompson, now 108 years old and wheelchair-bound, was but one of many distinguished guests who graced author Mindy Johnson’s extensive tribute “An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women in Animation,” which contextualized the mostly unsung (or at least considerably less-sung) contributions of women throughout the history of this vital tributary of American and international film. TCMFF attendees are constantly in the presence of an awe-inspiring collection of history, but to witness it in the personage of a single person like Ruthie Tompson is to consider anew everything that she and others, with no agenda other than their desire to participate, create, express through their art, did to expand and illuminate their craft for everyone who came after, including lauded filmmakers like Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Linda Cook (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron)who were also part of Johnson’s panel.

2) FEW THINGS ARE NEATER THAN A HOLLYWOOD PROFESSIONAL WITH A STYLISTIC SURPRISE UP HIS SLEEVE In 1948 I doubt anyone would have suspected Clarence Brown, MGM signature director responsible for the lush and very popular family-friendly dramas National Velvet (1946) and The Yearling (1948), as well as the early Great Garbo vehicles Anna Christie (1930) and Anna Karenina (1935) and a career in silent films dating back to 1920, might have a strong sense of social conscience in him. But that’s just what was on display when TCMFF featured Brown’s late-period feature, Intruder in the Dust (1948) on Friday morning. The film is a neorealist-influenced adaptation of William Faulkner's novel from the previous year, about a dominant and unquestioned white (Southern) social structure and mob psychology in the face of a murder, apparently perpetrated by a black man, who refuses to give away his dignity even in the face of his own imminent and unjustified death. Faulkner himself had to concede that Intruder in the Dust was indeed “a pretty good movie.” With all due respect, it's considerably more than that and deserves a much higher profile in film history than it currently occupies. I certainly think my own first exposure to it here was as profound a revelation as I've ever had at TCMFF, and much of that has to do with being able to see unexpected shading in the career of Clarence Brown.

3) THERE IS NO WALKING OUT ON PRESTON STURGES As the lights began to go down for the TCMFF screening of Preston Sturges’ manic, deftly sentimental, production code-defying corkscrew classic The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, I turned to my friend and whispered to him that since I’d seen the movie a million times (perhaps an exaggeration) I was probably going duck out about ten minutes or so early, all to ensure that I got a good spot in line for the next attraction, which was scheduled tight against Miracle in the festival’s smallest venue. But as the movie barreled its way toward its conclusion, trading its concern over the location of Ignatz Ratzkywatzky for that of the fates of star-crossed and multiply-blessed lovers Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) and Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), I stayed right where I was. As the credits began to roll, my friend turned to me and said, “You couldn’t do it, could you?” “Nope,” I replied sheepishly, admitting the futility of my original plan. “There is just no walking out on Preston Sturges,” I added as I waved good-bye and bolted out toward the next queue. By the way, I got into the next screening with no problem.

4) THIS YEAR’S PATRON SAINTS: BRUCE GOLDSTEIN AND JOHN SAYLES Each year it seems like there’s one person who shows up once, maybe twice, to introduce screenings which end up being among the richest experiences of the festival—for me, it’s usually writer-producer-director-historian-preservationists Michael Schlesinger, who introduced the screening of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, my first big-screen experience with the Frank Tashlin comedy. (More on that one in a second). But this year’s TCMFF featured two personal patron saints who made impressions during four separate screenings. Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at NYC’s Film Forum, who I saw last year heading up an informative discussion on subtitling, brought his effusive and encyclopedic acumen to bear on tracing the history of Roy Del Ruth’s Blessed Event (1932), as well as its multitudinous film-and-stage connections to The Front Page and other rapid-fire comedies of the era. He also made a great case for the geographic veracity of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), to say nothing of its immense entertainment value, as a foundation for proclaiming it the greatest New York City movie ever made, a claim none in the packed house at the Egyptian were prepared to argue with. And writer-director-novelist-humanitarian John Sayles (Lone Star, Matewan) was on hand to eloquently introduce and expand upon my two favorite experiences at this year’s festival, Sam Fuller’s pugnacious and still-relevant Park Row (1952) and a transcendent screening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), on the giant Chinese Theater screen as majestic and emotionally overwhelming as any movie ever made. Each of the four films would have stood on their own as wonderful experiences, but the presence of these two guiding lights brought dimensions to each screening which accentuated just how illuminating seeing a classic movie can be when sprinkled with just the right mixture of erudition, wit and sincere movie love.

5) I HAVE A BIT OF A THING FOR FRANCES DEE Based solely upon the screening of Finishing School (1936), which kicked off this year’s festival for me, I have a newborn big thing for Frances Dee. A strange thing to contemplate, I suppose, considering her grandson, Wyatt McCrea, introduced the screening—Dee’s husband of 57 years, until his death in 1990, was Joel McCrea. (“Sir, your grandmother was, um, really cute.”) A quick sweep through her credits reveals that the only other film of Dee’s I’ve ever seen is, no surprise, I Walked with a Zombie (1943). So, in response to this revelation, I have self-imposed the sort of homework assignment an ignorant film geek should live for.

6) ALICIA MALONE AND THE THRONE OF BLOOD-GODZILLA CONNECTION I still haven’t fully acclimated to Alicia Malone as a TCM host—she’s an appealing presence, and a definite improvement upon Tiffany Vasquez, who still seems a bit uncomfortable reading from a teleprompter. But she was an engaging extemporaneous presence in her enthusiastic comments before Thursday night’s screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), and she struck the perfect balance between esoteric appreciation and fangirl glee over Toshiro Mifune and his director’s brilliant reduction and reimagining of Macbeth. As far as the film goes, Shakespeare is in Kurosawa’s every move here, even if the Bard’s language is, by necessity or design, not, and despite a less-than-sparkling print the movie retains as much eerie, sustained power as it ever had. I also had a bit of a jolt in recognizing a connection between Kurosawa’s movie (and not just this one) and his country’s greatest kaiju representative. Of course, Takashi Shimura, who plays Noriyasu Odagura, Kurosawa’s equivalent of Macduff, is a veteran not only of Kurosawa’s other classics, Seven Samurai and Ikiru, but also of the original 1954 version of Godzilla. But in previous viewings I somehow missed that the actor who plays Yoshiteru Miki, who occupies Shakespeare’s universe as Fleance, the son of Macbeth’s betrayed Banquo, is none other than Akira Kubo, veteran of not only Sanjuro (1962) and Chushingura (1962), but much more importantly, Son of Godzilla (1967), Destroy All Monsters! (1968), and my all-time favorite, Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). Kurosawa or kaiju, Kubo is definitely a klassic.

7) THE SQUEALING OF JAYNE MANSFIELD IS CAPABLE OF SPLITTING THE UNSUSPECTING EARDRUM I’d never seen Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson? on a big, wide screen before last weekend, yet another first for which I must lay my thanks at the feet of Michael Schlesinger, who introduced the showing with his customary smarts. It was loads of fun watching director Frank Tashlin unpack his visual wit with this satire of American consumerism. But I have to admit I was unprepared for the devastating effect Jayne Mansfield, would have on my hearing. As the post-Marilyn Monroe starlet Rita Marlowe, Mansfield wields an ear-splitting affected squeal of delight that, thanks to the movie’s spiffy digital restoration, rang through the auditorium like cosmic fingernails on God’s chalkboard. I love Mansfield in this movie, but I have to admit that as the movie neared its end I’d come to dread her every appearance because I was nervous she’d let loose another of those atmosphere-rending audio lightning bolts. And she did. To appropriate the catch-phrase of an entirely different horror, in TCMFF Auditorium #6 no one could hear me scream (because I was holding it in). But at home I can at least turn down the volume.

8) IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE GILL MAN IN 3D, PERHAPS YOU SHOULD I’ve always loved Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), even though I only saw it projected in 3D (in 16mm) once, back in my college days. But the 3D DCP on display last weekend at TCMFF was a real beauty—crisp and clear, it put all the scares back in their proper place, despite the attempt of some audience members to turn the screening into a post-Medvedian hootfest. Where the underwater sequences in some movies tend to bog down the action (I’m looking at you, Thunderball), the sequences in Arnold’s movie are eerie and to the point, and the 3D really works to heighten the anticipatory dread over the creature’s inevitable appearance. Here we’re worlds separated from the murky, smeary effects that decades later crippled Jaws 3D before audiences even had a chance to tumble to that movie’s baseline stupidity. In Creature, the Gill Man’s every underwater move is rendered with absolute clarity, and when his scary, webbed claw reaches out to the camera from above the surface there can be no doubt the viewer is witnessing a true stereovision wonder.


Ingredients:  One sugar cube 
Two dashes Angostura bitter
Two ounces rye or bourbon
Orange twist

Preparation: Muddle the sugar cube and bitters with one bar spoon of water at the bottom of a chilled rocks glass. Add rye or bourbon. Stir.  Add one large ice cube, or three or four smaller cubes. Stir until chilled and properly diluted, about 30 seconds. Slip orange twist on the side of the cube.
Enjoy with friends and immediately proceed to another old-fashioned movie at TCMFF. Thanks, Bob!

10) THERE’S NOTHING BETTER THAN WATCHING YOUR DAUGHTER WATCH YOU ON THE BIG SCREEN AT THE CHINESE THEATER After some epic waiting on their part in the standby line, I managed to get my daughter and my wife into the closing-night 40th anniversary cast reunion screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), which was shot on the campus of the University of Oregon during the fall of 1977. I was lucky enough to wrangle a gig as a long-term extra-- I was among the pool of Delta pledges called upon daily to fill in the background and foreground in and around Delta House and the Faber College campus, and I can be seen bopping around all over the first half of the movie. (My best scene is as one of the lucky initiates pledging my allegiance to the frat with liberty and justice for all— my very nervous 17-year-old self is second from the right in the blue plaid bathrobe.) My daughter had never seen the movie before, so I thought, what better first exposure could she have that seeing it with a thousand other fans laughing appreciatively just like it was 1978. And she loved it, of course. But the most fun she had was playing Spot Daddy, me in my yellow sweater and blue bathrobe, sharing screen time with the likes of John Belushi, Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst. It was a priceless thrill for both of us, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to say good-bye to this year’s festival. To Animal House and to TCMFF 2018 I can only say, thanks for the memories.


Friday, May 04, 2018


I’m back. The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival is in the rearview mirror, and I have emerged, awash in Visine and sated with the PB&J and deviled ham sandwiches (not together, of course) I packed for myself to avoid the high cost of eating at Hollywood & Highland over four days, with a report on some of what I saw. Here’s a morsel:

Another writer-director who was himself, like Fuller, at the forefront of a particularly important moment in the history of American independent film, John Sayles, used his time introducing Park Row to eloquently characterize the film, in one of the overall best, most informed, beautifully delivered speaker presentations I've ever seen at TCMFF, as “Citizen Kane printed on butcher paper.” You could almost hear Fuller chuckle with approval.

The film then blasted out of the gate before its own opening credits with words meant to evoke the 120-point boldface type of the era's most grave, life-and-death headlines, imposed over a crawl of newspaper banners: “THESE ARE THE NAMES OF 1,772 DAILY NEWSPAPERS IN THE UNITED STATES. ONE OF THE IS THE PAPER YOU READ. ALL OF THEM ARE THE STARS OF THIS STORY.” Then a brief pause while the banners continued to roll, followed in even bigger typeface by a legend which crawled up along with the background to fill the frame: 

Fuller, of course, could have had no idea in 1952 the chill those words would deliver to audiences almost 70 years later, but their insistence, their implied defiance, along with Fuller's conviction and pulp power as a director, ensured that Park Row would emerge from a festival filled with delights and landmarks from the past as perhaps that festival's most urgent ambassador to the future. On the same Saturday night as Michelle Wolf's controversial appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where she was roundly criticized by multiple members of the D.C. press for speaking truth to power in a manner completely unfamiliar to them, I'm exceedingly glad that the director's wife, Christa Fuller, was in the TCMFF auditorium to see for herself just how well the movie was received by modern eyes and ears, how vital its undercurrent of journalistic vigilance remains.”

You can read the whole piece where it lives, at Slant magazine’s blog The House Next Door, the excellent online arts collective that has, through the generosity of editor Ed Gonzalez, sponsored each of my visits to this terrific, and exhausting, film festival. I’ve been lucky enough to attend all nine TCMFFs so far, and I can’t wait to see what will be on tap for the 10th anniversary. Thanks, Ed and Slant for the significant upgrade in my classic movie education and for the honor of writing for your magazine.