American Graffiti (1973) George Lucas

 

1962 was the year the 1950’s ended. It would all begin to change in 1963 with the assassination for JFK, Martin Luther King delivering his ‘I Had A Dream’ speech, The Warren Commission,  the murder of Medgar Evers and the British Invasion, all events along with the Vietnam war that would define a generation just coming on to the stage. George Lucas set his second feature film right at the closing door of America’s final days of innocence when we still thought anything was possible and it was all ours for the taking.   Lucas sets the film in a teenage world still led by 1950’s and early 1960’s cultural icons like James Dean and Sandra Dee. It is a world where television still presents shows like “Father Knows Best” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” as the typical family norm.  It is a world still innocent of the upheavals that it will be facing, yet the realization is there that the current stage is about to change. Continue reading

Newspaper Movie Ads of Yesteryear #5 – Held Over!

Before cinemaplexes and mass bookings films use to play at one theater for more than a couple of weeks. In New York and other large cities a film could run for months even years in the case of a blockbuster like Ben-Hur which ran for two years on Broadway at the Loew’s State. The theme of this edition of old movie ads is just that, films that seems to run forever at one theater.

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Short Takes: Three Reviews

“Kind Lady” is a 1951 remake of a 1935 film based on a play written by Edward Chodorov which itself was based on a story by English novelist Hugh Walpole. The story is involves an elderly woman and art collector (Ethel Barrymore) who meets a starving artist (Maurice Evans) and sociopath who charms his way, with the help of friends, into her house.  Posing as her nephew he holds her prisoner in her own home convincing everyone the kind lady is mentally incapable of taking care of her own affairs. The film is a little loose in style rendering it less effective as a shocker than it could have been but it does have its share of good moments. Fine performances from Barrymore and Maurice Evans. Cast also includes Angela Lansbury, John Williams, Keenan Wynn and Betsy Blair. John Sturges, best known for his work on “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “The Magnificent Seven” directs. (***1/2) Continue reading

American Hot Wax (1978) Floyd Mutrux

“American Hot Wax” may not be totally accurate (it’s not) but it does capture the favor, the spirit, the recklessness and the music of the early days of Rock and Roll. It does this through an excellent performance by Tim McIntire and the music by many of the great artists of the day including Frankie Ford, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Kenny Vance, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. The films center is Alan Freed   credited incorrectly with coining the phrase rock n roll, a term whose original meaning was a slang term for  sexual intercourse and had been used in a few songs going as far back a 1922*. Freed started in Cleveland,  put on live shows, moved to New York on 1010 WINS then to WABC Radio before being fired when he refused to sign a statement certifying he never accepted a payola payment.   Payola was rampant with DJ’s throughout the U.S. but Freed was one of the main targets, and a symbol of investigators and whose career would suffer the most. After he was fired by WABC, Freed never was able to find work with a major radio station again but like the screen Alan Freed tells the police toward the end of the movie “you can stop me, but you can never stop rock and roll.”

The movie plays loose with the facts, director Floyd Mutrux admits that he took some artistic license with the storyline in the film including changing the sequential order of Freed’s final days as a New York DJ. The screenplay unfortunately lacks any depth only skimming the surface of Freed’s character also making him much more of a saint than he really was.  You don’t learn much about him except for his passionate rebellious love for rock and roll, his willingness to play black music along with the fact that he smoked and drank too much.  Mutrux does not even touch on Freed’s sharing of songwriting credit as a form of payment. This co-writing credit was not limited to just Freed, it was common practice among top DJ’s and popular singers. Dick Clark was well known for sharing copyright credit.  Even Elvis Presley received songwriting credit receiving royalty for songs like Heartbreak Hotel among others early in his career.

The film gives us a glance of Freed’ s days filled with eager young singers hanging outside the radio station attempting to “audition” for their big break as they sing popular songs of the day, or in a recording studio watching Frankie Ford record his one monster hit, “Sea Cruise”, or watching record producer Richard Perry play a fictitious music producer  working with a fictitious doo-wop group (The Planotones lead by Kenny Vance former of Jay and the Americans) recording “Come Go With Me”, a real hit by the Del-Vikings in 1957. The Planotones, as mentioned, started out as a fictitious group for the film. Some years later Vance would reform the group and they have been performing around the country singing doo-wop ever since.

The films real strength is in the performances with McIntire doing a splendid job as Freed and a young Fran Drescher who is engaging as Freed’s high pitched girl Friday. Also in the cast are Lorraine Newman as a Carole King songwriter wannabe and Jay Leno as Mookie, Freed’s chauffeur.  Most interesting are the performances by the great Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and the other early rock and roll singers who appear along with the recreation of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. “American Hot Wax” is a highly enjoyable low budget film.

Hangover Square (1945) John Brahm

This review contains spoilers

Director John Brahm waste no time getting the suspense moving, as the film opens we see an older man fighting off an unseen attacker. From the camera’s POV a knife soon appears plunging into the chest of the man and then a quick shot of the killer tossing a gas lit lamp on to the floor, a deadly fire begins to rage. It is a powerful opening to a visually stunning film worthy of Hitchcock. Laird Cregar stars as George Harvey Bone a turn of the century classical composer inflicted with increasingly frequent blackouts that result in a murdering rampage. When Bone meets dance hall singer Netta (Linda Darnell) who plays up to him, manipulating him to write a few popular type songs she can include in her act, the old boy is hooked. Netta uses Bone, flirting yet continually resisting his affection. Of course, Bone eventually realizes he is being used by the cheap floozy and seeks his revenge by killing Netta and dumping her lifeless body on to the top of a barn fire set during a celebration on Guy Fawkes Night.

Fire plays an important part in this film occurring in at least in three significant points including the finale as Bone meets his own demise in a concert hall, where his piano concerto is being performed. The madman sets the theater on fire as the police attempt to surround him. The final image is one of Bone at the piano regally performing his work as he is engulfed in ever growing flames.

“Hangover Square” was a follow up reuniting in fog bound Victorian London director John Brahm, screenwriter Barre Lyndon (whose screenplay is based on the Patrick Hamilton novel), two of the three films stars Laird Cregar and George Sanders all who collaborated in the successful 1944 version of “The Lodger” just one year earlier. The setting of the original source novel was just prior to England’s entry into the war with Germany. For the film the creators changed the setting to turn of the century London to more closely resemble the mood and atmosphere of the prior year’s hit film.

 Brahm use of a subjective camera and low-angles united with Joseph LaShelle’s noir cinematography make for a first-rate entertaining piece of filmmaking.  The other major highlight in this film is the music of Bernard Herrmann who not only composed the incidental music but also the major concert pieces performed.  The film is a major vehicle for Herrmann’s work and one of his best scores. Both Herrmann (Psycho, North by Northwest, Marnie, Vertigo) and LaShelle (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) worked with Hitchcock, which this film could have easily been directed by. Brahm does an inspired job and like Herrmann and LaShelle would work for Hitchcock himself later in his career directing many episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”    Brahm also did some very good episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, “Thriller”, “The Outer Limits” and “The Man from UNCLE” among many others.  

Sadly, this was Laird Creager’s final film in a life that was way too short.

****

The Lodger (1944) John Brahm

The opening murder scene sets the stage for the remainder of this darkly drenched eerie atmospheric horror. A woman is walking home late at night in foggy London; the streets are so wet they almost glisten. The woman turns into an alleyway out of the camera’s eye, we hear a scream and she is soon dead. We see her hand in a close up on the sidewalk curb as water trickles by along the curb. Jack the Ripper has struck again. If you ever wonder where Hammer Films  found  its stylish look for horror,  well it just might have been here this 1944 20th Century Fox thriller.

The 1940’s are generally not considered a high point in time for horror films yet this production of “The Lodger” is the exception to the rule. Directed by German born John Brahm, this remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s original silent version is directly influenced by the German Expressionist film movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s, with its harsh lighting and superb camera placement. Laird Cregar’s magnificent  expressionistic and moving  performance fits right in.

Cregar’s Mr. Slade, as he is called, is a sexually twisted individual obsessed with his dead brother (he was a genius!), ruined by women, actresses specifically. We see Slade’s almost manic obsession with his brother in one scene when he is holding a photograph of him and practically pouring out his love in a way that seems to be more than just well, brotherly love. Slade takes out his revenge by killing off these “actresses” (really prostitutes but this is a 1940’s film) slicing and dicing them up.

Slade has rented a couple of rooms from Robert (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and Ellen Bonting (Sara Allgood). Soon after the new lodger settles in, he discovers the Bonting’s niece Lily Langley (Merle Oberon), an actress of course,  also is living in the same quarters, and he becomes quickly obsessed with the young beauty. The elder couple slowly become suspicious of their new border suspecting he is the infamous Jack the Ripper when they discover him oddly going out late at night. Later on, Lily finds him mysteriously burning some soiled clothing. A dandy like police inspector, George Sanders, in a rather dull role, tries to woo Lily and hunt down the Ripper at the same time.

While the story is more or less what we have seen now over and over in so many other Jack the Ripper tales, it is the visual storytelling ability of John Brahm and the performance of Laird Cregar that rank this film so high on the scale. Cregar manages to make his perverted, sexually twisted character frightening and strangely sympathetic at the same time. You know this guy is sick, and a murderer, but he somehow comes across as a sadly wounded bird. The film is beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard whose long career included such works as “Berlin Express”, “The Killing”, “Pay or Die”, “Will Penny” and “The Wild Bunch.”

Brahm and Cregar would reteam again the following year in “Hangover Square” where Cregar would again portray a maniac type killer. Sadly, Cregar died in 1945 at the age of 31 after battling with a weight disorder. After “The Lodger”, John Brahm had two more good films in him “Hangover Square” and “The Locket.” In the 1950’s and on into the 1960’s Brahm’s best work would be in television where he worked on episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” ,”The Twilight Zone”, “Thriller”, “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” among others.

****

The Films of Thomas Edison

As part of TCM’s History of Hollywood this month, the recent showing of “The Films of Thomas Edison” gave us an opportunity to see more than 30 films in two hours from the Edison studio beginning in the early 1890’s through 1915. Some of the films run less than one minute showing no more than a simple stationary camera shot consisting of no more than a man getting a haircut (“The Barber Shop” – 1893) or inhaling a bit of snuff and sneezing  (“Edison Kinescope of a Sneeze” -1894).  In “Blacksmith Scene” (1893) we watch three men pounding on an anvil, they stop for a moment, and each takes a swig from a bottle of beer and then continues hammering. Each of these films were made by W.K.L. Dickson, an inventor/employee of Thomas Edison who acted as producer, director and/or cinematographer of these early works.  There is no story in any of these films, like a still photograph they are capturing a moment in time and no more.

Edison realized quickly that film needed to entertain and not just record events. “The Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton’s)” from 1894 is an amusing look at two cats punching it out in a miniature ring. In “Sandow” strongman Eugene Sandow poses in front of the camera flexing his muscles and in “Annie Oakley” (1894) we see the famed female sharpshooter displaying her unique artistry.

During this same period Edison experimented with sound film and we get a sample in 1894’s aptly titled “Dickson Experimental  Sound Film” where we see the director in front of the camera playing the violin (a selection from the opera  Chimes of Midnight) while two other men are dancing together nearby. In “Fifth Avenue, New York” (1896) and “What Happened on Twenty Third Street, New York City” (1901) we get to see actual location shooting filled with passer bys going about their everyday business, though in the second film there is an obvious deliberate setup when toward the end of the almost one and half minute epic, a couple appear walking right in front of the camera over a grated ventilation shaft that suddenly blows the ladies skirt up a bit. At first shocked the couple quickly laugh it off as they now walk out of frame. They never notice the camera while many other people walking by look straight toward the camera’s lens.  On a more serious note, the most devastating of these documentary type films is reserved for the 1906 film, “San Francisco Earthquake” showing the aftermath of the massive destruction the city suffered.

By 1903 Edison’s films were introducing a fictional storyline with multiple scenes and longer running times, seven to ten minutes or more. The most important films came from this period and were directed by a new Edison employee named Edwin S. Porter. In “Life of an American Fireman” (1903). Porter,  we leave the one stationary shot behind and move into a narrative storyline with multiple shots edited together to form a sequence. That same year came Edison’s most famous film, “The Great Train Robbery”, starring Bronco Billy Anderson. Other films followed like “The Kleptomaniac” and the 1905 film, “The Little Train Robbery”, a parody of the earlier popular film, notable for scenes where the camera pans to the left and right during the train robbery.  The 1906 film, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” gives us some early special effects as we watch our addicted hero have nightmarish dreams including miniature images of devils pounding on his head, and in 1907’s “Rescue From an Eagles Nest”, an early thriller directed by J. Searle Dawley, shows an infant picked up and carried away by an eagle before being saved by some heroic men.

Within the short span of a few years we get to see how film progressed from a single stationary shot to the beginnings of a visual language. Edison’s filmmakers would soon be left behind as D.W. Griffith would make his first film in 1908 (The Adventures of Dolly) and by 1915 while Edison’s studio was producing  the 15 minute Red Cross public service drama on Tuberculosis, “The Lone Game” , Griffith made his controversial  epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” Edison’s films lagged behind in style and film language which was growing in complexity; still they remain interesting artifacts, infant steps of a new art form.