Catting Around

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: I wish I could take credit for this post, but I can’t. For the first time since I began Cinedrome, I’m presenting a guest blogger. The writer was a student in my Fall 2018 Introduction to Film Studies class at the college where I’m an adjunct instructor in Film and Media Studies. As I tell my Intro to Film students, my philosophy is that the best way to introduce them to film is to introduce them to films; thus I prefer to show them complete movies rather than excerpts. It’s all well and good to study individual sequences from movies you’ve seen, but if you haven’t seen the movie, showing part of it is like handing you a quarter-cup of Hershey’s Cocoa and calling it fudge.

In an 80-minute class period, finding movies to screen can be a challenge. So a major component of the class is to spend time with the films of Val Lewton, the legendary producer who turned out a series of extraordinarily intelligent B horror movies at RKO Radio during the 1940s — all of which ran between 65 and 75 minutes. An essay assignment on the final exam asked students to analyze any two of the five Lewton pictures they saw in class.

One student answered that assignment with a remarkable piece of film criticism, one of the best commentaries on Lewton’s unique body of work that I’ve ever read. I present that essay here for the enjoyment (and enlightenment) of Cinedrome readers.

I think it’s best if I don’t identify the student by name, or even by gender. Still, a few anonymous details won’t be out of order. This was the student’s first semester of college. He/she took the class “to learn more about the way movies/music videos/TV shows are made” and named some favorite movies: Roman Holiday, 10 Things I Hate About You,  Lady Bird.  The student has seen King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind, West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Schindler’s  List, but not Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove or Pulp Fiction; has seen the first installment of The Lord of the Rings but not the second or third.

And with that, here is the essay prompt from the exam, followed by the student’s essay. I have corrected minor errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and added actors’ names in parentheses where appropriate; otherwise I’ve changed nothing.

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Producer Val Lewton was noted for his “psychological” horror movies, replacing the usual movie vampires, werewolves and other monsters with explorations of the darker reaches of the human psyche. We saw five of Lewton’s movies in class: Cat People (1942, d: Jacques Tourneur), I Walked with a Zombie (1943, d: Tourneur), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, d: Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, d: Wise) and Isle of the Dead (1945, d: Mark Robson). Discuss the psychological aspects of any two of these films.

Val Lewton’s movies were known for having supernatural aspects, yet always ending with the common message that the evils of the world were not found in monstrous identities, but in humans themselves. In Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), both movies are heavy with psychological themes and explore individuals on a deeper level.

In Cat People the story is of a young man, Oliver (Kent Smith), falling for a mysterious designer named Irena (Simone Simon). Irena is reserved, and tells her husband there are certain things he cannot do, like kiss her. She is fearful of her past, which she hides from him, and is terribly afraid that she will turn into a monstrous cat that will put everyone around her in danger. She asks her husband to listen to her and to believe her when she finally confesses, but he brushes this off and makes her go see a therapist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). Irena wants to get better, but in the end, because her husband gives up on her and has an affair with his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), she turns into a large creature, is stabbed by Dr. Judd, who only wanted to exploit her, and dies.

The entire premise of Cat People seems to be a metaphor for depression or bipolar disorder, some type of mental illness. Irena suffers from a disorder due to a past that has traumatized her, and when she finally believes she can trust and open up to someone, they completely shut her down and refuse to understand her or stay with her through her episodes of unstable behavior. Throughout the film, Irena struggles with her ability to turn into a cat, much like those who suffer from mental illness. She has breakdowns and tries desperately to become better for the good of herself and her husband, but her husband gives up on her, triggering the start of another episode she cannot escape.

Irena has spent her whole life trying to suppress her emotions and “dark” feelings because that is what she has learned to do, which is unhealthy; this becomes her downfall in a way. Instead of being nurtured, encouraged, or listened to, Irena is forced to live in a cage her entire life, feeling as though she cannot escape from the prison of her mind. When she dies, she is finally free from the evils that plague her.

In truth, Irena was not the villain of the film at all. Oliver and Dr. Judd played such a large part in her downfall. Her husband, for not choosing to stick with her through the worst of times, and her therapist for trying to exploit her circumstances for his own curiosity, not to actually help her — which reflects many issues surrounding mental health today. Those afflicted with illness such as depression, etc., are not always supported and treated properly or given the help they need. When Lewton produced Cat People he chose a very taboo subject at the time and disguised it with a “horror” aspect. But Cat People seems to be a reflection of and metaphor for how mental illness works and affects people negatively.

Furthermore, in The Curse of the Cat People, the sequel to Cat People, we see Irena’s husband Oliver is now married to his co-worker Alice, and has a daughter with her named Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is perceived as a strange, imaginative girl who daydreams about fantastical and magical things. The other children believe her to be weird because of her airy personality and short attention span. She later befriends an old lady, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), with a jealous daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), and even creates an imaginary friend who takes the form of Irena, her father’s first wife. Again, instead of choosing to understand his daughter, Oliver firmly tells her she must go play with the other kids or she will be punished. He also condemns her for having an imaginary friend, and she is severly punished for that as well.

Amy’s imaginary version of Irena is everything her parents are not — she listens to Amy, encourages and nurtures her, and therefore perpetuates Amy’s innocent view of the world in which all life is beautiful.

Amy’s childish innocence and ability to spread her warmth saves her from being killed when she hugs Mrs. Farren’s bitter daughter Barbara — Amy can see the good in people and in everything due to her innocence. In the end, Amy’s parents believe in her and finally listen to her instead of forcing her to try to be “normal” like the other children.

This here is another example of Lewton using a supernatural aspect as a disguise for a subject that was not really brought up during this time. Amy is a child who seems to be on the autism spectrum; she appears to have Asperger syndrome due to her behavior. Instead of really assessing this fact in their daughter, Amy’s parents, especially Oliver, are intent on making her a “normal” child, even punishing her for silly issues such as having an imaginary friend. Both parents are fearful their child may be mentally ill, especially when Amy mentions Irena. But in the end they come to accept her and foster her growth rather than cage her up, which is a stark contrast to what they did with Irena. The supernatural aspect Lewton added was to keep up the theme of “horror” films the company was marketing his movies as, but Curse of the Cat People was truly about child-like innocence and how adults try to take it away at an early age, when really they should be enouraging it.

Both Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People deal with serious issues in the world, but each topic is thinly veiled behind a supernatural aspect. Val Lewton’s films, though not filled with scary entities to haunt your dreams, are still equally as terrifying as they reflect how humans work. The psychological aspects of his films are what truly make them memorable and frightening.

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This is Jim again — I’m back. I don’t mind saying that this essay left me gasping with admiration. I don’t think I could have answered the essay prompt as completely and concisely as this student did — and I made it up. And remember: the student wrote this, as it were, “under the gun”, in a two-hour exam period — and after writing an equally long and insightful essay comparing Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

The mention of Amy possibly having Asperger syndrome is particularly astute — especially since the student is probably too young to know that Asperger’s had barely been identified by 1944 (and then only in the Third Reich) and didn’t become general knowledge until the 1980s. (Of course, behavior like Amy’s was not unheard of back then, but it was usually described in less compassionate terms: “The kid’s weird / nuts / not right in the head…”) In other classes where I screened Curse of the Cat People, I discussed the idea of Amy’s being somewhere on the autism spectrum (itself barely recognized in ’44), but with this class I didn’t. As it happened, I didn’t have to — not for this student, anyhow.

Yuletide 2018

I know this is a departure from the subject of movies and the Golden Age of Hollywood, but as the Christmas Season rolls around once again, I don’t want it to go unobserved that 2018 marks the Bicentennial of the most familiar and beloved of all Christmas carols: “Silent Night”.

Or rather, strictly speaking, it’s the 200th anniversary of the carol’s original version, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. It wasn’t to become “Silent Night” until 1859, when it was translated into English by Fr. John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest in New York City. But as “Stille Nacht”, it was first performed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1818 by its lyricist, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and composer, Franz X. Gruber, accompanied by Herr Gruber on guitar. Rather like Christianity itself, “Silent Night” first came into the world in a humble, even obscure imperial backwater — in this case Oberndorf, Austria — then proceeded to be embraced around the world in a remarkably short time. The song’s sublime spiritual simplicity continues to speak for itself, as it has for fully two centuries.

And in another departure from writing on Classic Hollywood, I’m sharing once again a contribution of my own to the Yuletide Season. As most Cinedrome readers will probably know, writer Philip Van Doren Stern once wrote a little story he called “The Greatest Gift”. He worked on it from 1939 to 1943, then, when he felt it was ready, he found himself unable to interest anyone in publishing it.  So Stern had 200 copies printed in a little booklet and sent them out to family and friends as his Christmas card that year. In time, the story came to the attention of Hollywood, and eventually, after a few false starts here and there, director Frank Capra made it the basis for his 1946 picture It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed.

Taking a leaf from Philip Van Doren Stern, and in keeping with the Spirit of the Season, I’m offering a little story of my own as a sort of Christmas card for my Cinedrome readers. Unlike “The Greatest Gift”, it has nothing to do with movies or Hollywood; it’s just a tale told to me by a wise and wonderful older person I once knew. It’s called “The Sensible Christmas Wish”, and you can read it by clicking here.

If you like the story, feel free to share it with friends and family. Please remember, though, that like everything else here at Cinedrome, it is under copyright, and all rights are reserved.

Happy Holidays!

Cinevent 50 — Day 4

The last day of Cinevent 50 began with Kitty (1945), starring Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland. Since I wrote the program notes for Kitty, I’m going to follow my practice of years past and reproduce those notes here. However, I should mention that my notes for Cinevent were adapted from my 2013 Cinedrome post on this, one of my favorite pictures. So you’ve got a choice: you can read on now, or if you want the full gamut of what I had to say back then, you can click here and skip the next thirteen paragraphs.

Paulette Goddard is one of the great also-rans of movie history. As she never tired of saying, she was the front-runner to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind – until some pert little nobody from England came along. Late in life, Goddard told how she was offered the role and threw a party to celebrate. Selznick came, she said, and so did the English actor Laurence Olivier, in town shooting Wuthering Heights for Sam Goldwyn. Olivier (again, according to Paulette) brought along his girlfriend Vivien Leigh, Selznick took one look at her, and that was that.

The story is nonsense, of course. David Selznick didn’t meet Leigh at Paulette’s house, and Paulette never had Scarlett nailed down enough to throw a party over it. But Paulette’s harmless little fable shows how that near-miss haunted her for the rest of her life — through her 1940s peak at Paramount (when she never quite made it into the top rank of Hollywood stars), and all the long years before her death at 79 in 1990, years during which GWTW’s fame grew even as her own dwindled.

There’s another oblique link to Gone With the Wind in Goddard’s career. As everybody knows, while the world waited breathlessly for the movie David Selznick would make of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Warner Bros. decided to cash in on this vogue for the Old South by dusting off a 1933 Broadway flop about another flirtatious and headstrong southern belle — and Jezebel swept to the screen a year ahead of GWTW.

Fast-forward to 1944, when another novel has readers breathless and every actress in Hollywood rubbing her hands. The book is Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, about an ambitious village girl’s sexual exploits during the reign of Charles II of England. Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox had snatched up the movie rights to this racy, titillating bestseller — and the boys over at Paramount decided to steal a march on Zanuck the way Warners had on Selznick. The beneficiary of their ploy was Paulette Goddard.

The vehicle they chose was Rosamond Marshall’s novel Kitty, which had been published the year before Amber, but with nowhere near the same success. Born in 1902, Rosamond Marshall wrote some 16 novels altogether, but only two of them ever made it to the screen: The Bixby Girls (filmed in 1960 as All the Fine Young Cannibals with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner) and Kitty.

Actually, not all of Kitty made it to the screen. Marshall’s novel was a pretty steamy bodice-ripper by 1940s standards, the tale of a 14-year-old London prostitute blithely sleeping her way up the social ladder in the days of King George III. Kitty (she doesn’t have a last name) gets caught stealing the shoes of the painter Thomas Gainsborough — and he, liking the look of her, invites her into his studio to pose. There, Kitty catches the eye of a ne’er-do-well visitor, Sir Hugh Marcy, who takes her home with him and introduces her to the pleasures of orgasmic sex. Sir Hugh and his gin-sodden aunt Lady Susan take Kitty under their wings, passing her off as the orphaned child of a dear friend and subjecting her to a crash course in proper speech and manners. Kitty blooms under their tutelage and her lovers multiply.

So much for the novel. Needless to say, between publication and the release of Paramount’s film in 1945, Rosamond Marshall’s story underwent a major overhaul at the hands of writers Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware and director Mitchell Leisen. For starters, a prostitute as a heroine, let alone a 14-year-old one, was out of the question. So Kitty was advanced to somewhere beyond the age of consent — and relieved of the need to have anything to consent to.

More important, Tunberg and Ware (with perhaps the input of director Leisen) realized what Rosamond Marshall evidently did not: that next to Kitty herself, by far the book’s most interesting characters are the cad Sir Hugh and the drunkard Lady Susan. In the novel, Lady Susan is dead halfway through and Sir Hugh disappears with far too many pages left to read. In the screenplay, both are kept around, to far better effect.

Ware and Tunberg’s other solution to Kitty’s story problems — and its conflicts with the Production Code — was inspired: They expanded the scenes of Sir Hugh and Lady Susan schooling Kitty in ladylike deportment, thus changing Kitty’s plot from the rise of an adolescent hooker to an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with Kitty (Paulette Goddard) as Eliza Doolittle, Sir Hugh Marcy (Ray Milland) as Henry Higgins, and Thomas Gainsborough (Cecil Kellaway) as Col. Pickering. Shaw’s Mrs. Higgins became Lady Susan, and the role was entrusted to that grand dowager of the British and Broadway stages, Constance Collier. (Shaw’s reaction to all this is unrecorded. He may have been amused – or he may never have even seen the picture. He almost certainly never read Marshall’s novel.)

Kitty is billed as “A Mitchell Leisen Production.” In the mid-’40s Leisen (pronounced “Leeson”) was Paramount’s arbiter of elegance, having begun his career designing sets and costumes for Cecil B. DeMille, the only Paramount director who outranked him in prestige. Leisen has taken a beating from auteurists in recent decades, mainly because Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges both claimed to have turned director out of dissatisfaction with Leisen’s treatment of their scripts. But an unbiased look at the pictures Leisen made of Sturges’s screenplays for Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (’40), or Wilder’s (and Charles Brackett’s) for Midnight (’39) and Hold Back the Dawn (’41), makes them sound like a couple of whining prima donnas. We should all be grateful that Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges moved into directing their own stuff, but they had no grounds whatever to complain about Mitch Leisen.

David Chierichetti’s 1995 book Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director does much to correct this injustice to Leisen, but its information on Kitty is sketchy and unreliable — when it’s not downright false. Chierichetti says it’s set in “Restoration Era England” when it takes place 125 years later. Leisen himself, interviewed, says: “I spent two years researching Gainsborough and the way he painted. We determined that the picture took place in 1659, and there’s nothing in the picture that was painted by him after that year.” Wrong again. Gainsborough wasn’t even born until 1727, and an opening title card explicitly sets the story in 1783. Clearly, Leisen (who died in 1972) had not seen the picture recently when he discussed it with Chierichetti, nor had Chierichetti when he wrote about it. And Leisen never spent two years in research. Kitty was ready for release by the end of 1944 but was held up a full year by Paramount’s backlog of product; two years of research would have had Leisen beginning in 1942, a year before the novel was published.

But there is one point on which Chierichetti is absolutely right: Kitty “was precisely the kind of picture Leisen could do better than anybody else, and its mixture of mannered comedy and gutsy drama suited him perfectly.” The picture is a sumptuous feast, evoking 18th century London as sharply as an engraving by William Hogarth. It’s a pity the picture couldn’t have been made in Technicolor — thus evoking Gainsborough rather than Hogarth — but Paramount was notoriously cheap on that score. Even as it stands, Kitty richly deserved its Oscar nomination for art direction — for Hans Dreier and Walter Tyler; the production design was by Raoul Pene Du Bois. (Kitty lost to Fox’s Anna and the King of Siam.)

Over and above its gorgeous look and elegent style, Kitty gave Paulette Goddard the opportunity of a lifetime, and she came through with the performance of her career. Always a conscientious actress rather than an inspired one, Goddard worked hard on her Cockney accent, coached by Phyllis Loughton and Connie Emerald (mother of Ida Lupino), and, as the new-and-improved Kitty, by Constance Collier, who tutored Goddard/Kitty as much off screen as Lady Susan did on. There’s not a false note in Goddard’s performance, nor in any of the rest of the cast, which was surely one of the largest and best either she or Leisen ever worked with: Milland (against-all-odds charming as Sir Hugh, a more detestable rotter than Henry Higgins ever was), Collier, Kellaway, Patric Knowles (as Kitty’s version of Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Dennis Hoey (as Kitty’s first husband), Reginald Owen (as her second), and the ever-popular Eric Blore as Sir Hugh and Lady Susan’s querulous manservant Dobson. (Blore has one of the best lines in the picture – but I won’t spoil it.)

After lunch we got the last three chapters of The Masked Marvel, and we finally learned who the Masked Marvel really was (as if it mattered; I never could keep the candidates straight — I can’t even remember which one wound up dying in that L.A. beanfield).

Then came The King of Wild Horses (1924), which showcased one of those stars that almost every film buff has heard of, but (I’ll bet) very few have ever seen: Rex the Wonder Horse. Discovered God knows where by producer Hal Roach, he had a pretty good career for a while — for a horse, anyhow, especially a horse who wasn’t partnered with some human cowboy star. This particular picture, Rex’s debut, had him as the alpha male in a herd of wild horses, sought by a cowboy (Léon Bary) who wants to catch and tame him, while the cowpoke’s rancher boss (Sidney De Gray) tries to learn who keeps rustling his stock. The two plotlines eventually converge, naturally, and work themselves out pretty well. Rex was the main attraction, and there’s no denying he had star quality, clearly intelligent and seemingly game for almost anything; it’s easy to understand how he came to rival, in his day, the popularity of Rin Tin Tin. Another point of interest was the presence in the cast of Charley Chase in a straight dramatic role (and, to avoid misleading audiences, billed as Charles Parrott, his real name).

Beauty for Sale (1933) was an energetic pre-Code from MGM and director Richard Boleslawski, from a novel by paleo-romance novelist Faith Baldwin. Madge Evans played a working girl at an upscale beauty salon catering to wealthy women with nothing better to do than sit around yakking at each other with mud on their faces. Various sexual shenanigans ensue: Evans wanders into an affair with the husband (Otto Kruger) of one of her more empty-headed clients (Alice Brady); her co-worker and best friend (Una Merkel) drains a sugar daddy (Charley Grapewin) for every dime she can get; another co-worker (Florine McKenney) carries on a forbidden-fruit romance with the pampered son (Phillips Holmes) of the salon’s owner (Hedda Hopper) and winds up pregnant.

Beauty for Sale was nicely done, and the print was handsome, but it was overshadowed by the picture that followed it, which in its turn closed out the weekend with one last highlight. This was Dreamboat (1952), a marvelous spoof of Hollywood, television, and academia that probably represents the pinnacle of writer/director Claude Binyon’s career.

No doubt that name sounds vaguely familiar. Binyon (1905-78) was a journeyman writer whose career, if it never quite scaled the heights of a Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder, was still nothing to sneeze at. Starting out as a journalist, he worked at Variety for several years in the late ’20s and early ’30s, where some say he was responsible for the famous headlines WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG and STIX NIX HICK PIX. True credit on those is understandably disputed; whatever the case, by 1932 he had transitioned from writing about movies to writing for them. Over the years his scripts included Sing, You Sinners (1938); Holiday Inn (’42); This Is the Army (’43); Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (’58); North to Alaska (’60) — and, it must be said, Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (’52) and the 1960 all-star roadshow megabomb Pepe

Binyon occasionally directed his own scripts, and with Dreamboat he was at the top of both games. Clifton Webb played Thornton Sayre, a stuffy, acerbic college professor whose students call him “Old Ironheart” behind his back. The advent of television has uncovered a secret long buried in his past: He used to be a silent-screen heartthrob known as Bruce Blair (imagine a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert), and now those obsolete relics of a bygone day are turning up on TV, hosted by his former co-star Gloria Marlowe (Ginger Rogers). The movies have created a sensation, upsetting the stuffy trustees of his college, so he strikes out for New York to get an injunction to stop this invasion of his privacy, taking along his daughter Carol (Anne Francis), who is well on her way to becoming the same kind of stick-in-the-mud killjoy that he is. While Gloria and her TV producer (Fred Clark) try to charm Prof. Sayre out of his dudgeon, Carol is squired around town by the producer’s assistant (Jeffrey Hunter). In the process, father learns that reversing the wheels of showbiz is easier said than done, while daughter learns there’s more to having a good time than working on a thesis to “challenge the existence of Homer as an individual.” Dreamboat was a witty delight every inch of the way, poking fun at show business and academia with both barrels and scoring a bullseye every time. It was also a testament to 20th Century Fox’s ongoing ingenuity in finding vehicles to showcase the unorthodox but inimitable talents of Clifton Webb. Those of use who stayed through to the end of the weekend were well-rewarded for our loyalty.

Now I’d like to say a few words about Anne Francis. As Dreamboat romps across the screen, her Carol Sayre transforms from a buzzkill bookworm who looks about five days past puberty into something like the Anne Francis we all remember. She had a long and worthy career, with 169 credits between 1947 and 2004; she was always a welcome presence, and I’d venture to guess everyone who ever saw her in a movie or on TV remembered her fondly. Yet she never quite became a real star; I doubt if she ever got her name above a title, and she got top billing only in her one-season TV series Honey West. I wonder why?

There’s a line in John Fowles’s novel The Magus that has always stayed with me. The title character, Maurice Conchis, a mysterious middle-aged semi-recluse living on the (fictitious) Greek island of Phraxos, is speaking to the narrator, burnt-out teacher Nicholas Urfe, about Lily, the young woman who lives with Conchis. “Lily is beautiful, is she not? In fact, she is dangerously close to being perfect, and perfectly beautiful women are always boring.” (In the disastrous 1968 movie, Lily was played by Candice Bergen. ‘Nuff said.)

Maybe that’s what held Anne Francis back. Not that she was ever boring — far from it — but she was awfully close to being perfectly beautiful. All of the screen’s greatest beauties, it seems, had some flaw: their eyes were too large, or too small, or too far apart, or they had only one good side, or they were nothing without a camera. Anne Francis had nothing like that. There was that little mole near the right corner of her mouth, but does that really count as a flaw? Personally, I think it only put her that much closer to perfection. No wonder her role in Funny Girl (1968) was slashed to practically nothing; Barbra Streisand didn’t need that kind of competition. And no wonder one of her best (and best remembered) performances was on The Twilight Zone, as a department store mannequin allowed to come to life for a month and walk among the mortals.

Well, that’s one of the things I like about Cinevent. Along with the reunions with longtime and like-minded friends, the dealers’ room, the screenings, there are reflections like that that spring to mind. And you never know what’s going to bring one on. On to Memorial Day 2019!

Cinevent 50 – Day 3 (Part 2)

Apologies for the delay, Cinedrome readers. I’ve been on vacation, but now I’m back and ready to resume my recap of this year’s Cinevent.

After The War of the Worlds on Saturday afternoon, Leonard Maltin introduced The Meanest Man in the World (1943) with Jack Benny. Sharing above-the-title billing with him was the ever-fetching Priscilla Lane, but as anyone who remembers Benny’s radio or TV shows will know, his real co-star was Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (here billed only by his nom de radio).

Benny played Richard Clarke, a tender-hearted small-town lawyer who moves to New York, leaving sweetheart Janie (Lane) back home while he makes his fortune — which his manservant Shufro (Anderson) persuades him he’ll never do until he stops being such a darn nice guy. So he decides to become a first-class heel — but, as this poster suggests, that only puts him in danger of losing his girlfriend.

The two men may have sported different names in the movie, but it was business as usual for Jack Benny and Rochester, with Rochester/Shufro getting most of the funny lines and staying always one step ahead of his boss. Directed by Sidney Lanfield (who always knew how to stay out of the way), the movie clocked in at only 57 minutes, which made it play more or less like an hour-long episode of The Jack Benny Program, and a pretty funny one at that. An unexpected surprise was Anne Revere as Benny’s secretary. I’ve been more accustomed to see her in dead-serious roles as somebody’s dogged no-nonsense mother (Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement, Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun), but here she was a wisecracking office assistant (she reminded me of Ann B. Davis’s Schultzy on the old Bob Cummings Show), and she was hilarious. I never knew she had it in her.

Just before the dinner break came the third and final tribute to one of Cinevent’s founders. This time it was for John Baker, and the program consisted of 15 jazz soundies of the type Mr. Baker once so diligently collected. “Soundies”, for those who don’t know, were two-to-three minute filmed musical performances — forerunners, if you will, of music videos — that were shot on 16mm and played in specially designed jukeboxes. Their heyday wasn’t long, but there were many of them made while the fad lasted. Mr. Baker himself accumulated thousands of them, eventually selling his collection to the University of Kansas and the American Jazz Museum (thus funding his retirement to Florida). I don’t know whether any of the soundies shown at Cinevent were actually from his former collection, but they were the sort of things he would certainly have had, and the artists ranged from the near-forgotten (Apos & Estrellita, Dewey Brown, The Delta Rhythm Boys) to the full-out-legendary (Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, Nat “King” Cole, Fats Waller, Count Basie).

After dinner it was The Sea Spoilers (1936), one of the B-pictures John Wayne made at Universal in an effort to break out of the horse-opera ghetto he was mired in at Republic and for fly-by-night producer Paul Malvern. Two years ago Cinevent presented probably the best of these, California Straight Ahead, but all of them were pretty good. Sea Spoilers had the Duke as a U.S. Coast Guard officer on the trail of seal poachers led by Russell Hicks, with his sweetheart Nan Gray caught in the crossfire.

Then came Richard Talmadge in the silent The Speed King (1923), a variation on The Prisoner of Zenda that had him as an American motorcycle racer dragooned into impersonating a lookalike king in one of those tiny kingdoms where stories like this always take place. Talmadge (no relation to sisters Norma, Constance and Natalie — in fact, his given name was Sylvester Metz) was an appealing sort who had a brief run as an actor but a long one as stuntman, stunt coordinator, second unit director and other miscellaneous crew functions. Henry Hathaway employed him often, from The Trail of the Lonesome Pine to How the West Was Won; he can be seen (if you know where to look) doubling for Lionel Barrymore in his more strenuous scenes in Hathaway’s masterpiece Down to the Sea in Ships. (And say, Cinevent folks, how about showing that one one of these years?)

Next was, for many of those in attendance, the highlight of the whole weekend: 1946’s Three Little Girls in Blue. (Personally, I’d put it neck-and-neck with The War of the Worlds, but that could just be me.) As I’ve mentioned before, this was 20th Century Fox’s second remake of their own Three Blind Mice from 1938 (the first remake, in 1941, was the Betty Grable vehicle Moon Over Miami), about three sisters living high on a modest inheritance, hoping to land rich husbands before the money runs out. It’s a movie of immense charm and constant pleasures that deserves to be better known.

The print shown this year was the same one Cinevent screened in 1998; genuine IB Technicolor — as such, guaranteed never to fade — and in the same impeccable physical condition as 20 years ago, with hardly a splice, line, or scratch from first frame to last.

This is important to note because the DVD available from the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives collection is distinctly inferior. Fox turned out the best specimens of Technicolor in the 1940s, but you wouldn’t always know it from the quality of their DVD releases. They’ve been very uneven, and Three Little Girls, alas, is way at the low end of the scale. I mentioned a while back that this is probably the best Fox musical that didn’t involve Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Shirley Temple or Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it’s probably no coincidence that those names are on the best examples of Fox Tech on DVD (Moon Over Miami; Hello, Frisco, Hello; The Little Princess; State Fair). It’s a shame Three Little Girls in Blue didn’t get similar care, because the color really is lovely — and, in Vera-Ellen’s fantasy dance to “You Make Me Feel So Young”, pretty striking. And Celeste Holm’s red dress as she sings “Always a Lady” is enough to knock your eyes out. If you were lucky enough to see it this year (or 20 years ago) at Cinevent. Kudos and thanks to the unidentified source of that print. (And by the way, the lobby card reproduced here is a classic example of false advertising. You’d never guess, would you, that the picture takes place in 1902?)

Finally, it pains me to say this, but I had to miss the last screening of Day 3, 1935’s Murder by Television with Bela Lugosi and June Collyer. The spirit was willing, but the start time was 12:20 a.m. Sunday morning, and I had to call it a day. I’ll just have to catch up with that intriguing curiosity some other day.

*                         *                         *

Now I want to double back to that afternoon conversation between Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin. I wasn’t able to record the whole hour’s talk (I trust somebody did), but I did catch a few interesting remarks from these articulate gentlemen. First, moderator Caroline Breder-Watts asked Leonard what first got him hooked on movies; “What was it that caused that spark for you, for film?”

L.M.: I think it was the fact that when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, television was a living museum of movies. And being a Baby Boomer, I became a TV addict, and at that time — I’m not telling you guys anything you don’t know; if there were younger people here I’d have to explain it a little more fully — but I watched Laurel and Hardy every day, every day of my life growing up. The Little Rascals, every day. Walt Disney every week. At one golden period, The Mickey Mouse Club every afternoon. All of these things left a deep, deep impression on me, and they’re still the things I care about most today. So I think it all began there.

C.B.-W.: Were those experiences you shared with your parents, with your family, or was that something that was more solitary for you?

L.M.: You know, I honestly don’t remember. We only had one TV I think at that time. Imagine the deprivation! So I guess we must have watched a lot of it. But a lot of it was early morning, late afternoon after school, you know, Saturday morning, all of that. So those were “kid time”.

C.B.-W.: I think there is something to be mourned in that we don’t have that communal experience at home anymore with all our devices and all our tablets and all of our things. I was in the same situation when I was a kid, I watched kind of what my parents watched — but that was a good thing, ’cause they watched really good things. And they watched old movies, and that’s where I got my spark from. And that’s not an experience we all have any more. There’s channels for children, there’s all kind of different distractions, that sort of thing.

L.M.: There’s fragmentation, and narrow-casting, too. When I was growing up you didn’t have to go to Turner Classic Movies, the sole channel on the dial — “dial”! — you didn’t have to go someplace to see old movies. You just had to switch the channel, because this channel would be showing a W.C. Fields movie, and this one might be showing a Bogart movie, and this one might be showing Charlie Chan, or something like that. They were everywhere. They were unavoidable, I guess is what I’m saying, it was unavoidable to see old movies at that time.

C.B.-W.: Scott, I know this convention, this festival in particular had a big part of your upbringing, didn’t it?

S.E.: Yeah, unlike Leonard — let’s see, you grew up in Teaneck [New Jersey], so you had WOR, and you had the Million Dollar Movie, and you had all these New York stations that were churning films all the time. I grew up in Cleveland — please, no hatred [laughter] — and the only thing we had was the Paramount package from the 1930s. So I saw W.C. Fields and a few other things, but there wasn’t a lot there. I didn’t get that immersion that you did. What did it for me was two movies, actually. Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy in 1962 or ’63; I think it was ’63 when I saw it, so I would have been 11. I’d seen some, like, “funny man” TV series and clips, Flicker Flashback, things like that on television, and this silent thing interested me. So I conned my grandmother into taking me to see Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, which was in a theater which was in what is euphemistically referred to in that area as a “changing neighborhood”. She wouldn’t go in, because God only knows what would happen if she went in and had to sit in a dark theater in a changing neighborhood. So she dropped me off, and she stayed in the car for two hours while I was inside the theater, so in case I came out I wouldn’t be attacked and murdered in the 20 feet between the doors and the car. I went and saw Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, and that intrigued me sociologically. That’s not a word I would have applied at the age of 11 or 12, but you know, the clothes, the cars, the buildings, it was so different than what I saw around me. Also, of course, the gags, the structure, how he worked comedically, as opposed to the people I was seeing on television like Jack Benny. It was a different vibe, it was visual as opposed to verbal.

And then the second one that got me — you’ll laugh — was The Sons of Katie Elder about a year later, about ’64, which I went in to see, it was on a double bill with The Family Jewels at the Center Mayfield Theatre. Do you guys remember the theater where you saw movies? I can remember exactly which theater I saw every movie I’ve ever seen at.

L.M.: Me too, and I wonder if today’s generation can possibly have that same feeling about having seen a movie in Multiplex 4.

S.E.: No, no. But I went in to see Sons of Katie Elder and it was crowded so I had to sit way down in front, like four or five rows from the front row. I usually sat in the middle, but here I was stuck in the front of the theater looking up like this, and I suddenly noticed the grain in the film. And the grain was alive, and the film was alive. On one hand I was watching the story and the acting — it’s a good movie — but I was also watching the film itself as it sped through the projector. And I had this interesting sensation of watching a living organism unfold; it was like microphotography in a National Geographic special. So it was a two-part thing. The Harold Lloyd thing gave me a sense of film as a window into the past, and at this point I wanted to be an archaeologist, and The Sons of Katie Elder gave me a sense of film as a living organism that is constructed, and architected, and planned. Those two things combined in this pincer movement for me.

*          *          *

[Later, Ms. Breder-Watts asked how the love of watching movies led them to transition into writing about them]:

L.M.: Actually, I started writing letters, that’s where it began. I wrote fan letters; I was big on that. I got some wonderful, wonderful answers. My first ambition had been to be a cartoonist, and I wrote to some of my heroes. I wanted to be a cartoonist and I sent some of my samples to Charles Schulz, who wrote back the kindest, most encouraging letter, very supportive. A personal letter, not a form letter, just a wonderful gesture on his part. And he included in the package an original signed daily Peanuts strip. Unsolicited. P.S., 30 years later I got hired by United Media, his syndicator, to interview him in his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif., for a video that was going to accompany a traveling museum tour. So as they’re getting the cameras set I told him that story. He jumped out of his seat, he says, “We gotta get you something newer!” He went over to one of his work tables and sifted through his Sunday pages, found a more recent original Sunday India ink page, and signed it this time for Alice [Mrs. Maltin] and me, and signed it “Sparky”, which was his nickname with his friends. So sometimes luck and timing and coincidence play a role in all of this.

C.B.-W.: And it’s probably a really good letter, right?

L.M.: I guess I wrote pretty good letters. I’ve seen a few and they embarrass me now. Like the time I wrote to [film historian] William K. Everson, having just recently met him, telling him I thought Metropolis was boring. I’m not reprinting that anywhere.

*          *          *

[Scott spoke about the principles that motivated him when he embarked on his own writing career…]:

S.E.: I knew what I didn’t want to do more than I did what I wanted to do. I wanted to start writing and interviewing people; I think Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By was a huge influence on me — a whole generation of historians, actually — and I knew what I didn’t want to do, because I was starting to read seriously, read books about writers, read books about artists, and all these other things. And then I’d read books about movie people and they were on such a superficial, trashy level. And I didn’t see any reason why a book about a movie director or an actor should be written on such a mediocre level when you wouldn’t think of writing a book about an author like that. So I was kind of coming around to the idea of writing serious books about people that usually weren’t treated seriously. The first person I interviewed outside of Cleveland — I mean, Andy McLaglen came through to push a movie, or Earl Holliman would come through to push a movie, so I would talk to them — but the first person I interviewed in Los Angeles was John Wayne, and it’s been downhill ever since. I mean, if that’s your first out of the box when you’re 21 years old, why should you be worried about talking to anybody else on the face of the earth, including the Pope?

[…and about approaching future projects as he ages]:

Who knows? At some point you pitch face-forward. Now, of course David McCullough’s 85 years old and he’s still working. That’s great, he’s lucky, he’s got good genes. But you’re not guaranteed that. When I was 35 or even 40, somebody would suggest something, I’d say, “That sounds like fun, I’ve never read that book. Sure, I’ll do it.” Now, I circle and circle and circle, is this worth those years of my life I have remaining, three or four years that I have remaining? Is this guy, is this woman worth the time? It’s an entirely different transaction now than it was.

L.M.: As a reader, I’m going to interject to say “Yes.” Because Scott’s book on John Wayne is the best book on John Wayne, just as his book on Cecil B. DeMille is the definitive book on Cecil B. DeMille. I’m compulsive, but I’ve been tempted to actually discard some of my other books because they’re taking up shelf space.

C.B.-W.: That’s a great compliment.

L.M.: Well, I mean it to be a great compliment, but it’s also the truth. I’m too anal, I can’t get rid of the other books, but if I could tame my instincts I would just say, “These are useless now ’cause Scott’s done the ultimate job.”

C.B.-W.: Scott, that’s funny that you mention David McCullough because I remember hearing an interview with him on NPR where he said the major reason he wrote the book on Harry Truman was because he had been writing a book, or planning to write a book, on Pablo Picasso, and he was such a dreadful human being he couldn’t imagine spending time writing about a dreadful human being. So he said, “I’m gonna write about somebody I like, somebody that’s a nice guy.” So that obviously figures into you as well.

L.M.: You know that old saying, “No man is a hero to his valet.” I’ve heard biographers say that, in a different context, that when they get to really know their subject well, they become disillusioned. I guess that’s just part of the game.

S.E.: Sometimes, sometimes not. People ask me, “What was the book you loved writing the most?” and I always tell them the Lubitsch book, my book on Lubitsch [Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise]. Because he was such a fully actualized person, what a shrink would call actualized. He was exactly the person he wanted to be, and he made exactly the films he wanted to make. Nobody got in his way, and nothing got in his way, until his heart broke down. But he was very — he loved being him. And the most difficult book, conversely, was John Ford [Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford]. Because it was like being locked in a telephone booth with twelve Eugene O’Neill characters, and they’re all mean, and they’re all snarling at each other, and they’re all stinking drunk. I had to keep watching the movies to remind myself why I was writing the book. You get over any kind of romantic ideal that talent cares who it happens to. Talent doesn’t care who it happens to. Some people are great stewards of their talent and other people spend it like they’re drunken sailors. Ford was not a particularly pleasant human being, but he was a stupendous artist, a stupendous American artist, and I had to keep watching the movies to remind myself why I was doing the book.

So this is a long, involved way to answer your question. No, I don’t have to love my subject. But I have to respect them as artists. That’s mandatory. That’s mandatory. Now there are people that will spend fifteen years writing a two-volume biography of Josef Goebbels. I am not one of those people. I might read those books, but I have zero interest in spending time with a human beast. There has to be something there to validate that human being in my eyes. It can be their life, it can be their work — hopefully it’s both, but it has to be something.

*          *          *

That’s as much as I was able to record of this productive and stimulating conversation. I wish there was more, but I think that will give you an idea of what a good time was had by all that afternoon. I also remember that in a Q&A with the audience in the second half of the session, someone asked if there were any highly-regarded films that the two men consider overrated, and that Leonard Maltin cited A Place in the Sun (1951) as one that he doesn’t think has aged well. Sorry, I don’t recall which movie(s) Scott Eyman may have mentioned. If anyone reading this happens to have been there in the Cinevent screening room that day, I welcome your memories and reflections in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll move on to the fourth and last day of the weekend.

To be concluded…

Cinevent 50 — Day 3 (Part 1)

Saturday morning is always cartoon time at Cinevent. This year, in deference to the presence of Leonard Maltin, animation curator Stewart McKissick selected the program based on comments in Maltin’s seminal book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. As Maltin himself said in the program notes, there were “no maverick opinions here”, and indeed, it was a morning of tried-and-true excellence (most of this year’s roster is not available on YouTube, so you’ll have to take my word for it). The morning included (among others) Max Fleischer’s Dizzy Dishes (1930), a cartoon cabaret that included the first appearance of Betty Boop when she was a leggy, voluptuous sexpot from the neck down and a sort-of puppy dog from the neck up; Porky Pig’s Feat, a 1943 black-and-white Looney Tune directed by Frank Tashlin, with Porky and Daffy locked in their hotel room until they can pay the bill; Tortoise Wins by a Hare (also 1943), with Bugs Bunny as Aesop’s perennial loser; and Hockey Homicide (1945), one of Walt Disney’s funniest “sports Goofy” shorts. The whole array culminated with two MGM shorts from Tex Avery in his prime: King Size Canary (1947), with a bird, a cat and a mouse constantly one-upping each other by guzzling “Jumbo-Gro” plant food and morphing into monstrous versions of themselves; and Little Rural Riding Hood (’49), another of Avery’s panting, libidinous variations on the famous fairy tale — not quite as woo-hoo!! sexy as Red Hot Riding Hood (’43), maybe, but just as funny.

After the cartoons — and Chapters 7 to 9 of The Masked Marvel — the first feature of the day was The Eyes of Julia Deep (1918), one of the few surviving films of Mary Miles Minter. Over 80 percent of the 54 pictures she made between 1912 and 1923 are considered lost — which, in a way, is emblematic of the cloud this woman lived under for pretty much her whole life. I dealt with poor Mary in some detail in this post; click over to it if you want the sad particulars. For now, suffice it to say that she never really wanted to be an actress, and she appears to have had precious few happy days during her long life (she died at 82 in 1984).

Like the photo reproduced here, The Eyes of Julia Deep gives us an inkling of why, for a while, Mary Miles Minter was considered a credible heiress apparent to Mary Pickford. She plays Julia Deep, a customer service clerk in a department store whose cheerful ways make friends for her wherever she goes. Living in the same boarding house with her is young Terry Hartridge (Allan Forrest), whose reckless lifestyle is fast burning through the fortune he inherited from his wealthy father. The two are not acquainted except by sight as they pass in the hall, but while he’s out frittering away his money on gambling and gold-digging women, Julia, with the landlady’s approval, finds escape from her humdrum shopgirl’s world among the books in his huge library. One night she falls asleep over a book and is still there when Terry comes home. He’s broke, depressed and suicidal; Julia, who’s been cowering in the shadows hoping to be able to sneak out unobserved, sees the pistol in his hand and impulsively pleads with him not to go through with it. From that, a friendship develops, with Julia taking charge of Terry’s finances and helping him straighten out his life. And friendship ripens into romance — until Terry’s irresponsible past comes back to bite them both in the heart. The Eyes of Julia Deep seesaws almost recklessly between comedy and drama, but director Lloyd Ingraham finesses the changing tone rather nicely. And there’s no getting around the fact that Mary Miles Minter really had something. She was never a serious rival to Mary Pickford — and wouldn’t have been, even without the bad luck, scandal and psychological stresses that plagued her. But she definitely had something.


After the lunch break came a conversation in the screening room between Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin. This picture shows (from left) moderator Caroline Breder-Watts, Scott, and Leonard. At the prompting of Ms. Breder-Watts, they spoke about what drew them to movies in the first place, and how they got into writing about them. I took scattered video of the session, and I’ll be posting separately on what they had to say. For now I’ll just say that it was a lively and diverting hour; Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin, individually, are each excellent and stimulating company; together, they’re pretty tough to beat.


From there it was back to the movies, and the next one we saw would have been a highlight of the weekend for me, even if the presentation had been less spectacular than it was. The picture was George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953), and before I get into why it was such a particular highlight for me, let me say that the print we saw that afternoon was absolutely flawless — unblemished from first frame to last, with brilliant color that did full justice to George Barnes’s rich Technicolor photography (Barnes, an Oscar winner for 1940’s Rebecca, unfortunately did not live to see this last and best example of his art; he died in May 1953, three months before it was released).

And now my personal War of the Worlds story. It’s a story I recounted in the Cinevent 50th Anniversary commemorative book because it relates to my first visit to Cinevent in 1998.

The War of the Worlds, as it happens, is the subject of one of my earliest and most vivid memories of moviegoing. In December 1953, when I was five, my 23-year-old Uncle Conrad took me and two cousins to see the picture at the Enean Theatre in Pittsburg, Calif. I believe I sat through the first 15 minutes in relative aplomb, but when the lid popped off the top of the mysterious meteor and that weird metallic cobra head emerged, emitting a strange pulsing rattling noise, I felt the first stirrings of unease. And when Paul Birch, Jack Kruschen and Bill Phipps approached waving their sugar-sack white flag, only to be blasted to kingdom come, I became truly alarmed. Still, I held it together manfully (if I can use that word for my five-year-old self) through the first attack by the Martians, even when their sweeping heat ray hit the audience right between the eyes and thousands of soldiers, tanks and artillery were vaporized right before my eyes. To be sure, just as unease had given way to alarm, alarm now gave way to terror, but I was hanging on. Just barely.

And then I absolutely fell apart. It happened as Gene Barry and Ann Robinson were trying to dig their way out of that abandoned farmhouse with a Martian machine hovering outside. First, the sight of that alien periscope slithering down through the broken roof had me pretty close to panic. And when that Martian hand with its three suction-cupped fingers reached out and grabbed Ann Robinson by the shoulder, I lost it completely. I screamed, cried, few into hysterics, wailed at the top of my tiny lungs that I didn’t want to see it anymore. Uncle Conrad was torn, unsure how to handle this sudden outburst. Finally — and I honestly can’t say I blame him — his desire not to miss any of the movie won out, and he threw his windbreaker over my head, where I cowered for the rest of the movie. I sat there helplessly listening to Gene Garvin and Harry Lindgren’s groundbreaking sound effects, whimpering that I didn’t want to hear it either; whether Conrad and my cousins didn’t hear me, or whether they just ignored me, I never knew. Only at the end, as the Martian machines began crashing, did they coax me out from under Conrad’s jacket (“It’s okay, Jimmy, they’re dead now!”), so I did see that same Martian arm creep out on the open hatch and turn green in death.

In the short term, Conrad caught holy hell from the rest of the family for subjecting me to this shattering trauma. But I eventually recovered (to be honest, it took a couple of years), and once I got a firm grasp of the it’s-only-a-movie concept, I couldn’t wait to see it again. It became a staple of Saturday kiddie matinees in my childhood, and I probably saw it three or four more times by the time I was twelve.

Fade out, fade in. It’s 1998, 45 years have passed, and I’m attending Cinevent in Columbus for the first time. In the downstairs lobby, just outside the dealers’ room, I saw none other than Ann Robinson herself, standing at a card table piled high with two stacks of photos — one of a black-and-white glamour shot of her from her days as a Paramount contract player, the other a production still of the Martian periscope looking over her shoulder, just before she turns around and sees it. I found Conrad in the dealers’ room, brought him out, and we introduced ourselves. Conrad took a picture of Ms. Robinson and me (it’s around here somewhere, but damned if I can find it). I told her the story of seeing The War of the Worlds in 1953 — and here’s the thing: She didn’t bat an eye. That’s when it finally dawned on me that I probably wasn’t the only five-year-old boy in 1953 who sat through that movie with his uncle’s coat over his head.


I may have lost track of the photo Conrad took of us, but I still have the shot of Ms. Robinson with the Martian periscope; it has an honored place in my collection. The inscription, in case you can’t quite make it out, reads: “Jim, ♥♥ Is that you? Ann Robinson”.

And on that note of personal reminiscence, I’ll close this review of the first part of Day 3. There was more to come.



To be continued…