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Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's Blog
• Location: Athens, Georgia
Synchronicity at the stroke of Midnight
Sometimes it's a little eerie how the same thing will keep popping up in my life, even if it's something incredibly obscure, outdated, what have you. It's like my concentrating on it brings it to the attention of the universe.
Recently I've had an old movie called Midnight on my mind. A generous friend was kind enough to burn it to DVD for me--it hasn't had an official release, more's the pity--and I've been designing a cover for it, going through many drafts. It's one of the 1939 gems, a terrific comedy starring Claudette Colbert.
So then I get the new J. Peterman catalog in the mail, and on page 41 I read this: "Remember the one where Claudette Colbert arrives in Paris without a cent, no luggage, nothing but the classic dress on her back, and by next morning she's in a suite at the Ritz with John Barrymore, Don Ameche, and Francis Lederer all after her?"
Holy cats. It's Midnight.
With any luck, its suddenly bobbing up like this in several different minds will make it bob up in the minds of those who could release it on DVD...
Serenity Wow (with apologies to Judge David Gutierrez)
I'm still on a high from seeing Serenity on opening night. The total experience was one of the happiest theatergoing experiences I've had in a long time, with a big, enthusiastic, receptive audience--even applause at the end, and I can't even remember the last time that happened. And I enjoyed the movie tremendously. I did think that character relationships and histories got short shrift--inevitably, I think, given the size of the ensemble--and that may well make it less fun for people unfamiliar with Firefly. But I had a great time. Definitely plan on seeing it again.
Cultural illiteracy rears its ugly head...
I feel like the Professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: "What are they teaching them in these schools?" Today after work I invested some precious gasoline in the drive out to Best Buy to purchase one of the newly released Garbo films. (Happily, I'll be reviewing one of them, but there's another that I wanted to add to my collection.)
The store had been rearranged, so as I wandered about trying to orient myself, an employee, a mere twentysomething, asked if he could help me find a particular title. I told him I was looking for the Garbo DVDs that had been released yesterday, and after checking his clipboard he said he could find out if they had them. "What was the name again?" he asked.
"Garbo," I said, with what I thought was creditable calm. After all, maybe he just hadn't heard me the first time.
"Hmm, is that a director?" he asked.
I did not goggle at him or drop my jaw. I was quite calm--with shock, I suppose. "Greta Garbo, the actress," I said gently.
Comprehension failed to dawn on his face. Instead he steered me to some coworkers. "They're the movie experts," said my guide, apologetically.
Maybe I should have said, "I vant to be alone." But I just told him that everyone should see at least one Garbo film before they die. I'd like to be a fly on the wall when he goes to Vision Video and asks if they have any films by... let's see... was it Garlow? Harbo? Garneau?
Fantasy Box Set #8: Ginger Rogers solo
The release of the new Astaire and Rogers boxed set is long overdue, and Iím happy for the many, many moviegoers who have been eagerly awaiting it. But my favorite Ginger Rogers movies are not, in fact, the musicals she did with Astaire; they arenít even musicals. Rogers was far more than a musical star, as the diversity of her resume shows, and she made many terrific movies that deserve to be more widely known -- and available on DVD. She was particularly expert at the wisecracking, wised-up heroine, the hard-working girl who personified Depression-era resilience and pluck. Itís unfortunate that as she aged she tended to lose that down-to-earth naturalness, which is what made her so appealing; she becomes affected in films like the bizarre wartime comedy Once Upon a Honeymoon with Cary Grant and the historical misfire Magnificent Doll. But she also won an Oscar for her fine performance in the romantic drama Kitty Foyle, and at her best sheís an irresistible and irreplaceable screen presence.
A few of Rogersís nonmusical roles are already represented on DVD, including the enjoyable Roxie Hart and one of her finest nonmusical performances, in Stage Door (opposite Katharine Hepburn). Thereís also a public-domain edition of Heartbeat, a pleasant trifle in which she plays a waif who becomes a pickpocket under the sinister tutelage of Basil Rathbone but falls in love with a suave diplomat. Sheís too old for the role, and plays youth a little broadly, but itís still a sweet romance with some fun moments. But there are so many good Rogers films that deserve DVD release that itís the work of only moments to think of enough to fill a hefty boxed set. I hope devoutly that we'll see these titles come to DVD.
1. The Major and the Minor, 1942. This comedy gem was scripted by the wonderful duo of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, so you know itís going to be good. Ginger decides sheís fed up with New York and is going to retreat back to her home in Iowa. Trouble is, she can only afford a half-fare train ticket--which means that she has to masquerade as a 12-year-old. Short-sighted military man Ray Milland takes her under his wing, and in order to protect his reputation she is forced to keep up her masquerade--even when it means getting hit on by all the adolescent cadets at Millandís military academy. A terrific performance by Rogers makes this work. For some reason, critics tend to treat it as if itís a tasteless, inappropriate flick about a dirty old man, but itís actually very innocent; the paternal attitude of Millandís character keeps it from ever being tasteless. Donít miss this one--and donít settle for the remake with Jerry Lewis, Youíre Never Too Young.
2. Bachelor Mother, 1939. Another great film from Hollywoodís golden year, this is one of my favorite classic comedies. Ginger is a shop girl whoís mistaken for the mother of an abandoned child, and in order to keep her job she has to acknowledge the baby as her own. David Niven is the young man about town who takes an interest in the fallen woman, and his father (the wonderful Charles Coburn) begins to suspect that the child is his grandson. Misunderstandings abound, and Coburn has the immortal line: ďI donít care who the father is; Iím the grandfather!Ē Niven is terrific as a rom-com lead, and Gingerís gift for deadpan humor has never been put to better use. This one was remade with Debbie Reynolds as the musical Bundle of Joy.
3. Kitty Foyle, 1940. This ambitious soap opera, based on the Christopher Morley novel, attempted to realistically portray the life of the ďwhite-collar girl.Ē Ginger won the Best Actress Oscar as the titular Kitty, a spunky girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with Dennis Morgan, who belongs to the world of old money and prestige. Sometimes the movie is a bit self-important, but Gingerís compelling portrayal of Kittyís struggle to find love while keeping her self-respect keeps me hooked every time. One of my favorite parts is a comedic scene in which Kitty entertains a cheapskate suitor in the tiny apartment she shares with two other girls (who obligingly retreat to the bathroom to give the couple some privacy). I believe this film will make its DVD debut next year, and not a moment too soon.
4. Romance in Manhattan, 1934. This virtually unknown film is a real charmer. In this Capra-esque story (directed by Stephen Roberts), Ginger is a chorus girl whoís down on her luck and in danger of losing custody of her kid brother, the only family she has in the world. Nevertheless, she canít resist helping out a penniless immigrant (Francis Lederer) whoís on his own in the big city. How these two lost souls manage to make a go of it together makes an appealing and heartwarming romantic comedy. Fans of Capra ďlittle manĒ stories should definitely seek this out; you can sometimes still find the out-of-print VHS release if you look hard. I really canít understand why this title hasnít seen wider distribution.
5. Vivacious Lady, 1938. This early George Stevens romantic comedy is sometimes a little sluggish, but itís still fun--and seeing Ginger teamed with Jimmy Stewart is enjoyable in itself. Heís a young professor who impulsively marries Ginger, a nightclub singer, and then realizes he canít break the news to his parents, stern Charles Coburn and frail Beulah Bondi. With their marriage a secret, he and Ginger have to sneak around to try to find moments of privacy; itís the classic Delayed Fooliní-around movie device, and sometimes it wears on a bit too long. But be sure to stick around for the scene where Ginger teaches Beulah Bondi how to dance the ďBig Apple.Ē
6. Chance at Heaven, 1933. In one of her first leading dramatic roles, Ginger is the sensible fiancee of Joel McCrea, a small-town gas station attendant who dreams of better things. When a ditzy rich girl falls for him, Ginger sets him free so he can marry her and move up in the world. Despite the dismissive write-up in Leonard Maltinís movie guide, I find this to be an engaging romance, earnest and rewarding (and, at only 70 minutes long, it doesnít wear out its welcome). Rogers and McCrea teamed up again in 1940 for Primrose Path, in which Gingers had the challenging role of a tomboy whose coming of age is complicated by her love for pal McCrea and the expectations of her prostitute mother. These two little-known movies, as different as they are, would make a good double-feature disc.
Gone over to the dark side
I never thought this day would come, but Iíve become a regular viewer of a reality show: Rock Star: INXS. It goes against all I believe in to support a reality show, the bane of modern television, but in this case I had to make an exception. Iíve always liked INXS, and ever since I reviewed their DVD retrospective Iíve been a bigger fan than ever. Now, eight years after the suicide of lead singer Michael Hutchence, they are taking the reality show route to find a new lead singer.
Iím fine with their getting a new lead singer; eight years is time enough for mourning, and Iíd hate to see these talented guysí career trapped in amber; itís time for them to move forward. I wasnít so sure about the wisdom of going with a reality show, but the pool of contestants contains some real talent, even though most of the singers seem too young to be real people yet. Itís intriguing to hear the bandís reaction to the different performances, and Iíve already picked out my favorite contestants as well as the one that I devoutly hope will lose. Iím probably being manipulated by clever editing of the ďrealityĒ segments, but Iíve started to recognize the lure of reality shows. They really do give the illusion that we know these people, and we start to care about them--and, in at least one case, passionately dislike them.
Last nightís performance segment was odd; after last week, in which the band offered some incisive commentary on a number of performances, last night was a love fest. The members of INXS and Dave Navarro, whose presence I donít really understand, just adored everybodyís performance. Even the laughable act put on by that jackass J.D. I wonder if he was cast on the show just to provide an irritant; he grates on me terribly. Yet he seems popular, and last night, with a straight face, all the judges lavished praise on him. ďIíd have paid to see that performance,Ē gushed Dave, and poof went my faith in his judgment... not that I had a lot to begin with, after he told one contestant that she looked fabulous when she appeared in leather gauntlets and what looked like a chiffon nightgown.
Anyway, not that itís a matter of life and death (although the show keeps insisting that the contestants are ďsinging for their lives,Ē as if theyíre gladiators an inch away from hungry lions), but Iíve made my choice. Marty would be a great match with INXS. He has loads of magnetism. He also has character, something that most of the other contestants donít seem to have acquired yet (except for that guy who looks like a creepy hobo). He doesnít have any direct similarities to Hutchence, but something about Marty reminds me of him. Maybe itís sheer presence. He was absolutely mesmerizing last night. (J.D., watch and learn.)
So now Iím hopelessly fished in. I have to keep watching the show now to see if J.D. gets his comeuppance, if Marty gets the gig, and if my other favorites (Jordis and Ty, for those who are also watching) acquit themselves well. I have become a reality show watcher. But really, itís just this once.
I watched M. Night Shyamalanís Unbreakable again last night for the first time since...well, probably since its theatrical run...and just as I was then, I was captivated. Shyamalanís gift for evoking moving performances from his actors was probably never better than in that film, and watching Bruce Willis I once again concluded--as I did after seeing Sin City--that he has become the modern Bogart. Iíd never have dreamed it in his Hudson Hawk days (who would have?). But age has given his face the look of a man who has seen too much, who feels things deeply, who has been worn down but not worn out--yet. He has become a remarkably skilled actor. He shows how vulnerable he can be in Unbreakable, which adds an elegant layer of complexity to his role in the film.
But thereís so much more in Unbreakable. The detail with which itís crafted left me awed. I had the leisure to notice more of that crafting since I was seeing the film not for the first time, and the way Shyamalan uses mirror images and (sometimes warped) reflections to show the characters is a handsome way of reminding us that so much of the story is about identity--discovering who one is. Just as his placement of David, the Bruce Willis characters, in doorways evokes that sense of David being on the (figurative) threshold of a new life, a new future. But both those devices are also simply effective visual ways of framing the characters and giving structure to their presentation, like the panels in a comic book. The evocative musical score and the use of silence add immeasurably to the power of the unfolding story too.
And yet the story and the characters and the emotional experience arenít overwhelmed by technique. I got swept up in the story just as if I hadnít seen it before. Remembering how crushingly disappointed I was in The Village, Iím holding out hope that Shyamalanís next project will be as powerful as Unbreakable.
Fantasy Box Set #7: Charles Boyer
With his dark good looks, French accent, smooth manner, and chocolatey voice, Charles Boyer was a natural in romantic leading roles; his performances in such films as The Garden of Allah and Algiers (1938) cemented his status as a screen lover. But he had a flair for comedy, as can be seen in Love Affair (1939), one of his seminal roles, and Ernst Lubitschís Cluny Brown (1946). He could also play off his romantic image effectively, as he does in one of his finest performances: as the unscrupulous husband in Gaslight, which is fortunately available on DVD. His career started with French films like the beautiful romantic tragedy Mayerling (1936), which itself demands a DVD release, and extended through a sly supporting role in Barefoot in the Park and beyond. And even though he fought against his great-lover screen image, few actors could match him for romantic charisma. Even fewer can now.
There are many Boyer films that deserve to be rediscovered. Here are the five that I want most to see on DVD. (Some of them are repeats from previous fantasy box sets--but worth repeating.)
1. Tovarich, 1937. Boyer stars with compatriot Claudette Colbert (who had furthered his American movie career by urging him to learn English) in this delightful comedy about former Russian aristocrats who take jobs as butler and maid for a kooky American family. Itís kind of like My Man Godfrey, but with sinister Basil Rathbone sniffing around, looking to stir up trouble. Charming fun, and really shows off Boyerís comedic talent.
2. History Is Made at Night, 1937. An unusual mix of melodrama and romantic comedy--a mix that doesnít work for everyone, but Iím very fond of the end result. Boyer is a headwaiter, Jean Arthur (The More the Merrier) the unhappy ex-wife of pathologically jealous Colin Clive (Frankenstein), and the two embark on a troubled romance. The climactic sequence takes place on an ocean liner that is deliberately reminiscent of the Titanic. Bookended by atmospheric sequences, and very romantic.
3. All This, and Heaven Too, 1940. A glorious period tearjerker featuring Boyer in a sensitive performance as a French aristocrat saddled with a neurotic harpy of a wife (Barbara OíNeil, who won an Oscar for being so totally unbearable). He finds himself drawn to his childrenís gentle governess, Bette Davis, and many yearning glances ensue--plus murder! Davis and Boyer may seem like an unlikely couple, but their story is truly romantic and touching, and Davis is effectively understated. Itís a crime that this hasnít been released on DVD.
4. Hold Back the Dawn, 1941. I also put this title in my Olivia de Havilland fantasy set, but Boyerís performance in it is so good it would be wrong to leave it out of his own set. Boyer stars as a shady European who marries innocent schoolteacher de Havilland to get U.S. residency--and then ends up falling in love with her. Paulette Goddard is terrific as Boyerís smokiní hot old flame, who wants him for herself. I believe this to be one of the finest romantic dramas of the era, with moving performances and an intriguing glimpse into the lives of foreigners huddled together in a Mexican border town as they wait for admittance into the U.S. Boyer manages to parody his romantic screen image while taking it to new heights. Simply wonderful.
5. A Womanís Vengeance, 1948. The title gives too much away, but this is still a fine suspense film. Boyerís horrible wife dies soon after he falls in love with lovely young Ann Blyth, and heís sentenced to death for murder. Longtime friend Jessica Tandy knows something that can free him--but will she come forward in time to save his life? Boyer does a fine job in a departure from his more usual suave roles; here he engages our sympathy as a man who doesnít possess control of his own life. Itís also an interesting counterpart, plotwise, to All This, and Heaven Too.
Coming soon: Fantasy Boxed Set #8--Bette Davis Bitch Box! (Idea suggested by Judge George Hatch)
Fantasy Box Set #6: Claudette Colbert
One of the few things that rang false about the 1930s setting in Robert Altmanís Gosford Park was the moment when the character of the American film director was talking about Claudette Colbert to an associate over the phone. ďIs she British? Or is she just pretentious?Ē he inquired. That made it all too clear that this man (and the screenwriter who put the words in his mouth) had never seen a Claudette Colbert movie. Although she was actually French, few native-born American actresses of the period had such an unaffected, down-to-earth, jauntily American persona. In a Colbert comedy, you often get the sense that sheís in on the joke. With that rich little chuckle or an amused glance, she shows that sheís enjoying the shenanigans as much as we are. Yet in dramas, like Imitation of Life (1934), she could be sincerely and genuinely moving--without becoming maudlin or losing her lightness of touch. Pretentious? Thatís the very last word Iíd ever apply to Claudette Colbert.
In addition to It Happened One Night, perhaps her most famous film, there are some excellent Colbert titles presently available on DVD: the madcap Preston Sturges comedy The Palm Beach Story, which is simply one of the best comedies of the Ď40s, and the enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy The Egg and I (available as part of the Ma and Pa Kettle collection). Since You Went Away, a handsome wartime drama, is also available. Yet for a great comedienne and a capable dramatic actress, Colbert is still underrepresented. Here are the five Colbert titles Iíd most like to see released on DVD.
1. Torch Singer, 1934. This enjoyable drama predates the enforcement of the Hays Code, so itís unusually frank (and non-judgmental) in its plot about Colbert getting pregnant out of wedlock. Forced to give up the child, she eventually becomes a successful torch singer and a popular childrenís radio performer. Talk about diversifying. When she tries to find her child again, though, life has more hard knocks in store for her. Colbert handles this potentially sappy material with her usual finesse and grace, and she belts out the bluesy ďGive Me Liberty or Give Me LoveĒ with style.
2. Tovarich, 1937. Colbert teams up with real-life friend Charles Boyer in this effervescent comedy about married Russian aristocrats fallen on hard times after the revolution. They find happiness working as domestic servants for a wealthy American family, but when old enemy Basil Rathbone reappears, their pleasant arrangement may fall to pieces. Colbert and Boyer make a perfect couple in this variation on the My Man Godfrey plot.
3. Midnight, 1939. Another great achievement of the wonder year that was 1939 is this sparkling, sophisticated comedy in which gold-digging chorus girl Colbert masquerades as a wealthy aristocrat. Sheís bankrolled by John Barrymore--in one of his loopiest and funniest supporting roles--who wants her to break up his wifeís (Mary Astor) affair with Francis Lederer. Meanwhile, taxi driver Don Ameche pursues Colbert with marriage in mind. This is one of my favorite golden-age comedies, with a classic comic performance by Colbert and a smart, inventive script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.
4. Itís a Wonderful World, 1939. Not to be confused with a certain other ďwonderfulĒ Jimmy Stewart movie, this madcap combination of screwball comedy and detective drama features Colbert as a dizzy poetess. Sheís taken hostage by hard-boiled detective Stewart, whoís on lam from the law and trying to solve a murder. Hijinks ensue. The plot gets confusing at times, but the wacky couple at the heart of it all makes it a fun ride.
5. So Proudly We Hail!, 1943. The film that convinced David O. Selznick to cast Colbert as the courageous wife and mother in Since You Went Away, this war drama stars Colbert alongside Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake (with her hair in war-appropriate braids) as brave nurses stationed in the Bataan. George Reeves, best remembered as TVís Superman, plays the young soldier Colbert falls in love with. Melodramatic at times, itís still a stirring and surprisingly powerful Hollywood tribute to the women who go to war. Lakeís final scene is riveting.
Coming Soon: Fantasy Box Set #7...
Fantasy Box Set #5: Halloween Movies
The oh so welcome news that The Innocents (1961) is at last coming to DVD has turned my thoughts to other great spooky flicks...which are never that far from my mind anyway. Between that long-awaited release and the exquisitely eerie Val Lewton horror films rumored to be on their way, it should be a terrific Halloween--but naturally there are equally worthy titles also in need of DVD release to make the spooky holiday complete. Here, then, are the five titles I long to see under the Halloween tree this October...all black-and-white, of course.
1. Mad Love, 1935. Peter Lorreís American film debut, in which he is every bit as creepy as in M--but in a different way. This expressionistic film, directed by Karl Freund (Fritz Langís former cameraman) and boasting Gregg Tolandís cinematography, features Lorre as a brilliant surgeon obsessed with theatrical diva Frances Drake. When her pianist husband (Colin Clive of Frankenstein) is involved in a train wreck that crushes his hands, she begs for Lorreís help--and he responds by grafting the hands of a murderer onto her husbandís arms. An unforgettable performance by Lorre and haunting lighting and imagery make this one of the best classic horror films I know.
2. I Married a Witch, 1942. A lighter entry, since Halloween always needs some laughs along with the shivers. This charming supernatural romantic comedy, based on the novel The Passionate Witch by Thorne (Topper) Smith, features sultry Veronica Lake as a witch who returns to Earth centuries after her death to get revenge on the descendant of the man who had her executed (Fredric March)--only to fall in love with him. Cecil Kellaway is terrific as her tippling yet dangerous father, and thereís some genuine suspense along with the comedy. Lots of fun all round.
3. Phantom Lady, 1944. A Halloween film collection wouldnít be complete without a psychopath, and this engrossing mystery stands apart from other psycho-killer films due to its outstanding visual style, courtesy of famed noir director Robert Siodmak (The Killers). It stars the gorgeous Ella Raines as a loyal secretary trying to clear her boss of murder by tracking down the mysterious, unknown woman who alone can provide his alibi. The ďdrummingĒ scene with Elisha Cook, Jr., is justly famous; itís so swollen with sexual implications that youíll want a shower afterward (or a cigarette). The final showdown between heroine and killer is riveting. Since Phantom Lady has come to be acclaimed as one of the seminal film noirs, the question is: why isnít it out on DVD?
4. The Uninvited, 1944. Classic haunted-house stories are rare these days, and this one, made in the days before gore and special effects ambushed plot and character, is excellent. A composer (Ray Milland) and his sister (Ruth Hussey) move into the standard house-with-oddly-low-rent and meet the mysterious young beauty (Gail Russell) who thinks that the house may be inhabited by her dead mother. A very limited reliance on special effects keeps this from being dated, and the effective atmosphere, strong performances, and solid plot make it a must for Halloween viewing.
5. The Night Walker, 1964. You canít have a Halloween movie night without William Castle, and this lesser-known film is one of his most suspenseful ones--in part perhaps because the camp factor is relatively low. Barbara Stanwyck is the heroine who is subject to disturbing dreams, which grow worse after the disastrous death of her husband. But is she really dreaming? Stanwyck appears alongside real-life former husband Robert Taylor (who hasnít aged nearly as well as she). You may figure out the plot early on, but the way it plays out is still gripping and packs some effective shocks.
Coming soon: Fantasy Box Set #6...
Now I do believe in unicorns. Fox is going to release The Innocents on September 6! Just let me catch my breath here...this means that one of the greatest ghost stories on film is finally, finally going to be available in the non-butchered form to those of us without laserdisc players. I can throw out my old pan-and-scan VHS. Oh, happy day!
At least, I assume it'll be letterboxed. Fox would never be so rotten as to perpetuate the butchered version on DVD. I'm holding the thought.
This has made not just my day but possibly my month.
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