We’re about to be spoiled with another fantastic classic film season in Edinburgh, this one devoted to Jack Nicholson’s lengthy career.
The retrospective season will run through November and December and showcase films that explore the depths of Nicholson’s career spanning over five decades, including Chinatown, Easy Rider, The Shining, The Crossing Guard, The Last Detail, Reds, The Passenger and The King of Marvin Gardens.
Out of that little lot I’ve yet to see The Crossing Guard, The Last Detail or Reds, so hopefully I’ll make it along for the one-off screenings. I’d like to have seen 1989’s Batman in there, but you can’t have it all.
As for the others, there’s not a duffer among them, and I was particularly impressed by The King of Marvin Gardens when I saw it at Filmhouse earlier this year, even if I did miss most of the visual references noted in this Guardian article.
I was also lucky enough to watch Chinatown in Los Angeles in 2012 as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, where I recorded this short introduction to the film with its writer, Robert Towne, and producer, Robert Evans. They spent around fifteen minutes discussing the evolution of the film with TCM host, Robert Osborne at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
It’s buildings may still be in use, housing productions such as Downton Abbey and the upcoming Bridget Jones’ Baby, but it’s fair to say that Ealing Studios heyday was back in the 1940s, when its output included titles such as Whisky Galore! (1949) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951).
Numerous films from the Ealing archive have found there way to DVD and Blu-ray in recent years, with rarer titles finally being awarded pride of place on collectors’ shelves, while a major celebration at London’s BFI in 2012 raised awareness of its output even more.
Over the last few months I’ve been trying to brush up on my Ealing, starting with one piece of lasting evidence from the BFI season, Ealing Revisited. The book aims to reassess the studio, its films and its people through a number of essays curated by editor Mark Duguid.
Beginning with George Formby and Gracie Fields’ films which were made at Ealing but which could hardly be called “Ealing films”, the book takes us through the studio’s formative years as Michael Balcon took over as studio head and things started to take shape behind and in front of the cameras.
Whether you’re interested in the people behind Ealing’s promotional material, costumes, scripts or actors, Ealing Revisited wends its way through the years offering insight into the success and failures of each.
Joseph Botting’s take on Ealing’s more fantastical films and Andrew Moor’s look at “queerness” in films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets widens the discussion from the standard topics, though there’s still much to find of interest in chapters such as Catherine A Surowiec’s look at Anthony Mendelson’s costume designs.
Surowiec notes that expensive ballgowns were just as likely to feature in an Ealing film as a Cockney spiv’s wide lapelled suit or a working man’s bunnet.
Don’t expect an exhaustive encyclopaedia of Ealing as some films receive a sentence or two if they’re lucky. While the regular change in contributor between essays does mean there’s little continuity in style, the end result is still a fascinating overview of the inner working of Ealing which may lead readers to head off in search of more in-depth books on the subject, or at the very least some of the films themselves.
Two such titles recently made it to DVD from StudioCanal, namely Nowhere to Go (1958) and Dance Hall (1950), the former set in a London of low morals and high crime rates while the latter looks at the love lives of young people shortly after the war.
Adapted from Donald Mackenzie’s novel and scripted by film critic Kenneth Tynan, Nowhere to Go stars George Nader as Paul Gregory, a smarter-than-most thief who has back-up plans for back-up plans but who one day finds his luck running out.
When he’s broken out of prison by accomplice Sloane (Bernard Lee), Gregory sets about retrieving the cash he hid from the police a few years earlier, only for his world to spin out of control.
Eschewing the perceived characteristics of a typical Ealing – a cosy community, the little man against the odds – Nowhere to Go instead borrows heavily from film noir as Gregory attempts to see his plan to the bitter end.
With fine support from Lee and a young Maggie Smith as his potential love interest, Nowhere to Go may not quite be a classic British thriller but it’s a welcome return for a film which has been, like Gregory, out in the cold for too long.
Another exhumation from the vaults is Dance Hall, director Charles Crichton’s diversion from the Ealing norm which focussed on the relationships of a group of young woman whose main link is their love of the local Palais.
The cast includes Natasha Parry and Petula Clark as Eve and Georgie, two dance hall regulars with personal issues that affect their leisure time. While Eve’s husband (Donald Houston) doesn’t want his wife dancing with other men (namely Bonar Colleano’s Alec), Georgie must try to convince her parents that she can triumph in a dance competition.
Though some other stories are weaved into the story, including that of Diana Dors who shines in a smaller role, it’s not a film which encourages much emotional investment from the viewer. Dance Hall does depict the era well, a time when women were about to be given more opportunities in the workplace, meaning it’s a valuable snapshot of a Britain fast disappearing.
More lesser-known Ealing films are about to be released into the world with the release of Network’s Ealing Rarities Collection Volume 1, a collection of four titles on two discs which are rarely discussed in overviews of the studios output.
Basil Dean’s Escape! (1930) is the tale of a toff (Gerald du Maurier) who is imprisoned in Dartmoor following the death of a policeman, only to find himself on the run across the moors when the opportunity arises. Harry Watt’s West of Zanzibar (1954) finds the white man interfering in the lives of native Africans as Bob Payton (Anthony Steel) doles out advice to anyone who’ll listen.
A young Betty Driver, many years away from The Rover’s Return, stars in 1938’s Penny Paradise from director Carol Reed, a slight tale of tugboat captain Joe Higgins (Edmund Gwenn) who believes he’s won the pools and the reaction from those around him to his news. Finally, 1936’s Cheer Up! is from director Leo Mittler and finds two hapless composers trying to drum up support for their work, with hilarious consequences.
Of the four films, Penny Paradise is perhaps the most Ealing-like, with typical working class folk muddling through and helping each other when the going gets tough. Escape! is very much of its time, a slow and stagey production which is nevertheless an important example of post-silent era filmmaking as actors and crew find their feet.
With its location filming giving it a much needed gloss, West of Zanzibar stands out on this set as the only colour production. It also stands out because it’s the film that says the most about the time it was made, with Bob Payton seemingly a saviour of the black man in their own country. The problems caused by colonialism were never likely to be overtly stated by a British film of the era, meaning there’s something rather uncomfortable about the whole thing, even if one does try to take it as simply an adventure film.
Finally, Cheer Up! takes Ealing off into another direction entirely, with song and dance routines liberally sprinkled through the film, coming across like a kind of extended Morecambe and Wise sketch at times.
These four releases have been bundled together into a low-cost package designed to appeal to the completist and Network should be applauded for their efforts. While it’s only fair that Ealing’s higher quality ventures are remembered fondly, it’s difficult to put them into their proper context without books such as Ealing Revisited or titles such as these.
Look out for future volumes in the Ealing Rarities series, with sets two and three now listed on the Network site.
Last year I attended a screening of Roman Polanski’s 1974 crime classic, Chinatown, at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, an event which found an audience of a thousand or so film lovers enraptured by Jack Nicholson’s performance and a suitably complex plot.
Set in the Los Angeles of 1937, Chinatown centres on Jake Gittes’ (Nicholson) investigation into the extra-marital affair of Evelyn Mulwray’s (Faye Dunaway) husband. The investigation soon spirals into other directions involving corruption and family issues involving Mulwray’s father, played by the towering John Huston.
At the time I decided to see more Polanski films at the cinema but the opportunity hasn’t arisen until now, with Edinburgh’s Filmhouse about to screen a number of them from this weekend.
Filmhouse begins its Polanski season tomorrow with eight of his short films before going on to show Knife in the Water (1962), Cul-de-sac (1966), Macbeth (1971), Repulsion (1965) and Dance of the Vampires (1967).
That’s only the start however, with the print programme noting that next month we’re getting Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976), Death and the Maiden (1994), Chinatown (1974), Tess (1979), The Pianist (2002), Oliver Twist (2005), The Ghost (2010) and Carnage (2011).
Hopefully I’ll be able to make it along to a few of these and I’d recommend watching out for Chinatown if nothing else – full details can be found on the Filmhouse website.
Alfred Hitchcock was always one for challenges. Whether he was attempting a series of long takes to suggest a single shot, as in 1948’s Rope, or making 1960’s Psycho with the crew of his TV show on a modest budget, Hitch wasn’t one for taking the easy option.
Lifeboat (1943) finds a cast of assorted characters, led by Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) and Gus Smith (William Bendix), all at sea as their ship is sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic and they’re left to drift towards an uncertain fate in the titular craft.
As the tiny vessel quickly fills with its motley crew, they drag on board a German sailor, Willy (Walter Slezak), who could be either be an innocent U-boat sailor or the captain whose decision it was to sink the ship.
The script, ostensibly by John Steinbeck’s but with input from various figures including Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, may be lean and its dialogue punchy but it’s the director’s inspired shooting technique that has drawn the most plaudits over the years.
Confined to the small boat that could be cut in half and moved to various positions, Hitchcock is forced to be creative with his angles. Constantly moving around the boat and into the cast’s faces, the tension mounts as the days pass and the doubts about who is responsible for what increase.
Bankhead is a force of nature as Porter, more interested in her camera than those around her, but it’s Slezak who steals the film from her. The audience is as much in the dark as the survivors for much of the picture, sympathies moving from one person to the next as their stories emerge.
This may be a lesser known Hitchcock, at least compared to the usual suspects which fill up the box sets, but it’s still as taught and compelling as his later work and a welcome arrival on Blu-ray.
This new DVD and Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema also comes with two short films made by Hitchcock in France during the Second World War, Bon Voyage (1944) Adventure Malgache (1944), along with a featurette on the making of the film and a clip of the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut interview.
The first of two new Charles Laughton releases from Masters of Cinema in May, 1932’s Island of Lost Souls is Universal’s take on HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau, a film that was banned by the British Board of Film Classification on its release for being “against nature”. Gulp.
Souls finds us somewhere in the hot and steamy South Seas, where Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is left in the capable hands of Dr Moreau (Laughton), a scientist with a penchant for vivisecting animals and trying to change them into humans.
Also on the island is the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), a poor creature who has spent some time under Moreau’s knife and ended up a glamorous half-woman who wants to get her teeth in Parker, so to speak.
This is a heady concoction that may not appear as nasty to modern audiences as it did back in the 1930s but which still causes the occasional flinch. Moreau’s experiments litter the island, men turned into strange abominations that cower in the bushes as Bela Lugosi’s “Sayer of the Law” tries to keep them in order.
Laughton is mesmerising as Moreau, his scientific curiosity now as mutated as his creatures as he plays God with anyone he comes into contact with. Combined with the atmospheric set design that works perfectly in black and white and you have a horror that stands up to repeated viewing along with its other classic Universal stablemates.
Looking stunning on Blu-ray, this dual format release includes new interviews with Laughton biographer Simon Callow and an informative video essay from critic Jonathan Rigsby, along with a fascinating booklet containing various essays. There’s also a smart limited edition steelbook edition of the set that is crying out for a place on your shelf.
The second Laughton escapade is thankfully on the lighter side, as he heads from the safety of Paris to the Wild West in Leon McCarey’s 1935 comedy, Ruggles of Red Gap.
When his employer, Lord Burnstead (Roland Young), gambles away his butler, Ruggles (Laughton), to a newly monied American couple, Egbert and Effie Floud (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland), the bemused manservant must adjust to a very different life.
While Egbert is happy for Ruggles to be one of the guys, Ruggles is disgusted at the concept, and through various unfortunate escapades he attracts Effie’s scorn as her husband is returned to her in states of inebriation.
Although the centred on the unfortunate Ruggles, who we follow as he adjusts to his new world, rolling his eyes as he goes, there’s still plenty of room for Boland’s Effie to make herself heard at every opportunity. Boland and Laughton make for a fine double act, as do Charlie Ruggles and Laughton, particularly towards the end as the butler decides his fate.
Watched in tandem with Island of Lost Souls, Ruggles of Red Gap is a welcome change of pace and an opportunity to appreciate the many sides of Charles Laughton. It’s also another welcome addition to the growing library of Leo McCarey titles making it to DVD and Blu-ray, a director with a major influence on the Golden Age of Hollywood.
This new dual format release looks good for its age, restored from the original negative. The set also includes radio plays featuring Ruggles and Laughton, a recording of Laughton’s Gettysburg Address from the film and an informative booklet.
Lifeboat is out now. Island of Lost Souls and Ruggles of Red Gap will be released on 28 May, 2012.
Exciting things are happening at the BFI as their Rescue the Hitchcock 9 project, which aims to fully restore the director’s nine surviving silent films, comes to fruition.
The BFI will be celebrating Hitch throughout the summer of 2012 with a series of gala premieres, namely 1921’s Blackmail, 1927’s The Ring, 1926’s The Lodger, 1925’s The Pleasure Garden. Full details can be found on the Genius of Hitchcock section of the BFI website.
As I’m in Edinburgh it’s unlikely I’ll make it down to many of these but I’m confident our Filmhouse will screen them at some point.
In the meantime, a new trailer has been released to promote the Hitchcock project and it’s rather lovely:
It’s always been standard practice in the promotion of movies to create a buzz around new releases but it takes a lot to get an 80-year-old classic in the news.
Island of Lost Souls steelbook
So it was something of a surprise yesterday to find the BBC picking up a story on 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, the Blu-ray of which receives its first UK release on Monday 28 May. Even more surprising, the story soon became the site’s most-read story of the day. Hunger Games eat your heart out!
It seems the film, starring Charles Laughton as Dr Moreau, was rejected in 1933 and in 1957, before being classified with an X certificate with cuts in 1958. In 1996 these cuts were restored and the film gained a 12 certificate.
The film was then resubmitted in 2011 for the upcoming Blu-ray release when it found itself downgraded to a PG.
It’s a fascinating article that should do wonders for sales of the newly restored DVD and Blu-ray, which promises a host of extras including video interviews and a lavish booklet. The Masters of Cinema releases are always worth picking up and I’d recommend pre-ordering the limited edition steelbook while you still can.
For the last few years I’ve been writing about film for my local newspaper, the Edinburgh Evening News, who trust me to jot down my thoughts each week in a column entitled Reel Time.
The column also has an associated blog which has allowed me to expand on the 300 words allowed in the print version, also allowing me to publish more reviews and opinions of the sort of things I plan to cover on this blog.
With the newspaper about to gain a new look and a new behind-the-scenes system, the current blogger system is being phased out, meaning most of my writing will be lost forever…until I discovered I could export the .xml file and import it to this site.
What this means is that there’s now lots more for people to read, should they (that’s you) feel the need. There are various reviews, interviews, thought pieces and other odds and ends that relate to classic cinema, with the odd post that I’ll need to delete as it refers to modern films, whatever they are…
I do feel like I’ve cheated a bit as this was a newly minted blog, but hopefully you’ll forgive me as my Holyrood or Bust(er) month is going to prevent me writing too much else on here.
Please feel free to comment on any of the posts, it’ll be nice to have some company around here!
This second Holyrood or Bust(er) post will cover many of the films being screened on TCM on Sunday 9 October 2011, all grouped under the banner of An Artist at Work: Sherlock, Jr, Good Night Nurse, Steamboat Bill, Jr, The Cameraman, Coney Island, Back Stage, Limelight, The Bell Boy, She Went to the Races, The Haunted House and Hard Luck.
Sherlock, Jr (1924), Good Night Nurse (1918) and Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928)
Week two of this Buster-a-thon has started slightly later than planned but Sherlock, Jr isn’t a bad place to do so.
A recurring idea in Buster’s films is the dream sequence, something which allowed him to come up with even more outlandish ideas than his films set in “reality” would allow.
Here, Buster is a cinema projectionist who wants to be a great detective, but who is destined to pine after Kathryn McGuire while Ward Crane’s nasty piece of work con man tries to get her first. The opening minutes, as Buster goes about his duties at the cinema, may be more leisurely compared to what comes later, but anyone who manages to get that much humour out of sweeping some trash clearly knows what he’s doing.
The major dream sequence of the film, which sees Buster enter the cinema screen to interact with the locations being screened, is one of the most impressive moments in any of his films, and with Buster Keaton that’s saying something.
As ever, he’s not content to go for the simple gag, instead lining up each scene change seamlessly so that the joke is flawless. We’re an audience who are watching an audience watch Buster and it’s hard to imagine quite how audiences in 1924 would have reacted to something so unique.
But that’s Buster all over, always trying something new and experimenting with the medium he’s working in, while other performers were happy to work within the constraints.
That’s certainly the case with 1918’s Good Night Nurse, a Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle picture featuring Buster in a supporting role.
The pair were good friends and it shows here, Buster seemingly having a good time – he even smiles a few times! – and going with the flow as Fatty indulges in the bizarre routines that made him so popular. Fatty’s tendency towards cross-dressing mixed with a man-child type persona make him an acquired taste today, though Good Night Nurse is by no means a bad film. It just isn’t a proper Keaton film, which is the real problem.
We’re back on track for 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr, a wonderful slice of Buster which casts him as the estranged son of an old sailor who comes to work with his dad, only for the latter to worry that his boy is too soft to do anything much.
I love watching this film, particularly the sequence in the jailhouse, when Buster arrives with a loaf of bread that has clearly fallen into the tool chest…ahem. The entire 10 minutes is a joy and it could have been a film in itself, Buster’s expressions and hand movements as he tries to convince his father to take the bread. Bliss.
The infamous stunt involving a house falling on Buster can be found here (he’d done it before, but never on this scale), and it still shocks 80 years on. Considered to be one of Buster’s last great films, it’s a joy from start to finish (a phrase I may have used before in these blog posts, but there are only so many ways to describe the man’s work).
Yesterday, 30 September 2011, saw Pinewood Studios, the British studio best known as the home of the James Bond movies, celebrate its 75th anniversary.
Established by Sheffield building tycoon Sir Charles Boot, Lady Henrietta Yule and flour magnate J Arthur Rank, Pinewood has hosted the production of films such as the Carry On series, The Red Shoes, Bugsy Malone and Superman.
Bond fans will be used to seeing the massive 007 stage on numerous documentaries over the years, with the most recent instalment, Quantum of Solace, also being filmed at the studios.