Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year's Moment


As 2013 departs, 2014 arrives with flair - courtesy of elegant and stylish Mr. Fred Astaire...


Friday, December 27, 2013

Happy Birthday, Marlene Dietrich!

Marlene Dietrich, photograph by Edward Steichen
Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born 112 years ago today in Schöneberg, Germany. She died well into her 90th year, in Paris, in 1992, and was by then known the world over as Marlene Dietrich, archetypal superstar of the silver screen as well as the cabaret and concert stage.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

As the year ends and we remember many who are now gone, one man celebrates 100 years...

Marc Platt (shown here, in the purple shirt, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) turned 100 on December 2
He was born Marcel LePlat in Pasadena, California on December 2, 1913, but was raised in Seattle, Washington. His training as a dancer began at age 11 at the local dance studio of Mary Ann Wells. In his early 20s, he auditioned and was selected for the chorus of the newly formed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo by the company's famed choreographer, Léonide Massine (The Red Shoes). His last name was changed to "Platoff" because so many of the group's dancers (as well as the company's roots) were Russian. Working his way up to become a soloist who premiered several roles as well as choreographing his own works, he remained with the the company for six years. His (uncredited) film debut came with the Jean Negulesco-directed short, The Gay Parisian (1941), a showcase for the Ballet Russe.

Monday, December 16, 2013

'TIS THE SEASON - OF GIVING...AND IT'S HAPPENING HERE!

BOOKS AND DVDS IN YOUR STOCKING THIS YEAR?

One of the things I love most about the holidays is giving gifts. This year I happen to have presents for a few classic film buffs and I'll be giving them this week.

Literally the biggest gift to be given - at 1,000+ pages - is Victoria Wilson's long-awaited, long in-process  biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907 - 1940. Detailed, thorough and fascinating, Wilson traces Stanwyck's family history back to long before the future star came into the world as Ruby Stevens. The hefty tome also covers Stanwyck's show business beginnings, at a very tender age, as a dancer, her rapid rise to Broadway and Hollywood stardom, two marriages and 88 films. As well-written as it is meticulously researched, Steel-True is impossible to put down once picked up. Fifteen years in the writing, this reader only hopes Wilson's volume covering the rest of Stanwyck's life and career, from 1941 to 1990, won't take quite so long to make its way to print.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Noir City News


The latest edition of the Film Noir Foundation's Noir City e-magazine is out and, along with major features on Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre, it brings news of Noir City XII, the FNFs annual film noir festival in San Francisco.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Film Passion 101: Falling in Love Again


Watching a console TV for long stretches from the living room floor at a distance of not more than a few feet was a good part of a typical day for most kids of my era. Much of what we watched was “old movies” because, for many years, the films of what we now call "The Golden Age" aired morning, noon and night on local stations in need of hours of inexpensive programming. On top of this, I grew up in a movie-loving home. Mother, a child of the ‘30s and young woman of the ‘40s, had been one of the countless children terrorized by King Kong when it was a first-run release and she was among the many teenagers who lined up to see Gone with the Wind when it was breaking box office records. Later, after she came to live in Southern California during World War II, she had chance encounters with one or two movie stars that she never forgot. Dad wasn't a movie buff in the same way, but he did love Cagney. And he favored Westerns. One night, when my brother and I were in his charge, he took us to see Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It was the only night out at the movies we ever had with just dad.

Since movies were a part of my life from the beginning, is it any mystery that I knew who Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Tyrone Power were before I knew the names of some of my relatives? I recall noting in my diary when I was about nine that I had watched The Great Lie, “starring Bette Davis.” I remember first being enchanted by Tyrone Power when he smiled at Dorothy Lamour just after they met on a staircase in Johnny Apollo. And there was the time I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder every night, five nights in a row, on a channel that ran the same feature film every week, all through the week.

But as I got older my interests multipied to include music and boys and so many other things. And time continued to pass...



Wednesday, November 27, 2013

History Lessons: Fashion in Film and the Hollywood Costume

Clockwise from top left: Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson and Louise Brooks

Fashion in Film

Film and costume design history expert Kimberly Truhler, one of the presenting hosts at TCM’s 2013 Classic Film Festival, launched her new webinar series The History of Fashion in Film with The 1920s - The Jazz Age on November 17 - and I was there!

Kimberly certainly knows her stuff - she’s an adjunct professor at L.A.’s Woodbury University where she teaches a course on the history of fashion in film, she serves as a film and costume design historian for Christies of London, curates a private vintage fashion collection, manages her own website, GlamAmor (dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and legacy of fashion in film), and much more. Her impressive experience and knowledge were clearly evident throughout the nearly two-hour inaugural webinar session. And what an education I got…

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sight & Sound...Classic Cinema with Live Music


Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo at Davies Hall, San Francisco, November 1, 2013

A few months ago the San Francisco Symphony announced that it would kick off a season-long classic film series with Hitchcock Week, October 30 - November 2. Each night a different Hitchcock movie was to be presented with its music track scrubbed and the score performed live by the symphony orchestra. Psycho launched the series on the 30th, followed by The Lodger on Halloween, Vertigo on November 1st and, on the 2nd, a night of 'greatest hits' excerpts (To Catch a ThiefStrangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, North by Northwest) hosted by Eva Marie Saint. Most appealing to me among these events was the Vertigo program, not only because Vertigo is one of my favorite films of all time, but also because the symphony's musical accompaniment would be the world premiere live performance of Bernard Herrmann's full score. But the event was sold out by the time I found out about it. Only due to my good fortune in making a connection with a very considerate symphony representative did a pair of orchestra section seats come my way. And so it was that on the first Friday night in November my dear friend, Mike, and I, filled with anticipation and excitement, set off for Davies Symphony Hall to see Vertigo and hear its luscious score live. Once there, we sampled the special cocktail concocted for the evening, "The Voyeur" (sparkling wine, Grand Marnier, cognac), had a quick bite to eat, took our seats and waited for the lights to dim.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering JFK


Personal Memories of John F. Kennedy

At 43, he was the youngest man to be elected and the only Catholic President of the United States. His youth and religion were issues in 1960 when he won the office by quite a bit less than a landslide. After his assassination in 1963, at age 46, those issues became irrelevant - and 64% of those polled at the time claimed to have voted for him when he was elected, though his margin of victory was just over 50%.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What a Character: Gladys Cooper


The What a Character! blogathon is in progress now, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club. Click here for more information and links to participating blogs. My entry for the event follows...
~
Young Gladys
She was a beautiful child, wide-eyed and wistful, who began modeling at age six; during World War I she was the favorite 'picture postcard' pin-up of British troops; she went on tour in a musical at age 17 and by the time she neared 40 she was a star of the London stage. In 1940, at age 51, she began working as a character actress in Hollywood and would, over the course of the next three decades, earn three Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. Her name was Gladys Cooper and she is best remembered for her performance as Bette Davis's cruel, steel-willed mother, Mrs. Vale, in Now, Voyager...

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Three (Mesmerizing) Hitchcock Villains Revisited on Halloween


Today (and today only) our friend Lara of Backlots is hosting a one day Hitchcock Halloween blogathon and for the occasion I'm resurrecting an old favorite from the Reel Life archives.

In January 2011 the Classic Movie Blog Association hosted a Hitchcock blogathon and I decided rather than blog about a particular film, I'd take another approach. The result was an exploration of three legendary Hitchcock killers and the actors who portrayed them: Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Robert Walker's Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train (1951) and Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). I was and still am fascinated by the complex characters of Uncle Charlie, Bruno and Norman - and with the masterful performances of the three daring actors who took their turns as what film critic/historian David Thomson calls Hitchcock's "smiling psychopaths."

Click here to read Three Classic Hitchcock Killers.

For links to Lara's blog and and more on Hitchcock Halloween, click here.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Hitchcock Week...and more...at the San Francisco Symphony


Just over two years ago I attended – and was astounded by - “Casablanca with the San Francisco Symphony” at Davies Hall. Conductor Michael Francis led the orchestra in accompanying the beyond-iconic classic with Max Steiner’s unforgettable score. What an experience it was (click here for my reaction)...

Now the symphony is about to present a Halloween season series, Hitchcock Week, spotlighting several of the Master’s films with live musical accompaniment. The pièce de résistance will be “World Premiere: Vertigo” on Friday, November 1, with the symphony accompanying Hitchcock’s great masterpiece with Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant, haunting and, some would say, peerless score.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

TCM Presents Five Tyrone Power Films in Primetime and Late Night

Nightmare Alley to Make Its TCM Premiere

Nightmare Alley

Tyrone Power was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood from the late 1930s through the late 1950s and he was 20th Century Fox's most famous star until Marilyn Monroe came along. Turner Classic Movies hasn't traditionally aired as many films of Fox's great stars as those from other studios - this has been about film rights more than anything else. Since TCM entered into an exclusive licensing deal with Fox, though, that has begun to change.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me): My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Davis
The Metzinger Sisters of Silver Scenes are hosting a classic film event,The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon - and this is my entry. Click here for links to participating blogs.

~

In 1926, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather published her eighth novel, a novella, really, titled My Mortal Enemy. Among the writer's many poetic works of prose fiction, the book earned a reputation for both its lean structure and dramatic plot. When I read it for the first time, I couldn't help but imagine what a powerful film My Mortal Enemy might be. Yet I also knew that, because of Cather's profound unhappiness with the film version of A Lost Lady (1934, starring Barbara Stanwyck), she hadn't allowed her other works to be adapted in her lifetime and that at the time of her death in 1947, the terms of her will dictated a ban on future film adaptations. Mostly because I saw in My Mortal Enemy's central character, Myra Driscoll Henshawe, a role that would provide a golden opportunity for the right actress to deliver a blistering tour de force performance, I was saddened that it would never be dramatized.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Viktor und Viktoria's Darling of the Gods

Before The Cafe, Lesser Ury, 1920s
Guest blogger Karin is a freelance technical writer living in the Austin, Texas, area. She has contributed to Reel Life in the past, treating readers to lyrical prose as well as a unique exploration of her subject in every case - from her two-part series on legendary art director Van Nest Polglase in 2010, to her entry on composer Bernard Herrmann for my Vertigo blog event early in 2012, to her contribution, "The Feminine Mystique of Mad Men," for my Mad Men blog event later that year. Karin's current fascination is Weimar-era Berlin's art, cabaret, cinema and music scene...
                                                                                      ~  The Lady Eve

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Summer Under the Stars: Unfaithfully Rex




When Rex Harrison came to Hollywood in 1945 to make a movie, he was 37 years old, had already been on the stage in England for 22 years and had been making films there since 1930. Orson Welles later claimed it was on his recommendation that Harrison was given his first American role, a part that Welles himself turned down, that of the King in the 1946 production of Anna and the King of Siam. Welles told his friend, director Henry Jaglom, over one of their now famous lunches, “I suggested him. Rex made pictures that only played in England, teacup comedies and things. No one in Hollywood knew who he was.” Welles had refused the role, he said, because he didn’t want to work with Irene Dunne, who had already been cast as Anna. And so, Rex Harrison made his American film debut.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

August 12: A Day - and Night - Under the Stars with Catherine Deneuve


This is my first entry for the 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon now in progress and hosted by Jill Blake of http://sittinonabackyardfence.com/ and Michael Nazarewycz of http://scribehardonfilm.wordpress.com. Visit their sites for more information on the month-long blogathon and links to participating blogs.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hitchcock...in 3D!



My introduction to 3D movies finally came this past weekend and I’m sure it surprises no one who knows me that this happened by way of a classic rather than one of today’s CGI extravaganzas.  My initiation into stereoscopic 3D film, a process that has been around forever but has gained a firm foothold only recently, took place on Sunday afternoon, when I happily watched the only 3D film Alfred Hitchcock ever made with a near-full-house audience at one of my favorite theaters, the Rafael.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How sweet it is: "The Honeymooners" on MeTV


In the final episode of the first season of AMC’s Mad Men, set in 1960, advertising wunderkind Don Draper pitches his creative concept to Kodak for its latest product, a slide projector called the Carousel. He speaks of the power of nostalgia and describes the device as a time machine with the ability to take people to that place everyone most longs to go, “back home again.” As he delivers his presentation in a darkened conference room, images of Draper’s own young wife and children flash onto a screen one by one, and the carousel works its magic on on those who watch.

MeTV is another sort of time machine. Its viewers are regularly transported to an earlier, some say more golden, age of television – the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, those decades when the network’s target audience, baby boomers like me, was very young. Tripping into the past by way of MeTV is a purely cheerful experience, nothing at all like the harrowing journey of Martin Sloan (Gig Young) whose “Walking Distance” detour into his past took him through the looking glass of The Twilight Zone.

Friday, July 5, 2013

TCM's Friday Night Spotlight in July: Francois Truffaut



Francois Truffaut
Friday nights in July are going to be hot, and I’m not talking about the weather where I live. Beginning tonight and on the 12th, 19th and 26th, Turner Classic Movies will feature hour after hour of the films of one of the pioneers and masters of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut (1932 – 1984). Film Critic David Edelstein of New York Magazine and NPR’s Fresh Air, hosts the series.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Of New York History and New Hollywood Horror...


EDWARD CLARK'S "FOLLY"

The address, One West 72nd Street, may not register with many who live outside the city of New York, but the name of the building at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West is more familiar.  The Dakota, a famed luxury co-op on the Upper West Side, has been home to many high profile luminaries, served as the setting for one of Roman Polanski's best known films, and was the site of an infamous murder in 1980.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Happy Birthday, Tyrone Power!

artwork by Rob Kelly

99 years ago Tyrone Edmund Power was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. 22 years after that he became a movie star and would remain one for the rest of his life – another 22 years. The biggest male star at 20th Century Fox during the ‘30s and ‘40s, Power is remembered by most today as a charismatic leading man of extraordinary looks and resonant voice. He was also a talented and ambitious actor.

Friday, April 12, 2013

CAGNEY

Cagney, color by Claroscureaux

"...every time I see him work, looks to me like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once."
Will Rogers 

During an era when impressionists, those performers whose gift it is to mimic the very famous, were a staple on television, Cagney was an essential in every repertoire. Cagney. An electric and singular presence, he is among the handful of Hollywood legends instantly identifiable by just one name. His film career began in 1930 and came to an end in 1981, but he is as revered by film buffs today as he was treasured by audiences throughout his active years. This tribute is my contribution to The Movie Projector's Cagney Blogathon. Click here for links to participating blogs.

Monday, April 8, 2013

NOIR NEWS

Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946) screens April 17th at Noir City: Hollywood

A presentation of the American Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation, Noir City: Hollywood, the 15th annual Los Angeles film noir festival, is in full swing now and runs through April 21. Films screen at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. For program and ticket information, click here.

Friday, April 5, 2013

MAD MEN 6


When Mad Men returned to the air waves (and all those second and third screens) last year, nearly 18 months had elapsed since the previous season. Die-hard fans like me barely survived the overlong wait. When the premiere date for season five was finally announced, I decided to celebrate with a month-long blog event. Sunday Night is Mad Men Night was a joint effort with four blogger friends who each assessed the award-winning series from a different point of view:

Friday, March 29, 2013

Fashion in Film Blogathon: Shanghai Express (1932)

Clive Brook and Marlene Dietrich

Between 1930 and 1935, Josef von Sternberg filmed six wondrous and surreal flights of imagination for Paramount starring Marlene Dietrich with costumes by Travis Banton. The director and Dietrich had already made their first film together, The Blue Angel (1930), for UFA in Germany and, on the heels of that film's sensational premiere in Berlin, departed for Hollywood. Von Sternberg, who was born in Austria but mostly raised in America, had worked previously with Banton in the U.S. on Underworld (1927), a groundbreaking silent crime drama.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beauty in Black and White - the Film Noir Art of Guy Budziak


Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

Guy Budziak is a woodcut artist whose striking high-contrast prints evoke dense and haunting images from classic noir, proto-noir and neo-noir films. My recent  Nightmare Alley blog entry featured Guy's rendering of a tantalizing moment from the film:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Birthday Tribute to Francoise Dorleac


71 years ago today, on the first day of spring, March 21, 1942, Francoise Dorleac was born in war-ravaged Paris; she would live just 25 years more.

Catherine (top) and Francoise
Her father was Maurice Dorleac, a stage and screen actor, and her mother, Renee Deneuve, was an actress who re-voiced Hollywood films in French (including Judy Garland’s in The Wizard of Oz). Both Maurice and Renee were prominent performers at the Comedie Francaise. Francoise's younger sister, Catherine Deneuve, was born in October 1943. With their parents in the theater, acting did not seem an unusual profession to the girls. Many years later Catherine would recall, “For us, it was a job like any other.” She and Francoise grew up sharing a bedroom and a bunk bed, and each would go into “the family business” at an early age. 

Francoise first performed on the stage at age 10 and made her screen debut at 15 in the short Mesonges (1957). Later, supporting herself as a model for the house of Dior, she would study acting at the Conservatoire d'Art Dramatique. As an in-demand model and actress, Francoise led a wildly busy life from her teens to the end of her life. She appeared on stage (among her roles was "Gigi"), on TV, on magazine covers and in spreads (including Vogue), and on film. Over the seven years from 1960 – 1967 she was featured in 16 films, most notably:

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

VINTAGE YEARS


The notion that 1939 was the greatest of all movie years has been around for so long that it's pretty much an accepted fact these days. A while ago, as I was roaming the blogosphere, I happened upon a post by Peter Bogdanovich on his Indiewire blog (appropriately called Blogdanovich) titled "The Greatest Year?"  I read on, having always respected what Mr. B has to say about films and filmmaking. He not only possesses an encyclopedic knowledge and intimate understanding of the subject, but has also made some classics of his own that I much admire - The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).

With "The Greatest Year?" Bogdanovich looked back on one of his 1972 columns for Esquire magazine. In that article he'd selected and reviewed a great movie year of the past to illustrate his contention that films of the early '70s weren't measuring up. He zeroed in on 1939 in particular because in addition to the fact that it had been a banner year for movies, it was also the year he was born (as were Francis Coppola and William Friedkin, two other major filmmakers of the time). Not long after Bogdanovich's column appeared in Esquire, he recalled, a lengthier, more elaborate piece on the films of 1939 appeared in Life magazine written by film critic Richard Schickel. Schickel once and for all declared '39 to be the great year. The rest, as we know, is history.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Woodcut print by Guy Budziak

Coney Island's opened its first "freak show" in 1880, but the heyday of its sideshow attractions came nearly 25 years later when Samuel W. Gumpertz opened "Lilliputia" at Dreamland, one of the three major amusement parks onsite. Wildly popular with tourists, "Lilliputia" was a miniature city scaled to accommodate its 300 midget and dwarf residents. When Dreamland burned in 1911, Gumpertz built the Dreamland Circus Sideshow and would travel the world constantly seeking "freaks" (usually those with congenital anomalies) and people from exotic lands (Filipino blowgun shooters, actual "wild men" from Borneo, Ubangi women with plated lips) for his shows. In no time Gumpertz would have competition from The World Circus Freak Show, Wonderland Circus Sideshow and other copy-cat venues large and small.

Geek show, Nightmare Alley
During Coney Island's peak, these bizarre sideshows  drew great crowds. Naturally, young people were especially awed by the "human oddities" on display. One boy, whose family had just moved to Brooklyn, became enthralled with these freak attractions. He haunted the sideshows and reportedly held a job on the midway for a while. His name was William Lindsay Gresham and he was born in Baltimore in 1909. His family had moved from Baltimore to Massachusetts in 1916 before coming to New York and, for most of his life, Gresham would live in the city. He worked as a reporter after high school and for a time made a living in Greenwich Village as a folk singer. In the late '30s he served in the Spanish Civil War, fighting the good fight against Franco. While in Spain he met a fellow American who regaled him with memories of life on the carnival circuit. It was through this man, 'Doc' Halliday, that William Lindsay Gresham learned all about 'carny culture' and first heard of the sideshow act known as 'the geek.' Halliday's description of this creature, a man who crawled around in filth and bit the heads from live chickens and snakes for booze money, revolted and intrigued Gresham. He could not get the image out of his head and later said, "to get rid of it, I had to write it out."
 
William Lindsay Gresham
After he returned to the states, Gresham found work editing and contributing to pulp magazines. With a steady income providing some financial stability, he was able to begin his first novel. Nightmare Alley appeared in 1946. A soul blistering tour of third-rate Depression-era carnival life and the "spook racket,"  the novel follows the story of a young layabout named Stan Carlisle. Stan takes a low-level carny job and becomes driven, at first by lust and then by the burning ambition, to make it big. Coolly conning nearly everyone who crosses his path, he makes his way up, up, up as a bogus clairvoyant and on to even greater heights as a religious charlatan. But he meets his match in a high-end grifter even more cold-blooded than he is. Stan's fall is fast and far and horrific. 
~
 
Author Gresham, a tormented soul ever in search of peace of mind, had, by the time he was writing Nightmare Alley, already dabbled in Marxism and psychoanalysis and was now studying the Tarot (each chapter of the book is named for a Major Arcana card). He would go on to delve into and abandon Christianity, Zen Buddhism and Alcoholics Anonymous. None of these pursuits would alleviate his struggle with his demons. The depth of Gresham's personal sense of desperation was reflected in Nightmare Alley; later in life he would claim in a letter, "Stan is the author."

The novel was a success and the film rights were quickly snapped up by Tyrone Power, who'd read the book and saw in Stan Carlisle a potential role of a lifetime. He pressed his boss, 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, to produce the adaptation and allow him to star. The film Power badgered Zanuck to make would be directed by Edmund Goulding and co-star Joan Blondell, Helen Walker and Coleen Gray. It was released in 1947.

Tyrone Power makeup test for Nightmare Alley

If William Lindsay Gresham was a troubled misfit, Tyrone Power would seem his very opposite. Born into a legendary theatrical family and graced with good looks, onscreen presence and talent, Power became a movie star by age 22 - a decade or more younger than most leading men of the late '30s. But, as the years passed, Power grew frustrated with the too-often shallow roles Fox offered him and had begun to have misgivings about his career. He told a girlfriend, "Someday I'll show the @!&%!*s who say I was a success just because of my pretty face..." and famously commented on charisma, "The secret of charm is bullshit." By the time Nightmare Alley came along, Tyrone Power was ready to play Stan Carlisle.

Helen Walker
A 1947 film adaptation of Nightmare Alley could never have been entirely faithful to the novel - the book was just too raw, sexual and disturbing. So the story was streamlined and cleaned up. Noir veteran Jules Furthman's screenplay could only imply or allude to what was far more perverse and explicit in the novel.
Furthman did manage to incorporate a good dose of Gresham's rich and authentic huckster jargon into the script and Goulding evokes, as much as he was allowed, the novel's underlying savagery. An A-budget noir, Nightmare Alley's ink-black look came courtesy of Lee Garmes, one of the developers of "Rembrandt lighting," with art direction by five-time Oscar winner Lyle Wheeler, effects by two-time Oscar winner Fred Sersen and makeup by Fox veteran Ben Nye. Joan Blondell is a natural as blowzy Zeena, the mentalist, and Helen Walker as an unscrupulous psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter, is razor-blade sharp and deadly. But it is Tyrone Power's portrayal of Stan Carlisle that is the eye-opener. Power's Stan credibly evolves from opportunistic naif to oily hustler, slick headliner, relentless schemer, jumpy man-on-the-run and, finally, vulnerable rumdum.

Darryl Zanuck did not like Nightmare Alley. Power was his box office bonanza of a leading man and Zanuck hadn't wanted to risk casting him in so dark a film. But was it a risk? The post-war era brought stars like Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend), Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Ronald Colman (A Double Life) and others new success - and sometimes an Oscar - for less than sympathetic roles in downbeat films. On release, Nightmare Alley received mixed reviews (a New York Times reviewer complained, "this film traverses distasteful dramatic ground") but Power's performance was widely praised. That was not enough to reassure an already nervous studio and the film's run in theaters was brief. It was a commercial failure.

 Pete (Ian Keith) reads Stan (Tyrone Power)

Zanuck's reluctance to support Nightmare Alley is often blamed for its failure. But his caution makes sense given the times and his understanding of Tyrone Power's place in movie goers' hearts. Audiences could handle the handsome star as a skirt-chasing carnival Lothario sporting a cocky attitude and a tight tee-shirt. But once Stan's seamy nature begins to creep to the surface - a wad of chewing gum always in his cheek, a cigarette behind his ear, a spiel always on his lips - the audience might start to get jittery. When he slips a bottle of hooch to Pete (Ian Keith), a carny alcoholic who is an obstacle to Stan's dreams, there's no denying his ruthlessness. It becomes clear soon enough that Stan is a nastier more cynical sort than Dion O'Leary (In Old Chicago), a romanticized Jesse James or Clive Briggs (This Above All). By film's end, when an unhinged Stan runs through the midway, wild-eyed and vacant, swinging a club at anyone who comes near, Power's multitude of fans might well have stared in stunned disbelief. Could they bear to believe that Tyrone Power (Zorro, that Yank who joined the RAF, Jamie Waring of The Black Swan) could be the pathetic, disfigured wretch on the screen? They may not have realized or cared that they had just witnessed the performance of his career. Darryl Zanuck must have breathed a deep sigh of relief when Captain from Castile, a Technicolor swashbuckler Power finished just before Nightmare Alley, was released a few months later to blockbuster business.

Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle
The publication and reception of Nightmare Alley was the one great success of William Lindsay Gresham's career. His second and final novel was a commercial flop. He went back to writing for pulp magazines and published only three more books, all non-fiction. With his health failing and low on cash, Gresham took his own life in a cheap New York hotel in September 1962. He is best remembered by some as a footnote in the life of C.S. Lewis; Gresham's second wife, Joy Davidman, later married Lewis. Shadowlands, a TV movie, play and film, was based on the Lewis/Davidman relationship.  Others place Gresham in the pantheon of noir legendss like Nathaniel West, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. Nightmare Alley's reputation has grown steadily through the years and in 2010 New York Review Books published a new, uncensored edition. This publication boasts an introduction by Nick Tosches, who was then working on a Gresham biography. The NYRB edition of Nightmare Alley was hailed by critics; reviews were filled with glowing adjectives - and one constant noun: masterpiece.

Tyrone Power would never have another film role quite equal to Stan Carlisle, but his last completed performance, in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957), was as a character not unlike Stan. Once more he received critical praise, something he'd nearly given up on ("They still don't take me seriously," he complained a year or so earlier). Power had spent the intervening years making movies of varying quality, working in the theater, traveling the world - and going through a succession of women and a lot of money. His death at age 44 occurred in Spain when he was filming Solomon and Sheba. Perhaps fate thought it better to spare him that biblical swashbuckler. Of all the films he made, Nightmare Alley would remain Power's favorite, the one he screened at home for friends.

Nightmare Alley developed a cult following that continued to grow over the decades. Because of legal wrangling between the estate of its producer, George Jessel, and 20th Century Fox, it was kept out of the home video market for years. Finally released on DVD in 2005, the film was greeted with a new wave of enthusiasm from critics, film buffs and film noir fans. Once overlooked and undervalued, Nightmare Alley is now considered a noir classic, one of the bleakest films in a bleak genre, singular for its carny setting and absence of thugs-with-guns and outright murder.


This piece is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon. Click here for links to all participating blogs.

References:
Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, Introduction by Nick Tosches, New York Review Books (2010)
Noir Fiction: Dark Highways by Paul Duncan, Oldcastle Books (2000)
Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller, St. Martin's Press (1998)
All Those Tomorrows by Mai Zetterling, Grove Press (1985)
The Films of Tyrone Power by Dennis Belafonte with Alvin H. Marill, Citadel Press (1979)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

31 Days of Oscar: The Rains Came (1939)


There is no mistaking that drama on a grand scale is about to take place even before the first scene of The Rains Came (1939) begins. Alfred Newman's commanding score pounds, the title sequence rolls over the dark image of a rain drenched ancient city, and as each hand-lettered title appears it is soon washed from the screen as if swept away in a downpour.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

SWORD PLAY AND NOIR ON A MONDAY NIGHT


I wasn’t sure, exactly, what the word meant and was curious, so I went to the Internet in search of an answer. There I found the verb swashbuckle defined as “to engage in daring and romantic adventures with ostentatious bravado or flamboyance.” According to Merriam Webster, the word is a “back-formation” from the noun swashbuckler that came into use in around 1897. The Online Etymology Dictionary revealed more on the history of swashbuckler: 

1550’s “fighting, swaggering fighting man” (earlier simply swash, 1540s), from swash “fall of a blow”…plus buckler “shield.” The original sense seems to have been “one who makes menacing noises by striking his or an opponent’s shield.”

Fascinating. Well, it is if you love words as I do.