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Steve Cochran Centennial

25 May

Steve Cochran would have turned 100 today, May 25, 2017. (He died in 1965.) He was a character actor who was most active in the 1940s and ’50s, most often playing dark, good-looking heavies in crime films and westerns. He was under contract for a while to Samuel Goldwyn Productions and later to Warner Bros. where he made what I consider to be his best films. He’s probably best known for WHITE HEAT (1949), in which he had a key supporting role as one of the robbery gang led by cold-blooded killer Cody Jarrett, played masterfully by James Cagney in his spectacular return to gangster roles after a decade away from the genre.

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Raymond Burr Centennial

21 May

Raymond Burr would have turned 100 today, May 21, 2017. He’s most famous for three roles, two on television and one in the movies. On television he first starred in “Perry Mason,” portraying the title character, a criminal defense attorney who won almost every case he took. The series premiered on CBS in 1957 (sixty years ago this fall) and ran for nine seasons (until 1966). He then returned to the role in a run of 26 TV movies that began in 1985 and continued until his death in 1993. (The final film aired after his death.)

Perry Mason 1957:

Perry Mason 1985:

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Musicals or Films about Music? THE GREAT CARUSO, SERENADE and IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN

12 Feb

Last month I watched three films on Turner Classic Movies that made think about the relationship of music to movies and music to audiences. What struck me about all three films was the way music was part of the fabric of the society portrayed and played an integral role in community life. In two of the films and most of the third, the music is presented as performances in places and venues where it made perfect sense to perform songs and instrumental musical pieces. Only one of the films, IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (1947), directed by Richard Whorf, featured people breaking into song amidst the settings and activities of everyday life, although this only happens two or three times in the movie. Every other number in the film is a performance number in places where it was perfectly logical to perform music. The other two films starred the great American tenor Mario Lanza: THE GREAT CARUSO (1951), directed by Richard Thorpe, in which Lanza played opera legend Enrico Caruso, and SERENADE (1956), directed by Anthony Mann, a grand melodrama based on a novel by James M. Cain about an opera singer’s rise, fall and rise again in contemporary America. One can make the case that THE GREAT CARUSO and SERENADE are not, strictly speaking, musicals but instead are films about music.

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2016: The Year in Film

30 Dec
The audience amasses for SHIN GODZILLA at the Village East Cinema on October 11.

The audience amasses for SHIN GODZILLA at the Village East Cinema on October 11.

2016 was my first full year of retirement. I made 33 trips to movie theaters, the most trips I’ve made in a single year in over two decades, and I saw 34 movies there. Ten were Hollywood films, 19 were foreign films, mostly from Japan, and the rest were indies. Five were documentaries and eight were animated.

I picked 15 films to highlight from the year, eight new films seen in New York theaters, three revivals, two films seen in theaters in Japan, and two more recent Japanese films seen on the airplane flight to Japan. One of the revivals is generally considered to be a masterpiece, while the film at the top of the list may one day be considered one. As for the others, their virtues outweighed their flaws enough to put them on such a list. Nine of the fifteen are Japanese. Four of the fifteen are documentaries. I only saw ten current Hollywood studio releases in theaters this year and only one is on this list. When the final tally for the U.S. boxoffice is announced, there’ll be very few films in the top ten—or the top 100—that I’ve seen. Since I’m no longer at the office discussing superhero and comic book movies with my younger co-workers, I no longer feel the need to rush out to see these films. My two favorites of the year are at the top of the list. The rest are grouped this way: films I saw in theaters in New York; revivals; films seen in Japan and on the flight to Japan. Most of these descriptions are taken from the notes I composed for my daily film log after seeing the films. Where applicable, I’ve included links to complete reviews I did, including blog entries and IMDB reviews.

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The Best Films of 1956

18 Dec

The older I get, the more I like watching films from the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, especially the mid-1950s. I like revisiting my favorites from that period and continually discovering new films from that time, be they westerns, dramas, crime movies, historical epics, musicals, sci-fi, horror, etc. It was a unique period for filmmaking, as Hollywood was undergoing a transition from the studio era, its ironclad contracts and ownership of theaters to one of independent production, independent theater chains, a loosening of the Production Code, more location shooting and greater acceptance by the public of foreign films. The old guard was still turning out exemplary work, as seen in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and King Vidor, all of whom had gotten their start during the silent era, while younger directors with bolder visions and new stylistic approaches had emerged during and after the war, including Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. In addition, a host of new talent was emerging from television, Broadway and documentaries and quickly finding their way to Hollywood, including Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. These overlapping waves of directors offered an unprecedented talent pool the likes of which Hollywood has never seen since. It’s no coincidence that a group of French film critics developed the auteur theory around this time.

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Asian Detectives in 1930s Hollywood

1 Nov

Once upon a time Asian super-sleuths, independent crime-fighters of Chinese or Japanese origin who were usually one or two steps ahead of the police in solving murders, were quite popular in Hollywood. They were, with one notable exception, played by Caucasian actors. There were three distinct characters around whom series of films were created in the 1930s: Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong. The Chinese Chan was portrayed by Swedish-born Warner Oland in the 1930s, Sidney Toler in the late ’30s and early 1940s, and Roland Winters in the late ’40s. The Japanese Mr. Moto, an agent working for the International Police, was played by Austro-Hungarian actor Peter Lorre. The Chinese Mr. Wong was played by British actor Boris Karloff. Lorre and the Chan actors played their roles with distinct Asian accents while Karloff played the Oxford-educated Wong with his normal voice. All three characters drew on the stereotype of the exotic, inscrutable Asian sage with depths of knowledge and wisdom derived from ancient traditions. Chan, in particular, was given to issuing frequent fortune cookie-style aphorisms that were often played for laughs. (E.g. “Mind like parachute – only function when open” and “Inconspicuous molehill sometimes more important than conspicuous mountain.”)

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland):

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Japan Journal, Part 7: Eiga Story 1965

11 Aug

One of the things I picked up during my trip to Tokyo that I wanted to share with readers is a Japanese film magazine from 1965 called Eiga Story, found at a flea market table in Ueno Park amidst tons of other old film magazines and comics. On the cover is a photo of Hayley Mills, who’d been a child star in Disney movies (e.g. POLLYANNA and THE PARENT TRAP), and had finally graduated to teenage roles at the time, getting her first screen kiss that year in THE TRUTH ABOUT SPRING. I opened the magazine on the spot and was happy to see excellent-looking color spreads devoted to popular Hollywood films and stars of the time with b&w entries devoted to numerous releases in Japan of Hollywood and European films. Since I was going to films regularly in 1965 and had even seen some of these films during their initial release, I was curious to see what Hollywood films got the most hype during their release in Japan.

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