Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)


To view the work of Toshirô Mifune on FIlmStruck, click here.

A quick search of Filmstruck brought up an impressive 24 films featuring the late great Toshirô Mifune including Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). Mifune was a giant in the world of Japanese cinema and although I’ve written a little bit about his background in the past in pieces such as Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne and in my review of his first film, Snow Trail (1947), I wanted to know more about the man who had appeared in so many of my favorite Japanese films. My curiosity led me to recently watch Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015). This 80-minute-long feature directed by Steven Okazki and narrated by Keanu Reeves is the first documentary to offer a careful examination of Mifune’s life and work. It is not available on FilmStruck at the moment but Mifune: The Last Samurai is a nice companion piece to their current programming and should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the rich history of Japanese cinema.


An Actor’s Revenge: Theatre of Blood (1973)


To view Theatre of Blood click here.

“It was a marvelous role because I got to play eight Shakespearean parts in it, which is a feast for any actor. And I got to knock off eight critics. It was a story dear to the heart of any old actor. It was a dream to make and very real to me. I really understand the man who is doing his very best and yet is unrecognized.” – Vincent Price, discussing his starring role in Theatre of Blood (1973) from The Price of Fear: The Film Career of Vincent Price, In His Own Words by Joel Eisner

In 1970 Vincent Price became discouraged by the state of his career. He was acting regularly, writing cookbooks, appearing on stage and in a variety of television programs while generously supporting the arts as a member of the Royal Society of Arts, the Arts Council of UCLA and the Fine Arts Committee of the White House, but he agonized over his reputation. According to his daughter Victoria Price and author of Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, her father worried that he wasn’t taken seriously by his fellow actors due to his career choices. The lack of respect from his peers encouraged the 60-year-old actor to embrace the monstrous roles he had made famous. From mad doctors to witch hunters and a plethora of Poe villains and antiheroes, Price had perfected the role of a sympathetic scoundrel.


Creative Collaboration: Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988)


When Jane Birkin (Blow-Up [1966], Wonderwall [1968], La Piscine [1968], Don Juan (or If Don Juan Were a Woman) [1973], Je t’aime moi non plus [1976], Death on the Nile [1978], Evil Under the Sun [1982], La Belle Noiseuse [1991]), Boxes [2006]) was getting ready to celebrate her 40th birthday in 1986 she confessed to filmmaker Agnès Varda that she had reservations about growing older. Varda, who was almost 60-years-old at the time, told Birkin that she was about to enter a wonderful phase in her life and asked if she could shoot a cinematic portrait of the actress, filmmaker, model and chanteuse that demonstrated her evolution. After some coaxing, Birkin agreed and together the two friends crafted the creative docudrama Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988) currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of The Masters: Agnès Varda collection.


Joan Bennett: Fritz Lang’s Muse


Joan Bennett got her start in Hollywood as a lovely, demure, fair-haired ingénue but made her mark as a sexy, feisty, dark-haired femme fatale. Her transformation was atypical in Tinseltown where many natural brunettes such as Carole Lombard, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, found success after becoming bottle blonds. Bennett’s makeover happened during the production of Trade Winds (1938), an amusing crime-drama where she plays a woman on the run from the law who is forced to change her appearance. She looked so striking as a brunette that she was inundated with fan mail after the film’s release and got approval from national hairdresser associations who publicly admired her exotic new ‘do. Critics disapprovingly compared her to Hedy Lamarr but according to the actress’s autobiography (The Bennett Playbill), she relished the idea of escaping the “bland, blond, innocent” image that had dogged her and the change of appearance brought about a newfound personal and professional confidence. Afterward Bennett became politically active, fell in love with producer Walter Wanger and began a creative partnership with director Fritz Lang that would forever alter the trajectory of her career.


A Martinez: The “A” Stands for Actor


Late in the fall of 1999, the British film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett in her breakthrough role, was released to great critical acclaim. I couldn’t believe reviewers and critics touted a film that was so clearly flawed (can anyone say “the 180-rule” or “screen direction”). And, the hyperbole surrounding Blanchett accelerated as awards season grew closer. Echoes of “the best acting of the year” were everywhere. Blanchett was fine, but for me it was another example of that stiff-upper-lip style of acting that Hollywood has been enamored with since Charles Laughton won the Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1934. As I reflected on America’s Anglophilia, I pondered what I thought might be the best acting of the year. It did not take me long to figure it out: It was A Martinez and Jacklyn Zemon in an episode of the ABC soap opera General Hospital.


Yves Montand: My First International Star

Z (1969)

We all have performers or movies that grant us entry into genres, eras, or styles. Spencer Tracy was one of the actors who got me hooked into classic cinema. Boris Karloff hooked me into horror. And Yves Montand was the first international star I ever really knew. Like many stars appealing to a new generation, it was his later work that I saw first and precisely what interested me in seeing his earlier work. I didn’t take too much notice of him at first but as he began appearing in more and more of the movies I was watching on Saturday afternoons in my childhood, I began to wonder where this fine actor got his start. For Montand, it started with singing and live performing until he was discovered by Edith Piaf. For me, it started with Z (1969).


Out of the Closet: Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

On September 19 TCM is airing a Tab Hunter double feature.
More info about programming can be found at the end of my post.

Everyone loves a good Hollywood tragedy. The violent murders of Sharon Tate and Sal Mineo generate more press and web articles than the body of work they left behind while the estates of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean continue to benefit from our endless fascination with early death by misadventure. For better or worse, we obsess over stories of fallen stars who died while they were still young and beautiful as well as those who died violently or wasted away in obscurity. Stories about celebrities who endure great personal and professional hardship but manage to survive and thrive into comfortable old age tend to sell fewer magazines. Tab Hunter’s story is a survivor’s story. It’s uplifting, empowering and intriguingly retold in Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), a new documentary directed by Jeffrey Schwarz that was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray. It is also currently streaming on Amazon and Netflix.


Life Advice from Douglas Fairbanks


TCM’s evening programming tonight spotlights silent film star and original action hero Douglas Fairbanks. If you tune in you can catch him in The Good Bad Man (1916), The Half-Breed (1916), The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926) and The Private Life of Don Juan (1924) beginning 8PM EST and 5PM PST. Coincidentally, I recently finished reading a great new biography about Fairbanks titled The First King of Hollywood by author Tracey Gossel. The book is one of the best actor biographies I’ve read in recent years and provides an extensively researched, extremely thoughtful and informative look at one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the silent era.

I learned a lot about Fairbanks from Gossel’s book that I didn’t know before. One of the more memorable takeaways was discovering his progressive views on race that greatly impacted the films he made. I was also impressed by the depth of his lifelong friendship with Charlie Chaplin and disappointed to learn that his relationship with his son (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) was so strained. In addition, it was a treat to discover how he expressed himself with the written word in passionate love letters to his wife and fellow screen icon, Mary Pickford. And I was even more surprised to learn that Fairbanks had written some inspirational self-help books in association with his friend and personal secretary, Kenneth Davenport.


Classic Hollywood Actors Discuss Women, Beauty & Femininity with Arlene Dahl


You can catch Arlene Dahl in a number of films airing on TCM in July:

Arlene Dahl was a stunning redhead and a capable actress who I’ve enjoyed watching in a number of films including REIGN OF TERROR (1949), SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949), WOMAN’S WORLD (1954) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). However, her most successful career was in the multibillion-dollar beauty industry where she started as a syndicated columnist offering advice on dieting, plastic surgery, make-up, fashion and the latest hairstyling trends. By 1954 she was managing her own line of lingerie and cosmetics under the Arlene Dahl Enterprises banner and in 1965 she published her first of many books titled Always Ask a Man: The Key to Femininity. Dahl’s book capitalized on her Hollywood credentials and dished out beauty tips along with suggestions on how women could best attract and keep their men.

With the women’s movement on the rise and the sexual revolution bubbling loudly under the surface of polite society, the mid-sixties was a challenging time. Especially for women like Arlene Dahl who had accepted her place, no matter how begrudgingly, in a society that often treated her like a second-class citizen. And although she had admirably managed to create a successful business for herself at a time when American women still weren’t allowed to get an Ivy League education, Dahl makes it clear in Always Ask a Man that she was no bra burning radical. Her antiquated ideas about womanhood are supported, and in some cases weakened, by a surprising number of male actors who are quoted throughout her book. These beloved film figures, including Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Bob Hope, Richard Burton and Burt Lancaster, freely offered their thoughts on femininity and beauty to Arlene Dahl, which she undoubtedly hoped would help sell her book and boost her arguments. 50-years-later, many of the actor’s casual comments are cringe-inducing reminders of a bygone era while others are more thoughtful and enduring. As history, particularly Hollywood history, their observations on women in 1965 makes for fascinating reading so I decided to collect some of the more provocative quotes and share them here.


Cooking with Sophia Loren


Next Tuesday (April 21st) TCM is celebrating the illustrious career of Sophia Loren with a tribute that includes three important TCM premieres beginning with the first U.S. television screening of HUMAN VOICE (La voce umana, 2014). This bittersweet 25-minute film is directed by Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti, and is based on the iconic Jean Cocteau play about a woman whose final telephone conversation with her lover reflects her despair over losing him. This is followed by THE GOLD OF NAPLES (L’oro di Napoli, 1954), an anthology that gave Loren one of her first starring roles; and the saucy comedy drama MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE (1964), made at the height of her reign as a leading screen goddess.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are the times I spent visiting with my Italian nonna or as I affectionately called her, “Nana.” Nana was my great grandmother who was born in the Piedmont region of Italy and arrived in America around 1915 when she was a young woman. Nana never learned how to speak fluid English and preferred her native tongue, which sounded like pure poetry to me. Unfortunately, this meant we couldn’t communicate very well due to my lack of Italian language skills but her warm eyes and welcoming smile spoke volumes. I can vividly remember watching Nana cook Italian meals for large family gatherings and the smells coming from her kitchen were always intoxicating. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my great grandmother was a culinary artist and she taught many of the women in my family how to cook.

My great grandmother passed away long before I became interested in cooking but I often wish she was still around to offer me some tips and advice. Instead, I’ve had to rely on cookbooks and cooking shows to learn the ins and outs of Italian cooking and I’ve recently found myself turning to the lovely Sophia Loren for advice. Loren is one of my favorite actresses and the curvaceous Italian beauty also happens to be an accomplished cook who wrote a number of successful cookbooks.

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