Two’s A Crowd: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

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In an early Christmas present, the Museum of the Moving Image screened a 35mm print of John Ford’s unaccountably hard-to-see The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) this past Saturday. Unavailable on home video, aside from out-of-print VHS tapes going for $60 on Amazon, it deserves to be as well known as his Oscar winning drama from the same year, The Informer (his third film in ’35, Steamboat ‘Round the Bend, is no slouch either). A box office hit which revived the career of Edward G. Robinson, its descent into relative obscurity is puzzling, aside from the larger trend of studios choosing to ignore their own history. It has not even been released on Sony/Columbia’s DVD burn-on-demand service, which was made for titles like this.  In any case, it is an elegantly constructed farce that showcases the astounding range of Robinson, who can play delicate meekness and gruff murderousness for equal laughs.

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My heroes had always been cowboys, or “Hey, westerns, remember me?”

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I’m a horror guy. The older I get, the less I want to watch or write about any other kind of movie. It’s a juvenile, kneejerk response, and of course I will watch and enjoy other kinds of movies… but in my brainmeats I think I’m much more restrictive and exclusive than I really am. I recently was asked to write the liner notes (for want of a better word) for a DVD box set packaging five Universal-International widescreen westerns in one collection. I took the job because that’s what freelancers do, they live in the realm of the infinitely possible (calendar and clock be damned), in the land of Yes, county of Never Turn Down Work. “Westerns,” I thought to myself. “I’ve seen tons of ‘em. I can do this.” As I dug in, however, I found that not only did I enjoy the work but it seemed to feed me in a way, as if I’d been hungry all along and never even noticed. [...MORE]

Warner Archive Roundup

The Warner Archive continues to release an enormous amount of the WB back catalog, at a rate impossible to keep up with. Here is my vain attempt to catch up, covering a group of four films made up of bad men and one very bad woman. The most famous title is Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950), a devious noir/woman’s picture in which Joan Fontaine uses her seductive wiles to marry the heir to a family fortune. Then there is a trio of manly ne’er do wells, with Peter Graves leading a mercenary force in the spaghetti western The Five Man Army (1969), Robert Mitchum doing the same in a priest’s habit in The Wrath of God (1972), and Rod Taylor carousing his way through Dublin in Young Cassidy (1965).

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Stuff I love

I feel as though I’ve been complaining a lot lately. Pointing the finger. Assigning blame. And so, with my birthday looming, I’m going to take a break from all that and throw some love at you. [...MORE]

Favorite Director? Which Period?

Artists of all stripes (writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians) tend to go through different periods of growth.  This can produce smooth transitions or jarring discontinuity depending on the artist and the type of experimentation at hand.   In the world of film, this often produces two or three distinct sets of films that are of a piece within the director’s career but also seem as different from one another as if they had been done by completely different directors.  David Lean is a perfect example, going from smaller, more intimate films, like Brief Encounter, in his first period, to large canvas epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, in his second.

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Francis Ford: Cinema Pioneer in the Shadows

My fellow Morlock, R. Emmet Sweeney has written an excellent appreciation of the restoration of the long-lost John Ford film Upstream (1927)  that was recently screened at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Like Rob, I saw this delightful movie for the first time as well–though I was in a relatively small audience at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York with Philip P. Carli providing live musical accompaniment on the piano. The Dryden Theatre at Eastman House rang with laughter and applause last weekend in response to Upstream, though the audience was also held rapt by another movie on the program created by a member of the same family. Francis Ford (1881-1953), a man who acted in around 400 movies and wrote, directed and produced close to 200 films, preceded his baby brother, the four time Oscar winning director, John Ford, into the burgeoning movie industry by several years. Frank Ford is primarily remembered now as a fairly obscure and often silent member of the John Ford Stock Company in the background of numerous films, including Upstream, where he appears as a medicine show salesman who likes to guzzle his own wares.  On rare occasions in his long years as an obscure character actor, Francis had a few moments of glory: his brave (if thirsty) Revolutionary soldier Joe Boleo in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), the frightened victim of a lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), the old codger who rises from his death bed to witness the battle royal in The Quiet Man (1952) or his silent but animated coonskin-wearing Civil War veteran in The Sun Shines Bright (1953). While Francis was often a sad, peripheral figure after he gave up directing for acting in the late ’20s, filmmaker Francis Ford’s  When Lincoln Paid (1913), has only recently been restored after almost 98 years in obscurity, and highlighting a nearly unknown talent.

The film was a thirty minute, two-reeler, made for distribution by Kay-Bee pictures, (Kay-Bee was a subsidiary of Universal and was also known as Bison). The Civil War story may have been directed by and starred John Ford‘s elder brother and unsung pathfinder, Francis Ford a year before John Feeney’s arrival in California, but the seeds of the “Fordian” storytelling that recur so often in justly celebrated films such as The Searchers, Young Mr. Lincoln, and How Green Was My Valley can be discerned in When Lincoln Paid in less polished form, as characters cope with private pain and loss, the longing for revenge, the development of empathy and public action for a greater good. Long forgotten and assumed lost, this movie was unearthed by contractor Peter Massie, who came across a 35mm Monarch projector and seven reels of nitrate film tucked away and forgotten in the summer of 2006 as he prepared to demolish a barn in Nelson, N.H. It was eventually determined that this movie was the only surviving copy of one of the eight silent films starring Francis Ford as Lincoln; there are no known surviving copies of the others.

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All the World’s a Stage: John Ford’s Upstream (1927)

“If life in general is a play, then a theatrical boarding house is a burlesque show.” -the epigraph to Upstream

This past Sunday, the Museum of the Moving Image presented a screening of John Ford’s Upstream in NYC for the first time since the film’s debut over 80 years ago. Long thought lost, a nitrate print was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in early 2009, part of a cache of 75 titles now being preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation, in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The restoration work on Upstream was performed by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, under the direction of Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. The U.S. re-premiere occurred last September 1st at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, and has been slowly touring the country since.

Upstream is an effortlessly delightful comedy set at a rooming house for struggling show people. It’s as if Ford populated an entire film with Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hams from My Darling Clementine and Wagon Master. The main blowhards are Eric Brasingham (Earle Foxe), described as “the last and least of a theatrical family” (the beginning of the John Barrymore gibes), and the Castilian knife-thrower Juan Rodriguez (Grant Withers), although the inter-titles wryly note he was born in the midwest as Jack. These two-bit entertainers stumblingly woo Gertie (Nancy Nash) to be their partners in acts and in the bedroom. Ford fills in the edges of this triangle with even more colorful types: the “star boarder” played by Raymond Hitchcock as a flirtatious monocled dandy; the aging, earnest dramatist Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard); the permanently tipsy tap-dancing duo Callahan and Callahan; and the pushover landlady/fading Southern Belle Miss Hattie Breckenbridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus).

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BLACK JESUS: Woody’s Benediction

The closest Woody Strode ever got to playing the leading role in an American film was SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (1960), in which he portrayed the title character but was fourth billed after Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Tower and Billie Burke. In an ironic twist that makes sense in a Pre-Civil Rights Hollywood, Strode had to travel to Italy to finally receive top billing and the only genuine leading role of his career in BLACK JESUS (1968) aka Seated at his Right (the Italian title is Seduto alla sua Destra). It is probably one of his least known films but easily his biggest role and possibly his greatest performance.       [...MORE]

Woody Strode and Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

When John Ford decided to cast Woody Strode in the title role of Sergeant Rutledge, Warner Bros.  pleaded with him to cast a better known actor like Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte. Ford replied, “They aren’t tough enough.” That story, relayed by Joseph McBride in his Searching for John Ford biography, defines the mystique of Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode. With his taciturn manner and wiry athleticism, he was an immediately arresting presence on-screen. He brought more than an intimidating physicality though, secreting a constant melancholy behind those hooded eyes and chiseled face.

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Alfred Hitchcock Needs Our Help

This week the BFI (British Film Institute) launched a new campaign called “Rescue the Hitchcock 9” that asks the public to help them rescue 9 of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films. The original movies were shot on nitrate film, which is notorious for its incendiary properties. Nitrate film can also decompose over time and film archivists are forced to take drastic measures in order to preserve and restore these old films. The 9 silent films that Hitchcock made during the 1920s have badly deteriorated through the years due to general use and they’re currently in dire need of restoration. Thankfully there is new digital technology in place that can help repair worn and damaged films but the process is time consuming and costly.

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