Bayou Breakout: Cry of the Hunted (1953)

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After a career of making B-pictures for Columbia and Poverty Row, Joseph H. Lewis signed a contract with MGM in 1950. His calling card was Gun Crazy (1950), a daring crime film whose location photography and long-take heist sequence created a buzz in Hollywood, if not at the box office. MGM executive Dore Schary screened the film at his home, and brought Lewis into the fold. They sold him on the idea of making a documentary portrait of Cuban immigrants, “no actors, done with all portable equipment”, but this bold experiment never materialized. The idea was recycled into the Hedy Lamarr vehicle  A Lady Without Passport (1950), which was Lewis’ directorial debut for MGM. Their artsy hire became just another contract director. But Lewis was used to working miracles off of threadbare scripts – he earned the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe” on B Westerns by continually bisecting his compositions with wheel spokes. One of the most delirious examples from this period is Cry of the Hunted (1953), about the manhunt of an escaped prisoner through the Louisiana bayou, that Warner Archive has just issued on DVD. Lewis takes every opportunity to ratchet up the intensity: he pushes into extreme close-ups to emphasize flop sweat, lenses a fog-choked hallucination brought on by swallowing swamp water, and captures intense on-location footraces up the Angels Flight funicular in Los Angeles and long take brawls through the Louisiana Bayou. The characters don’t have time to take breaths, and in its svelte 80 minutes, neither does the viewer.

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Pulling the Strings: What Every Woman Knows (1934)

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When Helen Hayes was cast in the 1926 Broadway production of What Every Woman Knows, she was not yet “The First Lady of the American Theater”. According to the show’s producer William A. Brady, she had previously been “deep in the high heels and lipstick business – flapper roles”. It was with the part of the pragmatic “Maggie” in J.A. Barrie’s 1908 play, a Scottish battle of the sexes, that she established the Hayes persona, her civilized veneer holding back a mischievous spirit. The show ran for 268 performances and rave reviews. After further Broadway successes in Coquette (’27) and The Good Fairy (’31), she signed with MGM in 1931 to extend her career into the movies. It seemed natural to have her return to her breakthrough role, and What Every Woman Knows was directed by Gregory La Cava in 1934 – available now on DVD from the Warner Archive. But it was a frustrating experience for all involved, hampered by poor test screenings and re-shoots. Hayes was so disappointed in the process she stopped acting in films for nearly two decades. Regardless of the off-screen dramas, the film itself is a charming comedy about a smart young spinster who manipulates the men in her life into prominence, becoming a behind-the-scenes power broker. It is a rare treat to see Hayes reprise her star-making role, and it is a layered performance built on hundreds of stage repetitions, in which every glance is like a conductor’s wand, controlling the men around her.

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Passing Fashion: Kay Francis at Warner Brothers

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In 1935 Kay Francis was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood, a glamorous star who set fashion trends based on the gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her. In 1939 Warner Brothers terminated her contract. This rapid fall from corporate favor is documented in three films the Warner Archive recently released on DVD:  I Found Stella Parish (’35), The White Angel (’36), and Confession (’37). All feature Francis as the suffering center, absorbing the sins of the world in sacrifice for the virtues of motherhood and mercy, expressed in extreme close-ups where Francis radiates a divine glow. Stella Parish and Confession are urban melodramas that offer Francis the opportunity for multiple hair and costume changes, one of the main pleasures of any Francis film, whereas The White Angel, a Florence Nightingale biopic, keeps her in heavy woolen nursing gear. It was the latter that disappointed Warners. It was perceived as a flop (though it actually turned a profit), and started the downshift in her career. None of these movies are masterpieces (see Trouble in Paradise for that), but the compensatory pleasures of any Francis film – gorgeous gowns, a dizzying array of haircuts, and a heart-tugging melodrama of female self-sacrifice.

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Ugly American: Run of the Arrow (1957)

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In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.

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Martial Art: Pedicab Driver and the Golden Harvest Library on Warner Archive Instant

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Last week Warner Archive snuck out a minor announcement with major implications. Six martial arts films from Golden Harvest studios were made available in HD on their Instant streaming service, in their original language and aspect ratios. Golden Harvest was the proving ground for Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan,  Sammo Hung and Jet Li, producing some of the most enduring kung fu films from the 1970s through the ’90s. These days Golden Harvest has segued from production to exhibition, and their classic titles remain frustratingly hard to see in decent transfers. Warner Brothers owns the U.S. rights to part of their catalog, and the initial six titles are only the beginning. On their Twitter feed Warner Archive promised, “we’re just starting to tackle the domestically unreleased Golden Harvest library”.  Available now to stream on Warner Archive Instant are: Downtown Torpedoes (1997), Big Bullet (1996) , The Blade (1995), Blade of Fury (1993), Pedicab Driver (1989)  & Terracotta Warrior (1989). While many of these titles are far overdue for release on DVD and Blu-ray, the fact that WB is preparing HD masters of these films is reason for optimism. I started the month-long free trial of their Instant service to check out Sammo Hung’s Pedicab Driver, an irresistible showcase for his knockabout acrobatics that packs in a public transit war, human trafficking, and Triad gangs into its 90-odd minutes. 

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Postwar Amnesiac Blues: The Clay Pigeon (1949)

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After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the NightThe Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.

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The Show Must Go On: 42nd Street (1933)

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When sound came to cinema, the musical came along with it. The tremendous box office returns of The Jazz Singer (1927) had producers reeling, and the market was soon flooded with song and dance. But the Depression-era audiences began tuning them out,  preferring the patter of William Powell to the tapping of another chorine. By 1931 the studios had slashed musicals from their slates and were brainstorming what went wrong. In the May 1931 issue of the Motion Picture Herald, Paramount’s Jesse Lasky was optimistic about the future of the genre:

A gradual but inevitable return of music to the screen is predicted by Lasky. He believes the future will bring a sprinkling of operettas, a reasonable number of musical comedies, dramatic pictures with backgrounds of symphony orchestras. Citing the public’s attitude toward musical comedies, he contends that picture audiences were given something before they were prepared for it. “There is merely a need of a little more skillful technique and a better understanding on the part of the public”, explained Lasky. “The public was not prepared for the license of the musical comedy. For years we had trained the public to realism. The stage naturally had a dramatic license which was impossible in pictures. Audiences could not get used to music coming from nowhere on the screen. Nevertheless, musical comedies will come back and the public will become accustomed to that form of entertainment. In the next two or three years they will have forgotten that there ever was any question about musical comedies.”

In 1933 all questions were dropped after the massive success of WB’s 42nd Street, a snappy, streetwise backstage musical that introduced the world to the symmetrical spectacles of Busby Berkeley’s dance choreography. Now out on a sparkling Blu-ray from the Warner Archive, it’s clearer than ever why this was the film that brought the musical back into the spotlight.

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Horseplay: Black Midnight (1949)

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In June of 1949, Roddy McDowall was twenty years old, and it appeared his acting career was winding down. He had been in the business for over a decade, having first appeared on screen at the age of nine in the British production Murder in the Family (1938). At twelve he signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and in 1941 appeared in both Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. The studio saw money in pairing the cute kid with animals, from the horse in My Friend Flicka to the collie in Lassie Come Home. Fox dropped him from their contract in 1945, as adolescence started dimming that innocent young boy glow. McDowall recalled that, “My agent told me I would never work again, because I’d grown up.” In this uncertain period, he took on parts at independent Poverty Row studios, including a part in Orson Welles’ Macbeth, for Republic Pictures, and a few “grown up” animal films for Monogram. One of these was Black Midnight (1949), directed by Oscar (not yet “Budd”) Boetticher. Released on DVD by Warner Archive, it’s a 66 minute programmer that pairs McDowall with an unruly black stallion that he befriends, tames, and defends against a murder charge. Filmed in the windy mountains of Lone Pine California, it emphasizes McDowall’s open, easy charm, and his awkward, spindly body. Almost every sequence ends in a pratfall  – into a creek, party punch, and a pond. But by the end he’s reached something approaching adulthood, in a trial by fists.

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Johnny Mercer Goes Hollywood: Old Man Rhythm (1935) and To Beat the Band (1935)

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Johnny Mercer is one of the finest lyricists the United States has ever produced, contributing “Moon River”, “Fools Rush In” and “Days of Wine and Roses” to the Great American Songbook. Before he wrote that string of immortal hits, he tried (and folded) his hand at movie stardom, appearing in some sprightly B musicals for RKO starting in 1935. In the early 1930s Johnny Mercer was just another hard working lyricist, with his steadiest paycheck coming from the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as both writer and singer. He had made a name for himself in 1933 with “Lazybones”, written with Hoagy Carmichael, which attracted the attention of the aging but still popular “Pops” Whiteman. The hope was that Mercer could replace the recently departed Bing Crosby in his touring road show. The Savannah-born Mercer was paired with legendary Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden, and they formed a kind of Southern comedy duo, interpreting Fats Waller and “Harlemania” for the white masses. Their routines were enough to get the attention of Hollywood, and RKO lured him West. Mercer had dreams of contributing songs to major musicals, but he had to prove his mettle in the Bs first. The Warner Archive recently released a DVD of Mercer’s first two silver screen forays, the irresistible college comedy Old Man Rhythm (’35) and morbid farce  To Beat the Band (’35). These cheap B pictures are enlivened by the spectacular talents RKO had at its disposal, including  choreographer Hermes Pan, production designer Van Nest Polglase and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, Out of the Past). They are Bs that look like As, and though none of Mercer’s tunes in these films became standards, there were no duds. Billie Holiday agreed, and would record “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” and “If You Were Mine” from To Beat the Band later in ’35.

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Cagney the Comedian: Boy Meets Girl (1938)

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By the end of 1935 James Cagney was irritated. Under his Warner Brothers contract he was assigned four-to-five movies a year, almost all in the pugilist-gangster mold. Cagney was getting burnt out on the repetition,  just as he was becoming a top ten box office attraction. Seeking a higher salary as well as greater input into his roles, Cagney walked off the studio lot and sued them for back pay. He had become a bad boy on-screen as well as off. He spent his time separated from WB making a couple of small features for the independent Grand National Pictures (Great Guy (’36) and Something to Sing About (’37)). The suit was settled in 1938, and Cagney was back at work at WB. His return film was the inside-Hollywood farce Boy Meets Girl, which was a recent Broadway hit. A rapid-fire parody of tinseltown excesses — it tracks the rise and fall of a literally newborn superstar — it allowed Cagney to stretch his comic chops. He gets to enact all of his mischievous Hollywood fantasies: mouthing off to the unit production chief (Ralph Bellamy), insulting soft-headed actors and inciting extras to riot. Cagney and Pat O’Brien play exaggerated versions of the famously acerbic screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as they sweet talk their way into the heart of a naive mother whose baby becomes an overnight star. This cockeyed comedy is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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