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LAST UPDATE January 20, 2020

Reviews of Classic Film, with artwork and news

Make Me A Star - 1932

1932 Make Me A Star

Ruth Donnelly: It must've been funny.
Joan Blondell: Maybe, to anyone who could laugh at an explosion in a coal mine.

Make Me A Star should've been titled The Birth of A Clown. Stuart Erwin plays Merton Gill, a midwest grocery delivery man who has dedicated all of his waking hours to preparing to be a movie star, preferably a cowboy movie star.

He is practicing his cowboy riding skills dressed in full cowboy regalia when he is exposed to the town and is forced to choose between refocusing his energy on the grocery store or else he'll be replaced - so he chooses to pack his suitcase with his clothes and his correspondence school acting class materials and he goes to Hollywood, certain the time has come for him to join in making "uplifting movies."

What follows are weeks of waiting in a casting department (run by Ruth Donnelly) at Majestic Studios, Gill hoping for an acting part no one has any intention of letting the inexperienced amateur have. A frequent visitor to the administrative building is Joan Blondell (as actor 'Flips' Montague) who, out of pity, intervenes to get Gill some work as a scene extra, something he originally eschewed as beneath him when he first arrived in Hollywood. Shortly after, in a moment of chance improvisation on the movie set, Gill is given an opportunity to say a line, which he consequently blows repeatedly, and is fired from the film.

Rapidly becoming destitute, he takes to sleeping on the movie lot, hidden amid the sets, eating out of the garbage, because he knows if he leaves the studio grounds the guards won't let him back in. Blondell's character again intervenes, and Gill is enrolled as a comedy actor into a parody Western movie being produced by Jeff Baird (played by Sam Hardy). However, Gill doesn't know the film is a comedy and he is coached to think he is making a "regular oater" which centers on his (unbeknownst to Gill) funny imitation of Hollywood cowboy star "Buck Benson" (played by George Templeton). Gill plays his part with complete sincerity and has to be lied to when he notices how many comedy actors are also in the cast (such as Ben Turpin). At the film's premiere, though, Gill finally realizes he is the center of laughter in a cowboy farce. In crushed humiliation he is again forced into a position of having to make a choice about his future, and inexplicably, Joan Blondell's character is there, hugging him as the end credit comes up.

Make Me A Star suffers mightily from not being able to achieve what it sets out to do. Set up as a comedy about an untalented actor imitating the unreality of Hollywood cowboys, instead of multiplying the comedy this instead negates it, creating a sad, emotionally morose tale of Hollywood expectations smashing up against Los Angeles realities. Blondell's character seems to be the only person in the film with a hint of what's happening, and most of her scenes feature her big eyes loaded with concern for the slow-motion collapse of Merton Gill's psyche.

Make Me A Star reaches for comedy but doesn't allow either Blondell* or Stuart Erwin to be funny, and the film flirts with being a brilliant melodramatic tale about how a classic clown actor is born from sadness in the form of Gill realizing he completely lacks the dramatic talent he spent years imagining he had. The revelation that audiences find him hilarious beckons the cast and script toward Pagliaccio** territory. But the moment passes, the irony is lost, and Make Me A Star plods forward trying to wrap up the story with romance (Blondell and Erwin together at the end).

In a different film about Hollywood comedy and drama, Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, that movie ends with Sullivan, a film director who had the ambition to make dramatic, "uplifting movies," discovering that comedy is valuable in its own right (something he learns due to the horrors Sullivan experiences in his tour into America to "find out what trouble really is"). Something like the revelation that Sullivan experiences is what Make Me A Star needed for the whole tragedy of Merton Gill to make sense.

Stuart Erwin Make Me A Star 1932

*Blondell is featured in a superficially similar 1937 movie Stand-in in which we the audience are given a backstage tour of what goes into making a movie, and that later film is truly a comedy (and Blondell provides some of the humor) that balances the funny with a minor dramatic plot about shenanigans wrecking the finances of a movie studio.

**The Pagliaccio story is of a professional clown actor who must keep entertaining and making the audience laugh while he himself is tormented by a deep emotional trauma.

Someone new will now be running Turner Classic Movies

Pola Changnon is the new general manager of TCM.

"...Changnon, formerly SVP of marketing, studio produciton and talent for TCM, replaces Jennifer Dorian, who TCM says has chosen to leave after 20 years at Turner."

Story at Deadline Hollywood

Best Picture nomination titles for the 2020 Academy Awards

Story at wcvb

El Cid

El Cid Charlton Heston

The 1961 El Cid is the very model of 1960's epic historical drama films, and because it was early in the cycle it set a template for both the visual drama for medieval war with gigantic armies and also box office expectations. Heston was on board the project from the beginning, and the next step was to get Sophia Loren signed up. This happened after the scripting work got further along (both Heston and Loren didn't like the early scripts, and in fact Heston said the original pitch to him by producer Sam Bronston was when there wasn't a script at all, just a trip to Spain and a pile of historical records to use for research.)

More on El Cid with Chuck Heston and Sophia Loren

Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell

How I Lost My Girlish Laughter - a 1930's novel about 1930's Hollywood, reissued by Vintage

Article talking about this unusual Golden Age of Hollywood 224 page novel at Los Angeles Times

I Lost My Girlish Laughter - Amazon

Chandu the Magician - 1932

Edmund Lowe Chandu the Magician

Chandu the Magician - Released September 18, 1932. Directed by William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel

In Chandu the Magician, Bela Lugosi, still bathed in the fame of the 1931 Dracula, now as Roxor the evil magician, delivers his lines with the same intensity as the Count, but is also still working on his English (he calls Chandu "my ahnemy") and mostly steals the show from the other featured players in this 1932 adaptation of the radio program.

Edmund Lowe is Chandu, and as the film starts up, we see him graduating to become one of the yogis of a company of yogis (who are dressed like Hindus but speak in sentences that copycat the King James Bible). These men use their mystical powers to police the world and especially to fight evil magicians utilizing similar mystic powers. Like a graduation dissertation of his skills, Chandu then displays his power for us. He walks on fire undeterred by the flames. He creates an astral projection duplicate of himself that walks above him. He commands a rope to vertically stand into the air without any supports, and a young man climbs the rope to the top and disappears into the ether. The tricks now over (we never see the disappeared man again and like the magic power of Doctor Strange*, Harry Potter, or Gandolf the Grey, how any of this is possible isn't explained), the movie gets down to business and we learn that Chandu, "alone of his race," has been allowed to learn the way of the yogis, and is now required to fight in defence of "goodness, that which is noble, that is which is sane." We also learn that Chandu is in love with Princess Nadji (Irene Ware) of Egypt, but she can't be interested because she has dedicated her life to serving her people and this allows no time for love.

Meanwhile, Roxor (Bela) is culminating a plan to steal a "death ray" device from scientist Robert Regent (played by Henry Walthall) which he plans to use to rule the world, happily describing how he will destroy civilization and reduce humankind to a state of savagery (speaking of such goals, this being a film of 1932, an obvious parallel is created. 1932 is the same year Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, and with this in mind, watching Bela, dressed in a black uniform, and pretending to rave like a madman, he seems like a cartoon version of Hitler** from contemporary news reel films).

Chandu is drawn into the case when Roxor has the scientist's family kidnapped, and using them as leverage, Roxor pressures the resisting Robert Regent to explain how to use the death ray device (the obvious question that comes to us but is never answered in the film is why Regent built this death ray in the first place, something so destructive and powerful that when Roxor obtains it he promptly titles himself "Roxor the god").

The enormous 'death ray' machine itself looks like a combination of a telescope, a cannon, and a hyperdermic needle with a gigantic Edison light bulb stuck onto one end. Roxor intends to use this new technology to cancel all other technologies, but as the mystic Roxor cannot understand how the 'death ray' works and needs instruction, the film script (by Barry Conners and Philip Klein***) creates a clever secondary clash between the world of electrical technology and the occultic world of Roxor/Chandu and the yogis.

Chandu the Magician is a film often dismissed in film books with a few lines giving the movie a drubbing, often taking time to say Bela stands out but that Edmund Lowe is terribly miscast as Chandu. A 21st century viewing of the film is more sympathetic. Elements of Chandu show up in so many other later films that it seems like a hidden progenitor of tales that cross over into a whole galaxy of other genres. The foreign adventure of Indiana Jones movies, 1999's The Mummy, and 20th and 21st century magical wizards in general all have a line of descent from Chandu, not to mention the general sense of possessing superhero powers straight out of a comic book at a time when the comic book didn't yet exist.

Herbert Mundin is in Chandu the Magician as the comical character Albert Miggles, Chandu's sidekick, mugging at the camera and whimpering like a child when threatened (and he gets threatened a lot in this film). Also, he is an important element of a traveling party in exotic lands that packs along comedic relief just like food and water (a paradigm imitated in so many later Hollywood movies about trans-sand traveling).

Edmund Lowe and the rest of the cast are bound by the early sound technology of talkies, and the way the characters are often strewn about chairs and standing by static objects makes any scene with dialogue a sometimes starchy affair. The exception is Bela, who goes way over the top at times, but nonetheless enlivens any scene he is in and is inventive in the way he responds to whatever the other actor on the screen is doing (or not doing, as the case may be. Perhaps he is at his most extreme when isolated onto the screen alone to directly rave at the audience.) Lowe is nowhere near as poor as past reviewers make out, he is simply as stately and stiff as the rest of the cast, but in wordless sections he's actually quite good (for example when he is disguised and on a rescue mission at the slave auction house), and he plays his part with earnest professionalism.

Probably the main impediment film reviewers have is not Edmund Lowe but that Chandu is so clearly aimed at the maturity and intelligence level of a child, and the story itself, with the romance between Chandu and Princess Nadji, to Miggles' goofy slapstick, is best seen through the eyes of a nine-year old (though making Miggles an alcoholic tormented by Chandu's tricks preventing him from imbibing is strange comedy for a kid's tale). Chandu's clearest failing is not establishing an adult level of story above the childish one (something that has been done in other films, such as the Harry Potter movies) and instead Chandu the Magician mixes the two elements together and this creates a muddle.

The art direction for Chandu by William C. Menzies is first rate, and the spectacle of some of Chandu's sets reminds the viewer of the spectacle of a 1930's De Mille film, or the early Warner's Tarzan. Chandu's photographic special effects are also well done, and in the original release were probably as important to the movie as the characters themselves.

The cleaned up print used in the HD Blu Ray edition helps makes Chandu one of those few early 1930's films that still has sharp, clean and delicately embellished visuals.

Though the story mentions various Egyptian gods, the Greek Fates, and Hindu gods, too****, not to mention Roxor's claim that he himself has become a god by gaining the 'death ray,' the actual power here resides in Menzies' direction and the trick photography of James Wong Howe.

Amazon - Chandu the Magician Blu-ray

*Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee has said that superhero magician Doctor Strange is based on Chandu the Magician.

**The scripting work has many fathers: IMDB lists Barry Conners, Philip Klein, Harry A. Earnshaw, Vera M. Oldham, R.R. Morgan, Guy Bolton, Bradley King, and Harry Segall.

*** A swastika design on wall tile appears in the backdrop in one scene of the Chandu the Magician, utilized presumably for its historical value as an emblem related to shamanism and not for the connotations related to Hitler and the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany.

**** But no mention of the Biblical God, as close as we get to it is that Roxor declares that like "Samson's power was in his hair, Chandu's power is in his eyes" such that the remaining story of the film features the bad guys trying to claw Chandu's eyes out. In the biblical telling, Samson prayed and received his power from the God of the Bible. In Chandu the Magician, the power source for Chandu isn't ever elucidated, nor is it for Roxor, we are left to guess as to the source of their mystical strength.

Chandu the Magician

How the digital wars between Netflix, Amazon, Disney and others is creating a question whether antitrust action will be needed to level the playing field

In the world of classic film, the hope is that the various classic film libraries owned by hundreds (perhaps thousands) of companies and individuals will have ways to get online for streaming and sales in HD formats. The danger is that, along with all other activities, digital companies will misuse the data they are collecting on users.

Story at Hollywood Reporter

Criterion announces new titles for March 2020

Criterion is bringing out HD Blu-Rays of the following classic titles: Leave Her to Heaven (Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde, 1945) and Show Boat (the Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne 1936 version).

The Bishop Misbehaves - 1935

The Bishop MisBehaves 1935 - Edmund Gwenn

Released September 13, 1935. Directed by E. A. Dupont

"Mystery" movies of the thirties often used a story-telling technique unique to the mystery genre at that time that incorporated a sense of "cuteness" and self-awareness (something lost almost entirely by the time of the advent of "noir" films) about the improbabilities in the plot of a mystery tale. The Bishop Misbehaves has this peculiar 1930s attitude, but Edmund Gwenn's portrayal of a cleric who is also a mystery novel aficionado uses these unserious aspects to build toward something deeper. As the story becomes more complex and the threats to the principals (Gwenn, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lucile Watson, Reginald Owen) increase, Gwenn shifts the comedic aspects of the tale into a springboard for the Bishop to seriously contemplate his role as a priest, his fannish concentration on detective stories and how this may have disturbed his sense of duty, and what is the best way to serve his congregation and others, provided he survives. Not a bad trick for an otherwise light-hearted romp around a Hollywoodian England full of fog and funny dialogue.

Mystery Men - 1999

The Mystery Men Movie

Mystery Men, released Aug 6, 1999. Directed by Kinka Usher

It is not very often that in reviewing a film that one gets the idea that a movie simply had too much budget, but Mystery Men is one of the occasions (there are others, 2012's John Carter is another example).

With a visual style that apes the Batman movies of preceding years, Mystery Men's saga of a second-rate superhero team that has to work to both fill out their less than illustrious roster (they turn away Pencilhead, among others) and then they have to congeal into a force to stop Casanova Frankenstein and his henchmen (the Disco Boys, who cry out angrily when confronted about the passing into nostalgia of their musical genre, "disco is not dead! Disco is life!"), this movie directed by Kinka Usher has to fight to keep its quirky strangeness intact when the CGI and grandiose movie sets begin to overwhelm it.

Ben Stiller (as Mr. Furious) and William H. Macy (the Shoveler) team up at night with Hank Azaria (the Blue Raja) to fight petty crime, with often disastrous results. From a distance they admire the highly effective and more familiar in a Superman-kind-of-way Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), who tackles the big-time villains (and has his uniform covered in brand-name endorsement patches). But when Captain Amazing disappears, captured by the psychotic Casanova Frankenstein (played by Geoffrey Rush), then Furious, Shoveler and Blue Raja need to up their game in order to rescue Amazing and to stop the growing power of Casanova Frankenstein over their city.

To pad their team, they hold superhero-team tryouts, and out of an assortment of bizarre applicants only The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) shows any skill at superheroing: she can hurl a bowling bowl into the air which then careens about like a guided missile, annihilating targets, returning to her hands like Captain America's shield. However, once the bowling bowl has returned, she chats with the skull embedded into the center of the ball, the remains of her father who was slain by Casanova Frankenstein's main henchman Tony P (played by Eddie Izzard), and as the story progresses we learn that the bowling ball wants revenge.

The movie is based on the comic books of Bob Burden whose stories both satirize and parody comic book superheroes, but also builds an alternative world where strange and un-normal people struggle and thrive in a mirror world that is in many ways more realistic than anything from Metropolis or Gotham City.

Mystery Men is flawed by how hard the production is trying to make the film look and feel like a legitimate superhero movie from a big production house, with slo-mo crashes and explosions, and the other detritus of large budgets, unneccessarily limiting the more interesting story of how this odd superhero team works out its interpersonal problems. Mystery Men's plot isn't particularly original either, but in a clever way the characters push out from amid the claustrophobia of familiar superhero cliché and present a unique and entertaining alternative world from out of staid superhero mythos.

Fast Reviews:

Flaming Star - 1965 - Elvis Presley as a "half-breed" who has to deal with conflicting loyalties when his father (white) and mother (Kawai) are caught up in a rapidly increasing spiral of violence between settlers and the nearby Kawai tribe. Unusual for an "Elvis film" with Presley playing his role straight as a peace-loving, dutiful son who turns 180 degrees when the mounting cruelty and desperation of clashing hatreds force him to choose which civilization he's going to belong to. Film features writing that rises above the average at times and Presley has a number of good scenes, but the film gets stiff too often and sometimes Elvis underplays when we want him to break out. Even with flaws a unique "Elvis" movie and an effective Western.

The Manchurian Candidate - 1962 - The surviving members of a Korean War battalion often find themselves saying ‘Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life,’ something which even the actual Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), their former combat leader, knows is false. He recognizes himself as a cold, loveless veteran who hates his mother (Angela Lansbury) and resentfully mourns that she broke up his relationship with the only girl he ever loved (Leslie Parrish), who happens to be the daughter of his mother's bitter political rival (John McGiver). Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra (as Major Marco), a member of Shaw's battalion, is being tormented by repeating dreams about Shaw and the rest of the battalion, and begins to suspect that their time as prisoners of war wasn't exactly as they remember it. When he and Shaw compare notes, they're both confused about what exactly has actually happened to them. Great writing from George Axelrod with a satiric edge from the Richard Condon novel. Director John Frankenheimer imbues the proceedings as a dark story of manipulation with the cast facing growing paranoia and fear, with images of American advertising regularly popping up into the background.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood - 2019 - Brad Pitt as a stunt man linked to a slipping TV and movie actor (played by Leo Di Caprio) trying to survive in Hollywood while roles are drying up. Often humorous look at movie production circa 1969, with vignettes of Bruce Lee, "spaghetti westerns" and the Manson Family, along with Di Caprio's fading actors' new neighbors: the glamorous Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Director Tarantino has made this affectionate look at "old" Hollywood in the same vein as Inglorious Basterds, which means it is a counter-historical story that ultimately works out as a big middle finger, this time directed at Charlie Manson instead of Adolf Hitler. (Because of the humorous way Once Upon A Time in Hollywood presents Bruce Lee, the movie was refused playing in China.)

Classic film titles coming on Blu-Ray

Kino Lorber is releasing new classic era film titles to home video:

Konga - 1961 - A baby chimpanzee taken to a London lab is subjected to accelerated animal growth, with King Kongian results.
Konga Kino page
Konga (Special Edition) [Blu-ray] - AMAZON.

The Great McGinty - 1940 - Preston Sturges first directed film with Brian Donlevy as a crook who decides to go straight at the worst possible time. Cast includes many of Sturge' "regulars" and is the first film in his 1940s comedy streak of movies featuring his ace dialogue writing. Film releases on Blu-Ray Jan 14, 2020.
The Great McGinty Kino page
The Great McGinty (Special Edition) [Blu-ray] - AMAZON

The War Lord - 1961 - Chuck Heston as a knight sent to Normandy to govern unhappy villagers along the coast, and after arrival he is smitten with a local girl (Rosemary Forsyth), complicating matters greatly. Directed by Francis Schaffner. Releases Jan 21, 2010.
Kino page for The War Lord
The War Lord (Special Edition) [Blu-ray] - AMAZON

Cary Elwes Princess Bride

Virginia Leith, 94, has died, star of 'The Brain That Wouldn't Die'

Obituary at Hollywood Reporter

Leith also appeared in Violent Saturday (1955) with Victor Mature and Richard Egan. Among other credits are A Kiss Before Dying and Kubrick's very first feature film Fear and Desire (1953).

She had many TV show credits, such as: Police Woman, Barnaby Jones, Starsky and Hutch, Baretta as well as many others spanning from 1956 to 1980.

Laugh, Clown Laugh - 1928

Lon Chaney - Laugh Clown Laugh

A tormented, depressed man (Lon Chaney) goes for help to a doctor. The doctor suggests he look up the local circus featuring the famous clown Flik to brighten his life with laughter. The only problem, as the man answers, "Flik will never make me laugh," because he is Flik.

More Laugh, Clown Laugh


Starstruck: Vintage Movie Posters from Classic Hollywood

Archive 507


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Audrey Hepburn Poster Breakfast at Tiffanys

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