Thursday, April 28, 2011

Men We Love: Ramon Navarro

The Rabbit of Seville (1950)

Bugs Bunny as The Rabbit of Seville
When discussing the musicals of the 40's and 50's, it is easy to forget that over at Warner Brothers, a group of talent led by Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Carl Stalling, and Mel Blanc, among others, was busy making some of the finest musical shorts of the day. The Rabbit of Seville is one of two Bugs Bunny shorts from the 1950's (along with 1957's What's Opera, Doc?) which combine animated slapstick comedy with traditional operatic forms and music in a way that both highlights their similarities, and minimizes their differences. It is not so much that opera has been made to look like a child's cartoon, rather than Jones and team are showing us how similar the two forms already were.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thrill of a Romance (1945)

Esther Williams, "America's Mermaid"
It is a little known fact that between the years of 1942 and 1955, MGM employed a highly paid executive think tank, composed of all the relevant experts in the fields of music, psychology, women's fashion, and aquatics. Their sole task, to concoct interesting and original plots revolving around the eternal, unfailing premise of Esther Williams in a bathing suit. Boy, they had some doozies. While in her early films she generally played a woman who simply liked to swim, by the late 40's her roles got more and more elaborate, usually with Williams playing some form of underwater dancer at one of the many nightclubs with swimming pools that proliferated in the 40's. She was also cast in a biopic of famed swim star Annette Kellerman (perhaps best known for her introduction of the one-piece bathing suit to America); she played a sea goddess, crossed the English Channel with Tom and Jerry, and headed up an all-water ski Busby Berkeley chorus line.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Women We Love: Brigitte Lahaie

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney as Blizzard.
Before there was Tom Savini, there was "The Man of a Thousand Faces," Lon Chaney, the great silent horror actor who quite literally wrote the book on movie make up techniques--among other contributions, Chaney wrote the first edition on film make up for the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1929. In addition to the usual array of powder and grease paint, Chaney used most anything he could find to achieve the results he wanted, and never shied away from possibilities that would be too dangerous or uncomfortable for most anyone else. In The Phantom of the Opera alone, he put a film of egg white over his eyeballs to make them appear cloudy, and stretched a piece of fish skin over his face in order to reshape its basic contours. While the claim that an inhaled grain of artificial snow from a film set caused the throat cancer that killed him is likely false, he did cause irreparable damage to his health through make up and effects used in at least two films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Penalty.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in their first screen pairing
Billy Wilder's 1966 comedy tries to tempt lightning into striking twice by redecorating The Apartment as a satire about the great American pastime: lawsuits.  As in that 1960 tragicomic masterpiece, Jack Lemmon plays a man whose general decency is all too easily swept under the rug when it gets in the way of the more powerful men in his life.  Although it can't play in the same league as Wilder's greatest films, it's nevertheless a nimble comedy that introduced one of cinema's great comedy duos by pitting Jack Lemmon against Walter Matthau for the first time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Men We Love: Boris Karloff

Honolulu (1939)

Eleanor Powell and Robert Young

Believe me, the last thing I want to do is say a harsh word about any of the paltry handful of films left to us by the great Eleanor Powell. When she retired in her prime in 1944 to get married, a terrible blow was dealt to the world of movie musicals, and I'm not sure MGM ever really recovered (although signing Ann Miller in 1948 was a solid step in the right direction). She matched an endearing girl next door charm with just a touch of Hollywood glamor and the fastest damned footwork you've ever seen. She starred in only nine films, plus a couple of supporting roles, far too few for a woman of her tremendous talent. While several of these films, such as Born to Dance and all three Broadway Melody titles, rank among the finest musicals ever made, others just don't make the cut.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

R.I.P. Elisabeth Sladen: 1948-2011

We don't usually cover television here at Spellbound (although that might change in the future), but there was no way that I could keep myself remarking on the tragic passing of Elisabeth Sladen -- known to millions of fans as Sarah Jane Smith, the definitive companion on Doctor Who.

Those of us interested in film and television, particularly those whose interests extend beyond the most contemporary works, are constantly confronted with the deaths of people we don't know but whose works have enriched our lives, entertained us, been a source of comfort or excitement.  Hell, just in the brief time Allex and I have been running this blog we've now run three eulogies.  All of this deaths fill us with sadness and a sense of loss for all the future work they might have given us.

Even still, it is rare that a headline fills me with as much shock, brings such immediate tears, as did the news of Ms. Sladen's passing.  As much as anyone ever associated with the show, Lis epitomized what Craig Ferguson described as Doctor Who's message: "the triumph of romance and the intellect over brute force and cynicism."  For nearly forty years she was associated with a role that inspired countless fans the world over, and she played it with a grace and joy that frankly made the world a better place.

Those that worked with her can put it better than I ever could:

"Never meet your heroes' wise people say. They weren't thinking of Lis Sladen. Sarah Jane Smith was everybody's hero when I was younger, and as brave and funny and brilliant as people only ever are in stories. But many years later, when I met the real Sarah-Jane – Lis Sladen herself – she was exactly as any child ever have wanted her to be. Kind and gentle and clever; and a ferociously talented actress, of course, but in that perfectly English unassuming way." - Steven Moffat

"I just can't believe that Lis is gone. She seemed invincible. The same woman who enchanted my childhood, enchanted my time on Doctor Who and enchanted generations who have watched her and fallen in love with her – just like I did. I feel very honoured to have shared a TARDIS with Sarah Jane Smith, and I feel very lucky to have shared some time with Lis Sladen. She was extraordinary." - David Tennant

Our hearts go out to Ms. Sladen's family on this sad, sad day.

Shanghai Express (1932)

The Shanghai Express, a three day rail journey down the coast of dark, forbidding China, carrying passengers as remote and distant from each other as they are from their faraway homelands in Europe and America. Their loves and hates and desires for one another, based on snatches of conversation overhead moments or a lifetime ago, make each of them as incomprehensible as the constant barrage of the Chinese language, which is always shouting questions no one wants to know the answer to. The Shanghai Express is caught in the middle of a mysterious civil war, and though the train's passengers are by and large not political, they are nevertheless embroiled in a conflict they don't understand, though they know it could kill them at any moment. Or worse. The Shanghai Express. Hell.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The World of Jacques Demy: Juvenilia (1944-1959)

I recently acquired a set of box set containing the complete works of filmmaker Jacques Demy.  As I removed the plastic and began to peruse the set, it positively screamed "blog about me!"  (For the record, if you don't hear your DVD's talking to you, I assure you that they are, you just aren't listening correctly.  Otherwise I'd just be crazy, and that can't be right.)

In all seriousness, this set is really an ideal choice for a complete filmography review here at Spellbound.  First, it's just the right size.  Too small a set of movies and there's not enough material to merit a series, much less get any kind of comprehensive vision from watching them consecutively.  Too many films, and the project would be exhausting for blogger and reader alike.

Second, it's kind of a rare opportunity to be able to pick up a complete filmography in one go.  I don't know about you, but most filmmakers I'm interested in I end up picking up their movies in bits and pieces over weeks or months.  Sometimes it takes years to track down elusive films or wait for decent DVD releases.  This comprehensive set means that the only impediment to my progress will be my own laziness or distractability.

Finally, I am in the nice position of being just familiar enough with the work of Mr. Demy to be certain that I'll enjoy watching all his films and sharing them with you all, but not so familiar that I can't come to them with fresh eyes.

So I hope you'll join me for the next few weeks as we explore together the works of this remarkable filmmaker who has yet to receive his due regard here in the United States.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Women We Love: Soledad Miranda

The Big Trail (1930)

70mm Fox Grandeur was a beautiful thing

Watching Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, I am troubled by two persistent questions for which, I fear, there can be no satisfactory answer. If they could make movies that looked and sounded like that back in 1930, why didn't they make more of them? And of course, why did it take Hollywood nearly ten years to realize what a powerhouse they had in John Wayne?

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Major and the Minor (1941)

Ray Milland, "the Major," and Ginger Rogers, "the Minor"
The films of Hollywood's golden age seldom have much shock value for viewers today. After all, the Hays office was there to make sure things never got too interesting, handing out last minute marriage licenses at all the right moments so things stayed respectable. Thankfully, the directors of the period were nothing if not inventive, so a surprising amount of scandal seems to have flown just under the radar. There are times, though, when our own standards today have become more conservative, so plot twists the Hays office didn't blink an eye at are downright shocking today. Enter Billy Wilder's US directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, a patriotic war-years comedy about a military school instructor who falls in love with a twelve year old girl.