Capitolfest 2019 recap: movies, memories and unforgettable moments

Another Capitolfest is in the books and it was a wonderful immersive weekend of watching rare silent and early talkies and hanging out with a great group of classic movie fans (and friends) at the Rome Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y.

Nearly 30 shorts and feature films were shown, and I had not seen one of them previously. I heard the same from many others and I know that pleases organizers who go to great lengths to provide a program of rarely seen films.

Again this year, the Capitolfest audience was one of the first groups to see some of the films in many decades or in their restored versions.

In the case of “Sally, Irene and Mary,” an uneven 1925 silent starring Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford and Sally O’Neil, Capitolfest was only the second screening of the new restoration.

The delightful Alice Howell two-reeler “Her Lucky Day” (1920) was being shown to a movie theater audience for only the second time since the 1920s. The first time? Last November at the American Film Institute, putting  Capitolfest in esteemed company.

Baby Peggy’s expressive face was a highlight of the silent comedy “Helen’s Babies.”

The Library of Congress restoration of “Helen’s Babies” (1924), a Baby Peggy silent comedy, opened Capitolfest. At the end of the movie, we were treated to a 3-minute alternate sequence created from a nitrate print from Cineteca Italiana where the filmmakers simply had Baby Peggy play with a “collar box” without giving her direction. It was adorably hilarious. This was the first time I saw Baby Peggy on film and I fell in love with her expressive face.

It would be unwieldy for me to give my thoughts on every short and feature I saw at Capitolfest (which was all of them). Instead, here are some films that stood out to me. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed them all (two were so grim, they were depressing), but they resonated with me. I’m also giving a few highlights of some of the Capitolfest guests.

Peter McCrea, the son of actors Frances Dee and Joel McCrea, shared stories about his family. He bears a striking resemblance to his father.

Star struck moment

Before I talk more about the movies, there was a once-in-lifetime magical moment at Capitolfest that lingered with everyone.

Peter McCrea, the youngest son of Capitolfest 2019 spotlight stars Frances Dee and Joel McCrea, introduced his mother’s film “Caught.” The gasp in the audience was extraordinary when he walked out looking every bit like his father. I loved how we all looked at each other in disbelief – and with big smiles. You could hear whispered variations of “I’m looking at Joel McCrea!” throughout the audience. (Yes, me too.) He was incredibly nice to everyone and shared wonderful, detailed stories about his parents. Other film festivals, including Turner Classic Movies, should book Peter so he can share his stories with a wider audience.

We also heard from Victoria Riskin – the daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin – who returned to Capitolfest, and former child actress Cora Sue Collins. More on all of the guests will be found throughout this story.

The movies

On the first day, there were two films that explored dark, family dynamics. They weren’t enjoyable (I wonder if I would have finished watching them at home), but they had powerful performances and cut through to your heart.

The harsh “Rich Man’s Folly” (1931), from director John Cromwell, starred George Bancroft as a father so consumed with the need for a son to carry on his shipbuilding legacy that he destroys his entire family in the process. Francis Dee played his adult daughter, who possessed an unwavering love for her father. It was difficult to watch as the father emotionally shut down his daughter at every moment. A scene where she overhears her father wishing her dead drew audible gasps from the audience.

“The Strange Case of Clara Deane” (1932) was also difficult to watch. In this case, a talented seamstress and designer (played by Wynne Gibson) marries the wrong guy and spends 15 years in jail, wrongly accused of being his accomplice in a robbery. When she is released, she tirelessly works to find her little girl (played by Capitolfest guest Cora Sue Collins), despite any personal toll it takes on her.

Wynne Gibson, left, and Cora Sue Collins in a publicity still from “The Strange Case of Clara Deane.”

An early scene where she is forced to say goodbye to her daughter is gut-wrenching as the child runs crying and screaming alongside a fence separating the two. Just thinking about it as I write this is unsettling. When an audience member later asked Cora Sue how she did that scene, she told us this story. Two policemen came to the set and took her mother away. Little Cora Sue kept yelling “Bring my mother back” and they refused. She finally said “If you want me to cry, just bring my mother back.” (She clearly was much older than her years.)

It was the first time Cora Sue saw “Clara Deane” and she told us “I loved it. I didn’t figure out the ending.”

I was excited to see the restored 1924 silent version of “Captain Blood” with musical accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli. Ultimately, the 110-minute movie dragged a bit for me in some spots. Others didn’t feel that way and fully enjoyed it. (I know many were Googling star J. Warren Kerrigan afterward.)

George Willeman, the nitrate vault manager at the Library of Congress (is that the greatest job title ever?) discussed the restoration and explained that for many years the only available prints were missing key action scenes (some were removed for the 1935 remake!). Willeman said it was “a big deal” when they found scenes from various sources (including a 9.5mm print), especially “the money shot” – an amazing sequence of the tall ships sinking.

There is still more work they want to do with tinting and the color scheme, with plans to show a fully restored version of “Captain Blood” in 2020. Still, it was a treat to see this “restoration in the works.”

Gail Russell and Joel McCrea star in the mystery “The Unseen.”

I would like a do-over on “The Unseen” (1945, directed by Lewis Allen). I had read in several places that the film was a sequel or a follow-up to one of my favorite movies “The Uninvited.” If I hadn’t gone in with those expectations, I would have enjoyed “The Unseen.” Instead, I was so geared up to see a continuation of the story that when I realized that the two films were not related, I was so bummed out that I couldn’t enjoy “The Unseen.”

Talking with others afterward, I realized I actually enjoyed the film more than I thought. A young governess (Gail Russell) takes a job watching two children (whose father is played by Joel McCrea) and notices mysterious things happening around her. An opening murder, the recurring sight of a light moving between two buildings and a boy repeatedly talking to an unknown person on the phone, built up the suspense quite nicely. On that merit, “The Unseen” was a good mystery thriller. But its quick-to-resolve happy ending made it feel like someone on the set yelled  “it’s a wrap, we’re out of money.” I am definitely trying to find “The Unseen” to watch it again with fresh eyes.

Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea star in “Internes Can’t Talk Money,” the first film in the Dr. Kildare series.

“Internes Can’t Take Money” (1937) was a highlight. Considered the first in the Dr. Kildare series, it starred Joel McCrea who did a great job as the caring Kildare. Barbara Stanwyck is luminous as the female patient who makes a big impact on his life. The supporting cast is amazing – especially a young Lloyd Nolan who plays a surprisingly multidimensional gangster. The film also has a mother desperately trying to find her child – clearly a theme in movies of the time.

“The Men in Her Life” (1931) was one of the most talked about films at the festival. The consensus was that it was a wonderful movie with an awful title. (The title was so bad, everyone kept forgetting it.) Charles Bickford played a bootlegger who pays a woman (played by Lois Moran) to teach him how to become a gentleman. Yes, it’s the “Pygmalion” story in reverse, and I liked that. On the surface it would seem odd to cast Bickford as a romantic lead, but that’s exactly why it worked. His wiry hair is always a mess, he’s gruff and does not possess “matinee idol looks,” but I felt – and fell -for him watching how hard he tried to become a better man.

“The Curse of a Broken Heart” was an unexpected delight and a definite Capitolfest fan favorite. This 1933 spoof of old-time melodrama was so on-key it could have been spoofing movies today. The hissing, moustache-twirling villain quickly recalls the dastardly Snidely Whiplash of decades later. The hero – True Blue Harold – is a hoot, primping to the point he grooms his eyebrows. The short had not been made available by Columbia since its original release, but Capitolfest was able to obtain a print.

Victorian Riskin took time for an intimate question-and-answer session at Capitolfest.

Some quotes from Capitolfest

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the Capitolfest guests.

Cora Sue Collins on Pat O’Brien: “He was the most wonderful man, the sweetest dearest man. They kept casting him as a gangster and murderer, but he was the antithesis. I called him Uncle Pat and his wife Aunt Eloise all my life.

Victorian Riskin on her father, Robert Riskin: “My dad felt if people fell in love with American movies, they would fall in love with America and that turned out to be true.”

Peter McCrea on the 57-year marriage of his parents Frances Dee and Joel McCrea: “They had a rocky, wild marriage, it wasn’t smooth. They used to joke the divorce didn’t work out. They credited living on the ranch and Christian Science for keeping them together.”

Cora Sue Collins on Louis B. Mayer: “When Mr. Mayer issues you an invitation, it’s not an invitation, it’s a command performance.”

Victoria Riskin about her father’s writing: “A hallmark of his writing was that he cared about his characters, women are smart and most people are good. Humor is good but it’s best to avoid it if it’s at someone’s expense.”

Peter McCrea on his father, Joel: “Pops said he never liked to be higher off the ground than on a horse.”

Cora Sue Collins on her 1932 film debut in “The Unexpected Father” with Zasu Pitts: “We were walking down the street and a car came up and asked, ‘Would you like to be in pictures.’ … At casting, they lined up all the girls – they were looking for the smallest appearing child with a memory. In three days, I had my first starring role.”

Victoria Riskin on what drew her mother, Fay Wray, to writers, including her father Robert Riskin: “They were the smartest, most interesting and intellectual people. And she was very, very smart. She could finish a New York Times crossword puzzle in 20 minutes.”

The next Capitolfest

Capitolfest 18 is set for Aug.14 to 18, 2020 and showcases spotlight stars and sisters Constance and Joan Bennett. Watch the festival’s Facebook page for ticket availability and more details.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

August classic, repertory movies and special events in the Buffalo area

Before I get to the list of classic and repertory movies showing in the Buffalo area for August, I’d like to share info on the fourth annual Western New York Movie Expo and Memorabilia Show, a four-day event starting off the month with more than 100 movies and shorts from Hollywood’s Golden Age, along with vintage TV episodes.

The Expo is held from 10 a.m. to midnight Aug. 1 to 4 in the Buffalo Grand Hotel, 120 Church St. Tickets are $35 to $40 for the full event or $12 a day ($6 Sunday). There is a dealer’s room that is so big they call it a dealer’s emporium. Highlights include shorts and features from the greats of early  comedy including W.C. Field, Charley Chase, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy; silent movies and shorts with musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis including the 1929 film “Pandora’s Box”;  a celebration of Rod Serling and the “Twilight Zone’s” 60th anniversary; and retro TV episodes from the series starring Donna Reed, Danny Thomas, Red Skeleton and more . For full info, visit wnymovieexpo.com.

Now on to the screenings, in alphabetical order. Continue reading “August classic, repertory movies and special events in the Buffalo area”

Let’s go to Capitolfest and watch classic movies for three days

Pop quiz for classic movie fans:

Do you love film festivals, but find that larger events can sometimes be too much?

Would you like to do away with rushing between theaters and standing in long lines where the wait can sometimes be longer than the movie lasts?

Finally, would you enjoy the chance to watch classic movies the way you would have when they were originally released?

If you answered yes, let me introduce you to Capitolfest.

This three-day classic movie film festival, held every August in the small Central New York city of Rome, N.Y., takes the best of what we love about film festivals (The movies! The friendly faces!) and adds an engaging and affordable user-friendly experience. Once you go, you’ll want to talk your classic movie friends into joining you – just like I’m trying to do here.

I’m not the only one touting how much fun Capitolfest is – here’s a link to a story by Once Upon a Screen about the festival, including thoughts from some of her classic movie friends.

This is the unassuming front of the historic Rome Capitol Theatre. The theater’s original marquee will be re-created as part of a restoration project.

Here are my thoughts on Capitolfest, including a few highlights for Capitolfest 17, coming up from Aug. 9 to 11. Don’t worry, you still have time to make plans.

Why Capitolfest is special

Organizers pride themselves on giving us a unique experience by showing as many films as possible in 35mm – as they were shown when they were new – in the historic and beautiful 1928 Rome Capitol Theatre.

Capitolfest focuses on movies from the 1910s through the 1930s that aren’t easily seen elsewhere. In fact, some have not been shown for decades. They come from private collectors and such well-known institutions as the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film & Television Archive,  the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the nearby George Eastman Museum in Rochester.

This year’s schedule of nearly 30 shorts and features has some of my favorite stars (Edward Everett Horton, Constance Bennett, Barbara Stanwyck, Herbert Marshall), but they’re in movies I’ve never seen. What a treat it will be to watch these films for the first time.

You’ll appreciate the intimate and “user friendly” nature of the event, too. Since all movies are shown in one theater, there’s no running between venues or waiting in line. But that doesn’t mean you’re missing out: you can still watch movies from morning to late night as you would for a larger festival.

This laid-back setting allows you to come and go as you please; change your seat as often as you would like (you have to see at least one film in the balcony); grab concessions at old-fashioned prices (get there early for the doughnuts); visit the nearby dealer’s room (bring an extra bag for all your goodies) and hang out with your classic movie pals.

What’s happening at Capitolfest 17

Each year Capitolfest hosts a “tribute” star (chosen with help from previous attendees) whose movies will be part of the programming. In a surprise but welcome move, Capitolfest 17 will have two tribute stars: husband-and-wife Joel McCrea and Frances Dee.

The McCrea family has a special place in the hearts of many classic movie fans, especially those who visit their ranch in California which is open to visitors. Laura Grieve of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings recently shared her experiences about visiting the McCrea Ranch for Classic Movie Hub. It’s a wonderful read and the photos capture a serene and welcoming place.

At Capitolfest, we’ll get the chance to hear from their son, Peter McCrea, who will introduce the film “Caught” and take part in a Q&A on Saturday, Aug. 10.

He’s not the only link to Hollywood’s Golden Age appearing at the festival.

Victoria Riskin, the daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, returns to the festival to share stories like those found in her tender new book about her parents.

Former child actress Cora Sue Collins, left, who enchants fans at the TCM Film Festival, will introduce her 1932 film “The Strange Case of Clara Deane,” also starring Frances Dee.

It is the first time in Capitolfest history that a star from a film showing at the festival will also be in attendance.

Another highlight of Capitolfest is the musical accompaniment to the silent films on the theater’s original 3-manual, 10-rank Möller theatre organ. Performing this year are Ben Model, Dr. Philip C. Carli and Avery Tunningley.

Here are a few movies I’m excited to see at the festival. I know you’ll find your own favorites after  checking out the schedule here.

“Captain Blood.” This is not the Errol Flynn version. Rather, it’s the 1924 silent movie which will be shown with musical accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli. It’s a newly restored 35mm print from the Library of Congress. (7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9.)

“Sally, Irene and Mary.” This 1925 MGM silent about the lives of three chorus girls stars Constance Bennett,  Joan Crawford and William Haines. Musical accompaniment is by Avery Tunningsley. (7:55 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10.)

Gail Russell and Joel McCrea in “The Unseen,” the follow-up to “The Uninvited.”

“The Unseen.” I’m especially looking forward to this 1945 movie, a follow-up to one of my favorite films, the poetic ghost story “The Uninvited.” Gail Russell returns; McCrea and Herbert Marshall co-star. (9:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9.)

“Interns Can’t Take Money.” We’re all fans in some way of Dr. Kildare and this 1937 film starring McCrea is considered to be the first in the Dr. Kildare series. Barbara Stanwyck and Lloyd Nolan co-star. (3:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10.)

Outside of the festival, the documentary “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache,” the first female director, will be showing at the Cinema Capitol, located mere feet from the Capitol Theatre.

Sheila Bryans, left, traveled from England to attend Capitolfest 16. Ronald Colman was the tribute star of the fest and she is a big fan.

Organizers estimate about 90% of Capitolfest visitors come from out of town. But they don’t just drive in from such regional cities as New York City, Buffalo and Toronto, they come from as far away as Chicago, Florida, Texas and the West Coast, too. International visitors have attended as well, including Ronald Colman fan Sheila Bryans who flew in from England for the 2018 festival. As she discovered, Capitolfest was well worth the trip.

If you go

Capitolfest is held in the Rome Capitol Theatre, 220 West Dominick St., Rome, N.Y. For info on tickets, accommodations and the schedule, visit the Capitolfest page at romecapitol.com.

.

Classic, specialty movies showing in July around the Buffalo area

It may be warm outside, but there are still plenty of classic, repertory and specialty films being shown indoors around the Buffalo area. Want to watch a film outside? Head to the Transit Drive-In for its “Retro Tuesdays” film series with fun double features.

Classics and repertory

“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache.” 6 p.m. July 26 and 7:30 p.m. July 30 at the Screening Room Cinema Cafe. Documentary about the first female filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blache. Narrated by Jodie Foster.

“Charade,” 8:15 p.m. July 26 at Screening Room. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn star in Stanley Donen’s 1963 mystery romance.

“Easy Rider” has new screenings as part of a 50th anniversary celebration. (Sony Classics)

“Easy Rider,” 4 and 7 p.m. July 14 and 17 at Elmwood Regal and Transit. Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson play two bikers on a counterculture trip in classic road movie directed by Dennis Hopper. Part of the film’s 50th anniversary celebration.

“Glory.” 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday, July 21 and 4 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 24 at the Regal Transit and Elmwood. Plus 7 p.m. July 24 at the Dipson Amherst. Part of the TCM Big Screen Classics. Civil War drama about the first black regiment to fight for the North in the Civil War. Denzel Washington won his first Oscar as best supporting actor. With Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes.

“A Hard Day’s Night,” 7:30 p.m. July 12, 13, 19 at the Screening Room Cinema Cafe. A 55th anniversary celebration of The Beatles classic musical. The July 19 screening is followed by Beatles’ trivia.

“Moonrise” will be shown as part of Noir Essentials.

“Moonrise” (1948), 7:30 p.m. July 10 at the Dipson Eastern Hills. Part of the Noir Essentials film series. Director Frank Borzage’s late-career masterpiece about a bullied young man who tries to escape the fate of his  father, who was condemned to death for murder. Starring Dane Clark, Gail Russell and Ethel Barrymore.

“The Muppet Movie,” 12:30 July 25 and 12:30 and 7 p.m. July 30 at Regal Elmwood and Transit. Kermit hits the road to Hollywood and meets new friends along the way in the Muppets first full-length movie. Fathom Events.

Retro Tuesdays at Transit Drive-In (6655 S. Transit Road, Lockport). July 16, “Spaceballs” and “Blazing Saddles”; July 23, “Better Off Dead” and “Say Anything”; and July 30, “Caddyshack” and “Happy Gilmore.”

Premieres/specialty films

“Bite Me,” 7 p.m. July 21 at the Screening Room Cinema Cafe. Premiere of a romantic comedy about a vampire and the IRS agent who audits her. Post-movie Q&A with writer and star Naomi McDougall Jones. $10.

“Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am,” 8 p.m. July 6, 7, 9, 11 in the Screening Room Cinema Café. The Buffalo premiere of documentary by filmmaker Nick Mead about his friend and former E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” 7 p.m. July 17 at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Arts Center (617 Main St.). Oscar-nominated documentary is an intimate look at Hale County, Ala. and life in America’s Black Belt. Presented by Cultivate Cinema Circle and Squeaky Wheel.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service,” Dubbed version shown at 12:55 p.m. July 28 and 7 p.m. July 31; subtitled version is at 7 p.m. July 29. Regal Transit and Elmwood. The 30th anniversary shows of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime coming-of-age story about a young witch.

“Round of Your Life,” 6 p.m. July 6 and 11 at the Screening Room Cinema Cafe. Buffalo premiere of inspirational faith-based film about a teen who gains a second chance after his actions cause a family tragedy. Starring Richart T. Jones, Katie Leclerc and Evan Hara. Tickets are $6 to $8.

“White Material,” 7 p.m. July 18 in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center (341 Delaware Ave.). A French woman running a coffee plantation in Africa, refuses to leave when Civil War breaks out. Directed by Claire Denis. Part of Cultivate Cinema Circle’s series, “Post-Colonialisms: World Cinema and Human Consequence.”

Coming in August

The Western New York Movie Expo returns to Buffalo for the fourth year from Aug. 1 to 4 in the Buffalo Grand Hotel & Event Center, 120 Church St., Buffalo. There will be screenings of classic movies, TV shows, a dealers room and more movie-related activities. Visit the event’s Facebook page.

July on TCM: It’s ‘Out of This World’ for sci-fi fans

Giant ants, pod people, trips to the moon, journeys back in time and close encounters with aliens both friend and foe. It’s a dream lineup for sci-fi movie fans.

We get all of that and more during the TCM Spotlight “Out of This World: A Celebration of Sci-Fi Movies” every Tuesday in July.

The series has 34 sci-fi films broken into weekly categories.

It starts July 2 with a night of early sci-fi films including the one considered to be the first in the genre: “A Trip to the Moon” by George Méliès.

July 9 is dedicated to films of the 1950s, a highly influential film decade that gave us such classics as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “It Came from Outer Space” (see photo, above).

July 16 is broken into two parts. Prime time is dedicated to “moon” movies in tribute to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Late night (or very early morning) programming screens some great creature features including a giant reptile named Ymir.

July 23 is all about the 1960s with films from directors George Pal and Stanley Kubrick.

July 30 goes into galactic travel with films from the 1970s and ‘80s that changed Hollywood – including a little movie called “Star Wars.”

Remember – it’s no fun to watch movies alone, so be sure to use  #outofthisworld and join others in live tweeting the films. Movies start at 8 p.m. each Tuesday. Here’s the lineup.

The short film “A Trip to the Moon” was made in 1902.

July 2: Early Sci-Fi

8 p.m. “A Trip to the Moon” (1902)

8:30 p.m. “Metropolis” (1927)

11:15 p.m. “Woman in the Moon” (1929)

2:15 a.m. “Things to Come” (1936)

4 a.m. “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” (1940)

Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy are on the run from the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

July 9: The 1950s

8 p.m. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)

9:45 p.m. “The War of the Worlds” (1953)

11:30 p.m. “Forbidden Planet” (1956)

1:15 a.m. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)

2:45 a.m. “It Came from Outer Space” (1953)

4:15 a.m. “The Thing from Another World” (1951)

6 a.m. “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers” (1956)

The giant Ymir from “20 Million Miles to Earth.”

July 16: Moon Movies

8 p.m. “Destination Moon” (1950)

10 p.m. “For All Mankind” (1989)

11:30 p.m. “Countdown” (1968)

1:30 a.m. “From the Earth to the Moon” (1958)

3:30 a.m. “First Men in the Moon” (1964)

5:30 a.m.: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902)

July 16 (late night): Creature Features

6 a.m.: “20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957)

7:30 a.m. “Them!” (1954)

9:30 a.m. “The Blob” (1958)

11 a.m. “The Fly” (1958)

Rod Taylor takes a ride in “The Time Machine.”

July 23: The 1960s

8 p.m. “The Time Machine” (1960)

10 p.m. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

12:45 a.m. “Five Million Years to Earth” (1968)

2:45 a.m. “Marooned” (1969)

5 a.m. “12 to the Moon” (1960)

6:30 a.m. “Village of the Damned” (1960)

I still always hold my breath when little Barry (Cary Guffey) seems to be in danger in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

July 30: 1970s and ‘80s

8 p.m. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

10:30 p.m. “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977)

12:45 a.m. “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

3 a.m. “Solaris” (1972)

6 a.m. “Logan’s Run” (1976)

8:15 a.m. “Westworld” (1973)

10:15 a.m. “2010” (1984)

‘The Gorgon’: A look at Hammer’s most underrated monster

It was an easy decision to take part in the second “Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon,” a celebration of two studios that have given so much to fans of horror and fantasy (like me).  Once again, the blogathon is hosted by Barry P of Cinematic Catharsis and Gill Jacob of RealWeegieMidget reviews. It’s a fun idea with such an abundance of options that it’s hard to choose just one movie.

My initial thought was to write about my favorite creature: the vampire. An important member of the Hammer family, the vampire enjoyed its greatest cinematic transformation under the studio where it was made over from feared beast to a sensual killer, setting a new tone for vampire films to follow. (Thank you Christopher Lee).

But let’s be honest – the vampire, mummy and werewolf get all the horror film love (and the bulk of the movies, too). So I thought about a creature that has yet to get its due and there was only one choice for me: the snaked-haired Gorgon from Hammer’s 1964 film “The Gorgon.” (How underrated is “The Gorgon”? Even one of the in-depth books on Hammer Films brushes off the film in six paragraphs!)

Just thinking about the Gorgon freaks me out.

Many film buffs know this creature as Medusa from the inventive work of Ray Harryhausen in the 1981 film “Clash of the Titans.” In Greek mythology, the Gorgones (Gorgons) were three winged sisters– Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. They had hair of living snakes and could turn people to stone.

Continue reading “‘The Gorgon’: A look at Hammer’s most underrated monster”

5 favorite films from the 1950s

For Classic Movie Day on May 16, Classic Film TV Cafe hosted a blogathon asking movie fans to share their 5 favorite films of the 1950s. I missed the original announcement so it was too late to participate in the blogathon, but I did join others on Twitter by listing my five choices:

“Best of Everything”
“House of Wax”
“Picnic”
“Tarantula”
“Vertigo”

It’s an odd mix, I know. The only common denominator  is that I saw each for the first time as an impressionable kid, so my emotions are elevated with all of these 5 films. I do adore this misfit list that has creature feature/horror, romance, melodrama and masterpiece. Here’s a brief look at why.

Hope Lange, left, and Diane Baker start their new jobs at a publishing company yon the same day in “The Best of Everything.”

“Best of Everything” (1959)

Hollywood in the 1950s knew how to do drama and this Cinemascope soaper is one of the best. (It’s based on the first novel by Rona Jaffe.) I think I could love it simply because Johnny Mathis sings the romantic theme song that is repeated throughout the film.

But there’s so much I enjoy, like watching Hope Lang walk in for her first day on her first job at a New York City publishing company and hold her own with her tough new boss played by Joan Crawford. I’m intrigued by the endless array of women in the typing pool and their distinct personalities. (Did they really have to sit in rows like that and type all day?). I get a kick out of the excitable Diane Baker as the small-town girl who wants to be sophisticated (and doesn’t stand a chance because she’s so darn down-to-Earth). I feel for the aspiring actress (Suzy Parker), desperately in love with the caddish theater director (Louis Jordan – did I mention this great cast?) And I swoon over Stephen Boyd.

There are many characters with interesting, but not always happy, – storylines that the film is easy to watch over multiple viewings – I know from experience!

“House of Wax” (1953)

Vincent Price as a sympathetic character … in a fun house of a movie? Let’s start watching.

Even today when I see “House of Wax,” I feel like a kid eagerly waiting to be frightened by whatever is around the corner or lurking in the darkness.  “House of Wax” never disappoints.

Price plays a sculptor at a wax museum who is nearly burned to death when his business partner sets the museum on fire to collect insurance. He re-opens a museum, lovingly caring for his historical figures and always looking for the woman whose “likeness” he will use for his beloved Marie Antoinette. Here is my full disclosure moment: I know I have a soft spot for this film because of the many times Price speaks of his “Marie Antoinette.” My full name is Antoinette Marie so I pretend I hear his eloquent voice saying my name – just backward. (Yes, it’s weird but give me this simple joy.)

The movie was made in 3-D hence the hilarious scenes of the pitchman aiming his paddleball at the audience. (Try not to laugh the first time the ball comes at your face – I dare you.) The actor playing Igor (!) is credited as Charles Buchinsky, but you will recognize him as Charles Bronson.

William Holden and Kim Novak in one of the popular publicity photos from “Picnic.”

“Picnic” (1955)

I remember sitting cross-legged on the living room floor watching “Picnic” on the Sunday afternoon TV movie. As soon as the opening music started, I fell right into small-town Kansas in the 1950s. The film had an almost fairy-tale feel that was painted in Technicolor. I was enamored by the unfamiliar rural landscapes and swept up in the romance of drifter Hal (William Holden) and the beautiful Madge (Kim Novak) although I identified with her tomboyish little sister. (I was quite young when I first saw “Picnic.”)

There seems to be an innocence and simplicity of life in “Picnic,” but I’ve come to realize upon many repeated viewings that these quiet lives are deeply complex. It’s not all happiness and dancing to “Moonglow.” The “mean” mother was only trying to protect her daughter; the kind neighbor who cared for her invalid mother found her joy in the family next door; the boisterous “old-maid schoolteacher” was a desperate jumble of emotions ready to erupt and reveal the ugly side of vulnerability. (Rosalind Russell should have won an award just for that scene.)

It took me a while to understand that all of these emotions beyond the romantic – good, bad, sad- are why I never tire of watching “Picnic.”

Authorities can’t figure out how to kill the giant “Tarantula” in this B-movie favorite.

“Tarantula” (1955)

As a kid, I got to sneak out of bed and watch giant creature movies on late-night TV with my dad. I’m not sure if it’s the individual movies or the shared experience with him, but this remains my favorite genre.  We love “Tarantula” probably just because it’s about a giant spider and that would freak anyone out.

It has a familiar – and simplistic – creature feature plot: a scientist’s experiments go awry. (That’s all you need as a starting point for these films.) In this case, the scientist (Leo G. Carroll) is searching for a way to create an unlimited food supply. He experiments on animals, enlarging them and then, well, it’s called “Tarantula” for a reason. Watching as a kid, “Tarantula” was both terrifying (a spider big enough to stand over my house!) and fun. Today, it’s all fun.

“Tarantula” was directed by Jack Arnold who had quite a knack for making some of the most famous B-movies of the ‘50s including “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “It Came From Outer Space.” Those were all fun, too, but “Tarantula” still tops them all for me.

James Stewart and Kim Novak are desperately lonely and desperately in love in “Vertigo.”

“Vertigo” (1958)

Bored and confused. That’s what I remember feeling about “Vertigo” the first time I saw it. (In my defense, I was young.) Oh, I loved Jimmy Stewart of course (I was a big fan) and Kim Novak was quite lovely, but I had my problems with it. So, I did what I always do – started reading whatever I could about the film to figure out what I was missing. Today, I know that it is a Hitchcock masterpiece and, ironically, I defend its languid pace to those who think the film is too slow. (What is wrong with them?)

Scottie, a former detective (Stewart) who suffers from a debilitating case of vertigo, is hired by an old friend to help with his suicidal wife. After saving her from a drowning attempt, Scottie gets to know the blonde Madeleine. He is mesmerized by her, but ultimately, is unable to save her. Her death leaves him traumatized. Later he sees a woman who looks like Madeleine, except for her black hair. Her name is Judy and Scottie becomes obsessed, making her over into the image of Madeleine.

There is such a sadness enveloping “Vertigo.” I feel so much for Scottie and Madeleine/Judy. They are lost and desperately in search of love. Judy is so desperate for love, she lets Scottie change her to look like someone else. I think that’s the real reason I love this film – there is such a depth of emotion.

****

That’s it – a quick look at why I chose “The Best of Everything,” “House of Wax,” “Picnic,” “Tarantula” and “Vertigo” as my 5 favorite films of the 1950s. If you haven’t seen these films, I hope I’ve given you reason to check them out. If you do, let me know what you think.