From book to screen: The haunting beauty of ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’

The sublime beauty of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” can fill your heart and break it at the same time.

It’s in the faces of the equally lovely Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, perfectly paired as the title characters. It’s in the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Charles Lang who paints the screen with hauntingly beautiful shades of shadow and light. And it’s in voices often so tender that a hushed utterance of a single word like “Lucia” can send goosebumps up your arms.

We’re drawn into this universally beloved film even before the opening credits roll. In an unusual move, the 20th Century Fox logo is not accompanied by the stately Fox fanfare, but by music from Bernard Herrmann that starts with a deep, swirling rumble and opens into an almost painfully sweet crescendo. It will repeat throughout the film, never losing its emotional power.

Everywhere you look or listen, this 1947 supernatural romance from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wraps itself around you in a comforting cocoon.

That’s why “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” always felt like it existed only in movie form to me – and one that was nearly as perfect as any could be. The film about a sheltered widow moving into a British seaside cottage inhabited by the ghost of its owner holds a magic all its own. Somehow, I kept skipping over the opening credit that read “From the Novel by R.A. Dick.” I’ll blame that on the fact that I was too wrapped up in the splendor of Herrmann’s music and the scenery to read the credits.

I was always too busy listening to Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score and watching the crashing waves to see that “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was based on a novel.

It wasn’t until a few years back that I stumbled on “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” by R.A. Dick while looking for books adapted into classic movies to read on a cross-country trip to the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is one of the offerings in the very cool Vintage Movie Classics book series launched in 2014 by Random House under its Vintage Books imprint. (“The Night of the Hunter,” “Back Street” and “Cimarron” are among others.)

Because of this embarrassing gap in my film history knowledge, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” seemed a good choice for me to explore for the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. It’s not Great Classic Literature with capital letters in the sense of Bronte, Austen, Dickens or Twain, yet this slim novel deserves credit as the basis for one of the most universally beloved classic films.

Setting the film’s atmospheric mood was the Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography by Charles Lang.

Often with classic movies based on literature we have either read the original novel – “Frankenstein,” “Pride & Prejudice,” “Rebecca,” “A Tale of Two Cities” – or at least have a CliffsNotes familiarity with it. You may not have read “Wuthering Heights,” but you know Heathcliff and Catherine.

But, I knew nothing about the book form of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or its author so there was a lot to be excited about: Tierney and Harrison were perfect on screen, but did they fit the author’s original vision? How did the romance – so chaste in the movie – develop in the book? Would there be deep words of love between them or would it be hidden behind a softly uttered “Me, dear” as in the movie? Were R.A. Dick’s other stories equally mesmerizing?

The answers were surprising.

Author Josephine Leslie wrote “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” under the pen name of R.A. Dick.

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was published in 1945 under the pseudonym of R.A. Dick by Irish author Josephine Leslie. There’s not much out there about her other than she wrote two, possibly three other books over 20 years or so including “The Devil and Mrs. Devine.” She wrote barely any description of the lead characters other than their size (“Little Lucy Muir” and that the Captain was tall with broad shoulders) and there were no additional proclamations of love.

Think of the book this way: If it was published today, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” would be on a summer reading list or labeled a beach read  – those easy-to-read books that sweep you away for a relaxing few hours. It is a slim novel written with an economy of words that speak volumes. Leslie (as we’ll call the author from here) also has a way with descriptive, poetic dialogue. “The wallpaper had gone past fading into death,” is a wonderful visual of Gull Cottage. Lucy’s words in trying to make sense of unexplained happenings could be a poem: “There aren’t any ghosts really. They always turn out to be the wind in the chimney, or shadows on the wall, or branches tapping on the window.” The best of Leslie’s dialogue is used in the movie.

* * * *

As the novel opens, the author helps the reader understand in only a page that Lucy Muir has led an oppressed life, and that the young widow and mother is yearning for a life that is her own – not her late husband’s, nor his family’s.

She has finally found the courage to leave the house she lives in with her husband’s mother and sister for a fresh start by the sea. Arriving in Whitecliff, she fixates on the one property the house agent doesn’t want to show her: Gull Cottage. Very inexpensive, fully furnished and with a gorgeous sea view, Gull Cottage has been uninhabitable for the 10 years it has been on the market. Previous tenants haven’t lasted 24 hours, yet Lucy stubbornly insists on seeing it. The twinkling of the eyes in a portrait, the discarded lunch in the kitchen of someone was “called away in a hurry” and Lucy’s delight in seeing the clean telescope in the otherwise dusty house are the first signs that the house is haunted.

“Haunted! How perfectly fascinating,” she says with a big smile in the film and we know this haunted house story veers from traditional ghostly encounters. It is not interested in terrifying its audience, but rather wants to explore a woman’s fight for her independence as well as as the deepening relationship based on mutual respect of two characters that grows in the most unexpected way.

The ghostly inhabitant is Captain Daniel Gregg whose much talked about suicide was really an accident caused when he kicked over the gas heater as he slept.

Though it’s easy to assume Lucy fell under a ghostly spell, it worked both ways as our ornery sea captain was no match for the newly independent and determined Lucy Muir. Their bond formed almost immediately. Formalities are dropped – they become Lucy and Daniel to each other – and they make peace. She’ll take care of the cottage he built and he’ll stop his ghostly shenanigans (as long as no one messes with his “Lucia,” the swoon-worthy name he gives her). The story is sprinkled with light moments of humor such as when Lucy picks up the captain’s salty language such as “blasted.”

When she gets into financial difficulty and fears she’ll have to leave Gull Cottage, Daniel has her write out his life stories in a book on the “unvarnished life of a sea captain.” It’s a success.

Coming into their comfortable existence is the handsome and charming Miles Fairley Blane who sweeps her off her feet while hiding his own secrets. Though his portrayal in the book is different than the movie, the final effect is the same.

Actors Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison were perfectly matched on screen as Lucy and Daniel.

Adapting a book into film

Screenwiter Philip Dunne was brought in to turn Leslie’s efficient novel into a film. He had previously adapted such works as “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1934), “Magnificent Obsession” (1935), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1936) and “How Green Was My Valley” (1941).

In her forward to the Vintage Books edition of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani does a wonderful job in explaining Dunne’s talents. “Mr. Dunne was a master dramatist, keen and spare in his process. He would take apart a novel, pulling threads from it like a lacemaker. Mr. Dunne would hold on to some characters, discard others, restructure timelines, winnow down scenes, remove some altogether, and add new ones to create the most powerful screen narrative from the source material.”

That’s what Dunne did here. Let’s take Miles as an example.

Miles Blane (George Sanders) is a charming man with secrets who becomes a love interest for the naive Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney).

In the novel, Lucy meets Miles after he moves into a nearby cottage and saves her dog (with the “help” of the Daniel). He doesn’t have an occupation but he does a bit of “this and that.” For the film, Dunne turns Miles into a popular author of children’s books (he writes under the pen name of Uncle Neddy) who meets Lucy at the publisher’s office where she is trying to sell “Blood and Swash” by Captain X. Clearly attracted to her, Miles gets Lucy in to meet the publisher. Her gratitude and naivety combine to make her gullible and she falls for Miles, who is played with an unsettling mix of charm and scoundrel by George Sanders.

Another change by Dunne that works in the film’s favor is that Lucy has one child, not two as in the book. It was a good choice to focus on Anna (played by an adorable 8-year-old Natalie Wood), and thereby also focusing on Lucy instead of splitting attention with another child.

The big change, and one I am eternally grateful for, is that while Lucy never sees Daniel in the book – he comes to her only in her thoughts, like a voice in her head – he is a commanding presence in the film as played by Rex Harrison. Can you imagine the film without him? No, you can’t.

Through it all, there is a question of how a relationship caught between two worlds can be played out. We get a hint early watching Daniel’s reaction when Lucy asks “What is to become of us, you and me?” with a mix of yearning and pain in her voice. His subtle facial expressions help us understand he will do what he needs for her, whatever the sacrifice.

In this shattering scene, Daniel (Rex Harrison) softly tells the sleeping Lucia (Gene Tierney) that he was just a dream.

Dunne answers Lucy’s questions by adding one of the most romantically heartbreaking scenes on film as Daniel realizes he needs to allow his Lucia to live her human life. Visiting her as she sleeps with dawn pouring in the windows, he speaks to her with great tenderness of making her life among the living. “It’s been a dream, Lucia. In the morning and the years after, you’ll only remember it as a dream.”

He has kept his composure to this point but then his grief can’t be held back anymore. “What we missed, Lucia. What we’ve both missed,” he says with inescapable pain in his voice.

In another book or film, that could be the end, but not here. Instead, it starts another chapter. There is still more life for both Lucy Muir and Captain Daniel Gregg to live.

Other adaptations beyond the movie

Radio plays: About seven months after the film’s release in 1947, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” became an hour-long radio play for Lux Radio Theatre starring Charles Boyer (yes, with his heavy French accent) and Madeleine Carroll.

A 1951 production from Screen Directors Playhouse also starred Boyer, this time playing opposite Jane Wyatt. The opening statement credits Joseph L. Mankiewicz as the director.

Television: For the 1968 family comedy series, the story was moved to Maine and Lucy’s name was changed to Carolyn Muir. Carolyn was played by Hope Lang who won two Emmy Awards for Lead Actress in a Comedy. Edward Mulhare starred as Captain Daniel Gregg.

For an idea of how light a touch they were going for in the series, it also starred Reta Shaw as the housekeeper and comedian Charles Nelson Reilly as the captain’s great-nephew.

NBC ran the first season before canceling the series which was then picked up by ABC for its second and final season.

More about the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon

The second annual Classic Literature on Film Blogathon is hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. About 20 classic film writers from around the world are taking part and posting their stories from April 2-4. Please take the time to read these stories on a wonderfully diverse selection of books and movies. Here is the link.

‘Enchanted Cottage’ casts an enduring spell for 100 years, 3 films

Many film fans wrestle with the topic of movie remakes. I fought the idea until I realized that some of my favorite films are remakes. (Another version of “Jane Eyre”? Yes, please.) Sometimes they work – and work very well. Other times, they aren’t successful. It seems to only be fair to give them a chance then – even if it takes you a while.

From the first time I watched the 1945 film “The Enchanted Cottage,” I fell so deeply under its spell that I remember thinking it could never be remade. It’s not for everyone – especially in today’s cynical world. It’s so unabashedly sentimental and fantastical that it’s understandable if it’s too much for some, but on an emotional level, it was perfect for me.

Why that one of all movies? Why not “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca” or another film so extraordinary or beloved that talk of a remake would be universally bashed? Why would I pick this lovely, but little film that isn’t well known except in classic movie circles?

It’s as simple as its sweet title. This enchanting story works through the lens of a fairy tale that is very much of a time gone by. It’s about a disfigured war veteran and “homely” young woman who heal together through the magic of a cottage. The black and white film is colored by shadows and candlelight, lending it a dreamy look that casts the viewer under a spell. It is the embodiment of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” not a phrase the modern world fully embraces judging by our preoccupation with youth serums, injections and anti-aging treatments.

About three years ago, a film called “The Enchanted Cottage” popped up on Amazon Prime. Hoping it was just a film with the same name, I watched the trailer and realized it was definitely a remake. I didn’t have the heart to watch.

Then I learned my beloved 1945 movie was a remake of a 1924 film that was based off a play. It was time, then, to watch two other versions of “The Enchanted Cottage” that were made more than 90 years apart.

* * * *

Katharine Cornell pictured in a scene from the 1923 stage production of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

The story of ‘The Enchanted Cottage’

“The Enchanted Cottage: A Fable in Three Acts” was written in 1921 by British playwright Arthur Wing Pinero. It was a timely post-World War I play that sublimely looked at the horrors of war through Oliver, an injured veteran, and Laura, a painfully shy and unattractive young woman who meet at the cottage of the title. Their lives intersect with Mrs. Minnett, the cottage owner/caretaker, and a blind veteran who are both eager to help them.

Their intense inner pain leads Oliver and Laura to find some solace in each other and enter into a marriage of convenience that only brings more suffering. As they fall under the cottage’s spell, their emotional healing manifests in physical changes, too. In the play, that magic is credited to the love of past honeymooners that permeates the cottage and Mrs. Minnett, who may be a descendant of a “beneficent witch.”

The movies drop the witchcraft reference for the more romantic idea of a love enchantment from past inhabitants. Otherwise, they carry the play’s basic outline and important plot points.

In 1922, the play opened in London; a year later it was on Broadway starring Herbert Bunston and Katharine Cornell; and the following year it was adapted for film for the first time.

May McAvoy and Richard Barthelmess learn beauty is in the eye of the beholder in the silent version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

A silent film speaks volumes

The 1924 silent film starred Richard Barthelmess as Oliver and May McAvoy as Laura. As the film opens, a wounded Oliver is home from the war. He walks hunched over with the help of a cane and has little use of one hand. Already bitter and filled with self-loathing, he learns the woman he was expected to marry is in love with someone else. Wanting to hide away, Oliver leaves his wealthy home and wanders for months before holing up at a cottage. After his overbearing sister arrives with promises of moving in to care for him, Oliver takes advantage of an offer of friendship from Laura and proposes a marriage of convenience and companionship.

The spirits of honeymooners who once stayed at the cottage look over Laura (May McAvoy) and Oliver (Richard Barthelmess) in the silent version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

From there, this film truly becomes enchanted with visions of joyous past honeymooners in the house. Their ethereal images are a stark contrast to the darkness surrounding Oliver and Laura who are trapped within themselves in profound sadness. “I’m so ugly, I mock the memories that linger here,” a despondent Laura says in an intertitle. Laura’s pain is so powerful it melts Oliver’s heart and he finally sees her unselfishness, love and beauty.

The film is in the public domain so it’s easy to find online. It does show its age as so many silents do, yet I was still deeply touched by the emotions clearly conveyed by Barthelmess and McAvoy.

* * * *

A handsome Oliver (Robert Young) talks with the painfully shy Laura (Dorothy McGuire) before he goes off to war in the 1945 film.

A magical 1945 remake

The 1945 film presents more of the back story of the characters. Dorothy McGuire is Laura, hired by the kind widow Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick who lends the role great gravitas) to help her in the cottage. A clock shows how time stopped in 1916 when Mrs. Minnett’s husband was killed in World War I.

[Also read: My appreciation of character actress Mildred Natwick]

Robert Young plays the handsome Oliver who plans to rent the cottage for his honeymoon, but instead goes to war and returns to the cottage disfigured, bitter and suicidal.

The cottage and a new friend, John (Herbert Marshall), a pianist who lost his sight in the war, work their magic. Laura comes out of her shell and Robert’s bitterness ebbs away. Their serenity is shattered by an impending visit from Oliver’s family that causes him to abruptly and awkwardly propose.

Oliver (Robert Young), now scarred from the war, and Laura (Dorothy McGuire) are
both overwhelmed by pain and loneliness.

It’s a horrible proposal filled with pain, loneliness and a powerful raw honesty that they can’t shake even after they marry. But love helps scars fade as beauty emerges and a deep happiness grows.

While the three films all deal with despair, this version is particularly powerful. A scene of Laura left alone, rebuffed by soldiers at a canteen dance once they see her face, is achingly sad. Oliver’s difficulty in facing his wounds is partly because of how his family reacts to him, and his anger at having his life changed by the war is palpable and heartbreaking.

Other films from director John Cromwell (father of actor James Cromwell) include such highly regarded romances as “Made for Each Other,” “Night Song” and “In Name Only.” “The Enchanted Cottage” was a favorite of Cromwell and actor Young, who named his home The Enchanted Cottage. The beautiful piano concerto by Roy Webb, which forms the tone poem used to frame the story, was Oscar-nominated.

A modern look in 2016

Laura (Sarah Navratil) is a nurse who helps care for Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) in the 2016 version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

This version of “The Enchanted Cottage” is poignant with its use of 9/11 and the ensuing war as the reason Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) puts his engagement on hold and goes to Iraq against his father’s wishes. When Oliver returns injured and with horrible facial scaring, he cuts off contact with his family and hides away at the cottage.

In this case, Laura is a neighbor and nurse who cares for Oliver’s wounds and his heart. She’s played by Sarah Navratil as an awkward and nervously chatty woman who hides behind stringy long hair, a hat and glasses. The late Richard Hatch is a welcomed sight as Oliver’s father.

Laura (Sarah Navratil) and Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) try to explain their physical transformation to the blind Major Hillgrove (John McCool Bowers).

Perhaps it’s the fact that the film is so new and is in color that makes it feel less magical than the previous versions. (Black and white film has a magic all its own.) Oliver and Laura talk to each other much more and you can sense that at least their internal changes are evolving naturally. Physically, Oliver’s wounds are fresh in this film (they appear healed in the other two) and we watch him grow stronger through medical help and physical therapy.

It’s been hard to find background information on this version. It is associated with the Arts Institute of California, which was part of a series of arts institutes across the country, but has since closed down; and the Theatrical Arts International Foundation, a supporter of the arts through the California Theatre of the Performing Arts in San Bernardino. Those groups and much of the cast and drew also worked on other movies like “The Invisible Man” (2017) and the “Picture of Dorian Gray” (2018), giving insight that this was an indie project and produced on a lower budget. Joseph Henson is credited as the lead director among seven directors.

* * * *

So now we have three film versions from an unlikely source – a 19th century English playwright without enduring name recognition at least in the film world. What has endured, however, is his story of “The Enchanted Cottage” which remains relevant a century later because it is grounded in the understanding of deep pain, loneliness and the sacrifices of war that all generations can sadly understand. It also holds the timeless message of the healing power of love – and that is its true enchantment.

Main photo: From “The Enchanted Cottage” 2016.

Book review: ‘Fright Favorites’ is a classic horror film treat

It took only one flip through “Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond” to see we were going to be good friends.

While I love deep-dive books about film history, they often sit on the shelf after the initial reading waiting to be pulled out again for special occasions and projects. The informative “Fright Favorites,” however, is a book you’ll want to keep within easy reach.

It is the latest in the Turner Classic Movies Library series that has reimagined the coffee-table book in a compact size (roughly 7.5 by 8 inches) that’s easy to hold and read, or just flip through to look at the gorgeous photography.

Noted film historian and author David J. Skal grew up during the monster movie craze of the 1950s, becoming part of the first generation of “monster kids.”

So he dedicates “Fright Favorites” to “monster kids of all ages everywhere” as he takes us through horror movies not as a comprehensive history, but rather as a “diverse sampler of chilling, thrilling, and often laugh-provoking classic movies especially well suited to mark the thirty-one days of October.”

Horror movie historian – and fan – David J. Skal is the author of “Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween.” (Photo by Jonathan Eaton)

Skal succinctly explains how our celebration of Halloween has changed over the past century-plus from Hollywood’s early affection for cute and whimsical pinups of starlets posing with broomsticks, cats, pumpkins and witch hats, to what has become a growing cinematic season and part of a multibillion-dollar annual industry.

He credits John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” with contributing to “the explosive growth of Halloween as the second-biggest retail holiday in America after Christmas,” and helping fuel the urban mythology of Halloween.

“The ‘Halloween’ phenomenon reconnected the holiday to its primary, if forgotten, cultural purpose: a ceremonial acknowledgment of mortality and the never-ending cycles of life, death, and the mysteries that follow. Before John Carpenter reinvigorated the holiday with ritual human sacrifice, did anyone still make a conscious connection between a jack-o’-lantern and a grinning skull?” Skal writes.

TCM and ‘Women Make Film’: an astonishing trip through movie history

It’s only 3 minutes into the documentary “Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema,” and I’m hooked from the first movie clip.

Though a word isn’t spoken in it, much is communicated. A small circular light pierces the dark screen as a young man in World War II Germany is looking for his love. Another light appears, and the circles meet, like “two moons.” The two young lovers, tears in their eyes, finally see each other, but then hastily shut off their lights in fear of approaching soldiers.

The scene is from “We Were Young,” a 1961 film by Bulgarian director Binka Zhelyazkova and it’s so captivating I wrote down the title and circled it multiple times as a reminder that I must see this film.

A screenshot of a striking scene from “We Were Young” in which a young woman and man  have just a moment to silently gaze at each other on a street in World War II Germany.

I’ve since watched the two-minute clip multiple times and remain entranced.

There are countless moments like that throughout the 14-part film by Mark Cousins, the filmmaker, author and former film critic who previously made the epic 2011 documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.”

Like that extensive documentary, “Women Make Film” is well worth your time especially as it’s presented in a three-month immersive programming initiative by Turner Classic Movies focusing on female filmmakers.

TCM will present a new 60-minute episode of the documentary at 8 p.m. each Tuesday starting Sept. 1, followed that evening by seven movies directed by women. It continues weekly to Dec. 1.

Continue reading “TCM and ‘Women Make Film’: an astonishing trip through movie history”

File under animal films: Classic creature movies

It was embarrassing, there’s no other way to spin it. On a recent Friday night, I was hunkered over my tablet like a kid studying for a quiz seeking answers to this question: Is (fill in the blank) an animal?

And that leads to your questions.

1) Shouldn’t an adult already know the answer?

2) Why would anyone research that in the first place?

Blame it on social media. I wanted to take part in one of those fun Twitter questions/polls, but was hesitant to give a “wrong” answer. The topic: movies with an animal in the title – no proper nouns allowed. So  “Lassie” was out, but “Reservoir Dogs” was in.

As a fan of creature horror movies, I had to participate. It would be a chance to draw attention to these entertaining movies.

“Tarantula,” one of my favs, came to mind first but was quickly shot down by doubt. A tarantula is a spider which comes from the arachnid family so does being an arachnid negate it from being an animal?

Once I thought about it, my mental capacity dropped to that of a preschooler. Doubts were everywhere as I questioned each movie title in my head.

“The Fly.” “Deadly Mantis.” “Black Scorpion.” “Attack of the Giant Leeches.” “Giant Gila Monster.” “Attack of the Crab Monsters.”

Is “The Fly” an insect, an animal or both?

What was an animal and what wasn’t? Is an insect solely an insect or an animal, too? I grew more embarrassed with each search, but kept going.

Well there’s a good reason for the confusion – the kingdom Animali is massive and includes mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians and fish for starters. As it turns out, many of my favorite horror movies are animal films. Victory was mine – and I was off to watch “Tarantula.”

Continue reading “File under animal films: Classic creature movies”

Wrapped up in the snugly comfort of classic movies

Ask me why I enjoy watching classic movies and the answer is a variation on a theme: Because classic movies make me feel like I’m wrapping myself in warm blanket or snuggling in a cozy chair.

They are, in a word, comforting.

So I found it interesting over the past few months as social media filled with people seemingly just discovering that movies can bring comfort. Don’t get me wrong, I love that people have sought out movies to ease their worries. But classic movies have done this for me as far back as I can remember.

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” starring the perfect combination of Gene Tierney, left, and Rex Harrison, is a soothing, old-fashioned love story.

Rainy days make me want to stay home, pull up a blanket and put on an old black and white movie. If I’m a bit down, a Technicolor film always lifts my spirits. If I’m tense, I watch something soothing like the ethereal “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or the fantasy of “Brigadoon.” Looking for inspiration, I’ll put on a Frank Capra movie. When I get home from a tough day at work, I turn on Turner Classic Movies and I start to wind down.

Often, the comfort factor is obvious as with my favorite romances that have me nestling in all warm and cozy. “Laura” with its beautiful score and Dana Andrews as the hardboiled detective in love with a portrait; “Dark Angel,” a sweet love triangle (yes there are such stories) with Fredric March, Herbert Marshall and Merle Oberon as inseparable lifelong friends who truly love each other; and “An Affair to Remember” where I can watch Nickie (Cary Grant) and Terry (Deborah Kerr) fall in love. (Let’s not talk about Janou; I’ll start to sniffle.)

It may seem odd, but watching Rod Taylor’s adventures in “The Time Machine” makes me feel cozy and relaxed.

Others films I find comforting will seem odd because of their genres, but they have that quality by transporting me to another time (“The Time Machine”), leaving me on the edge of my seat (“House of Wax”), mesmerizing me (“Sunrise”), making me laugh (“You Can’t Take It With You”) and scaring the heck out of me (“The Haunting”).

I’m sure this can be traced to memories of being introduced to classics by my family. I watched old horror films with my dad and any time I see one of the original Universal monsters or a 1950s creature feature, I relax which is a weird reaction to a horror film. Mom liked family-based films with “I Remember Mama” being a favorite. At grandma’s, we watched Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies with the lights off.

[Read my ode to my father at Classic Movie Hub on How movies with dad spawned a classic horror fan]

Continue reading “Wrapped up in the snugly comfort of classic movies”

From architecture to comic books, Guillermo del Toro’s in love with Buffalo

For four days in February, Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro was in Buffalo to shoot scenes for his much-anticipated film noir “Nightmare Alley.”

The movie, a loose remake of a 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, stars Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara, who were both in Buffalo filming, along with a star-studded cast including Cate Blanchett, Richard Jenkins, Ron Pearlman, David Strathairn and Willem Dafoe.

Though his time here was limited, del Toro took part in a press conference at Buffalo’s City Hall, a 1932 art deco structure that was one of the locations that drew him to Buffalo. “It’s a jewel,” he said. “A perfectly preserved  beautiful art deco jewel.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by Buffalo. I was very interested in the architecture and historical significance of Buffalo,” said del Toro, who found Buffalo’s abundance of 1930s and ‘40s architecture perfect for his period noir that is set in the 1940s.

The press conference was held on the first day of shooting. The day before, crew members were in Niagara Square outside City Hall dumping trucks of snow and laying down “snow blankets” to create the illusion of snow for a winter scene. Yes – even Buffalo has days without snow.

But Buffalonians could have saved them time by telling the crew about our lake-effect snow that the very next day brought enough snow that it covered all of their hard work and created the winter scene the filmmakers wanted.

When asked if he was surprised he had to bring in fake snow, del Toro said “Yes, it was like bringing tacos to Mexico. I didn’t really expect that.”

That sense of humor was abundant throughout the press conference as del Toro talked about his love for Buffalo from its architecture to comic book stores. Before the press conference, del Toro had already visited one comic book store and left with a box of goodies. He said he is eager to visit more stores and praised Buffalo’s culture of “small cinema clubs, bookstores, independent movement in music and comics and film. I really think it’s a city that is revitalizing and rediscovering itself,” he said.

Finding the right location

As del Toro was scouting locations for “Nightmare Alley” across North America (Toronto was used as the primary location), he explained how Buffalo fulfilled the multiple challenges he faced.

“I wanted to find a city that was really interesting to visit for an audience and that was a city that they weren’t overtly familiar with. When you look at period films, it’s always New York or Los Angeles – two or three cities in the entirety of America revisited for their significant historical or architectural terms,” del Toro said.

Guillermo del Toro appreciated the fact that he could turn his camera at various angles on a Buffalo street and still not break the film illusion. That’s evident in this WGRZ-TV video showing the period architecture from the steps of City Hall.

In his search, he often found the right type of period architecture, but it would be surrounded by newer buildings, leaving “big gaps of beauty and architectural integrity.”

“Most of the cities in America you cannot turn your camera 45 degrees because you’ll have something ruining the illusion that we need to create and the integrity of the architectural preservation of the city. It is both thematically and visually very important to me to set it here (Buffalo).”

Two of his previous films have had a Buffalo connection. The Gothic ghost story “Crimson Peak” was “set” in Buffalo (though filmed in Canada) in the late 1800s before moving on to England. Del Toro’s Oscar winning film “The Shape of Water” used vintage pieces supplied by local collector Michael Meriso and his CooCooU27 including the dining room set used in the apartment of Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), the movie’s female lead.

This screen shot from “Crimson Peak” depicts Buffalo, N.Y. as the film’s setting around the time of the Pan-American Exposition that was held here in 1901.

In his reading and research on Buffalo since “Crimson Peak,” he said has has been “taken by how many times American history is made in this city and how thriving it was in many ways in different periods and how it is now for me a city that is resurging and rediscovering itself, and an absolutely amazing architectural point of view.”

[Read: The del Toro exhibit: Monsters, outsiders and death … oh my]

When asked if he would return to make more projects in Buffalo, del Toro said “definitely.”

“The great thing about it is, unprompted, I’ve always been fascinated by the city,” del Toro said about Buffalo. “And the thing that you must enjoy because it is true, is the reputation of the city as a place where you can shoot and there is a depth of talent and a depth of crew and a quality. Filmmakers – we talk to each other like high school but much heavier people – we know each other, we talk about it and this city has a pristine reputation.”

“It is true that every day that I’m here, I fall more and more in love with it.”

* * * * *

This is the plot description released by the studio, Searchlight (formerly Fox Searchlight).

“In ‘Nightmare Alley,’ an ambitious young carny (Cooper) with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist (Blanchett) who is even more dangerous than he is. The carnival cast includes carnival worker Molly (Mara), head barker Clem (Dafoe), and Ron Perlman as Bruno the Strongman. Richard Jenkins is part of the high society crowd as wealthy industrialist Ezra Grindle.”

 

 

 

Found! A treasure of classic British films from a ‘Renown’ source

When classic movie fans discover a new source of old movies, it’s like we hit the lottery.

So I feel like I’ve won the big one after finding a treasure of movies from Renown Pictures, a distribution company that specializes in British cinema and television, predominately from the 1930s to ‘60s.

More than 100 of Renown’s titles – mysteries, dramas, horror, sci-fi, detective stories, romance and documentaries– are streaming for free on Amazon Prime.

This artwork – a blue cover and four photos – makes films from Renown easy to spot.

I almost made the mistake of bypassing these films when they first popped up as suggested viewing on my Prime account. They were packaged with the same blue artwork with four black and white photos. The titles, actors and directors were not familiar, so I didn’t pay attention. (Felix Aylmer? Wolf Rilla? Jane Hylton?)

Shame on me and obvious lessons learned: Don’t judge a movie by its cover – or unfamiliarity – because you’ll miss out.

Continue reading “Found! A treasure of classic British films from a ‘Renown’ source”

‘The Holiday’: a modern rom-com with a classic movie heart

I clearly remember watching the 2006 rom-com “The Holiday” for the first time, not expecting much more than another in a long line of agreeable but often interchangeable romantic comedies.

It would be a nice, but surely forgettable, two-hour escape using the familiar formula: two people meet-cute, fall for each and face obstacles that lead to a “grand gesture” to help them live happily ever.

I was wrong – “The Holiday” is a memorable rom-com that I get more emotionally involved in each time I watch it.

It’s a combination of the great cast (Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Jude Law and Eli Wallach – all who have never been more charming on film), relatable characters (we’ve all gone through the same things), a delightful comic touch, a few twists on rom-com tropes and the sense of joy that permeates this deeply emotional film.

Continue reading “‘The Holiday’: a modern rom-com with a classic movie heart”

October classic films, movie events in the Buffalo area

In October, the film schedule is full of treats for horror movie fans with  black and white classics, cult favorites and even horror films that make you laugh.

There’s also another multiday film festival and a pretty cool event with some very special guests.

The 14th Buffalo International Film Festival returns Oct. 10-14 in the North Park Theatre. This year’s festival spotlights some notable films that were made in Buffalo or have a local connection including “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, “The True Adventure of Wolfboy” at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 12 and “Clover” at 9:45 p.m. Oct. 12. With films coming from around the world, there are too many to mention here, so check out the full schedule at buffalofilm.org.

If you know the abbreviation MST3K, you are in for a treat. The just announced “Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Cheesy Movie Circus Tour” with Joel Hodgson is coming to the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda at 8 p.m. Oct. 22. That’s right – Joel will be here along with Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy. Tickets are $38.50 to $43.50.  There are very cool VIP packages available, too. Here’s a link to the info. Continue reading “October classic films, movie events in the Buffalo area”