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Tag Archives: Barbara Stanwyck

I Got You (I Feel Good)


This is my new birthday tradition – starting a month before the big day (October 8th), I gift myself with a bunch of interesting music, movies and books. The results of this spree are pictured above, along with a few other gifts from family. I ended up getting a lot more books this year, which is wonderful. One of them, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Saint Etienne musician and writer Bob Stanley, has been on my radar since the author mentioned it on his Croydon Municipal blog last year. Although I’m just a few chapters in, so far it’s fantastic – a detailed, factual yet charmingly idiosyncratic history of Pop music from the ’50s to the dawn of the Napster era in the late ’90s. Stanley doesn’t subscribe to that hoary old Rock Canon thing that all the important music from that period came from white guys playing guitars – he understands that Pop at its essence is a democratic thing (payola and the whims of record labels and deejays played into it, too). Apparently this book was revised for the U.S. edition, nevertheless I’m enjoying Stanley’s insights into less-familiar musical styles such as Skiffle, which was the British take on Rockabilly.

The other book from this pile I’m currently reading is the 1971-72 volume of Fantagraphics’ chronological hardback reprints of Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts daily comics. Despite having the lamest-ever celebrity “introduction” (Kristin Chenoweth’s piece is pretty much a brief interview, and a shallow one at that), this volume’s strips are getting more focused (lots of Charlie Brown/Peppermint Patty interplay) and philosophical at this point. This one contains lots of strips with Sally fretting about school – some of my favorites! I’m also looking forward to Victoria Wilson’s giant-sized biography of Barbara Stanwyck, despite the frequent criticism that it needed editing down. This 1,044-page volume only covers the iconic actress’ life up through the year 1940! It looks tantalizing, and besides it should be a breeze compared to Moby Dick. Unless Miss Stanwyck did some whaling in her free time, I don’t see any other comparison between the two.

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Cat Food for Thought is a cute little volume given by my brother and sister-in-law. Those who remember the zippy vintage packaging collected in the authors’ Meet Mr. Product (2003) and Ad Boy (2009) will find the same thing here, with a twist. This and the companion book Dog Food for Thought presents more vintage pet food designs alongside various clever quips about dogs and cats. (Since Christopher also gave some vintage animation cels from a ’70s Good Mews commercial, this will heretofore be officially known as my cat food birthday.)

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The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design is another one that I’d been anticipating for awhile. Todd Polson had a dual purpose in mind when putting this book together. It’s both a visually sumptuous tribute to the background artist and designer behind innumerable classic Warner Bros. cartoons and a handy tutorial for artists and animators seeking practical advice on color theory, composition and movement. Not only is the instructional aspect clearly presented and quite handy (I could definitely use the help on color – and Noble was a master at it), the biographical info and copious reproductions of Noble’s beautiful layouts make it a wonderful tribute. Shown stripped of their usual context with Bugs Bunny and/or Daffy Duck overlaid on top, one can truly see that this stuff is art.

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I also made sure to get myself a great vintage illustrated book – last year it was James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book with art by Alice and Martin Provensen; this year, it’s The Abelard Folk Song Book, a 1958 sheet music and history collection featuring the whimsical art of Abner Graboff. This Ward Jenkins blog entry from 2009 shed some light on this overlooked illustrator, along with several examples of his work. It was actually Ward’s detective work that inspired me to look out for his books! I’m happy to finally have an example of his art in my library.

There’s more. Christopher gave me this neat brochure produced by American Cyanamid, in which a prototypical ’50s housewife character named Mrs. Holliday demonstrates the benefits of Formica, Melmac and other completely unnatural substances. It’s all pretty funny, yet the art of Mrs. Holliday and her family are beautiful examples of the modern, cartoony look so popular back then. I really need to scan all of them (the artist is uncredited, unfortunately), but hopefully this one photo will suffice. C. also surprised me with a copy of Automotive Quarterly, a hardback publication geared towards vintage auto enthusiasts. We already saw this particular 1975 volume at the auto museum in San Diego – the cover story is an illustrated essay speculating on the future of car design from our favorite futuristic concept designer, Syd Mead! I’m gonna have to get the scanner out for this one, too.

I like birthdays.

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Like Sly Stallone’s Cobra Pad, Only Cooler

We’ve been watching Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen’s 2003 video essay on that metropolis and how the city’s image has been reflected on films shot on location there. Because it uses dozens of clips from movies ranging from Double Indemnity to Night of the Comet, the documentary has never gotten a home video release (and never will, apparently). It’s on YouTube, however, in 12 parts. Despite Andersen’s sometimes pretentious script and dry narration, it’s very fascinating. Here’s an excerpt:

Flick Clique: March 18-24

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011). Great documentary on esteemed schlock movie producer Roger Corman. This wasn’t particularly revealing or deep, but it’s a fast-paced and enjoyable combo profile/career retrospective. DVD Talk review is here (I see it got a nice write-up in the new Entertainment Weekly, too).
Deadline at Dawn (1946) and Backfire (1950). These two films shared a disc on the Warner Bros. Film Noir Classics Vol. 5 set from a few years back. A crack RKO production, Deadline at Dawn has wide-eyed sailor Bill Williams and cynical dancing girl Susan Hayward tramping about third-shift Manhattan attempting to solve the murder of a woman with whom Williams shared a few badly-timed moments (not to mention a big wad of cash). The story is a little too out-there to be truly believable, but I found the film enjoyable enough. Hayward is excellent, and Williams was quite the cutie back then (some of his good looks were inherited by his son, William Katt). The Warner Bros. production Backfire also had a gritty appeal, although the film wasn’t nearly as engaging. This one concerns a hospitalized serviceman (hunky Gordon MacRae) who sees a vision of a mysterious dark-haired woman in the night. He convinces his nurse girlfriend Virginia Mayo that the woman has something to do with the unexplained disappearance of his best friend, Edmund O’Brien. The two decide to play amateur detectives and uncover a mess of underworld activity in the L.A. area, which eventually leads to O’Brien’s whereabouts. Nicely paced, attractively cast, and having that vintage W.B. style, but the film never really comes together in a satisfying whole.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Having never seen any of the older Planet of the Apes movies besides the original, I put these on the DVR when they showed up on ThisTV. I figured these two sequels were probably pretty cheesy anyhow, so what difference would a few commercial breaks and a pan-n-scan picture make? Escape was actually pretty fun, with the first film’s Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) going through a time warp and winding up curiosities – and eventual media celebrities – in ’70s Los Angeles. A cheap production (it looks like a TV movie), but McDowall and Hunter contribute good performances underneath all that ape makeup and the silly story (with Zira getting pregnant and the U.S. Feds, fearful of an intelligent ape population, to hold them captive) has just enough intrigue to keep it watchable. Loved Jerry Goldsmith’s campy and delightfully dated score, too. Conquest returns the series to deadly-serious mode, with Cornelius and Zira’s grown son (also played by McDowall) coming to terms with a 1991 America in which the apes have replaced cats and dogs (who were eradicated by a virus) as humankind’s pets/servants. Heavy handed and boring.
No Man of Her Own (1950). An old favorite with Barbara Stanwyck as a destitute single mom who adopts another woman’s identity (in a story that seems to have foreshadowed every film produced by Lifetime Television). I was delighted to find that it’s getting a DVD reissue from Olive Films this month. My DVD Talk review is here.
Out of Sight (1998). You remember this one, right? One of the more acclaimed films of the ’90s concerned the pursuit/flirtation between George Clooney’s suave career criminal and Jennifer Lopez’s tough U.S. Marshall. Although it’s overlong and doesn’t quite hang together sometimes, I found this as excellently written and cast as everybody said. I didn’t quite believe Clooney, but he was charming all the same. Lopez was shockingly good (whatever happened to her movie career, anyhow?). I also loved the supporting players – all of them! This is the kind of film that has talented actors occupying every little corner (including Viola Davis as the consort of one of the thugs Lopez is tailing). Director Stephen Soderbergh employs a fascinating flash back/forward technique here, establishing contrasting moods between the characters and the places they occupy – check out the differences between Miami and Detroit. The film has its share of padded-out scenes (like the Clooney/Lopez seduction), but overall it was successful.

Flick Clique: December 4-10

Buffering (2011). A gay sex comedy from Britain that I’m reviewing for DVD Talk. Buffering follows a gay couple, Seb and Aaron (appealingly played by Alex Anthony and Conner McKenzy) as one partner decides to upload secret recordings of the couple having sex to the internet in order to make some extra cash on the side. The secret is eventually revealed to the other guy. Instead of stopping the enterprise dead in its tracks, they end up raking in more bucks as their popularity spreads. A female ex-roomie (Jessica Matthews) catches on and encourages the men to take on a new recruit, including the hunky guy (Oliver Park) who lives next door. Lots of promise here, but the already lightweight concept is stretched to its limit and the micro-budget lets it down. The guys are cute (especially Park), but I’ve seen better sexy gay comedies. A longer review will be posted at DVD Talk soon.
The Other Love (1947). I found this otherwise unavailable Barbara Stanwyck flick on Netflix streaming a few months ago and have been dying to see it ever since. This is a standard romantic melodrama about a concert pianist (Stanwyck) who goes to a sanitarium to overcome tuberculosis. David Niven as her doctor tries to keep her on the path to health, but she’s tempted by the outside world when meeting a fellow patient (the terrific Joan Lorring) who teaches her how to duck out of the place at night, when no one is watching. Niven finds himself falling for Stanwyck, but she’s lured away to Monaco by flashy race car driver Richard Conte. Will she come to her senses, or die a glamorous young high roller? A silly story is given depth by a luminous Stanwyck. I was pretty impressed by the glossy photography and production values (this was produced by James Whale’s longtime lover at an independent studio by the name of Anglo American Films). Stanwyck also looks great decked out in several glam outfits designed by Edith Head. Not an essential film, but enjoyable all the same.
Portrait in Black (1960). I have a strong weakness for campy ’60s melodrama, especially if it stars a fading glamour queen like Lana Turner and is produced by a kitschmeister like Ross Hunter. Portrait in Black is a veritable jackpot of overheated, so bad but soooo good theatrics — I can’t believe I haven’t seen this one before! Lana plays a San Francisco socialite married to abusive shipping magnate Lloyd Nolan. She and the husband’s doctor, Anthony Quinn, are secret lovers who arrange to off the poor guy in a discreet way. Although their plan is pulled off successfully, a whole host of suspicious supporting players threaten to blow their cover. Among them are Sandra Dee as Lana’s stepdaughter, Richard Basehart as Nolan’s greedy business associate (who’s also in love with Lana), Ray Walston as the family chauffer, and Anna May Wong as the imperious head maid (you can tell she’s evil because sinister “Asian” music plays whenever she’s onscreen). The ending is a riot, strangely abrupt and just dying for a sequel which never came to be, alas.
The Leopard (1963). This acclaimed Italian historical drama is directed by Luchino Visconti and features Burt Lancaster as a gruff prince who is desperately trying to preserve his family’s integrity amidst the political upheaval of 1860s Sicily. A lushly photographed, wonderful to look at, weirdly plodding and alienating film. I suppose I’d glean more on it if I knew more about Italian political history from that time, but I found it overlong and (regrettably) dull. Lancaster does well with acting outside his native tongue, however, and I found a lot to enjoy in Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale simply because they were two gorgeous people — and their characters are earthy and real in a welcome way. A lot of this film plays like a little historical documentary, and I dug how the background villagers and such are just seen going about their lives in a startlingly natural way. Overall, I just couldn’t get into it, however.
The Vampire’s Ghost (1945). Last weekend, I ended up catching a bug and getting sick. I was bored and had nothing else to watch, so I dialed up this 59 minute long b-thriller on Netflix instant. The film follows a group of American explorers as they settle in an African outpost. The sinister looking white guy who runs the outpost (John Abbott) is pleasant enough at first, but soon the explorers find that he’s a hundreds-year old vampire — and he wants to recruit the explorers into the bloodsucking life! The film is underwhelming for the most part, but there are some decent (for 1945) special effects shots and campy moments to keep it a watchable little horror flick.
WALL•E (2008). I’ve owned this on DVD for almost two years; finally we got to re-watch it this past week. It’s still a wonderful film (particularly the first half), although the second at-home viewing is not quite as magical as viewing it in the theater.
Women’s Prison (1955). This fun prison melodrama came out a few years ago as part of a Bad Girls of Film Noir DVD box set. It’s not really Noir, but the film stands on its own as an absorbing, often times over-the-top drama that comes off like a cousin to the superior Caged (1950). Set in a facility that houses female and male prisoners in separate quarters, the film begins with two new inmates getting booked — jaded but sympathetic Brenda (Jan Sterling) and shrinking violet Helene (Phyllis Thaxter). We then get introduced to several prisoners, including a phalanx of African-American women headed by kindly Juanita Moore, who reveal that they’re being abused daily by the staff overseen by hard-bitten Ida Lupino. Thaxter eventually goes nuts, and Audrey Totter as another inmate eventually finds she’s in a family way with her husband, an inmate in the men’s quarters. It isn’t top-notch drama, but I found it fast paced and quite enjoyable with a lot of vividly drawn characters. Strangely enough, the prison itself doesn’t seem too bad! Sterling was my favorite, followed by Lupino and Totter. Lupino’s real-life husband Howard Duff appears as the prison’s doctor, an ally for the inmates and harsh critic of the policies held by the ice-veined Lupino.

Flick Clique: May 29-June 4

Good Hair (2009). Fun, if somewhat frustrating, Chris Rock-directed documentary on black women’s hair and the lengths they go to straighten and style it. Rock interviews a not-too-diverse group of subjects (mostly models and actresses) who opine on why the caucasian ideal of straight, “perfect” hair has such a pull on the African-American community. He also examines the phenomenon of women getting costly weave treatments and having disgusting, goopy chemicals slathered on their heads, all in the name of beauty. His message doesn’t go any deeper than “Can you believe what these crazy bitches are doing to themselves?” but it’s an okay doc with a few funny moments. Most of the absurdity comes from an annual hair care convention and a competition in which some stylists compete to see who could mount the most flashy ‘do cutting production number.
The Last Days of Disco (1999). An oddity of a film which forms the final chapter in writer-director Whit Stillman’s trilogy on witty Manhattanites (Metropolitan and Barcelona were the first two). Period piece Last Days takes place mostly in the confines of a chic disco as sexy assistant book editors Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny deal with men and the search for fulfillment as their favorite music genre and lifestyle fades into the yuppie ’80s. The film is beautifully scripted but all over the place, story-wise, and suffering from a crucial lack of fidelity to the period it takes place in (Beckinsale’s ’90s bob being the main offender). I actually enjoyed this a lot more than the often dry Metropolitan, however, and I think it’s due to the appealing leads, that fabulous soundtrack, and above all the witty script. I also thought the club itself was a wonderful setting, even if as veteran clubgoer Christopher notes, no real disco would have had plush conversation pits — much less a place where people could actually hear each other talk. One has to wonder if Stillman already had his script prepared before the studio imposed a nostalgic, glittering disco theme over it. The disco/club setting is almost incidental to the characters’ musings, some of which are gold (the conversation on Lady and the Tramp and what it symbolizes is a highlight). Strange, like I said, but worthwhile all the same. Now I’m really curious about Barcelona — and Stillman’s forthcoming Damsels in Distress.
poster_purchasepriceThe Purchase Price (1932). Another hard-hitting William Wellman melodrama from the Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 3 DVD set. This one stars Barbara Stanwyck, doing one of her usual hard-bitten dames. She’s a torch singer who, fleeing some New York baddies, decides to take another woman’s place as the mail-order bride of a lonely farmer (miscast George Brent). Most of the film consists of Stanwyck trying her best to ingratiate herself with befuddled Brent and his rowdy, uncouth neighbors. I remember not being too impressed with this when I first saw it, but now I find it enjoyable, if far from prime Pre-Code Stanwyck. The stars are attractive together and Wellman keeps things moving with several offbeat supporting characters (the shy farm girl played by pre-fame Anne Shirley, for instance). This set was a great gift that helps satisfy the lack of TCM in my life!
The Sandpiper (1965). Another Elizabeth Taylor movie I put on my queue. This time Taylor plays a free-spirited Big Sur artist and proto-home schooler whose son is forced to attend a parochial school overseen by Richard Burton. Faster than you can say “Liz and Dick,” the two embark on a torrid affair in between heavy conversations on the nature of love and ownership. I knew this Vincente Minnelli romp was pretty bad going in, but I was hoping it would be campier than the plodding end result proved to be. Most of the film’s misguidedness comes from its treatment of Taylor and her quasi-hippie friends, which are about as wild and threatening as a bunch of Hulaballoo dancers. Taylor and Burton get a lot of meaty dialogue to chew on, but it’s ponderous stuff. What little I dug here came from Taylor’s wardrobe (it couldn’t have been easy costuming the lady, entering her blowsy stage at this point) and the fabulous from the outside, stagy from the inside “shack” that her character resides in. Many IMDb reviewers praised Johnny Mandel’s score (which includes the inescapable EZ-listening classic “Shadow of Your Smile”), but I found it as dull and TV movie-ish as the rest of the film.
Sitting on the Moon (1936). Brief, airy musical that has found its way onto many a public domain DVD set (viewable online here, as well). Sitting served as a vehicle for pretty actress Grace Bradley, who married Western star William Boyd shortly after this film came to be. Bradley plays a singer whose career is on the outs when her songwriter boyfriend pens a jaunty melody for her (the title tune, repeated ad nauseam) which lands the woman a featured singer gig on a top radio hour. She becomes a star while he lands in obscurity, until another song and complications involving a gold-digging hussy (Joyce Compton!) change things around for the hapless guy. Pretty forgettable fluff — this is a musical built around two songs, remember — but it does have a cute lead and the title tune is quite a charmer. See for yourself:

Window Into the ’50s

Old Super 8 home movie footage is so fascinating, especially when it covers Old Hollywood. That in mind, let’s check out some remarkable video I stumbled across on YouTube. The first half of this silent color footage is of Fred MacMurray and a chic Barbra Stanwyck filming Douglas Sirk’s 1956 melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow in Apple Valley, California. The second half is of Ann Blyth’s wedding day, which according to her IMDb bio happened in June 1953. In the final bit of footage, a parade of well-dressed famous folk appear (at Ann’s wedding?) which include Jeanne Crain, Danny Thomas, Irene Dunne and Jack Benny. Who filmed this, and where did it come from?