From Naples to Hollywood (and Back): At TCMFF, Sophia Loren Reflects on Her Vibrant Career

sophiamarriageIt’s hard to imagine a time when Sophia Loren wouldn’t have been considered a dazzling beauty. However, at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood for TCM Classic Film Festival, Loren harkened back to her early days as an actress—and her disastrous first screentest.

In an extended interview with her son, director Edoardo Ponti, Loren recalled, “They put a cigarette in my mouth, so I started to cough like hell.”

Looking at the test footage, the cameraman gave a grim appraisal of Loren’s future in films: “She has a long nose. She has a big mouth. And she doesn’t know how to act.”

Loren was ready to give up and go home, but her mentor and future husband, producer Carlo Ponti, convinced her to keep trying, for which we can all be grateful.

More than 20 years the starlet’s senior, Ponti brought hope and stability into her life after a bleak childhood. “He was a very sensitive person,” Loren said. “I think he had a nice smile. I found great comfort in him.” Even today, Loren feels that he remains with her in spirit. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do, sometimes I have problems. I think of him and I don’t feel alone.”

Contrary to popular belief, though, Ponti did not rechristen Sophia Scicolone as Sophia Loren. She set the record straight; it was another producer, Goffredo Lombardo, who came up with her screen name. “He was doing a picture, Africa Under the Sea, and he said, ‘Look, Sophia Cicolone I don’t like. We have to change the name, because I like you, you look good in a bathing suit…’”

Greeted by a chorus of laughter from the audience at the Montalban, Loren paused, shrugged, and acknowledged her deservedly lauded figure: “It helps.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Flipping through a dictionary, Lombardo searched for words with a similar sound to the name of an actress he liked. Coren… Soren… Loren!

Her big break came with Aïda (1953), a lavish film adaptation of Verdi’s opera. The movie placed unusual demands on Loren, who more or less fell into the role to replace an American actress. Painted from head-to-toe to play an African princess, Loren acted in tune with a pre-recorded score—and had to put in extra practice to learn every beat of the music, including several famous arias.

She recalled, “For at least 2 months I was in a little room trying to sing the lipsynch of [the celebrated soprano] Renata Tebaldi, every day, all day, and then I did it.” Because the soundstages were cold in winter, crew members had to use hairdryers to eliminate the visible breath emanating from the star’s open mouth!

How did Loren feel about the results? “It’s great. It looks like I am singing!” At the Montalban, when Edoardo asked his mother, “Were you singing a little bit?” he got an incredulous response: “Ma tu sei pazzo?” Are you crazy?

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“Ma tu sei pazzo?” Sophia Loren and son Edoardo Ponti at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

The following year, in 1954, Loren began her collaboration with Vittorio De Sica, the director who would shape her greatest screen performances. She remembered her makeup man introducing her to De Sica at Cinecittà, warning, “She’s a wonderful girl. She’s very young, Vittorio. She’s very, very young.”

Thus reminded to remain a gentleman, De Sica suggested that Loren do a screentest for his next production, an episodic film set in Naples. Remembering her earlier experience, she baulked. “I started to take away the possibility of doing L’oro di Napoli, because I didn’t want to do a test,” Loren said.

Undeterred, De Sica invited Loren to visit his studio, where he discussed the role with her and decided to cast her without a test. “You leave tomorrow for Naples,” he told her.

A great actor as well as director, De Sica performed for his cast even when working behind the camera. Loren recalled, “Every director has a way of showing [what he wants] to an actor, with words sometimes, with gestures sometimes. For him, it was acting, from A to Z, little actors, big actors, a man, a woman… He would act the scene for everybody.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Some actors would no doubt bristle at a director showing them how to play their part, but Loren appreciated seeing how De Sica would act out her character: “That’s the way he felt that he could give some truth to the scene. So I learned from him. I was always in a lesson with him.”

Loren found plenty in De Sica’s directorial acting to emulate and ultimately make her own. She confided, “I like to steal—Naples, you know—I like to steal good things, the kind of things that make you grow.”

When asked what she “stole” from De Sica, she replied with one word: “naturalezza” or naturalness.

Like many screen legends, Loren honed her craft as an actress as she climbed the ladder of stardom—without studying acting in a traditional sense. Edoardo wondered whether the lack of formal training ever undermined her confidence. “Well, I felt insecure because I didn’t go to the actors’ studio, but I see so many people that did go to the actors’ studio who are more insecure than I am! Now I don’t feel insecure, because I learned from life… I learned to read the minds of people, to read the mind of the character I am playing.”

In the mid-1950s, she found herself increasingly in demand. When Loren met Suso Checchi D’Amato, then working on a script called Too Bad She’s Bad, on a train, the screenwriter mentioned a perfect part for her: an alluring thief who falls in love with the taxi driver she cons.

toobadshesbadAlthough the 19-year-old Loren had fun “playing the star” and telling D’Amato to see if Ponti could “fit your project into my schedule,” the movie turned out to be a personal and professional milestone. “It was really my first film where I had to open up and really show to people the little things I was learning.”

Too Bad She’s Bad (1954) also paired Loren with Marcello Mastroianni for the first time. From the moment she met Mastroianni on the set they were immediately simpatico. “Since I saw him, it was like he was my old friend. He was a gentle person.”

Their friendship was based on two things, according to Loren: “sense of humor and food.” The latter sounds like Mastroianni’s favorite subject. “When he came on the set in the morning the first thing he said wasn’t, ‘Come stai, Sophia?’ No. ‘Cosa mangerai stasera?’ What are you going to eat tonight?”

At the TCL Chinese Theater, when Ben Mankiewicz asked Loren if she and Mastroianni worked on their onscreen chemistry, she replied, “I don’t think you can work on chemistry. There is or there isn’t. So, as soon as I saw Marcello, there is.”

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Audiences felt the rapport, too, and a new screen team was formed. “When the film came out it was so successful that other writers started writing other things for us both, always for comedies, though, in the beginning.”

After Loren’s string of Italian hits in the 1950s, Hollywood beckoned, and Ponti offered her the opportunity to break the language barrier and prepare to enchant new audiences. She shared an anecdote that revealed the producer’s determination. Loren received a telegram stating, “‘Tomorrow you start learning English.’” As she was mulling the idea over, she reported, “The door rang—that was my teacher!”

Loren’s first English-language film, The Pride and the Passion (1957), entailed a 6-month shoot in Spain and sparked the actress’s legendary romance with Cary Grant. However, they didn’t exactly start off on the right foot.

“Cary Grant was being very funny, because he mixed my name up with Gina Lollobrigida. So, I went to him and I said, ‘If you keep on doing that, I’m leaving.” While making his apology, “He looked into my eyes and he was stuck. That’s all.”

Listening to stories about his mother and Grant, Eduardo Ponti got one of the biggest laughs of the day: “I have a bittersweet feeling about Cary Grant: sweet, because he’s somebody who meant a lot to you, bitter because my birth was threatened.” You know, I can’t really blame him.

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Who could turn down Cary Grant? Well, Loren explained that it wasn’t Grant so much as a break with her life in Italy that she was resisting: “I think that with Carlo [Ponti] I had found a kind of calm, a kind of tranquility. He came from Italy… I was afraid to change so quickly in my life and go to America.”

Knowing that her future as an artist, not merely a star, resided in her native country, Loren went home. Although she didn’t seem to find her English-language films particularly fulfilling, she confessed her fondness for a few: “I’ve done things that sometimes I thought were okay, like the picture I did with Cary, Houseboat, and then also a film I did, The Key with Carol Reed.”

twowomenIn 1960, Loren gave her most acclaimed performance in Two Women, as a mother struggling to help her daughter survive in wartorn Italy, again directed by De Sica. Initially slated to play the daughter, Loren ended up in the role of the mother after Anna Magnani turned it down—but suggested rewriting the script to feature Sophia as the older lead.

The artistic triumph emerged from a grueling production, leading up to the horrifying church rape scene. “I spent nights and nights and nights without sleep,” Loren said. “When the day came, we did a rehearsal and then we started shooting.

“On the first [take], De Sica said, “Print!” I said, ‘Don’t we do another one?’ He said, ‘No, we won’t do another one.’ All the scenes from that moment on until the end De Sica never did it twice.”

The one-take method made Loren nervous, “I was so preoccupied and I said, ‘My god, it will be terrible and and I will have to do the same thing [again]… he said, ‘No, you could never do it better. Shut up.’”

De Sica was right, as Loren learned on Oscar night when she became the first actor ever to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language performance.

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Ben Mankiewicz looks adorably starstruck in the presence of Sophia Loren before their interview at the TCL Chinese Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

At the TCL Chinese Theater, the day after her interview at the Montalban, Loren recounted how she received the word of her victory. Seized by the jitters, Loren had decided not to attend the ceremony, thinking, “I will stay in Rome, because if I win, I’m going to faint. If I faint in my own house, then it’s fine. Nobody sees me. If I faint on the stage, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Instead, Loren and Ponti enjoyed a quiet night at home. The clock ticked by, past the time when the winner was supposed to have been announced. Assuming that no news was bad news, the couple headed up to bed.

“At that moment,” Loren told the packed crowd at the Chinese Theater, “the telephone rang. I said, ‘Hello? Pronto? Chi è?”

What she heard at the other end is probably the best thing anyone has ever heard in the history of phones: “It’s Cary Grant. You won!”

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Marriage Italian Style (1964) reunited Loren with De Sica and her frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni. One of Loren’s favorites in her filmography, the bawdy, beloved dramedy allowed the actress to prove her talent to a surprising critic: her mother.

“Even though after a while I started to be in movies and they were giving me already good roles, one time we were looking at the television and there was a lady called Regina Bianchi, ah, mi ricordo… and she was doing Marriage Italian Style. My mother, because she was very natural, sometimes she could say things that could hurt you a lot.

“So, I said, ‘Maybe Carlo would like to do Marriage Italian Style.’ And she looked at the television and she said, ‘But you could never do it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because she’s so good.’”

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Perhaps Bianchi was good, but Loren is “a cinematic event” in Marriage Italian Style, to borrow Ben Mankiewicz’s description. Amazed by Loren’s walk in a certain iconic scene, Mankiewicz began, “When you walk, just walk in a movie—”

“I dance,” Loren aptly finished the sentence. “I walked like that because there was music underneath, so I had to do a double step, and I enjoyed it very much.”

Loren cherished the part of Filumena, a prostitute who longs for a loving marriage with her keeper of 20 years, for its range of emotion. “It’s a beautiful role for a woman. You can cry, you can laugh, but the tragedy of the woman at that time is always there.”

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Marriage Italian Style also captures the beauty and vitality of Loren’s heritage in Naples. “I think I owe everything to [being] Neapolitan,” She reflected. “Every kind of picture that I’ve done with De Sica, the source was always Naples in a way.”

What else is there to say? Grazie, Naples. E grazie, Sophia.

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Kongo (1932): Apocalypse Then

flintTo paraphrase a line from Heart of Darkness, you can’t judge Kongo as you would an ordinary film.

In this monument to morbidity, nearly all the taboos festering at the edges of pre-Code cinema come out and play: blasphemy, drug addiction, prostitution, torture, slavery, bestiality, and (spoiler alert!) incest. The movie positively wallows in depravity. Degradation is its subject, its project, its study.

Even in the annals of pre-Code excess, it is unmatched, I believe—and yes, I’ve seen and written about The Story of Temple Drake, The Black Cat, and Murders in the Zoo.

Kongo is so squalid, so sticky, so saturated in filth that it rises to the level of tragic art, an art of darkness. And, as ‘Dead-Legs’ Flint, the movie’s irredeemable villain/hero, Walter Huston deserves much of the credit for whatever brutal poetry the film attains.

Huston’s performance, possibly the most intense in a screen career that defined intense, runs the gamut from raw, animalistic rage to wry sadism to blank, abject despair. How far can hatred take a man? How much can vengeance distort his soul? Prepare to find out.

And, yes, this is a ludicrously long post. Make it to the end and I’ve got some cute behind-the-scenes anecdotes from fan magazines to cleanse your palate, okay?

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No Bedtime Story

In remote central Africa, a merciless paraplegic ivory trader (Huston) rules his territory with impunity, lording it over his mistress Tula (Lupe Velez) and his terrified cronies. Using magic tricks to convince the natives that he controls evil spirits, he sets himself up as a minor god. (Cue the offensive 1930s stereotypes and broken English!)

But Flint’s not in this for money. Oh, no. He carefully selected this private inferno as the staging ground for an elaborate revenge scheme. After 18 long years of waiting, he’s about to spring the trap.

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Left partially paralyzed after a fight with the man who stole his wife, Flint targets the rival’s daughter, Ann (Virginia Bruce), born to Flint’s wife. Plucking Ann from a convent as soon as she’s “old enough to realize what’s happening to her,” Flint sends her to work in a Zanzibar brothel.

Once Ann “graduates” from the whorehouse, he summons the girl to his plantation and subjects her to starvation, beatings, numerous assaults, and daily humiliations. Unbroken in spirit, Ann falls in love with a drug-addicted derelict doctor (Conrad Nagel, never edgier), and they help nurse each other back to health.

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Meanwhile, Flint counts down the days until he can lure Ann’s father to his compound and show him what his daughter has become. Then the fun can really begin.

However, when Flint finally confronts his foe, needless to say, things don’t go quite as planned. One mistake will bring the full weight of the tyrant’s actions down on his own head… and somehow make the film even sicker. This plot doesn’t thicken so much as it curdles.

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Beast in the Jungle

Walter Huston had an advantage in tackling Kongo: he’d created the role of ‘Dead-Legs’ on Broadway in 1926, starring in a sordid play that would spawn two film adaptations.

With all that practice under his belt, it should come as no surprise that he captured the disabled character’s physicality with uncanny ease. He makes us accept Flint’s paralysis with the apparent rote familiarity of his movements, positioning his limbs by sharply yanking his pant legs or smoothly dragging himself across the floor, for instance. He sets a rock-solid basis for our credibility in the face of all the Grand Guignol to follow.

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Better yet, Huston wisely doesn’t back down from the perversity of the part. He refuses to underplay Flint or use his plight for sympathy. Instead, he gives a full-throttle representation of evil, radiating malevolence, power, and fearlessness.

I’m sorry, but we’d never buy Flint’s barbarism if he weren’t larger than life. Some characters can only be sustained on a diet of scenery-chewing. This man is a roaring, hyperbolic tyrant, an arrogant, cigar-chomping monster. It’s as though every major dictator of the 20th century borrowed a few tricks from Huston’s repertoire. Even when he’s resting in his wheelchair, his presence signifies imminent violence.

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For example, in what I consider the movie’s most chilling moment, Flint punishes Ann for trying to escape the plantation by ordering his myrmidon Hogan to beat and (the scene strongly implies) rape her. Hogan drags the poor girl into another room, the door closes, and we hear Ann shriek again and again.

Wheeling right up to the door, Flint takes a mighty puff of his cigar and howls with laughter. His rabid, guttural cackle mingles with her high-pitched screams as the screen lingeringly fades out. In addition to the downright disturbing use of offscreen space, the juxtaposition of sounds—laughter and cries of pain—emphasizes just how far Flint has strayed from that little thing we call humanity.

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Twisted in Mind and Body

Ironically, Flint obsesses most over his rival’s sneer, over the expression of glee and contempt on the man’s face as he left Flint helpless. In seeking to retaliate against that sneer, Flint has assimilated it, absorbed it, transmuted it into the essence of his being until he himself is little more than a sneer.

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Although his interpretation of Flint originated on the stage, Huston wrings the intimacy of the film medium for all it’s worth. The actor gets more close-ups and medium close-ups than either of the movie’s leading ladies and, despite being handicapped by grotesque makeup that partially obscures his features, he makes the most of those shots.

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Whenever he describes the torture and degradation of his enemy’s daughter, an unholy gleam flashes in his eye. Huston makes the pleasure that Flint takes in Ann’s suffering just as frightening and sick as it ought to be. Plus, cinematographer Harold Rosson enhances the horror of Huston’s performance with stark lighting, often from below, so that darkness laps at the corners of the frame.

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Another interesting aspect of Flint’s performance is the unnerving mixture of raw and refined cruelty. The film recurrently places him in the animal realm: he slithers on the floor like a snake and, when we first see him, his head pops out of a bunk… after the head of his pet monkey. He’s also not afraid to get hands-on in his villainy, grinning eagerly as he pries Tula’s mouth open with the intention of twisting her tongue out with wire.

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Yet, far from an unthinking brute, he can’t resist making a few barbed comments to assert his intelligence. He wounds Ann with words as well as with blows, forcing her to smash a glass she’s sipped from, snarling, “Who’d want it after you?”

Earlier, ordering Tula to deck him out in his Voodoo headdress, he decides to take the opportunity to remind her of the fact that’s in she’s servitude to such an unattractive master. “Crown me Queen of the May,” he leers. “Of all the men you’ve known, have you ever seen such an Adonis? Smile, you little bush rat, smile.”

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When he comes face-to-face with the object of his hatred, another ivory trader called Gregg, the man asks if Flint wants revenge. The reply? “No, not revenge. Call it the aftereffect of dark, somber brooding,” he comically minimizes.

The glimmers of wit and civilization in Flint disturb us all the more, because they remind us that he is a self-created monster. As his victim of choice yells at him, “Your mind’s more twisted and warped than your body!”

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West of Zanzibar, South of Decency

Remakes rarely surpass the originals, but to my mind, Kongo trumps Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928), starring Lon Chaney, on pretty much every level—certainly in terms of horror.

West of Zanzibar begins by showing how Dead-Legs’ wife leaves him, how he ends up paralyzed, and how he vows revenge. Seeing these tribulations builds empathy for the antihero too early in the film, thus, in my opinion, weakening the character.

Moreover, Flint’s torment of his enemy’s daughter in the silent strikes me as positively childish in comparison to the persecution we witness in the talkie version. He steals her clothes and gives her brandy? Heaven forfend!

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The undercurrents of perversity still run strong in Zanzibar—you’ve got people being burned alive, for instance—but dialogue and sound in general cranks up Flint’s formidable power as an adversary, especially given his physical limitations. With a voice, he gets to threaten, bark, grunt, chortle, crow, taunt, cajole, and quip, all in the service of his single-minded goal.

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On a more poignant level, the talkie develops Ann into a three-dimensional character. She not only describes the trauma of her experiences, but also rises above them, telling Flint, “You just called me a degraded woman. In name I am, but in my heart never!”

In terms of background noise, thunderclaps, tribal chants, and the sweeping sounds that Flint makes scuttling across the floor all fill the vivid soundtrack of this early talkie. Most eerily of all, the entire third act throbs with drums, hammering away, announcing doom for a certain character selected for human sacrifice.

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Senses of Wickedness

No other product of the studio era, talkie or silent, ever brought the word “hellhole” to life so completely as Kongo did. Director William J. Cowen, a decorated WWI officer, ex-spy, noted writer, and husband of the great screenwriter Lenore Coffee, only worked on a handful of movies, which may be a blessing for those with delicate constitutions.

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With cinematographer Rosson (of The Wizard of Oz), Cowen transformed an M-G-M set, used around the same time for the steamy romance Red Dust, into another world, one that none of us would want to visit. If Red Dust is an exotic wet dream, Kongo is a tropical nightmare.

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Most impressive to me is how Cowen preys upon nearly all of the audience’s senses, especially how haptic the movie is. Kongo almost seems to touch you, and I don’t mean emotionally. The eye cannot help but translate the squirmy tactile sensations conjured by such unpleasant images. Itchiness. Dirtiness. Griminess. Bodies glisten constantly with sweat, burnished and glowing, as though the beast in each character had literally bubbled to the surface.

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The chancrous, sin-sodden ambiance of Kongo prompts a visceral response. About 10 minutes in, you’ll want to wash the heat-haze off yourself. Even the light looks dirty.

Plus, if a movie can have a stench, this one does—sweet like jungle rot and revenge and sour like dried perspiration and regret.

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Trick of Fate

When discussing the nature of tragedy in Poetics, Aristotle identified anagnorisis—a tragic revelation or recognition—as a potent plot device.

Like we see in Oedipus, this sudden realization or discovery often leads to peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, an upheaval from which the drama draws emotional energy: “This recognition, combined with reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, tragedy represents.”

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I suspect that Aristotle would have as high an opinion of Kongo as I have, because it pulls off an anagnorisis that might’ve prompted Oedipus to put out his eyes and his ears to boot.

Flint summons Gregg to his plantation, parades the debased Ann before him, then announces that she is his daughter. Gregg wobbles and collapses in a huddle. The camera tracks in on Gregg’s heaving back as he presumably sobs, but when he looks up, we see a hysterical smile on his face. “She’s your daughter!” Gregg laughs.

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And we watch Flint slowly, agonizingly reap the punishment he’d devised for another. Our fear of what he might do next dissolves into pity. Humanity pours back into him as he reprocesses all the terrible things he’s done to Ann with the double sorrow of a father’s love and a persecutor’s guilt.

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Seized with the desire to make amends, he reaches out for Ann, only to realize that his previous actions have conditioned his daughter to shudder at his touch. Later, she faints and Flint takes the chance to cradle her in his arms.

To call the scene uncomfortable would be an understatement. Flint has to resort to a form of exploitation even to express tenderness, holding her as she lies there unconscious. Think of it as, say, David Lynch’s Pietà.

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Any affection he can ever feel for his child is tainted by the abuse he inflicted on her. He knows it, too. We discern that in a series of harrowing close-ups: Flint looking down, Ann’s face, her eyes closed, on the floor. The opposing “axes” of their faces, his roughly vertical, hers roughly horizontal, when edited together, spur the viewer’s eyes to readjust. The contrast visually expresses the Aristotelian reversal, the staggering switch that annihilated one of cinema’s fiercest villains and transformed him into a bereft parent.

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That my heart can break for such a villain, a man I never cease to despise, testifies to Huston’s virtuosic talent—and to the perverse force of the movie as a whole.

Gratuitous though Kongo’s litany of sins may seem, the heavy impact of all that ugliness culminates in a gut-punch of recognition and reversal. The movie does not exist merely to shock, but to tell us something about outer limits of evil: you cannot debase another without debasing yourself more.

That reversal elevates Kongo from the mire and accords it a place among the forgotten gems of its era.

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Tough Times and Dark Places

Investigating this potboiler for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking you stumbled upon an alternate universe. In this parallel realm, the most repellent exploitation films of the 1930s—instead of being churned out by Dwain Esper and his sleazy ilk—were made at M-G-M with top-flight actors, screenwriters, and production values.

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So, how did Kongo get made? Let’s all take a few moments to appreciate Irving Thalberg’s dark side.

1932 was perhaps Thalberg’s banner year as M-G-M’s boy wonder. He basically invented the “all-star” cast with Grand Hotel. He launched Jean Harlow to the next level in the wake of the Bern scandal with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust. He gave us Tarzan and Letty Lynton and Smilin’ Through.

Nevertheless, it was also the year he greenlit Freaks, the most notorious flop of his career, and Kongo, which supposedly turned a profit but didn’t make him any friends. In his zeal to capitalize on the box office mojo of talkie horror, established by Universal’s hits the previous year, Thalberg got out of the boat just a tad.

As Norma Shearer remembered, Thalberg “was fascinated by the unusual, the colorful—even the decadent and the evil. He loved the impact of horror, but not merely for the sake of horror. These elements had to possess a reality, a logic, a meaning.”

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Alas, as psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan would say (not), Kongo got way too real for Depression-era audiences.

In the opinions section of a 1933 issue of Motion Picture Herald, Ned Pedigo, a theater owner from Garber, Oklahoma, wrote in to complain about Kongo’s undesirable effect on his audience: “When [a moviegoer] pays two bits to see this one, he doesn’t forget when he comes out. Hand him 30 cents back. Beg his pardon and I doubt if that will square it.”

Sorry, Mr. Average Spectator, you can’t forget Kongo, no matter how much you’d like to.

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This movie devours a little bit of your soul. Don’t say I didn’t warn you and, unlike Mr. Pedigo of Oklahoma, I refuse to beg your pardon. I’ve seen it 5 times and have been freshly appalled by each viewing.

That is quite a legacy, Mr. Thalberg. Bravo. After all, what greater measure of a movie’s power is there than its ability to make us feel something like revulsion decades later?

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Look, I want you all to watch the many uncontroversially great films of classic Hollywood. Enjoy them. Quote them. Embrace them as a lifestyle choice. But you know what I want more? For everyone who reads this to take a journey into the darkest corners of the studio era and to check out the messy, category-defying flicks that make you question everything you thought you knew about a prestige outfit like M-G-M.

Bottom line? You can keep The Wizard of Oz. I’ll take Kongo.

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Epilogue: Notes on the Making of Kongo

I promised anecdotes and I am a woman of my word.

Photoplay, the most prestigious and arguably the most trustworthy fan magazine of Hollywood’s golden age, reported on an unlikely friendship that blossomed between Walter Huston and Lupe Velez of onthesetall people on the set of Kongo. Velez had been intimidated by Huston since her former husband Gary Cooper expressed his awe in the presence of the consummate actor’s actor. Noticing Velez furtively peering at him from the sidelines, Huston affably introduced himself and things went swimmingly.

In the article, “The Strangest Friendship in Hollywood,” Ruth Biery reported, “They talk continuously while they are working together and as soon as the week is done, Lupe, Walter, and his wife Nan dash away for little trips to the mountains.”

Lupe also befriended the chimp star, Queenie, who took it upon herself to protect the actress. When Flint starts to twist Tula’s tongue with the wire, Queenie sensed the distress of the scene and started attacking the actors who were pretending to abuse Velez.

During shooting, Virginia Bruce married John Gilbert, a match somewhat jinxed from the start as this item, also from Photoplay, suggests:

Poor Virginia Bruce had a tough honeymoon.

She was working in “Kongo.” And if you ever saw a dirty picture, it was that. Taken in mud. Even the interior shots were largely in huts with dirt floors.

Virginia’s hair was stringy. Her nails were uncut.

She went to director Bill Cowan [sic] with tears in her eyes.

“Can’t I have a shampoo and a facial and manicure just for the week-end?”

“Absolutely not. You might not get the dirt back in the same proportions.”

“But I want to go out with Jack—”

As new-hubby Jack Gilbert is noted for wanting his women fastidiously groomed, no wonder the bride decided to… spend all her time being a little home body.

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This post is a (tardy) entry into The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings! Click the banner to check out all the other posts!

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Art Imitates Life: Shirley MacLaine Revisits The Apartment (1960) at TCMFF

maclaine“We didn’t know where it was going,” Shirley MacLaine recalled.

That “it” happened to be the plot of The Apartment, which remained up in the air as shooting for the film began. “Jack [Lemmon] and I both, we talked about it, we were given 29 pages of script.”

The actors just had to wait and see how it would crumble, cookie-wise.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, MacLaine, exuberant as ever at age 80, regaled a packed audience in the TCL Chinese Theater with stories about the making of Billy Wilder’s enduringly powerful dramedy. 

I consider myself very fortunate to have been in that audience. After seeing MacLaine 4 times over the course of the festival, believe me, I could have listened to this fascinating and endlessly sassy woman for hours more!

In conversation with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine revealed how behind-the-scenes spontaneity helped to shape the masterpiece. Asked about the onscreen sparks between herself and Jack Lemmon, with whom she’d never worked before, she explained, “I think chemistry is good when you find yourself on a discovery mission.”

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MacLaine and Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

In keeping with this atmosphere of “discovery,” writer-director Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond largely eschewed any preconceived story or characterizations. Instead, they tailored their script to fit the two leading actors’ growing friendship—with remarkable results.

According to MacLaine, Diamond and Wilder “watched the developing working relationship. They were so on cue, on key about every little movement, every little sigh and disappointment and joy and happiness, and they made little notes about what they saw. So, the love affair between Fran and [Baxter] became basically what they observed.” 

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Wilder and Diamond also mined MacLaine’s personal life for screenwriting material, finding inspiration for what would become a major motif in The Apartment: “I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

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MacLaine also unwittingly supplied one of the film’s most memorable lines while having lunch with Wilder: “I was having a love affair that wasn’t working. I said, ‘Why do people have to be in love with people anyway? Why can’t we be in love with giraffes?’ or something like that. And he said, ‘That’s it, that’s it!’”

Knowing a good thing when he heard it, Wilder launched into action. “He ordered us to retake the whole scene, because that made sense to him and to Izzy Diamond,” MacLaine said. “See, that’s unusual, because it took a lot of expense, time, and so forth, but when he saw something that seemed, in his opinion, to make his stuff better, he went for it.” 

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Fans of the film will know that Fran Kubelik does closely echo MacLaine’s words. Sitting up in bed after her failed suicide attempt, she half-ignores Baxter’s sweetly clumsy attempt to distract her from her sorrows with a game of cards and asks, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” 

In contrast to Wilder’s human-centered approach to the script, he proved a steely, almost clinical taskmaster when it came to coaching performances. 

Wilder was “the most scientific of directors,” as MacLaine described him. “He would say to us, ‘Do the scene again and take out 12-and-a-half seconds.’ I don’t really know how that worked, but we did it.” 

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On the whole, with 55 years of perspective on The Apartment, MacLaine spoke of Wilder in fond and admiring terms: “As a person, I liked him a lot. He was very funny and very sensitive when it came to what he thought would be best for the screen.”

Day to day, however, Wilder often used his caustic wit to keep the actress in line and it hurt. “At times he was very brittle with women,” she observed, “but in the end you were better for it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m38s155The next day at Club TCM, again in interview with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine elaborated on the pressures of being directed by Wilder. “He was very sarcastic. I see why Marilyn [Monroe] was afraid to come to work,” she said. “He scared the hell out of me. But he taught me how to be self-reliant and how to take criticism.” 

Fortunately for MacLaine, years as a dancer had taught her to deal with tough overseers. “Choreographers are made to make you miserable, so I was used to that… When this incredible Austrian [Wilder] came at me, I thought, ‘Okay, well, just show me the step.’” 

And what a dance it turned out to be!

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m30s80 As for her co-star Jack Lemmon, MacLaine had nothing but positive memories: “He was such a sweetheart. What a wonderful man.” On the set, she would watch Lemmon perform whenever possible: “He really could do anything. He was good, very, very, very good, until the sixth or seventh take. I mean, absolutely sterling.”

With his “scientific” approach to comedy, Wilder gave MacLaine plenty of opportunity to watch, as he put Lemmon through long series of takes, seemingly for the sake of experiment. “I think Billy wanted to see what the contrived actor in all of us could do if he asked him to do take 16,” she said. “He was seeing how far probably the best actor of drama and comedy… could go and still be honest to it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h26m30s27MacLaine also mentioned an encouraging foible of Lemmon’s: “He would say, ‘Magic time!’ every time the camera rolled. And then we knew we’d better make some magic.”

Fred MacMurray didn’t get off so easily in MacLaine’s no-punches-pulled appraisal. “Fred never picked up the check at lunch,” she wryly commented, prompting gales of laughter at the Chinese Theater. The next day at Club TCM, the spirited actress couldn’t resist another jab at MacMurray’s parsimony: “His money blinked when he took it out of his pocket. It had never seen the sun.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-05-19h49m04s98While discussing the collaborative effort of making The Apartment, MacLaine emphasized a contributor who rarely gets the credit he deserves: Doane Harris. “He was Billy’s secret,” MacLaine insisted. This veteran editor worked on most of Wilder’s greatest films, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole, and received credit as an associate producer on The Apartment.

After looking over the rushes in the cutting room, Harris would make his diagnosis to Wilder. As MacLaine recounted, “He would say, and I heard this because Billy didn’t mind if I heard… ‘Billy, you gotta shoot that whole day over. You did not break my heart today. And they would re-do it.”

“See, that’s where trust comes in,” she explained. “Billy didn’t even ask why. To save time, he just did it.” 

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On the subject of retakes, MacLaine told us about a scene in which the dialogue posed a frustrating challenge for her, when Fran and Sheldrake meet in the Chinese restaurant after 6 weeks apart and rekindle their affair.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

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Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

After a few takes, MacLaine’s nervousness about the line interfered with her ability to project Fran’s multitude of emotions in that scene, as she opens up about the shame of being the mistress of a married man.

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The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”

(Ouch. Yeah, I can see why Marilyn was scared of Wilder, too.)

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Whereas other actresses might have buckled under the humiliation of being called out in front of her colleagues, MacLaine had a different reaction. 

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

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Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

I’m darned grateful that she was, because the scene plays beautifully. It stands as a lesson to all of us. There’s a lot of be said for “Shut up and deal.”

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The Mind Reels: 10 Personal Highlights from TCMFF 2015

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You’d think I’d turn my pass to the right side for my photo op, but you’d be wrong.

4 days. 11 movies. 5 special presentations. 100+ buttons handed out to eager film fans. 20 hours of sleep, tops.

And I loved every minute of it.

This year, the TCM Classic Film Festival took “History According to Hollywood” as its theme. However, the history went deeper than the fancy costumes on the screens or the struggles of the past that drove the plots.

First off, TCM and TCMFF do so much to keep the history of motion pictures alive, enabling people of all ages to discover the heritage of movies. I mean, where else can you see a 1898 Méliès film from a hand-cranked projector one day and a Soderbergh hit from the 1990s the next?

More and more people of my generation (and I’m 24) are exploring Hollywood history, not just history according to Hollywood. When Shirley MacLaine looked out at the standing room only crowd there to see her at Club TCM, she chuckled about the absence of white hair among the spectators.

Leonard Maltin explained, “TCM gets pigeonholed as a mature viewer network, and there’s a reason for that, because older people tend to like older movies, but that doesn’t mean that other people don’t like old movies, too, and it shows in the audience here.”

“Because they were better,” MacLaine chimed in, expressing what I suspect most of us were thinking.

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Shirley MacLaine and Leonard Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

That betterness is something that TCM brings into people’s homes, and I’m grateful for that. As Christopher Plummer remarked at the festival, “there can be no future without a past.”

Second, TCMFF gives attendees the chance to listen to people who are truly, to borrow an apt cliché, living history. Listening to their memories illuminates not only their lives as performers, but also the social climate from which their work emerged.

Finally, corny though it sounds, the festival connected the personal histories that many of us have with people we hardly know in the conventional sense, but with whom we share our deepest thoughts and passions on social media.

I recently learned that the Library of Congress is now storing tweets, archiving them as part of our cultural history. I daresay mine don’t rate that, but the practice shows what I’d known for years: that our virtual existences do constitute a real part of our lives, our identities, our stories. Whatever tweets are made of, maybe friendships are made of the same stuff.

I feel tremendously privileged to have attended the 6th annual TCM Classic Film Festival. For the record (and maybe posterity?), here are a few of many, many highlights.

I’m working on more detailed posts about a number of these talks and movies, but I figured that I’d share some memories while they’re fresh. Ranking these by any criterion would be just too difficult, so I’ve put them in chronological order.

Seeing Captains Kirk and von Trapp together—I mean, William Shatner and Christopher Plummer along with Shirley MacLaine and Ben Mankiewicz at the handprint and footprint ceremony.

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Bravely snapped from the press box… on my iPhone.

It’s a miracle I didn’t faint, and heaven knows the blistering sun was no help, but there I was standing in the press box with the pros… juggling my basic point-and-shoot Cannon and my iPhone. Ever get the feeling you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight?

Well, this girl reporter’s nervousness melted right away when the guests arrived; I was there snapping away and recording with the rest of ’em. Hey, even Hildy Johnson had to start somewhere.

The ceremony featured amusing tributes from Shirley MacLaine, who credited Plummer with teaching her how to drink a whole bottle of wine, and William Shatner, who spoke of his long history of working with Plummer and following him to Canada, Stratford, and New York. “I followed you to Los Angeles, to Hollywood. That means I’d follow you anywhere!” Shatner joked.

In that sonorous baritone of his (which sounds even better in real life), man of the hour Christopher Plummer told spectators, “My mother once predicted that I would have to wait to be a very old man before receiving recognition in my profession. She was absolutely right, of course. But she never mentioned anything about being stuck in cement or allowing pedestrians to trample over me to their hearts’ content.”

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Christopher Plummer leaves his handprints in front of the TCL Chinese Theater. No, this one’s not mine. This is from one of the pros: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage.

“I am immensely, immensely touched that I am part of this glorious history,” Plummer said, acknowledging all those who’d left their imprints before him. “To all my newfound brothers and sisters in arms, my talented dear neighbors in life after death, those wonderful artists whose grand achievements are forever carved into memory, I promise I won’t spoil the party.”

I took a lot of pictures, which I’ll treasure for occasions when I need a reminder of what pure class looks like.

Ann-Margret confessing to a very badass speeding violation.

While introducing a screening of The Cincinnati Kid (1965), the actress discussed her Swedish origins, her early roles, and her passion for motorcycles. When Ben Mankiewicz asked about the fastest she’d ever gone on one of her beloved bikes, her reply flabbergasted the audience: “120 at 2 a.m. on Mulholland… There was no traffic!”

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The enchanting Ann-Margret. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

About her Cincinnati Kid co-star Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret said, “Like me, he loved speed… I could identify with him, because I’m a bit of a daredevil.”

However, the studio informed both Ann-Margret and McQueen that they needed to stop riding their bikes to work. It was too dangerous for major stars.

Mankiewicz asked what McQueen advised her to do. Alas, that wasn’t the sort of thing you repeat to hundreds of people at the Egyptian Theater: “Well, I can’t really say everything… He said, ‘Let ’em stay nervous. That’s their job.’”

Ann-Margret also shared stories about her film debut, working with Bette Davis on Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961): “She really took care of me. She watched what I did, and since I didn’t know the meaning of close-up, medium, long shots—as I said, I was just really happy to know my lines—and all of a sudden she comes up and says, ‘Stop!… Ann-Margret, this is your close-up and I want you to look the best that you can. Makeup and hair!’”

Discovering rare and racy pre-Code comedy Don’t Bet on Women (1931).

Since I’d watched Men on Call at Cinefest the week before, Don’t Bet on Women was the second pre-Code Fox feature released in 1931 starring Edmund Lowe that I’d seen in one week! That, folks, is how I roll.

This zestful comedy centers on Jeanne Drake (Jeanette MacDonald, in her only non-singing role), who finds herself the subject of a wager between her stuffy husband Herbert (Roland Young) and a suavely caddish acquaintance Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe). Hubby bets that his wife will resist Fallon’s advances… then gets to sweat it out as she uses the wager to teach him some respect and spice up her life.

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Una Merkel steals the show as Jeanne’s dizzy, flirtatious relative from the South. Merkel’s Tallulah encourages her conflicted cousin to play both sides of the bet: “I’d let Herbert win the wager and then I’d let Mr. Fallon kiss me to bits. That way I’d help my husband and then I’d help myself.”

Former James Bond George Lazenby leaving Ben Mankiewicz and the audience slightly shaken (and stirred).

Before a screening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the Australian actor let loose with disarmingly unfiltered reminiscences of the movie and his wild behavior during the production.

“The last thing I ever thought of being was a film actor. Sounded like hard work,” he said, recounting how he bluffed his way into the role of 007 with no acting experience.

Mentioned for the role by a friend, Lazenby, a top male model of the 1960s, turned up at the casting office with a Connery haircut, a sharp suit, and a Rolex. When producer Harry Saltzman tried to schedule a screen test for the following day, Lazenby panicked.

“I was shitting myself and this was my way out,” he recalled. “I said ‘I can’t be here… I’m doing a film in France.’” There was no film in France, by the way. Our hero was BS-ing.

Saltzman asked how much he was getting paid. The made-up reply? “500 pounds a day, which was half a year’s wages in England at that time. I think, ‘That’ll get me out of here.’” Instead, the producer offered Lazenby that much just to show up—and so he became “the only actor who’s ever been paid for a callback.”

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Lovable rogue George Lazenby. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

Upon meeting director Peter Hunt, Lazenby came clean and admitted that he’d never acted before in his life. Hunt corrected him: “You’ve fooled two of the most ruthless guys I’ve ever met in my life! You’re an actor.”

Lazenby went through intensive training to play Bond, including elocution and deportment lessons: “They got me to walk like Prince Philip. I used to swagger like an Australian coming out of a pub on a Friday night.”

During shooting, he wooed Diana Rigg, but ultimately lost her when she caught him in an, ahem, compromising position with a receptionist in the stuntman’s tent. Hearing this ribald anecdote, Mankiewicz exclaimed, “You are James Bond!”

To make this moment even cooler, my mom (@MiddParent on Twitter) and I were sitting next to our longtime Twitter pal James David Patrick of #Bond_Age_, the James Bond Social Media Project.

Cackling deliriously at a midnight screening of Boom! (1968), the ne plus ultra of camp cinema.

boomI literally laughed my eyeliner off and resembled nothing so much as a raccoon when I staggered out of the Chinese Multiplex at 2 a.m. If you took ’shrooms and watched Joseph Losey’s The Servant, you might get something like the same director’s puzzlingly bad Boom!

Eccentric dowager Liz Taylor howls as she pushes an X-ray machine into the ocean and bloviates about the ephemerality of existence. Richard Burton pensively intones “Boom!” every chance he gets and swings a samurai sword about for no apparent reason. Pompous camera movements threaten to induce motion sickness. I can’t decide if Boom! is brilliantly atrocious or atrociously brilliant.

Interestingly enough, Boom! polarized those friends of mine who were brave enough to stay up for it. Joel Williams of #TCMParty enjoyed it as much as I did and Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival is thinking of how to work lines of the film’s ponderous dialogue into ringtones for his cell.

At the other end of the love-hate spectrum, Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has vowed to destroy all surviving prints of the cult classic. So, quite a range of responses there.

Norman Lloyd reenacting his famous Hitchcock plunge from Saboteur (1942).

At age 100, Norman Lloyd gets my vote for the most charming man on the planet; he is the personification of joie de vivre. So, rather than simply telling his audience many of his engrossing tales, he acted them out.

While describing his memorable death as the nasty title character of Hitchcock’s thriller Saboteur (1942), Lloyd explained how John Fulton and company created the illusion of the villain’s fall from the Statue of Liberty.

“It started with a seat on a pole on a black drape on the floor… that would be painted in as what’s known as a matte shot, where they painted in New York bay.

“Now, above me… was a platform. The middle of it was cut open and on it was a camera, shooting down. On a cue, this camera would go up in the air to the ceiling of the stage as I performed various beautiful balletic movements.”

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Norman Lloyd invites you to appreciate his awesomeness. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

At this point, on the stage of the Montalban Theater, Lloyd recreated these “airborne” undulations of the arms and legs—albeit in a more comic vein. If he’s Fry in the film, he was Wry at that moment (and, if I may say so, rather Spry for his advanced years), and I will never, ever forget it.

“I didn’t fall at all,” Lloyd explained. “I just made these movements [more undulations] as the camera was going up. And they ran the camera at different speeds. They weren’t sure at what speed it would look best, so the speeds went from 18 [fps] to 22, I remember. I’m not sure what they printed at.”

Spending over 2 hours with Sophia Loren, listening to an astonishingly down-to-earth diva.

About halfway through the interview with his magnificent mother, Edoardo Ponti joked that we’d all have to come back the next morning for part two of the discussion since it could go on for hours more. No one in the audience seemed to object to the idea.

Loren immediately won us over (not that she needed to!) by telling us about her natural shyness: “It was very difficult for me to come out and meet you all, but now that I’m here with you, I consider you a member of my family.”

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The luminous Sophia Loren in conversation at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

The idea of family wove through much of what she shared. For instance, Loren recounted how, with money from her aunt, she and her sister went to see Hollywood movies during World War II. Blood and Sand (1941) remained a vivid memory from those dark times, when bombardments regularly rocked Loren’s home and she had little to eat. “At my age, I was 8, 9 years old, to see these grand buildings and the clothes, the hair… the dance, the music… it took me to another world, so that for some minutes, for some instants, we were happy.”

Some of the most moving parts of the interview provided a glimpse into the close relationship between Sophia and Edoardo. When he asked her to talk about the costars she didn’t like, he got a slightly stern response: “Why do you ask me this question? We’re going to talk about this later!” The mother-son dynamic brought a sense of comfortable intimacy to the conversation that added poignancy to each answer.

Fighting sleep deprivation for hand-cranked movies, including a film unseen in full for 110 years.

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The dream machine, my picture

When you walk into a theater and they’re playing hits of the early 20th century on a 1908 Edison Phonograph, you know you’re in for something truly special. Indeed, at this presentation, Joe Rinaudo showed movies made between 1898 and 1913 from a 1909 Hand-Crank Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine.

As I sat spellbound in the dark, my attention shifted from the flickering images on the screen to the lively shadows cast on the wall by the projectionist’s arm. The presentation brought us back to the hushed wonder of the first motion picture shows, emphasizing the material, mechanical basis of film in a time when that aspect of cinema is rapidly slipping out of the public consciousness.

The program of films ran the gamut from the somber, like A Corner in Wheat (1909), to the whimsical, like Four Troublesome Heads (1898), to the downright bizarre, like The Dancing Pig (1907), which can only be described as nightmare fuel.

Best of all, the presentation ended with a recently rediscovered Pathé serpentine dance, believed for many years to be partially lost, not projected in entirety for an audience for over a century. Foreshadowing Les Vampires and Dracula, a bat swoops into the frame before a hidden cut transforms it into a woman who artfully sways her veils, at times resembling an angel, a butterfly, or a bird. Fully restored, the exquisite rainbow of hand-tinted hues on her “wings” shined from the screen and nearly moved me to tears.

I can’t think of many more beautiful sights that have ever danced before my eyes.

Tapping my toes to “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” during The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).

smilinglieutenantI missed the chance to see this irresistibly saucy comedy when it first screened on Friday, but when it was selected to fill a “TBA” slot on Sunday, I decided that a touch of Lubitsch was just what I needed.

As Cari Beauchamp observed in her introduction, “If innuendos can fly, they do so in this film.”

Nobody ever made the unseen or the unsaid sexier than Lubitsch did. Seriously, how many movies pay a musical tribute to breakfast afterglow? When Chevalier croons to Claudette Colbert, “You put magic in the muffins,” you get the feeling he may not be talking about a nutritious morning meal.

Lest we forget, The Smiling Lieutenant includes perhaps the most pre-Code of all movie lines: “Let me see your underwear.” And, as if that weren’t cheeky enough, we can savor a whole song about the benefits of choosing your skivvies with panache.

Shown from a darn near immaculate 35mm print, courtesy of Universal, The Smiling Lieutenant pulled me out of the creeping fatigue that has been known to afflict those going on about 4 hours of sleep.

I tend to prioritize the stars at TCMFF. After all, who knows when/if I’ll get to see them again? This viewing choice, though, was motivated by pure movie love on my part. It left me with a slight knowing smile and a rosy complexion, as though I shared a naughty secret with the characters.

Shirley MacLaine dishing on pretty much everyone and everything that the Club TCM audience asked about!

MacLaine doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind (which is why I love her) and, for a magical hour at Club TCM, virtually no topic was off limits to the perennially sassy and enlightening star.

She mentioned Hitchcock’s confusing, oddball sense of humor, giving her direction in rhyming slang. If he wanted a pause, he’d instruct her, “Before you say that line, dog’s feet.” (Because paws = pause, get it?)

MacLaine noted that she got along fine with Hitch while making The Trouble with Harry (1955), because she wasn’t his ideal beauty. “I was his eating partner. I wasn’t tall and blonde and willowy and ethereal. I ate.”

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The outspoken and awe-inspiring Shirley MacLaine at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden

Commenting on the director’s callousness, she said, “He was doing all that he did maybe to deflect from his lack of what man heroes were, and that’s where the sarcasm came from. He was really adept at being cynically funny.”

When asked about the difficulty of getting Frank Sinatra to do more than one take of any scene, MacLaine exclaimed, “They had a hard time getting him to do anything! They had a hard time getting him to work. I think he suffered from the same thing that Ernie Kovacs suffered from, and that is, ‘If I really rehearse, if I look like I care and it doesn’t work, it’s my fault’… He loved the spontaneity of not knowing what he was going to do.”

MacLaine also offered a colorful anecdote about Jack Nicholson: “Once he came to the door in a robe, so you kinda wondered what was under there. Next time he came with his shorts. Next time he came with a hooker. And the fourth time with nothing.”

A voice from the audience rather indelicately asked, “What did it look like?” to which MacLaine cannily replied, “It’s too long a story.” An uproar ensued.

Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, who briefly interviewed MacLaine before a screening of The Children’s Hour (1961), called her Club TCM conversation the best event he’d ever attended at TCMFF. I feel mighty lucky to have been there—and that goes for the festival as a whole.

I can hardly wait for next year. This one will be hard to top, but I have faith that TCM can do it.

Did you go to TCMFF? What were your highlights?

A Reel Odyssey: I’ll Be Covering 4 Film Festivals in 3 Months

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Now, how do I download the TCMFF app on a typewriter?

You can mark down 2015 as the year when I officially (and inevitably) lost my mind. And so early in the year, too.

I have somehow managed to sign myself up for 4 classic film festivals in the next 3 months.

Yes, I’ll spend more time in dark rooms with eccentric, potentially hostile strangers than a character in a film noir. Joking! Actually, classic movie fans are some of the friendliest, most endearing people out there. Just don’t unwrap candy during a screening. Unless you’ve got a death wish.

But, hey, loving movies means never regretting the decision to devote whole paychecks to watching marathons of obscure films without bathroom breaks or proper meals. Isn’t that right, brother and sister cinephiles?

I’ll be covering each of these festivals to varying degrees on this blog and on my social media channels, i.e. perilous holes in time:

  • Twitter (where I spend most of my misbegotten time)
  • Tumblr (where I keep my GIFs)
  • Instagram (where I go to see the world through hipster glasses)
  • Facebook (where I go when I have nothing better to do, which is often)
  • Google+ (where I could post a complete print of London After Midnight and nobody would notice)
  • Vine (I succumbed to peer pressure, okay?)

Without further ado, here’s my beat for the next few weeks… and won’t I be feeling beat at the end of them.

Cinefest 35 – March 19-22 – Syracuse, NY

The festival: This epic geek-out mostly screens ultra-rare silent movies and early talkies—you know, the kind with not a single IMDb review—on 16mm at a hotel convention center.

I’ll be making my first trek to the extravaganza… and also, sadly, my last. The Syracuse Cinephile Society has announced that, after this festival, the 35th, they will stop organizing mylipsbetraythe annual event. However, Cinefest promises to go out with a bang. They’ve put together a dazzling program of rarities and invited a stellar roster of accompanists, including my friend Jeff Rapsis, to score the silents.

What I’m most looking forward to: The surprises! I hadn’t heard of most movies on the schedule and can locate little to no information on them. As I discovered at Capitolfest, a mind-blowing number of good-to-brilliant movies have slipped through the cracks of movie history. Once seen after years of neglect, these buried treasures sparkle all the more stunningly.

The festival’s offerings in the pre-Code dames department sound particularly alluring. We’ve got Second Floor Mystery (1930) with Loretta Young, Once a Sinner (1931) with Dorothy Mackaill, Men on Call (1931) with Mae Clark, and a Fox musical My Lips Betray (1933), starring Lilian Harvey whom I found so beguiling in My Weakness at Capitolfest.

syntheticsinIn addition to a bunch of lesser-known silents, a few high-profile pictures have caught my attention, including the recently rediscovered Colleen Moore vehicle Synthetic Sin (1928) and the supposedly superior silent version of Harold Lloyd’s profitable but clunky first talkie Welcome Danger (1929).

A wide assortment of film and ephemera dealers gather to sell their wares at Cinefest, so I’ll sift through the goodies and pick out a few choice souvenirs.

What you can expect: A nice long write-up (or several) synopsizing and evaluating the obscure movies on the program—no doubt including a passionate plea to get some of them on DVD.

TCM Classic Film Festival – March 26-29 – Hollywood

The festival: It’s basically old Hollywood fantasy camp. I mean, last year I saw Maureen O’Hara, got to ask Margaret O’Brien about Meet Me in St. Louis, and heard Mel Brooks tell an anecdote about Cary Grant—all during the first day!

steamboattcmffTurner Classic Movies brings together film industry legends, great cinema, historic venues, and droves of ardent film fans for a 4-day lovefest. If you consider TCM a lifestyle choice, as I do, it doesn’t get better (or more emotional) than this.

What I’m most looking forward to: The TCM team has really outdone itself this year both with the range of programming and the wattage of the special guests. I plan to devote an entire post to the films and discussions I’d like to see but here are my top 5 screenings for now:

  • Reign of Terror (1949) – with 100-year-old Norman Lloyd in attendance.
  • Gunga Din (1939) – on 35mm, introduced by a witty and knowledgeable duo of Oscar winners, special effects man Craig Barron and sound effects editor Ben Burtt, as part of the “Academy Conversations” series.
  • “The Return of the Dream Machine” – 35mm prints of pre-1915 films shown on a hand-cranked projector? A dream indeed!
  • Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – with Carl Davis conducting his own original score for a world premiere restoration.
  • Boom! (1968) – in which neurotic, windblown dowager Liz Taylor coerces gigolo-poet Richard Burton to kiss her in exchange for a cigarette. Any movie John Waters calls “the other side of camp” must be worth watching. In fact, this sounds so richly satisfying that I myself might need a cigarette break when it’s over. And I don’t even smoke. I am all in for this midnight screening.

boomIn addition to the movies, I plan on reconnecting with my #TCMParty friends (and meeting some new ones) while sobbing into our Junior Mints over cathartic weepies. If you sit next to me during Queen Christina, it’s gonna get real.

What you can expect: A near-constant stream of updates on social media, hysterical fangirling, and transcriptions of interviews with old Hollywood luminaries. I may be insufferably happy for weeks afterwards.

This year I was also given a special opportunity: I’m helping to promote the festival as a social producer (antisocial producer wasn’t available, alas).

This means that I’m co-running the official TCMFF Tumblr with the talented Marya of Cinema Fanatic! Please check out the Tumblr and follow for festival-related pictures, GIFs, and updates.

Toronto Silent Film Festival – April 9-14 – Toronto (surprising, right?)

finalpc-luluThe festival: A classic film festival with leisurely paced screenings (about one per day) and plenty of time to eat? Is this heaven? No, apparently, it’s just how they do things in Canada. And I’m pleased to be making my first trip to this event and to Toronto itself.

Primarily organized for the city’s thriving cinephile population, Toronto Silent Film Festival screens a selection of silents at area cinemas, as well as at the historic Casa Loma which I’ve wanted to visit for ages.

What I’m most looking forward to: Basically everything. It’s like they wrote down the names of all my favorite silent stars and programmed accordingly: Lon Chaney, Harold Lloyd, Erich von Stroheim, Louise Brooks, and Mary Pickford. What more could I possibly ask for?

Well, I guess I could ask to get there a day earlier—I’m devastated that I’ll miss the screening of Diary of a Lost Girl. I do have to work sometimes. However, I refuse to get all glass-half-empty about that.

safetylastErich von Stroheim at his most leering in Blind Husbands, Lon Chaney at his most dastardly in The Penalty, and Harold Lloyd at his most iconic in Safety Last will all assuage the heartache of my lost chance to see Lost Girl.

Best of all, Toronto will celebrate its biggest little home-grown star with a 100-year-old Mary Pickford film, Mistress Nell, and rare newsreel footage of America’s (Canadian-born) Sweetheart.

What you can expect: Maybe a festival write-up, maybe specific reflections on seeing certain movies on a big screen with live accompaniment. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Nitrate Picture Show – May 1-3 – Rochester, NY

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The festival: No, it’s not a film festival in my honor. (I know, I was disappointed, too.) At this intimate gathering, 500 attendees will savor the rare privilege of watching classic movies on lustrous 35mm nitrate prints from the George Eastman House’s collections and other vaults around the world.

Billed as “the world’s first archival festival of film conservation,” the event will even hold workshops on the composition of nitrate stock. It’s enough to make a nerd like me positively combust with joy.

astarisbornWhat I’m most looking forward to: Here’s the thing… the titles won’t be made public until the attendees arrive. Only the opening night movie—A Star is Born (1937), introduced by the director’s son, William Wellman, Jr.—has been released.

The Eastman House has also announced that my personal hero Kevin Brownlow, the patron saint of film preservation, will give a talk. I don’t presume to understand the bewildering ways of the modern world, but I suspect that this is sort of the film geek equivalent of, say, a Beyoncé concert in terms of sheer idol worship on my part. I think I might cry.

What you can expect: Gosh, probably a volume of lyric poetry evoking the shimmer of film projected from nitrate. Plus, you know, lots of ecstatic tweets and a blog post or two.

So, if you’re attending any one of these festivals, keep on the look out for a lanky brunette with a wicked jaw… named Nora (Yes, really.) and please say hello!

Just don’t unwrap candy in the screenings—or I’ll go ballistic.

13 Barrier-Breaking Women of Early Cinema and Old Hollywood

ida“The feminine influence is needed in the films,” director Lois Weber remarked in 1918. “I do not hesitate to say that the average intelligent woman, gifted with the same sense of dramatic values as the average intelligent man, will make a better picture than he, for the reason that the woman, in addition, will have an eye for detail.”

Such a matter-of-factly feminist statement from almost a century ago may sound startlingly modern, almost anachronistic. However, from the dawn of cinema, women have boldly taken on crucial roles in the film industry.

In fact, Hollywood is, in many ways, a more male-dominated environment today than it was 90 or so years ago. Scary, huh?

In order to perpetuate a culture where more women make movies now, we need to recognize the women who made movies in the medium’s formative years. Let’s take our editing shears and snip the “boys only” myth right out. It belongs on the cutting room floor.

Now, I’ve written about some of these women in previous posts, and I hope to write about more of them in the future. For now, though, I content myself with enumerating a few of the pioneers who inspire me to speak up in the hope of encouraging other women to do likewise.

Please note that I’m presenting only a very limited selection of the hundreds of brilliant women who’ve enriched the wonders of classical cinema. If you’re interested in the history of women in the film industry, I highly recommend Columbia’s Women Film Pioneers Project or Ally Acker’s book Reel Women (both of which I gratefully acknowledge as sources).

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Alice Guy (1873 – 1968) actress, director, writer, and producer

We’re talking about the world’s first woman filmmaker here, folks. She ran production at Gaumont in France, then moved to the United States and started her own studio—years before women could vote in either country! Like Méliès and the Lumière brothers, she directed hundreds of movies and shaped what the cinema would become in the crucial years between 1896 and 1916… basically from the inception of the medium.

Her best-known legacy is probably her insistence on an acting style suited specifically to cinema. However, her films abound with innovation, from integrating the special effects we associate with “trick films” into narrative to using close shots for maximum emotional impact.

Where to start with her work: Le piano irresistible (1907) in which the sound of jamming music motivates all sorts of people to start dancing. Madame a des envies (1907), about a pregnant woman on a rampage, is also a hoot. For a more nuanced, melancholic sense of Guy’s work, I’d recommend Falling Leaves (1912) or The Ocean Waif (1916).

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Lois Weber (1879 – 1939) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Not only was Weber a filmmaker of great skill, acclaim, and box office power, but she was also a true auteur, as Anthony Slide has noted. Many of her often allegorical films tackle tough social issues that continue to trouble us today, including class tensions, religious hypocrisy, and the plight of women in poverty.

Where to start with her work: Suspense (1913), a harrowing, stylish thriller that incorporates split screens, a keyhole matte, and disorienting close-ups, serves as a concise introduction to Weber’s substantial gifts. Then move on to one of her thought-provoking dramas, like The Blot (1921).

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June Mathis (1887 – 1927) – writer

After touring in vaudeville during her youth, Mathis shifted to screenwriting at Metro. Many of the most acclaimed actors of the day were soon clamoring for scripts by Mathis, and the studio rewarded her talent by promoting her to head of the scenario department.

With a shrewd sense of popular appeal, Mathis sculpted poignant, dramatically intense movies with plenty of spectacle and sex to win over the masses. Mathis’s discernment made her one of the most sought-after and well-paid professionals in the industry.

She also used her power as a studio executive to support directors’ right to actualize their personal visions. If Mathis had had her way, Von Stroheim’s masterful Greed (1924) would most likely have survived in a more complete form, rather than the largely mutilated version that remains.

Where to start with her work: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), since Mathis not only distilled Ibañez’s complex war novel into a crowd-pleasing romantic epic, but also insisted on casting an obscure young actor in the lead role. His name was Rudolph Valentino.

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Frances Marion (1888 – 1973) – actress, writer, director, producer

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: only about 11% of movies made these days are written by women, whereas over half of movies made before 1925 had female writers.

The most prominent of old Hollywood’s lady screenwriters, Frances Marion began by working for Lois Weber, scripted a number of Mary Pickford’s most popular vehicles, and joined the retinue of top MGM writers. Marion excelled in nearly all genres, from gritty prison dramas like The Big House (1930) to boisterous comedies like Min and Bill (1930) to passionate literary adaptations like Camille (1936).

Where to start with her work: The Champ (1931), the much imitated, never equalled macho tearjerker that won Marion an Oscar.

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Anita Loos (1888 – 1981) – writer and producer

Loos started her film career in 1912 at the tender age of 24, writing original stories for D.W. Griffith. When sitting through Griffith’s colossal Intolerance (1916), you can enjoy the varied linguistic textures of the intertitles, written by Loos.

Most famous for her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos also made a name for herself in the talkies by writing witty screenplays and original stories, frequently centering on conflicted, brassy heroines trying to overcome their shady pasts.

Where to start with her work: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Yes, that’s right, Loos wrote the scenario for the first ever gangster film.

Although multiple writers worked on the wild Jean Harlow comedy Red-Headed Woman (1932), much of its ditzy-genius dialogue sounds in tune with Loos’s nothing-sacred sense of humor—and it comes with my hearty endorsement!

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Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979) – actress, writer, and producer

Don’t let the ringlets fool you. A founder of United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pickford was a formidable self-taught businesswoman and a damn sharp producer.

Arguably the most popular and influential star in the history of American film, she rose from obscurity to give joy to millions and played an integral role in creating Hollywood as we know it.

Where to start with her work: For a short taste of Pickford at her sassiest, check out the empowering role-reversal fantasy The Dream (1911), a one-reeler she also wrote, in which a nasty husband imagines his wife turning the tables on him. As for her features, I’d recommend starting with Sparrows (1926), a taut Southern Gothic fable that Pickford produced. It’s one of the great treasures of the silent era.

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Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) – actress and director

Fetishized onscreen as the waifish ideal of 1910s femininity, Gish in real life was anything but frail. She directed only one film, which has sadly been lost, but she was actively involved in almost every aspect of her career, bringing the cameraman Hendrik Sartov to D.W. Griffith’s attention, for instance.

Once she joined MGM’s stable of stars, she lobbied to make meaningful, morally challenging films like The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). Gish picked her director, Victor Seastrom, and her leading man, Lars Hanson, for both films. She also had to clear the adaption of Hawthorne’s novel with women’s organizations around the country, because the studio feared that her public would object to such a racy story! Without Gish’s efforts, at least two masterpieces of the late silent era wouldn’t exist.

Where to start with her work: Her influential performance in Broken Blossoms (1919) will break your heart. Grab a box of tissues (and a good friend) and weep away. Then dig up a copy of The Wind (1928); without giving away too much about the plot, I’ll just say that The Night of the Hunter isn’t the only movie to feature a gun-toting Gish…

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Mae West (1893 – 1980) – actress and writer

It seems strange to group Mae West with women who made their film debuts decades before she did. Born the same year as Lillian Gish, West created a name for herself in the theater, writing and starring in plays so scandalous that she was brought to trial for indecency.

Although the Hays Office warned studios against hiring West, Paramount ignored the edict. West’s bawdy brand of comedy—and she wrote her own fantastically quotable dialogue—raked in huge box office profits, saving Paramount from bankruptcy. Her ribald, confident persona appealed to Depression-era audiences. Better yet, her frank sexuality and proudly independent attitude appalled the censors.

Where to start with her work: She Done Him Wrong (1932), and remember it’s spoofing melodrama.

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Mabel Normand (1895 – 1930) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Before there was Charlie Chaplin, there was Mabel Normand, exploring the largely uncharted territory of screen comedy. In her own words, “Since all previous laughs had been achieved through the spoken word, and in our early days, through slapstick hokey, I had to cleave a path of laughter through the wilderness of the industry’s ignorance and inexperience, I created my own standard of fun.”

Where to start with her work: You’ll enjoy the spirited hijinks that Normand directed in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914). I also recommend the cheeky feature-length romp Mickey (1918), which she produced.

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Dorothy Arzner (1897 – 1979) – writer, director, and editor

The only woman director working at a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner specialized in movies focusing on the struggles of driven, headstrong female protagonists. She directed Clara Bow’s first talkie, The Wild Party (1929), and interesting vehicles for the top female talent of the day, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Maureen O’Hara, among many others.

In a film industry that had come to embrace a factory system mentality, Arzner was a rebel. She’d direct the film her way or not direct it at all. As she said, “My philosophy is that to be a director, you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio.”

Where to start with her work: Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), an acidly feminist take on the seedy world of burlesque and club dancing. It was also Arzner’s penultimate film.

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Margaret Booth (1898 – 2002) – editor and producer

When we talk about influential women in film, the temptation is to focus on directors, writers, and producers. However, editors literally piece movies together, setting their rhythm and contributing a vital interpretative component of filmmaking.

Starting out as a “cutter” on Griffith films, Margaret Booth moved on to MGM and rose to the position of editor-in-chief, supervising the assembly of hundreds of movies. In fact, Irving Thalberg coined the phrase “film editor” to describe Booth and to eliminate the unskilled connotation of “joiner,” “patcher,” or “cutter.”

Where to start with her work: The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which displays her knack for creating tension through dynamic, rapidly-paced passages of editing.

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Virginia Van Upp (1902 – 1970) – writer and producer

One of the few women to hold a leadership position at a major Hollywood studio in the Golden Age, Van Upp was appointed executive producer and second-in-command at Columbia by the notoriously hardboiled mogul Harry Cohn.

Starting out as a screenwriter, she was instrumental in defining the public image of Rita Hayworth. Van Upp supervised two of the most lush and enduring of 1940s films noirs: Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Where to start with her work: Cover Girl (1944), a vibrant musical with plenty of wisecracking dialogue for undaunted career woman Eve Arden… saying what we imagine Van Upp would say if she were in the movie. One suspects that she wrote herself into her own script!

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Ida Lupino (1918 – 1995) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Groomed as a potential replacement for Bette Davis at Warner Brothers, Lupino projected a wounded, soulful toughness during her prime as an actress, even in the most insipid films. But she longed for more and, after picking up the fine points of direction by observing the likes of Raoul Walsh and William Wellman, she formed an independent production company.

Lupino made low-budget films with surprisingly ambitious subject manner. As Ally Acker wrote, she “chose controversial, socially conscious issues for the themes of her movies: rape, bigamy, polio, unwed motherhood.”

Where to start with her work: The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a nail-biting, ferocious cautionary tale of two dudes in distress held hostage by a serial killer.

Who am I forgetting? Which pioneering woman from film history most inspires you?

Soaring Spectacle: 10 Reasons to Watch Wings (1927)

sterBig budget movies from any era typically don’t do much for me. Give me snappy dialogue and recycled sets over earthquakes and casts of thousands any day.

There are, however, a few exceptions to my dislike of big bottom lines… and William Wellman’s Wings, which cost a whopping $2 million to make, is exceptional in almost every way.

The story focuses on two young men who enlist as combat pilots during World War I: middle class, happy-go-lucky Jack (Buddy Rogers) and wealthy, contemplative David (Richard Arlen), both of whom love the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). The fact that neither man is in love with Clara Bow as Mary, Jack’s vivacious neighbor, taxes my suspension of disbelief, but the plot all makes sense in the end.

As Jack and David train and join the fight, they form an unlikely friendship, a mutual loyalty that will be put to the ultimate test by their romantic rivalry and by the sobering sacrifices of war.

If you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. I can hardly conceive of a better way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’ll probably cost less than whatever you paid to see any Oscars contender this year, and it’ll be way better.

In case I need to convince you of the glory of Wings, here are the reasons, in order of ascending significance (does that sound official enough?), why I consider it a great and historic film.

Warning: this post does contain some spoilers.

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10. It won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

On May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, industry professionals gathered at a banquet to celebrate excellence in contributions to American film from 1927 to 1928.

The event included practically none of the pomp or the fixtures that we associate with the Oscars today. It wasn’t recorded or broadcast. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. hosted a program consisting of about 15 minutes of award presentations.

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The winners, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, had been announced far in advance. Studios received congratulatory telegrams in February of the previous year.

A welcome prestige nod for Paramount, Wings won the prize for “Outstanding Picture,” claimed by producer Lucien Hubbard. William Wellman, the film’s director, wasn’t even invited to the ceremony!

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9. You’ll see both male and female nudity. In a general admission film.

Do you have a friend who thinks silent films are boring? Well, first off, you need to make better friends. Second, you should sit the aforementioned loser down (use restraints if necessary) and play Wings for his or her benefit. Don’t worry: there’s a little something for everyone.

Want to see 3 naked men standing in a row? Keep your eyes wide open during the first 15 minutes of the film.

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Interested in the prospect of topless Clara Bow? You’ll see exactly that, briefly but unmistakably, about halfway through the runtime.

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Yeah, I went there. The things I do to encourage people to watch old movies.

And remember, no ratings system existed for movies in 1927. Audiences of all ages could enjoy what was, ahem, on display. It really was a simpler time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall try to recover my dignity (doubtful) and proceed with my post.

8. Would-be filmmakers could learn a thing or two about how to balance spectacle with story.

A popular epic and a technical miracle, Wings glides above the clouds but never loses sight of its human dimension. The film’s reputation today primarily (and justly) rests on the scale and innovation of its airborne sequences. Yet all that derring-do would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. And Wellman worked hard for the viewer’s emotional investment.

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Wings could serve as an instructive example for the industry today. It demonstrates that a colossal movie (and a box office juggernaut) can and should have a heart. As many recent blockbusters show, spectacle for the sheer sake of spectacle just doesn’t cut it as art.

7. It catapulted Gary Cooper to stardom—even though he’s onscreen for less than 5 minutes.

Even before the public knew his name, the female employees at Paramount sure did. When Coop walked by their offices, a collective sigh rose from the secretarial pool. As B.P. Schulberg’s secretary described the actor, he was “the most beautiful hunk of man who ever walked down this hall!”

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Cooper had already distinguished himself in a supporting role in The Winning of Barbara Worth, but remained a relative unknown.

It’s not exaggerating by much to say that if you blink during Wings, you might miss the ‘Montana Mule.’ Nevertheless, William Wellman tested dozens of actors for the small role of a pilot who dies during training before he chose Cooper to play doomed airman White.

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When White crashes, the shocking incident exposes the shadow of fear and peril that airmen lived under, even before they squared up against the enemy. Cooper’s strange blend of casualness and intensity spurred audience members all over the country to swoon over the bit player.

6. Buddy Rogers was adorable… and quite brave, to boot!

Due to the limitations of cameras and the instability of planes in flight, the leading actors of Wings both flew their planes at times and turned on the cameras to film their own close-ups. This wasn’t a big problem for the ruminative Richard Arlen who had aviation experience.

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But Buddy Rogers, a 22-year-old rising star from Kansas, had never flown a plane before. After each flight—and he spent almost 100 hours up in the air—he would vomit out of anxiety and motion sickness. Then he immediately got back to work.

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Even tough customer Wellman had to admire Rogers’s persistence and courage. But he had another trick in mind for the poor kid.

For a rowdy drunk scene set at the Folies Bergère, Wellman opted to make Rogers’s performance as genuine as possible. As the actor recalled years later, “Here I am this little boy, never had a beer or champagne, and Billy says, ‘Why champagne’s good for you, Buddy. It’ll relax you.’ And so he relaxed me, relaxed me, relaxed me. And he said, ‘Do the scene this way.’”

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Rogers carries the film on his narrow shoulders. We watch him convincingly transform from a carefree teenager to a traumatized hero redeemed by love. His sparkling boyishness and irresistible charm give way to abject despair and guilt. A beloved, important star of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers is undeservedly forgotten today and due for rediscovery.

vlcsnap-2015-02-21-15h48m42s169 Looks like somebody’s not in Kansas anymore.

5. Even during earthbound scenes, the cinematography will astound you.

Wings dazzles the viewer with so many fluid camera movements and multi-plane shots that it would take far more space than I have here to go through them all.

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Perhaps the most impressive shot occurs during the Folies Bergère scene when the crane-mounted camera swoops over several tables of carousing couples (including a same-sex couple!), finally ending up on the rim of Jack’s champagne glass as he stares agog at the bubbles.

4. Clara Bow will awe you with her talent and range.

Sex symbol, 1920s icon, flapper ideal: sure, Clara Bow was all of those things, but first and foremost she was a tremendously gifted actress. Saucy romantic comedies made Clara Bow the biggest star in the world, but she proved just as adept in dramatic situations.

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Playing the girl-next-door who goes overseas in the female volunteer corps for the chance to see her sweetheart again, Bow lends beguiling credibility to a rather expedient part. Although one could argue that her role merely serves to add gratuitous helpings of ‘It’ to an otherwise manly war drama, her poignant performance justifies every second of screen time she gets.

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Her incandescent naturalness wins you over from her first entrance, parting a pair of bloomers on a clothesline and bursting with joy at the sight of Jack, her childhood crush. Few actresses in the history of cinema could exude such enthusiasm and energy without seeming strained. Even doing something as mundane as driving an army transport truck, she doesn’t fail to hold our attention with her wondrously animated face.

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Bow also evokes much of the film’s piercing melancholy. She imbues the movie’s wild centerpiece, the Folies Bergère scene, with a moral resonance and establishes a special bond with the audience. As the hero loses himself in an unselfconscious haze of alcohol and oblivion, she reflects his innermost sorrow to the viewer. Mature beyond her years, she understands the sadness of his pleasure far better than he does.

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3. William Wellman claimed it as his masterpiece. And that’s saying something.

Before he took on Hollywood, Wellman graduated with honors from the school of life by joining up with the Lafayette Flying Corps as a combat pilot during World War I—and coming home to tell the tale. Although 29-year-old Wellman had only directed a few movies by the mid-1920s, Paramount executives knew he possessed the real-life knowledge of military aviation necessary to oversee the massive production of Wings.

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Wellman would go on to direct a staggering run of great films. He helmed the virtuoistic gangster saga The Public Enemy (1932), the gritty, unforgettable social drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the uproarious screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the much-imitated Hollywood satire A Star Is Born (1937), and the seminal Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

He’s also the man you can thank for the ass-kicking, scantily clad Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1932), so hip-hurray for ‘Wild Bill’!

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Towards the end of his life, when asked to name the film of which he was most proud, he mentioned Wings. In fact, it was not only his best, but his most personal film, the perfect expression of all that he’d experienced and all that he could help others to experience through cinema.

Wellman makes a cameo appearance in the movie—but not in the air, as you might expect of a venerated pilot. Instead, he dies during the big attack at Saint-Mihiel, looking up towards the sky at the planes decimating the enemy. He croaks his last words as a blessing to those men in their flying machines, “Attaboy! Them buzzards are some good after all!”

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2. It conveys the bitter irony of war.

Over the course of the film, Jack mistakes his friends for strangers twice. The first time, he confuses Mary with one of the French floozies at the Folies Bergère. The second time, he mistakes David for a German flyer. And kills him.

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Shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, David hijacks a German plane and heads back to the base. On the way, he encounters Jack, mourning his comrade’s “death” and bent on revenge.

To me nothing looks like hell with the lid taken off more than Jack’s impossibly pretty face contorted in blooddrunk triumph and fury… not realizing that he just shot down his best friend.

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Similarly, after mowing down swaths of his German counterparts, we can read Jack’s lips as he callously mutters, “Bastards!” By dehumanizing his enemy, Jack lets his own humanity slip. No one can blame him for doing so; we would all do the same in his situation or perish.

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The point isn’t merely that Jack kills his friend, but rather that he remorselessly kills men who might’ve been his friends, who aren’t substantially different from himself and David. Put a cross or a tricolore on your plane and you become anathema to the other side. The irony of David’s death begs the question, why invest so much hate in symbols? Why take lives because of them?

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And, lest the film end on a note of victory, Wellman deals us another gut punch of sadness. When Jack returns to his hometown, his car passes through a street of jubilant neighbors who toss flowers at him. Wellman cuts to an unusual low angle shot from beneath the car’s steering wheel. The hero is looking down at something, but what? Then a cut to a higher angle divulges what Jack holds in his hand: a miniature teddy bear, David’s good luck charm, and the medal he promised to return to David’s mother.

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Meanwhile, David’s father stares blankly out at the celebration from behind a memorial flag. David’s girl Sylvia sits catatonic on the swing she once shared with the man she was going to marry. And Jack will have to trudge through the rest of his existence missing his friend, the man he gunned down. The loss of a single young life palpitates in the forlorn final images of Wings. As WWI poet A.E. Housman wrote:

Life, to be sure, 
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

1. You won’t find a more stunning and authentic recreation of WWI in any film.

It is not easy for a modern mind to grapple with the awe-inspiring realness of Wings.

Its battle scenes use no rear projection, no models, and, obviously, no CGI.  No tricks of any kind. Just frame after frame of clouds, aircraft, and men risking their lives to execute a brutally beautiful aerial ballet.

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220 real planes and 13 cameramen were drafted into the fray. Thousands of soldiers participated in the battle scenes. The U.S. Army blasted and bombarded vast expanses around San Antonio, Texas to reproduce no-man’s-land.

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The finished film (especially its airborne sequences) stands as a record not only of extreme physical courage, but also of material marvels, of things that actually happened at a certain time and place. The thrills of Wings depend on an inherent, mechanical quality of film: that it captures and preserves reality.

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The stakes of the action emerge from the fact that, like a fingerprint, each frame is existentially bound to the fraction of a second that it photographed. What we see—a plane careening through the air, spiraling, trailing smoke, and crashing to earth, for instance—could perhaps be faked. But that fakery would undermine everything that makes us gasp when confronted with the real thing, so daring and dangerous that it seems locked in a perpetual present.

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In fact, I can think of few mainstream movies that so intoxicatingly engage cinema’s tensions between spectacle and documentary, between fiction and reality. Wings weaves the immediacy of cinema into the visual equivalent of WWI poetry.

By turns lyrical, giddy, sentimental, and ugly (as all great war movies must be), Wellman’s film transmits the chivalric pride and the wrenching disillusionment of WWI.

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Wings allows its audience to feel both the soaring adrenaline rush and the crushing futility of the war that stole the 20th century’s innocence. You share the cockpit with the characters. You see the clouds billow around them and watch the horizon come unstuck. Perhaps no movie has ever put its viewers inside a war as completely as Wings does.

The Academy deemed it an “Outstanding Picture.” And, for once, I agree entirely with The Academy.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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