Queen of Hearts (and Diamonds): Angela Lansbury Remembers The Manchurian Candidate at the TCM Classic Film Festival

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Equal parts awe and comfort. That’s how I’d describe the feeling of being in Dame Angela Lansbury’s magical presence.

Think Sarah Bernhardt plus the scent of freshly baked cookies. Or a Fairy Godmother who can, at will, turn herself into the Wicked Witch of the West—and back—for your amusement.

With 6 Golden Globes, 5 Tony Awards, and an honorary Oscar to her credit, 90-year-old Lansbury says she doesn’t ever plan on retiring. She’s living proof that you don’t have to act like a badass to be one.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, Alec Baldwin interviewed Lansbury before a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) at the TCL Chinese Theater. The queue for the event snaked all around the movie palace and down Hollywood Boulevard. I got number 520 in line and count myself lucky to have made it in—because it was an event I’ll never forget.

The stage and screen star made her entrance blowing kisses in response to a rapturous standing ovation from a packed house. As the applause settled down, one fan called from the audience, “We love you, Angela!”

“I love you too!” Lansbury replied. Watching her exude warmth and gratitude towards her fans, I found it all the more impressive that she had transformed herself into the chilling Mrs. Iselin.

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Baldwin began by questioning Lansbury about Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959.

“The book was presented to me by the director, John Frankenheimer, on the last day of the shoot of a movie we were making called All Fall Down,” Lansbury recalled. “He slammed the book down and said, ‘There’s your next movie.’”

She remembered being “blown away” as she read. “It was wonderfully well-constructed and so original, so extraordinary, and the character that I assumed he wanted me to play was like nothing else I had ever read for myself as an actress.”

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“They didn’t put everything in the movie that’s in the book?” Baldwin asked. “Well, they couldn’t, quite frankly,” Lansbury said, referring to the more explicitly Oedipal mother-son relationship in the novel.

Although Lansbury was Frankenheimer’s first choice for Mrs. Iselin, Frank Sinatra initially had other ideas. “He wanted Lucille Ball,” Lansbury recalled. “I mean, that could’ve been fascinating. You wouldn’t have believed that she could be this devil incarnate.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Fortunately, Frankenheimer prevailed, and Lansbury savored the chance to deliver such a marvelously wicked performance. “It’s a lot of fun to play a villain, a well-written villain, you know, not just a villain-villain, but a brilliant, interesting one, a villain of parts, you might say. So you weren’t quite sure about her.”

Lansbury clearly relished the moment when Mrs. Iselin’s mask drops as she invites her son to “pass the time by playing a little solitaire.” It was a joy to hear her repeat this line, in her naturally friendly tone of voice, and appreciate by contrast just how much creepiness she’d infused into those words for the film. “Only in that moment do you realize that she’s in charge,” she noted.

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Lansbury was only 36 when she made The Manchurian Candidate, just 3 years older than Laurence Harvey who played her son! Yet she projects the matronly authority of a senator’s wife—and the commanding fierceness of a high-level communist agent—with frightening conviction.

Baldwin wondered how Lansbury managed to carry herself like a woman in her forties or fifties. Did she observe and mimic the movements of women much older than herself—like Julie Andrews studied the way men move to play in Victor Victoria?

Lansbury explained that she took a text-centered approach to creating Mrs. Iselin. “I’ve never really described how I arrived at the character. I don’t do the kind of spadework that you just described. I sort of take on attitudes that are, in this instance, the absolute antithesis of the woman that I am. Because, as far as I’m concerned, what the writer has for me to say is immediately a clue for me, the actress, as to how my attitudes, or my looks, or everything else that’s packed into this character that will emerge.”

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Unlike Method actors, Lansbury said that her craft doesn’t involve mining her own memories and feelings: “I always say, ‘Leave yourself at home. Don’t bring yourself. Be that woman. And, you know, get on with it.’ And that seems to work.”

Frankenheimer gave his actors the chance to build their characters and add nuance to their interactions. As Lansbury reported, “We rehearsed a lot. They don’t take the time or the money to rehearse these days, but in those days certainly John demanded that we did. So we went into scenes really knowing them backwards.”

The demands of the film’s top-billed star also motivated the extensive rehearsals. “Frank Sinatra wouldn’t do two takes. He just refused. So if you didn’t get it the first time you were out of luck. And luckily he gave one of the best performances he’d ever given in The Manchurian Candidate.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

The Manchurian Candidate conveys an ambiance of oppressive paranoia, and it sounds like the shoot was no place for levity. “I can honestly say that John maintained a mood on that set that was all business and had everything to do with the story and the scenes I had. He was a very serious director in his own way. And he really got terribly excited with the drama that was in the scene and we were dragged into that. And we went along with it. We were very sincere in that we wanted to make a great movie. And it really turned out to be.”

Laurence Harvey broke up the gravity with his humorous, laid-back disposition. “He was tremendous fun. He took it like a joke. Typical English actor.” And here Lansbury did a quick impression of her co-star, leaning as far back as she could in her chair then looking up distractedly. “Oh, ready for me yet?”

Lansbury didn’t get the chance to work with Sinatra much. “I was only in one scene with Frank. We were in the cloakroom picking up our coats,” she said. “And that’s the only time we were ever on the set together.”

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Prompted by Baldwin, Lansbury also discussed her early career at MGM. Her versatility made it difficult for the studio to reduce her to a type and find strong vehicles for her: “I always felt challenged because the kind of odd thing was that directors, producers, they all saw me in a different way. One producer would see me as a kind of song and dance girl, the next one would see me as a mother or as a rather boring kind of nurse in some movie with Walter Pidgeon.”

She expressed her fondness for Gaslight and especially for her part as Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “I loved that sweet, vulnerable girl. To get to play that was a miracle.” However, she ultimately felt that Hollywood’s Golden Age afforded her few golden opportunities. “I gave them the impression that I could change myself, because I did. I had to. And it bored me to death to play some of those movies, I can tell you that.”

Exasperated with Hollywood, she returned to the theater. “I said, ‘Enough already,’ and I shuffled off to Broadway.” As for the dream factory studios where she worked, “I didn’t miss a darn thing, to be truthful.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Lansbury waxed poetic over the live theater experience. “I simply love the feeling that you the audience are there, and we’re together in this. And this onstage is something that absolutely propels me forward and gives me the excitement and impetus to go out there and give my absolute best. The curtain goes up, you’re mine, and I’m yours.”

After relatively few feature film roles in the 1950s, Lansbury did some of her best film work in the early 1960s.

“The last great movie that I got to be in was The Manchurian Candidate.” While she said she wouldn’t consider it her greatest film, “It’s certainly the most outstanding and astonishing film I was ever connected with. From an audience standpoint, I think it’s a unique piece of work on the part of everybody who was in it. And John’s conception of it, his work with Axelrod on the script, the minutia that he took the time to do, it paid off so amazingly.”

When she saw the film screened, she found it thrilling. “I had no idea how it would all be cut together. We really don’t because we do little bits and pieces, you know how it is…. I had no idea that it would land with the impact that it did.”

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As for recent accomplishments, in 2014 Lansbury received an Honorary Academy Award, presented by none other than Robert Osborne.

“I requested that he should be the person to give it to me, because he always stood by me,” Lansbury said, echoing her audience’s love for the Turner Classic Movies host. “I said, ‘Look, he’s the only man who knows all the movies that I made in that period.’ And, of course, he’s TCM. There was no question in my mind that he was the right person and I’m so glad he did it.”

Alec Baldwin concluded the conversation with a fitting tribute to Dame Angela’s dazzling range: “One thing that is always so thrilling and so powerful is to witness someone whose soul can range from one end to the other. I’ve worked with just a few who can do anything…. They can play the darkest forces in the world and they can play the most beautiful spirits in the world. There aren’t many of them.”

And Angela Lansbury is surely one. She’s not only the queen of her fans’ hearts, but also the Queen of Diamonds.

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

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Sinners and a Saint: My Moving (and Grooving) TCMFF Schedule Picks

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My cat Godfrey (named for a certain William Powell character) assists me in planning out my festival schedule.

“My hope is that we’ll be playing a lot of movies that will lead to people crying.” So said Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming, about the upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival in a recent interview.

Judging by the TCMFF schedule, I think Tabesh wants to make us cry before we even get there. The conflicting choices have made me tear my hair in anguish.

A nice kind of anguish, though.

Speaking of things that hurt so good, this year’s festival focuses on “moving pictures,” films that trigger powerful emotional reactions.

So, join me as I wring my hands over the options and work out a tentative schedule, won’t you?

Note: My schedule is subject to change depending on whimsy, hunger, eyeliner mishaps, peer pressure, physical exhaustion, bad luck, and the fact that there’s a fabulous tea house temptingly close to the Chinese Multiplex.

Thursday, April 28

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6:30 p.m. – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Chinese Multiplex House #6 – DCP

For this first slot, I’m leaning towards 2 classics that—I blush to admit it—I haven’t yet seen: Dark Victory (1939) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1941). Before you make me turn in my cinephile card, let me reframe my oversight as an opportunity: what better way to discover an acclaimed classic than on the big screen? Apparently my negligence in the weepie department has richly paid off.

I’m going with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, since former child actor Ted Donaldson will be there to introduce it.

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9:30 p.m. – Los Tallos Amergos (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

I adore Brief Encounter. To give you an idea of just how much I adore it, whenever I get a mote of dust in my eye, I exclaim, “Where’s Trevor Howard?” But when David Lean’s tearjerking paean to buttoned-up English passion occupies the same slot as Los Tallos Amergos, a recently-restored, little-known noir gem from Argentina, I yield to the dark desire to explore uncharted territory.

Friday, April 29

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9:30 a.m. – Never Fear (1949) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

I wake up to a tough choice: should I go with feel-good #TCMParty favorite The More the Merrier (1943) at the Egyptian Theater (and on 35mm to boot!) OR celebrate the controversial brilliance of Ida Lupino with Never Fear, her first credited film as a director?

Never Fear wins the spot, since I relish the chance to feel the full impact of Lupino’s uncompromising vision on a big screen. That said, I might cave for a cute screwball comedy if I need respite from the festival’s intense program of heartbreakers. Don’t judge me. It’s a long haul!

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12:00 p.m. – Double Harness (1933) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

No contest on the next pick. Rare pre-Codes are my jam. Oh, Double Harness, you had me at Ann Harding… and then you go and throw in William Powell and a long-lost premarital sex scene? I’d better pack me some smelling salts.

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2:00 p.m. – Tea and Sympathy (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Here we arrive at the most difficult slot in the festival. I’m torn between not 2, not 3, but 5 glorious offerings that pique my interests:

  • The Conversation (1974) introduced by Francis Ford Coppola – DCP
  • Trapeze (1956) introduced by Gina Lollobrigida – 35mm
  • Amazing Film Discoveries, a presentation by Serge Bromberg – DCP
  • Tea and Sympathy (1956), followed by a discussion with former child actor Darryl Hickman – 35mm
  • When You’re in Love (1937), a rarely-screened Cary Grant film introduced by the star’s daughter, Jennifer Grant – DCP

Well, I believe in supporting movies condemned by the Legion of Decency, so I’ll probably head to Tea and Sympathy. I’m also curious to hear Darryl Hickman talk about the making of this controversial melodrama. But I’m still waffling. The good news is, no matter what I pick, it’s bound to be memorable!

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5:15 and 7:17 p.m. – Pleasure Cruise (1933) and 6 Hours to Live (1932) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – both on 35mm

Why sit through a single poignant movie when you can watch 2 bizarro gems from the heady days of Hays? I’m veering away from the well-promoted favorites in this slot, because—surprise, surprise—I can’t resist the gravitational pull of Chinese Multiplex #4.

I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life on 35mm at a 1920s movie palace. At Christmas. Twice. So I’m afraid the chance to see Capra’s masterpiece at the TCL Chinese Theater doesn’t excite me.

While The Passion of Joan of Arc with a live choir score will undoubtedly give its audience chills, I don’t think I can bear to be bummed out, no matter how sublimely, on a Friday night in Hollywood. Besides, religious films, one of the festival’s themes this year, don’t exactly light my pyre—er, fire. And if you think I’m going to hell, I can live with that, provided I get there by partying with the bad boys and girls of the pre-1934 studio era.

I might even get an extra kick out of watching the pre-Codes knowing that I chose sinners over a saint!

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9:30 p.m. – The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – TCL Chinese Theater – DCP

Why, TCM, why did you program one of my favorite films noirs, Repeat Performance (1947), against my must-see, do-or-die interview of the festival? WHY? [Shakes fist at the heavens as the camera rises in an epic crane shot.]

The Manchurian Candidate wins my heart, because I’ve worshipped Angela Lansbury ever since 12-year-old me saw my first episode of Murder, She Wrote on VHS. I will not miss the chance to hear this living legend/diva/queen/beautiful human being talk about her deliciously wicked turn as the World’s Worst Mother.

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12:00 p.m. – Roar (1981) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

The midnight screening of Boom at last year’s TCMFF was a major highlight for me, so I’ll fortify myself with caffeine to stay awake for this notoriously dangerous thrill ride featuring dozens of real wild animals. CGI is for wimps!

Does Roar sound ill-advised? Hell yeah. Entertaining? I’m betting away 2 hours of sleep that it will be. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Saturday, April 30

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9:00 a.m. – 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone – Egyptian Theater – 35mm

I love the smell of experimental talkies in the morning! Seriously, how often do you get to wake up and immerse yourself in short films from the dawn of sound—shown on film at such an epic venue?

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11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. – A House Divided (1931) and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – both 35mm

Oh, boy. It’s the devil on my shoulder again. That lingerie-wearing, chain-smoking grayscale gun moll who calls the shots for me. And she tells me that I cannot sacrifice 2 movies from the early 1930s for a post-studio-era parody.

Even if that means passing up an opportunity to hear the riotous Carl Reiner discuss his noir homage Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1981). Or listen to Nancy Olsen recount her early days in Hollywood.

Yeah, this one stings.

But, hey, William Wyler’s second talkie? Oh, I am very there for that. And Ronald Colman’s moustache holds a deep claim on my loyalty.

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3:45 p.m. – The Yearling (1946) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Another tricky slot. How do you expect me to choose between Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (introduced by Gina Lollobrigida), The Big Sleep, and The Yearling (followed by a discussion with child actor Claude Jarman Jr.)?

For the moment, The Yearling takes priority. But The Big Sleep—also on 35mm!—might woo me away. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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6:30 p.m. – The King and I (1956) – TCL Chinese Theater – DCP

I really need to see Rita Moreno talk about The King and I, because that movie traumatized me as a kid and I’m hoping that I can work through some of those issues. Nice cheery musical about imperialist white savior complexes and male entitlement and sex slavery and child mortality, Rogers and Hammerstein. At least there’s some pretty Cinemascope eye candy and 3 magnificent central performances.

Even though The King and I is not a favorite of mine, as you can probably tell, I look forward to hearing Moreno’s memories of making it.

I will, however, be crying inside that I’m missing the elegant Technicolor palettes of Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You (1946), which is screening simultaneously on 35mm. Hm. I might drift on this one…

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9:15 p.m. – Band of Outsiders (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

This next slot is non-negotiable. Anna Karina is a goddess. I welcome the opportunity to bask in her presence.

Funnily enough, the only Godard films I’d happily volunteer to watch again are those starring Karina. Yes, I went there. Come at me, New Wave bros. Side note: If I ever meet JLG in person, I’m demanding an apology for Weekend and the migraine it gave me.

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12:00 a.m. – Gog (1954) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

Sci-fi is more important than sleep, especially when we’re talking a sci-fi mystery unseen in its original 3D since 1954!

Sunday, May 1

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9:30 – The Fallen Idol (1948) – Chinese Multiplex House #6 – DCP

If you’d asked me about my must-see picks before TCM dropped its schedule, I would’ve mentioned Scent of Mystery, screened at the Cinerama Dome in—get this—Smell-O-Vision!

And then a little boy threw a wrench in the works.

Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is one of those masterpieces that somehow doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In this tense noir, the spoiled but lonely son of a diplomat sees more than he should and becomes embroiled in an adult world of lies and guilty secrets. Making his screen debut, Bobby Henrey delivered a miraculous child performance—exasperating, melancholy, silly, sweet, clever, and hopelessly out of his depth.

So I did a double take when I saw that Henrey would be at TCMFF to talk about this astonishing film. Unmissable. Sorry, Smell-O-Vision. Smell ya later. Or not.

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12:15 p.m. – Law and Order (1932) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Bagging out on Scent of Mystery offers a bonus: I’ll have time to catch another rarely-screened movie in my favorite venue. Gritty pre-Code proto-noir Western written by John Huston and starring Walter Huston? Uh, yes, please!

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2:30 p.m. – A Conversation with Gina Lollobrigida – Club TCM

Last year’s Club TCM interview with Shirley MacLaine left me flabbergasted by the amount of sassy revelations the star offered up. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Ms. Lollobrigida will prove as feisty and open to questions!

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4:15 p.m. – The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) – Egyptian Theater – 35mm

Once upon a time I was reading my friends’ coverage of TCMFF and turning all unsightly shades of green over how they’d seen Eva Marie Saint in person. Now it’s my turn (serpentine waiting lines permitting)!

Eva Marie is the only Saint I want to see at the festival this year (sorry, Joan of Arc).

1953: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse perform a dance number in 'Band Wagon', directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.

7:45 p.m. – The Band Wagon (1953) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

This choice might well change, depending on the titles announced for the TBD slots. Still, The Band Wagon never fails to amaze me, so it’s not like I’d be “settling” for it. Cyd Charisse in that sizzling red dress and her slinky moves might just be the perfect finale to a show of moving pictures.

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Musical Revolution: King of Jazz (1930) Gets a New Restoration (and a Book!)

king of jazz posterWe classic movie geeks know a thing or two about suffering for what we love.

We grieve over the films locked away in studio vaults.

We watch dreary, fuzzy transfers of hard-to-find movies and fantasize about what the film would look like with some tender loving care.

We fork over whole paychecks to go to festivals where we try hard not to blink during screenings of sublime rare films, knowing we may never see them again.

So, good news—a lost film found, a DVD or Blu-Ray release of a buried classic, generous funding for archives—means a lot to this community. And some recent developments have made me jump for joy.

Universal is restoring The King of Jazz. Shot entirely in two-color Technicolor, this 1930 musical revue features toe-tapping tunes performed by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and spectacular production numbers interspersed with brief comedy sketches.

Film historians James Layton and David Pierce, co-authors of the sumptuous and fascinating Dawn of Technicolor, 1915–1935, are advising on the restoration. I got the king of jazz layton and pierce bookchance to ask Layton, manager of MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, a few questions about the restoration, the film, and his and Pierce’s forthcoming book, King of Jazz: Paul Whitman’s Technicolor Revue.

If you’ve seen this elusive early sound milestone, you’ve probably seen a mutilated version. According to Layton, “No version of King of Jazz seen since the 1960s has been close to the original release version (which was first screened in New York City on May 2, 1930 at 105 minutes). The VHS releases and various 16mm prints floating around have had at least ten minutes missing and scenes in the wrong order.”

And, as if that’s not bad enough, the way those versions look could give anybody the shrieking fantods.

Early Technicolor’s restricted palette lent a refreshing, eye-popping vigor to trippy early musical sequences. But you’d never know that from the old transfers of King of Jazz circulating these days. With washed-out actors, ghastly dried-Playdough pinks, and heinous shades of blue, the VHS version I saw seems more like a horror movie. When I’m watching Bing Crosby’s first film appearance, I shouldn’t be thinking that he bears an alarming resemblance to Chucky.

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Honestly, squint a little, and you’d think the colorization folks had gotten out their big box of crayons and gone to town. Shudder, shudder.

(Note: most screencaps in this post come from a much prettier original trailer for King of Jazz, which you can watch at the Internet Archive, NOT from the awful feature-length version I saw.)

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If ever a film needed the royal treatment, King of Jazz is it. Heralded since 2012, when this blog was just a gleam in my eye, Universal’s restoration is finally on the verge of bringing all that jazz back to theaters.

The restoration primarily draws on a pristine but condensed camera negative, sliced down to a 65-minute version for a reissue in 1933. Compare that with an original running time of 105 minutes. (Pause for facepalm.) Fortunately, scanned nitrate prints from the Library of Congress and the Danish Film Institute can fill in the gaps.

As Layton told me, “I haven’t seen the finished restoration yet, but I can confirm it will feature footage that has not been seen by audiences since 1930.”

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He and Pierce had initially planned to write an article about King of Jazz to mark the restoration. “But as we were researching we kept finding more and more amazing resources that were too irresistible not to draw upon. We soon decided we had enough for a book!”

King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will include many images never before published. For instance, reproductions of Academy Award-winning production designs by Herman Rosse “will form the backbone of the book.”

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Scanning one of Rosse’s production designs for the upcoming book…

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…and the design as it appeared in the film.

Layton and Pierce’s research is shedding light on how early talkie Hollywood continued to produce for foreign markets. Remember the Spanish-language Dracula? Well, Universal simultaneously produced 9—NINE—foreign versions of King of Jazz! Alas, all of these except the French version (preserved at the Gosfilmofond in Russia) are lost.

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A still for “Il re del jazz,” the lost Italian version of “King of Jazz.”

The studio chose a veritable “It’s a Small World After All”-worthy crew of international actors working in Hollywood to serve as hosts for audiences in foreign countries.

“We found extremely rare photographs of nearly all of the foreign hosts, including Nils Asther, Bela Lugosi, Tetsu Komai, Andre Cheron and Antonin Vaverka,” Layton says.

And, if you’re interested in how audiences from Portugal to Japan responded to this surreal riot of Art Deco pop culture—translated into their native tongues—the book will cover that, too. “We worked closely with Gosfilmofond, the Czech national film archive, Museo del cinema in Turin, the Swedish Film Institute, and a host of international film researchers to translate original articles from international newspapers and magazines.”

I asked Layton if he’d uncovered anything else surprising about King of Jazz. He explained, “One of the most eye-opening moments early on in our research was the realization that a lot of the musical numbers were not new to the film; they had been honed on the Broadway and vaudeville stage throughout the 1920s, and were then re-imagined for motion pictures by visionary director John Murray Anderson.”

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Indeed, King of Jazz strikes me as a thrillingly transitional film, sometimes bound to stage conventions, but more often innovative and cinematic, breaking out into an impossibly fluid space. For instance, the musical number “It Happened in Monterey” uses the potential of cinematic space to conjure up a nostalgic past.

The sequence’s “protagonist” (golden-voiced John Boles) starts out singing about his lost love while looking at her portrait in a small, confined room. The camera tracks in towards the painting—which dissolves into the subject of the portrait (Jeanette Loff)—then camera moves out to reveal a vast, romantic stylized vision of old Monterey.

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Sure, you’ll get wide shots of kicklines, as though you were plunked in the audience of a big Broadway theater. Yet, you’ll also get ethereal double exposures, oodles of tracking and crane shots, passages of fast, rhythmic editing, and animated musical interludes, all drenched in the psychedelic glory of early Technicolor.

My favorite shot of the film comes during the“Rhapsody in Blue” sequence, probably the best-known portion of the film, thanks to its giant piano and top-hatted Russell Markert dancers (a troupe we now know as the Rockettes). Yet, amidst all that extravagance, the image that lingers in my mind is this shot of a clarinetist.

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This low angle brings us into the intimacy of the performance and gives us a perspective that we’d be unlikely to encounter in real life. Towering against the glittering blue background, the clarinet player takes on the power of a shaman, channelling the magic of jazz into a new era of audiovisual stimulation.

In a similar vein, look at this overhead shot of the violins section in Whiteman’s orchestra.

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I know what you’re thinking: it looks sort of Busby Berkeley, right? Well, King of Jazz hit theaters in the spring of 1930. And Whoopee!, the first film on which Berkeley worked as a dance director, premiered in New York City on September 30 of the same year.

King of Jazz is both a rip-roaring good time and a key film in the development of the musical as a genre. And for many years it’s been something of a “missing link.” I look forward to learning more about it.

For more information about Layton and Pierce’s new book, check out their Kickstarter and consider backing it. Support film scholarship!

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Now, you might be wondering, how can cinephiles see the restoration? Well, I’ve got more good news.

The restored King of Jazz will premiere at MoMA as part of upcoming series focusing on Universal’s years under the reign of Junior Laemmle.

Often ridiculed as a brash baby mogul, Junior received studio control in 1929 as a 21st birthday gift from his father, Universal founder Carl Laemmle. (And you thought My Super Sweet 16 was wild!) However, Junior’s term as general manager bequeathed to us some of the greatest and most enduring films of the 1930s, including Universal’s cycle of horror films, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1934 adaptation of Imitation of Life.

Junior’s contributions to film history, especially during the no-holds-barred pre-Code era, deserve wider recognition. (Even if he did allegedly think that Bette Davis had the sex appeal of Slim Summerville. We all make mistakes.)

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According to Layton, the Junior Laemmle series, programmed by Dave Kehr, “will include premieres of many new restorations and preservations from Universal’s restoration department.” MoMA will announce dates soon.

(And here’s hoping that these dazzling restorations will make it onto DVD and/or Blu-ray. Seriously, Universal, don’t make me publicly rail against your home release record. Again.)

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If you can’t make the MoMA series, may I interest you in Capitolfest?

This festival screens rare silents and pre-Codes in a 1928 Moorish style movie palace. Believe me, it’s even better than it sounds. King of Jazz poses a special challenge.

As Capitolfest’s Facebook page reports, “unfortunately, there will be no FILM prints [of King of Jazz]. There will be a DCP (digital) print available, however, though we are not equipped to show this at the Capitol. And so, we have decided to show this as our regular weekly attraction at one of the small cinemas next door to the Capitol, from August 11-15.”

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So, two guesses where I’ll be on August 15, 2016.

When it comes to restorations, I usually only see the “after” in the “before and after” process. Having witnessed the wan, chopped-up King of Jazz, I’m especially excited to discover the restoration. I’ll get to observe not only the changes in the film, but also the changes in my reactions to it.

Stay tuned! And don’t let creepy, faded Technicolor Bing Crosby haunt your nightmares.

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My pal Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has also written about the restoration and done a great interview with James Layton. Highly recommended reading!

Romancing the Talkies: 10 Favorites from 1930

joancrawford_microphoneA few weeks ago the marvelous Katie of Cinema Enthusiast invited me to participate in a poll and name my 10 favorite films of 1930.

I enjoyed the exercise of putting together my “ballot” and, as I combed over the other submissions, I realized that I wanted to write a bit about each of my picks.

3,000 or so words later, here we are. (Make it to the end of this post and you’ll get a Lubitsch GIF. That’s a promise.)

To call 1930 a year of transition in Hollywood would be a tremendous understatement. Sound was here to stay, but the industry was still scrambling to reshape production protocols, star images, and film properties for the talkies. Directors working during this fraught period faced a steep learning curve as they negotiated unwieldy technology and unpredictable audience reactions. All the panic and overhaul led to some very bad, dull movies, for sure, but 1930 gave us far more good American movies than popular opinion suggests.

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Delight Evans, critic and editor of Screenland magazine.

Delight Evans, the perceptive editor of Screenland magazine, noted in March of 1930 that the advent of sound pushed narratives towards realism—and often reduced romance to absurdity: “Talkies leave little to the imagination, you see. We [each] wrote our own dialogue for the Gilbert-Garbo kisses. Now we have to look and listen to a deliberate and diagrammed dissertation on the love scenes. Gone is the mystery, the mood, the enchantment.”

Evans was a sharp cookie. She wasn’t sounding the death knell of celluloid romance as much as she was making a simple observation—and reporting industry news. With the calamitous reception of John Gilbert’s ludicrous dialogue in His Glorious Night (not, as some have mistakenly claimed, his voice) and similar hoots of hilarity from audiences watching early sound love scenes, many producers baulked at flowery declarations of passion and green-lit gritty, hardboiled dramas instead.

Sound films do indeed occupy another of our senses, shaking up the gauzy, dreamlike pace of silent movie lovemaking. Talkies clipped cupid’s wings by grounding romance in our terrestrial scheme, our space-time continuum. We lost a part of the movies, a pleasing parenthesis that the viewer could fill with his or her own fantasies. After all, love in reel life as well as real life is often not a matter of what’s said, but what’s unsaid.

It occurs to me that most of the films on my list explore the talkies’ potential for romance, whether cheerful or star-crossed. Whereas many early sound films have a tendency to blurt feelings and messages (“I love you! I love you! I love you!”), I tried to choose movies that fiercely guard their subtext and keep it… sub. Hidden. Unspoken. Tantalizing.

Several great directors seized the opportunities afforded by sound: Capra, whose empathy and belief in human goodness could redeem the oldest clichés in the book; Lubitsch, whose winking ellipses and whimsical reversals celebrated the unseen and the unpredictable in our nature; and Von Sternberg, whose lush mise-en-scene permeated his films mystery and desire.

That said, this list also embraces the boldly anti-romantic side of 1930: gangsters, soldiers, spirits in limbo, and badass shopgirl Joan Crawford interrupting love scenes with feminist zingers.

I wonder how I would’ve reacted to the coming of sound if I’d been a moviegoer way back then. Would I have mourned the silents and written angry letters to magazines, as did many fans? Perhaps. Change hurts. And we lost a great art at the zenith of its powers when the silents died. But I like to think that any of the movies on this list would’ve changed my mind and made me fall in love with cinema all over again.

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The Devil to Pay – George FitzMaurice

I defy you not to adore any movie that features Myrna Loy simmering in a steam bath and Ronald Colman conversing with a dog. An elegant trifle, The Devil to Pay hints at the madcap joys of the high screwball comedy, which wouldn’t blossom (depending on whom you talk to) for a few years at least.

Lovable n’er-do-well aristocrat Willie Leyland (lovable because he’s Ronald Colman) returns to London to sponge some more money off his crotchety father. Willie succeeds in getting his cash, but then falls in love with a spirited—and engaged—linoleum heiress, Dorothy Hope (Loretta Young). Nobody seems to approve of the match, except the girl herself. And that’s all that matters for Willie. Now, will he have the guts to break off his long-term affair with a stage star (Myrna Loy) before Dorothy gets the wrong end of the stick?

Early talkies about the upper classes—especially the British aristocracy—often ring false, with stilted dialogue, awkward accents, and unconvincing relationships. In The Devil to Pay, the familial bonds feel, well, familiar: sweetly critical and teasingly affectionate. The cast carries a lightweight plot off with breezy chemistry. 17-year-old Loretta Young, already a screen veteran, makes Dorothy, a character that could’ve been a living prop, into a delightfully strong-willed woman who’s not afraid to stand up to her father, her fiancé, or the man she loves.

The film begins as Willie auctions off all of the furniture from his hut in Africa. His bed comes up on the block. One woman asks: Does the bed come with the owner? I suspect that cheeky line elicited yearning sighs from every lady in the audience 86 years ago (and it still does for me, 86 years later). As Willie, Ronald Colman glows at the peak of his handsomeness and exhibits a dashing fluency in sound comedy that most other film actors could only envy in 1930.

Where can you see it? It’s, alas, not available on DVD. But let’s just say it’s around online.

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The Doorway to Hell – Archie Mayo

Before Scarface, before The Public Enemy, before Little Caesar, there was The Doorway to Hell, a bitter, gory talkie gangster film frequently punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of a “Chicago typewriter.”

Louie Ricarno, a precocious mob boss with aspirations towards respectability, organizes vying factions in the mob like a business, then tries to go legit. (Sound familiar? The Doorway to Hell might be the nearest classic Hollywood relative to The Godfather films in terms of narrative DNA.) When former associates threaten Louie’s beloved family, our anti-hero rides back into town for the bloody vengeance that triggers his inevitable downfall.

Some might argue that devilishly pretty 22-year-old Lew Ayres lacked the grit to take on a tough-guy role. James Cagney, cast as Ayres’s right-hand man here, would obviously go on to define the pugnacious bad-boy allure of the gangster better than anybody else. Today’s viewers might find it difficult not to focus on Jimmy throughout the movie.

From where I’m sitting, though, Ayres infuses Louie with enough dead-eyed, tight-lipped weirdness to make one’s skin crawl. No, he’s not a swaggering punk like Cagney, nor a bravura stereotype like Muni, nor a ferocious pocket thug like Robinson. Ayres plays Louie as nothing less than a stone-cold killer.

His stiff posture and smugly placid resting expression (bastardface?) convey stuntedness; we’re looking at a little boy who absorbed too much reality too early. This man carries something still and unnatural in him, we feel, something spookier than pride or greed. It’s as though the American Dream were a corrosive substance that ate him away from the inside, leaving only a slick shell and the barest remnants of humanity. Louie is the return of the repressed, the monstrous product of a drive to survive that we all share—and of a society that refuses to take responsibility for him.

The Doorway to Hell packs its share of gut-punch moments. A kidnapping attempt on Louie’s untainted little brother goes awry, pushing the child into the way of an oncoming truck. A few scenes later, Louie shows up at a plastic surgeon’s operating room, asking if the doctor can make his brother look the way he did. “Where is he?” Asks the doctor. “At the undertaker,” Louie replies. Thus the film informs us that Louie’s one hope of transcending his inner meanness has died. Tough, laconic, devastating. (And, gee, doesn’t that foreshadow Don Corleone’s plea to the undertaker Bonasera?)

The dialogue offers a treasury of punchy and creative underworld euphemisms, such as “a handful of clouds” for a fatal spray of bullets. When Louie finally resigns himself to his handful, he struts out of his hideout with a wild paroxysm of laughter, boldly meeting death and renouncing this ugly, pitiless existence as just so much ill-smelling ether. It’s one hell of an ending to one hell of a movie.

Where can you see it? It’s on DVD from Warner Archive. So that’s nice.

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Follow Thru – Lloyd Corrigan and Lawrence Schwab

I’ve already gushed at length about this bawdy two-strip Technicolor romp, which I saw at last year’s Capitolfest. The film offers, among other joys, gobsmackingly vibrant close-ups of Nancy Carroll, Thelma Todd wearing little more than beads and feathers, a splashy musical number about misbehaving (backed up by a chorus line of dancing devils), and Eugene Pallette in drag. It’s so much fun that it borders on gluttony.

Where can you see it? Ahem, you might find it around online. But the available prints don’t do the film justice. How I wish the glorious UCLA restoration that I saw would get a DVD/Blu-ray release!

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Journey’s End – James Whale

Overshadowed by the more technically adventurous All Quiet on the Western Front, James Whale’s drama of the Great War opened in theaters several months earlier. Adapted from R.C. Sherriff’s acclaimed stage play, Journey’s End evokes the claustrophobia of trench warfare with grim authenticity. (Whale had served in WWI, and the horrors he witnessed over there carved a crooked smile into all of his films. His macabre revision of Frankenstein owes as much to the daily crushing terror of total war as to the solemn grandeur of Gothic literature.)

Its auteur aside—and Whale surely deserves the distinction of auteur—Journey’s End makes my list of 1930 favorites because of its star, Colin Clive. Though best remembered today as Doctor Frankenstein, blueblooded Clive rose to fame in the 1920s for his stage portrayal of Captain Stanhope, the doomed commanding officer who numbs his shellshock with alcohol and hopes he’ll die in a blaze of glory before his loved ones learn what he’s become. (Side note: Laurence Olivier was first cast in the role, but didn’t quite click and left the play. Clive took over and scored a hit.)

Brought to Hollywood to reprise the role, Clive made a haunting film debut and demonstrated an intuitive understanding of film acting—at a time when even experienced movie actors were struggling to adapt to the talkies.

Nobody could come apart at the seams before a camera like Clive. He specialized in blow-ups and breakdowns, the emotional trapeze parts that seem overacted unless grounded by utter sincerity. Clive brings Stanhope to life in all of his tortured contradictions: snappish yet gentle, petulant yet wise, terrified yet brave, exasperating yet endearing.

(A few years ago I did a post on this film and Clive, whose brief life paralleled his tragic roles.)

Where can you see it? I believe that the film is in the public domain. You can watch it on YouTube. Sadly, I’ve only ever seen murky prints around.

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Ladies of Leisure – Frank Capra

Capra and Stanwyck’s first collaboration is just as good as you’d hope and needs no introduction from me. I caught it on TCM years ago and can still picture the way Stanwyck’s eyes shine when her hardened “party girl” character realizes that love is not only real, but has come calling in her life.

Where can you see it? It’s out on DVD from Sony.

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Laughter – Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

Films that tackle the heavy side of life with a light touch hold a special place in my heart. Some movies wield their direness like a blunt instrument, but who wants to be clubbed half to death? One of the worst ideas about art in the history of art is that great art must somehow be painful—and that, the more painful art is to consume, the better it must automatically be. Art’s greatness is inversely proportional to the pleasure it gives to ordinary folk. Or so asserts a certain school of thought. Personally, I refuse to penalize art for entertaining me.

Laughter is about heartbreak, starving artists, suicide, and the wrench of choosing loveless wealth over romance and poverty. Yet, without diminishing any of those serious themes, this film nourishes the viewer’s joie de vivre. Director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, a pal of Chaplin’s, understood that you don’t have to make the audience suffer to say something about human suffering.

One-time chorus girl Peggy (Nancy Carroll), now married to a decent but dull millionaire (Frank Morgan), longs for the bohemian good times of her past. When her ex-lover Paul (Fredric March), a vagabond composer, shows up, Peggy has to make a bitter choice: risk everything for love and freedom or entomb herself forever in a world of passionless material comforts.

Blending melodrama and zany proto-screwball antics, Laughter deserves all the critical praise it’s garnered over the years. When Pauline Kael describes a film as a “lovely, sophisticated comedy, an ode to impracticality” with “perhaps the best clothes ever seen on the screen,” you’d be a fool not to seek it out.

Best of all, the film defines healthy romance as continual playfulness. We recognize Peggy’s and Paul’s mutual love because they go for joyrides and get hopelessly, merrily lost. They roam around a stranger’s home wrapped in bear-skin rugs. They playact a gender-flipped husband and wife relationship. They discuss Paul’s work-in-progress symphony through an exchange of boisterous vocalizations. The irrepressible human need to love, create, and gather rosebuds while ye may bubbles forth from every scene.

Where can you see it? It’s not on DVD (Damn you, Universal/Comcast!), but you may find it somewhere around this jumble we call the Internet…

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Monte Carlo – Ernst Lubitsch

A minor Lubitsch film is one you can only imagine yourself watching, say, a half-dozen more times in your life instead of a hundred. Monte Carlo is a minor Lubitsch film.

In this musical confection, headstrong Countess Helene (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves her effete would-be groom at the altar and flees to Monte Carlo, hoping to win enough at the casino to balance her hefty debts and avoid marriage. While losing the remainder of her money, she catches the eye of rakish Count Rudy (Jack Buchanan) who poses as her hairdresser—the better to woo her and save her from financial disaster. The countess soon finds herself falling for the faux coiffeur. But will she let snobbery get in the way of true love?

Reviews of this film typically heap scorn on leading man Buchanan. I’d been listening to his song recordings for years before I saw this film, so I must confess my disappointment that his considerable charms did not, to put it mildly, translate well to Monte Carlo. (Hell, in the image above he looks more like he’s contemplating cutting Jeanette MacDonald’s throat than her hair.) But, hey, Cary Grant cited him as an influence, so I’ll just squint and work a little harder to appreciate Buchanan here.

The script at least makes Buchanan himself work a little harder to impress us and MacDonald. His early attempts to pick her up meet with spectacular (if unsurprising) failure; he has to enter her employ and win her trust with a really, really sensual scalp massage. I like the idea that the hero has to serve a kind of romantic apprenticeship, proving himself a loyal and useful companion before his lady love gives him a second look. When Buchanan starts trying to assert himself as master and order MacDonald about, though, the film takes a nosedive.

In any case, MacDonald more than compensates for Buchanan’s shortcomings. This goddess of frivolity indulges in aggressively bad decisions and imperious diva tantrums, yet I still worship at her altar. Why? Because she has amazing hair. I don’t say that in jest. Perhaps only Ginger Rogers could match MacDonald’s use of her hair as a weapon in the arsenal of physical comedy. Monte Carlo’s funniest moment arrives when MacDonald flips out and pulls her lustrous locks into a half-marcelled frizzbomb of feminine whimsy—in hopes of ruining Rudy’s reputation as a coiffeur.

Monte Carlo doesn’t ascend to the giddy, constantly-pleasurable heights of The Love Parade or The Smiling Lieutenant, but Lubitsch dazzles us with MacDonald’s rendition of “Beyond the Blue Horizon” as the music mingles with the rhythms of a locomotive chugging through the countryside. Plus, one of my favorite songs of the 1930s, “Always in All Ways,” provides a sweet moment of harmony between MacDonald and Buchanan. (Note to self: Why do I have this weakness for foxtrots about codependency?)

Where can you see it? Rejoice, ye cinephiles, it’s part of Criterion’s Lubitsch Musicals Eclipse box set!

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Morocco – Josef von Sternberg

Movies melt out of our minds, leaving the occasional morsels of dialogue, gestures, and images. The greatest movies give us something to hang onto. Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo will remain burned on my brain for as long as I can summon memories.

Marlene, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, tugging her bowtie in place as she looks into a grimy mirror.

Marlene tipping her hat back with crisp and cavalier gesture.

Marlene bending down to kiss a slightly shocked but excited female nightclub patron.

In her iconic tux, Marlene embodies a seductive, self-contained ideal, or rather two ideals, two binary fantasies, fused into one person. Behold, spectators: a woman as a complete and unassailable being, a woman who’s imbibed the best qualities of the gentleman and made them her own. When asked if she’s married, Dietrich’s character, Amy Jolly, replies, “Marriage? No, I never found a man good enough for that.” Of course not. She is her own woman and her own man.

Oh, yeah, there’s some plot going on here, too, involving wealthy Adolphe Menjou and Foreign Legion soldier Gary Cooper as rivals for Marlene’s heart. But the point lies elsewhere, in the hypnotic visions of alienation and exploration that Sternberg orchestrates for us. Even the denouement, as Dietrich kicks off her golden sandals and trudges into the the blistering desert sands to follow her lover, strikes me as not a surrender of Amy’s self-contained power, but an enlargement of it. With a slight alteration of costume, this shape-shifting, convention-defying woman will reinvent herself as her heart commands.

Where can you see it? It’s available from the Universal Vault Series.

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Our Blushing Brides – Harry Beaumont

I’ve been working on a post about Our Blushing Brides for over a year. Why has it taken me so long? Because I love this movie and just when I think I’ve run out of things to say about it, I think of something else I want to analyze.

Joan Crawford radiates raw and righteous anger as a department store model fending off the advances of a dapper playboy who happens to be her boss (Robert Montgomery, of course, it’s Robert Montgomery; like, really, were you expecting anybody else?). The screenplay, co-written by Bess Meredyth, flips the shopgirl-Cinderella formula on its head and provides Queen Joan with numerous opportunities to shred male privilege until Prince Not-So-Charming-As-He-Thinks learns his lesson.

Did I mention the mid-movie fashion show? Seriously, go watch this now.

Where can you see it? It’s available on a DVD from Warner Archive and is also currently streaming HD on Warner Archive Instant.

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Outward Bound – Robert Milton

As I was making my late-breaking 1930 list, I “eavesdropped” (or whatever the Twitter equivalent is) on a conversation between two esteemed cinephile friends of mine, Miriam Bale and Kimberly Lindbergs, as they discussed their own lists. Both had selected Outward Bound, a film I’d never heard of. “Gee, if they like it, it must be swell,” I thought to myself. (And, yes, my internal monologue sounds like a 1930s chorus girl.)

Seized by curiosity, I dug up this unavailable film late at night, telling myself I’d check out the first few minutes and watch the whole thing tomorrow. An hour and a half later, it was 2 a.m., I’d watched the entire film, and I was sobbing.

Before there was A Matter of Life and Death there was Outward Bound, a numinous meditation on the afterlife and the wages of our earthly actions.

A group of unconnected people from all classes of society find themselves on an eerily deserted ocean liner with no recollection of buying a ticket. They soon realize that they’ve recently died and now drift towards a unmapped port where they will all be judged for their sins and virtues.

The allegorical shipboard setting, with its winding hallways, simple gathering spaces and mist-shrouded decks, conjures a wondrous yet familiar atmosphere. Within this magically simple backdrop, the performances—from unfeeling grande dame Alison Skipworth to bullying businessman Montagu Love to meek charwoman Beryl Mercer—define a vivid microcosm.

As the first passenger to awaken to the horror of his situation, Leslie Howard balances faraway hopelessness with tightly-coiled angst. In his first sound role, Howard displays the otherworldly grace of a lost soul, a man dead long before he died. He need only run those fragile, tapered fingers of his across his forehead to convey all the broken dreams of the post-WWI generation. And that voice! Just listen to how he says “We are all dead, aren’t we?” in this clip. Listen to the beats between words, the rising pitch on “dead,” the resignation and relief of the last words. He transmutes a question into a phrase of music.

However, it’s Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Helen Chandler who anchor the film as a devoted young couple drifting on the edges of the doomed group. Boyishly gorgeous Fairbanks and angelic, spellbound Chandler cling to each other with quiet but frantic anxiety: will the great judgement cast them apart for all eternity? Chandler’s singsong voice and delicate gestures finally made me break into tears as she totters down the foggy ship deck in search of her beloved… whom she may never see again.

Perhaps a movie can give us viewers no greater gift than the desire to invest ourselves more earnestly in life—to embrace every fleeting sensation, to bear fate’s blows more patiently, to correct our faults more humbly, and to love more generously. Outward Bound does all of this with the feverish beauty of a sad, half-remembered dream.

Where can you see it? Sadly unavailable, Outward Bound is due for a release. How about it, Warner Archive friends? (I think you own it, n’est-ce pas?)

And about that GIF I promised you…

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17 Pre-Code Valentines for All You Dizzy Dames and Sugar Daddies

blondellheartemojiI love pre-Code movies with the passion of a thousand heart emojis. There’s a good reason why the banner of this blog comes from a poster for Baby Face and why I chose the the famous “Thou Shalt Not” censorship picture for my Twitter avatar.

When I discovered pre-Code cinema through a college course in 2010 (and they say you don’t learn anything useful in schools these days), I fell hard. Movies made roughly between 1929 and 1934 regularly make me swoon with their witty irreverence, their flamboyant style, their exquisitely hardboiled female protagonists, and their slick, snappily-dressed bad boys. (Plus, the lingerie. Can’t forget the lingerie.) These movies were intended to deliver large doses of risqué pleasure during some pretty dark days in American history—and they still bring the joy, more than 80 years after they were made.

Last year I created film noir valentines and pre-Code candy hearts, so I decided to follow that up with a batch of naughty, bawdy, gaudy pre-Code valentines. Enjoy.

Disclaimer: These valentines (for the most part) reflect the spirit of the films and characters they’re alluding to, not necessarily my views or opinions. If any of these valentines offend your delicate sensibilities, feel free to call the Legion of Decency on me. What can I say? I’m a bad influence.

Clara Bow plays rough in Call Her Savage (1932).

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Herbert Marshall may be a crook, but he’s the crook that Miriam Hopkins adores in Trouble in Paradise (1932).

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Clark Gable would bankrupt the undershirt industry to impress Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934).

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Mae West knows that Cary Grant is only playing hard to get in She Done Him Wrong (1933).

Just gals being pals in Queen Christina (1933).

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Pre-Code poster children Joan Blondell and Warren William feel the (cheap and vulgar) love in Gold-Diggers of 1933.

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Count Dracula’s love for Mina will never die. Because it’s already dead.

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Cagney and Harlow get cozy in The Public Enemy (1931).

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Garbo wants some “me time,” but she’ll settle for some “me and you time” in Grand Hotel (1932).

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Miriam Hopkins can’t choose between Fredric March and Gary Cooper in Design for Living (1933). Who can blame her?

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Barbara Stanwyck is feelin’ frisky in Night Nurse (1931).

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Warren William is the Big Bad Wolf in Employees’ Entrance (1933).

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Looks like Little Caesar just can’t quit his friend Joe Massara. (I can relate. I think about Douglas Fairbanks Jr. a lot too.)

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Barbara Stanwyck knows what men are good for in Baby Face (1933).

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Carole Lombard gives John Barrymore some tough love in 20th Century (1934).

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Watch classic movies and get busy, like Bob Montgomery and Anita Page in Free and Easy (1931).

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Yes, I even got a tad sentimental over Whitey Schafer’s famous “Thou Shalt Not” photograph, showing all the things you couldn’t do in post-Code films.

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A Free Soul (1931): Ashes to Ashes

afreesoul_posterThe first day of Lent compels me to make Joseph Breen, the fanatical Production Code Administration honcho, roll over in his grave. Before Easter I’d like to watch as many new-to-me pre-Code movies as possible.

Consider it anti-Lent—a celebration of excess. Or grateful recognition that so many movies buried for years by censorship have arisen and joyously outlived their censors.

Somehow I’d never watched Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul until last night (I know, I know), so I’m atoning now with a lengthy rumination on its equivocal MGM decadence.

Warning: This movie may make you want to wear slinky bias-cut gowns and/or dishonor your family. Talk to your doctor about whether pre-Code movies are right for you. Unless your doctor doesn’t know what pre-Code movies are, in which case you have my permission to give him a lecture on film history, tie him up, and force him to watch TCM.

The plot:

Raised by her father Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore), a brilliant trial lawyer plagued by alcoholism, Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) lives a free-spirited life (hence the title). Rejecting her snobbish family and her respectable fiancé Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), Jan starts a steamy romance with her father’s gangster client, Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable).

That’s a step too far for dear daddy, who’s horrified by the affair. So, Jan makes a bargain: she agrees never to see her lover again if her father quits drinking. He gives it up at first… but when he weakens, so does Jan.

She returns to Ace, who insists that she belongs to him, body and soul, and must marry him—or else. Disgusted, Jan flees for her life. To protect Jan, Dwight shoots Ace and stands trial for murder. Guess who turns up to defend him in a spectacular Oscar-bait courtroom finale? (Hint: It’s Lionel Barrymore, who won his Best Actor gold for the performance.)

My two cents:

A Free Soul adds to the grand pre-Code tradition of adventurous society girls undone by hommes fatals. For that reason, the movie recalls Letty Lynton (1932) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933). In all three films, reckless high-class dames fall (or are forced) into abusive relationships with charismatic but depraved men from the wrong side of the tracks.

Are these movies conservative cautionary tales that punish women for seeking sexual fulfillment? Or are they subtly feminist films that reveal how rebellious women suffer in a world where they’re almost universally viewed as possessions?

Probably both, to varying degrees.

Of the three movies I’ve mentioned, A Free Soul particularly glorifies forbidden pleasures. We’re invited to enjoy—and almost to take part in—Jan’s liaison with bad boy Ace. When she outstretches her arms and whispers, Put ’em around me, she beckons to the viewer as well as to her lover. It’s a ménage à trois between Shearer, Gable, and the camera. All the last-minute regrets and preachments can’t erase the silken, candlelit delights of those scenes in Ace’s penthouse.

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Shearer is at her most sublime when radiating desire. Her ladylike coyness melts into unabashed yearning, transcending the good-girl-bad-girl duality that society loves to impose upon women. The image that will haunt me most from A Free Soul is this shot of Shearer, her head tilted back, welcoming the moment to come. From this angle, her haughty beauty is serenely sculptural. A marble goddess breathes for the first time.

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Sure, she’s savoring the closeness of Gable and his moustacheless early 1930s smolder. But her elation is both spiritual and physical. What really intoxicates Jan is the freedom she seized for herself when she ran out on her closed-minded, blueblooded family. Anticipation is five syllables long, but it’s still too small a word for what Jan’s experiencing.

A few reels later, Ace’s proposal of marriage—or ultimatum of marriage, rather—sours the relationship and kills Jan’s dreams. Oddly enough, I can’t think of many other movies where it’s the guy who insists on getting hitched, while the woman prefers a no-strings-attached arrangement. We’re meant to notice this oddness, I think. That’s because, in A Free Soul, sex is a metaphor for independence, and marriage a metaphor for captivity.

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Even a man who lives outside the law cannot accept a woman’s threatening freedom. Ace wants to own Jan, even though she craves no such control over him. In fact, Jan loved Ace because he represented a break from the stuffy constraints and contracts of upper-class romance. She discovers that, once the swagger and the aphrodisiac power of machine-gun fire wear off, there’s nothing to separate Ace from her repressive relatives. Except bad manners. And a propensity for violence.

Watching her exotic playmate turn into a brutish would-be jailer, Jan mutters, “And then the moonlight turned to worms.” Her disillusionment breaks my heart. As does the rest of the movie, which rushes to blame Jan’s “new woman” philosophy for her suffering and ruin.

The script also points the finger at Stephen Ashe, as though only a drunken failure of a father would dare to teach his daughter to follow her heart. Yuck, right? This moralizing twist undermines the teasing, equal-terms relationship between father and daughter that helps to draw us into the film. In the opening scene, we see Jan in silhouette getting dressed as Stephen reads the paper at the breakfast table. When Jan asks him to pass her some lingerie, he hands it to her through the bathroom door—without looking, of course.

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Is this an illicit affair between an older man and a younger woman? Nope. Just a normal day for the Ashes. Creepy though that sounds, the frankness between father and daughter shows how much they trust and love each other. Their affection actually reminds me of intimate mother-daughter relationships in the movies, which makes sense since Stephen has been both father and mother to Jan.

They’re so close that dad’s not mortally embarrassed by the knowledge that—gasp—his daughter wears a lacy bra! That overshare rapport strikes me as much more convincing and much less creepy than the surgically distant exchanges you see between fathers and daughters in many movies of the 1930s and 1940s. I’ll take a confidant dad over a symbolic patriarch any day, thankyouverymuch. But no, argues A Free Soul, that’s wrong. I’d better forget everything my father taught me about being a person in my own right.

Worst of all, the third act of A Free Soul denies Jan the agency to defend herself. In the similar pre-Code movies I alluded to earlier, Letty Lynton and Temple Drake powerfully reclaim control over their lives and bodies by executing the men who’ve tormented them. However, Jan Ashe leaves poor Dwight Winthrop to do the deed and shoot Ace.

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When Jan visits gallant Dwight in jail, she wishes that she had executed her beastly lover instead. I couldn’t help but agree. Without the visceral revenge granted to Temple and Letty, A Free Soul devolves into a great big perfidious “told ya so.” A sermon trying to pull off silk stockings.

Although it leaves you with a craven, bitter aftertaste, A Free Soul is redeemed by its sensuality. Even the stark prison scene crackles with sexual tension, heightened by close shots of hands and eyes. Jan gives Dwight one hell of a passionate kiss to thank him for slaying Ace. (Tangentially, in what universe does Leslie Howard have to kill somebody before he’s attractive to you, girl? Way to undersell your leading man, movie.)

This film betrays most of what I like about it, but I still can’t help but like it. I guess you’d better keep me away from your rakishly charming gangsters.

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Film HERstory: 75+ Classic Films Directed by Women (and Where You Can Watch Them)

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“The feminine influence is needed in film.”
This statement sounds like something you might read in a contemporary article, as Hollywood’s lack of opportunities for female filmmakers comes increasingly (and rightfully) under scrutiny.

In fact, the quote is from Lois Weber, who made the remark in 1921 and directed her first film in 1911.

Many believe that women directors are a relatively new phenomenon—although Alice Guy directed her first film in 1896, Lois Weber was one of the most acclaimed directors of the 1910s, and Dorothy Arzner directed films featuring major stars at Hollywood studios from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Too few viewers and film-lovers know these women’s movies, their stories, and even their names.

Last year, when fellow blogger Marya E. Gates, creator of A Year with Women, crowdsourced a list of essential films directed by women, I found the end result diverse and inspiring. Yet, it saddens me that only 7 movies made before 1970—and none made before 1935—got enough votes to make the list.

So, I asked myself, “What have I done to spread the word about women who shaped early and classic cinema?”

Not enough, I concluded. Nowhere near enough.

After I pledged to watch 52 films by women this year (sign up here!), I offered to give classic film recommendations to other people on Twitter doing the challenge. I was overwhelmed—and overjoyed—by the interest I got in response.

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I’ve decided to post this resource, even in its current bare-bones form, as a starting point for those who want to discover women’s contributions to cinema from 1896 to 1966. To create a space for today’s women filmmakers, we have to recognize the female filmmakers of yesteryear, discuss their movies, and break down the persistent myth of “directors were always men.”

This list of over 60 films includes elegant melodramas, trashy exploitation flicks, avant-garde shorts, sophisticated comedies, groundbreaking documentaries, and gritty films noirs. There has never been only one “kind” of movie directed by women. Remember: with every film you watch, you’re reclaiming a bit of movie history and eroding a boys-only narrative that’s stood unquestioned for way too long.

A few disclaimers and caveats:

  • I have not seen all of these films—but I plan to! As I watch or rewatch them this year, I’ll probably add a few lines about each film. I look forward to discovering many of these movies along with all of you!
  • As far as I know, all films to which I’ve directly linked were made available legally. (If you own the rights to any of the films I’ve featured and want them removed from this list, please contact me; I will voluntarily take them down.)
  • Some of the films without direct links may not be available legally. I leave the search to you. I, ahem, suspect that you can find some of these films online without too much trouble. I consider that a last resort, though. If a film has a legit release, you should buy it. But if copyright owners want us to pay for movies, they should damn well release those movies! It’s ridiculous when anonymous Internet uploaders care more about sharing film history than studios care about monetizing that content. (I’m looking at you, Universal/Comcast. Get with it.)
  • This is NOT intended to be an authoritative list of movies made by women. I’ve limited myself to movies that are available to watch online for free or to buy (digital or hard copy) in the United States. If I’ve overlooked a film that you think should be listed here, and it’s available in the U.S., please let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.
  • I do not necessarily endorse the content of these films. Some of them (like Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films) are morally repugnant to me. For better or for worse, they’re part of a larger body of work by women directors. Pretending that offensive films weren’t made would not only erase chapters of film history, but also deny viewers the opportunity to confront the evils of the past.
  • “Classic” is a difficult word to nail down. And, yes, 1966 is sort of an arbitrary cutoff. 1965 is a date that’s often mentioned as the end of classic Hollywood. Since this list includes foreign films, I went to 1966 because there were just too many amazing movies made by women in 1966 to cut it off before then.
  • You should also support recent films directed by women. History is important—but so is voting with your dollars to show the film industry that you want to watch movies directed by women now.

Thanks for reading the fine print. Now, here’s the list…

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The Cabbage Fairy – Alice Guy – 1896

Watch it on YouTube.

Felix Mayol Performs “Indiscreet Questions” – Alice Guy – 1906

Watch it on YouTube. (Note: Both the sound and the color are original. Alice Guy worked on many films that you could consider forerunners of today’s music videos.)

The Life, Birth, and Death of Christ – Alice Guy – 1906

Watch it on YouTube.

Falling Leaves – Alice Guy – 1912

Watch it on YouTube.

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Suspense – Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley – 1913

Watch it on YouTube.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial – Florence Turner – 1914

Watch it on YouTube.

Won in a Cupboard (a.k.a Won in a Closet) – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website. (Note: This is accompanied by audio commentary. You can mute the video and play some ragtime music on YouTube while you watch, if you’d like.)

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Mabel’s Strange Predicament – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on YouTube.

Caught in a Cabaret – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on YouTube. (Sorry, I wish I could find better quality…)

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Assunta Spina – Francesca Bertini and Gustavo Serena – 1915

Available on DVD from Kino.

Hypocrites – Lois Weber – 1915

You can buy it to stream on Amazon. It’s also available on a Kino DVD.

Eleanor’s Catch – Cleo Madison – 1916

Available on the same Kino DVD as Weber’s Hypocrites.

The Ocean Waif – Alice Guy – 1916

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription. It’s also available on a Kino DVD.

’49-’17 – Ruth Ann Baldwin – 1917

Available on the same Kino DVD as Guy’s The Ocean Waif. You can also stream it on Fandor.

Something New – Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle – 1920

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

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The Love Light – Frances Marion – 1921

Watch for free at the Internet Archive.

The Blot – Lois Weber – 1921

Available on DVD from Grapevine Video and The Milestone Collection.

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The Grub Stake – Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle – 1923

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

The Smiling Madame Beudet – Germaine Dulac – 1923

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed – Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch – 1926

Available on DVD from The Milestone Cinematheque.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty – Esfir Shub – 1927

Available to stream on Fandor with a subscription.

Suggested for this list by Keefe Murphy.

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Get Your Man – Dorothy Arzner – 1927

Ahem… let’s just say you’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

L’invitation au voyage – Germaine Dulac – 1927

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Women of Ryazan – Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov – 1927

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Sensation Seekers – Lois Weber – 1927

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

The Seashell and the Clergyman – Germaine Dulac – 1928

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Linda – Dorothy Davenport – 1929

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

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The Wild Party – Dorothy Arzner – 1929

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

And Quiet Flows the Don – Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov – 1930

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Anybody’s Woman – Dorothy Arzner – 1930

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

Sarah and Son – Dorothy Arzner – 1930

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

Honor Among Lovers – Dorothy Arzner – 1931

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Mädchen in Uniform – Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich – 1931

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Merrily We Go to Hell – Dorothy Arzner – 1932

Available on DVD from the Universal Vault Series.

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The Blue Light – Leni Riefenstahl – 1932

Available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.

Broken Shoes – Margarita Barskaja – 1933

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Eric of The Indie Handbook.

Sucker Money – Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer – 1933

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Christopher Strong – Dorothy Arzner – 1933

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Finishing School – Wanda Tuchock and George Nichols Jr. – 1934

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

The Woman Condemned – Dorothy Davenport – 1934

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

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The Road to Ruin – Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer – 1934

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Triumph of the Will – Leni Riefenstahl – 1935

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Synapse Films.

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The Bride Wore Red – Dorothy Arzner – 1937

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Olympia Part 1: Festival of the Nations and Olympia Part 2: Festival of Beauty – Leni Riefenstahl – 1938

Available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.

Dance, Girl, Dance – Dorothy Arzner – 1940

Available to buy for streaming on Amazon or as a DVD from Turner Home Entertainment.

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Meshes of the Afternoon – Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid – 1943

Watch it on YouTube.

The Private Life of a Cat – Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid – 1943

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

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Blue Scar – Jill Craigie – 1948

You can watch it on free-classic-movies.com.

Gigi – Jacquline Audry – 1949

Available as an extra on the Blu-Ray of Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi.

Never Fear (a.k.a. Young Lovers) – Ida Lupino – 1949

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Outrage – Ida Lupino – 1950

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Olivia – Jacqueline Audrey – 1951

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Hard, Fast, and Beautiful – Ida Lupino – 1952

Available on DVD from Warner Archive. You can also stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

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The Stranger Left No Card – Wendy Toye – 1952

Watch it on YouTube. Note: The Stranger Left No Card won for best short fictional film at Cannes in 1953.

The Hitch-Hiker – Ida Lupino – 1953

Watch it on YouTube.

The Bigamist – Ida Lupino – 1953

Watch it on YouTube.

Huis Clos – Jacquline Audry – 1954

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Simon and Laura – Muriel Box – 1955

Available on DVD from VCI Entertainment.

La Pointe Courte – Agnès Varda – 1955

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

Three Cases of Murder – Wendy Toye, David Eady, and George Moore O’Ferrall – 1955

Watch instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber.

Eyewitness – Muriel Box – 1956

Available on DVD from VCI Home Video.

Con la vida hicieron fuego – Ana Mariscal – 1957

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Bucketofcake.

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The Truth About Women – Muriel Box –1957

You can watch it on free-classic-movies.com.

The Very Eye of Night – Maya Deren – 1958

Watch it on dailymotion.

Le Secret du chevalier d’Éon – Jacqueline Audry – 1959

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Nude on the Moon – Doris Wishman and Raymond Phelan – 1961

Available to download at the Internet Archive.

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Cleo from 5 to 7 – Agnès Varda – 1962

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

The House Is Black – Forugh Farrokhzad – 1962

Watch it on YouTube.

We Joined the Navy – Wendy Toye – 1962

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

El camino – Ana Mariscal – 1963

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Bucketofcake.

Bad Girls Go to Hell – Doris Wishman – 1965

Available to stream on Fandor.

Le Bonheur – Agnès Varda – 1965

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

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Blood Bath – Stephanie Rothman and Jack Hill– 1966

Available on DVD from MGM.

Suggested for this list by Directed by Women.

Daisies – Vera Chytilová – 1966

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available as in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

The Trouble with Angels – Ida Lupino – 1966

Available to buy for streaming on Amazon or as a DVD from Columbia/Tri-Star.

Wings – Larisa Sheptiko – 1966

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

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Feel free to make suggestions or let me know which films you’ve enjoyed most!