100 Reasons to Love Olivia de Havilland (Part I)

olivia_candidThis is the age of Olivia de Havilland. We’re just lucky to be living in it. Today, on July 1, 2016, she turns 100. To celebrate her talent, her courage, and her breathtakingly diverse legacy of screen performances, I embarked on an “Oliviathon” and vowed to watch or rewatch all of her films by the end of this month.

To mark her centennial, I’ve decided to list 100 reasons why I admire, worship, and adore her—starting with with 50 today.

What about the other 50? Just wait until I’ve watched my way through her filmography! Some of my reasons are frivolous, some have altered cinema history. I offer them here in no particular order. So please join me in giving thanks for a great actress and an inspiring woman.

1. She took on the studio system—and won her fellow actors greater rights and freedoms. Golden Age Hollywood wasn’t so golden for actors under contract to studios. If they chose not to do assigned roles, they could be put on suspension… and the term of that suspension would be added onto their existing contracts. Olivia de Havilland put her career on the line to fight her battle against studios that treated their artists like property.

verydoneAfter completing a disappointing melodrama called Devotion, Olivia thought she was finished with her constraining Warner Brothers contract. Jack Warner, however, insisted that the time she’d spent on suspension still counted against her. With lawyer Martin Gang, Olivia decided to take Warner Brothers to court for a practice that she considered unlawful. If she lost, she’d never work in Hollywood again.

The battle was a long an arduous one, as expertly described by the Self-Styled Siren. But Olivia’s gamble paid off. She emerged victorious—to seek out the complex roles she’s yearned for. Her colleagues could also revel in their new-found freedom. As Olivia recalls, “No one thought I would win, but after I did, flowers, letters and telegrams arrived from my fellow actors. This was wonderfully rewarding.”

You know how stars today can choose their roles carefully and shape their careers? Well, that’s what de Havilland’s guts and brains earned for them back in the 1940s. As Bette Davis said, “Every actor in the business owes a debt of gratitude to Olivia de Havilland for taking us out of bondage.”

2. She can swear like a trucker if the occasion calls for it, as her bloopers indicate. Each year Warner Brothers created a humorous reel of “breakdowns” or “blow-ups” featuring snippets of stars flubbing their lines or on-set mishaps. There aren’t many clips of Olivia in these reels (I’m guessing because she knew her lines word-perfect most of the time). But there are a few choice moments, like this outtake from In This Our Life.

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She seemed to have more blow-ups than usual in 1946—no doubt because she loathed Devotion, the silly, colorless costume melodrama that Warner assigned her. See if you can detect the note of hostility in her bloopers. This is unvarnished footage of a woman about to rebel, a lady feeling the weight of the last straw before she decided to sue her employers.

3. She spent much of WWII visiting military hospitals, including psychiatric wards. A Major Richardson asked her to talk to his patients, feeling that her sensitivity and kindness could “do some good” for men under severe pressure and shock from army conditions.

I’ll let her tell it in her own words…

Olivia toured hospitals from Alaska to Fiji on such a demanding schedule that she contracted pneumonia and almost died. So, the next time you watch one of her films and she’s risking her life to stay true to her values or struggling to hold her life together as the world falls apart around her, remember: her life was no less impressive, no less courageous.

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Olivia with Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Arthur J. Dodd at the Naval Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska, 1944.

4. Her wry winking motif in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). Whenever she winks, it fills me with such glee and hope for humanity that I want to hug the nearest object.

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5. She has a splendid sense of humor—especially about herself. Her witty memoir Every Frenchman Has One is as jam-packed with bon mots as the Étoile is jam-packed with lunatic drivers. Or, in her words…

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She begins the book by assuring the reader that she is not dead (“I’m not at all sure that you know that I’m alive…”). She moves on to cheerfully recount her often-mortifying adventures with the French language and culture, like that time she announced that French sailors are expensive (matelot, which means sailor, and matelas, which means mattress, sound awfully alike). Or the memory of being told that her accent was “légèrement Yugoslav.” Negotiating the minefield of niceties that is a French dinner party, she “really did want to die” after a series of faux pas involving a countess and an enormous brandy snifter.

My favorite anecdote involves her taking her young son to a French-dubbed screening of Robin Hood on the Champs Elysées. Afterwards, little Benjamin exclaimed, “Mamma, you spoke better French then than you do now!”

6. She gave us the best-ever onscreen depiction of a rabid fangirl in It’s Love I’m After (1937), a.k.a. the best screwball comedy you may have never heard of. Amusingly enough, Leslie Howard plays the matinee idol that Olivia’s character is stuck on, which gives this movie a delightful air of retrospective irony. In any case, it’s startlingly funny to watch future-Melanie tackle future-Ashley like this.

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7. Her Withering Glare of Righteous Judgement from In This Our Life (1942). I feel like an ant under a magnifying glass just looking at these screencaps. Phew.

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8. She was utterly unfazed by Hollywood’s bevy of man candy, at least according to this 1937 anecdote from Movie Classic magazine about Olivia and Robert Taylor after a radio performance. (Look, I know that fan mag articles should be taken with a grain of salt, but I do believe this one. And I sure want to believe it.)

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9. Her epic chowing-down-on-a-chicken-wing scene in Robin Hood (1938).
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10. Her astonishing range, from the fluffiest comedies to the grittiest dramas, from contemporary problem pictures to high adventures in faraway lands. I’d argue that her gifts as a comedienne are especially underrated. Had she not been one of the greatest dramatic actresses of her time, I have no doubt that she could’ve been a screwball comedy queen. Even when Olivia hated a role, she made something of it, stretching herself, learning, growing.

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11. Her laugh. A strange, coy, undeniably merry laugh. The kind of exquisite laugh that makes you finally understand what poets are talking about when they throw around words like “silvery” and “sonorous” to describe the voices they adore. Some laughter brays, some laughter snarls, some chortles, some twitters. Olivia’s laughter sings and sparkles and tickles the ear. No wonder she’s gravitated towards the French language. Her ringing laughter sounds like pure joie de vivre.

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12. She can fling a Shakespearean insult with verve and panache. As attested by this monument to feminine fury in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the first film Olivia ever made (though not the first released)!

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13. She was no mere damsel in distress. Lest we forget, Arabella Bishop, her character in Captain Blood, repeatedly flouts convention to save Peter Blood from torture and death. In Robin Hood, Lady Marian risks her life to help Robin escape hanging and then to spy on wicked King John and his allies. While de Havilland didn’t write the scripts, she invested these characters (and her many 1930s and 1940s costume heroines) with an air of competence, intelligence, and courage and made their heroism utterly believable. She played her love interest roles not as shrieking innocents, but as brave, spirited women—worthy equals of the heroes who wooed them. I can’t say how much that meant to me as a little girl when I discovered her films.

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14. She once spent her spare time calculating a formula for converting Centigrade into Fahrenheit. As she explains in her memoir, Every Frenchmen Has One, de Havilland was flummoxed by French thermometers, which only added to the anxiety of nursing her son through a fever in a foreign land. Determined to help other mothers in the same situation, “I stayed in bed in my room for twenty-four hours straight with a clutch of pencils and a quire of paper…. And finally, triumphantly, I found a formula which would translate Centigrade into Fahrenheit.” Remember, now, this happened in the days before all human knowledge was accessible through smartphones. De Havilland’s formula was published in a letter to the NY Herald Tribune. While a few mansplainers reared their heads in response, she’s proud of her formula. As she should be.

15. Her chilling double performance as good and evil twins Ruth and Terry in The Dark Mirror (1946). This psychoanalytic noir gave Olivia the chance to play against type as a jealous, charismatic murderess who nearly succeeds in gaslighting her gentle, suggestible sister.

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What’s so uncanny about this Freudian thriller is that Olivia embodies two distinct characters with an identical appearance. We get to witness how different a friendly face can look when a malevolent personality lurks behind it. Ruth and Terry have recognizably different postures, voices, and mannerisms. Abetted by skillful camera trickery, The Dark Mirror opens the audience’s eyes to the subtle sorcery of Olivia’s craft, since we can see two of her creations share the frame.

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16. The adorable dance that her daffy heiress character is doing here in Four’s a Crowd (1938) to provide a screwball comedy distraction.

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17. Her raw, shattering, fearless, compassionate performance in The Snake Pit (1948).

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18. She means what she says. When de Havilland started making films, she asked James Cagney for advice on screen acting. His advice: Always mean what you say. You can hear that she took those words to heart. She is so grounded in her text. She says things with startling sincerity—startling because sincerity is not common.

19. Her magnificent I-came-to-slay face and pose in this 1930s publicity portrait. That’s almost too much fierce for a single image to contain.

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20. And lo! Olivia’s I-came-to-slay face is still with us today. Because she’s still slaying. In vintage Dior. (Photo by Brian Adams for The Evening Standard.)

21. She was lobbying for strong female protagonists decades before it was cool to do so. While she made the most of her “love interest” roles, she didn’t want to keep on playing guests in other people’s stories (cough, cough, men’s stories, cough, cough) for the rest of her life. As she told the Academy of Achievement, “The life of the love interest is really pretty boring…. I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things.”

22. That scene between Melanie and Belle Watling in the carriage in Gone with the Wind (1939). De Havilland’s whole performance is flawless, filling the movie with an almost otherworldly grace. But, if I had to choose only one scene to show her artistry, this quiet scene in a film of bombast astonishes me much more than the burning of Atlanta. Her Melanie is one of those rare people with the intelligence and humility to understand that the smartest thing we human beings can do is to be kind to each other. Melanie knows that survival depends not only on Scarlett values—like ambition and chutzpa—but also on love and caring. Scarlett values can keep you from dying when your world’s gone to hell, but Melanie values will keep you truly alive.

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23. The Heiress: it was her idea to make the story into a film, she selected the director, and she delivered a virtuoso dramatic performance that runs the gamut from devastated vulnerability to commanding authority, a performance that shows what she was fighting for all those long years. The freedom to make great art and to realize a vision of her own.

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24. This clip of her dishing on her silent crush on Errol Flynn. (Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go build a time machine so I can slap Errol upside his head. “Dude, a snake? Seriously? Seek help!”)

25. The fact that she didn’t let Errol Flynn (and his ridiculously gorgeous face) derail her life plans. Respect. That must’ve taken superhuman discipline.

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A pretty accurate depiction of Errol and Olivia’s relationship.

26. Her jaw-droppingly determined and terrifying build-up and climactic flip-out in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Few people have out-Bette-Davised Bette Davis in a Bette Davis movie, but I think Olivia has in this instance.

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27. The vivid expressions that she lavished even on a silly spread in a 1937 issue of Modern Screen magazine. She’s supposed to be writing “a letter to her beau,” the sort of things that fan mags of the 1930s routinely cooked up. But, damn, look at these faces. Olivia never does things by halves. You’d think she was auditioning for Juliet. Or Lady MacBeth. Or Ophelia. Or all three at once.

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28. Her wrenching, poignant, and utterly convincing Oscar-winning transformation—in mind, body, and spirit—from dreamy young woman to embittered matron in To Each His Own (1946).

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29.  Her gift for conjuring the essence of a character through her voice alone—an ability which served her well on the radio. Listen to the brittle, nervous tones she brings to this 1944 Lux Radio Theater version of Suspicion.

(I wonder what sister Joan would have thought. And that’s is the only oblique reference I will be making to the de Havilland-Fontaine feud in this piece, thankyouverymuch.) For more excellent de Havilland radio performances, I refer you to this wonderful post on Once Upon a Screen.

30. This triumphant portrait, which seems to say, “Yes, I’ve got two Oscars, I’ve outlived all the haters, and I look fabulous.” (Photo by Philippe Biancotto for Madame Figaro.)

31. Her exquisitely vulnerable performance in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), which needs a DVD release as soon as possible. As the naïve American who marries a European gigolo in Mexico—unaware that he’s just looking to cross the border—de Havilland exudes wonder, tenderness, and innocent sensuality. The story’s redemptive arc works because you believe that something about this shy little schoolteacher can free a world-class operator (Charles Boyer, never better) from his hardened cynicism. She embodies the best of small-town America, in all its starry-eyed kindness and cluelessness. Really, see this movie if you get the chance.

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32. This pout from Call It a Day (1935).

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33. Just look at her cuddling with these cats.

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And, hey, I’m all for equal-opportunity snuggling. Here’s Olivia with a puppy on the set of Hold Back the Dawn.

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34. Based on these publicity stills for Captain Blood, she totally should’ve had her own swashbuckler movie where she wore boots and a cutlass and took down the patriarchy. (Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

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35. She illuminates even the clunkiest, dullest films with passion and pathos. Take Anthony Adverse (1936). Now, I love Fredric March, but he looks bored to his knee breeches and buckle shoes by this unwieldy literary adaptation. Claude Rains does his best wicked Claude Rains, and Gale Sondergaard does her best wicked Gale Sondergaard. It’s Olivia who delivers the film’s most memorable tearjerking moment (in my opinion) with her devastating, “Goodbye, Anthony…” whispered from the stage of a Paris opera house.

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36. This early 1940s home movie footage of her acting goofy in a pool with John Huston. Wow.

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37. She can rock a corset and an eyepatch simultaneously, as this still from That Lady (1955) shows.

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38. She makes good girls so interesting. In many of Olivia’s best movies, she’s “stuck” with the part that would make many actresses cringe: the nice sister, the quiet daughter, the dutiful friend. And she tackled those parts while going up against stars playing flashier (ostensibly meatier) roles—nymphomaniacs, shysters, shut-ins, sociopathic Southern belles. Many actors would be grateful merely to register as a blip on the screen against such a gallery of eccentrics.

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Olivia, however, never took good girls for granted. She underpinned their goodness with a rich psychological tapestry, woven in a unique pattern for each one. Roy in In This Our Life is a very different woman from Melanie in Gone with the Wind and from Emmy in Hold Back the Dawn—though they share many qualities and face similar situations.

Goodness never equates to dullness for Olivia, as for many other actresses. We often assume that a girl is good because she lacks imagination, because it never occurred to her to be bad. She brought a sense of interiority, of free will to her good-girl parts. They choose their course in life—for reasons specific to their characters—often more consciously and clear-sightedly than their sinful sisters/friends/rivals/relatives. And that’s why de Havilland’s good girls remain fascinating and complex—and tend to eclipse the flashier characters around them.

39. The seductive, enigmatic allure she channels in My Cousin Rachel (1952).

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40. She won over Bette Davis as a friend. And that was not an easy thing to do. As de Havilland says, “The first time I saw Bette Davis she scared the daylights out of me.” I’ll let these two legendary pals tell the story for themselves…

41. Her luminous beauty in Technicolor. Yes, that sounds shallow, but it takes a hell of a lot of poise and grit to seem serene and glamorous under blindingly bright and swelteringly hot lights!

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42. Her intrepid strength in the little-known made-for-TV movie The Screaming Woman (1972). I watched this on YouTube while going on a 1970s thriller binge (as one does) and hardly strayed from the edge of my seat until the denouement. Olivia’s portrayal of an older woman who solves a grisly mystery while questioning her own sanity not only provides gripping entertainment, but also sends a poignant message about society’s treatment of its elders.

43. She immersed herself in a foreign culture—and advises her fellow Americans to do likewise. 

44. Her searing take on Lady in a Cage (1962): “a depiction of the aimless violence of our era.”

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45. How absolutely believable Olivia makes it that Melanie got up from her sickbed, grabbed a saber, and toddled out, ready to hack a would-be-thief-and-rapist Union deserter to pieces. Look at the stone-cold conviction on her face. Sure, she’s sweet and gentle—BUT DO NOT MESS AROUND WITH HER FAMILY OR FRIENDS. Even Scarlett’s all, “Wow, I majorly underestimated how badly Melanie could mess somebody up.”

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46. She injects boundless enthusiasm into Alibi Ike (1935), her first released film. I can’t think of many kind things to say about Alibi Ike as a whole, except that it’s mercifully short. Olivia, by her own admission, “detested” making it. But you’d never know that from the sweet, spunky dream girl she incarnates on the screen. She almost makes this uneven baseball romp bearable. Almost.

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47. She used her art and talent in the service of a good cause, hoping that The Snake Pit would help to lessen the stigma of mental illness. As she told Time magazine, “We are all victims of life, you see, and these people are the ones who have been the hardest pressed.”

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48. This enchanting moment from Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), her first movie in Technicolor.

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49. Her ferocious intensity in a screen test for Max Reinhardt’s unproduced film project, Danton. She was just 19, but the maturity and conviction of her acting blows me away. Warner Brothers had a powerhouse dramatic actress on their hands. They didn’t know it. Thankfully, Olivia did.

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(You can watch this stunning clip as a supplement on the DVD release of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

50. Having achieved her centennial, de Havilland is still looking forward. In the most recent issue of TCM’s Now Playing guide, Robert Osborn reveals that Livvie announced, “I’ve changed my goal. I’ve decided I want to live to at least 110.

Long may you reign, Queen. Long may you reign.

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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.

Some Pre-Code Candy Hearts for All You Sinners

Heartened (pun intended) by the response to yesterday’s film noir valentines, I decided to spend a few hours creating some pre-Code options for you lovebirds—this time in the form of candy “conversation hearts.”

I had too much fun making these. So much fun, in fact, that I’m worried it was illegal in some way. And, if Joseph Breen had anything to say about it, it probably would be…

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10 Christmas Films Made Over 100 Years Ago (That You Can Watch for Free)

christmas_accidentThe Christmas season gives us permission to delight in the past. 

We sings old songs and zestfully revive the traditions of bygone years. Even the most black-and-white-phobic individuals in our midst might resist the urge to change the channel when a holiday-themed classic movie comes on TV.

But how many of us celebrate by revisiting the earliest Christmas films, over 100 years old?

I invite you to join me for a very YouTube Yuletide by checking out these 10 historical treasures. Not only do they radiate nostalgia and (for the most part) good cheer, but they also bear witness to the rapid development of cinema during its first two decades of existence.

Please note that many of these films have no musical score. I recommend putting on your favorite Christmas CD (you know, provided it’s not holiday death metal or anything like that) while you watch.

Santa Claus – George Albert Smith – 1898


Just three years after the Lumière brothers shot their first movies, Santa Claus made his screen debut in this vignette by the innovative British filmmaker George Albert Smith.

Smith explored cinema’s ability to represent points-of-view and show spatial relations. More important, he used these techniques to recreate experiences, play on viewers’ emotions, and tell stories.

In Santa Claus, the magic of Christmas (combined with movie magic) prompts a vision of St. Nick arriving on a rooftop and climbing into the chimney. Although the film takes place in the bedroom of two small children, we see Santa through a kind of enchanted bubble: a clever double exposure. Then the bubble disappears as Santa enters through the fireplace in an early example of a match-on-action, showing the rough continuity of time and space.

Not bad for a film that lasts little longer than a minute!

Rêve de Noël – Georges Méliès – 1900


Savor some Belle Époque celluloid whimsy as only Méliès could do it. On Christmas Eve, a child dreams of Santa’s merry workshop, which seems to house a surprising number of 1900s Parisian music hall dancers… Meanwhile, the world at large prepares for the holiday in snowy streets, cheerful churches, and opulent feasting halls.

Comparatively low on early special effects or editing tricks, this film simply sets a jolly mood. With its eccentric Elizabethan-meets-19th-century set design and its gaggle of snow fairies dancing, Rêve de Noel is like a stack of Victorian Christmas postcards coming to life. Bask in the visual equivalent of hot buttered rum.

Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost – Walter R. Booth – 1901


Only part of the first movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol survives. Fortunately, there’s enough left to appreciate this ambitious film and imagine what the whole would’ve been like.

Walter R. Booth managed to condense all major plot points down to a few minutes. Even more impressive, he recreated the story’s supernatural elements by using practically the entire arsenal of cinematic language available in 1901. And, banging his head against those limitations, Booth invented the wipe transition.

Best remembered for his playful, special effects-loaded short films, Booth began as a porcelain painter and dabbled in magic. You can see how Booth applied his expertise from those fields to Scrooge. The miniature painter’s attention to detail reveals itself in the set decoration with touches like the “God Bless Us Every One” sign in the Crachit home. Meanwhile, Booth the illusionist gives us see-though spirits, superimposed glimpses of the past, and a dizzying flight through time and space.

Bonus film: watch this later, more elaborate adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1910), a Thomas Edison production directed by J. Searle Dawley.

The Little Match Seller – James Williamson – 1902


In case you’re overdosing on joy, it’s time for Hans Christian Andersen’s tear-jerking tale of child labor and hypothermic hallucinations!

Once again, the supernatural overtones of a popular Christmas story gave an early filmmaker the chance to experiment with special effects and integrate them into a dramatic context. Williamson uses double exposures to portray the little match girl’s visions of warmth as well as her ascent into heaven.

Like Scrooge, Or Marley’s Ghost, this adaptation blurs the line between the era’s “trick films” (and what Gunning called the cinema of attraction) and emerging narrative cinema.

The Parish Priest’s Christmas – Alice Guy – 1906


Shining with simple faith, this moving work by Alice Guy, the world’s first woman director, captures a more pious side of Christmas.

A local priest attempts to buy a statue to complete the crèche, or Nativity scene, in his church. Unfortunately, the priest and his humble flock lack the funds to purchase even the smallest stand-in for baby Jesus. But lo! At mass, beautiful angels appear and reward the congregation’s devotion by bestowing an effigy of Jesus to fill the cradle.

In The Parish Priest’s Christmas, Alice Guy deploys special effects for maximum dramatic impact. The film’s deliberate pace and the naturalistic interactions between characters draw the audience into the priest’s dilemma. This realistic atmosphere makes the heavenly vision at the end (achieved through hidden cuts) even more striking and poignant.

A Trap for Santa Claus – D.W. Griffith – 1909


Dad’s drunk, unemployed, and arguing with mom. Now it feels like Christmas! Anticipating the bleakness of the Pottersville scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life, this socially-conscious Biograph film reminds us that Christmas doesn’t exist for those in dire poverty.

A despairing father abandons his indigent wife and children. On the verge of starvation, his wife inherits a small fortune and moves into a lavish home in time for Christmas Eve. When her children set a trap to catch Santa Claus, little do they know that they’ll end up bringing their father—now turned a burglar—back into their lives. All we need is a Santa suit and the family reunion will be complete…

D.W. Griffith had only been directing films for about a year when he made this short holiday melodrama, which might be why it stands out as particularly, well, melodramatic. The acting harkens back to the 19th century stage, but please don’t judge all silent movies (or Griffith’s) based on this one.

The Night Before Christmas – Edwin S. Porter – 1905


Edwin S. Porter, a pioneer of narrative logic in cinema and director of The Great Train Robbery (1903), evokes the snowbound wonder of Clement Clarke Moore’s beloved poem. And, as in The Great Train Robbery, Porter ends the film with a fourth-wall-breaking shot (not unusual in early movies) as Santa Claus acknowledges the spectators and wishes them a merry Christmas.

My favorite entry on this list, The Night Before Christmas involved a herd of apparently real reindeer, as well as an adorable model version to show their “flight” from the North Pole. You can see the whole iconography of Christmas as we know it today—the jolly red suit, the list that Santa’s checking twice, and the magical sleigh. Intertitles with verses lifted straight from Moore’s poem contribute to the film’s charm.

A Christmas Accident – Harold M. Shaw – 1912


In the time-honored tradition of nasty-people-redeemed-by-holiday-zeal stories comes this short but sweet movie from Edison Studios. Eschewing miracles and special effects, A Christmas Accident provides a tantalizing glimpse into the holiday celebrations of ordinary, working-class people shortly after the turn of the century.

Prosperous, crotchety old coot Mr. Gilton and his long-suffering wife live right next door to the harmonious Bilton family. After months of enduring their neighbor’s bad temper, the Biltons are settling down for their modest Christmas Eve festivities.

“Santa Claus is poor this year,” says Mr. Bilton, explaining to his children why they’re not getting a turkey. But what to their wondering eyes should appear? Why, Mr. Gilton, blown by a snowstorm right into their home—with a turkey under his arm. Do I smell reconciliation… and stuffing?

The Insects’ ChristmasVladislav Starevich – 1913


Vladislav Starevich. Now there’s a name even film geeks don’t mention much—but they should. This enthusiastic amateur entomologist produced some of the most creative and elaborate early examples of stop-motion animation.

In his surreal works, anthropomorphic insects often move around in a world like our own. They go to the movies, conduct secret love affairs, and, yes, even celebrate Christmas. Heartwarming or horrifying? I’ll let you be the judge.

Bonus film: for more unusual holiday entertainment courtesy of our friend Vladislav, watch his live-action film The Night Before Christmas (1913), based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, not the quaint poem by Clement Clarke Moore.

The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus – Charles M. Seay – 1914


In 1914, comical amateur sleuth Octavius bumbled through a series of short one-reel films produced by Thomas Edison. In the final series installment, our hapless hero shows up at a party to dress as Santa for his friend’s children. Needless to say, holiday mayhem ensues.

No sooner does Octavius don the bushy white beard and red suit then he gets conked on the noggin by a burglar. Dressed up in a different Santa suit, the villain steals the children’s gifts from under the tree and flees with Octavius in hot pursuit.

Of course, all this improbable exposition merely serves as an excuse to show two men in Santa costumes chasing after each other and brawling. Fortunately, as the intertitles tell us, “Octavius never fails.” The detective ends up returning the Christmas presents and gets to canoodle behind a curtain with a pretty girl while some weirdly voyeuristic children watch. (And a merry Christmas to you, too, Mr. Edison…)

Though clearly filmed on a set, this movie tenderly documents the customs of a middle class Christmas on the brink of WWI. Plus, it started the Santa suit mix-up plot device that seasonal comedies have been recycling ever since.

Have a very cinephile Christmas, everyone!

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore: The Noirish Brilliance of Lauren Bacall

stillIt was hard to believe she had to ask for a match. With those molten eyes, she gave the impression of a woman who didn’t need anybody’s help to ignite.

Although she made her first movie, To Have and Have Not, at age 19, Bacall didn’t seem to have an ingénue bone in her body. In fact, petrified of the camera, she had to clamp her chin against her shoulder to avoid visibly trembling—and she still exuded maturity and nonchalance.

That famous voice of hers sounded indifferent, bored even, as if she’d burst fully formed from a pulp writer’s head, already fluent in the laconic rhythms of noir dialogue. At Howard Hawks’s urging, she had actually trained herself to talk like that by reading the colossal epic The Robe to herself in a low, husky voice.

The more you listen to her, the more you hear the nuances of desire, humor, fear, and anger, like snippets of a conversation overhead from across a smoke-filled room.

Acting styles can become dated quickly, but Bacall’s best performances remain as subtle and exciting as I imagine they were back in Hollywood’s Golden Age. She’s a puzzle that audiences, as well as her love interests, have a good time trying to figure out. True, she had Hawks’s coaching in the beginning, but the talent and the brains were there. She was a natural-born film actor, the kind that doesn’t let the viewer realize she’s acting.

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In the noirish roles for which she is best remembered, Bacall projected her own brand of toughness, distinct from the established paradigms of Crawford’s masochistic bitterness and Stanwyck’s lethal hardness. Instead, she incarnated the perfect feminine counterpart to the hardboiled integrity of protagonists like Philip Marlowe.

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Slim in To Have and Have Not can take a slap without flinching. Vivian in The Big Sleep can outwit a vicious gunman at a moment’s notice. Irene in Dark Passage can flirt her way through a police checkpoint with a convict in the backseat of her car. They each pitched an unspoken dare to the world: “You think I’m bluffing? Watch how far I can go.” But whatever made these women so tough left their souls intact. With a spark of unsentimental optimism, they muffled their feelings to survive, but never lost their capacity to feel.

Bacall offered us the joy of a less fatale femme, a dangerous dame who could still believably deliver a happy ending.

vlcsnap-2014-08-12-22h11m42s177Consider her celebrated “whistle” scene. It’s easy to forget that the scene is really the third scene in a row of just Bogie and Bacall talking in hotel rooms, their characters hesitantly sussing each other out. About eight minutes of such back-and-forth between two other actors might drag in pace. With Bogie and Bacall, it’s so satisfying I want to reach for a cigarette when it’s over. And I don’t even smoke.

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No wonder a cartoon short of the era, “Bacall to Arms”, lovingly parodied the onscreen sizzle of her debut. As she saunters across a room, an animated trail of flames spurts up from her footprints.

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Now, To Have and Have Not doesn’t count as a film noir in my book, but its key relationship scenes undeniably channel a noirish vibe with the low-key lighting, the shuttered windows, and the characters’ ambiguous morals. And Bogie fans then as well as now would have recognized his line to Slim, “You’re good. You’re awful good”, as a clear echo of Sam Spade’s mocking admiration of Brigid’s shtick in The Maltese Falcon.

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However, the chemistry in To Have and Have Not promises a more auspicious ending for Slim and Steve than for your typical noir couple. In By Myself, Bacall remembered that, when her family went to see To Have and Have Not, they expressed their relief at the humor in her performance, which lightened some of the sexier elements in the script. Audiences could read the melancholy in her eyes when Steve leans in to examine her face—but they also could hear the note of knowing amusement in her voice as she switches to vampy innuendo. Because Bacall neither plays the role entirely straight, nor burlesques it, she maintains a reassuring aura of decency. Bacall interprets Slim as a good bad girl, daring Steve to take a chance on her. Unsurprisingly, he does.

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The frisson of true love blesses To Have and Have Not with an eternal ability to cheer up its spectators (me, for one). Seriously, who doesn’t get a kick out of watching two of the most badass people ever make googly eyes at each other? In the final scene, Bacall wiggles off into the sunset, while even the extra sitting at the table closest to her can’t repress a facial expression that says, “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” As Bogie grabs her by the arm, Bacall smiles her only broad grin of the movie, the toughness slips away, and she looks, for the first time, like a teenager in love.

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The Big Sleep challenged Bacall with a more complex role. In contrast to Slim, Vivian Rutledge really is reclining on the razor’s edge, navigating a depraved world to protect her sister. Despite the crackle of her chemistry with Bogie, Bacall dials back the likability she displayed in her debut in favor of a high-hat condescension that masks longstanding worries. For example, keep an eye out for a split-second look of uppity pleasure when Marlowe asks, “They? Who’s they?” in their first scene together. It’s the face of a woman frantically trying to convince herself that she has the situation under control, that she can outwit or seduce any obstacle that crosses her path.

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Bacall emphasizes Vivian’s spoiled haughtiness, while hinting at the undercurrent of fear that drives her. This is a woman who refuses to admit that she’s in over her head almost until it’s too late. A woman who’ll chide a man with a loaded gun to prove how tough she is to Marlowe. In Chandler’s novel, none of the Sternwoods deserves redemption, but in the film, the whole clan pulls through. Both censorship and Howard Hawks’s worldview motivated these changes to the original, but it’s Bacall who makes us buy a conclusion that could’ve seemed too neat for a messy plot.

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The audience can detect two sides to Bacall’s Vivian: the conniving society brat and the wisecracking dame in distress. Something about the honest mirth of those long takes in Marlowe’s office suggest that the latter is probably the truest side. As she tempts him with a brace of horsey innuendos a few scenes later, Bacall doesn’t hide the fact that Vivian is manipulating Marlowe, but the gusto and wit with which she speaks her lines points to the real Vivian buried under so many lies.

vlcsnap-2014-08-13-18h38m00s208Ultimately, she proves her mettle by saving Marlowe’s life, leading the killer Canino astray. Her grace under pressure prompts even the jaded P.I. to admit, “I didn’t know they made ‘em like that anymore.” We get the idea that Vivian would always keep Marlowe guessing. Still, he might want to spend the rest of his days guessing about her.

vlcsnap-2014-08-13-19h17m32s124Directed by Delmer Daves, Dark Passage showcased Bacall’s talent for passing off improbable circumstances as natural and credible. Interacting with the first-person camera as though it were Bogie, her character helps a convicted killer, whom she’d never met before, elude the law when he escapes from prison. Who is she? Why is she helping this alleged murderer? Bacall adds to the suspense with her impassive determination, punctuated by discreet glints of anxiety.

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The romance that blossoms between Bacall and Bogie in Dark Passage would’ve struck the audience as inevitable by this point, and the pair wisely underplay the growing attachment between their characters. Caught in the gaze of the camera-as-Bogie, she occasionally thaws with an unguarded smile. Given her face, that’s enough. Once the camera is freed from its first-person mode, Bacall sustains the almost unbearable tension as she removes the bandages from Bogie’s mug, remodeled by plastic surgery.

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In another splendid scene, she rechristens Bogie’s character with an alias, obstinately attempting to focus on the new name instead of the reality that she might be saying goodbye forever. Of her four movies with Bogie, Dark Passage gets short shrift, so, if you haven’t done so already, watch it and be amazed.

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Bacall possessed a wide range. In Key Largo, though co-starred again with Bogie, she essayed an unusually demure, vulnerable character. Over the course of her career, she played everything from murderesses to abused wives to spunky gold-diggers. But she was at her most iconic as the good bad girl, the woman fit to accompany Bogie down the mean streets of noir as his equal.

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She convincingly portrayed women who lived by their own terms, fought their own battles, and only bared their emotions at the right time to the right man. For a generation of American women who’d done men’s jobs during WWII, Bacall’s performances suggested that toughness and willpower weren’t flaws or signs of ruthlessness, but virtues. In the noirish parts that made her a legend, she was a woman of substance: smart, mysterious, brave, and, above all, fun to watch. And she always will be.

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Isn’t It Romantic? Discussing Rom-Coms at #MTOS

sabrinakissFrom Girl Shy to Some Like It Hot to When Harry Met Sally, many of the most beloved and bankable films of all time fall under the fluid label of “romantic comedy.”

But does this genre get the respect it deserves? Or is it even a genre at all? I guess we’ll just have to tweet this one through…

In case you’ve never taken part in #MTOS, which stands for Movie Talk on Sunday, this weekly discussion brings together film lovers from around the world to chat on Twitter. The wide range of perspectives always makes this social media phenomenon a treat, so follow the hashtag and share your thoughts. I invite you to join in what promises to be a very cuddly, quirky, serendipitous discussion on Twitter this coming weekend, on August 17 at 8:00 p.m. GMT (or 4:00 p.m. EDT), and laugh about love again.

Allow me to pop the question(s)…

1. How do you feel about rom-coms in general? How often do you watch them?

2. The rom-com has a reputation as a “girly” or “feminine” genre. Discuss.

3. How do you define the conventions or characteristics of a rom-com? In other words, what do you expect to see in one?

4. Now, name a rom-com that intentionally *subverts* our expectations and does it well.

5. Okay, the big question—what, in your opinion, is the best romantic comedy of all time? Why?

6. What’s the worst rom-com you’ve ever seen? What was so awful about it?

7a. Who is the ultimate rom-com actor? Why?

7b. Name your favorite rom-com couple. What’s so special about them?

8. What, in your opinion, is the best “meet-cute” scene you’ve ever watched? What worked well about it?

9. Rom-com elements are often combined with other genres. What’s a successful example of this?

10. Some critics have predicted the end of the rom-com. Will it bounce back? Has it even declined? Or are we in for romcompocalypse?

An American (Diva) in Paris: Classic Movies at the Festival Paris Cinéma

pariscinemaI am very pleased to announce that I will be covering this year’s Festival Paris Cinéma as a member of the press. And you should know, as I wrote that, I was pinching myself to make sure this isn’t all some kind of very good dream.

Founded in 2003, the festival, which will take place between July 5 and 12 this year, primarily showcases contemporary international films of note. However, there’s plenty to attract those of us on the old movie beat.

The program celebrates cinema history with a series of Paris Cinéclassics: new restorations digitally projected on the big screen before they’re re-released in France.

The cinéclassics program eschews any unifying theme in favor of a memorably eclectic bunch of 16 movies, ranging from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) to Losey’s The Servant (1963) to Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973). Hitchcock, Preminger, and the Swedish director Bo Widerberg feature the most prominently among the selections bunnylakewith two films each. One of my all-time favorite thrillers, Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), made it onto the roster and I can’t wait to find out what new details I notice while watching it on the big screen.

I’m also eager to savor some lesser-known and hard-to-find films by French directors, such as Renoir’s Hollywood opus Swamp Water (1941), Allio’s dramedy La Vieille dame indigne (1964), and Benicheti’s documentary Le Cousin Jules (1973).

The Nouveau Latina, a beloved art house theater in the Marais, will present all of the cinéclassics, with one exception. The Louxor, a spectacular Neo-Egyptian movie palace that opened in 1921, will screen North by Northwest—known in France as La Mort aux Trousses, meaning roughly “Death at his Heels” or “Death on his Trail.” A bit more dramatic sounding, n’est-ce pas?

Speaking of translations, all of the non-Francophone cinéclassics will be shown in VOSF: version originale, sous-titres français. That is, in their original language, but with French subtitles. It’ll be interesting (and hopefully not too distracting) to size up the differences between the English dialogue and the onscreen translations.

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Beyond the cinéclassics, ParisCinéma’s 2014 line-up is particularly rich in old movie culture. Sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Paris, a series of 50 films at the Réflet Medicis theater, presented from July to December, will enable audiences to rediscover some of greatest female roles in cinema history. Coinciding with the festival, two showings of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour will honor Emmanuelle Riva’s hypnotic performance as a nameless actress unsettled by doomed love affairs both past and present.

busterSilent music lovers have a treat in store with the festival’s Musique et Cinéma series. Les Berges du Seine, a reclaimed stretch of the river’s Left Bank between the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, will host an open air movie theater. The general public can enjoy screenings of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Tabu (1931) and Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) under the stars free of admission.

Best of all, film preservation legend Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films will share an assortment of rare treasures from his collection while accompanying them on the piano. Although most of his picks will be a surprise, Bromberg has announced that he will screen something particularly special: a newly reconstructed version of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (1921), with added footage once thought to be lost forever.

The festival will close with a classic, too: Paris vu par…, a playful anthology film that preserved the look and feel of the city during the 1960s. Young producer Barbet Schroeder stoked the creativity of six directors—including such Nouvelle Vague vuparheavyweights as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer—by challenging them to capture the spirit of certain sections of Paris in a color 16mm short.

In a touch of reflexivity that the Nouvelle Vague boys would no doubt have appreciated, the film will be projected en plein air on the banks of the Seine—an elegant twist on Paris in movies and movies in Paris.

You can read more about ParisCinéma on its official website or follow the festival on Twitter for the latest news.

On a personal note, I’ll be in Paris for more than a month. So, in addition to my festival coverage, I hope to report on screenings at as many of the city’s historic venues and art house theaters as possible. Brace yourself for updates on my next cinematic adventure!