Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stark 'Legion'

“Black Legion” is an early Humphrey Bogart film that remains stark and knowing as it explores bigotry and mob rule.

This 1937 release has Bogart playing Frank Taylor, a factory work well-liked by his peers. When he loses out on a promotion to foreign-born Joe Dombrowski, who’s been going to night school to better himself, Frank is bitter and begins to direct his anger at Joe. One night on the radio, he hears discussion that “America is for Americans” and eventually gains admission into the Black Legion, a hooded, Ku Klux Klan-type group that promises to rid the world of types they deem threatening to the American way of living.

This taught, well-told story comes from Warner Brothers, a studio that wasn’t afraid to look at blue-collar life and tackle issues that were socially relevant during the 1930s. It’s not that other studios ignored such stories, but Warner Brothers did so on a regular basis. This time the issue is bigotry and white supremacy.

What works is how well the film is told, with story by Robert Lord and screenplay from Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines. It’s not as sensational as “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (thank goodness), although it can be a bit preachy toward the end. But it touches all of the right topics: the irony of this self-important group forcing members to call the leaders “sir,” eerily foreseeing a Hitler-led army of hate; the top level looking at how much money can be made from the Black Legion enterprise; the willing recruits who must profess their total devotion at gunpoint and whose hatred is essential at fueling the Legion’s success; and the ultimate pain inflicted not only on the victims but also on family members of both victims and Legion members.

If the story, which can be shocking and disturbing in its continued timeliness, falls off toward the end with its sermonizing, it’s all held together by Bogart’s strong performance. This was still early in his career. He’d scored a breakthrough hit the year before in “The Petrified Forest.” During these years between “Forest” and “The Maltese Falcon's” release in 1941, Bogart worked hard and developed his craft. It’s clear in “Legion” what a good actor he was becoming. Frank Taylor is a character the audience has to like in order to follow his descent into hatred. Bogart beautifully plays the conflict – the well-liked employee to the swagger of inclusive righteousness to self-loathing at what this has cost him. It’s great character work from a magnetic star, and it’s fascinating to watch him be so good this early in his career.

The solid supporting cast includes another Warners star, Ann Sheridan, early in her career. There’s also a mature musical score by an uncredited Bernhard Kaun.

“Black Legion” remains a potent film from a studio willing to play to its strengths. Warners was never as glossy as MGM or Paramount during this period, but the studio was no less important with films like this. Check it out, because "Legion" is as relevant with its take on hate crimes.

In addition, during this holiday season, check out "Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection," a 13-disc DVD set with 24 Bogart films from the 1930s and 1940s as well as “The Brothers Warner” documentary. It has plenty of commentaries and featurettes, and I like how the movies are also packaged as “a night at the movies” old-school style, complete with shorts and trailers.

All of the major titles from this period are included, from “Maltese Falcon” to “Casablanca” to “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to his films with wife Lauren Bacall. It makes a great gift for classic movie-lovers.

It also made me realize how many films of Bogart’s I haven’t seen. I’ll start working my way through them and perhaps in 2011 post several of them.

Warner Brothers Online

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Audrey of the Month

Audrey ... one of the things I'm thankful for this season.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

'Jungle' Fever

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from Stephen Jared, an actor and writer who had penned a new book called “Jack and the Jungle Lion.” He felt classic film lovers would be an ideal audience for his book and asked if I would consider reviewing/promoting it.

It sounded like a lot of fun so I accepted his offer. “Jack and the Jungle Lion” is the fictitious account of a Jack Hunter, wildly popular 1930s action movie star who finds himself caught in a real-life adventure where his on-screen machismo clashes with his off-screen persona, one that’s not nearly as brave.

As the book opens, “Action Jack” Hunter is living the movie-star life. He has a mansion, a faithful butler and a beautiful movie queen wife, Theda Lomond. But behind the champagne glasses and Tinseltown glamour is a loveless marriage in which Hunter upstages a tyrannical Lomond, and she’s none too pleased by this.

Jack is on his way to South America for his first on-location shoot. But the small plane goes down, along with Maxine Daniels, the film’s beautiful animal trainer; her young niece and nephew; and Clancy, the co-pilot. Together they must find their way out of the jungle, but not without battling one adventure after another as well as each other.

At 115 pages, “Jack and the Jungle Lion” is a slim book and is as light as a 1930s action film would be. Jared clearly is a lover of classic films, because he gets the setting, characters and breezy atmosphere right. In fact, I thought the book was too brief. For the first 40 pages, the plot charges ahead through the plot like a runaway train, and I wanted more time to savor the classic Hollywood world that Jared was re-creating and these characters before they were plunged into the jungle. In fact, it almost felt like reading a script or treatment than a novel.

In addition, the book’s situations didn’t surprise me as much as I would have liked. I know the point is to contrast the real situation in which Jack finds himself and the situations from his films, as Jack confronts the differences between reality and make-believe. I wish Jared had taken more chances.

But I’m being a classic movie snob with these criticisms, and I finally gave way to the book’s pleasures, because it really is a lot of fun. I’m not sure how many people could recreate this era with this much joy and devotion, and it’s clear that Jared has watched more than his share of classic action films and serials and is having fun writing this adventure.

In the end, Jack – a loveable goof -- learns his lessons and becomes stronger for it, and Max drops her defenses to see beyond Jack’s movie-star lifestyle. As for me, I hope Jared writes a sequel. “Jack and the Jungle Lion” whetted my appetite, like a good appetizer, and now that Jared has established his style, I’d love to see to him go wild with a full-out adventure.

To use one of Jared’s own lines, spoken by the studio chief, “Hit one out of the ballpark for us.”

Also, kudos to the retro cool cover design for the book by Paul Shipper and check out this video showing off the design:

"Jack and the Jungle Lion" cover art

To learn more about Stephen Jared (above), I asked him five questions and below are his replies.

1. Where did you get the idea for Jack and the Jungle Lion? At its core, the story is about a real character becoming like the fictional counterpart he had always hoped to be, and had always lived vicariously through. Consequently, not only does he find himself, he finds true love. Jack Hunter’s story parallels Joan Wilder’s story in Romancing the Stone. "Jack and the Jungle Lion" has been with me for many years. I did spend some time pushing the story in Hollywood and everyone told me it was great, but then said 18-year olds wouldn’t know what to make of the 1930s time period. It’s self-published because you can’t find this type of old-fashioned romantic adventure in bookstores. Funny—I always saw myself as someone who likes what’s popular. I like popcorn entertainment. But at some point it became clear that yesterday’s popcorn entertainment and today’s popcorn entertainment aren’t the same.

2. Do you have other tales in mind for its hero, Jack Hunter? Well, in the early 1940s Jack Hunter went to Shanghai. I’d love to tell that story. I intend to, but we’ll have to see how much interest there is in this Amazon adventure first. So far, it’s been very encouraging.

3. When did you first become a classic film lover? I grew up when Spielberg and Lucas were releasing their early films. In interviews, especially while promoting Indiana Jones, they kept referencing classic movies. I soon wanted to know everything there was to know about classic movies.

4. If you could play any role in a classic film, what would it be and why? I couldn’t possibly replace the work of any great star—nobody could. Look at Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant and you can see they have stories to tell before they open their mouths then they start talking and their story becomes more and more convincing. Back then, stars and studios worked together at creating these larger than life figures. As you and your readers know, in the old days they wanted you to believe they weren’t acting—that it was really who they were. I think those old films benefit from that. Today, it’s all about who’s available, and who’s affordable. It’s not about building a film around a particular talent. Casts are easily interchangeable today. Can you imagine a Marx Brothers film replacing Groucho with Bob Hope? It couldn’t be done. But today it can. So, when you ask about filling in the shoes of a classic Hollywood performer, I am not being at all humble in saying that the whole idea is preposterous.

That said—just to offer some insight into me—I’d answer the Henry Fonda role in "The Lady Eve." I certainly could not have done a better job than him in that, but I think it was a role I could have handled, given my nature, my look and acting abilities. Henry Fonda in other things, like "Once Upon a Time in the West," was way better than I ever could have been. In fact, if you play those two films back to back, you might be convinced Henry Fonda was an acting genius.

5. The crazy question: Between what performers do you want your Hollywood Walk of Fame star to be located and why? Between Douglas Fairbanks and Cary Grant. Watch their films and look at their faces—you see only exuberance and vitality, the pleasure of being alive. The fact that we get old and die never seems to register. It just doesn’t come into their thinking. I really like defiance of death. I’d love to be able to reach out from a heavily trampled sidewalk and grab a little of their immortality.

Stephen Jared's web site

Monday, November 8, 2010

'Flying' High

“Flying Down to Rio” is best known as the first film that paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but it’s also a daffy musical romp that has lots of fun despite the predictable plotting.

In fact, this is one of those rare films where plot really doesn’t matter. The film flies by in just under 90 minutes, was released in December 1933 and turned a profit for RKO.

In the film, Bandleader Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) sees the exotic Belinha (Dolores Del Rio) across the dance floor. It’s lust at first sight, so he charges over to meet her, much to the chagrin of his band, who knows what trouble this can create. Belinha clearly likes Roger, but they can’t fall in love in the first reel, so she toys with him while her matronly escort whisks her out of the ballroom and demands that she return home to Rio.

Roger announces to the band that he got them a gig in Rio. He manages to fly Belinha to Rio in cognito, which he reveals before plane trouble forces a landing on a deserted beach, which doesn’t lead to the romance he wants. He loses her yet is unaware that his gig is at a new hotel that her father owns.

Finally, Roger figures it all out, but there’s a catch: his friend Julio (Raul Roulien) is engaged to Belinha through an arranged marriage. Then there’s the syndicate that wants to buy the hotel and plots to keep it from opening early, which leads to one of the craziest musical numbers put on film during the 1930s.

“Flying Down to Rio” is a film where the leads need be nothing more than impossibly beautiful (above). Raymond at one point is shirtless and is amazingly buff even by today’s standards, although his blond hairline sometimes gets lost on his forehead, creating an odd sense at times that he only has hair on the back of his head. Del Rio is so breathtakingly gorgeous that it nearly makes you forget she’s a so-so actress. Her wardrobe consists of many outfits with large sleeves – so much so that I wondered how many closets she needed to hold dresses where the sleeves seem big enough to engulf a sea of small children.

As for Astaire and Rogers, I love them and cherish their films. This was only his second movie and his first substantial role on film as Fred Ayres, the secondary male lead. Rogers plays Honey, the wisecracking lead singer in the band, a role she got only because the actress originally cast, Dorothy Jordan, married executive producer Merian C. Cooper and decided to go on her honeymoon!

Honey opens the movie by singing “Music Makes Me” in a stunning see-through dress that somehow made it past censors (the wrath of the Hays Office would finally hit Hollywood full-force in 1934). Then Fred and Ginger engage in their only dance during the film – and not for long – in “The Carioca” number. They are fun, as is the song, but the musical number itself lumbers along with three different singers and way too much group dancing. Fred gets a brief solo number in the later half of the film, and an Astaire solo would become a staple of his films.

I read one book on RKO that claimed audiences were clamoring for more Astaire and Rogers after this film. That’s not true, considering their brief time together. It’s more likely that the often cash-strapped RKO was willing to give them a chance because of his talent, their chemistry together and that they were cheap! In fact, Astaire was once considered for the lead before it became a Dolores Del Rio vehicle, and Rogers nearly wasn’t cast at all. But the pairing worked. Although she wasn’t a star, she had been working her way up, and her wisecracking demeanor ended up giving her an advantage. She wasn’t just a blonde trying to make it. She had street smarts, intelligence and eventually the elegance to balance it out into a complete package – a perfect foil for the debonair Astaire. She brought movie experience and he brought musical and Broadway experience.

Anyway, back to the movie and that crazy finale. It’s a jaw-dropper – involving chorus girls and airplanes – that’s totally unrealistic, completely crazy and marvelous to watch. Whoever came up with that one must have been drunk. Regardless, it’s a fitting capper to the film, keeping in line with the film’s love of airplanes and incorporating the exotic locale.

Airplanes, by the way, held a special fascination during the 1920s that culminated with the frenzy surrounding Charles Lindbergh’s history solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 – right when sound was being introduced into films. This temporarily grounded films while filmmakers scrambled to improve the technology that would address such issues as limited mic placement options that kept films stagy. Lindbergh’s popularity was still high six years later, and adding planes to sound film would intrigue audiences.

Also, in the wake of Lindbergh’s success was his promotion of air travel. Executive producer Cooper was on the board of Pan Am, which began its first service from Miami to South America in 1932, which is why the film is set in Miami and Rio.

I also like how the film tries to have visual fun, from the crazy cutaways between scenes to the alter egos of Roger and Belinha plotting to get them together to the changing backgrounds during the “Orchids in the Moonlight” number (which originally had a color tint to it) to the band in a balloon basket floating over a dance floor. The filmmakers also heavily use back-projection shots, which work well by helping to bring the viewer to South America.

“Flying Down to Rio” was one of the films ushering in a second wave of musicals led by Busby Berkley at Warner Brothers. RKO promoted this film heavily, hiring Thornton Freeland to direct – he already had directed a few successful musicals like “Whoopee.”

It did pay off for RKO – in unexpected ways. It may be fun, but it’s odd that the film ended with a shot of Astaire and Rogers, not the stars. It’s an unplanned hint at the delights that they would produce throughout the 1930s.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

2010 CiMBA Award Winners

The CiMBA Awards have been announced. I am fortunate to have received one award for design. Thank you! I guess I have learned a thing or two from working with an excellent team of designers where I am employed -- although I think they would be shocked to find out I received this!

Please check out all the winners. Each should be heartily congratulated, and you should read their work and discover their blogs.

2010 CiMBA Award Winners