Friday, November 16, 2012

Classic Film Gifts - Experiences

I've always loved coming up with unique gifts for people, and with the holidays quickly approaching I have a ton of ideas for the classic film fan! Experiences are always a great thing to give, and if you're in LA or visiting LA there's a lot of "experiences" that you could give to a friend or loved one. 

A membership with The American Cinematheque makes a great gift, and you get some really great perks at both The Aero and The Egyptian for a year! You get discounted tickets to shows, free passes to use during your birthday month, restaurant discounts, and many, many other things depending on the membership level that you choose. One of the best perks are the guest speakers they have at most of the screenings. Most recently, I was able to see a 3D screening of Creature From The Black Lagoon and they had a Q & A with Julie Adams after the film.

Near the corner of Hollywood and Highland in the Max Factor building, The Hollywood Museum displays thousands of props and memorabilia from Hollywood past and present including rare still photographs of lost scenes from The Mummy (1933), costumes from Ben Hur, and their "Dungeon of Doom" featuring Hannibal Lecter's jail cell from The Silence of the Lambs. The ground floor of the museum also features an extensive exhibit of items used by Factor in his many makeovers of movie stars. Some of his most famous undertakings was the creation of Jean Harlow as a platinum blonde and Lucille Ball's red hair. Currently, the museum has an expanded display of Marilyn Monroe pieces on display as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of her death; this is in addition to the extensive collection they normally display. In late November they will be setting up their "Holiday Hollywood Style" display featuring eighteen Christmas trees, each one inspired by a different holiday film, along with props and costumes from those films. Below are a few pictures from the visit I made during the holidays last year.

If you don't live in Los Angeles, you're not out of luck! If you're a fan of road trips, why not follow old Route 66 and see the places where Easy Rider was filmed? Along the way you could stop at the El Rancho hotel, which served as a getaway for many of old Hollywood's elite.
San Francisco can be seen in many Hollywood films such as Escape From Alcatraz and Vertigo, and places like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate bridge, or Fisherman's Wharf all make great destinations. Depending on where you live, you might have something close to home to visit, like the Jimmy Stewart museum in PA, the Empire State Building in New York or, if you're overseas, there's the Marlene Dietrich museum in Berlin, the Greta Garbo museum in Sweden, and the National Museum of Cinema in Turin, Italy.

Big or small, the possibilities for a great film "experience" are endless! Here are a few other suggestions:

Passes for the TCM Film Festival
Mark Klaus' "Holly"wood Christmas Movieland
New Orleans Movie Tour

More gift guides with various themes will be posted in the coming weeks!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Classic Horror Essentials - Part Two

Part two of my "Classic Horror Essentials" focuses on the films produced by MGM. All of these selections are based on a previous literary source and none of them have a traditional "monster", such as a vampire or werewolf, as their villain. MGM's foray into horror created a number of memorable and unique horror films, the best of which are listed below. Part one of my "Essentials" can be found here.

1932 Directed by Tod Browning
Perhaps one of the most notorious films ever made, Freaks was an extremely daring film for the early 1930's. Based on a short story called Spurs by Tod Robbins, Tod Browning used a great deal of his personal experience in the circus in the shaping of this film. One of the biggest controversies for audiences of the time was the use of real circus "freaks", which seemed to be more horrific to them than the fact that the two "normal" characters were the villains plotting murder. Originally 90 min. long, it was eventually cut down to 64 min., but even with the cuts it was banned for decades until it resurfaced in the 60's to become a cult classic.
Mad Love
1935 Directed by Karl Freund
A remake of the Austrian film The Hands of Orlac, Mad Love became Peter Lorre's American film debut. Lorre does an astounding job at playing Doctor Gogol as more than just a creepy, two dimensional character, but rather plays the role with a great range of emotion and pathos. Creepy as he is, there are moments where you actually empathize with his character and his desire for love, however this doesn't last long and you soon feel the same repulsion and unease that the object of his desire feels. Lorre was highly praised by critics and fellow actors for his portrayal and is certainly the highlight of the film. Other than Lorre's performance, the film wasn't a success upon release, but like many other films, has grown to have a greater appreciation over time.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
1941 Directed by Victor Fleming
One of the most intriguing things to me about this version is the fact that MGM based it very closely on the 1931 version released by Paramount just ten years before. With the amazing cast and director MGM had, it's something that could have easily stood on it's own without worrying about being in the other film's shadow, but truthfully, it could have been bigger than what it was. Although it wasn't a hit when first released it's another film that has gained more appreciation over time, mainly because of the caliber of acting by the stars who have now become legends.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
1945 Directed by Robert Lewin
There are several versions out there, but this is the one worth watching. Hurd Hatfield is perfect in his role as Dorian, going from innocent to debauched after listening to the suggestions on how to live by his friend Lord Henry, played impeccably by George Sanders. Although the film is black and white, there are scenes where the painting is shown in color. The more corrupt Dorian becomes, the more grotesque the colors become. This would not have had the same effect if it were in black and white, and it makes for a startling contrast.
The Mask of Fu Manchu
1932 Directed by Charles Brabin
A great mix of horror, adventure, sci-fi, and is also a fabulous example of what got by in pre-code era films. The amount of overt racism, sexuality, and misogyny displayed throughout the film is something that never would have been accepted once films were white washed by the code just a few years later. Myrna Loy, better known as the good girl, shows she can also easily pull off evil, and Karloff is at his villainous best as the evil doctor creating another frightening "monster" different from the ones he created with Universal.
The Devil Doll
1936 Directed by Tod Browning
The film is based on a 1932 novel by Abraham Merritt, Burn, Witch Burn! , but a number of elements are reminiscent of The Unholy Three, also directed by Tod Browning. The scene where jewels are hidden in a child's toy that normally holds candy, and Lionel Barrymore playing a character masquerading as a kind old lady, just as Lon Chaney did in The Unholy Three, mirror it exactly. The special effects of the shrunken people are well executed for the most part, and although the story may be familiar it's definitely worth a look.

Photos from Dr. Macro

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween Viewing

I simply adore when Halloween comes around every year; the spooky decorations, hearing "Monster Mash" on the radio, and of course horror movie marathons galore! Here are a few of my favorites that I love to curl up with every year around this time.

White Zombie                      Creepshow
Freaks                                  Tales From The Crypt
King Kong                            The Omen
Mad Love                             Halloween
House of Wax                      The Invisible Man
Tales of Terror                     The Phantom of the
Twice Told Tales                   Opera
The Mummy
The Wolfman

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to Carla Laemmle, who celebrates her 103rd birthday today!

And a big Happy Birthday to Bela Lugosi, born this day in 1882 in Lugos, Hungary!

Lugosi image from Dr. Macro

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Classic Horror Essentials - Part One

Part one of my horror essentials is devoted to the classic horror of Universal Studios. Before the success of Dracula, horror films popped up here and there during the silent era with a number of successes but they didn't become a regular thing until this film. With the addition of sound you could now hear the damsel scream, the creak of the tomb, and the thunderous storms. Universal's films also had a very special feel. The majority of the films took place in the present day (the 30's or 40's), and much of them had to do with the supernatural of the past colliding with the modern era and being met with doubt. What I think I personally like most is that you can always find some way to identify with the monster; there's always a spot of revelation where you can see into what they're feeling or what their motivation is behind what is obvious. For example, Dracula is an obvious villain but when he first meets Jonathan, Mina, and Lucy in the theatre and says the line "To be really dead...that must be glorious", you get the feeling that Dracula might actually want to be freed from his curse. What follows is a list of what I consider the best of Universal's classic horror, in no particular order.

1931 Directed by Tod Browning
Although not the first horror film to come from Universal, this was the first in the great cycle and set the tone for most of what was to follow. Tod Browning originally wanted Lon Chaney to star as the Count, but Chaney's untimely death in 1930 unfortunately put an end to their longtime collaboration. After much lobbying, Bela Lugosi finally won the role that had made him so famous on stage. With his appearance in the film, his characterization immediately became what would forever be thought of as the definitive look and sound of Dracula for all time. After all, who can think of anyone other than Lugosi when hearing the line "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music the make."
1931 Directed by James Whale
After Dracula's immediate success, Universal went on to bring another classic gothic monster to life: Frankenstein. Lugosi was the favorite to play the role but declined because the role of the monster would be mute, and also because of the extensive makeup that would be required. James Whale happened to see Boris Karloff in the commissary one day, was fascinated by his looks, and the rest is history! The job of transforming Karloff into the monster fell to makeup designer Jack Pierce. After much trial and error, and some collaboration with Whale and Karloff, Pierce finally came to the look that became "the monster": the sunken cheeks (thanks to Karloff removing a dental bridge), the hooded eyes, and of course the famous neck bolts. As with Lugosi in Dracula, the Universal presentation of Karloff as Frankenstein's monster soon became the definition of what the monster is pictured as. And although the monster never speaks, there were several instances where Karloff brought a great deal of sympathy and dimension to the character, making the character memorable for more than just it's look.

The Bride of Frankenstein
1935 Directed by James Whale
Four years after Frankenstein, Whale followed his classic with what many consider to be one of the greatest sequels to a film. The Bride of Frankenstein starts out with an introduction featuring Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley in a recreation of the famous party at which Mary first told her story of Frankenstein. Mary picks up the story where the first film left off; the windmill that the monster was in has finished burning and the fire has presumably killed the monster. Obviously, we soon learn this is not the case. Whale's success with this film is due in no small part to his mixture of a number of elements in with the base of the horror story; love, guilt, ego, the human need for companionship, and the main item that seems to tie it all together, humor. Karloff thought it a mistake for the creature to speak, but it truly was a necessity in the progression of the creature and this "life" he has been given. It's this new ability that allows the creature to express his deep loneliness and need for a companion like himself who won't turn from him in horror. Unfortunately, his bride (another iconic creation of Jack Pierce) does just that. The fact that Whale mixes so many elements together so well, makes it a sequel that is well rounded and helps progress the story of the first film.

The Mummy
1932 Directed by Karl Freund
After Karloff's enormous success as Frankenstein's monster, Universal kept the ball rolling by starring him in The Mummy. Directing The Mummy would be Karl Freund, who had just recently worked on Dracula as the cinematographer. This is the first of Universal's horror films not to be based on classic literature or on any type of folklore, with the inspiration coming from the craze for all things Egypt after the discovery of Tutankahmen's tomb only ten years before. Although it is a unique story, you can see many callbacks to Dracula. Most notably, David Manners again takes the role of the romantic lead and Edward Van Sloan once again falls into the role of the scientist educated in the occult whose knowledge is able to help in fighting off the supernatural villain. Although Karloff appears as the mummy very briefly, the unforgettable makeup Jack Pierce created took eight hours to apply and an additional two hours to remove once they were finished filming for the day. However the pain may have been worth it, as Karloff was now cemented as a master of horror after portraying yet another memorable supernatural being and was now in high demand after years of struggling as an actor.

The Phantom of the Opera
1925 Directed by Rupert Julian
Based on the 1911 novel by Gaston Leroux, this was the first major horror production to come from Universal. Though the novel was not originally well received, the film starring Lon Chaney made it an enormous success and it has become one of the most adapted stories of all time. Universal's production was one of their most lavish to date, with a reproduction of the grand opera house (which is still in use today), the use of two strip Technicolor for the Bal Masque sequence, and Chaney's use of one of the most horrific makeup creations ever to be used. Chaney based his makeup for "The Phantom" largely on the description that is in the novel. The dramatic unmasking scene that finally reveals The Phantom's horrific face is still considered to be one of the most startling sequences in film and has helped make The Phantom of the Opera one of the greatest silent films of all time.

The Invisible Man
1933 Directed by James Whale
Based on the H.G. Wells novel, the main challenge was to portray an invisible man in the visual medium of film. In clothes, the invisible man would be bandaged on any exposed portions of skin, mainly his face. However, in scenes where "The Invisible Man" would be partially clothed is where the real challenge began. These scenes were accomplished by filming Claude Rains in a black velvet bodysuit under any other clothes he might have on, against a black backdrop. These shots would later be combined with the scene shots through a matte process. This was the first attempt at a special effect of this type. There are a few places where you can just barely see the outline of Rains in the bodysuit, but for the great majority of the film the effect is seamless. Compared to the sequels that followed when more technology was available, the effect is far superior. The Invisible Man was another great success in Universal's horror series and consequently made Claude Rains a star. The funny things is, although Rains was the star of the film, he didn't actually "appear" until the final moments of the film when his character dies and the effects of the invisibility drug wear off!

The Black Cat
1934 Directed by Edgar Ulmer
Although the title is credited to Poe, the story really has no resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe's short story. The Black Cat has many distinctions to it's credit for the horror genre; it was the top grossing picture for Universal in 1934, it was the first pairing of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a film, and it is a horror film that does not feature an actual monster but rather focused on the horrific idea of devil worship and black magic. In addition to the dark arts, there were also aspects of torture, revenge, human sacrifice, sex, and perhaps most shocking of all, Boris Karloff's character is skinned alive in a scene near the end of the film. Released in May of 1934, these tabboo topics most certainly would not have been allowed in the film if it had been released a month and a half later when the Production Code went into full effect and required films to have a certificate of approval before they could be released. If it had been released after the code, The Black Cat would most certainly have been a very different film and very likely would not be the memorable classic that it now is.

The Wolf Man
1941 Directed by George Waggner
Although Universal released it's first werewolf film in 1935 with Werewolf of London, it was their release of The Wolf Man in 1941 that proved to be the bigger success. The success of The Wolf Man is due in no small part to the rich mythology the film created surrounding the idea of lycanthropy. The famous poem repeated numerous times throughout the film was not from any ancient legend, but was rather the invention of the screenwriter Curt Siodmak. The idea that a werewolf could only be killed by an object made of pure silver was also an idea created for the film that has stuck with the werewolf legend. Once again, Jack Pierce's makeup became the centerpiece that became the look for what a werewolf is supposed to look like. Makeup took six hours to apply and three hours to remove. The Wolf Man became so popular that Universal immediately started pairing the werewolf with two of it's other famous monsters, Dracula and Frankenstein, in various pairings in four subsequent films. Lon Chaney Jr. also played The Wolf Man in these four films and is the only actor to have played the same monster in all of it's following film appearances.

The Creature From The Black Lagoon
1954 Directed by Jack Arnold
Based on a legend of a half-man, half-fish creature living in the depths of the Amazon, The Creature from the Black Lagoon became Universal's final great original monster of the golden age of horror. Filmed in 3D, it produced two sequels and actually has the distinction of being one of the few of Universal's major "monsters" not to end up in a comedy spoof film with Abbott & Costello. "Creature" is unique in that the "monster" doesn't come to the modern world creating chaos, but rather it's the modern world intruding on the realm of The Gill Man. It's perhaps this reason that makes The Gill Man the most sympathetic of all of the classic monsters that Universal produced. Even in the sequels that followed, although he is now in the modern world, he's still extremely sympathetic because he's mainly trying to get back to where he came from. This makes it quite a different from the typical horror film where you can not only sympathize with the human characters, but you almost sympathize with the "monster" a little bit more.

Images used are from Dr. Macro

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia Restored Screening

Thursday night I went to see the 50th anniversary screening of Lawrence of Arabia, which was just recently digitally restored ahead of its release to blu-ray next month. Without a doubt this is my all time favorite film and I've seen it dozens of times before on TV and in the theater, but seeing it restored? Truly, I felt as though I were seeing it for the first time. With Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean created one of the greatest examples of what a film can be and should be. The restoration has made what was already a masterpiece of film a masterpiece of restoration; the color and clarity of the picture and sound can only be described as so gorgeous and encompassing that you truly feel that you are just a few steps away from being a part of the film.  

The special edition set will be released on November 13, and will feature a ton of extras including four original featurettes, a documentary on the making of the film, newsreel footage, photos, maps, and much, much more. Quite honestly, for the pre-order price of $64.96 on Amazon, I think it's a steal.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Recommended Biographies

Most women love a bad boy, and here are four of the best!
A book that focuses on four different people naturally can't go into enormously great detail on any one of its subjects, but Hellraisers still gives a fine biographical narrative on Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed, four men known not only for their acting but also for their wild partying ways. 
As I moved my way through this book, I found the parallels between Burton, Harris, and O'Toole's lives fascinating; all from working class backgrounds, who mainly seemed to start drinking as a means to bond with their respective fathers. Oliver Reed is the exception, having grown up in a relative world of privilege, he seemed to be a devil from the word "go". 
Like being at a party with someone who is drunk, their antics at first are humorous, outrageous, and entertaining, but as you go on it becomes difficult to read at times as you see the toll that is taken on their careers, health, and personal lives. Then again, if they didn't live as wildly as they did, would they have the notoriety that they now do? Would they hold the fascination of the public the same way? Probably not. It is an excellent look into the lives of four very gifted actors and how their wild ways shaped them, for better or worse.

I loved this book! A great deal of this is based on recordings the author made with Hepburn and George Cukor while visiting at his house so you get more of an intimate feeling about it. Naturally, it's not possible to do this with most biographies, but I find it so much more interesting and personal than the usual form of biography where it feels as if the author is narrating the subject's life. With this book, you can almost feel that Katharine Hepburn is in the room with you telling you these stories, as she told them to the author.
A number of topics are covered; how she got her start in acting at Bryn Mawr, her affair with Howard Hughes, how she dealt with the studio system, and her decades long relationship with Spencer Tracy. The recurring topic however, is the deep bond she had with her brother Tom, who died when she was fourteen while apparently practicing a hanging trick. Her relationship with her brother and his subsequent death affected her and her character more than anything else in her life, making her feel that she was not only living her life, but that she also needed to live life for him as well. It's haunting at times to see how that connection and depth of feeling for him never left her. 
If you're interested in reading about this remarkable woman, you won't be able to put this book down.

I will be listing more recommendations every now and then, so this is by no means my entire list! I hope you check these two out and enjoy them as much as I did..

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Casablanca 70th Anniversary Screening

This past Thursday, I was lucky enough to attend an encore screening of Casablanca on the big screen. Even though I've seen it several times on TV, I realized a few things about it while seeing it this time. What impressed me most about it is, more than anything, it's a human drama that anyone can relate to. I don't care who you are, at some point in your life you've lost someone you love perhaps more than anything, and although the memories may be happy the thought of that love can be very painful and can change you. In Rick's case, the loss of that love causes him to become a hard-hearted cynic towards the world. Of course, believing that the love of your life has left you for no seemingly good reason can understandably leave a person questioning a lot of things. For Ilsa, it's not so much a visible change as it is a deep pain that you can see she carries. The look on her face and how she reacts when Sam first plays "As Time Goes By" says it all. Once Ilsa finally reveals to Rick the reason she left, you can see him soften and you begin to realize that the redemption of their love is what the film is all about. Once redeemed, Rick is able to make the same self-sacrificing gesture that Ilsa once made, showing that they both truly love each other. 

There really is no other way that this could have ended and have it still be a classic, although I still wish deep down that Rick and Ilsa could have ended up together in some way. But perhaps that's what makes it a classic. The film is a wonderful, emotional journey with these characters that's tied up in the end, but you're still left feeling very deeply for them long after it's over.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Love of FIlm

I love classic film! There's just something about it that draws you in like nothing else. I've always been a bit of a loner and an introvert, but when I'm watching classic films or talking about it I always feel like I'm in my element. When you watch a classic movie, it's as though you're going to another place, another time, and the world around you stops. Perhaps that is why classic horror is my favorite. More than any other genre, the stories and images take you outside of yourself and what's real and for just a little bit of time you're able to experience this fantastical story that allows your imagination to run wild. 

Since this is my first post I'm going to keep it short, but I hope to post about once a week or so and already have so many ideas of topics to post on so please check back and feel free to comment!