Monthly Archives: April 2011

Wednesday 5/4: “Day of the Outlaw” at the Portage Theater

Join us this Wednesday 5/4 for Andre De Toth’s DAY OF THE OUTLAW
The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket

May 4th, 2011
Andre De Toth • 1959
Please note that this film replaces SILVER LODE on our original calender. Burl Ives rides into a snowy, isolated town (yeah, just like in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but he ain’t so jolly here) in the far West as the leader of a murderous renegade cavalry unit, threatening the lives of Robert Ryan and Tina Louise until they agree to lead him out of the town. While it’s claustrophobic tension and bouts of absurdist violence peg it as a quintessential western noir of the 1950s, the Monthly Film Bulletin in England rightly called Day of the Outlaw a western “in the best William S. Hart tradition,” too. It may be one of the bleakest films ever made, with wintry landscapes recalling Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall and a messy sense of hopelessness that predicts Heaven’s Gate, the Western to end all Westerns. (JA)
96 min • Security Pictures • 16mm Widescreen
Print from Private Collections
Shorts: Western Melodies (1949) and Howdy Doody: A Trip to Funland (1953) 16mm
Prints Courtesy of the Chicago Film Archives
Three Little Pups (Tex Avery, 1953) 35mm Technicolor
Print from the Radio Cinema Film Archive

Chicago Reader (Fred Camper)

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The Smiling Lieutenant – Paramount’s Rollicking, Audacious, Happiness Super-Production

The Smiling Lieutenant is a divisive picture. For those expecting an out-and-out musical, it will disappoint. Retaining the elemental contours of the Strauss operetta and a good deal of its music, it presents songs few in number and definitely American and vulgar in character. (Can you name another operetta with a song like “Jazz Up Your Lingerie?”) Its demonstration of Paramount panache is mixed: the sets are obviously expensive, but always maintain an accent of Astoria—slightly claustrophobic, presenting reasonable depth while never quite airy enough. As a pre-Code picture, The Smiling Lieutenant is thoroughly adult in sensibility and register, but lacks for moments of wincing depravity or bad manners to be quoted by admirers. What’s more, seen in an off light, its sexual politics—mysterious and intuitive, enacted rather than contemplated—can look rather conservative and, more important, emotionally unconvincing. Even Lubitsch’s generally sensitive biographer Scott Eyman complains that “the wrong girl gets the man” and judges the thing “too ooh-la-la by half.”

Suffice it to say, these are all among the film’s minor strengths, as well as elements that mark it as memorable and distinctive next to its more conventional contemporaries. There’s not much story and what of it there is is told at a deliberative, luxuriating pace. No mistaken identities or games of deceit here, just a man falling in love with one woman and then learning to accept another. Within this slim treatment resides a universe of feeling.

Maurice Chevalier begins as a roguish lieutenant in name only—with no wars to fight, his social position arises chiefly from conforming to sexual expectation. And yet his first number, “Toujours L’Amour in the Army,” betrays a prickly entitlement that amounts to a rote, unattractive sexuality, as if a bevy of European beauties at Chevalier’s call was a socially-mandated burden. There’s a volatility in the performance, too, an angry awareness on Chevalier’s part of how little legitimate emotion resides under the schtick, of how simple American audiences want their French heartthrobs to be. Continue reading

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Wednesday 4/27: “The Smiling Lieutenant” at the Portage Theater

Join us this Wednesday 4/27 for Ernst Lubitsch’s THE SMILING LIEUTENANT
Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, and Miriam Hopkins in a beautiful 35mm print from Universal
The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket

April 27th, 2011
Ernst Lubitsch • 1931
It’s true love between comically French Maurice Chevalier (a Viennese lieutenant) and dewy Claudette Colbert (leader of the all-girl band at the local Biergarten) until Miriam Hopkins (a sheltered princess from the neighboring microstate) intercepts a single act of Chevalier’s irrepressible flirtatiousness and sparks off a series of international – and interpersonal – incidents. One of Lubitsch’s early musicals for Paramount (among the first Hollywood ever saw), The Smiling Lieutenant is a film that manages to simultaneously contain a number called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” and (almost without realizing it) one of the most brutal, emotionally mature romantic endings Hollywood ever produced. (BH)
Print from Universal, special thanks to Paul Ginsburg and Dennis Chong.
89 min • Paramount Pictures • 35mm
Short: Snow-White (Dave Fleischer, 1933, 7 min) 16mm

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Excavating Beware

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The most obscure feature on our present calendar is undoubtedly Beware, a 1946 Louis Jordan vehicle—so obscure, indeed, that we haven’t seen it yet.  (We have seen Jordan’s follow-up, Look-Out Sister, and it’s a beaut. Not only a beaut, but also a western. How can you not love a movie whose title ostensibly derives from a tossed-off warning to an overweight woman at the tip of a diving board?) Beware is not a forgotten film, per se—that would imply that somewhere or another people had seen it and thought something towards it.

Instead, Beware is an impossibly marginal movie and always has been.  Given the talent involved, it could not be otherwise.

One of the pinnacle moments of cinema…

Consider first Astor Pictures Corporation, its distributor and putative producer. Astor was known largely for its reissues—exhumed studio product licensed for limited re-exploitation. Through its corporate hands passed countless B westerns and such antique UA fare as Street Scene, Rain, The Front Page, I Cover the Waterfront, and Our Daily Bread. Come to think of it, given the dismal prints we see today of all these, was old Astor more a meat grinder for original camera negatives than a bonafide distributor? No matter—Astor’s 1939 mounting of Tumbleweeds yielded one of the pinnacle moments of cinema: a preposterously moving eight minute introduction, William S. Hart’s only screen monologue, that easily eclipsed the feature that followed.

Race pictures like Beware were another niche product that Astor offered, with nearly 700 specialty houses that catered to black audiences hankering for non-studio depictions of minority life. Today it seems a mark of courage that Astor fronted Oscar Micheaux’s disastrous final feature, The Betrayal, and had the chutzpah to open it on Broadway yet in 1948. (Now presumed lost, The Betrayal fancied itself “The Greatest Negro Photoplay of All Times” and ran about twenty minutes shy of Gone with the Wind.) Continue reading

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Wednesday 4/20: “Beware” & Jazz Shorts at the Portage Theater

This week’s all about Jazz. We’ll be showing Louis “King of the Jukebox” Jordan’s underground 1940s musical “Beware” and a long program of musical shorts!

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket

Louis Jordan on stage in 1946

April 20th, 2011
Bud Pollard • 1946
54 min • Astor Pictures Corporation • 35mm

MGM may have had sultrier production values and an endless supply of moppets, but few musicals can lay claim to the effortless, straggling charm of Louis Jordan’s all-black, ultra-cheap Astor Pictures efforts–riffs in the best sense. Barely feature-length and accidentally plotted but overflowing with charm and verve, Beware was the first in the series. In this one, Louis plays bandleader Lucius Brokenshire Jordan, who returns to his alma mater, Ohio’s Ware College, to play a fundraiser with his band. Will he win back his college sweetheart Annabelle (now a gym teacher!) or lose her to the crummy oligarch who threatens the school’s solvency? If only Development personnel were this tuneful in real life … Numbers include Long Legged LizzieLand of the Buffalo Nickle, and Salt Pork, West Virginia. (KW)

Print preserved by the Library of Congress. Special Thanks: Rob Stone.

And a red hot selection of shorts: 

Katnip Kollege (Hardaway/Dalton, 1938, 7min) 16mm
Jammin’ the Blues (Gjon Mili, 1944, 10 min) 35mm
Trailer for Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954) 35mm Technicolor!

For more information, please read this week’s blog post on the curious history of Beware.

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A Dispatch from Cinefest 2011, Part II: Unique and Cosmic

Last week we posted an overview of Cinefest and a few of the films on offer. We conclude this week with an extended account of four more Syracuse rarities.

Not many folks seemed to like Stolen Heaven (Paramount, 1931), a shot-in-Astoria doomed romance with Nancy Carroll and Phillips Holmes as a pair of fugitives blowing through stolen bills at a posh resort, but its concentrated intensity (often confused for early talkie stiltedness) is definitely something to be reckoned with. In this respect, it recalls (but does not reach the heights of) its near contemporaries, One Way Passage and After Tomorrow; Stolen Heaven is cut from the same cloth of romantic delirium, with an integrity of time and space (but not necessarily plot) that feels particular to its period. Holmes’s anxious, ex-working stiff (lately of a radio factory) is just boyish and skittish enough to convince us that love and larceny derive from a common and unripe source. Carroll constantly and impressively modulates her dignity and exudes excited awareness of her own sexuality. While the film does not follow through on all of its chilly implications, the result is still attractively spare and effective.

The Phantom President (1932) rounded out the Paramount highlights. Perhaps not as fully realized as Hallelujah I’m a Bum, Rodgers and Hart’s urban operetta of the next year, Phantom President still succeeds as a wonderful film record of a living legend, George M. Cohan, playing the double role of a stuffed-shirt politico and his medicine show lookalike. Simultaneously topical to the point of being mercenary (released on the eve of the ’32 election) and not specific or pointed enough to divulge any partisanship or ideological commitment (beyond showbiz itself, of course), Phantom President nonetheless offers edifying, near quintessential, sketches of a broad swatch of ‘30s potentates and string-pullers, along with a library of au courant phraseology and jabber. (That Hoover would soon offer to install FDR in advance of the inauguration—a literal phantom president!—makes the Cohan Conspiracy look mild indeed.) An extended sequence at the party convention—Cohan flaunting his political wares and ‘sex appeal’ to a gaggle of regional and ethnic caricatures so broadly drawn and played as to suggest a hilarious, monomaniacal reductivism—is so good that one wishes there were more music on whole. (Paramount cut much of it, understandably anxious that singing and dancing pictures had yet to re-prove their box office worth after a spectacular burn-out months before.) An earlier blackface number will probably keep Phantom President out of circulation for a goodly long time, which is silly—no one would ever confuse this for anything but a movie of its narrow, beguiling moment and that’s the best thing about it. Continue reading

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Wednesday 4/13: “Children of Divorce” at the Portage Theater

Join us this Wednesday 4/13 for Frank Lloyd & Josef Von Sternberg’s Children of Divorce
Beautiful new preservation print courtesy of the Library of Congress!
The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket

April 13th, 2011
Frank Lloyd & Josef Von Sternberg • 1927
70 min • Paramount • 35mm

Paramount production values are in full flower in this rarely screened Parisian melodrama. Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, and Esther Ralston are childhood chums going back to the convent days when their parents briefly orphaned them to accommodate a divorce. They grow up as frivolous, sensual spirits who know no sin except divorce. Cooper loves Ralston but marries Bow after a drunken debauch–can the matronly Hedda Hopper keep daughter Clara from repeating her mistakes? This famously troubled Frank Lloyd production was patched up and partially reshot by Josef von Sternberg, whose astonishing and delicate eight-year career at Paramount begins here. Die-hard auteurists will have fun identifying JvS’s scenes. Live Organ accompaniment by Jay Warren. (KW)

Print preserved by the Library of Congress, special thanks to Rob Stone.

Short: His Marriage Wow (Harry Edwards, 1925) 16mm
Print from the Radio Cinema Film Archive

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On The Bill This Wednesday: “The Young In Heart”

Some brief notes about what we’re showing April 6th at the Portage.

It seems irresponsible not to introduce a film like At the Dog Show, but then again, maybe it’s the recklessness of showing it in the first place that makes it so worthwhile. Redistributed by National Telefilm Associates (it was an RCA film originally) and produced by by Fairbanks and Carlisle (we’ll assume a relation to Douglas Fairbanks here, but can’t promise anything) it’s nearly impossible to tell what the film’s target audience might have been. Presumably it was shown fairly casually in cinemas when it was released theatrically in 1942, but its appearances on television (for children at odd hours of a Saturday morning, unassuming housewives in the afternoon, the whole family before The Dick Van Dyke Show, mom and dad late at night just before bed … all situations would be equally startling occasions to see dogs with rotoscoped talking mouths) must have been quite baffling. Television was doing something right. The animation was done by George Webster Crenshaw, who was responsible for the 1962-1995 single panel comic strip Belvedare, and worked as an animator for Disney (specifically on Fantasia and Pinocchio) and recalls the strangest of George Pal’s Puppetoons.

***At the Dog Show comes to us courtesy of our friends at the Chicago Film Archives ***

The Incredible Stranger (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
The Incredible Stranger represents a body of work by Jacques Tourneur still relatively unearthed. This 1942 one-reller, made for MGM shortly before Tourneur directed Cat People for Val Lewton at RKO, is the second to last of a series of twenty-one short subjects the director made between 1936 and 1944. If they’re all this good then there’s a major section of the great Tourneur’s filmography we’ve been missing out on (though it should be noted that this short and a couple others have made brief, rare appearances on Turner Classic Movies), and if they’re half as good as The Incredible Stranger, they should still be pulled out of their respective vaults as soon as possible. We’re doing what we can, this original 16mm print comes from our own collection and was struck in 1942. Patrick Friel of Cine-File puts it best in his capsule review of the short (which was cited as “crucial viewing” on their site this week), but suffice it to say that the similarities between the short and the rest of Tourneur’s work are staggering, it’s the most emotionally resonant eleven minute film any of us have seen in a while.

THE YOUNG IN HEART (Richard Wallace, 1938)
The Young In Heart is neither rare nor terribly obscure, but for some reason this heavyhearted lightweight of a screwball comedy has slipped through the greasy fingers of auteurists and genre-files. Nevertheless Variety, Leonard Maltin, and even the grumpy Leslie Halliwell thought it was just about perfect. It’s incredibly tender, a case study of a family of con artists who get working class jobs in order to impress an elderly woman who’s possessions and real estate they’d like to inherit. This family, made up of Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Roland Young, and Billie Burke, may be a group of clueless ne’er-do-wells, but they’re also so socially inept that they’re almost sweethearted. One of the most touching exchanges in the film occurs between Fairbanks and Gaynor on a milk cart, in which he asks her if she ever heard of anyone marrying for love … they’re both perplexed. It’s a film about a rotten bunch of stray dogs, basically, but even they turn out alright (there was an alternate ending, however, explained here in the Variety review).

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A Dispatch from Cinefest 2011, Part I: The Scent of Diacetate

Friends enthuse daily about the treasures they’ve found on Netflix Instant. Old media salutes new, with print critics prophesying a day “before too long [when] the entire surviving history of movies will be open for browsing and sampling at the click of a mouse.” For some, the day has already arrived. “This instant, sitting right here,” Roger Ebert recently observed, “I can choose to watch virtually any film you can think of via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, MUBI, the Asia/Pacific Film Archive, Google Video or Vimeo.”

The annual trip to Syracuse teaches a very different lesson. Now in its 31st year, the shoestring festival known as Cinefest (organized by the dozen or so members of the Syracuse Cinephile Society) suggests not only an alternate history of cinema but also of cinephilia. I have seen the future and it is a conference room at the Holiday Inn. Continue reading

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Wednesday 4/6: “The Young In Heart” at the Portage Theater

One of this week’s pre-show shorts, Jacques Tourneur’s The Incredible Stranger, got singled out as “crucial viewing” by Cine-File this week!

Come for the short, come for the other short (it’s about dogs, and it’s from the collection of the Chicago Film Archives), or come for the feature – they’re all playing at the Portage Theater (4050 N Milwaukee Ave) at 7:30 PM on Wednesday 4/6. Tickets are $5.


April 6th, 2011
Richard Wallace • 1938
In an effort to get into the will of an elderly woman they recently rescued from a train wreck, the Carletons – a nuclear family of con artists including Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Roland Young, and a very witless Billie Burke – get working-class jobs in order to prove that they are earnest and wholesome people. Fairbanks becomes a mail clerk for Paulette Godard (this would be the first time the star of Modern Times spoke in a credited role) and Roland Young becomes a car salesman of the Flying Wombat. So sweet and gentle that it could hardly be called a screwball comedy, this Leslie Halliwell favorite by the little known Richard Wallace may be the best thing to come out of David O’Selznik’s production company, with enough substance to make up for the train wreck that is the second half of Gone With the Wind. (JA)

Print from the Radio Cinema Film Archive.
90 min • Selznick International Pictures • 16mm
Shorts: The Incredible Stanger (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) 16mm
At the Dog Show 16mm (Print Courtesy of the Chicago Film Archives)

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