Friday, November 25, 2005

Busby Berkeley for the Holidays

Some holiday treats are coming soon to The Castro: Busby Berkeley's greatest all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas. From Dec 26 through the 30th, we'll see his eye-popping choreography in a series of films from Warner Brothers, MGM, United Artists, and Fox.

Schedule highlights include:

The classic backstage musical "42nd Street"

His celebrated pre-code "Gold Diggers" films.

And perhaps the most exciting feature, the rarely seen 20th Century Fox three-strip Technicolor production "The Gang's All Here." Carmen Miranda's "Tutti Frutti Hat" number is a camp classic.

Though Berkeley's larger-than-life production numbers demand to be seen on the big screen, Warner Home Video will be coming out with a Busby DVD box set sometime in 2006. And it also appears Fox will be issuing "The Gang's All Here" on DVD in the near future as they start to mine their library of musicals.

In the meantime, don't forget to buy tickets for another all-singing, all dancing spectacular at the Castro: the SFGMC Home for the Holidays concerts on December 15th and the 24th!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Notorious Gertrude Michael

One of the lesser known stars of the pre-code era has been featured in six of the films in the Balboa's Paramount series - and once you see Gertrude Michael, you immediately want to know more about her.

I first saw Gertrude Michael in "Search for Beauty" which plays the Balboa November 16th. Her sharp tongue, comic flair and somewhat manic energy make her a standout in the film. I soon discovered she had a long and varied career spanning the stage and screen, even scoring several lead roles while at Paramount in the 1930s. She appeared most often as a hard-edged woman who was not to be tangled with (see "Murder at the Vanities.") Perhaps her best starring role was the title character in "The Notorious Sophie Lang." She plays a glamorous master jewel thief trying to one up a male rival from across the pond. Good pacing, clever dialog, and a touch of risque humor made this comedy a big enough hit to spawn two sequels. "Sophie Lang" was the mystery feature mentioned in my last post, and I have a feeling Gertrude gained a few more fans after the screening. Though bouts with the bottle may have hurt her career, she continued to work into the '60s. A manuscript for a Michael bio exists, so let's hope that it will be published someday to shed some further light on this versatile performer.

Michael also appears in DeMille's "Cleopatra," playing this Saturday at the Balboa and turning up from time to time on TCM.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Billion Dollar Scandal (1933)

I finally got my first look at the Balboa's Sin in Soft Focus series featuring Paramount pre-codes last Monday night. The rainy and foggy weather seemed fitting for the evening's mystery and crime thriller theme.

First up was a very rare 16mm print of 1933's Billion Dollar Scandal. The plot meandered a bit, but it revolved around a lovable ex-con named Fingers Partos (King Kong's Robert Armstrong), who tries to make good by working for an oil baron (Frank Morgan in a sinister role). Said oil baron is up to no good, working with his bigwig government pals in a scheme to take control of America's oil reserves. Partos decides to take on the corruption by testifying his against his boss in Senate hearings. One can't help comparing the drama on screen to the today's reality as Partos says, "What this country needs right now is a few good squealers!" The plot takes quite a few twists and turns, but everything is tied together in the final minutes, though, refreshingly, the ending is not necessarily storybook. Great acting leavens the story, with Sydney Toler (later famous as Charlie Chan), a young Frank Albertson ("Chico and the Man"), and Russian actress Olga Baclanova ("Freaks"). Baclanova authority and local film collector Paul Meienberg did the introductory honors for all three films on Monday. The female lead, lovely Constance Cummings, is one of the few remaining living female stars of the era.

The next film on the marquis was "Guilty as Hell," a macabre 1932 murder mystery with a sense of humor. The audience sees who commits the dastardly deed in the opening moments, but we don't know if he will get away with it. There is some very entertaining banter between the police detective (Victor McLaglen) and the newspaper reporter (Edmund Lowe) at the crime scene. The wonderful Elizabeth Patterson (known to many as Mrs. Trumbull from "I Love Lucy") plays a dotty employee of the murderous Doctor Tindal. There is some inventive camera work from Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Struss in this surprisingly engrossing crime drama. Problem is, the 16mm print the Balboa obtained was riddled with problems, and after several stops and starts, the theater decided that the remaining 20 minutes of the film could not be shown (just as the mystery was being solved!). Balboa management handled it nicely, though, and offered to schedule a special screening of the film for Monday ticketholders if a better print could be found in the future.

Most of the remaining films in the series are 35mm prints and in better shape than "Guilty as Hell." This series is getting some great press (listen to Mick LaSalle's podcast) and it's worth a trip (or two) to the Balboa. If the attendance is good, maybe they will be persuaded to make it an annual event (like the extremely popular Noir City fest).

More tomorrow on the "special mystery bonus feature" screened Monday night.