Sunday, November 26, 2006

Previewing the "Forbidden Hollywood" Collection

LA Times writer Susan King offers a nice summary and sneak preview of the forthcoming TCM Archives "Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1." King explains how desperate studio executives got around the lax content guidelines in place in the early thirties.

All three films in the set (the newly restored "Baby Face," James Whale's "Waterloo Bridge" (pictured above), and "Red Headed Woman") will air on TCM on December 4th, the evening before the official release of the DVD set. As a bonus, TCM will also air three other Pre-Code gems, including Stanwyck's "Night Nurse," "Union Depot" which pairs Joan Blondell with the dashing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the seedy sounding "Under 18" with our favorite cad of the era, Warren William.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

Recently screened this frequently censored MGM early horror film starring Myrna Loy at her vampiest in one of her last "bad girl" roles. Though the film is quite dated with its racially insensitive dialogue and stereotypes, it is nicely filmed and fun to see MGM give the picture what had to be considered big-budget treatment for its time.

Boris Karloff (buried under makeup) is sufficiently sinister, hissing most of his lines. Karen Morley attempts hysteria as the hero's girlfriend who is often in peril, though she comes off quite flat here. I remember Karen was honored at the 1999 San Francisco International Film Festival, but she was unable to attend. Wished I could have seen her - her career was effectively ended by the Red Scare in the late 40s and early 50s. Morley died in 2003.

The film is part of the superb Warner "Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection" featuring six classic screamfests, most with entertaining commentaries and trailers. The DVD features a fully restored uncut version of the film. And if you are squeamish - never fear, this is no "Saw III."

Saturday, October 28, 2006

TCM Digs Up Six Lost RKO Features

Turner Classic Movies, continuing to set the standard for cinephiles, recently announced it is restoring six early RKO pictures previously thought to be lost. The films will premiere on TCM in 2007.

Among the titles are some pre-code movies with quite a pedigree:

1933's "Double Harness," directed by John Cromwell, who would shortly after battle the censors and Production Code Administration chief Joseph Breen with his films "Ann Vickers" and "Of Human Bondage." This comedy stars Ann Harding and William Powell.

"One Man's Journey" (1933) - Drama featuring Lionel Barrymore and real-life couple Joel McCrea and Frances Dee.

"Rafter Romance" (1933) - William Seiter directs this comedy starring Ginger Rogers (before she was paired with Fred Astaire).

and William Wellman's "Stingaree," Irene Dunne's first musical at RKO (check out the rave at imdb from someone who screened this at Cinefest in 2001.

For more information on all the films and the restoration efforts, check out this press release.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Premiere Frank Capra Collection

Sony finally gives celebrated director Frank Capra his due with "The Premiere Frank Capra Collection," a six-disc box set featuring five of his classic films. Of interest to pre-code fans is the inclusion of "American Madness," an early collaboration with writer Robert Riskin about a run on a bank in the Depression era. Of course, his most famous pre-code, 1934's "It Happened One Night," is also represented, as well as "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and "You Can't Take It With You." Each film includes a commentary as well as a brief featurette from his son, Frank Capra, Jr.

And if that wasn't enough to make your life wonderful, the set includes a 96-page scrapbook and a bonus disc with interviews with Frank Capra Jr., Frank Capra documentarian Ken Bowser, and Capra archive curator Jeanine Bassinger, as well as archival footage and the 1997 documentary "Frank Capra’s American Dream."

The Capra collection hits the shelves December 5th, with a suggested retail of $59.95.

Fox Before the Code at New York's Film Forum

Pre-code movie fans in New York City have some early Christmas presents in store with Film Forum's three-week "Fox Before the Code" series, running from December 1st through the 21st. Many of the titles in the series are rarely screened - sadly, Fox Movie Channel (unlike Time Warner's Turner Classic Movies) generally shies away from pre-1940 fare. Though many of Fox's silents and early talkies are lost, it is nice to see such a treasure trove offered.

On the bill:

Several early Spencer Tracy films, including the delightful "Me and My Gal" with a saucy pre-"Dark Shadows" Joan Bennett, paired with Jean Harlow in "Goldie," and "Quick Millions," a 1931 gangster flick with George Raft.

"Advice to the Lovelorn," a 1933 comedy with pre-code favorite Lee Tracy.

"Blood Money," with an outrageous, censor-provoking turn from Frances Dee.

and for the titles alone: "3 on a Honeymoon," "Girls Demand Excitement," "Coming Out Party," and "She Learned About Sailors."

Who could resist? Many of the films will have new 35mm prints. Hopefully, some of these films will make their way out west after their runs at the Film Forum.

Monday, August 21, 2006

TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 1 in December

Warner Home Video has officially announced its first collection of Pre-Code films, a 2-disc set featuring the original theatrical and uncensored versions of "Baby Face," Jean Harlow's "Red Headed Woman" and the rarely-seen 1931 release "Waterloo Bridge," directed by James Whale.

No art work has been released yet, but the MSRP is $39.98, and this long-awaited set will hit the street on December 5th. Not much in the way of extras, though Robert Osborne shows up for some intros. The full press release is at DVD Times.

Though I will be one of the first in line for this set, I am a little surprised at the list price for a three-film set, considering how many of Warner's sets offer such great value. They obviously believe interest will be limited. Hopefully, future volumes will offer more titles and better extras at a competitive price.

Friday, June 30, 2006

"Paradise" by the Off-Broadway Lights

A stage version of one of the best Pre-Code films has extended its Off-Broadway run in New York through July 22nd. This well-received musical adaptation of the Ernst Lubitsch film "Trouble in Paradise" is playing at the Hudson Guild Theater on West 26th St. See Gaston and Lily try to con Madame Colet LIVE while you have the chance! Unfortunately, Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins will not be reprising their film roles.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

13th Festival of Preservation in Los Angeles

The UCLA Film and Television Archive shows off some of its recent restoration handiwork with the 13th Festival of Preservation at the James Bridges Theater from July 20th-August 19th. The festival runs the gamut from well-known titles to forgotten films, silent movies to TV episodes.

The month-long program schedule includes a few pre-code features and shorts:

Vitaphone Varieties (July 27th, 7:30pm): Early sound shorts from 1927-1930 feature music and vaudeville acts from the era.

The Barker (7/27): This 1928 early talkie starring Dorothy Mackaill, Milton Sills, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was a silent film that had Vitaphone sound sequences added into finished product for its official premiere.

Dynamite (July 30th, 7pm): Cecil B. DeMille's first sound feature.

Many silent rarities are also being presented with live accompaniment.

Two films based on Thorne Smith's comedic fantasy novels also get dusted off during the festival. The better known of these is the original "Topper," Hal Roach Studio's whimsical screwball comedy featuring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as the two of the wittiest and most stylish ghosts you'd ever meet. But the real buried treasure is "Turnabout." This 1940 comedy, was directed by Roach and stars the lovely Carole Landis and a very funny turn by John Hubbard. This gender-bending comedy holds up well thanks to a great supporting cast (Franklin Pangborn, Marjorie Main, Mary Astor, and Donald Meek). I got a sneak preview of "Turnabout" at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April, and I can tell you the 35mm print looks wonderful.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Joan Is Busting Out All Over

Sorry I have been remiss about posting to my blog. I could make up an excuse that I didn't have a lot of pre-code news to report or movies to review, but that is not necessarily the case (I have a backlog of TCM movies on my TiVo and a Busby Berkeley box set to get to). So as long as you accept my apologies, I will move on!

Joan Crawford is (perhaps unfairly) remembered more for her alleged failings as a mother (see this month's "Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty Edition") or her camp classics (see the new 2-Disc Special Edition of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"). While both films are entertaining to say the least, I think Joan would rather we remember her when she was young and beautiful and one of MGM's biggest stars. We get a glimpse of that Joan in the pre-code musical "Dancing Lady" (available on DVD 6/20 both individually and as part of the new "Clark Gable: The Signature Collection" box set). Though I have not yet seen the film, I love seeing early Clark Gable films since the studio didn't quite know what to do with its rising star, casting him in "heavy" roles instead of suave leading man. Here, he gets to show a comedic side in this backstage musical featuring Crawford's future husband Franchot Tone as his romantic rival. This film features an amazing supporting cast: Fred Astaire (in his first sound feature), May Robson, writer Robert Benchley, Eve Arden (in a bit part), and even The Three Stooges! If that lineup is not incentive to seek out this film, I don't know what is!

And speaking of Joan, I bet she would also be quite proud of her Oscar-winning performance in "Mildred Pierce." This noir classic will be shown at a very special screening on July 21st at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Hold on to your pie plates, because this benefit screening will feature a live appearance by Ann Blyth (who played Veda, Mildred's ingrate daughter, to perfection)! Noir czar Eddie Muller will interview Miss Blyth prior to the screening in what promises to be a fascinating evening. Tickets are available by calling 415-863-0611 or at Hope to see you there!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Stanwyck Before the Code

Much has been written about the classic Barbara Stanwyck film "Baby Face" since the newly restored version complete with previously censored footage has been making the rounds of the repertory theaters. Just as entertaining are two other Warner Brothers films featuring a young Stanwyck: "Night Nurse" with Clark Gable as a heavy and Joan Blondell as Stanwyck's roommate, and the women in prison flick "Ladies They Talk About."

All three pre-code dramas play over the next week at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square, one of my favorite places to see classic films. Don't miss them if you are in the Boston area. Each movie contains the hallmarks and joys of the best of the pre-code films. This review from the Boston Phoenix sums up the appeal and raw emotion of Stanwyck who seemingly is restrained from jumping off the screen at times. Stanwyck had a long career, with success on the small screen as well. But her early work shows what made her such a hit with audiences - there was no one quite like her.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

2006 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview

"True art transcends time." That's the slogan of the popular San Francisco Silent Film Festival, held annually in July at the Castro Theatre. Though these films predate pre-code, it is always a treat to see them the way they were meant to be seen - in a grand movie house with live music. It is amazing to me that many of these films evoke more true emotion and feeling without saying a word than many of today's cookie-cutter movies. Last year's "The Sideshow" was just such a film, a B-picture in its day, but still powerful, funny, and poignant.

Four of the films on this year's program have been announced:

Frank Borzage's Oscar winner "Seventh Heaven," with Best Actress Janet Gaynor.

Tod Browning directs Lon Chaney in "The Unholy Three," another sideshow tale!

A brand new 35mm print of "Sparrows," with silent film queen Mary Pickford.

"Show People," a satire of Hollywood starring Marion Davies and gay film star William Haines and lots of cameos from other big names of the era.

Five more features will be announced later this spring. The 11th annual festival runs the weekend of July 14th-16th.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Great Lover

Silent film star John Gilbert was bigger than Valentino at the height of his fame in the '20s. He made four films opposite Greta Garbo, including their first hit "Flesh and the Devil." But the dawn of sound seemed to spell the end of his career. Though legend has it that audiences laughed when they heard his milquetoast voice in the talkies, most agree that arguments with MGM studio head L.B. Mayer helped seal his fate. Though he made a comeback of sorts in 1932's "Downstairs," based on a short story Gilbert wrote, the studio sent him lousy scripts as he was out of favor with Mayer. Sadly, he hit the bottle and died of a massive heart attack in 1936.

Judge for yourself whether Gilbert's voice is cause for amusement in two pre-code films featured on TCM early tomorrow morning (all times Pacific) :

Monday, March 20
4:45 AM
The Phantom of Paris (1931)

A magician is charged with killing his fiancee's father.

6:00 AM
Fast Workers (1933)

Tod Browning ("Freaks") directs Gilbert in his last film under contract with MGM. Also stars Mae Clarke and Robert Armstrong ("King Kong").

Monday, March 13, 2006

She Took the Yellow Ones...

We interrupt this blog to bring you news of a long-awaited DVD releases of two classic films (though they are not classic in a pre-code sense). Yes, the camp classics "Valley of the Dolls" and "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" are finally coming to DVD. Amazon has both films up for pre-order, with a release date of June 13th. It appears they both will be special editions - so we can hope each will be packed with extras (Judy Garland's work on VotD before she was canned from the production, anyone?). Perhaps Patty Duke has been persuaded to participate. She used to disown the film, but in recent years has had a sense of humor about it. I will never forget seeing the wonderful Barbara Parkins in person at the Castro about 7 years ago in a Q&A session before a screening. She said Susan Hayward was "hyper," but had nothing but good things to say about the late Sharon Tate.

As Helen Lawson might say, "Get outta my way - I got a DVD waitin' for me!"

Sunday, February 26, 2006

WB Home Video HTF Chat

The folks at the Home Theater Forum recently hosted a chat with Warner Home Video executives regarding upcoming DVD film releases in 2006 and beyond. Many exciting plans were discussed, there was not much news on pre-code titles. This is perhaps explained by the fact that very few of the chat attendees asked specifically about films from that period. What we do know:

* There is the potential for some early Norma Shearer pre-codes to be released, along with a few of her silent films.

* The original camera negative for the 1932 horror film "The Mask of Fu Manchu" has been found and the DVD release (most likely late in 2006) will be the uncensored version.

* The earliest surviving Charlie Chan film, "The Black Camel" (1931), will be released as part of a Chan box set containing the Monogram Films entries in the series.

* June 2006 brings us a Clark Gable Signature Collection, featuring his second film with Joan Crawford, 1933's "Dancing Lady." There will also be more box sets in 2006-2007 devoted to such pre-code stars as Crawford, Jean Harlow, and James Cagney.

* The Lon Chaney Collection, Volume II is on the way, featuring his only talkie, the 1930 version of "The Unholy Three," restored from the original camera negative.

Of course, this does not represent the studio's entire output for 2006-2007, and as always, plans could change.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood

Though there has been no official announcement, The Digital Bits is reporting news about Warner Home Video's plans to finally start releasing some of its pre-code films on DVD. For months, we have known that the newly restored, unedited "Baby Face" would be sold on DVD once it made its way through the theaters. At one point, it appeared there would be a big box set coming our way in 2006.

Now comes word that Warners will releasing a series of Pre-Code sets under its TCM Archives label. The "Forbidden Hollywood Collection" series will start with a bang with Volume 1 set to feature the aforementioned "Baby Face," along with Jean Harlow in "Red-Headed Woman" and the long unseen "Waterloo Bridge," directed by James Whale. This first collection will also include a new feature-length documentary. No release date has been announced, but it would most likely be in May at the earliest, since Warner Home Video's press releases are just now trumpeting May product.

The previous TCM Archives releases have mostly focused on silent film, but they have received high marks from reviewers. Time Warner owns the rights to some of the most well-known Pre-Code films, so even if they came out with new Forbidden Hollywood volumes every quarter, they would not run out of material for some time. They released at least 20 titles on VHS in the early 90s.

Though this is great news, I am a little disappointed we aren't getting a big box set this year with 10 titles over five discs, etc. But if sales are good for this first volume, surely Warner's will release many more.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Naughty Gems

Pre-code film series continue to pop up on rep schedules around the country. This January and February, Pittsburgh Filmmakers is showing a Sunday night series featuring some of the better-known films of the period, including "Tarzan and His Mate" and "Blonde Venus" (soon to be released on DVD).

And in February in San Francisco, the Mechanics' Institute CinemaLit film series will shine the spotlight on Pre-Code Hollywood on Friday nights. Curator Michael Fox presents "Baby Face" (Feb. 3rd), "Design for Living" (Feb. 10th), "Downstairs" (February 17th, with former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine as special guest) and "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (Feb. 24th).

Speaking of the Roxie (or should I say, the Roxie Film Center), SF Weekly had a good piece about the changes taking place at the theater in order to the cinema from closing its doors forever.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Glamour Girls Gussy Up for DVD Collections

Good news on the DVD release front: NBC/Universal is finally starting to open their vaults to release some of their classic library of Paramount and Universal films. DVD Times announced the April 4th releases of three two-disc "Glamour Collections" devoted to three of Paramount's biggest female stars: Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, and Carole Lombard.

Here are the lineups:

Mae West:
- Mae's first film, "Night After Night"
- her pre-code classic "I'm No Angel," arguably her best movie.
- "Goin' to Town"
- "Go West Young Man" with Cary Grant's roommate Randolph Scott
- and Universal's "My Little Chickadee" with W.C. Fields (which also appears on the "W.C. Fields Comedy Collection").

Marlene Dietrich:
- 1930's "Morocco," her first American film which paired her with a very young Gary Cooper.
- Another Josef von Sternberg pre-code collaboration, "Blonde Venus."
- "The Devil Is a Woman," with pre-code favorites Alison Skipworth and Edward Everett Horton.
- Universal's "The Flame of New Orleans," a period comedy-drama in which director Rene Clair sends up Dietrich's scandalous persona.
- and Mitchell Leisen's WWII romance "Golden Earrings."

Perhaps most exciting to me is the Carole Lombard set, since many of these titles are rarely seen anymore:

- 1931's "Man of the World" - Carole would end up marrying her co-star William Powell.
- Pre-code musical "We're Not Dressing," with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman.
- Three screwball comedies opposite Fred MacMurray, "True Confession," "The Princess Comes Across" and Mitchell Leisen's "Hands Across the Table."
- The 1936 Universal release "Love Before Breakfast"

The only extras are a few original trailers, but it's nice to see Universal give these ladies their due on DVD. MSRP for each set is $26.98, a bargain for five (or in the case of Carole, six) films. Let's hope this means Universal will open the floodgates this year and follow with more classics.