Saturday, May 16, 2015

National Classic Movie Day - May 16, 2015

A special day is about to come to a close and I haven't much time to put together a tribute to one of my true passions, classic film. Meanwhile, Rick and friends over at The Classic Film & TV Cafe have been hosting a day-long blogathon in honor of this first National Classic Movie Day, and 60+ illustrious bloggers have chimed in on the subject of My Favorite Classic Movie.

Many films rush to mind when I consider which might be my own favorite...

From the 1930's, I think of the six films Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg made for Paramount in the U.S. following the breakout success of The Blue Angel, made for Ufa in Germany. My current favorite from this collection is The Devil is a Woman (1935), the sixth and last of their collaborations. Sternberg intended to title the film  Capriccio Espagnol (Spanish Fantasy) and fashioned it as his "final tribute to the lady I had seen lean against the wings of a Berlin stage" and "an affectionate salute to Spain and its traditions."
Marlene Dietrich from Josef von Sternberg's The Devil is a Woman (1935)
Marlene Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman (1935)
However, Paramount's production head Ernst Lubitsch had his own ideas about the title and, according to Sternberg, "altering the sex of the devil was meant to aid in selling the picture" - thus, The Devil is a Woman.  This new title couldn't save the film from a devastating turn of events; it was banned by the Spanish government and Spain's diplomatic complaints to the U.S. resulted in the film being withdrawn from circulation for nearly 25 years. Dietrich was soon labeled "box office poison" and it wasn't until 1939's Destry Rides Again that her career got back on track. Sternberg's run as a Hollywood wunderkind came to an end and his best work was now behind him.

The Devil is a Woman is less a romance than a reflection on grinding frustration. The Dietrich character (Concha) is entirely capricious and destructive, and the men she encounters are mostly fools.  Her older lover/patron, Captain Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill), may be unable to break from her but he is unsentimental, even fatalistic, about their relationship. The film has been called Sternberg's "coldest" film if, perhaps, his most perfectly realized. As with all of the pair's work together, The Devil is a Woman is beautifully made, an intentionally mannered and fanciful journey - and irresistible to me. It was Dietrich's favorite of her films. Interestingly, many years later Luis Bunuel would reference the same source material for his That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

But I don't have a favorite film, per se. Even among the Dietrich/Sternberg films I waver between The Devil is a Woman and Shanghai Express (1932). And I go back and forth between Ford's Stagecoach (1939) and his The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) when it comes to "favorite Western."

John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939)
John Wayne, Stagecoach (1939)

Favorite comedy is easier:
Some Like It Hot. My favorite movie. Ever. #1. Ever. Did I mention that this is my favorite movie ever? <3 <3 <3
Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959)
Favorite rom-com:

@Catherine Walker @Anna RM @Naz Deyhim I want a photo like this and instead of the cat, I want it to be with Vida.  I wish I looked like this when I sleep.
Audrey Hepburn (and Orangey) in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
 Favorite Preston Sturges film:

The Lady Eve (1941). Barbara Stanwyck. Oh how she plays Hoppsy! Oh, my how fast does Hoppsy fall in love with Jean or was it Eve? Silly man he is so confused isn't he? Ha ha!
Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve (1941)

And on it goes. For those interested in even more, I've got a board dedicated to Classic Screen Images on Pinterest, a work in progress that features scenes from a few hundred films (so far) that I admire from the 1920s to present.

Fun in a Chinese Laundry by Josef von Sternberg (MacMillan Co., 1965)
The Films of Josef von Sternberg by Andrew Sarris (The Museum of Modern Art, 1966)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Music in Film, Part I: Film with Live Orchestra

The night sky was clear and the air a bit chilly on Friday, January 9, typical early winter weather in San Francisco. But the evening would be unusual for reasons other than the climate. It was the night that, at 8 pm, the San Francisco Symphony would premiere Francis Coppola's The Godfather (1972) with live orchestral accompaniment. It was also the night that, at midnight, the Golden Gate Bridge was to shut down - through the weekend - for the first time in its 77 year history. The evening would prove to be eventful in more ways than one for those of us attending the three-plus hour symphony performance who also live north of "the Gate."


The Godfather, #2 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the "100 Greatest Movies of All Time," was a blockbuster on release, became the highest grossing film of 1972 and won the year's Academy Award for Best Picture. Adapted from Mario Puzo's best-selling Mafia tale by the author and Francis Coppola, who shared an Oscar for their screenplay, the film was also a ground-breaker. For starters, Coppola was willing to gamble - and battle the studio - when he cast the lead roles. Only one actor in the film's large ensemble was
Diane Keaton and Al Pacino in The Godfather
then well-known: Marlon Brando, whose career had been in decline for some time and had negligible "box office clout" by the early '70s. Brando would win, and notoriously refuse, the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Vito Corleone and go on to see his career revived. Most of the "unknowns" in the film's other lead and featured roles would gain immediate cache, and some - Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and Al Pacino - would eventually win Oscars for their work in later films.

The cinematography of Gordon Willis (Klute, All the President's Men, Annie Hall) was instrumental in establishing and underscoring The Godfather's atmosphere and style. Though the studio had been nervous about Willis's chiaroscuro-heavy approach, his expressive photography and lighting stand as hallmarks of the film.

Setting the tone: the stunning cinematography of Gordon Willis

And there is Nino Rota's acclaimed musical score. Rota, born in Milan, Italy, in 1911, was a recognized film composer before he scored The Godfather, best known for his work with Federico Fellini (La Strada, The Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, 8½, etc.). Rota's lengthy collaboration with Fellini has been compared to Bernard Herrmann's with Hitchcock, so perfectly did the two mesh creatively. Rota also scored films for Luchino Visconti (Le Notti Bianchi, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard), Franco Zeffirelli, King Vidor and others, but he is most associated with the films of Fellini and the Godfather trilogy. As with so many aspects of the production of The Godfather, the studio was at odds with director Coppola about who should compose its music. While Paramount wanted Henry Mancini, Coppola was determined to have Rota. Interestingly, Rota was not particularly keen on the project but, when Coppola agreed to his exacting terms, he set to work. In addition to Rota's score, the film includes other music - popular songs of the era in which the film is set, classical pieces and source music by Coppola's father, conductor/composer Carmine.

Nino Rota
James M. Keller, author and program annotator for San Francisco's symphony and New York's philharmonic orchestra, writes of the director/composer collaboration: "What Coppola requested and got from Rota was a score that didn't so much parallel the film's action as to reinforce its psychological undercurrents and to suggest its locales, specifically its scenes in Sicily and the importing of that essence to an Italian-American context." The music Rota developed was - and remains - intrinsic to the film's ultimate triumph. The American Film Institute ranks the score #5 on its 2005 list of "The 25 Greatest Film Scores of All Time" and Rota had initially been Oscar-nominated for his work. However, he was disqualified when it was learned that a section of the music he composed for a specific sequence was a reworking of something he'd done on one of his previous films, Fortunella for director Eduardo De Filippo, in 1958. Curiously, though The Godfather, Part II (1974) used elements of that score again, the Academy didn't object and Rota won an Oscar for his Godfather II score.


You may wonder how it is done - the screening of a film, minus its recorded score, with live concert performance of the missing music.

To begin with, the film's score is digitally scrubbed (or stripped) from the soundtrack. It is the process of  reconstructing the score for live performance that can become complicated. Conductor/composer Justin Freer, who prepared and conducted the San Francisco Symphony's Godfather presentation, discovered that though much of Rota's score, archived in Paramount's music library, was intact, not all of it was in fully orchestrated form. Freer also worked from lead sheets where they were all that existed but, as he told James Keller, the project "involved a great deal of transcription and taking down musical lines from the film itself. Even when cues are fully fleshed out, that isn't necessarily what appears in the film. It's very common that edits are made on the stage during recording sessions, but that edits aren't recorded by hand by anyone in the sound booth." With Francis Coppola involved and cooperative throughout, Freer worked hard to make sure the score was, as Coppola hoped it would be, faithful to the original 1972 film version. 

The obvious challenge for conductor and orchestra in performance is to synchronize the music with the film, especially when there are changes in movement or tempo. From our birds-eye-view orchestra seats in Davies Hall, we were able to see that Freer was following a monitor on his lectern that displayed the film with a fast-paced series of moving-bar and flashing-dot cues superimposed onto it. The monitor also indicated running time in one upper corner of its screen and, in the other, what appeared to be a time code that corresponded with numbers written in the musicians' score.

Quite a process, quite a result. To watch, onscreen, a film of The Godfather's power while listening to its evocative score performed live in a world-class symphony hall is thrilling.

The house lights dim...
...and go down

In the darkened hall, the full-house audience falls silent. Slowly, a solo trumpet plays a spare melody, a forlorn tune that seems from a faraway place and a time long ago. More silence, more darkness. Then comes the sound of a man's voice, heavy with an immigrant's accent. "I believe in America..." he says, and the ageless saga begins.


The Godfather is currently touring concert halls around the U.S. and the world. Click here for the schedule.

To learn more about the San Francisco's Symphony's film series, click here.

Tickets for this film series performance were provided by the San Francisco Symphony. Many thanks to that fine organization.


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Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Shape of Things to 2015

2014, a busy year in my world, seems to have passed in a about a half-hour or less, and now 2015 is at the door. Here's what my crystal ball predicts may be in store for me on the classic film front in the new year...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What a Character: Cecil Kellaway

Cecil Kellaway is among a handful of older character actors active during Hollywood's heyday who brought to the screen a delectable combination of warmth, kindliness and good cheer that I call "old guy charm." Other members of this twinkly-eyed pack of golden boys include the likes of sweet and snuggly S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, shyly unassuming Henry Travers, rascally Charles Ruggles and spry ol' Harry Davenport.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


2014 has been jam-packed with anniversaries significant to classic film lovers. The year has marked not only the on-screen centennial of Chaplin's "Little Tramp," but also the centenary birth dates of many silver (and Technicolor) screen luminaries including Alec Guinness, Hedy Lamarr, Ida Lupino, Tyrone Power, Jane Wyman and Richard Widmark. 2014 also marks the diamond anniversary of the premiere of Gone with the Wind 75 years ago in December, 1939. And 70 years ago On the Town, the musical that catapulted the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to fame, made its much-heralded debut on Broadway in December, 1944. The pair went on to script its 1949 screen adaptation as well as screenplays for Singin' in the Rain (1952), Auntie Mame (1958) and more.

There's been much to celebrate, and the revelry continues.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hair-raising Tales


Léonard Autié (Monsieur Léonard) was the imaginative 18th century hairdresser responsible for creating the wildly elaborate coiffures of Marie Antoinette. The rococo hairstyles he concocted during her heyday were called poufs, and several of the fantastical coifs he whipped up for her rose 36 inches or more from the top of her head.  In her offbeat and whimsical Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, Jessica Kerwin Jenkins describes one of Autié’s first important hairstyles for Marie Antoinette, the pouf d’ inoculation - a celebration of Louis XIV’s vaccination: “a rising sun and a serpent holding a club as he shimmied up an olive tree nestled into her hair. The sun symbolized the king. The olive tree stood for peace. The slinky serpent represented medicine, with its club to clobber disease.”