Monthly Archives: November 2011

I’ve Gotta Get Up and Go See Moonlight and Pretzels
This Wednesday at the Portage!

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

November 30th
MOONLIGHT AND PRETZELS
Directed by Karl Freund • 1933
All the studios were trying to duplicate Busby Berkeley’s musical extravaganzas in 1933, but Universal’s effort stands out for its low-budget sincerity and its related shamelessness: the climactic “Dusty Shoes” number is an undisguised rip-off of “Remember My Forgotten Man,” likely conceived and choreographed in an afternoon shortly after Gold Diggers of 1933 opened. The show starts with washed-up singer Roger Pryor flirting with small-town record store operator Mary Brian. His love song to her spurs great Broadway success and the follow-up, Moonlight and Pretzels, promises a characteristic mix of romantic ambition and a disarmingly common touch. (What other musical, even in the ultratopical ‘30s, boasts a song as straightforwardly proletarian as “I’ve Gotta Get Up and Go to Work”?) Directed with considerable panache by once-and-future cameraman Karl Freund in between his twin masterpieces of the ’30s horror cycle (The Mummy and Mad Love), Moonlight and Pretzels emerges as the fullest expression of a particular kind of musical ethos prior to Corn’s-A-Poppin‘. Also featuring top-billed Leo Carillo as bumbling impresario Nick Pappacropolis, beer garden hijinks, scads of scenes shot in New York’s Casino Theater, and sustained fun. (KW)
80 min • Universal • 35mm from Universal
Cartoon: Betty Boop in “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” (1932, Dave Fleischer) – 35mm
Soundies: Spike Jones and His City Slickers, 16mm courtesy Chicago Film Archives

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If I Had a Million: Paramount’s 99 Percent

Most people talk about movies on the basis of stars, directors, plots, sometimes genres. In some ways, though, the surest indicator of tone, style, and resonance, if not overall quality, is the production company.

Film programmers tend to think about this rather often. More than we like to acknowledge, repertory screenings are dictated by the vagaries of which studios make continued efforts to circulate their titles and which don’t. Booking prints is more complicated than it might sound at first. Keeping tabs on who has what demands a near-encyclopedic command of corporate merger dates, decades-old television licensing agreements, the whereabouts of archival deposits, and individual tastes of collectors and curators long since gone. It’s easy to take for granted today, for example, that a film made by Warner Bros.-First National seven decades ago can be rented directly from Warner Bros.; for a long time, the classic WB titles were held by United Artists Classics, later MGM-UA, subsequently Turner Entertainment, itself now conveniently under the Time Warner umbrella.

It’s easy to forget about studios when the studios themselves made such all-encompassing efforts to divest of their back catalog. RKO’s library traded hands from one disinterested owner (the General Tire and Rubber Company) to another (C&C Television Corp., a cola company subsidiary). Paramount’s 1929-1948 holdings were sold off to an MCA shell-company, EMKA in 1957, with many titles forever after only available in copies that bare the marks of quick, cheap, and frenzied duplication for television distribution. (Luckily, MCA’s subsequent acquisition of Decca Records, itself the parent company of Universal-International, brought the Paramount library under the auspices of a studio that would demonstrate exceptional stewardship of this complex collection.)

Once we find a path through this thicket of malleable ownership, we begin to notice qualities common across a studio’s production schedule. Their form speaks to the ideology. The Warner Bros. picture of the 1930s is, of course, instantly recognizable—rarely more than 75 minutes, rough around the edges, focused so intently on elemental striving that it neglects to notice or much care about the finer things in life. M-G-M’s features of the same period are, with only a handful of exceptions, insufferable—invariably half an hour longer than they need to be, never content to simply show something when it can be spoken, repeated, and hammered home in expository dialogue delivered disarmingly late in the picture. Watching M-G-M output can actively make you angry: so much waste on such pallid, undercooked, but overdetermined material. After the anger subsides, you feel a strange pity: the pictures demonstrate such an enfeebled, narrow notion of class that the monolithic (and conservative) M-G-M house style just sounds tinny. Continue reading

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Wannabe Plutocrats Unite: If I Had a Million
This Wednesday at the Portage!

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

November 23rd
IF I HAD A MILLION
Directed by Norman Taurog, Norman McLeod, Stephen Roberts, H. Bruce Humberstone, James Cruze, Ernst Lubitsch, and William A. Seiter • 1932

Every now and then, when studios had endless rosters of talent and topflight technicians, they would toss off rambling, oversized ensemble films for the sole purpose of reminding audiences of their plenty. Paramount’s effort was more memorable than most and still beloved to this day. The premise is slender—an elderly tycoon (Richard Bennett) decides to disperse his millions amongst random schmoes in the phone directory—but the diverse notes of tragedy, comedy, and epiphany in the vignettes that follow are rich: Wynne Gibson as a prostitute, relieved that she can finally afford a single-occupancy bed; henpecked china shop associate Charlie Ruggles who spends an exhilarating day at the office; career criminal George Raft who can’t forge his way out of this one; and road-rage-prone W.C. Fields. And that’s only half of it. Content to develop stripped-down but emotionally robust miniatures (the Charles Laughton-Ernst Lubitsch segment might be the two most succinct minutes in the history of cinema), If I Had a Million compares well with today’s ensemble pieces, obsessed as they are with tying together every character through a web
of coincidence, fate, and excruciating designs. (KW)

88 min • Paramount • 35mm from Universal
Short: Laurel & Hardy in “Early to Bed” (Emmet J. Flynn, 1928) 16mm

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The Sudden Death and Life of Film

The emulsion is on the wall, so to speak.

Film is finished as a mainstream exhibition format after more than a century. Roger Ebert, a long-time video projection skeptic, proclaimed as much a little over a week ago.

One can see where he’s coming from. High-end digital projectors have overtaken 35mm in the multiplexes. Kodak shares briefly flirted with penny stock status. The only good news coming from the company lately was, ironically, the leasing of laser projection patents to IMAX, which will shortly replace its last remaining 70mm installations with digital machines.

As film’s share of the market shrinks, there will be increasing pressure to discontinue the format altogether. The studios would rather it had been discontinued yesterday.

At first glance, digital represents a clear cost-saving. No more laboratories, no more prints, no more warehouses, no more trucks—a frictionless distribution infrastructure without the grease and rust. The future is shiny: hard drives, servers, eventually satellite transmission without any physical medium whatsoever. The next time some fussy filmmaker is haggling over final cut a week before release, there won’t be any rush orders at Technicolor—4,000 prints by Wednesday. The newly conformed digital intermediate can be uploaded by supper. Continue reading

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Don’t Miss This One: Her Sister’s Secret

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

O U R   R A R E S T   S C R E E N I N G   O F   T H E   S E A S O N !

Wednesday, November 16th
HER SISTER’S SECRET
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer • 1946
Knocked up at Mardis Gras. Abandoned by her soldier-lover. Forced to pawn her new baby off on her sister. These are only a few of the indignities suffered by Nancy Coleman in Her Sister’s Secret, a superb melodrama that has been improbably neglected in favor of more salacious-sounding Ulmer entries like Girls in Chains and The Amazing Transparent Man. Yet Her Sister’s Secret has something those lack: a budget. After years toiling in the exploitation and Yiddish-language cinemas, Ulmer found steady work at Producers Releasing Corporation turning out cheap time-passers. Modern fans regard Detour as the culmination of this period, but Her Sister’s Secret possesses equal claim, and not just because it was Ulmer’s last for the company; touted as PRC’s “first million-dollar production,” it embodies the scrappy striving that characterized Ulmer’s career. Put over with excellent camerawork from Franz Planer (soon to be snatched up by Max Ophuls and Robert Siodmak), you won’t soon forget Her Sister’s Secret. (KW)

80 min • Producers Releasing Corp • Ultra-rare 16mm from private collection
Screen Song: “Row, Row, Row” (1930, Dave Fleischer) 16mm

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TV on Film: A Historical Sketch and an Ode to the Eastman 25


There has always been an artificial divide between cinema and television. The latter, it was prophesized, would bring about the death of the former. Movies quickly embarked on out-flanking TV with innovations like widescreen, stereo imagery (3-D) and stereo sound (four-track magnetic playback), Eastmancolor, and, eventually, sex and violence that would make any network censor blanche. Cinephiles proudly declared they didn’t own a television set and TV buffs shook their heads over the expense and inconvenience of going to the movies. Frank Tashlin satirized this division early on (and hilariously) in The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

In reality, the two media were often closer than partisans would admit, with moguls freely shifting talent and resources from one to another. Universal, the studio that invested most seriously in TV production, would reap the benefits many times over.

In a more material sense, the first few decades of television broadcasting would be inconceivable without film. Local stations, especially unaffiliated ones that relied on syndication deals and back catalog feature film packages to fill out their schedules, were grindhouses in all but name, projecting celluloid prints of TV content hour after hour. Continue reading

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Turn On, Tune In, Drop By: TV ON FILM
This Sunday at Cinema Borealis!

Cinema Borealis – 1550 North Milwaukee Ave, 4th floor (NOTE: There is no elevator!)
Suggested donation is $10 – Seating is limited so please arrive early!

Sunday, November 13th – 6pm
Cinema Borealis
TV on FILM

In its heyday, TV meant more than just microwaves and antennae. Video was in its infancy and local stations built broadcast schedules from mountains of 16mm film–Saturday morning cartoons, syndicated sit-coms, local newsreels, commercials, dramatic anthologies in re-run, C&C Movie Time feature presentations, and much more. Harried studio technicians threaded up each print in real time on an industrial-strength projector with its lens aimed squarely at a TV camera. (Imagine the pressure: if the film breaks, every rugrat in metro Detroit sees your mistake!) These prints have survived the ravages of time and surly station managers to form a foundation for the film collectors’ underground. In an attempt to bridge the gap between couch potatoes and cinephiles, we present a marathon of TV on Film, recreating an imagined broadcast evening wholly through 16mm (and rare 35mm!) prints at Cinema Borealis, Chicago’s favorite and coziest living room. Program includes Superman, Rod Serling, the mind-frying Cattanooga Cats, and plenty of surprises. (KW)

Continuous performance from 6pm through 11pm. Come and go as you please. Stay if you dare!

————

And don’t forget our next Classic Film Series screening at the Portage Theater!

Wednesday, November 16th
HER SISTER’S SECRET
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer • 1946
Knocked up at Mardis Gras. Abandoned by her soldier-lover. Forced to pawn her new baby off on her sister. These are only a few of the indignities suffered by Nancy Coleman in Her Sister’s Secret, a superb melodrama that has been improbably neglected in favor of more salacious-sounding Ulmer entries like Girls in Chains and The Amazing Transparent Man. Yet Her Sister’s Secret has something those lack: a budget. After years toiling in the exploitation and Yiddish-language cinemas, Ulmer found steady work at Producers Releasing Corporation turning out cheap time-passers. Modern fans regard Detour as the culmination of this period, but Her Sister’s Secret possesses equal claim, and not just because it was Ulmer’s last for the company; touted as PRC’s “first million-dollar production,” it embodies the scrappy striving that characterized Ulmer’s career. Put over with excellent camerawork from Franz Planer (soon to be snatched up by Max Ophuls and Robert Siodmak), you won’t soon forget Her Sister’s Secret. (KW)

80 min • Producers Releasing Corp • Ultra-rare 16mm from private collection
Screen Song: “Row, Row, Row” (1930, Dave Fleischer) 16mm

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This Wednesday at the Portage: Rock Around the Rock Pile with The Girl Can’t Help It

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

November 9th
THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT
Directed by Frank Tashlin • 1956
What is rock ‘n’ roll? According to The Girl Can’t Help It, it’s a mob-controlled racket where a no-talent bombshell with a “new sound” can skyrocket up the charts thanks to rigged jukeboxes and a legion of stupefied teenagers. Playing for laughs situations and mantras that would be serious business the next year in Jailhouse Rock, Tashlin’s riotous satire is also a strangely empathetic movie: Jayne Mansfield, the reluctant crooner, obliterates the very sexpot image that Fox was grooming her to fulfill and the music itself plays out in respectful long takes. (Hollywood saw something in rock ‘n’ roll, all right—something that could be shoehorned into cheap exploitation pictures. No other movie has Fats Domino, Little Richard, and the Platters accorded the dignity of color and CinemaScope.) Also featuring Tom Ewell as a beleaguered p.r. problem-solver, Edmond O’Brien as a subliterate gangster with a new sound of his own, and Julie London as the sexiest easy listening ghost you’ve ever heard. (KW)
99 min • 20th Century-Fox • 35mm CinemaScope print from Criterion Pictures USA
Cartoon: “Rooty Toot Toot” (John Hubley, 1951) 16mm

—– And that’s not all! —–

Sunday, November 13th – 6pm
Cinema Borealis
TV on FILM

In its heyday, TV meant more than just microwaves and antennae. Video was in its infancy and local stations built broadcast schedules from mountains of 16mm film–Saturday morning cartoons, syndicated sit-coms, local newsreels, commercials, dramatic anthologies in re-run, C&C Movie Time feature presentations, and much more. Harried studio technicians threaded up each print in real time on an industrial-strength projector with its lens aimed squarely at a TV camera. (Imagine the pressure: if the film breaks, every rugrat in metro Detroit sees your mistake!) These prints have survived the ravages of time and surly station managers to form a foundation for the film collectors’ underground. In an attempt to bridge the gap between couch potatoes and cinephiles, we present a marathon of TV on Film, recreating an imagined broadcast evening wholly through 16mm (and rare 35mm!) prints at Cinema Borealis, Chicago’s favorite and coziest living room. Program includes Superman, Rod Serling, the mind-frying Cattanooga Cats, and plenty of surprises. (KW)

Continuous performance from 6pm through 11pm co presented with the Nightingale. Come and go as you please. Stay if you dare!

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