Monthly Archives: July 2012

Resurrecting Stage Struck

If a major American studio falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

To the average movie fan in 1956, probably not. For those who got their Hollywood news from Hedda Hopper’s syndicated newspaper column, RKO’s Stage Struck sounded like business as usual, with casting news and production leaks coming at regular intervals. Early chatter had pegged Jean Simmons for the starring role of ingénue actress Eva Lovelace, but Bill Dozier, Joan Fontaine’s ex-husband and producer of high-class fare like Letter from Unknown Woman, now held the reins at the newly restructured RKO and had his sights set on Susan Strasberg. The 18-year-old actress, daughter of legendary acting instructor and Method prophet Lee Strasberg, had already acquitted herself with supporting parts in Picnic and The Cobweb, but her profile had been raised immeasurably by the Broadway success of The Diary of Anne Frank, then in the midst of a run that would exceed 700 performances. Strasberg was signed. Cameras would roll in January 1957 in New York City.

Henry Fonda’s participation was announced in August 1956. That same month, Sidney Lumet was attached as director. This spoke to enormous confidence in the theater- and television-trained Lumet, whose feature debut 12 Angry Men had already been shot but would not be released by United Artists until the following spring. Herbert Marshall was added to the rolls in September and Christopher Plummer in December.

After the shoot began the following month, Walter Winchell fanned whispers that Strasberg had been romancing James MacArthur, her co-star in the upcoming Underdog. (The son of Helen Hayes, MacArthur suggested a parallel, irresistible case of theatrical royalty.) Another syndicated columnist, Leonard Lyons, noted that the Stage Struck crew had briefly rendezvoused with the FBI when the feds paid a visit to photograph the Commies assembling at the Chateau Garden next door. The Washington Post reported on Mrs. Lee Strasberg watching her daughter with “hawklike intentness” every day on the set. “Isn’t she amazing?,” the stage mother asked. “How her grandfather would have adored her. She just IS theater, isn’t she?” Talk about Method. Continue reading

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Susan Strasberg, Henry Fonda, and a Floor Lamp —
Ultra-rare Stage Struck in IB Tech 35mm This Wednesday

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.

August 1
Directed by Sidney Lumet • 1958
Shot entirely on location in New York City, Sidney Lumet’s loose remake of the 1933 Katharine Hepburn vehicle Morning Glory stars a surreally wide eyed Susan Strasberg as a New England hopeful trying to conquer the Broadway stage. Show business dictates that she must choose between a life of stardom and a life of love with stage producer Henry Fonda, which leads to a really beautiful near-final shot of Strasberg, Fonda, and a floor lamp. Slightly dopey but highly affectionate, Strasberg is endearing, Fonda is similarly cute as a button, and Stage Struck is one of the best looking films Lumet ever made, with lush blues and reds and an ultra saturated view of New York. One of the last pictures produced by RKO (the company was bought by Howard Hughes in 1948, sold to the General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955, and dissolved the year of this picture’s release), the film was distributed by Buena Vista, eventually orphaned, and never really got the second look it deserved … here’s its chance. With Christopher Plummer, Herbert Marshall, and a highly explosive Joan Greenwood. (JA)
95 min • RKO • 35mm IB Technicolor from the Radio Cinema Film Archive
Short: “Stage Frights” (Albert Ray, 1935) – 35mm – 22 min

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Who Wants To See Old Movies?

Last week the Los Angles Times published an unusual op-ed about young peoples’ attitudes towards movies from Neal Gabler, the writer responsible for such insightful social histories as An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.

I call the article unusual not because its topic is especially exotic (more on that in a moment) but because it reads with such befuddled contempt for an entire generation. Withholding any constructive solution to the supposed problem, Gabler seems less interested in fostering film appreciation than in griping about kids these days. In other words, it calls to mind the class of knee-jerk sociology which Empire of Their Own or Gabler’s more recent Walt Disney biography studiously avoid. Here’s a representative paragraph:

Young people, so-called millennials, don’t seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did. They think of them as fashion, and like fashion, movies have to be new and cool to warrant attention. Living in a world of the here-and-now, obsessed with whatever is current, kids seem no more interested in seeing their parents’ movies than they are in wearing their parents’ clothes. Indeed, novelty may be the new narcissism. It obliterates the past in the fascination with the present. Continue reading

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A Popular Front Film That Should Be More Popular
Julien Duvivier’s La belle équipe — This Wednesday

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.

July 25
Directed by Julien Duvivier • 1936
Five factory stiffs, led by Jean Gabin, win the national lottery and find themselves with 100,000 francs between them. They agree to put all the proceeds towards a workers’ open-air dance hall on the banks of the Marne. Made during the very brief moment when such a gesture sounded both guileless and politically-charged, La belle équipe exemplifies the cinema of the Popular Front, France’s short-lived, pan-leftist solution to mounting fascism. (It’s a tribute to the emotional and social complexity of La belle équipe that it records the optimism of the period while also acknowledging its mundane frailty.) Scripted by Charles Spaak, the French film industry’s most committed scenarist, La belle équipe was briefly eyed as a project by Jean Renoir, whose own collaborations with Spaak include Les bas-fonds and La grande illusion. Prolific director Julien Duvivier, a friend of Renoir’s, proved quite capable of helming the picture. Once a classic of college film societies under the generic and uninvolving title They Were Five, this is exceedingly rare and undervalued these days—a real missing link in ’30s French cinema. In French with English subtitles. (KW)
Co-presented with portoluz–WPA 2.0: A Brand New Deal
101 min. • Ciné-Arys • 16mm Print from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Cartoon: Popeye the Sailor in “We Aim to Please” (Dave Fleischer, 1934) – 16mm – 7 min

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Moving Pictures That Move: House of Bamboo in CinemaScope

Would some films not exist at all but for their aspect ratios?

Put another way: although we tend now to think of aspect ratios as somewhat perfunctory aesthetic choices made during the preproduction process, the equation was almost exactly reversed at the dawn of the widescreen era. The shape of the screen was the engine that drove everything else and, in some cases, dictated the content before the cameras.

Continue reading

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A Fistful of Tokyo: Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo
In 35mm Cinemascope 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.

July 18
Directed by Samuel Fuller • 1955
Part Oriental travelogue, part gangster noir, totally Sam Fuller. A respectable idea (the first images of Japan in color and Cinemascope, courtesy 20th Century-Fox) receives totally gonzo treatment from Fuller, whose idea of cultural exchange is an empire of Pachinko graft overseen by sullen ex-GI Robert Ryan and a murder with a Mount Fuji backdrop. Counterespionage stiff Robert Stack infiltrates the Americanized yakuza ring and pursues Shirley Yamaguchi in a surprisingly progressive cross-cultural romance. Working with the biggest budget of his career, Fuller upped the ante of Fox’s docu-crime aesthetic by staging panoramic mayhem on the tourist-friendly streets of Tokyo. A dense pulp delicacy that demands to be seen on the big screen, especially in this brand new print. (KW)
102 min • 20th Century-Fox • 35mm from Criterion Pictures USA
Short: “My Japan” (US Office of War Information, 1945) – 16mm – 20 min

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Who Needs Christmas When You Have Christmas in July?
This Wednesday at the Portage in 35mm!

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.

July 11
Directed by Preston Sturges • 1940
Dick Powell enters a contest to create a new slogan for the Maxford House Coffee Company with hopes of winning $25,000 for himself and his girlfriend Ellen Drew (his entry: “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”). A cruel trick courtesy of Powell’s co-workers convinces the young hopeful that he’s really won the prize, and we learn (or perhaps are reminded of) what it’s like when the difference between success and failure is being able to afford a new couch for your mother’s apartment. Based on the script for an unproduced stage play Sturges wrote in 1931, Christmas in July feels more like Paramount’s pre-Code output than the bulk of Sturges’s own work in the ’40s (which makes sense considering Universal simultaneously picked up and dropped the script in 1934). Running a brief 67 minutes, the film finds a perfect balance between Sturges’s obsessive orchestration of details and his effortless understanding of human interaction, and feels the closest to his heart. (JA)
Co-presented with portoluz–WPA 2.0: A Brand New Deal
67 min • Paramount Pictures • 35mm from Universal
Short: Laurel & Hardy in “Thicker Than Water” (James W. Horne, 1935) – 16mm – 21 min

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Invasion of the Aspect Ratios

This week’s feature, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has long been regarded as a political hot potato. Like High Noon, it’s either a preachment for vigilance in the face of a Communistic menace or a cautionary allegory of a conformist overreaction to that selfsame menace. But for a certain kind of cinephile, the aspect ratio of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is just as contested as its ideological underpinnings. Moviegoers shouldn’t be passive pods for received wisdom, so we thought it would be edifying to discuss the context of theatrical exhibitions in the 1950s and beyond. – Eds. 

The shape and configuration of theatrical film has been basically unchanged since the earliest days of the twentieth century—35mm in width, four uniform perforations per frame. The relative apportionment of image and sound within that frame has changed tremendously, however, and projectionists have long been expected to extract images of all shapes and sizes from the same old film strip. Through a combination of specialized lenses, lens attachments, aperture plates, and screen masking, they present a range of rectangular images known in industry parlance as aspect ratios.

These shapes are expressed in numeric terms, as a ratio of image width to image height. The common aspect ratio 1.37:1, for example, means that the image on screen is 1.37 times wider than it is high. Counterintuitively, many of the wider aspect ratios like 1.85:1 achieve this apparent horizontal superiority simply by artificially constricting the height of the frame; since we’re talking in ratios rather than absolutes, cropping the top and bottom from the frame does yield a wider image, albeit with some loss of clarity when blown up on an enormous theater screen. The ultra-wide Cinemascope—2.39:1—uses a two-piece lens to anamorphically stretch a heavily compressed image on a conventional film strip. Continue reading

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