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Archive for August, 2012

Hollywood Blacklisting

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Left to right: Danny Kaye, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and others protest at the HUAC Hearings.

I have a new video out today in the Frame by Frame series, directed and edited by Curt Bright, which I wrote and appear in, on the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s. About the Blacklist, the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of its most celebrated personages, had this to say in 1970, when the Blacklist had begun to wane: “The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides. When you who are in your 40s or younger look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us – right, left, or center – emerged from that long nightmare without sin.”

You can see the entire 10 minute video by clicking here, or on the image above.

Conelrad: All Things Atomic

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Here’s a fascinating site which explores the Cold War era in 1950s America.

The site has been around since 1999, and contains text, audio clips, video clips, and other Cold War ephemera, and is a truly one-stop source for anyone interested in what was like to live in America in the dawn of the Atomic Era. As the site’s editors put it, “CONELRAD is the creation of writers who grew up in the shadow of the bomb and all its attendant pop culture fallout. We wish to share our collected interest, experience and obsession with this strange era and thereby provide as much information as possible to the public. This is not to say we’re living in the past! The Day After Trinity is now and forever more and we will reflect that reality here. From apocalyptic dirty bomb scenarios to the Russians and Chinese reigniting the space race, CONELRAD is always on the Eve of Destruction. Watch our Alert ticker on the top of our main page to stay informed of the latest CONELRAD activity. In addition to our own writing on all things atomic, we aim to provide a comprehensive clearinghouse of atomic links. There is a lot of material out there and we will continue to update this section frequently. Furthermore, we extend an open invitation to those of you out there who share our passion for Atomania to send us your suggestions and submissions.”

Amazingly comprehensive, and absolutely worth a look.

The Archive of American Television

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Here’s a fantastic site on the history of American television, with interviews, video clips, bloopers, inside stories and statistics, all of it thoroughly indexed.

While the main site for the Archive of American Television is here, I have linked to the interview site as the first stop for viewers, since it offers something like 700 interviews with actors, writers, directors, producers and others who created television programming — the good, the bad, and the indifferent — from the first 75 years or so of television history. It’s an invaluable resource for those who are interested in researching the medium, and highly recommended.

Another example of the value of digital archives. It’s all at your fingertips.

Embracing The Apocalypse: A World Without People

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in the latest issue of Film International, “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People,” examining visions of the future as imagined by various Dystopian films and television programs.

As she writes, “Human-centered popular folktales of Apocalypse and Doomsday narratives of every imaginable scenario are undeniably as powerful and plentiful as they have been from the beginnings of human narrative tradition. Indeed, apocalyptic events permeate a plethora of grand narratives from myriad cultures and textual sources that prominently, almost ecstatically, feature and carefully describe the gory details of our violent end times. They are set in the future, and almost all revolve around human-centered stories complete with often similarly violent narratives, inevitable tropes of conflict, judgment, drama, and resolution, the stops we require of any genre or tradition in human narrative form.

At the center of apocalyptic vision we find, perhaps predictably, a human-dominant form of speciesism, revealing a widespread, almost universally held belief in the dominance of human beings as a species. Human beings are placed at the center of events and narratives, even narratives that don’t involve human beings. This is something that often goes unnoticed, but it is especially notable in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and depeopled futuristic visions.

The plethora of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic narratives are far too numerous to list, from religious scripture and Revelations, to secular visions of end times, to the myriad, often bizarre and insane sounding predictions of the end by various individuals and groups. All are narratives of human-centered destruction; some invoke the end of the earth, and some portray the end of people and human civilization; but all embrace, and seem to enjoy visions of the end. We cannot agree on much, but people agree that the end is near, the end is coming, and the end is usually defined as the end of people and human civilization.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating work in an area that is largely unexplored.

Subverting Capitalism and Blind Faith: Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a fascinating piece on Pascal Laugier’s controversial film Martyrs (2008) in the current issue of Film International. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“It’s not a likable movie. Even me, myself, I hate the film.” (Pascal Laugier)

Pascal Laugier’s radically experimental horror film Martyrs (2008) is a persuasive and explosive leveling of capitalism, which is not limited to materialism, the Catholic Church, the cynical genre of torture porn, and the widespread embrace of anti-humanist postmodern irony. Martyrs joins the work of Pasolini, Bava, Bataille and other confrontational artists, including Luis Buñuel. Specifically, Martyrs recalls the eye-slitting scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. It directly assaults viewers with both detestable visuals and agonizing sounds of pain, in an almost unbearable filmic experience of terror that rouses the even the most cynical viewer from her/his postmodern stance of superiority. Martyrs makes the viewer responsible for the reinforcement of institutionalized capitalism, particularly religion, and more specifically religion’s obsessive embrace of death, its insistence on afterlife, its abuse of women, and its concomitant obsession with martyrdom. It is also a critique of the consumer of the horror film and an astounding film in and of itself.”

You can read the rest of this excellent essay by clicking here.

Topper

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to watch a complete episode of Topper.

Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling, standing; Leo G. Carroll and Lee Patrick, seated, in this 1953 cast photo from the television series Topper.

The character of Cosmo Topper, a button down banker haunted by the ghosts of George and Marian Kerby, was originally created by novelist Thorne Smith in the late 1920s, and served as the springboard for several indifferent films, but found its most lasting fame as a television series that lasted from 1953 to 1955, racking up a total of 78 episodes, which were played and replayed in syndication forever after.

In the television series, Topper was played by veteran actor Leo G. Carroll, whose eternally befuddled character was the perfect foil for the ghostly Kerbys, played by real life husband and wife team Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling. Lee Patrick, who had been knocking around in movies in bit parts — she was Sam Spade’s secretary in The Maltese Falcon, for example — was superb in role of Henrietta, Topper’s somewhat scatterbrained spouse.

The plots usually revolved around the fact that only Topper, and the audience, could see the Kerbys, who had perished in an avalanche while on a skiing vacation. For everyone else, things seemed to float around the house of their own accord, unexplained noises would erupt, and the Kerbys in general delighted in putting Topper in uncomfortable situations, all in an effort to loosen him up.

Further, the Kerbys had an alcoholic pet St. Bernard, Neil, who spent most of his time lapping up one martini after another, while Cosmo’s Boss, the exquisitely corrupt Mr. Schuyler (magnificently played by veteran heavy Thurston Hall), president of the bank where Topper works, keeps testing Topper’s patience with a variety of schemes and threats designed to make his life at the office miserable.

With the aid of the Kerbys, however, Cosmo Topper triumphs over the mendacity and mediocrity of 1950s American suburban life, and the series, which long ago passed into the Public Domain, and is available on DVD from Alpha Video, is well worth seeking out – it’s a real gem. Leo G. Carroll’s droll timing is a wonder to behold, and Sterling and Jeffries, very much in love, have a ball with their roles. Everyone on the series had to work very quickly, but they make it seem so effortless that it’s a real delight to watch.

Scripts were handled by a variety of writers, including a young Stephen Sondheim and George Oppenheimer; directors included Leslie Goodwins, Leslie H. Martinson — who later worked on the Batman TV series — and Lew Landers, and all the episodes were shot in two days or less, including time for Bewitched-style special effects, at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Calif.

Topper — one of the most sophisticated, literate, and adult 1950s TV shows.

The End of Summer (1961)

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

The End of Summer (1961) is Yasujiro Ozu’s second to last film.

Here are some thoughts on the film from a brilliant essay by Michael Koresky, which accompanies the Criterion DVD of The End of Summer: “to develop the script for what would be his penultimate film, The End of Summer (1961), Yasujiro Ozu and coscreenwriter Kogo Noda retreated to the warm climes of Tateshina, in Nagano. Between February and April of 1961, according to Ozu, the two men enjoyed lovely spring weather every day and, with no guests to call on them, were able to get drunk and boisterous whenever they wanted to, which was often. This rowdy, carefree attitude seems to have informed the end result: like Late Autumn (1960), which depicted its three middle-aged male characters as older versions of the playful schoolboys of his earlier films, The End of Summer again paints the father figure as regressing to a youthful state—much to the chagrin of his three daughters.

Yet here, the disappearing patriarch represents something even grander: the decline of a traditional way of life for a family. While attempting to find a suitable husband for the youngest of its three daughters, Noriko, as well as, tangentially, for her widowed sister, Akiko, the Kohayagawa clan is also struggling to run its faltering sake brewing company, which has survived generations. (Akiko and Noriko are played by Setsuko Hara and Yoko Tsukasa, who had so movingly portrayed mother and daughter in Late Autumn.) The family faces hardships both emotional and financial when the impish father, Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura), begins to behave in an increasingly erratic way, taking off in the middle of the working day to reunite with his former mistress. When he becomes ill, the future of the business and the family unit is thrown into question, and the possibility of selling out to a larger corporate interest becomes an attractive prospect for the children.

It’s quite obvious, from its buoyant, almost romantic-comic, opening to its funereal ending, that The End of Summer is primarily concerned with the younger Kohayagawas—with what happens when the children take over from their parents, with the pain of letting go versus the possibility of moving on. There’s such a fine, elegantly drawn line between hope and sadness in The End of Summer, between the celebratory and the benedictory, that even as the film ends on disturbing images of smoke wafting from the top of a crematorium and crows perched ominously on gravestones, there remains the distinct sense of life drifting forward (“It’s the cycle of nature,” remarks a peasant woman, watching the ashes pour from the chimney stack).

The anecdote that supplied the main inspiration for the film also speaks of a balance between the comic and the painful—the true tale of an acquaintance of Ozu’s whose father suddenly rose from bed, hale and hearty, the morning after he had suffered a serious heart attack. Such a moment occurs in The End of Summer, although this instance of humorous resurrection remains tinged with the inevitability of death. Retrospectively, it seems a poignantly fitting attitude, both anxious and accepting, for a man who was coming to the close of his life.”

You can read the entire essay here.

The Unguarded Moment (1956)

Monday, August 6th, 2012

I have a new article on The Unguarded Moment in Noir of the Week.

Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment is a lost gem from the 1950s, which reveals the real dark side of the American dream, and the nightmare behind the seemingly pleasant facade of Eisenhower America. Esther Williams, usually more at home in aquatic roles, had just been dismissed by MGM, and was looking around for an interesting project to help her establish a new screen identity.

Universal suddenly, and unexpectedly, stepped in and offered her $200,000 to appear in The Unguarded Moment — more than $1.5 million in 2012, adjusted for inflation — which was more than MGM had ever paid her for any of her many films for that studio. The film was described to Esther Williams as a suspense thriller, which it manifestly is, and it was a complete change of pace from the roles she had spent her lifetime playing; essentially the same role over and over again, in a series of Technicolor swimming extravaganzas. Williams was sick of them, and sick of the genre as a whole; she wanted something different. Seeing the role as a challenge, Williams accepted the assignment.

Williams plays Lois Conway, a small town high school music teacher living in well-manicured suburbia — actually the Leave it to Beaver / Desperate Housewives street on Universal’s back lot — whose life is turned into a nightmare when one of her pupils, an unbalanced high school football star, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon, in a very early role) starts sending her love notes, physically attacks her after a football practice underneath the bleachers, breaks into her house and steals her possessions, all without leaving a shred of evidence against him.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Frankenstein 1970

Monday, August 6th, 2012

“‘I, Frankenstein, began my work in the year 1740 A.D. with all good intentions and humane thoughts to the high purpose of probing the secrets of life itself with but one end, the betterment of mankind.’  So wrote my celebrated ancestor, but first he had to learn how flesh is made. He had to discover the art of transplanting vital organs from human beings into his creature and knitting them together until they all had all the attributes of God-inspired birth. Of course, I must admit that perhaps he was not too scrupulous about where he got his raw material.” — Boris Karloff as Baron Victor von Frankenstein in Frankenstein 1970.

I have always had a peculiar affection for this film, and since right now I’m teaching a course on the Gothic Horror film, but not running this title, I thought I’d say a few words about it here. It was shot in December 1957 in exactly eight days, on sets left over from Too Much, Too Soon, the Diana Barrymore biopic directed by Henry Blanke. The main set was a huge, baronial castle, which fit Frankenstein 1970 perfectly, and the film’s director, Howard W. Koch struck a deal to use them on the Warner Bros. lot, inasmuch as Jack L. Warner seemed favorably disposed to the idea.

Karloff was then on a “play or pay” deal with Koch and his partner, Aubrey Schenck — they had to come up with something for Karloff to appear in, or else pay him $30,000 for doing nothing. Karloff’s services were too valuable to waste, and so the film was summarily scripted by George Worthing Yates, Aubrey Schenck, Charles A. Moses and Richard H. Landau in record time, going under a number of titles until the team finally settled on Frankenstein 1970.

Actually, I’ve written about this film many years ago, an essay in a book entitled Approaches to Frankenstein, but since I no longer have a copy, I’m quoting it from memory. Karloff, as Baron Victor Von Frankenstein, is the last surviving member of the line, and has suffered horrible tortures during World War II at the hands of the Nazis, with whom he refused to cooperate. Now, a quarter of a century later, he is alone in his castle, still working on his experiments with life and death, but funding has dried up.

To raise capital for his work, he allows a rather aggressive and intrusive exploitation film crew to shoot a Frankenstein TV special in his castle, which will pay for the nuclear reactor the Baron desperately needs to continue his labors. When body parts prove in short supply, however, he starts systematically killing off members of the film crew, and even his own butler, to obtain the vital organs he needs to continue his research.

In the end, of course, the whole plan falls apart, and the Baron’s illicit experimentation is discovered, but in the film’s final moments, it’s revealed that rather than fashioning some sort of crude human form, the Baron has given the creature his own face, before it was so horribly disfigured by the Nazis. When the police and the remaining members of the film crew break into his lab, they discover that the Baron has audiotaped a record of the entire process, and the film ends with a close-up of a tape recorder playing back his final words, “I gave you a heart, a brain, eyes . . . ” and the film fades out.

Shot in what Raymond Durgnat has famously called “the most irredeemable of genres,” black and white CinemaScope, Frankenstein 1970 is a cheap film, with numerous defects, mostly on the part of Tom Duggan, a real life newsman who plays one of the supporting roles in the film for added publicity value, and does a very poor job of it. But faced with a mere 8 days to get the film in the can, Koch smartly decided on using long, langorous takes, in which Karloff effortlessly dominates the proceedings.

As an added touch, and for extra revenue, the Baron agrees to act as the narrator of the television special — hence the quote at the top of this post — and as the director tells him after one lengthy take, “Baron, you pick up lines pretty fast.” Indeed he does, and the film, with its mournful sense of death, doom, and decay, and more than a little nostalgia for the past, proceeds faithfully along its predestined lines, and has finally been released in its proper CinemaScope aspect ratio as part of a four film box set on Warner Bros. DVD.

It’s no masterpiece, by any means, but there’s something desperate and appealing about it; it’s as if the Baron is rehearsing for the end he knows must come soon, and while shunning publicity, simultaneously embracing it, even as he hurtles headlong into a series of experiments which he fully knows can only end in disaster. Other than an episode of the television series Route 66, this was Karloff’s last association with the Frankenstein legend, which he’d rocketed to fame with in the 1931 original film. Everyone involved with Frankenstein 1970 ultimately seemed displeased with the results, including Karloff, but to me it’s an inspired riff on the original tale — perhaps because it so deftly deconstructs the legend it traffics in.

Worth a look, but only in the CinemaScope format, which is a revelation.

Vertigo Takes Top Spot in Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a brief video from CNN in which Sight and Sound editor Nick James discusses the poll results.

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic and deeply personal film Vertigo (1958) has taken the top spot in the prestigious Sight and Sound “greatest films of all time” poll.

It used to be Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) in the top spot, but Kane dropped to number two in the latest rankings. Actually, this doesn’t really surprise me; I have never been a Kane enthusiast; as remarkable as the film is, it still strikes more as an inspired pastiche of every possible style and technique jammed into one narrative, pegged on what Welles himself described as “a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud.”

I’ve always agreed with this admittedly rather harsh self-assessment, although I run the film every year in my Intro to Film History class nonetheless so students can see the film for themselves, and make up their own minds on the subject; certainly, everyone should see it.

Nevertheless, this poll seems like a very welcome breath of fresh air on a long rather static subject, and the choices overall seem both judicious and absolutely reasoned. And actually, there are two lists; one for critics, and one for directors. Critics get a shot at ranking the best of the cinema history, and then directors get a similar opportunity to pick their own favorites.

Here’s the top ten films of all time in the poll, as picked by the critics;

1. Vertigo

2. Citizen Kane

3. Tokyo Story

4. La Regle du Jeu

5. Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey

7. The Searchers

8. Man with a Movie Camera

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc

10. 8 1/2

and then the top ten of all time as picked by directors;

1. Tokyo Story

2. Tie: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Citizen Kane

4. 8 1/2

5. Taxi Driver

6. Apocalypse Now

7. Tie: The Godfather and Vertigo

9. Mirror

10. Bicycle Thieves

As Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound noted in an editorial announcing the new rankings, “to many of you it’s probably a familiar story. Every ten years, from 1952 onwards, Sight & Sound has conducted a worldwide poll of critics in order to decide which films are currently regarded as the greatest ever made. (Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist parable Bicycle Thieves won the first iteration only four years after it was shot. Famously, Citizen Kane has won ever since.) We’re proud that the longevity of this poll means that it’s widely regarded as the most trusted guide there is to the canon of cinema greats. So for us this year is a very big moment.

About a year ago, the Sight & Sound team met to consider how we could best approach the poll this time. Given the dominance of electronic media, what became immediately apparent was that we would have to abandon the somewhat elitist exclusivity with which contributors to the poll had been chosen in the past and reach out to a much wider international group of commentators than before. We were also keen to include among them many critics who had established their careers online rather than purely in print.

To that end we approached more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles, and received (in time for the deadline) precisely 846 top-ten lists that between them mention a total of 2,045 different films. As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, ‘We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.’”

You can read all about it by clicking here. I’m proud to say that I was one of those consulted for the poll; it was a distinct honor.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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