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The Colbert Report Signs Off

Friday, December 19th, 2014

The Colbert Report signed off with a star-studded finale that no other comic of this generation could match.

On the last show, a mammoth sing along to the tune of We’ll Meet Again featured everyone from Randy Newman to Henry Kissinger to Willie Nelson to James Franco to Gloria Steinem to Charlie Rose and every imaginable stop in-between – a fitting end to what was arguably the greatest late night satirical talk show in television history.

As Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine, “I’m blue. After nine years and two months, The Colbert Report is off the air. I’ve seen each of the 1446 episodes leading to tonight’s sign-off, and cherished almost all of them. The show’s conclusion will leave a void in my life and in my writing, since I’ve shoehorned Colbert references into reviews of Superbad, Prince of Persia, Pompeii, Jackass 3D, Nightcrawler and Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, and into essays about Richard Nixon, Ingmar Bergman, Derek Jeter, makeup artist Dick Smith and the 2012 Super Bowl.

For my wife Mary Corliss and me, Colbert has been destination viewing. Even in the early years, we never took the show’s excellence for granted, agreeing that some day we’d look back on the double whammy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as the golden age of TV’s singeing singing satire.

That age ends now. Colbert is gone from TV until September, when he takes over David Letterman’s CBS 11:35 slot and, at 51, becomes the oldest man to debut as the host of a late-night network talk show. He’ll be off the air for nine months — a long time for admirers like me to go cold, or Colbert, turkey. And when he finally starts on CBS, he’ll just be Stephen Colbert. Not ‘Stephen Colbert,’ the greatest fake newsman in TV history, and one of the richest fictional characters in any popular art form of the past decade.”

So until September, it’s cold turkey for Colbert fans – when we’ll meet again.

Highway to Hollywood – Maury Dexter

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Writing about The One I Love, I ran across this interesting surprise.

Director Maury Dexter, certainly not one of the major figures in film history by a long shot, has nevertheless written his autobiography – published in 2012 – and made it available as a free pdf file (click on the image above to access). Dexter’s work is extremely straightforward, and he specialized in low budget, quickly produced films for producer Robert L. Lippert for 20th Century Fox, after breaking in as an actor and getting advice from no less than director William Beaudine on how to effectively “act” on screen – Beaudine’s advice; “don’t act!”

From this, Dexter segued into assistant work, then directorial assignments, and more often than not made routine films for a set price, with the notable exception of the groundbreaking science fiction film The Day Mars Invaded Earth (not, sadly, available on DVD), winding up working for Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie.

Dexter’s memory remains sharp, and if he’s not a great prose stylist, he’s still got a lot of tales to tell. Dexter’s memoirs are short and punchy, with lots of inside information, and make for a light, easy read. This is a story of the underside of Hollywood, and the “bread and butter” pictures that cost so much, made so much, and never strained the limits of genre filmmaking.

But the price is right – so check it out; Hollywood in the 50s and 60s.

Marilyn Monroe Day By Day by Carl Rollyson

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Want to know what Marilyn Monroe did nearly every single day of her life?

I’m not a Monroe cultist by any means, but Rollyson’s book is one of the most carefully detailed and dispassionate accounts of the actor’s life to appear in print. Rather than trying to psychoanalyze Marilyn, or judging her, or adding editorial opinion, Rollyson simply takes the reader practically day by day starting in 1950 – Monroe’s earlier years are more scantily documented, due to lack of data – and then follows her career right up to the moment of her untimely death.

Reading these flat, “just the facts” entries, one can see the enormous pressure Monroe was under to uphold her star image, fend off unwanted admirers, deal with actors and directors who were often unsympathetic, and bear the enormous weight of being an international sex symbol in an era that was both aggrandizing and unforgiving – in short, she lived most of her life in the spotlight, and it took an enormous toll on her, both personally and professionally.

As the book’s website notes, “In Marilyn Monroe Day by Day: A Timeline of People, Places, and Events, Carl Rollyson provides a documentary approach to the life and legend of this singular personality. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies. In addition to restoring what is left out in other narratives about Marilyn’s life, this book also illuminates the gaps and discrepancies that still exist in our knowledge of her.

Drawing on excerpts from her diaries, journals, letters, and even checks and receipts—as well as reports of others—Rollyson recreates the day-to-day world of a woman who still fascinates us more than fifty years after her death. In addition to the calendar, Rollyson also profiles important figures in Marilyn’s life and includes a brief biography of the actress, providing a context for the timeline. An annotated bibliography of books and websites highlights the most reliable sources about Marilyn.”

What results is a unique document, rich in detail, compassionate, and superbly researched.

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 24 to November 22, 2014

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is not to be missed.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, film preservation – the active conservation of our shared cinematic heritage – is one of the prime concerns of this website. The Museum of Modern Art’s latest edition of To Save and Project: the 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is thus absolutely central to film history and criticism; if you can’t see the films, how can you possibly judge them, or appreciate them? It’s somewhat amazing to me that along with films such as Her Sister’s Secret - a title I just blogged on, and a film which clearly begs for preservation due to its Public Domain status – more recent films such as Caravaggio and Excalibur, to name just two possible titles, also need to be carefully preserved for the future. Projected in MoMA’s state of the art auditorium, these films are an indispensable part of of cultural heritage, and need to be as widely seen as possible. Curated by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at MoMA, and adjunct curator Dave Kehr (who used to write an excellent column for the New York Times, now much missed), this is an event of the first rank, and anyone in the New York area should run, not walk, to see this superb series of screenings.

As the notes for the series point out, “each fall, MoMA’s annual festival of newly preserved films, To Save and Project, brings together masterworks and rediscoveries from film archives, studios, and foundations from around the world. Many of the films in the festival will be receiving their first American screening since their original release; others will be shown in meticulously restored editions that more closely approximate the original experience of the film; a few will even be publicly screened for the first time ever in New York—including work by Orson Welles (sequences filmed but never used for the 1938 Mercury Theatre production Too Much Johnson). Also presented are films by Charles Chaplin, Maya Deren, Allan Dwan, Derek Jarman, Sergio Leone, Kenji Mizoguchi, Raul Ruiz, and Edgar G. Ulmer. Guest presenters include Kathryn Bigelow, John Boorman, George Chakiris, and Ken Jacobs.

The opening-night film is the North American premiere of a new MoMA restoration: Allan Dwan’s 1929 masterpiece The Iron Mask, a rousingly entertaining swashbuckler starring Douglas Fairbanks that is often considered, as Dwan himself called it, ‘the last of the big silents.’ MoMA’s version, however, contains the entire original Vitaphone soundtrack—with music, sound effects, and three spoken sequences—which will be heard here for the first time since the film’s original roadshow presentation. These titles will join dozens of others from archives both public and private to create a four-week overview of the tremendously exciting work that is being done around the world to reclaim endangered films and rediscover forgotten treasures.

The series runs from October 24 to November 22, 2014 – don’t miss it!

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

The British Film Institute has just released Val Guest’s The Day Earth Caught Fire on DVD; click here to see the trailer.

The BFI, which has always been way ahead of American archival efforts, has just announced the release in DVD and Blu-ray format of Val Guest’s classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. This was an “A” level science fiction film, in which atomic testing knocks the earth off its axis, and sends it hurtling towards the sun. The film’s ending is unresolved; while scientists scramble to set off yet another atomic blast to correct the tilt, there’s no assurance that it will succeed. Shot in near documentary style, with real newspaper writers and editors in the cast, including one Fleet Street editor in a major speaking role in the film, the Day The Earth Caught Fire is not only effective filmmaking; it’s also a trenchant commentary on how science can lead us astray when we start things, but can’t really know the what the consequences will be.

I was lucky enough to interview Guest at length in 2003, an interview which is collected in my book Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers UP, 2007), and shortly after our interview, to attend a 35mm CinemaScope screening of the film at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, with Guest in attendance. For that screening, the theater used a print which has been out of circulation since the film’s initial release, with a color opening, and ending, with the rest of the film framed as a flashback. Guest was shocked that the print had been found; in his opening remarks, he lamented the fact that this original version had been his intent all along, but that we were about to see yet another straight black and white print. When the opening section came up in red-hued color, the entire theater could hear Guest’s shout of delight – and I’m sure the BFI version will use this cut of the film.

Here’s a detailed look at the making of this excellent film; the BFI has once again performed a real public service with the release of this film.

Ida Lupino Gets A Retrospective – At Last!

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Film director Ida Lupino, pictured above, is finally getting a retrospective of her work.

As critic Guy Lodge notes in Variety, “now in its third year, the Lumière Festival’s ongoing Permanent History of Women Filmmakers section isn’t a series of disconnected annual retrospectives — its three editions thus far build a chronological narrative of female innovation behind the camera. In 2012, the festival appropriately began at the beginning, celebrating narrative cinema pioneer Alice Guy; 2013 kept the focus French, as Impressionist filmmaker Germaine Dulac was put under the spotlight.

This year’s Lumiere fest expands the gender conversation beyond its own borders, with Hollywood feminist trailblazer Ida Lupino the subject of 2014’s section. British-born actor and filmmaker Lupino’s onscreen work alone would earn her a place on the historical honor roll of American studio cinema: Her intelligent, decidedly modern star presence was put to memorably flinty use in such films as Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner.

Yet it was as a helmer that Lupino did her most influential work. The first actress to seize creative control of her screen legacy by developing and directing her own independent projects, she subverted a studio system that otherwise stage-managed its stars’ careers at every turn. After a decade with Warner Bros. — one that found her frequently on suspension due to her defiant streak — she took the reins from indisposed director Elmer Clifton on 1949’s Not Wanted, an illegitimacy drama that she also co-wrote and co-produced.

Her direction there went un-credited, but that same year, she made her solo helming debut with Never Fear, an unsentimental study of a dancer’s cruelly disrupted career. Both Not Wanted and Never Fear will be screened at the Lumière fest, as well as her landmark 1953 film noir The Hitch-Hiker, in which the erstwhile movie femme fatale strikingly revised the gender norms of the genre.Rounding out the Festival’s selection is another 1953 noir, The Bigamist (the first film in which Lupino directed herself as star), as well as two of her most famous vehicles as an actress, Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night and Jean Negulesco’s Road House.

It’s far from a complete retrospective — her seething, still-resonant rape drama Outrage is but one omission — but it’s a valuable snapshot of a career that astonishes today, in an industry where female filmmakers are still forcibly on the back foot. Later this year, another singular screen icon, Angelina Jolie, will shoot for directorial kudos with her sophomore feature Unbroken; whatever the outcome, it’s Lupino who paved the way for Jolie and others to take flight.”

Read more about this important artist in my essay on her work in Senses of Cinema, by clicking here.

Now, how about a DVD / Blu-ray combo box set of Lupino’s films as a director?

John Carpenter Interview in Vulture

Friday, September 26th, 2014

John Carpenter (left) on the set of The Thing in 1981.

Vulture has a great interview with director John Carpenter conducted by Simon Abrams, who notes that “horror filmmaker John Carpenter’s body of work is atypical in that his films often seem to have been made by an uncompromisingly intuitive commercial artist. Never content just to take a check, Carpenter abandoned the Halloween franchise after co-writing and producing the series’ first two unsuccessful sequels and took on bold projects, such as Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness that suggested he knew how to make movies without giving in to creative pressure to make palatable pablum. Vulture talked to Carpenter about how he resolved key conflicts on projects that defined his career, particularly The Thing, his Halloween sequels, and others.”

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

Joseph Lawson, Genre Director – An Interview

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

I have an interview out this morning with Joseph Lawson, director of the forthcoming film Ardennes Fury.

As I note in my introduction to the interview, “Joseph Lawson is an American filmmaker who is an unabashed special effects fan, action movie enthusiast, and utterly pragmatic about how films get made today in a rapaciously competitive environment. He’s a commercial filmmaker, working in Hollywood, making films as entertainment. Along the way, he’s getting more and more of his own vision into his work, even as he struggles against tight deadlines and tighter budgets.

We first made contact when I wrote an article for Film International that was sharply critical of The Asylum, the company Lawson works for. Lawson responded in the comments section without the slightest bit of rancor, and suggested that we correspond about the production of his latest film, just wrapped a few days ago, Ardennes Fury. It’s his fifth film as a director.

Yes, Ardennes Fury is indebted to David Ayers’ big budget film Fury coming out later this Fall from Columbia Pictures; yes, you could call this another “tie-in” film from The Asylum, but at the same time, Lawson is absolutely sincere about what he’s doing, and all that the films really share is a similar title; they’re really two absolutely different projects.

Like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, The Asylum makes commercial films for a price, and as Lawson makes clear, they don’t use interns or students – they just can’t stand the pace at the studio. Like it or not, The Asylum has a vision all its own. So what’s it like to make films in the Hollywood trenches today? Here’s a chance to find out, first hand.”

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

The Most Prolific Director in American Film History

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This unassuming man made more films during the classical Hollywood era than any other director.

As I wrote about Sam Newfield a number of years ago in Senses of Cinema, “Sam Newfield is, in all probability, the most prolific director in American sound-film history, but very little archival material survives on his career. The director of more than 250 feature films, as well as numerous shorts and television series episodes, in a career that spanned four decades, from 1923 to 1958, Newfield leaves behind him only his work on the set; next to nothing is known of his personal life. However, using conversations with Sigmund Neufeld, Jr., and Stanley Neufeld, the sons of Sam Newfield (born Neufeld)’s brother Sigmund Neufeld (all quotes from them in this essay are from these interviews), as well as materials from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of the man behind such a torrential output of work.

Comedies, musicals, westerns, horror films, jungle pictures, crime dramas, espionage thrillers – Sam Newfield did them all, often on budgets of less than $20,000 per feature, and shooting schedules of as little as three days. But, as Martin Scorsese notes, watching Newfield’s work is hard, because he often seems absolutely detached from the images that appear on the screen, as if he is an observer rather than a participant. Then, too, the conditions of extreme economy that Newfield labored under created a pressure-cooker environment in which the ultimate goal of all his films was simply to get them done on time and under budget. Nevertheless, as arguably the most prolific auteur in American motion-picture history, Newfield deserves mention and brief examination as one of the key ’second-rung’ directors of 1940s Hollywood, Newfield’s most productive era.”

Since then, Neil Roughley has compiled a staggeringly complete filmography; check it out here.

Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Howard Hawks directs Land of the Pharaohs on location in Egypt, 1955.

Land of the Pharaohs was Howard Hawks’ most ambitiously spectacular film, even if he did bring it in with a tight 55 day shooting schedule at a cost of only $3.15 million, still about a million over budget. Yet this truly lavish film, which might seem on the surface to have much in common with such other 1950s spectacles as The Robe, Ben Hur, and other equally oversize films – right down to the aspect ratio in which the film was shot, CinemaScope – was a resounding failure at the box office – the only Hawks film ever to lose money, despite a script that was principally authored by Hawks’ old pal, William Faulkner.

When asked by Cahiers du Cinema why he made the film in the first place, Hawks replied simply “CinemaScope” – he wanted a chance to work in the widescreen format on a suitably ambitious project. But in its tale of the ancient Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who is obsessed with building a pyramid tomb that is “robber proof” from the outset of the narrative, just one theme hangs over the film; death, and the uncertainty of what awaits one in the next world, if there is one.

To achieve this, Khufu enlists a captive slave, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) to build a tomb whose design is so ingenious that no one can possibly break in. Vashtar, in return for the freedom of his people once the task is accomplished, creates such a design, which closes in on itself when a series of clay jars filled with sand are broken, moving huge stone blocks to seal the pyramid for eternity. Khufu approves the design, and the work gets underway, but as the years pass, Khufu becomes are even more obsessed, more brutal, and more ruthless in his quest for gold, so that the pyramid becomes not only a monument to his life, but also to the boundless greed that has informed it.

Hawkins struts about with the proper degree of arrogance and pomp as Khufu, and Joan Collins is remarkably good as the nefarious Princess Nellifer, who plots to kill Khufu’s first wife and her son so that she can ascend to the throne. But her plans come to naught as, with Khufu’s death, she is buried alive – much to her surprise – along with Khufu’s willing servants in a gigantic pyramid that is indeed “robber proof,” from which there is no possible means of escape.

Why was the film a failure? Hawks put it down to a lack of a “star” cast, and the fact that “I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew. We thought it’d be an interesting story, the building of a pyramid, but then we had to have a plot, and we didn’t really feel close to any of it,” but there’s more to it than that. Of all of Hawks’ films, this is easily the most despairing, and in the end, there’s no character that inspires even a vestige of sympathy, and the film’s penultimate shot; the pyramid, sealed, sitting silently atop the sand, where tens of thousands of slaves had once toiled night and day to build it, is both chilling and distancing.

I admire the film tremendously, just as I admire most of Hawks’ work, especially when one considers his effortlessly multi-genre career, encompassing everything from His Girl Friday to Red River to the unsigned The Thing From Another World to The Big Sleep and numerous stops in-between. But Land of The Pharaohs offers such a bleak vision of human existence that audiences of the time simply couldn’t relate to it, and yet it retains much of its power today, and stands as a unique accomplishment in Hawks’ long career.

But Hawks knew, however, that as a commercial filmmaker he had failed. As a result, he wandered through Europe for the next four years, uncertain as to his next film, or the direction his career was taking, until he teamed with John Wayne on a traditional western – a genre he knew well – for Rio Bravo in 1959. But Rio Bravo, despite its enormous critical reputation, is really a film that takes very few risks. In Land of the Pharaohs, nothing is certain, especially life after death, which is more than a little ironic since the entire film is concerned with preparing, in essence, for a funeral.

In one telling exchange, Khufu tells Vashtar that if he builds the pyramid for him, he will have to kill him to ensure that the secret of the tomb’s construction dies with him; but that as a reward, Vashtar may also build an equally ornate pyramid for himself, stocked with food, jewels and gold so that Vashtar can enjoy the afterlife in equally luxurious fashion as Khufu is sure that he will. Vashtar replies that he has no belief in life after death, and instead bargains – successfully – for the lives of his people now, and in the end, it’s only the slaves who survive after years of privation, while the wealthy perish in an air tight tomb.

Such a film can’t hope to catch fire with the public imagination, but it’s a nihilist masterpiece nonetheless.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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