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Edwin L. Marin’s A Christmas Carol (1938)

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Time for a true Christmas classic!

As Christmastime rolls around again, with all of its attendant merchandising and commerciality now firmly and sadly attached, I always make it a point to watch the 1938 version of Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, directed by Edwin L. Marin and starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. The story has been burlesqued and retold countless times, but this traditional version from MGM, made in the waning days of the Depression, carries more emotional resonance for me than any other version.

Clicking on the image above will take you to a curiosity — a 2:45 minute trailer for the film, as introduced by Lionel Barrymore, who played the role of Scrooge on radio during the 30s and 40s nearly every Christmas, but who, by 1938, was confined to a wheelchair, and unable to handle the leading role in anything but a radio drama. It was Barrymore who suggested that Owen take over the role for this film version — a very generous gesture, giving Owen one of the finest roles he was ever to have — and while the film is deeply traditional, it also radiates an honest sentiment and cheer that continues to brighten my holiday season, year after year.

The 1951 version, ably directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, also has its adherents, and justly so; it’s an excellent rendition of the classic story. But the 1938 version seems cheerier, more compact — much like the story itself — and full of the optimism and hope that characterizes the best of the holiday season. See it for yourself on TCM, where it runs regularly at this time of year, or buy it on DVD — it’s a Christmas tradition for me, and always will be.

Happy Holidays and all the best for 2015 from Frame by Frame!

The Horrifying Future of Movies – Nothing But Franchises

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Here’s an absolutely brilliant and deeply impassioned piece by author Mark Harris.

Writing in the journal Grantland, Harris sees a future of nothing but utterly predictable franchise films, made by cost accountants and others with no real investment in film as an art form, which it most certainly is. As he writes, in part, “I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.”

You can see the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; essential reading.

The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism by Mattias Frey

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Here’s an interesting book on the current state of film criticism – a real concern of this blog.

Published by Amsterdam University Press, Frey’s book posits that “film criticism is in crisis. Dwelling on the many film journalists made redundant at newspapers, magazines, and other ‘old media’ in past years, commentators have voiced existential questions about the purpose and worth of the profession in the age of WordPress blogospheres and proclaimed the ‘death of the critic.’ Bemoaning the current anarchy of internet amateurs and the lack of authoritative critics, many journalists and academics claim that in the digital age, cultural commentary has become dumbed down and fragmented into niche markets. Mattias Frey, arguing against these claims, examines the history of film critical discourse in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He demonstrates that since its origins, film criticism has always found itself in crisis: the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns.”

It’s refreshing to see someone taking a level-headed, non-apocalyptic look at this issue; as Frey argues, “film criticism has always found itself in crisis,” from the earliest iterations of the cinema, and the rise of poplar “fan magazines” as opposed to the serious study of the cinema.The gap between pop culture “reviews” of the latest blockbuster – actually just opinion pieces with little real critical analysis, usually posted in daily newspapers or on the web, and considered by most readers not familiar with the study of film to be serious reviews, and work that actually takes the film apart, places it within a critical and historical context, measures it against similar films from the past, and operates from a detailed understanding of the medium as a whole – has been an ongoing issue in film criticism from the 1900s onward.

Frey’s book offers an excellent overview of the history of this contest between superficial, throwaway writing and actual critical analysis, and as he puts it, demonstrates that “the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns” in film history, theory and criticism. This is fascinating and important reading, demonstrating that the problem here isn’t so much the web – it’s the fact that many of the people writing on the web on film, as well as numerous other topics, substitute their own personal likes and dislikes for any real, informed analysis. In film as in all the arts, the audience is really an afterthought; it’s what the creators of any given work of art want to express that is paramount.

You can read a pdf of the introduction the book by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

24th James Bond Film Announced – “Spectre”

Friday, December 5th, 2014

The 24th James Bond film is underway, with Christoph Waltz as the villain of the piece.

As The Indian Express reports, “James Bond’s 24th adventure will be called Spectre, [in which] 007 will be seen uncovering secrets of a sinister terror organization, director Sam Mendes announced at Pinewood Studios today. Daniel Craig, 46, is returning as Ian Fleming’s famous fictional spy for the fourth time, while it is Mendes’ second Bond film after Skyfall. Sherlock star Andrew Scott, Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz and Monica Bellucci are joining as new cast members along with other actors. Spectre will release on November 6 next year.

‘We are very excited and I think I speak on behalf of all of us to say that we cannot wait to bring this movie to you in just under a year’s time. We hope you like it,’ Mendes said as he announced cast and crew details with producer Barbara Broccoli at Pinewood where the principal photography will begin from Monday. The film will be shot in England, Mexico City, Rome, Tangier & Erfoud, Morocco, Solden, Obertilliach and Lake Altausee (Austria). In the new movie, a cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization (Spectre). While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind Spectre.

The title is named after the shadowy [fictional] terrorist organisation created by Fleming, which first appeared in his novel 1961 Thunderball. Spectre stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. ‘We’ve got an amazing cast and, I think, a better script than we had last time. We started something in Skyfall, it felt like a beginning of something. This feels like a continuation of that. We’re going to put all of those elements in, and much more,’ Craig said.”

Can’t wait!

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – But Who Cares?

Friday, November 28th, 2014

The first “teaser trailer” for the new Star Wars film is here, and I have only one question – who cares?

Talk about playing to diminishing returns – this film reunites a bunch of the cast members from the original 1977 film, which was quite a fun piece of entertainment, even if deeply indebted – by design – to the Saturday morning movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, but hasn’t this whole franchise been done to death? At least one of the original participants – now deceased – wasn’t happy with the film from the start, though he shrewdly realized it would be a huge hit, and negotiated a percentage of the profits as part of his salary, which paid off handsomely.

As Keir Mudie reported in The Sun on May 3, 2014, the gifted actor Sir Alec Guinness, forever after typecast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, called the first film “fairytale rubbish” with “lamentable dialogue” and complained during the shooting that ” [I] can’t say I’m enjoying the film… rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable” though he noted after Star Wars was completed that “it’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.

But must we keep beating it to death with one useless sequel after another? Aren’t there better things to do with our lives? Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens won’t come out until December 2015, and people are already talking about the film as if it’s a must-see event. Personally, I can’t think of any less imaginative or duller way to spend an afternoon – and even though the original film earned Guinness “more than £56million in royalties, a best supporting actor Oscar nomination and global stardom,” I have to agree with him – it is sheer rubbish. The follow up sequels are even more tedious, while the first film, at least, had some energy. But now that Disney owns the rights to the franchise, and plans to to put out a new film every year for the foreseeable future, I’m sure that, just like the endless chain of James Bond films, there will be a Star Wars film playing in cinemas from now until the end of time.

Indeed, Guinness disliked the film so much – which pretty much erased all of his previous work in a single stroke in the public consciousness – that he threw out all of the fan mail that came to him associated with Star Wars, and when confronted by a young boy who told him enthusiastically that he had seen the film 100 times, tartly responded “well, do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?” If only it were possible, but unfortunately, the franchise grinds on – with the only possible upside being that it supplies work for an army of technicians and extras, and will certainly draw crowds to theaters. But when I think of all the excellent films that will be completely ignored in the stampede to see this latest iteration, well, it makes me more than a bit sad.

Isn’t it time to just drop the whole thing, and move on to something new?

Show Them No Mercy (1935)

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Here’s a direct link to the Depression era crime film Show Them No Mercy – absolutely worth watching.

Kubec Glasmon, the almost forgotten co-author of the script for Public Enemy, the 1931 William Wellman film that shot James Cagney to stardom, had a real knack for hard-boiled crime drama, and though this film from 1935, Show Them No Mercy, has been unjustly neglected, it’s a stunning piece of work, and you can see it here, now, by simply clicking on the image above.

Produced by Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck for his Twentieth Century Film Company, just before he bought out the Fox Film Corporation to create 20th Century Fox, Show Them No Mercy tells the story of a young couple and their infant daughter who seek shelter from a rainstorm in a seemingly abandoned house, only to discover a bunch of gangsters holed up inside, with lots of hot money on their hands. They’ve just successfully pulled off a kidnapping, have $200,000 in ransom money, and want to get out of the country, but the question is, how?

Initially too innocent to realize the danger they’re in, the young couple soon figures out that the group will literally stop at nothing, especially the psychotic trigger man Pitch (Bruce Cabot, best known for his work in King Kong, and absolutely brilliant here in a role based on real-life gunman Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll) and the gang’s suave leader, Tobey (the always reliable Cesar Romero, turning in another top flight performance).

To tell you more about what happens next would be a mistake, but take my word for it – this is a film that has been unfairly overlooked, and at 75 minutes, moves along like a streak of lightning, with an ending that’s still shocking nearly a century after the film was made.

As TCM notes, “the film was inspired by the kidnapping in May 1935 of George Weyerhaeuser, scion of a wealthy lumber family, who was released after ransom money was paid. The ransom money, which the FBI arranged so that the serial numbers could be used as clues, was then traced, and the kidnappers were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms,” but that’s not what happens here. Glasmon’s script follows an entirely different trajectory, leading up to a satisfactorily brutal conclusion.

Suffice it to say that the film raised a number of eyebrows when it was first released, and barely managed to scrape through Code censorship, thanks largely to the adept machinations of producer Zanuck, who was an expert in telling the Code authorities what they wanted to hear, and then doing precisely as he pleased with the film itself. The result is astonishing.

Now you can see the film for yourself – this is a real find!

Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1968) Out Restored at Last!

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

I must admit I missed the initial release of this restoration, but I’m glad I found it now.

The Devil Rides Out, known as The Devil’s Bride in the US, is perhaps Terence Fisher’s last unalloyed masterpiece, and a film whose reputation has grown exponentially over the years since its 1968 release. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, and as Wikipedia notes, “set in London and the south of England in 1929, the story finds Nicholas, Duc de Richleau [Christopher Lee], investigating the strange actions of the son of a friend, Simon Aron [Patrick Mower], who has a house complete with strange markings and a pentagram.

He quickly deduces that Simon is involved with the Occult. Nicholas de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn [Leon Greene, dubbed throughout the film by Patrick Allen] manage to rescue Simon and another young initiate, Tanith [Niké Arrighi], from a devil-worshipping cult. During the rescue they disrupt a ceremony on Salisbury Plain in which the Devil (Baphomet) himself appears.

They escape to the home of Richard and Marie Eaton [Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson], friends of Richleau and Van Ryn, and are followed by the group’s leader, Mocata [Charles Gray, in a career-defining performance], who has a psychic connection to the two initiates. After visiting the house to discuss the matter and an unsuccessful attempt to influence the initiates to return, Mocata forces Richleau and the other occupants to defend themselves through a night of black magic attacks, ending with the conjuring of the angel of death.

Richleau is able to repel the angel, but it kills Tanith instead (as once summoned, it must take a life). His attacks defeated, Mocata kidnaps the Eatons’ daughter Peggy [Rosalyn Landor]. The Duc has Tanith’s spirit possess Peggy’s mother in order to find Mocata, but they are only able to get a single clue, from which Rex realizes that the cultists are at a house he visited earlier.

Simon tries to rescue Peggy on his own, but is recaptured by the cult. The Duc, Richard, and Peggy’s family, also try to rescue her, but they are defeated by Mocata. Suddenly, a powerful force (or Tanith herself) begins ruling Mrs. Eaton and puts a stop to Peggy’s trance.

She then leads Peggy in the recitation of a spell, which kills all of the cultists and transforms their coven room into a church. When the Duc and his companions awaken, then they discover that the spell Peggy was led into casting has reversed time and changed the future in their favor.

Simon and Tanith have survived, while Mocata’s spell to conjure the angel of death has been reflected back on him. Now, he pays the price of loss of life and eternal damnation of his soul for having wrongly summoned the angel of death. Nicholas de Richleau comments that it is God that they must be thankful for.”

I’ve admired this film for a long time, both as one of Hammer’s best works, and one of the most intelligent, but despite the customary brilliance of Fisher’s direction and Arthur Grant’s superb cinematography, by this time, Hammer was struggling with pressing financial concerns, and the quality of the studio’s films was declining precipitously as a result.

There are shots in the film involving special effects that were left unfinished; uneven matte lines in some the miniature sequences; and the film’s climactic sequence, involving the appearance of the Angel of Death, has always been problematic from a strictly visual point of view – indeed, during a close-up of the the Angel’s head, the background behind the shot in simply a blue screen, without any image at all – a clear compromise in the face of time and budgetary constrictions.

Thus I was both pleased and surprised that Hammer would undertake nothing less than the rescue of this film, performing more than 1.5 million — that’s right, million — repairs to the original 35mm negative, by scanning to 4K digital, and then creating a 2K DVD and Blu-ray master of the result. Since the performances throughout the film are absolutely impeccable, it’s only right that the last minute haste of then-contemporary post-production should be corrected.

As one of Fisher’s most deeply felt and personal films – and a profoundly Christian film in every sense of the word, concerned with the continual battle between good and evil in the world, The Devil Rides Out stands as one of the key works of the British cinema in the late 1960s, and still speaks to audiences today. Indeed, just this semester one of my students did a research paper on Terence Fisher, and of all of the director’s works, singled this film out as her favorite. If you haven’t seen it, you should really take a look.

You can see a featurette on the restoration of The Devil Rides Out by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Universal Monsters Reboot Won’t Work

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

It won’t work because there’s the wrong talent in the room – and the wrong approach to the problem.

Lord knows, there are many more important things in the world today to discuss, and for the most part, I try to keep this blog positive, but the news – which has been trickling out for months – that Universal is trying to reboot the classic monsters that gave the studio its initial identity would be welcome – were it not for the fact that they’re going about it in precisely the wrong way. Looking at the Marvel universe films, which are enormously successful, Universal is trying to do the same thing with The Mummy, The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Wolfman – and it simply isn’t working.

Look at the recent reboot of Dracula Untold – a complete commercial and critical failure, which came across as yet another knockoff of the 300 franchise, and not a horror film at all.  The recent revamp of The Wolfman – the same thing, complete with a switch of directors halfway through, and a new, grafted on ending that spoiled the entire premise of the film. As one observed suggested, “just re-issue the originals, save a lot of money, and give us some classy entertainment!” But of course, that’s not going to happen.

What should happen – but won’t – is that Universal finds some Gothic filmmakers who have a real connection to the genre and then turns them loose to create authentic, reimagined-from-the-ground-up reboots of the entire series, and scrap everything they’ve done in the last decade or so, starting with The Mummy, Van Helsing, and the other misguided attempts to bring new life to Mary Shelley’s, Curt Siodmak’s  and Bram Stoker’s creations, among other possible restarts – and go back to the source material. Not the films; the texts that inspired them.

In the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer studios successfully revitalized the classic gallery of Universal monsters as essentially British, Gothic creations with Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which took the storyline seriously, acted as if none of the Universal films had ever been made, and offered an entirely new vision of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

Universal fought Hammer tooth and nail during production of the film, accidentally doing Hammer a big favor by prohibiting them from using any aspects of the Universal version of the monster – so the look, the storyline, the pacing, the use of violence, everything about the film – had to be completely original, going back to the textual source material from 1818.

As Hammer correctly noted during production, the Frankenstein saga was firmly in the Public Domain, and so if someone could create a fresh version of the classic tale, then there was nothing to stop them legally. Hammer finished up the film, and offered it to Universal, but the studio, still incensed that someone else was “poaching” on what they considered was their domain, passed on distributing the project.

Hammer took it to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner pounced on it. The film opened worldwide, made a fortune, immediately rejuvenated the genre, elevated Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Monster) to overnight stars, and finally Universal saw the writing on the wall. Universal had run out of ideas – or a vision of what they should be doing – and it took outsiders who could use nothing from the earlier films to make the genre new again.

Striking a deal with Hammer, Universal offered Hammer a shot at the entire gallery of their cinematic malefactors, and Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958) followed in rapid succession, and was an even bigger hit. Hammer then cycled through all the Universal monsters for an extremely profitable decade or so, until the genre finally collapsed under the weight of diminishing returns, just as Universal’s original series eventually wound up as a parody of itself with the “monster rally” films of the mid 1940s, and finally Charles Barton’s parody Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948).

None of this is news to any film historian – everyone who knows the history of horror films know this. But it seems that Universal simply doesn’t get the message. The monster franchise is not a Marvel “universe” series – it needs a completely fresh approach, which none of the people currently involved can accomplish – they’re too caught up in the Comic-Con world to recapture the vitality and energy of the original films. What’s happening now is a complete mistake. I wish it were otherwise, but I absolutely guarantee you, this “Monster universe” strategy will not work.

Only an authentic “start from scratch” approach will revitalize this franchise.

John Huston’s Lost Film – In This Our Life (1942)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

In This Our Life is John Huston’s forgotten film — click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer.

. . . and it doesn’t deserve to be. Though star Bette Davis was critical of the project from the outset, and caused all sorts of problems during production, and even more problems when Huston had to leave to serve during World War II, and the gifted Raoul Walsh took over to finish the film, In This Our Life is a brutally corrosive look at American society in the early 1940s, about the things that power and money can buy, about race relations in the United States during the era, and affords all the stars of the film a chance to do something more than make a conventional melodrama – something Warner Bros. excelled at during the era.

But with its hints of incest, frank references to racial prejudice, the unexpected suicide of a major character, and a fatal hit and run accident added to the mix, In This Our Life showed that behind the placid exterior of the white picket fence houses of the rich there lurked a world of almost complete moral corruption, highlighted only by a few bright spots of decency that pop up with distressing infrequency.

Needless to say, the film didn’t get the critical attention it deserved when first released, and Bette Davis’s public bad-mouthing of the film also did little to help its then-contemporary reputation, but with the passing of more than seven decades, it’s clear that this film has much to say about the time in which it was made – more so than Huston’s other slick entertainments of the period, especially his first film, the crowd pleasing and utter unoffensive detective thriller The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Don’t get me wrong; The Maltese Falcon is a stunning directorial debut, but it’s really more of an escapist puzzle than anything else – an above average mystery with superb performances all around. In This Our Life is something much more – a study of a family and of society in collapse, undone not only by the dissembling of Davis’s scheming central character, but also the weakness of the film’s more thoughtful protagonists, who nevertheless fail to act until it is almost too late.

As TCM notes of the film, “Ellen Glasgow’s novel won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. According to a Los Angeles Examiner news item dated February 27, 1941, the studio paid $40,000 for rights to the novel. A February 27, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that the film was to star Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn. Warner Bros. was named to the Honor Roll of Race Relations of 1942 for making this film because of its dignified portrayal of an African-American, although, according to a September 8, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Warner Bros. cut scenes which treated Ernest Anderson’s character [who is framed in the film for a hit and run accident he had absolutely nothing to do with] in a ‘friendly fashion’ in order to avoid offending viewers in the South.

In 1943, when the film was examined by the Office of Censorship in Washington, D.C. prior to general export, it was disapproved because ‘only by the effort of a conscientious white man in whose law office a Negro boy is studying law is the young man saved from a charge of murder…recklessly made by a white woman….[who] claimed that the Negro and not she, was driving the car at the time of the accident and so strong is the race feeling in this Virginia community that the young Negro was practically condemned in advance. It is made abundantly clear that a Negro’s testimony in court is almost certain to be disregarded if in conflict with the testimony of a white person.’ Actor Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father, appears briefly in the film in a cameo role as a bartender.”

With its brutally frank commentary on the sad state of racial inequality in the United States, especially in the South, the film was bound to cause a good deal of trouble. It seems to me that even today, people are more than willing to sweep it under the rug, and favor Huston’s more frankly commercial efforts, such as Key Largo or even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both 1948) – again, excellent films, but productions that are much more frankly genre efforts.

But here, as in Sam Wood’s similarly themed indictment of small town American society, King’s Row (1942) – though that film takes place in the 19th century – the foremost concern is social commentary, on both the personal and larger level. Everything about the world that In This Our Life inhabits is wrong from the start, and suggests that there was a corrosive cancer in American society that was about to burst into full view in the postwar era – something that we’re still contending with now, albeit on a much larger scale. Yet In This Our Life is almost never singled out in retrospectives of the director’s career – which is a shame. It’s a strong, honest piece of work.

In This Our Life deserves to be much more widely seen and appreciated – it really is John Huston’s lost film.

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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