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New Book Series: “Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture”

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon announce their new book series.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon are proud to announce the publication of the first two volumes in their new book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture from Rutgers University Press – Disney Culture by John Wills, and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney.

Disney Culture explores the Walt Disney Company, which has grown into a diversified global media giant. But is it still possible to identify a coherent Disney ethos? Examining everything from theme parks to merchandising to animation to live-action films, Disney Culture proposes that they all follow a core corporate philosophy dating back to the 1920s.

Zombie Cinema notes that the living dead have been lurking in popular culture since the 1930s, but they are now ubiquitous. Presenting a historical overview of zombies in film and on television, Zombie Cinema also explores this globalized phenomenon, examining why the dead have captured the imagination of twenty-first-century audiences worldwide.

Early reviews are excellent: Blair Davis, author of Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page writes that in Disney Culture, “Wills makes a strong contribution to both the fields of media studies as well as Disney scholarship with this concise, well written and thoroughly engaging overview of how the cultural, artistic, and economic factors surrounding the Disney corporation intersect.”

Janet Wasko, author of Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy adds that “Disney Culture is a notable addition to the growing critical work on Disney and its cultural significance. Wills skillfully dissects the Disney ethos and even challenges the multimedia giant to ‘mean something beyond merchandise’ in the twenty-first century.”

Of Zombie Cinema, Stephen Prince, author of Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality writes,”Zombie Cinema is a brisk, informative read that gives us a zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle. He’s clearly done his homework in excavating – or disinterring, as the case may be – zombie movies from disparate cultural and historical contexts.”

Rick Worland, author of The Horror Film: An Introduction notes that “what the vampire was to the 1980s and 90s, the zombie has become for early twenty-first century audiences, the monster of choice, spreading through a multitude of media texts. [In Zombie Cinema] Ian Olney organizes the history of the zombie in popular culture from Haitian voodoo practice to the present, providing clear analysis of its evolution and development. Theoretically informed, the writing is engaging and accessible throughout.”

New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando, and Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro are forthcoming soon.

Click here for more information on the new series.

Jean-Luc Godard’s First Film – Une Femme Coquette (1955)

Friday, February 17th, 2017

See Godard’s first film, shot in 1955 – with English subtitles! Click here, or on the image above!!

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes on The AV Club Website, “Une Femme Coquette may not sound like anything special—a 9-minute no-budget short film, shot on a borrowed 16mm camera by a 24-year-old amateur with no formal film school training. But the short . . .  has for decades been a sought-after item for art-house buffs and rare movie fiends.

Filmed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955, it was the first attempt at a narrative film by the iconic French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard—a pivotal figure in the evolution of movie style, who would make his feature debut just five years later, with the hugely influential and perennially cool Breathless.

Never distributed, Une Femme Coquette has had less than half a dozen public screenings since the 1960s; we were able to track down the only known 16mm print to a national film archive in Europe, where it was being stored unlisted for a private owner, to be loaned out only with the personal permission of Jean-Luc Godard himself.

This makes it the holy grail of the game-changing New Wave era—a film so rare that it has often been listed as lost by biographies and film history books. And it might as well have been. No other surviving narrative film by a major, big-name director has been as difficult to see—until now.

Earlier this week, a copy of Une Femme Coquette surfaced on the digital back channels frequented by obscure movie enthusiasts. An enterprising user named David Heslin has uploaded this rarity of rarities to YouTube, complete with English subtitles.

Credited to ‘Hans Lucas,’ a German pseudonym that the Franco-Swiss Godard would sometimes employ during his brief career as a film critic, Une Femme Coquette was the budding director’s modern update of a Guy De Maupassant short story called ‘The Signal.’

Godard—who makes a cameo around the 2-minute mark, wearing his famous prescription sunglasses—would readapt the story as an Ingmar Bergman parody for the film-within-the-film portion of his 1966 feature Masculin Féminin.

While nothing is known about Une Femme Coquette’s lead actress, Maria Lysandre, the man on the park bench is played by Roland Tolmatchoff (credited as ‘Roland Tolma’), a cinephile and car dealer with whom Godard maintained a friendship for years, and who loaned many of the convertibles memorably featured in the director’s 1960s films.”

An amazing discovery – click here and see for yourself!

New Book Launch: Salvador Dali & Andy Warhol

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

My long-time friends Bob Heide and John Gilman sent me this invitation.

As John wrote, in part: “on Sunday February 19th at 7:00pm, the public is invited to a new book launch, Salvador Dali & Andy Warhol by Torsten Otte, at Howl!, the art gallery/performance space at 6 East 1st Street.

A panel led by Torsten Otte, including WestView writer Robert Heide, photographer Peter Beard, William Rothlein, George Mason, and Jade Albert, will discuss aspects of encounters in New York and Greenwich Village between two leading 20th century artists.

The meeting between Warhol and Dali occurred on December 17, 1965, at the opening of a Dali retrospective at the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art in Columbus Circle. Dali had asked Warhol to show him the Village and, later, Andy obliged by leading in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1965 was still, surprisingly, alive.

Duchamp was one of the bohemians who had occupied the top of the Washington Archway back in 1916 when they declared Greenwich Village an independent sovereignty. They refused to leave without official recognition, which they eventually received from the Mayor of New York.

The tour of places the King of Pop Art took the King of Surrealism included the Caffe Reggio (still there), Kettle of Fish, The Gaslight Cafe, Cafe Figaro, and the San Remo Cafe (a bar), all on MacDougal Street.

For more fascinating tales of the New York and Village adventures of two icons of the modern age, hurry on over to Howl! on February 19th—no reservations needed, just pop in. – John Gilman.”

If you’re in New York, this sounds too good to miss – drop on by!

New Article: “Service Providers” : Genre Cinema in the 21st Century

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

I’ve just published a new article in QRFV on 21st century genre filmmaking.

As I write in the article, Harrison Ford in 2013 noted that “‘I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities—I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers —that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies of Transformers or whatever is going on . . .’

When Harrison Ford made these comments to Adam Sternbergh, a reporter for The New York Times, no particular controversy ensued. Ford was simply stating a fact: Directors today, most of whom work within rigid genre formats, are indeed little more than ’service providers,’ who create long, loud, open-ended and ultimately unsatisfying “epic” films for an ever more indiscriminate audience.

Yet, it’s really not the fault of the viewers who flock to see the endless interactions of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and other franchise films; they simply don’t know any better. There is nothing else on offer at the multiplex, and with everything online — behind a pay wall, usually with a subscription attached —any impulse to be adventurous in one’s viewing habits died long ago. It’s like McDonald’s: It is what it is, nothing more or less, and it’s reliably available, and always the same.

As Derek Thompson wrote in 2014, ‘The reason why Hollywood makes so many boring superhero movies [is because] studios were better at making great movies when they were worse at figuring out what we wanted to see,’ adding that ‘Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it’s become better at making relentlessly average movies …

In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business in America, after grocery stores and cars …Watching films approached the ubiquity of a bodily function: Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, creating an audience share that’s bigger than today’s Super Bowl.

The six major studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and RKO) could basically do whatever they wanted and be sure to make money. Owning their own theater chains (which accounted for half their total revenue), they controlled the means and distribution of a product that was as essential to mid-century life as grilled chicken. Surprise, surprise: Virtually all their films made money.’” Not so today.


Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller’s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford’s Mark Chapman is the New York Express’s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

Drew Taylor in Vulture: The Disney Vault is Real!

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

Long shrouded in mystery, the “The Disney Vault” is very, very real.

As Drew Taylor writes in Vulture, “in an anonymous block of Glendale, California, sits a nondescript beige building free of signage or distinction. The only thing that would even alert you to the fact that this is the Disney equivalent of Fort Knox is the abundance of insane security procedures stationed around the building.

Even for employees of the company, the building remains elusive and hard to gain entry to. (Full disclosure: I worked for the company for almost two years and never once got to go.) Unlike the main studio archives down the street, which are housed in an inviting glass building with ample signage — it’s this location that appears on-camera whenever the company makes documentaries about the Disney Vault — this place feels like a mirage . . .

Just in terms of size, the vault is insane — there are 12 vaults, each organized by project. This includes everything from the original sketches for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to larger-scale items like all of the puppets from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie.

Each room is climate controlled and meticulously catalogued, with state-of-the-art security and fire-suppression systems in place. By the library’s own estimates, there are something like 65 million pieces of art in the collection, which makes it the largest collection of animation artwork in the entire world.

The vaults look like what you’d think something like this might — the rows of stuff are located in cabinets which can be moved with a big spinning handle (like a vault), so you can easily get to them. As for the artwork, it’s filed in a way that it should be, with cells or production artwork stacked horizontally, while other, less sensitive items are filed vertically, in accordion-style folders.

Oversize items like large background paintings are housed in separate flat files. The sensation of walking into one of the vaults is like stumbling into the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark . . .

I was there as part of a small group of journalists who had been brought to the building ostensibly to celebrate Pinocchio leaving the Disney Vault with a digital rerelease. While there, I got to chat with Fox Carney, the manager at the Animation Research Library, and he told me that the archives contained ‘over a million’ pieces of artwork for Pinocchio alone.” And that’s just for starters . . .

Fascinating stuff, and you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

USC Study: Women and Minorities in Hollywood Still Struggling

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

As Rebecca Sun writes in The Hollywood Reporter, women and minorities are still short-changed in Hollywood.

As Sun notes, “USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative has uncovered sobering evidence that the lifespan of a female director’s career is a lot shorter than that of her male counterpart’s.

Analyzing the gender, race and age of the directors of the 1,000 top-grossing films from the past 10 years, researchers found that 80 percent of the female helmers were ‘one and done’ — that is, they made just one movie from 2007 to 2016. This percentage rose to 83.3 percent for women of color. By contrast, 54.8 percent of the men directed just one film during that span (with Asian and black male directors faring slightly worse, at 60 and 62.5 percent, respectively).

‘If you’re trying to feed a family or make your way in Hollywood, having one opportunity a decade is simply not going to get the job done,’ Dr. Katherine Pieper, who co-authored the study with Dr. Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Although the average age of male and female directors was similar (46.2 and 47.4 years, respectively), the age range for each gender differed. All of the women who worked in the past 10 years were in their 30s to 60s, while eight 20-something men and six octogenarians released at least one movie during that span, including Clint Eastwood, whose eight titles make him the second-most prolific director of the past decade.

Tyler Perry is first, with 14, while the highest-ranking woman, The Proposal’s Anne Fletcher, shares 24th place with 31 male directors, with four films each.

In assessing the race and gender of directors of the annual 100 highest-grossing movies, the researchers found that over the past 10 years the share of films directed by women, black or Asian filmmakers (4, 5.1 and 3 percent, respectively) has experienced no significant statistical shift.

These proportions represent movies, not individuals; Perry, for example, is singlehandedly responsible for nearly a quarter of the movies helmed by black directors over the past decade, while James Wan, Justin Lin and Jon M. Chu held more than 40 percent of Asian directors’ credits, thanks to their franchise work.

In terms of unique individuals, 27 black and 17 Asian directors sat in the director’s chair. Five were women: Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Sanaa Hamri, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Loveleen Tandan, who was credited as ‘Co-director (India)’ on Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

Although the study did not evaluate ethnicity, its authors noted that Miracles From Heaven’s Patricia Riggen was the only Latina director among the 1,000-film sample of the last decade.

Going forward, the USC researchers intend to continue their qualitative and quantitative examination of the entire pipeline to further pinpoint where and why women and people of color are losing opportunities to work.

Although the majority of those included in this study had agency representation, ‘there’s a breakdown in the process of getting women and people of color these top jobs,’ Smith says. ‘More inquiry needs to be conducted to find out where are they falling out, and what can be done to shore up those leaks or cracks in the consideration process.’

To that end, the authors have included a number of proposed solutions tailored for various sectors of the industry, from buyers and sellers, who can set specific proportions (i.e., 30 percent female/underrepresented race) for people they consider for a job, to A-list talent, who can add ‘equity riders’ to their contracts.

Says Smith: ‘It’s about asking what are all the levers that need to be pushed to open up the gates for more storytellers interested in developing their talent so that they can have opportunities over time?’”

We will undoubtedly hear more about this in the future – this is a real issue.

Pioneering Video Artist Lillian Schwartz

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Lillian Schwartz is a pioneering video artist, who is only now getting the attention she deserves.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lillian Schwartz (born 1927) is a 20th-century American artist considered a pioneer of computer-mediated art and one of the first artists notable for basing almost her entire oeuvre on computational media. Many of her ground-breaking projects were done in the 1960s and 1970s, well before the desktop computer revolution made computer hardware and software widely available to artists . . .

As a young girl during the Great Depression, Schwartz experimented with slate, mud, sticks, and chalk as free materials for making art. She studied to become a nurse under a World War II education program and later on found her training in anatomy, biology, and the use of plaster valuable in making art. Stationed in Japan during the postwar occupation in an area between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she contracted polio, which paralyzed her for a time. As part of her rehabilitation, she studied calligraphy with the artist Tshiro . . .

By 1966, Schwartz had begun working with light boxes and mechanical devices like pumps, and she became a member of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group that brought together artists and engineers as collaborators. In 1968 her kinetic sculpture Proxima Centauri was included in the important early show of machine art at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, entitled ‘The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age’ . . .

Schwartz was brought into Bell Labs in 1968 by Leon Harmon. While there, she worked with engineers John Vollaro and others, including extensive collaboration with Ken Knowlton, a software engineer and computer artist who had also had work in the 1968 Museum of Modern Art show. She began making paintings and films with a combination of hand painting, digital collaging, computer and other image processing, and optical post-processing . . .

Schwartz used the works of Leonardo da Vinci extensively in experiments with computers. One notable work she created is Mona/Leo, for which she compared the image of a Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait with the Mona Lisa, matching the two faces feature by feature to show their underlying structural similarity. Specifically, she replaced the right side of the Mona Lisa with the flipped left side of a red chalk self-portrait of Leonardo.

Superimposed lines drawn on the image showing the close alignments of the bottom of the eye, eyebrow, nose and chin prompted her to argue that the Mona Lisa is in part a cryptic self-portrait of the artist. In further experiments along these lines, she removed the gray tones in Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait and superimposed the Mona Lisa eye over it.

Schwartz has been called a pioneer in ‘establishing computers as a valid and fruitful artistic medium’ by physicist and Nobel laureate Arno Penzias and a trailblazer and virtuoso by the philosopher-artist Timothy Binkley.Her films have been included in the Venice Biennale and the Cannes Film Festival, among many others, and have received numerous awards. Among these is an Academy Award (with Ed Emshwiller) in 1980 for special effects on the film The Lathe of Heaven. In the 1980s, a computer-generated TV spot that she created for the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York won an Emmy Award.

Schwartz’s artworks have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Centre Beauborg (Paris), Stedlijk Museum of Art (Amsterdam), the Grand Palais Museum (Paris), and at numerous galleries and festivals worldwide.

Schwartz has been a visiting member of the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland; an adjunct professor at the Kean College, Fine Arts Department; an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Visual Arts Department; an adjunct professor at the Psychology Department of the School of Arts and Sciences, New York University; and a Member of the Graduate Faculty of The School of Visual Arts, NYC. She has also been an Artist in Residence at Channel 13, WNET, New York. She has been a fellow of the World Academy of Science and Art since 1988.”

This is just a brief overview of Schwartz’s work as an artist; still very active with a gallery show at the prestigious Capri Gallery in Germany running through the end of March, 2017 (click here for full details), she is also the subject of an excellent short documentary on her life and work, which can be found by clicking here, made just before her 87th birthday. Direct, unpretentious, and absolutely determined, Schwartz has too long labored in the shadows of the art world, when her prodigious accomplishments clearly place her in the absolute vanguard of computer and video art.

I thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to Schwartz’s work; see more by clicking here.

Miles Malleson’s 1933 Play “Yours Unfaithfully” Debuts – in 2017

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Max von Essen, Mikaela Izquierdo, and Elisabeth Gray in the world premiere of Yours Unfaithfully (1933).

As The Stage Review notes in their commentary on Malleson’s play, “William Miles Malleson (1888-1969) is remembered, if at all, as a character actor on stage and screen ‘who had a line in nitwits in which he was unrivaled,’ such as the Sultan in The Thief of Bagdad (1940; which he also wrote), the hangman in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (with Sir Alec Guinness, 1949) and Rev. Chasuble in Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest (with Edith Evans, 1952).

But as the author of numerous plays charged with the passion of reform, he never enjoyed the kind of popular success he had as an actor. The Stage and Television Today published a warm testimonial at his death in 1969: ‘Malleson was an actor of distinction, an artist of imagination and depth, whose best characterizations, especially in Shakespeare, were among the treasures of our theatre for many years . . .

He excelled in comedy that came from guileless but not silly men. His nit-wits had souls as well as stupidities. What might have been merely grotesque was never so, it was lit by human feeling. His work in the theatre spanned nearly sixty years, from the time he made his debut at Liverpool Playhouse under Basil Dean in 1911, in Justice. He worked with Granville Barker and J.B. Fagan, with Playfair, Gielgud and Olivier, at the Old Vic in London and Bristol; in the West End and in the provinces.

His acting, within its range, was unrivaled for effect, interest and significance, and he contributed valuable work as a translator of Moliere, as a writer, notably with The Fanatics and Six Men of Dorset—with H. Brooks—and as an influence for all that was intended to be of value to the theatre, irrespective of profit or fame.’”

It’s all true; I must admit I was completely unaware of this aspect of Malleson’s long career, as he did indeed specialize in befuddled character parts in everything from the 1945 British classic Dead of Night, to later roles in Hammer Gothics such as Terence Fisher’s The Horror of Dracula (1958), in which Malleson plays an absent-minded funeral director who manages to misplace a corpse during one of the film’s brief comic interludes.

The play has never been produced until now, and judging from the review in The New York Times, the results are remarkable: as their critic Alexis Soloski writes, “Yours Unfaithfully is both a daring play and a highly conventional one. Under the polished direction of Jonathan Bank, and in the hands of a fine team of designers, its arguments remain provocative, while its structure feels familiar, its tone decorous. Maybe that only makes it more unusual. It’s a bit like a sex farce with real sorrow instead of slammed doors, and something like a drawing room comedy with moral conundrums peeking out beneath the cushions. It is often very funny; it is also very nearly a tragedy . . .

what is extraordinary about Mr. Malleson is his ability to create characters who are capable of feeling several things at once, or who don’t really know what they’re feeling at all. Both Stephen and Anne seem genuinely surprised that their hearts and minds aren’t as orderly as they had believed. (Ms. Gray is especially adroit at rendering these intricate emotional shadings.)” The production was selected by The Times as a “NYT Critics’ Pick” – which The Times doesn’t give out easily.

Yours Unfaithfully is now running at The Samuel Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan; if you’re in the city, it should be on your must-see list, as a long overdue discovery of a playwright whose work is now being compared with Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw – which is heady company indeed.

You can see a clip from the dress rehearsal of the play by clicking here, or on the image above.

The 1956 Film Version of George Orwell’s 1984

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Lately, 1984 has been a very popular novel – but the best movie version was made in 1956.

When George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) finished his novel 1984 in 1948, after thinking about it since 1944, he was trying to warn his audience that unchecked totalitarianism could easily destroy democracy. Since then, there have been several film and television versions; the 1954 BBC version starring Peter Cushing; the 1956 version starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling; and the 1984 version – yes, that’s right – starring the late John Hurt as the hapless Winston Smith, and Richard Burton as his nemesis O’Brien, in what would prove to be his final screen role.

All the various versions have their adherents, but for me, the 1956 version comes closest to the mark. The 1954 version survives only on a battered Kinescope, and as much as I am fond of Peter Cushing as an actor (as readers of this blog no doubt know), he makes a very indifferent Winston Smith, one of the “proles” singled out for punishment and “rehabilitation” by the minions of Big Brother. He would have been much more effective in the O’Brien role, just as he’s superlatively evil as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

The 1984 version has strong performances by both Burton and Hurt, but is ruined – really ruined - by a terrible pop score by The Eurythmics. There was one 2003 US DVD release with the original symphonic score by Dominic Muldowney, but most versions have the Eurythmics track, which so offended Michael Radford, the director of the film, that he publicly disowned the film. So . . .

That leaves the 1956 version, which although it has its flaws, is easily the most effective version of the novel, at least for me. Yes, one of the central problems is the casting of Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling in the leading roles of Winston Smith and Julia. Both were put in the film to increase the chances at the box-office in the United States – which didn’t work, despite a sensationalistic advertising campaign – and while O’Brien is much better than Sterling, they’re not ideally cast for the film.

But as General O’Connor (O’Brien in the book; the name change was to avoid confusion with the Edmond O’Brien’s credit), Sir Michael Redgave is absolutely immaculate – savage, smooth, duplicitous and unforgiving. The film’s narrative, which the title credits admit was “freely adapted” from Orwell’s novel, nevertheless touches all the important bases – cultural repression, institutionalized misinformation, social inequity, and a ruling class that cares nothing about the “proles” below.

Unfortunately, the film has existed in limbo for quite some time, and never got a real DVD release, except in England, and of course, being shot in 1956, it’s in black and white, modestly budgeted at a mere £80,073, or roughly $200,000 US dollars at the time. It’s yet another one of the many films that could use a proper DVD release.

The sets are minimal and coolly stylized, the effects are resolutely pre-digital, and there is even an alternate “happy ending” – thankfully, I have never seen it – tacked on to some prints. But in most surviving versions, the film ends with Smith, brutally tortured and now brainwashed into blindly accepting authority, leading a mob of citizens in a chant of “long live Big Brother” – the anonymous, and perhaps non-existent dictator of the future totalitarian state.

The director of the film was Michael Anderson, who directed Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) the same year – a much more crowd pleasing film – and would later go on to direct the almost equally Dystopian Logan’s Run (1976). The 1956 version of 1984, then, is certainly worth a look, if you can find it – and see how a group of talented people almost got it right.

You can see the entire film online by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of 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.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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