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Stella Dallas: The Female Hero in the Maternal Melodrama

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers a fresh take on the “maternal melodrama” in a new essay in Senses of Cinema.

As Foster writes in her discussion of the film, “Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) is the most well known and celebrated of the genre known as the ‘maternal melodrama.’ Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is but one of many unsung female heroes who sacrifice, yet always prevail, in maternal melodramas such as Min and Bill (1930); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931); Madame X (1937); and Forbidden (1932) to name but a few of this rich, largely forgotten and dismissed treasure-trove.

Maternal melodramas are a subgenre of films referred to as ‘women’s pictures’ – films that catered to a vast and powerful female audience; once considered crucial to box office success. They traffic in sentimentality, laughter and tears. These are uncontrollable emotions that are routinely debased as overly feminine, as are ‘chick flicks,’ another female-centered genre that is reviled and callously disregarded, disrespecting female viewers, women’s struggles, and female heroes.

In 1937, audiences were not only familiar with the popular novel of the same name written by poet and novelist Olive Higgins Prouty in 1923; they also knew the 1924 stage play and the silent film version of 1925, adapted for the screen by Frances Marion and directed by Henry King. Stella Dallas was so popular with women that it was even adapted into a radio serial that ran from 1937 to 1955, one of the first and most successful soap operas . . .

In dismissing genre films made for women, critics not only erase the female spectator; they erase women and female heroes, real and fictional. Maternal melodramas, by contrast, recognize and reward the victories of women at the bottom of society. Women like Stella Dallas tend to be poor and destitute, prostitutes, unwed and pregnant, and non-conformist in terms of romance. In short, they subvert society with their disruptive acts of maternal heroism. It is very important to note, however, that Stella Dallas figures always win, at least in the world of the maternal melodrama.”

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

New Film Series – Picturing The West at Film Streams in Omaha

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Film Streams in Omaha, Nebraska has a great new series this Feburary/ March 2016 on The Western Film.

As the theater’s website notes, “for many, the term ‘the West’ is likely to conjure memories of screen cowboys, like John Wayne, or anti-heroes, like Clint Eastwood. Movies played a huge role in creating the popular image of an entire chapter of history, not to mention many misguided or harmful stereotypes about Native Americans.

Part of Westward O, a celebration of all things west in Omaha, corresponding with Joslyn Art Museum’s ‘Go West! Art of the American Frontier’ from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West exhibition, this series will offer an opportunity to revel in beloved, classic films and also to think about how these works of art impact or perception of America, past and present.

Curated in collaboration with Toby Jurovics, Joslyn’s Chief Curator & Richard and Mary Holland Curator of American Western Art, the series includes beloved standard-bearers that helped establish the wholesome image of the open range, psychological westerns that challenged ideas of right and wrong, and more recent takes on the genre that reflect changes in filmmaking and the cultural zeitgeist.” Here’s a chance to check out these classics on the big screen; don’t miss it!

Click here, or on the image above, to see the full schedule for the series.

William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953)

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see Menzies’ entire film Invaders From Mars.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits. The film is being screened in January at the UCLA Film Archive in its original 35mm format, and has long since been recognized as one of the classic “childhood nightmare” films of the era, and one of Menzies’ finest achievements. Menzies’ biographer, James Curtis, will introduce the screening.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “the furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film.

The Rebranding of TCM

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

TCM is really just reaching out for a wider audience – which is great news!

As Will McKinley notes in a really interesting post in his website Cinematically Insane on the indispensable Turner Classic Movies channel, the last network to broadcast classic films uncut, commercial free, and in their proper aspect ratios – this does not mean adding commercials – it’s simply reaching out for a wider audience. As McKinley writes, in part: “to understand what’s happening at TCM we need to go back to last fall, when a company-wide cost-cutting initiative hit Turner Broadcasting.

TCM lost approximately 15 staffers to layoffs and buyouts – far fewer than other Turner networks, but still a tragedy (a staff of approximately 45 remains). Following the restructuring, TCM emerged as a separate and autonomous entity within Turner and gained a new general manager, Jennifer Dorian [the new TCM general manager] with a mission to ‘grow’ the brand.

A 15-year Turner veteran, Dorian had previously led the rebranding of TNT in 2000 and TBS in 2004, as well as the re-launch of Court TV as truTV in 2007, so some change in the channel’s identity was to be expected. That the change did not involve the addition of commercials – as happened at the previously ad-free Turner network Boomerang – was (and continues to be) welcome news.

‘NO COMMERCIALS. EVER. EVER. EVER. EVER,’ Ben Mankiewicz assured fans today, luring at least one or two off the digital ledge. And TCM Senior VP of Programming Charles Tabesh was even more definitive: ‘when AMC went commercial many years ago, the cable affiliates freaked out, because they were getting a lot of complaints from subscribers and they wanted to make sure that TCM never added commercials,’ he said. We’ve never had plans to add commercials. I think it’s actually written into some of our affiliate agreements.’”

“No commercials ever” – great news, and you can read the entire article by clicking here.

New Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot on the “sick” humor films of the 1960s.

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical HollywoodStreaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

Here are some early comments by reviewers:

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The Dixon dynamo’s done it again. In a swift and assured push, he opens doors to the sights, sounds—and smells—of the other world cinematic story. He peels back eyelids for us to see one built not only on the backs of the Griffiths, Hitchcocks, Bunuels, and Truffauts, but on the extraordinary creativity of those pushed into penumbric shadows; those cineastes like Max Ophüls, Juan Orol, Marcel Hanoun, and D. Ross Lederman who dared to bend minds and expectations at any cost. We have our world cinematic critic and he’s invited us to strap ourselves for a journey to the chaotic dark side of world cinematic history. As with Kubrick’s Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, with Dixon you’re in for a hell of a ride!” – Frederick Luis Aldama, Arts & Humanities Distinguished University Professor and author of The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s new collection of essays, Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s, offers even more than its title promises.  To be sure, its opening essay presents a richly detailed and thoughtful meditation on the iconoclastic ‘sick’ humor of sixties films from Dr. Strangelove to Putney Swope.  But readers will also find much else of value, including pieces on the unsung Hollywood auteur D. Ross Lederman, the lost version of the 1971 cult road movie classic Vanishing Point, and the fatalistic noir films of Max Ophüls.  All are written with Dixon’s customary verve, wit, and attention to historical detail, making this book a must for any serious student of cinema.” – Ian Olney, author of Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

“This book glitters with a treasure of informative, witty, and acute insights into films and filmmakers too long neglected in their unconventional but deeply provocative importance.  No one writes about film with more infectious vivacity than Wheeler Winston Dixon, especially in these pages.” – Murray Pomerance, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Update on Too Late for Tears on DVD

Monday, March 30th, 2015

A few posts ago, I wrote on the recent 35mm restoration of Too Late for Tears, and wondered when it would be on DVD.

A few minutes ago, I received this e-mail from Alan K. Rode, director of the Film Noir Foundation: “Re: your blog post for TOO LATE FOR TEARS coming out on DVD. Please rest assured that TLFT will be coming out on DVD in the near future. A time-consuming aspect of bringing this and other restored titles out on DVD involves the clearing of various rights even with titles that are in the public domain. In the case of TLFT, a deal with the estate of the late Roy Huggins that owns the rights to the Huggins screenplay adapted from his novel had to be initiated and negotiated. These matters are wrapping up and we will be moving forward on this project.

It is also germane to note that the situation with each film is different. The FNF brought THE PROWLER out on DVD and produced the special features after cutting deals with the film’s rights holders and the DVD distributor. Paramount Pictures owns the rights to CRY DANGER and licensed the title to Olive. We allowed them to use our restoration for the transfer.

Paramount also owns TRY AND GET ME! which we have also restored, but-to my knowledge-has not relicensed the title to Olive to bring our restoration to DVD. Owing to a variety of circumstances including rights, the process of restoring these films and bringing them out on DVD, is simply not a speedy process. I hope this provides some illumination on the subject. We certainly understand that our charter to restore America’s Noir Heritage extends beyond the eight cities that currently host NOIR CITY film festivals. We are fully committed to making our restoration of TLFT available to everybody, as soon as possible”

Good news- and many thanks to Alan for being in touch!

The White Reindeer (1952)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Here’s a real curiosity – a forgotten fairy tale / horror film from Finland.

As Wikipedia notes, “The White Reindeer (Finnish: Valkoinen peura) is a 1952 Finnish horror drama film written, photographed and directed by Erik Blomberg. It was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film. After its limited release five years later in the United States, it was one of five films to win the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology and Sami shamanism, is set in Finnish Lapland and centers on a young woman, Pirita (Blomberg’s wife Mirijami Kuosmanen). In the snowy landscape, Pirita and reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) meet and soon marry. Aslak must spend time away for work, leaving his new bride alone and lonely.

In an effort to alleviate her loneliness and ignite marital passion, Pirita visits the local shaman, who indeed helps her out; but in the process turns her into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. The village men are drawn to her and pursue her, with tragic results.”

As with so many interesting films from the past, even films such as this which received significant honors, and a fairly high profile festival release, The White Reindeer is not available on DVD in the United States, but can be found on a French DVD (Region 2) under the title Le Renne Blanc – and is well worth seeking out.

With a very brief running time, the simplest resources, this is a compelling and deeply original film that deserves more attention – another example of how much there is available in world cinema, and how much more there is to discover. Why this isn’t available in the United States is a mystery to me – there’s even a Criterion “fantasy” site where the film is listed as a supposed release – but sadly, this is just a dream.

So do yourself a favor – buy the DVD, which has English subtitles, while you still can.

Why Isn’t The Restored Version of Too Late for Tears on DVD?

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

There’s no more hardboiled screen duo than Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears (1949).

Too Late for Tears, directed by Byron Haskin, is a cult noir film that currently only survives in truly terrible Public Domain DVDs that can only be watched for archival purposes – if you watch one of these versions, you’ve sort of seen the film, but you haven’t really experienced it. Splices, scratches, rips, tears – they’re all part of the Public Domain print, and it provides only an approximation of the watching the 35mm original. You see, the copyright for the film expired long ago, so anyone can put out a DVD – using any materials at hand, and what’s available – until now – has been really substandard.

However, as Rick Paulas wrote on August 6, 2014, in Pacific Standard Magazine, one man is making it a lifetime mission to track down and preserve these genre gems before they’re lost forever. As Paulas notes, “Eddie Muller is the president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit working to locate and repair films from the classic era. His work has led to 12 years of film festivals in San Francisco’s Castro Theater, the rescue of six films, and a badass nickname from legendary noir novelist James Ellroy: ‘The Czar of Noir.’ But when it came to restoring Too Late for Tears, The Czar was nearly crying tears of his own. ‘It was by far the toughest,’ he says.

While Internet streaming may make it seem as if we can watch anything whenever we want, that’s just not the case. Every migration to a new medium relegates a portion of films to the dustbin of history. There’s a triage that occurs when 16mm leads to VHS, to DVD, to Blu-ray. Conversion takes time and money, two resources that movie studios aren’t going to waste on titles that don’t generate sales. ‘It’s a funnel,’ Muller says. ‘It may seem like there are more titles than ever before, but I guarantee you this is an illusion.’

Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that half of all American films made before 1950, along with over 90 percent made before 1929, are gone for good. While there are high-profile ‘Holy Grail’ lost films that collectors have been obsessing over for years—Erich von Stroheim’s nine-hour director’s cut of Greed, which only 12 people ever saw; Lon Chaney’s detective/horror movie London After Midnight, the last print reportedly burned in the tragic MGM vault fire of 1967—there are crates more on nobody’s radar. The hardest to locate, by far, are ‘orphans’: independently produced films seemingly not owned by any studio [. . .]

The first move for Muller during any restoration is to ask the community for any and all elements they have. This means 35mm prints, 16mm, good digital transfers. Anything but circulation prints—prints that have been sent out to theaters—which have wear-and-tear that makes a restoration nearly impossible. The prize is an original negative or duplication that’s been created for the sake of protection, but those are nearly impossible to come by.

Eddie’s calls for Too Late for Tears elements netted him a few nibbles. One was a 35mm print from a private collector, the quality of which was uncertain. Another was a 35mm print that somehow ended up in the Jones Film Archive at Southern Methodist University. (‘You can fall down a rabbit hole when you start investigating this stuff.’) UCLA also had a print after a French collector dumped loads of canisters on them. (‘Luckily, their print didn’t have subtitles.’)

But the question at hand was whether or not Muller wanted to pour his limited funds into a restoration using this unproven trio or hunting the rumors of a Baltimore projectionist’s pristine nitrate print [. . .] Under the watchful eye of UCLA restoration manager Scott MacQueen, the best parts of the three prints were spliced into one. Finally, on January 25, 2014, Muller premiered the restoration of Too Late for Tears at the 12th-annual Film Noir Fest in San Francisco to rapturous applause.”

But for those of us not in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, I have a simple question; when is the restored version of Too Late for Tears, one of the toughest and most unrelenting of all noirs, going to be available on DVD? Another noir film that Muller was instrumental in saving, Robert Parrish’s acerbic Cry Danger (1951), starring Dick Powell, was restored in 2011, screened theatrically, and then made the jump to DVD, and it goes without saying that I bought one of the first copies of the restoration available.

But now Too Late for Tears has been restored, yet as far as I can find out, no DVD or Blu-ray release is imminent. So, as Johann Sebastian Bach might ask – and indeed ask, although obviously in another context – “oh, when will that day come?” Too Late for Tears is one of Haskin’s finest films, one of Dan Duryea’s most desperately corrupt performances, and surely one of Lizabeth Scott’s most brutal turns as a femme fatale, one who really knows what the term means – she’s lethal, in every sense of the word. So it’s great that Too Late for Tears has been rescued and restored – cue the applause for Eddie Muller, seriously – but when will we get the DVD?

Until we get the DVD or Blu-ray, or both, we won’t really have the film back in circulation.

Robert De Niro’s Actual Hack License for Taxi Driver

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Talk about method acting!

This has been floating around the web, and is worth posting here; this is Robert De Niro’s actual hack license that he used to prep for his career defining role as Travis Bickle, a loner taxicab driver in New York City driven to a homicidal frenzy by forces he can’t control. It’s one of the great American movies, and was shot right around the corner from where I then lived, at 203 East 14th Street in Manhattan. De Niro – a total professional, completely dedicated to his craft, and it shows in the finished film, which is perhaps the finest film from Scorsese, De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and everyone else involved. No other film so authentically captured the grit and grime of New York City in the 1970s.

A fascinating artifact from a lost era.

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!

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.

In The National News

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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