After our session on B, C and Z-Movies (with special focus on Monster flicks), we will further dive into the depths of Paracinema, this time focusing on exploitation, sexploitation and blaxploitation. We will experience taboo topics brought up by exploitation films that were produced on the fringe outside the studio system and under the radar of the Hays Code, like Teenage Devil Dolls (1955). Then study some examples of the “masterpieces” of sexploitation cinema, like “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” (1965) by Russ Meyer. After that, we will see some clips of so-called Midnight Movies (artsy and/or crazy independent films that became Cult Movies) and add glimpses of Blaxploitation to our knowledge base!
After talking about the spectacular Historical Epics of Golden Hollywood, we will take a closer look into the dark world of Monster Movies. This horror movie subgenre has had at least four cycles (after King Kong in the 1930s, then atomic age monsters in the 1950s, giant sharks and sea creatures after Jaws in 1975, and space monsters since Alien in 1979, which successfully had merged the Monster Movie with the Science Fiction genre). Although only rarely the story centers around them, monsters can play an important part in fantasy films as well, like in the Lord of the Ring or Game of Thrones series.
Tim Burton pays homage to “world’s worst” fringe filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr., featuring some reenactments of Wood’s most infamous moments in film: GLEN OR GLENDA (1953), BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955), NIGHT OF THE GHOULS (1959) and PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959). The film not only focuses on the artistic struggles of this director, but also sympathetically portrays his obsessions, his love life, and many of his unusual friends.
Despite being made in the 90’s, the films setting is the 50’s, and Burton choose to shoot it in B/W, probably aiming to look more “authentic”. It also will introduce you to a different type of film production away from the glamour of Golden Hollywood (despite those small production companies on “Poverty Row” being geographically relatively close to their big competitors).
Wood whose directorial efforts could be considered in the very best case as mixed pleasures, nowadays is admired by many for his strong independent spirit, being an “auteur” type of filmmaker, and having made with “Glen or Glenda” (1953) the world’s first “serious” film about transgender persons. Many of his films are also “So Bad It’s Good” type of movies being very enjoyable for an exclusive cult audience. The University of Southern California is holding a yearly “Ed Wood Film Festival” in which students are competing to produce short films in Wood’s style. Wood’s films also have been shown in the TV program “Mystery Science Theater 3000″, and there exists even a new baptist group of “Woodites” who celebrate Ed Wood as their savior 🙂
Martin Landau was awarded the Academy Award and the Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the forgotten horror legend Bela Lugosi (“Dracula”, 1931). [The movie garnered its second Oscar for his make-up.] Wood is played by a very enthusiastic young Johnny Depp, and you can also enjoy Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, Sarah Jessica Parker, Vincent D’Onofrio and other great character actors in this film. Despite being critically acclaimed, this film is the first of Tim Burton’s legendary financial failures with only making back a third of its budget in the USA [the other ones are: “Corpse Bride”, “Dark Shadows”, “Frankenweenie”, “Big Fish” and worst of all “Mars Attacks!” which again interestingly is a different form of homage to Ed Wood!]. It also marks Burton’s first R-rated film.
I did not have the time to show it in class, but someone had the same idea like me and compared Tim Burton’s reenactments of Ed Wood’s film scenes with their originals, and their edit on YouTube is actually nicer than mine (using split screen): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-bgPKjasdA
1954’s “Them!” is a landmark SF/Horror movie directed by workhorse Gordon Douglas (famous for the minor classics “Yellowstone Kelly”, “Rio Conchos”, “Sylvia”, “Stagecoach”, “In Like Flint”, “Lady in Cement”, “Barquero”, “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!”, “Necvada Smith” a. m. o.). It was released at the same time as the first Godzilla film in Japan (which was shown in the U.S. two years later in 1956), triggered by the same fears of nuclear weapons and the possible breakout of another world war. Preceded by the smash hit “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953), the first nuclear monster movie (with special effects by “Gwangi” animator Ray Harryhausen), “Them!” is the silver screen’s first “giant bugs” film, as well as a smart genre-mix of horror, SF, action, and detective film. It became surprisingly one of the highest grossing films of Warner Bros. Studio that year, and received an Oscar nomination for the Best Special Effects. Starring character actors James Whitmore, James Arness (later famous for the TV Western series “Gunsmoke”), Edmund Gwenn (“Miracle on 34th Street”) and singer Joan Weldon who states about this movie: “I didn’t think much of Them! when I read the script. I just knew that [my character] was a scientist, and I was hoping that somewhere along the line there would be some romance or love interest. But Gordon Douglas didn’t want to refer to any kind of romance whatsoever. It was totally devoid of any interplay with anybody. The ants were supposed to be the star.” [Quote from IMDb]
After the screening of “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), I would like to take the opportunity to talk about Historical Epics which represent the heights of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Any comments on this breakout session will be welcome!
Famous silent movie star Norma Desmond’s career has faded to oblivion. Eager to make a comeback she chooses young B-Movie screenwriter Joe Gillis to fix her script. But during the process, Norma starts to fancy him. Financially dependent on her, it becomes more and more difficult for Joe to refuse her.
This film noir was directed by Austrian immigrant Billy Wilder (1906-2002) who is considered to be one of the top directors and writers during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Among his credits are classics like “Double Idemnity” (1944), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Sabrina” (1954) and “Some Like It Hot” (1959).
Although not all Hollywood “insiders” – some older movie stars and in particular MGM studio boss Louis B. Meyer – were fond of this motion picture, Sunset Boulevard managed to garner 11 Academy Award nominations and 3 Academy Awards (Best Script, Best Art Direction, Best Score). The critical reception was tremendous, and also financially the film had a moderate success (it did well in the metropolitan areas, but poor in the countryside). In 1998, Sunset Boulevard was selected to be number 12 of AFI’s 100 best American movies.
Director Billy Wilder gathered a great crew – eight time Academy Award winner Edith Head for the costumes, composer Franz Waxman, art director Hans Dreier, make-up artist Wally Westmore – and cast: Gloria Swanson, herself a faded star from the silent era, as Norma Desmond, the up-and-coming William Holden as the young writer, and legendary silent filmmaker and actor Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s servant Max. In special appearances one can see other greats of the silent era: Comedian/actor Buster Keaton, director Cecil B. DeMille, actress Anna Q. Nielsen and British actor H.B. Warner.
The film’s story is said to be inspired by the life of actress Norma Talmadge – a superstar of the silent screen that did not succeed in making the transition to the talkies, had an affair with actor Gilbert Roland (who was 12 years younger than herself) and spent her later days in wealthy retirement. Another reference is to the mysterious murder case of film director William Desmond Taylor.
After the screening of “Jesse James” (1939), we will talk about the Western Genre and its world-wide influence, with special focus on Euro-Westerns and Revisionist Westerns. Any comments on this breakout session will be welcome!
Today we had a mini discussion about actors of he past who represented not only the desirable looks but also incorporated praiseworthy traditional virtues (righteousness, sense of justice, readiness to sacrifice oneself for a higher cause, empathy, protection of the weaker, mental and physical strength, excellence in skills and leadership etc.) in the American heroes they portrayed in film. One could argue that American movies did successfully carry American culture to foreign countries, and after WWII a part of this was due to “monumental” actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, William Holden or Henry Fonda who became the icons of “The Great American Man” that the world should (and did!) look upon. On the other hand, there existed a group of very handsome actors that embodied the male beauty ideals of their times, and who tended to be cast as rebellious but somehow sensitive and fragile personalities in their films. Their popularity often surpassed – albeit for a limited period – those of the aforementioned veteran actors, and drew a new, young audience into the cinemas. Some of them had great acting skills, but faced great hardships to get deeper roles in Hollywood. James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando and Tyrone Power, to name just a few. (Golden Age Hollywood actresses often represented exceptional beauty, but might never have gained recognition as “ambassadors” of American values through film.)
I was wondering in class if you could single out present day actors of the former type: The “Great American Man”, or “Great American Woman”, if you would be able to appoint one. We are so many and did not have enough time, so I would like to give you here an opportunity for additional input! (I feel that “Captain America” is rather the Marvel character who represents this ideal than the actor. I’m more looking for an actor that represents the ideal in a variety of roles, like Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington or Will Smith – you also could describe your feelings if you would believe it is one those mentioned here!) This is a question for Americans as well as foreigners who watch many American movies.
The ordinary farmer boys Jesse and Frank James turn into the country’s most notorious outlaws when ruthless railroad agents try to take away their property.
Based on real life characters, the James brothers became one of Hollywood’s idealized and glorified symbols for righteous people that were forced to get on the wrong side of the law.
Jesse James was directed by Henry King (“David and Batsheba”, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” a.o.). A very handsome Tyrone Power can be seen in the role of the main character. He is supported by legendary character actor Henry Fonda as the older brother Frank, western star Randolph Scott as Marshall Will Wright, and horror legend John Carradine as Bob Ford. Over the years this story was adapted many times for the big screen, and although recent portrayals have become more and more realistic, from this film on it stayed to be a Hollywood tradition to use some of their coolest and best looking guys for this part:
Roy Rogers (“Jesse James at Bay”, 1941), Audie Murphy (who actually played Jesse twice in “Kansas Riders”, 1950, and “A Time For Dying”, 1969!), Robert Wagner (“The True Story of Jesse James”, 1957), Ray Stricklyn (“Young Jesse James”, 1960), James Keach (“The Long Riders“, 1980), Kris Kristofferson (“The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James”, 1986), Rob Lowe (“Frank and Jesse”, 1994), Colin Farrell (“American Outlaws“, 2001), and eventually Brad Pitt (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford“, 2007).
However, despite these idealizations of the American outlaw in film, Jesse and Frank James were tough gangsters who were merely caring for themselves and their families than others who were in need. So, what do you think was the reason for changing the facts into such a positive portrayal?
During the Great Depression four poor actresses and a Broadway show unexpectedly get financial support from a young and aspiring musician. But from where did he get that much money?
Joan Blondell and Dick Powell (who were married from 1936-1944), Ruby Keeler, Warren William and a young Ginger Rogers (famous for her later partnership with Fred Astaire) are starring in this highly entertaining musical film directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Filmed on a budget of estimated 433,000 US $, the movie features four gorgeous dance sequences by legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley (1895-1974). All songs are composed by Harry Warren, who gained three Oscars and eight nominations in his career and wrote many standards like “Jeepers Creepers”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” or “Lullaby of Broadway”.
Gold Diggers of 1933 gained great commercial success, but was actually one of the first American films being altered before distribution in order to avoid state censorship. In 2003, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.