Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Latest Classic Movie Goodies on DVD and Blu-ray



Cinephiles can console themselves in these frequently upsetting times by marveling at the sheer quantity of wonderful movies and silent film rarities that are becoming available - some, a century after their original theatrical release - on Blu-ray and DVD. First and foremost, Undercrank Productions has announced that the Alice Howell Collection, 12 movies on 2 DVDs featuring the great silent movie comedienne, the wacky redhead 30 years before Lucille Ball, will be released on March 5th. This blogmeister and classic comedy buff was proud to have contributed to the Kickstarter fundraiser last year that got the ball rolling on this release.



Star of her own series of ridiculously fast-paced slapstick 2-reelers after a stint as a supporting player at Mack Sennett's Keystone during the rough-and-ready days of silents, Alice was considered by no less than Stan Laurel among the top comediennes in motion pictures. Even this briefest of clips from one of her many L-Ko (a.k.a. Lehrman Knock-Out) short subjects produced in 1916 demonstrates a flair for physical comedy.



The official press release elaborates:

The twelve slapstick shorts in this 2-disc collection star the largely forgotten silent-era comedy star Alice Howell, are newly restored, and have not been seen by or available to the public in nearly 100 years.



Alice Howell starred in her own very popular series of comedy shorts from 1915-1925 for studios like L-KO Komedies, Century Comedies, Reelcraft and Universal. Billed as the “Scream of the Screen” and “the Female Chaplin”, Howell’s screen persona was a working-class “scrub-woman” who expertly combined charm and personality with knockabout physical comedy, and was sort of a frizzy-haired silent movie forerunner of Lucille Ball.



Although she starred in over a hundred films, her comedy shorts and career are largely unknown as a majority of the one- and two-reelers she made are lost.



Fortunately, a dozen of them have been rounded up for this two-disc DVD set; most have been preserved by the Library of Congress, and a number of titles have been sourced from film archives in England, France, the Netherlands and Denmark.



Howell is also part of a Hollywood legacy. Her son-in-law was George Stevens, the Academy-Award-winning director of Giant, Shane, Gunga Din and Swing Time – he met Howell’s daughter Yvonne at a dinner at Oliver Hardy’s house. Alice’s grandson is George Stevens, Jr., Founding Director of the American Film Institute and creator of the Kennedy Center Honors, and himself an Oscar recipient for Lifetime Achievement.



“Alice Howell was the first slapstick queen – slapstick with a pretty face,” says Steve Massa, author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy. “More than even Mabel Normand, Howell gave her all and risked life and limb in the pursuit of screen laughter. Unafraid to take the bumps and bruises that the boys did, she could match tumbles and falls with Al St. John or Billie Ritchie – but at the same time had comic timing and movements that were as clean and precise as Keaton and Chaplin’s.”



The films on the The Alice Howell Collection were digitally remastered in 2K from original film materials preserved by the Library of Congress, the BFI National Archive for the British Film Institute, the EYE Filmmuseum (Netherlands), the Danish Film Institute, Lobster Films (Paris) and the Blackhawk Films Collection. Each of the films feature new musical scores on piano and theatre organ by renowned silent film accompanist Ben Model.




Shifting gears from silents just a tad, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are big fans of the iconic Humphrey Bogart. While Bogie made his name as a screen tough guy in The Petrified Forest and later would be a marvelous Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, among the many movies he appeared in - surprise - are rather witty comedies.



Among the best and funniest from the lesser-known of his films, Stand-In, now out on Blu-ray, co-stars Bogie with stalwarts Joan Blondell and Leslie Howard.



The genre Bogie is generally associated with, film noir, will be represented in upcoming Blu-ray releases by Desert Fury, a delirious "crazy with the heat" opus shot in glorious Technicolor (but not breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound) in Ventura County, CA, and in Clarkdale, AZ.



A rather indescribable tale of casinos, racketeers and unabashed back-stabbers worthy of The O-Jays - and starring a fine cast including Lizabeth Scott, John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster and Mary Astor - Desert Fury must be seen to be believed. Author James L. Neibaur reviews the 1947 drama here. At the 2016 Seattle Noir City fest, Czar Of Noir Eddie Muller introduces Desert Fury for a not unsuspecting audience thusly. . .



For the many devotees of B-movies and psychotronic cinema, there are new Blu-ray releases that will make the winter torrential rains, sub-zero temperatures and snowstorms a lot more bearable.



Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Cinematic Titanic, Cinema Insomnia, Rifftrax and Creature Features will get a big kick out of the creative yet unintentionally humorous sci-fi monster movie The Mole People, now out on Blu-ray. It is tough not to love a flick that both uses such phrases as "from the bowels of the earth," and features both John Agar and Hugh Beaumont in the cast!



Easily one of the best and most entertaining "giant bugs on the rampage" movies is The Deadly Mantis. Many of us who collected films on 8mm and 16mm bought the Castle Films excerpt from this Universal-International opus, which also featured Craig Stevens, star of Peter Gunn, as well as William Hopper, who played Paul Drake in Perry Mason.



With a murderous insect loose among the populace, the question is "do we drop an H-bomb on The Deadly Mantis or just use a lot of Raid?"



Last weekend's post on Ron Hutchinson and The Vitaphone Project referred to The Jazz Singer Deluxe Edition. While the 3-DVD set, including Vitaphone Varieties, has been available since 2007, the latest version is a combination Blu-ray and DVD.



The Jazz Singer is also available as a single Blu-ray.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Vitaphone Project



When the writing mojo has flown away with the swallows and can be found face down in a dive bar in Capistrano, at least this time we can take the 5th for gorging ourselves on film noir at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for 10 days.



Now back in New York doing post-travel R&R, this writer must, unfortunately, transition into some lousy news; the passings of prolific movie and TV actress Julie Adams, the incomparable baseball legend, Hall of Famer and fierce competitor (as player and manager) Frank Robinson, and lastly, a giant of classic film and vintage music preservation, Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project.



Over more than a quarter century of hard work, Ron's organization brought back numerous early talkies produced in the 1920's using Vitaphone's sound-on-disc system from the Land Of Lost Films to festivals, screenings and eventually DVDs. Featuring vaudeville acts and musicians of the day, they are astonishing and entertaining throwbacks to the era just before and during the onset of the Great Depression.



The Vitaphone Project's work has been covered in detail in Peter Monaghan's stellar article, A Resounding 25 Years of Restoring Early Film in Moving Image Archive News.



Among the tributes: from the Silentology website by Lea Stans, In Memory Of Ron Hutchinson; from Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy website, Farewell To Vitaphone Champion Ron Hutchinson, One Of The Good Guys.



Mr. Maltin elaborates:


"An avid collector of 78rpm records, he came upon a number of rare 16 –inch discs that provided soundtracks for some of the first sound movies ever made. The majority of them were Vitaphone short subjects featuring Broadway and vaudeville stars, and hadn’t been seen since they were made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Several archives had the equally-rare 35mm film negatives for these shorts but were missing the audio to go with them.

With no professional experience in this arena, Ron played matchmaker for major institutions like the Library of Congress and UCLA Film and Television Archive and got them to cooperate in order to make the films whole again. Before Warner Bros. made a major (and welcome) commitment to its vintage talkies, he raised private funds from individuals who wanted to see these tantalizing shorts. He organized Vitaphone programs around the world and even tracked down relatives of old-time vaudevillians to give them the thrill of seeing their parents and grandparents in action. Over the course of time, news of his work yielded more “finds” and helped put feature films as well as shorts back into circulation."




I did not know Ron, but did see his epic Vitaphone Vaudeville: 1926-1929 program, presented in 2007 by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; enjoyed the Vitaphone Varieties on the big screen immensely.



Mr. Hutchinson, quite the aficionado of 1920's and 1930's music, started collecting the shellac discs from the Vitaphone films and formed The Vitaphone Project in 1991 to reunite the original soundtracks with the films they played with back in 1926-1929.



After making alliances with Warner Brothers and film archives (Library of Congress, George Eastman House, UCLA Film & Television Archive), The Vitaphone Project scoured the world for both discs and the pictorial content that went with them, Vitaphone Varieties were restored and remastered, with sound now on 35mm film.



Vitaphone's technology was not the first to combine sound with picture - there were experiments going back to the beginnings of movies, including the Dickson Experimental Sound Film of 1894, the work of filmmaking pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché using Léon Gaumont's Chronophone sound system, Edison's Kinetophone, as well as the Lee DeForest Phonofilms (in limited distribution) of just a few years prior to the Vitaphones in 1923 - but, with the 1926 releases of features with a synchronized musical track and sound effects (Don Juan, The Better 'Ole ) and Vitaphone Varieties, including Al Jolson's first appearance in A Plantation Act, Warner Brothers/Vitaphone, at least briefly, established an advantage over Fox as the major studio leading the transition from silents to talkies.



Two technologies - sound on disc and sound on film - were battling it out in 1926-1927; Bell Labs and Western Electric were developing both. Using Vitaphone's sound-on-disc process, the 1-reel Vitaphone Varieties played with Vitaphone silents in 1926 and were an immediate hit with moviegoers. Producer-mogul William Fox, eager to market the competing Movietone sound-on-film technology as the alternative to Vitaphone's system, was making newsreels, short subjects and comedies as early as 1927.



These included the Fox answer to the Vitaphone Varieties, the Movietone Musicals series, featuring the likes of Beatrice Lillie, Ruby Keeler and Winnie Lightner (who also starred in Vitaphone Varieties). While commercial 78's of songs from Fox Movietone Musicals exist, no 35mm film elements from the 1927-1928 titles do. Presumably, all were destroyed in the infamous vault fire at the 20th Century Fox film storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey on July 9, 1937.



Today's post pays tribute to The Vitaphone Project by posting key examples of films the organization rescued and restored. The duo of Witt & Berg were among the first acts featured, appearing in a 1926 short subject promoting the series and the Vitaphone sound-on-disc technology.



While the time capsule quality and lunacy of the 1920's Broadway, music and comedy acts starring in these long lost 1-reelers can utterly defy description, the following TCM Film Comment piece by Imogen Sara Smith on the Vitaphone Varieties does a fine job describing both the technology behind and content in the series. And now, enjoy just a few Vitaphone Varieties!













Among the many performers seen in the Vitaphone Varieties, before success in radio, feature films and television: comedy and show business legends George Burns & Gracie Allen.



Burns & Allen started their long career onscreen in Lamb Chops, Vitaphone Varieties #891, released October 14, 1929. George & Gracie were already charmers!



There were also performers who, like wisecracking comedian Bobby Clark, in some respects were too larger than life for movies, but spectacular onstage - such as vaudeville star and stage actress Trixie Friganza.



Sometimes these 1920's short subjects provide a glimpse of a performer known for a much later film. While musical comedy star Jack Buchanan did appear in the Jeannette McDonald musical Monte Carlo, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, his claim to fame in movies was a memorable and hilarious supporting role in the classic MGM musical The Band Wagon, directed stylishly by Vincente Minnelli and starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.



Not only did The Vitaphone Project's work succeed in bringing back dozens of Vitaphone Varieties from lost status and The Twilight Zone, it enabled a restored version of Why Be Good, the last silent movie starring winsome "flapper" comedienne Colleen Moore, to be re-released with the original music and sound effects. Warner Brothers' Ned Price restored the film using a soundtrack disc discovered by The Vitaphone Project, and - voila - Why Be Good had its first public screening with the original soundtrack in 85 years.



After many decades thought to be lost forever, the 1-reelers are now available on a slew of different DVD sets from Warner Archive, including Vitaphone Varieties 1926-1930, Vitaphone Varieties volume 2 and Vitaphone Varieties volume 3.



A few Vitaphone Varieties are on the Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy 6-DVD set.



Many more can be found on The Jazz Singer (1927) 3-DVD set, which features, as extras, lots of Vitaphone Varieties.



Unlike a Buster Keaton flick from the same era, which has a timeless appeal, both The Jazz Singer and the Vitaphone Varieties, many featuring current vaudeville acts, are very much of their time. The phrase "put on your 1926 glasses" comes to mind.



We suggest approaching 21st century reviews of these DVDs and Blu-rays with more than a few grains of salt. Frequently, reviewers evaluate 1920's filmed vaudeville from current mores and entirely forget that these films were made almost 100 years ago, that World War I and the passings of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had only transpired a few years earlier.

Ron Hutchinson expounds on the work of The Vitaphone Project in the following presentation. Some films seen in Ron's lecture (Burns & Allen in Lamb Chops) have been featured in today's blog post. Others, notably the wonderful Sharps And Flats (starting at 57:18), starring the zany vaudeville husband-and-wife comedy team of Conlin & Glass - yep, the same Jimmy Conlin from Preston Sturges' stock company - have not been.



Thanks, Ron and the superb historians of The Vitaphone Project (Vince Giordano, John Newton, Sherwin Dunner and the late David Goldenberg) for all the hard work involved in making these historic films available for viewing! For more Vitaphone soundtrack discs and Vitaphone Varieties, by all means check out the following extensive VITAPHONE playlist on YouTube, as well as a complete Vitaphone Varieties series list from Wikipedia and the aforementioned Peter Monaghan article about The Vitaphone Project in Moving Image Archive News.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Happy 100th Birthday, Ernie Kovacs



January 23, 2019 is the centenary of Ernie Kovacs' birth.



And boy, do we miss him! At least Ernie has a prominent place in The Ernie Kovacs Centennial Exhibit that will begin later this year, in August, at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY.



There's also a new Ernie Kovacs Centennial Edition DVD for those who have not bought the previous Kovacs collections.



















Our favorite examples of the exceedingly vivid imagination of Ernie Kovacs at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog remain the "sound-to-sight" pieces, mini-musicals staged for television which explored video technology in a highly creative and witty way. The first, based on Béla Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra" is evocative and lyrical, as well as a prime showcase for Ernie Kovacs the filmmaker, a man with a video camera and cinematic aspirations.







Thanks, Ernie - and a big time thanks to Edie Adams for her outstanding onscreen contributions to The Ernie Kovacs Show and equally outstanding (and tireless) efforts she made decades later to preserve Ernie's pioneering work in television.



One wonders just how many Ernie Kovacs Show and Here's Edie videotapes she personally rescued from being taped over or tossed in the East River!



We raise our mugs, tumblers and Percy Dovetonsils approved champagne flutes to Ernie and Edie!



For more, check out the following interview with Josh Mills, Edie's son and a historian/archivist, among the prime movers responsible for preserving Ernie's work and making it available on DVD, on The Bob Cesca Show.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Friday in San Francisco: Noir City 17 begins


The long-awaited Noir City 17 film festival hits the big screen at San Francisco's spectacular Castro Theatre on Friday evening.



The Noir City universe is invariably filled with grimy, pothole-filled and rain-soaked streets that invariably lead to nowhere. On said foreboding-filled avenues, strewn with bullet-riddled sedans: nervous cigarette smoking, bargain basement booze, double-crossing dames, sex-starved saps, thuggery, skullduggery, chicanery and misery, creepy alleyways smack dab in the middle of urban netherworlds without end.



The chiaroscuro film noir universe was stylishly presented with "high art on a low budget" characterized by innovative black and white cinematography; ace directors represented in the 2019 Noir City lineup include Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Wise, Robert Aldrich, Otto Preminger, Richard Fleischer, Robert Siodmak, William Wyler, William Dieterle, Michael Curtiz and Jacques Tourneur. . . A.K.A. filmmaking heavyweights.



Writer G. Allen Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle describes the Film Noir In The 1950's program as follows: "What happens when the usual grifters, femme fatales and psychopaths traveling the dark alleys are suddenly haunted by racial tensions, nuclear nightmares and commie agents? Film noir was always built on exploring what's simmering below society's glossy surface, but in the 1950s, with the collapsing Hollywood studio system and bold new visions from innovative filmmakers, the genre entered its most exciting era."



The "Czar Of Noir" and founder of the Film Noir Foundation, Eddie Muller, who shall host the 10-day film festival with aplomb and profound knowledge of classic movies, elaborates.





Who: Silver screen stars from iconic (Barbara Stanwyck) to tragic (Barbara Payton - who ended up in a real-life noir nightmare offscreen after her movie career ended)
What: Noir City 17 - Film Noir In The 1950's
When: January 25 to February 3
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, between 17th and 18th streets.



Why: The movies, seen in big screen glory, are amazing, the proceeds benefit the splendid film preservation efforts of The Film Noir Foundation - and Noir City is by far Your Correspondent's favorite film festival that he doesn't personally provide footage for.



This year's festival includes THREE films by favorite director Samuel Fuller!


Tickets and festival passes are available from Brown Paper Tickets

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Return of Laurel & Hardy



Stan & Ollie hit the big screen again in January 2019, bringing big laughs yet again to a nation much in need of levity, as the celebrated comedy team did with great success throughout the Great Depression.



While the team has never left the museum and film festival circuits, the Alamo Drafthouse cinemas have brought the duo back to movie theaters and big screen glory in Laurel & Hardy’s Festival of Laffs, featuring restorations of four classic Hal Roach Studio short subjects, Busy Bodies, Come Clean, Helpmates and The Music Box.



The Laurel & Hardy program began playing at Alamo Drafthouse locations right after the new year began (first in Ashburn, VA and Irving, TX) and tomorrow night shall play this blogger's hometown of San Francisco, as well as three Alamo Drafthouse locations in the Lone Star State.



Here's the schedule.

San Francisco, CA - January 12
Austin, TX - January 12
Denton, TX - January 12
Richardson, TX - January 12
Brooklyn, NY - January 13
Woodbury, MN - January 13
Lake Highlands Dallas, TX - January 19
El Paso, TX - January 22
Cedars Dallas, TX - January 26
Charlottesville, VA - January 26
Denver, CO - January 27



If unable to attend these shows, where can one see Laurel & Hardy films (besides, in Northern CA, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and the San Francisco silent film festival)?



The good news is that there's at least one DVD collection of the team's sound films, Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection.



The L&H silents are for the most part not available on DVD or Blu-ray, but some of the solo films have turned up on the Slapstick Encyclopedia box set, as well as such Kino Video "Slapstick Symposium" releases as The Stan Laurel Collection and The Oliver Hardy Collection.



A Blu-ray of the uncut, original Atoll K, the last film of Laurel & Hardy, is out as well, but you'll need a region-free player to play the new restoration, a 2k transfer from the 35mm nitrate source materials by the British Film Institute.



Amazon Prime is offering a fair number of their silent movies, as individual downloads; these include both L&H starring vehicles, their pre-team solo films and appearances with Vitagraph Pictures slapstick-meister Larry Semon and other comedians.



In addition to the theatrical release of Stan & Ollie, co-starring English actor and comedian Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Babe, the Laurel & Hardy’s Festival of Laffs program brings the beloved comedy team back to the spotlight where they belong.