October 11, 2012

Harris Savides' San Francisco

Celebrating the cityscapes of the late cinematographer Harris Savides.

Previously: Los Angeles

San Francisco

From Fincher's obsessively dark land of murder and mystery to the scruffy '70s of Harvey Milk's gay rights revolution, San Francisco through the lens of Savides always focuses on the architecture of the city. Bridges, tunnels and windows make mazes for Michael Douglas in The Game; the Bay Area's network of interconnected cities and suburbs make it impossible for the police to track the Zodiac killer, whose knowledge of puzzles and codes is matched by his mastery of urban design and transportation. The story of Milk is the story of San Francisco--the two are inseparable. The life, death, and legacy of a man and a city. 

The Game (David Fincher, 1997)
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

Harris Savides' Los Angeles

It is with great sadness that I learned of the death of Harris Savides today at the young age of 55. 

I first took note of Savides' work while watching Somewhere & Greenberg (both 2010) almost back to back in early 2011. Both bring a kind of hazy, wrapped-in-smog kind of indecipherability to L.A. His view of Los Angeles is essentially isolationist: a single palm tree, a single neon sign, a single commuter in impenetrable traffic; a city that utterly lacks connection. 

These films turned out to be near the end of Savides' career, which began in music videos and included lensing for Gus Van Sant, David Fincher, and Sophia Coppola. 

Enjoy these shots from Harris Savides' LOS ANGELES:

September 23, 2012

WHAT A CHARACTER Blog-A-Thon: "By Jiminy!" The Life and Times of John Qualen

People who know I watch a lot of movies sometimes ask me if I have a favorite character actor, and more often than not, I'd try to wriggle out of answers. I mean, what even is a "character" actor? Stuff like that. But in the last couple of years, there's been one face, one voice, one character actor that seems to follow me everywhere. At Cinecon 47, he popped up in the Jack Haley vehicle She Had to Eat (1937) as a laconic gangster named Sleepy who, you guessed it, was always sleepy. Earlier this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival, I was quite enjoying Carole Lombard in the raucous screwball comedy Nothing Sacred from the same year, and lo and behold, in an uncredited cameo as a small town fireman, it was him. It was THAT GUY. Hey, it's THAT GUY from Casablanca--and His Girl Friday--and The Searchers!

For me, John Qualen is the ultimate Classical Hollywood 'THAT GUY.' 

He has a funny voice. He has a funny face. He can be a decent all-American Joe, a continental European, the Scandinavian immigrant with a heart-o'-gold. John Qualen always looked a little frail, a little crooked, like a man who could be easily toppled. Qualen is the ultimate downtrodden. It helps that Qualen was a gawky, awkward looking little fellow with hollow eyes and a nervous hitch in his voice. This came in handy during The Depression; it wasn't hard to imagine Qualen as the hardworking type kicked in the shins by back luck and economic crisis; it wasn't hard to imagine him, either, as the hardworking type who had finally given up being decent and succumbed to the allure of organized crime. 

Qualen could play a "good guy" and a "bad guy," but he was never an unlikable guy. He was too pitiful-looking. In many a role, Qualen had the hungry, nervous look of a drowned rat. 

Qualen as Muley Graves in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Qualen's unique appeal may have reached its ultimate expression in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath as a humble Oakie forced off his land by...who? The land owners, the bank, the government? Giving voice to the frustrations of millions--then, as now, Qualen's Muley Graves looks in vain for someone to blame. Exasperated, he asks, "Then, who do we shoot?"

Qualen was given his best parts by John Ford, for whom he worked nine times. Along with John Wayne, Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, et al, Qualen was part of Ford's regular stock company, providing local color for the director's many male ensemble pictures.

In The Long Voyage Home (1940), for example, Ford pairs Qualen with the Duke (improbably playing a Swede). Qualen, master of Scandinavian comic relief, lends some credibility to Wayne's Ole Olsen (!); but it's obviously Ford's delight at pairing the two actors--big Swede, little Swede--that comes across strongly in the film's many two-shots. As Axel, Qualen sticks to Wayne like a barnacle to a blue whale; his exaggerated accent and frequent exclamations of "By Jiminy!" (pronounced "Yiminiy") distract us from Wayne's barely-registered Swedish "accent."

But Qualen isn't just the little fool--he does his share of dramatic work. In many ways, Qualen's Axel is the heart of The Long Voyage Home.

Qualen as Axel in The Long Voyage Home (1940)

He says what the audience is thinking. We're all rooting for Duke to give up the sea-farin' life and go back home to Sweden, to ma and pa, to settle down and raise a family. Qualen is Wayne's "lil' buddy," that semi-comic, semi-tragic guy who knows it's too late for him to escape his fate--which is exactly why he works so hard to get Wayne back home.

Again working with Ford and Wayne, Qualen had a big part in The Searchers, again playing Wayne's opposite. Only this time, Qualen is the sturdy, secure family man--the man with hope and happiness--and Wayne is the titular searcher.

The Searchers perhaps marks Qualen's most quintessential "immigrant success story" role. As Lars Jorgensen, Qualen represents the hard-working European who came to America with nothing and by sheer gumption, managed to carve out a small but prosperous living in God's Country. It's one of John Ford's favorite themes --the little Scandinavian frequently acting as B-story comic relief to the often Irish immigrant/autobiographical protagonist.

As is typical in his roles for Ford, Qualen balances pathos with plentiful ethnic humor. Ford never hesitates to give Qualen his signature exclamation--

Qualen's malleable European identity came in handy in Casabalnca--perhaps Hollywood's greatest Continental ensemble of ambiguous accents. Qualen is unforgettable as Berger, the jewelry salesman/freedom fighter whose rendezvous with Paul Henreid's Laszlo is one of the essential plot points of the film.

As a member of the Resistance, Berger's worshipful treatment of Henreid is critical to the audience's understanding of his importance, and his truly impressive status as a "Good Guy." Heretofore, we've obviouly been rooting for Bogie because Rick is the hero of the film...or is he? Laszlo is an undeniable baller, a concentration camp survivor and world-class hater of Nazis (what's not to love?). Qualen's small role communicates the large underground following that is willing to sacrifice everything for Laszlo's freedom. That kind of loyalty is critical to sympathizing with Isla's affection for Henreid--especially in contrast to Bogie, whose loyalties are shifty at best.

If I were to try to list all of John Qualen's memorable supporting roles, this blogathon could go on forever. Another one of my faves--and a prime example of the actor's unique combination of criminal & pitiable--is as the murderer sentenced to hang in His Girl Friday. Who can forget those scenes of timid, little Qualen hiding in a desk as Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant whirl around the newspaper office in perfect screwball mania?

It seems like wherever you go in Classic Hollywood, from '30s screwball comedies to '50s gangster pictures, as the Depression-era downtrodden to the thriving immigrant on the American frontier, John Qualen is bound to show up. You may not know his name, but you'll always remember his performances. 

September 11, 2012

GHOSTBUSTERS Without Ghostbusters

Enjoy these generic establishing shots that could be from almost any movie based in New York, but are in fact, from Ghostbusters

August 31, 2012

Cinecon 48 -- Day One

Cinecon may be a long haul, but Thursday evening is always a breeze. That's the festival's "half day," a relaxing evening show entree of four films. View the full festival schedule here.

This year, however, Cinecon really started with a bang. If you were to ask most classic film audiences who their crowd-pleasing favorite performers were, chances are you'd get a lot of votes for the Nicholas Brothers. We were treated to a short clip from "The Black Network" (1936), an all African-American short film. This was one of the duo's first Hollywood films. As you can see, they're babies.

But as if a Nicholas Brothers number wasn't enough, then the Cinecon audience got a real treat. Down the theater stairs came Cathy and Nicole Nicholas, Fayard's granddaughters, who perform their famous relatives' routines as the Nicholas Sisters. They took the stage (er...tap floor) for a choreographed performance, recreating Fayard and Howard's rendition of "Lucky Number" step for step. It was a real treat (not to mention a real trip!) to watch two generations of Nicholas dancers tap and shimmy some seventy years apart. An extremely cool way to kick off the festival.

The Stan Kenton Orchestra

If only we could have kept that energy going! The first official film of Cinecon 48 was a rather dreary musical short called Artistry in Rhythm (1944), featuring big band leader Stan Kenton and his Orchestra. It may not have been ol' Stan's fault, but this short, which also featured jazz singer Anita O'Day (perky & scattin') and a trio called The Tailor Maids (stiff & vapid), is pretty dull going. The camera cuts from long shot to medium shot...and back again. For a musical, there's no real movement in the whole thing. There seems to have been little done to transfer the nightclub experience to the big screen. One highlight, though: the unintentionally hilarious crooner Gene Howard, performing "She's Funny That Way." The ballad's opening line, "I'm not much to look at, nothing to see," drew some twitters from the audience; Gene Howard looked a bit like a gangly Fred MacMurray in a suit three sizes too big.

Continuing the theme of mid-'40s Universal musicals, the first feature of the night was  Always a Bridesmaid (1943), a starring vehicle for The Andrews Sisters. Appearing here at the height of their WWII-era fame, the sisters play themselves (basically). They're stars of a radio show called The Lonely Hearts Club, a matchmaking venture which attracts the desperate romantic as well as the con artist. An investigator (Patric Knowles) poses as a lonely bachelor who falls for a woman (Grace McDonald) who may or may not be playing him for a fool. Adding some much needed comic relief are veteran character actors Charles Butterworth as a corrupt colonel, and Billy Gilbert as the love-struck and tongue-tied sponsor of the radio program.

Always a Bridesmaid is a pretty basic "B," but the screenplay by Oscar Brodney (who later wrote Harvey!) does manage to get in a few memorable zingers. Some advice to hesitant lovers: "Getting married is just like learning how to swim--hold your nose and jump in!" When a tramp gets a little too chatty with our romantic couple: "I'm a hobo, not a hermit. I'm gregarious!"

By far the best part of the film, however, is the inclusion of Cinecon favorites, the Jivin' Jacks and Jills. The group of swingin', teenage contract players appeared in several Universal B-movies of the period. Their famous alums include Peggy Ryan and Donald O'Conor. In Always a Bridesmaids, these kids just keep popping up and crashing the adults' party. Good thing, too, as their high-flying dancing and slang-laced insolence keep the rote "sting operation" plot from sinking the ship.

The second film of the night was also the festival's first silent picture, The Drums of Jeopardy (1923). This is your typical silent film melodrama. Boy, what doesn't this movie have? The titular drums are twin emeralds attached to these little statuettes of half-naked Hindus. These Maltese Falcon-like maguffins carry with them--you guessed it!--a terrible history of misfortune, plague, and bloodshed. They caused the deaths of rajas! They brought down Imperialist Russia! Their incessant drumming forecasts imminent doom to whomever possesses them. So, of course the plot concerns everyone and their mother trying to get their hands on them.

Silent film star Elaine Hammerstein

The best part of this ridiculousness is a young Wallace Beery as the villainous Karlov, the Bolshevik bully who travels to America to reclaim the jewels with which he overthrew the Czar. It's clear that Beery, even early in his career, had already mastered the shifty-eyed snarl. I mean, he's one cape-twirl away from caricature here, but he makes it work. In fact, I wish everyone chewed the scenery as well as Beery, and his Russian villainess lover Maude George, who has a penchant for sporting outrageous, spangly headgear.

Our young heroes are played by Jack Mulhall and billed-above-the-title star Elaine Hammerstein (granddaughter of Oscar). Elaine is the free spirit daughter of a rich banker who falls for handsome Jack, but that's before she suspects him of offing her father. Oh, no. Elaine must find out who murdered her dad, who wants the emeralds and why, and then rescue Jack who has gotten himself locked in some kind of dungeon for almost the entire movie. Yes, it's over-the-top, but there's some fun stuff here. The best scene sees Elaine and Maude George pitted in an epic cat fight chock-full of amazing bitchfaces and outrageous outfits. It's like silent-era "Dynasty". Also featured: an imbibing butler, people hanging precariously from windowsills, and Wallace Beery smashing an old man's violin and laughing about it. That big meanie!

The cast of 15 Maiden Lane

Unfortunately, due to public transportation issues, I wasn't able to catch the last feature, 15 Maiden Lane. This is a real bummer because the movie has a lot going for it: directed by Allan Dwan (one of Hollywood's pioneers), starring Claire Trevor (for whom my alma mater's art school is named) and a young Cesar Romero. Young Cesar Romero! Ugh.

But tomorrow the trains will be running late, so watch out, Cinecon. I'm just gettin' started.

August 30, 2012

The Cinecon Drinking Game

The Cinecon Classic Film Festival is a venerable Hollywood institution, celebrating its 48th year as the premiere destination for silent and classic film fans and collectors. Cinecon screens archival prints, rarely-seen or almost-lost features, shorts, and newsreels from the first half of the twentieth century.

So what better way than to celebrate such a significant cinematic event than with an old fashioned drinking game?

I've had the privilege of attending Cinecon the past two years, and within that short span of time, there are certain people, places and themes that recur. You're almost guaranteed, for example, to be treated to at least two Depression-era musicals, some screwball comedy pratfalls, some B-Western oaters, and tons of silent movies starring people you've barely (or never) heard of.

The experience of watching these lost cinema treasures is similar, too. Ensconced in the historic Egyptian theater all Labor Day weekend (Thursday thru Monday, all day long), there are certain survival skills one must adopt. Bring your own water. Maybe a couple baggies of snacks. A jacket. Stretch during breaks. And, be a pal: nudge your neighbor if he nods off.

Without further ado...The Cinecon Drinking Game

Familiar Faces

  • Wallace Beery? 
    • Take 1 drink.
  • John Qualen? 
    • Take 1 drink. 
    • With a Scandinavian accent? Take another drink.
  • Wallace Beery? 
    • Take 1 drink. 
  • Eugene Pallette? 
    • Take 1 drink.
    • Skinny Eugene Pallette? CHUG.
  • Jack Oakie?
    • Take 1 drink.
    • As a football player? Take another drink.
  • One of the great silent clowns--Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon--performs a death-defying stunt? 
    • Applaud wildly and then take a drink. 
  • Cowboy actor does a rope/horse trick?
    • Applaud wildly and then take a drink. 
  • William Wellman, Allan Dwan, or Henry Hathaway?
    • Take a big drink.

Give it Up For the Archives
  • Movies presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, The Eastman House, The Library of Congress, or MoMA?
    • Applaud wildly and toast these wonderful institutions.
  • Spot one of the @WarnerArchive guys?
    • Buy them a drink!

  • Politically incorrect title card?
    • Take 1 drink.
  • Blatant sexist/racist/whatever?
    • Take 2 drinks.
  • White kids performing in blackface?
    • CHUG. Because that is the worst. 

Audience Jollies
  • Silent film nudity?
    • All the guys take a drink.
  • Hunky actor takes his shirt off?
    • All the ladies take a drink.
  • Pre-code sexiness?
    • CHUG. Because everyone loves pre-code sexy. 
  • Someone sitting next to you falls asleep?
    • Take a drink. 
  • Audience boos a bad joke?
    • Take a drink.
  • Audience applauds for an actor and you don't know who they are?
    • Take a drink and feel shame. 

Additional/Optional Rules:
--take a drink whenever the title of the film has nothing to do with the plot

--if the film is set during Prohibition, whisper the speakeasy password ("Swordfish"), then take a drink from your flask

***And of course we here at SalesOnFilm urge you to drink responsibly. And, y'know, this works with popcorn and Coca-Cola, too.