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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“It’s the Sooooooooooooooooooul Traaaaaaaaaaaaain.”

People all over the world may not have been getting down, as the theme song for “Soul Train” during the years I watched (“TSOP” by MFSB) told them to, but I know that a lot of kids across the country were. From the first moment that falsetto, whistlelike announcement sounded and an animated train started its boogie into our living rooms, we were ready to party.

Through more than 1,100 programs, updated theme songs, and new hosts, the celebration of “peace, love, soul” that was “Soul Train” has endured as no other televised dance club has—the vanguard showcase of new music from and for the African-American community. But it wasn’t just for them. Don Cornelius, the brains behind “Soul Train” and its longtime host, knew white kids like me were tuning in, fed up with the sanitized music and format of “American Bandstand,” the show we were supposed to watch.

I can’t speak for the African-American viewers about what “Soul Train” meant to them, but to me it meant freedom. I saw young men and women of color, otherwise nonexistent in my suburban habitat, dance in ways I found exciting and inventive in vibrantly colored clothes cut high, low, wide, and skinny with a confidence and cool I could only dream of possessing. The music was earthy, rhythmic, infectious, and, of course, the very essence of soul. And the show inspired pride as two kids worked the Scramble Board to assemble the names of famous African-American people—Roberta Flack, Adam Clayton Powell, The Jackson Five and many more—from a random jumble of letters and then melt into the dancing around them when they had solved the puzzle. (more…)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ecstasy, a German-language film shot in Prague and Austria by a Czech director with an Austrian star and an international cast, had a movie life that perhaps could only end in Hollywood.

The film was a sensation all over Europe when it premiered in 1933 primarily because its barely legal star, Hedy Kiesler, played one scene in the nude and appeared to have an orgasm in another. The film’s fortunes varied by country: Hitler banned it, perhaps because Kiesler was Jewish, but it was nominated for the Mussolini Cup at the 1934 Venice Film Festival and Il Duce kept a copy of it in his private collection. The film finally appeared in the States after its nude scenes and insufficiently moral message were “corrected” by the distributor. In 1937, Kiesler, like the character she played in Ecstasy, fled from her controlling older husband, a rich Austrian fascist named Fritz Mandl. She moved to London, where she met MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. He put her under contract, had her change her name to Hedy Lamarr, and launched her successful Hollywood career as “The Most Beautiful Woman in Film.”

Ecstasy no longer has the power to scandalize as it did in its own time. Nonetheless, the film continues to provoke because it does something that is still something of a rarity today—it offers an honest, unapologetic look at female sexuality from a woman’s point of view.

Lamarr plays Eva, a new bride waiting to be carried over the threshold of her new home by her husband Emile (Zvonimir Rogoz), a man who appears to be at least 20 years her senior. Eva is fresh-faced, optimistic youth personified; Emile is plodding, punctilious, and seemingly unaware that his life has altered in the least. Waiting impatiently for Emile to join her in the bedroom, Eva goes into the bathroom where he is engaged in his nighttime toilette. She begs for help with the strap of her slip and then with the clasp of her necklace, hoping that he will be prompted to unwrap her further. Alas, the scene ends with Eva laying alone in bed.

The months that follow show no improvement. Eva is bored and largely ignored by her contentedly oblivious husband. After watching and smiling at young couples dancing to a love song in a park, Eva turns to Emile, who is absorbed in reading his newspaper. He swats a bee that is bothering him and squashes it inadvertently under his chair. The symbolism of the act touches Eva and decides her on her next course of action. She returns to her father (Leopold Kramer) in the country and begins divorce proceedings.

Director Gustav Machatý leaves nothing to the imagination of his audience from here on out. The countryside is a garden of Eden where Eva swims in the nude and races through the trees and meadow after her runaway horse to retrieve the overalls she draped over its back. Naturally, her young, virile Adam (Aribert Mog) follows her horse’s trail to her. Both Adam and Eva are elemental creatures, emphasized when Adam catches a bee on a flower and offers it to her, a sharp contrast to the domesticated gelding she married. The sexual symbolism of the bee and the flower will reach its apex when Eva goes to Adam for a night of passion. Gilding the lily, Machatý offers a scene of suggested horse copulation following Adam and Eva’s tryst.

Ecstasy is nearly silent as Machatý lets his camerawork do his talking for him. A lot of it seems like trickery for its own sake, but certain scenes stand out for their psychological intensity. After Eva meets Adam, she finds herself restless and unable to sleep. She goes to the drawing room and starts playing the piano, an act used often in film to convey sexual tension. She breaks off and starts pacing in the shadows of the night, the wind blowing the diaphanous curtains as she gazes as a portrait of her dead mother, a wild creature like herself. Tormented by her longing, breathing heavily, she moves quickly through the night toward the object of her desire. Adam’s window, isolated in an otherwise dark frame, grows larger and larger in a series of jump cuts until Eva flings open his door.

Machatý also shows the particular humor often found in Czech films. On Eva’s wedding night, he cuts between an excited bride waiting in the boudoir and a tired bridegroom lolling in the bathroom. As Eva waits, we see Emile’s slippered feet start to slide along the floor. The longer Eva waits, and the more unhappy she grows, the farther the feet slip. Finally, she gives up, and the feet pop off the floor; Emile has dropped off to sleep on the edge of the bathtub.

Machatý spent four years in Hollywood learning the director’s craft from D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim before returning to his home country to begin his career. The latter’s roots in German cinema seem to have taken root in Machatý’s style, a combination of German Expressionism mixed with the en vogue currents of Soviet social realism and fascist nativism. A long sequence that shows work tools idle until the workers come upon them and dramatically set the day in motion comes at the end of the film, a strange sequencing that may not have been as the director intended. The final shot, Eva playing with a baby, might have been Adam’s daydream of what their life could have been like had she not left him, but it’s hard to know. With the various cuts made in various countries to satisfy censors, it’s possible that the message of female sexual awakening had to be suborned to the demands of the state: a workers’ paradise in the Soviet utopia, a world of Aryan ubermenschen and the earth mothers to bear them among the Axis nations.

Running throughout is a thoroughly absorbing, emotionally mature performance by Hedy Kiesler Lamarr. She manages to convey feelings of love for her husband and her sadness at her disappointment with him. She is thoroughly uninhibited in conveying sexual desire and happiness with her lover. It’s hard to believe she was only a teenager when she made this film, yet what better time to access the rich emotions of young love and sexual awakening. Hedy Lamarr, a woman of great courage and intelligence, shows she always had the makings of a star.

You can view Ecstasy on YouTube here.

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?”

The well-remembered opening lines to the theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are aimed directly at its viewers, even as the song segues into a pep talk for Mary herself as her character, Mary Richards, starts a new life in Minneapolis. Whose smile does cheer us up? Why did we want to spend a half-hour of our lives every week watching this sitcom? The late Mary Tyler Moore, a beloved person among her fans and those who knew and worked with her, is a welcome guest in everyone’s home.

Ever since Mary Tyler Moore lit up American households as the attractive, talented, adorable wife of TV comedy writer Rob Petrie in the seminal sitcom of the early 1960s, The Dick Van Dyke Show, audiences have been in love with her. It was inevitable that she would have her own TV show in short order. Nonetheless, while hewing to many of the stock characterizations found on many sitcoms, Mary Tyler Moore broke one very significant mold—Mary was a single, childless, professional woman and happy to be so.

Mary Richards was not the first single girl to make it big on TV—Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas) on That Girl (1966-1971) reached American homes first. But she was an aspiring model and actress, a career path quite common for fictional women of the 1950s and ’60s, and ABC insisted that she have a regular boyfriend. Mary was an associate producer at TV station WJM right from the get-go, leaving a broken romance behind her and ready to play the field in her new city. The image from the opening credits of her spinning in wonder at her new surroundings and tossing her hat in the air—one might even say, into the ring—showed her delight in her new freedom, a freedom women were fighting for with great vigor during the time the show was on the air. (more…)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As soon as the opening theme of electronica and crackling police radio intones and a kinetic roll of street scenes, abstract streaks, and cast member faces appearing and disappearing like fortunes in a magic eight ball hit the screen, it’s clear that Homicide: Life on the Street is no ordinary cop show.

Homicide defied expectations. A police drama with very little action and an unabashedly majority African-American cast, it was always a ratings trailer perpetually in danger of cancellation. However, by eschewing convention and dealing in a mature way with such issues as suicide, faith, homosexual awakening, friendship, and corruption, it became a critical darling and a multiple award winner, including three Emmys, three Peabodies, and six Television Critics Association awards. It was a prestige-builder for its network, NBC, and it attracted some major stars for guest shots, including Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Paul Giamatti, James Earl Jones, Lily Tomlin, and Alfre Woodard.

The landmark series was based on the nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, who spent a year following the Baltimore Police Department homicide unit. Its creator was Paul Attanasio, a gifted screenwriter (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) and producer (Gideon’s Crossing, House, both TV series). Its intensity and soulfulness, however, belonged to its writers and its actors.

The core group at the start of the show comprised the squad leader, Lt. Al “Gee” Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), a very black half-Italian man with a gusto for life, lone female Det. Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) and her footloose partner Det. Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), commonsense Det. Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and his slightly sad partner Det. Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito), and vulnerable, newly divorced Det. Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) and hardline conspiracy theorist Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer), a character so good that Belzer only just retired him last year after his long run on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. (more…)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you were alive in the 1960s, chances are you were exposed to a little record album called The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Released in 1960, this clever series of one-sided phone calls about everything from baseball to Nikita Khrushchev took on historical and up-to-the-minute topics and poked at the ubiquity of public relations and marketing in determining our tastes. The album, a frequent visitor to my parents’ turntable, won Album of the Year at the 1961 Grammy Awards and the button-down mind behind it, Bob Newhart, was the only comedian ever to win a Best New Artist Grammy.

Bob Newhart is a native of my fair city, Chicago, and even attended my alma mater, Loyola University of Chicago. When it came time for him to carry on a tradition that younger Americans think was first begun with Jerry Seinfeld—stand-up comics getting their own sitcom—he set The Bob Newhart Show in his hometown. His office building is on Michigan Avenue, right across from the Tribune Tower, and his apartment building is on Sheridan Road, just a mile or so from the Lake Shore Campus of Loyola. Watching Bob Newhart, therefore, was as much an act of civic pride for me as it was a chance to enjoy his distinctive humor.

The Bob Newhart Show brings together a quirky cast of characters who function as worthy foils for Newhart’s character, psychiatrist Dr. Robert Hartley. Bob is married to lovely, sharp as a tack Emily (Suzanne Pleshetter), who’s great at tossing zingers but also enjoys the laughs around her. The Hartleys’ next-door neighbor Howard Borden (Bill Dailey), a forerunner of Kramer in Seinfeld, frequently barges into the couple’s apartment, sharing dinner and tales of his work and woes as an airline pilot. Rounding out the cast of regulars is debonair dentist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz), with whom Bob shares an office suite and a secretary, Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace), and several members of a therapy group Bob runs, most notably gloom-and-doom Elliot Carlin (Jack Riley), whom Bob unfailing refers to as “Mr. Carlin.” (more…)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When I affirmed I’d be part of this countdown, I sent a title to Sam to see if he thought it was appropriate for a film festival named for Allan. Sam, always the accommodating host at Wonders in the Dark, said, of course it was. I mulled that for some time until I realized I might be trying to school Allan from the other side of the pearly gates on films he generally overlooked in his expansive view of cinema (yes, we all have our blind spots). Following that realization, I looked for a different film, one on which Allan himself might have offered some pointed criticism that would make cinephilia a better place. I came up with Bedelia.

Allan showed some esteem for Bedelia’s director, Lance Comfort, whose Hatter’s Castle made his Movie Timeline for 1942. He also seems to have respected the talents of Margaret Lockwood, who plays the title character in Bedelia. He included her as a runner-up in two of his “Best of” lists, for supporting actress in The Stars Look Down (1939) and actress for The Man in Grey (1941). He had this to say about her in his review of 1939’s A Girl Must Live:

Lockwood had achieved stardom the previous year in The Lady Vanishes and (Carol) Reed’s Bank Holiday and this would be her second of four films for Reed – The Stars Look Down and Night Train to Munich would follow – and it’s fascinating to think of her playing the innocent ingénue only a few years before bitching up the screen in regency costume dramas.”

I wonder if Allan would have seen her mesmerizing performance in Bedelia as a warm-up for her imperious later roles. It certainly seems that way to me.

Lockwood plays Bedelia Carrington, the brand-new bride of Charlie Carrington (Ian Hunter), a middle-class Yorkshire building engineer. While on their honeymoon in Monte Carlo, they make the acquaintance of an artist, Ben Cheney (Barry K. Barnes), who arranges to chat them up at their fancy hotel—an extravagance for both men. Bedelia has been married before, to an emerging artist who died young. Ben promises Charlie to see if he can find a painting by Bedelia’s first husband—unaccountably, she has none of his works—and to look the couple up after all are back in England to finish a portrait of Bedelia Charlie commissioned in Monte Carlo. This he does, also bringing a painting bearing her late husband’s signature to a Christmas party hosted by the Carringtons. That very evening, Charlie falls very ill and hovers near death for weeks. His slow, steady recovery under the watchful eye of a private-duty nurse (Jill Esmond), however, seems to make Bedelia more and more anxious. It’s only a matter of time until her dark secret leads to a strangely compassionate conclusion.

We learn in the opening frames that Bedelia is some kind of wicked enchantress, as a voiceover by Ben reveals her peculiar nature as we gaze at a pretty crummy painting of the ravishingly beautiful woman. To its credit, however, the film maintains an admirable suspense, allowing Lockwood to build a character who keeps us off-balance—a gorgeous woman who, like Rita Hayworth, is more than the sum of her hair tosses. We know she is hiding something when she lies to her husband, but she seems absolutely besotted with him. We know she doesn’t like to be photographed or drawn, but she agrees, albeit reluctantly, to allow Ben to paint her portrait. We feel the same revulsion toward Ben that she does; he appears to be watching Bedelia, questioning a jeweler about a pearl she brought in to be reset, and he rents a dog to get Bedelia to talk to him.

Bedelia 1

Ian Hunter is an excellent foil for Lockwood. Playing a doting husband with a welcoming sense of humor, he is completely natural in his relationship with Bedelia—including standing up to her when she makes what he considers to be unreasonable demands. He’s not a clueless dupe, and his love and equanimity with her has us believing Bedelia’s declaration that he is different from any other man she’s met. Equally, Barnes isn’t afraid to behave like an aggressive cad who works hard—maybe too hard—to throw Bedelia off her game. A great supporting cast fills out this film that is more than a mystery; it’s a finely wrought melodrama about the complicated nature of love, hate, and the drive for freedom.

Bedelia derives from a novel by Vera Caspary, whose novel Laura formed the basis for one of cinema’s most famous and acclaimed noir films. Caspary, a successful author of murder mysteries, collaborated on the screenplay for Bedelia, an apprenticeship in the art of writing for film that would eventually win her accolades from the Writers Guild of America for A Letter to Three Wives (1950). The film might have reached the heights of Laura (1944), whose opening it mimics, if it had been made on a Hollywood budget, not the shoestring that usually attended productions by British National Films (BNF), a company that went belly-up only two years after Bedelia was released. But no expense was spared in dressing Lockwood, whose allure is essential to the effectiveness of the film; I don’t think I saw her wear anything more than once in any scene, not even her robe.

Bedelia is not perfect or terribly stylish, but its psychological complexity and some of its plot points are echoed in some of the world’s greatest films, including Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). I’d like to think that Bedelia is a film Allan would have appreciated.

You can view Bedelia on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7WPeJRXaF0

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ISM14

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The line between science fiction and horror is often breached because humanity’s fear of the unknown has proven fertile soil for the fevered imaginations of scifi writers and filmmakers. The 1950s, of course, produced a slew of Atomic Age nightmares, as the science fact of massively destructive weapons merged with the paranoias of the time. Some forget that this period in human and movie history also was awash in psychoanalysis—the science of the mind—with Freudian theories all the rage in films of all types.

The 1957 scifi/horror classic The Incredible Shrinking Man from director Jack Arnold is firmly rooted in these socioscientific concerns. The plot is propelled by environmental horrors. A radioactive cloud floats toward the boat where the title character, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are relaxing and coats him with a stardust sheen. Scott doesn’t start shrinking, however, until he is exposed to insecticide after they return home. While there is plenty of frightening action ahead, it is in the aftermath of these initial events that the film takes on more psychological and philosophical shading, and makes a pointed critique of a society slipping a straitjacket of conformity and wholesomeness over its citizens following the chaos and lingering malaise of World War II.

Scott asserts his privilege as a white man in a white-male-dominated society in the very first scene by ordering his wife to go below deck to get him a beer: “To the galley, wench.

Fetch me a flagon of beer,” he jests. Unwittingly, he did the manly thing by saving her from getting dusted, but because his rescue was unintentional and unconscious, we know we are in Freud’s realm of the uncanny. Freud said, “The uncanny is anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of earlier psychic stages, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive experience of the human species.” (more…)

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