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Archive for the ‘Lee Price’s Film Reviews’ Category

David Niven in the opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

by Lee Price

The Voice of America in 1945

Opening with the most gripping flirtation scene ever filmed, set against a backdrop of hellish flames, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) never falters in the sweep of its storytelling. With this one-of-a-kind masterpiece, ever-ambitious filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger attempted to entertain in the foreground with one of the all-time great screen love stories while simultaneously promoting a positive post-WWII relationship between England and the US. Filmed immediately following the war’s end, it landed right in the middle of a mind-boggling string of Powell/Pressburger masterpieces, directly following I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and preceding Black Narcissus (1947). In their professional partnership as leaders of “The Archers,” Powell primarily served as director and Pressburger as screenwriter, working in a relationship that allowed maximal creative freedom for both.

To address the matter of Anglo-American relations in A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger cast a somewhat cynical eye on the culture of each country. Naturally, one of their targets was the American music that had just swept across the war-torn countries of Europe, always keeping company with the American soldiers. Within the Archers’ division of responsibilities, music tended to fall to Emeric Pressburger, who was professionally trained as a violinist and had briefly played in a Hungarian orchestra before the war. Therefore, it probably fell to Pressburger to select the representative song that all Europe would immediately recognize as distinctly American. What else but Phil Moore’s “Shoo Shoo Baby”? Everyone would know that one!

Somehow I missed “Shoo Shoo Baby” while growing up in the 1960s, fervently watching old horror movies, Bowery Boys, and Abbott & Costello on Saturday morning TV. I know that “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” sung by the Andrews Sisters, became permanently locked in my brain, inextricably entangled with Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, and their slapstick basic training in Buck Privates (1941). A few years later, Bette Midler cemented my love for the song with her popular revival. But the Andrews Sisters’ nearly-as-popular and just-as-catchy “Shoo Shoo Baby” faded even as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” endured. (more…)

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Phil Moore credit in Rooty Toot Toot (1951).

by Lee Price

 Did You Ever See an Elephant Fly?

Who was in the room that day in spring 1941 at the Walt Disney Studio when the Hall Johnson Choir did their first run-through of their portion of the Dumbo script?

The initial recording sessions on a Disney animated feature of this period (the twilight of that brief 1937-42 golden age) were opportunities for innovation. All available performing artists would have been present, some of the animators would have been there along with some of the music department and the writers, and other film crew members might have dropped by, too. The Disney Studio encouraged input from everyone. While much of the script would have been fully storyboarded by this point, past experience would have suggested there still might be a lot of changes in store. Unlike all the other Hollywood animation units, the Disney Studio built in an unusual amount of luxury time to play and experiment.

The focus here is on the first day assigned to work with the Hall Johnson Choir, the stars of Dumbo’s crow scene which is highlighted by the song “When I See An Elephant Fly.” Originally called the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, the 30+ member touring choral ensemble was nationally-famous and rigorously professional. Composer and arranger Hall Johnson established his choir in the mid-1920s and brought them to prominence with their acclaimed musical support in the Broadway hit Green Pastures. Johnson earned praise as a master at arranging African-American spirituals. By 1941, the choir was not only experienced with working on movie sets (they reprised their stage role in the 1936 film of Green Pastures), but had even worked for Disney, providing the choral backgrounds on a couple of scenes in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Phil Moore performing, circa 1945.

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Phil Moore at piano, circa 1946, with John O. Levy on bass. Photo by William P. Gottlieb. Courtesy Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0639)

by Lee Price

Phil Moore, Part One: The Jackie Robinson of Hollywood Film Crews

Picture a film as an iceberg. We see the top 10%. If it’s a southern iceberg, there might be some penguins lazing on it; if it’s an Arctic iceberg, it might be colored by some seals. But underneath, that other 90% is pure white all the way down.

So if you’re watching Gone With the Wind, picture those people on the screen as the top of the glacier. There’s some diversity on view within the frame. It’s not just a big chunk of white. Without thinking closely about it, you might even make an assumption that the percentage of diversity at the top would be proportional to the percentage below the surface. But that’s not the way classic Hollywoodland worked. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it was white all the way down, just like an iceberg.

I don’t dismiss the classic Hollywood industry for a bigotry that was lodged in nearly every American institution of the time. Classic Hollywood was a strong factor in molding me into the person I am. For instance, classic Hollywood gave me Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which I discovered at the age of 11 and permanently convinced me that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. And it’s this same conviction that has fueled a measure of awe and respect in me toward the Black talent who didn’t accept the overwhelming whiteness, the enforced stereotypes, the insults of segregation, and the systemic viciousness of Hollywoodland. The odds were so stacked against those who wanted to enter through the front door that the situation amounted to a classic Hollywood lost cause. Nevertheless, some repeatedly knocked on the door, others attempted infiltration, and a few directly challenged the system. Sooner or later, someone had to get in.

In 1941, Phil Moore (1917-87) became the first African-American to be hired full-time by the music department of a major Hollywood studio, an achievement even more impressive as that studio was the ever-snooty MGM. Moore never received much credit for his contributions to the movies. MGM, as well as the studios (Paramount, Universal, RKO) that received his talent on loan, worked him hard while declining to give him credit for his work. Nevertheless, his full-time starting salary of $1,200 in 1941 was in-line with starting salaries for Hollywood technicians at the time. For a 24-year-old, it wasn’t an insult. Plus, he got to work on some classy material and with some formidable talent.

Phil Moore’s career has a Zelig-like quality to it at times, except he’s not really in the background. He’s on the soundtrack. He’s over there on the piano behind Harpo Marx, Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Frank Sinatra… and they’re listening to what he’s telling them, not vice versa.

Moore had a self-described “all-American boy” childhood in Portland, Oregon, adopted by light-skinned parents who were socially placed and fairly well-accepted in both the city’s white and Black circles. Moore received piano lessons from Edgar Eugene Coursen, one of the area’s top classical musicians, who held him to high and exacting standards. His father’s management of the city’s only hotel open to Blacks led to family friendships with celebrities like Duke Ellington and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Moore absorbed the sounds around him like a sponge, intuitively understanding and appreciating classical music, pop, jazz, blues, and gospel—which is a pretty ideal recipe for success in Hollywood score composing. (more…)

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stalker-dog-in-water

by Lee Price

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), there’s the ordinary world where the Stalker lives with his wife and daughter, there’s a border area patrolled by the military, there’s a sealed-off forbidden area known as the Zone, and, legend says, there’s a room inside the Zone where one’s deepest wishes may be granted. Picture it as concentric circles—a mandala radiating outward from the mysterious room at its spiritual center. In both the movie Stalker and its source book Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the term Stalker refers to the guides who illegally escort guests into the Zone.

Stalker’s Zone is perhaps the most stripped-down version ever of a very familiar place.

In The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy Gale crossed the boundary between black-and-white and Technicolor, and then followed the Yellow Brick Road deep into the Zone, led by the Stalker team of Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. Although some dismiss the account as nothing more than a dream, some say she reached and entered the Room, achieving the core desire that was in her heart all along.

In The Lord of the Rings, both book and films, Frodo Baggins is mentored by Gandalf, the Grey Stalker, who instructs Frodo on how to pass through the Zone in order to return a purloined heirloom to the Room.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film notoriously rejected as “phony” by Tarkovsky, Dr. Dave Bowman journeys through an expansive psychedelic Zone with a (what else?) Room at its center. (more…)

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godzilla-breath

by Lee Price

 Ishirô Honda and Akira Kurosawa walk into a bar…

Some people are driven to work in film because they need to tell stories. Others become infatuated with film because of its ability to document reality. Akira Kurosawa, legendary director of Rashômon (1950), Ikiru (1952), and The Seven Samurai (1954), was a born storyteller. By contrast, Ishirô Honda, beloved director of Gojira (1954—for this essay, I’ll be using the American translation Godzilla to refer to the famous monster in Gojira), Rodan (1956), and Mothra (1961), never considered himself a natural storyteller. He was drawn to the cinema because of its ability to capture life.

These approaches to filmmaking are complementary, just as the vastly different temperaments of Kurosawa and Honda were complementary. Sharing a strong work ethic and an intense love of film, the two men became good friends while working in assistant director positions in the late 1930s and remained close for the next five decades.

About a month ago, I wrote an essay for Wonders in the Dark about the friendship of two other directors—the world-famous Jean Renoir and the lesser-known production-designer-turned-director Eugene Lourié. As it’s well documented that Renoir once attended a matinee of Lourié’s first directorial effort The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, I noted:

“I’d give anything for a photo of Jean Renoir and Eugene Lourié in that movie theater…”

Now I ask: Did Akira Kurosawa attend a matinee of Gojira in 1954? Maybe a private advance screening at Toho Studios where they both worked, or perhaps at Toho Studio’s Nichigeki Theater (spectacularly demolished by Godzilla during his first stomp through Tokyo)? Although I haven’t unearthed any documentation yet, I’d like to think the two friends watched it together—Kurosawa eager to see his friend succeed and Honda nervous to learn his friend’s opinion. (more…)

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Beast - and Roller Coaster

by Lee Price

Nonfiction: I’m Not Making This Up

This is about the day Jean Renoir watched The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I’m not making this part up. He went to a matinee.

To repeat: Jean Renoir—a giant among film artists, director of The Rules of the Game (cited by some sophisticated and astute people as the greatest film ever made) and other masterpieces, ranked as the fourth greatest director of all time in the 2002 BFI Sight and Sound poll, son of the famed impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir—had a grand time at a matinee in summer 1953 watching The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms accompanied by Eugene Lourié, the movie’s director.

Years later, writing his 1985 memoir My Work in Films, Lourié remembered: “Renoir reacted just like the youngsters surrounding us. ‘Eh bien, mon vieux,’ he said. ‘You surely had a wonderful time making this film.’”

I’d give anything for a photo of Jean Renoir and Eugene Lourié in that movie theater, surrounded by a happy sea of monster-loving children and thrill-seeking adults, enjoying the first of the 1950s cycle of giant-monster-attacking-a-city movies. According to Lourié, it made Renoir feel like a kid again. (more…)

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IFM - Alien closeup

by Lee Price

Email Sent: Mon, Jun 27, 2016 8:57 am

Hi Sam,

Hmmm… I’m seriously considering going down one of cinema’s greatest rabbit holes. Has anyone claimed Invaders from Mars yet? …

Lee

I’ve been down my share of rabbit holes. There were the hours spent listening to “I Am the Walrus” and “Revolution #9” forwards, backwards, and sideways. And my obsessive dive into the allegations of electronic rigging in the 2004 Bush-Kerry election. And a critical deep dive into the expressionist film The Golem (1921), writing 21 pretty decent essays on the movie but at one point finding a distorted cross in a freeze frame of one shot and building a deeply questionable theory upon it.

You stare at something too long, you can go a little crazy—perhaps start to see patterns forming that aren’t really there. On happy rare occasions, the rabbit hole leads somewhere worthwhile but other times you just get lost underground.

The deeper you dive, the more opportunity there is to lose your bearings. On the second, third, and fourth viewing of a movie, you’re still fresh, discovering new meanings. But by the time you’re on the 51st viewing, or conducting the frame-by-frame analysis, or—in a spectacularly creative approach—simultaneously projecting the movie forward and backward to see if there’s meaning in how the shots superimpose on each other… well, at that point, it might be better to leave the dark room and play in the park with the mimes for a while. In Room 237, a documentary on rabbit-hole explorations of The Shining (1980), one of the interviewees actually did that forward-backward superimposition thing. He thinks he found buried meanings. But it’s more likely he was just lost in the maze. (more…)

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Bobby Henrey as Phillipe

by Lee Price

Sometimes as adults, we forget how lonely and confusing childhood can be. Produced in England in 1948, The Fallen Idol (1948) resonates long after its final scene for its moving central depiction of vulnerability and helplessness.

Fade in on Bobby Henrey as Phillipe, an inquisitive-looking boy peering through a second-floor railing, watching the clockwork precision of the embassy staff below. Everyone has a job to do but him. In his privileged position as the diplomat’s son, Phillipe is simply an observer, like a child in a movie theater (or, more pessimistically, like a prisoner behind bars). Being so young, nine-years-old at the most, he watches intently but probably understands only a fraction of what he sees.

Throughout The Fallen Idol, Phillipe is shown standing apart, often on a threshold, trying to discern what’s going on and how he should respond. He’s struggling to learn the art of social interaction—including the lies and evasions of everyday life—through his clumsy imitations of the adults around him. He misinterprets dialogue and misses important nonverbal cues. He lacks the knowledge and communication skills needed to navigate the confusing adult environment of the London-based embassy where he lives. Virtually parentless and friendless, with only a pet snake and the kind attention of the embassy butler Baines providing company, he appears desperate to make connections. But his attempts at communication increasingly fail as the movie progresses.

At one point, Phillipe overhears Baines on the phone, talking to his lover. “It makes no difference about the boy,” Baines says. “Of course, he doesn’t understand.” The adult viewer naturally anticipates that Phillipe will be hurt by the comment. But Baines is right! His unflattering remark whizzes right past Phillipe. He really doesn’t understand.

With some movies, I tend to forget the actual closing scene. For me, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) ends on a highway, in terrifying communication breakdown with the desperate Miles (Kevin McCarthy) screaming, “You’re next!” at passing cars with oblivious drivers. After that brutal scene, the coda where the authorities suddenly realize the truth—“Operator, get me the Federal Bureau of Investigation!”—swiftly fades from memory. It’s the scene on the highway that cuts to the core of things. I remember that no one is listening. (more…)

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Road - first scene boys

by Lee Price

Ozu kids. Some are nice, some are bullies; some are natural leaders and others are followers; some are homeless and some appear to be well-provided-for; some come from kind, caring families and others from families that are disintegrating. Except for an occasionally disconcerting mode of stylized crying (both elbows fly up to a 90 degree angle and the fists cover the eyes), they look like kids you might pass on any street, or see playing in the park, or fidgeting across from you on the train or bus.

One could easily populate a playground with the kids in Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) films. They’re a natural part of the Ozu landscape, and therefore—over a career that spanned the direction of more than fifty films from 1928 to 1962—you often find children weaving into and out of the films’ backgrounds and foregrounds. In I Was Born, But… (1932), they are front and center.

The antics of the children are the primary engine behind the movie’s comedy, with Ozu building upon Hollywood ideas which he freshly adapts to the flat fields of the Japanese suburbs. The roaming gang of children and the friendly neighborhood dog inevitably recall the popular Our Gang comedies of the time, the gang is frequently photographed in tight ensemble shots that look like parodies of early Hollywood gangster films, and an appreciation for Chaplin setups is apparent throughout. (more…)

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