After a lengthy hiatus, Film Journey is gearing up for new activity, so make sure your RSS feeds are well-oiled and in good working order. As Paul Brunick wrote in Film Comment some 18 months ago, the site has always been “updated on a schedule that’s leisurely but sustained,” and that will continue.
Last year, I became the web editor at UCLA Film & Television Archive (where I continue to work), and in my spare time published articles in the LA Weekly, hosted a monthly screening/discussion group at Echo Park Film Center, and helped with AFI Fest programming, blogging, and daily eblasts. Between that and giving my four-year-old daughter the attention she demands (and deserves), the blogging slowed from leisurely to laggard, but that will now improve.
UCLA Film & Television Archive is a place that offers many rewards for a cinephile employee, and I want to take a moment to highlight some of our upcoming public programs. First, we’ve launched the “Universal Pictures: Celebrating 100 Years” series that will subsequently tour North America. You can download the PDF catalog, which includes a number of entries I wrote. In compiling the catalog, there was a communication error that resulted in two pieces being written for James Whale’s Show Boat (1936), so I’m publishing my entry here instead. The Archive is screening a new print of this rare and highly enjoyable movie this Saturday at 4:00 p.m. with actress/author Marilyn Knowlden and author/historian Miles Kreuger in person.
Widely considered the best film adaptation of the 1927 Kern and Hammerstein Broadway hit (itself based on a 1926 novel), this James Whale-directed musical about intrigues onboard a Mississippi River floating entertainment was so expensive, it forced the Laemmles to permanently sell their interest in Universal.
The cast includes many veterans of the musical’s various stage iterations, including Irene Dunne as ingénue Magnolia Hawks; Charles Winniger as her father and showmaster, Cap’n Andy; Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne; Hattie McDaniel (who later became the first African American to win an Academy Award) as the maid Queenie and renowned baritone Paul Robeson as her husband Joe.
A large portion of Universal’s resources were devoted to the production, which included 58 sets and at least seven acres of backlot transformed into the riverside town of Boonville, complete with waterfront landing and hundreds of extras. Famed artist Doris Zinkeisen designed the period costumes, and Hammerstein himself adapted the screenplay.
Though mostly known for his films in Universal’s horror cycle (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man), Whale set aside his dry humor and expressionist shadows to replace them with a vibrant and highly detailed evocation of the turn-of-the-century Midwest. While the story retains its implicit racism (including an unfortunate blackface routine), Whale particularly bonded with star Robeson. Their mutual respect shines in Whale’s elegant camera moves and doting close-ups that make Robeson’s rousing performance of “Ol’ Man River” one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
It’s sadly ironic that the show-stopping appearance of Robeson—a committed social activist blacklisted in the Fifties—was partly responsible for Show Boat’s removal from the public eye. It remained out of circulation for decades before making appearances on cable television and VHS in the 1980s and ‘90s. It remains unavailable commercially on American home video today despite ranking 24th on the American Film Institute’s “Greatest Movie Musicals” and being placed on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1996.
If you live in Los Angeles and need to feed your big-screen movie fix before Saturday, I highly recommend tonight’s double feature at the Million Dollar Theater downtown. First, it’s the Archive-restored Mickey One (1965), directed by Arthur Penn and shot in crisp, unromantic black-and-white by Ghislain Cloquet (whose handiwork with Bresson you can see Saturday night at the Aero in 1969’s Une Femme douce). After that is the “rediscovered” film noir Blast of Silence (1961), in the public eye again after its recent Criterion DVD release. With standout atmospheric sequences and a rare second-person narration (serving in effect as the protagonist’s incriminating, cynical conscience), it’s a brutal and beautiful film.