Back in the 1980s, cinema journalists Phillippe Garnier and Claude Ventura seem to have created a show consisting of interviews with Hollywood directors (and occasionally actors) that I can only presume was made for French TV. Titled 'Cinema, Cinemas' (English translantion: 'Film, Films' or, colloquially, 'Movie, Movies') the show consists of neat little twenty minute segments combining interviews of the filmmakers in English (subtitled in French) with scenes from the films accompanied by somber French commentary (with no English subtitling). A number of episodes are posted on Youtube and I've just killed a significant portion of my workday watching a few. This all came about because I'm reading a  biography of writer-director Richard Brooks and went casting about for interview footage of him that might have been parked by someone on the Tube. Voila! Youtube never disappoints, does it? A nice discovery, this 'Cinema, 'Cinemas' program (alternate translation: 'Picture, Pictures' or, colloquially, 'Flick, Flicks'.)

Brooks talks exclusively about 'In Cold Blood' in this segment and almost does a Truman Capote imitation--he wisely stops himself after it fails to convincingly get off the ground. His manner is one that doesn't seem to exist in people anymore--that of a grand, confident and intense anecdotalist. He was certainly a spellbinder and, though perfectly calm and well-mannered, one can see the rage beneath the surface that was, apparently, often in evidence on his sets. He actually got away with starting his movies without completed scripts and frequently refused to show actors more than the pages they were shooting, apparently convincing them that their performances would be better if they didn't know what was coming next. How Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Diane Keaton, Sean Connery etc. actually put up with this insult is beyond me. Nonetheless, Brooks was an interesting and highly successful (and unusual) combination of studio system functionary and iconoclastic auteur and the interview is a nice way to spend twenty minutes avoiding work, to say nothing of exercise.

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What on earth was the above video made for? It's a short film in the style of a tourist-lure travelogue promoting New York. Only its point is how lousy New York is. The Youtube poster is at least ten years off in his estimation of when it was shot--he says early sixties but the cars (among other things) show it to be the notorious New York of the early 70s. The funk music helps solidify this as well as the cabbie who uses the word 'kooks' to describe the crazy people he encounters in his job. Now dig: 'kooks' was a 50s/60s word so one could be forgiven for thinking that the use of the word places the film in the early 60s. But the cabbie is at least fifty-something years old, meaning that his use of the word 'kooks' was new and fresh ten years earlier and--as is often the case with us older ones--is a stale leftover of the hip world that he remembers from his fast-receding youth. Do you buy it? Well if not, here's the ultimate proof that the damn thing was shot in the late 60s at the very least. It comes courtesy of a comment posted on the video and proves that there are people out there much kookier and obsessive about this crap than I am. Dig:

These scenes from days gone by appear to be from the late 1960's.  Why ? In the beginning of the video you see the subways and one car with graffiti and it clearly has the "B" train letter on the side. The letter and number designations for certain subway lines started in 1967.  Prior to then,  there was no alpha-numeric designations for the trains . They had the BMT, IRT, and IND lines in the 4 boroughs, and just names like: Sea-Beach, West End, Culver-Line, Lexington Avenue, 7-th Avenue, etc.



The toweringly talented writer-director Preston Sturges (no, I will not give credits since you must be crazy to be reading this blog if you don't know who Sturges is) appeared on screen as an actor four times. Twice were cameos in his own films ("Christmas In July" and "Sullivan's Travels"--damn, I just gave credits) and once as himself in a Paramount war-time musical ("Go over there boys and knock 'em dead for us dames!") called "Star Spangled Rhythm." The fourth appearance came in 1958 (the year before he died) in a Bob Hope movie called "Paris Holiday." As Sturges appears to have left behind no filmed (or recorded) interviews, this is our only chance to see the great man in the filmic flesh, to watch how he handled himself, what that magnificent head of hair really did when he walked around (it flounces a little) and to take in the strange sort of late 19th/early 20th century Boulevardier manner with which Sturges walked through the world.

Why was he in this movie? The film was shot on location in France and Sturges was, at the time, living in Paris. He had known Hope for twenty years--before his writing-directing career took off in the early forties he wrote a 1938 Hope movie called "Never Say Die." It's no secret that Sturges was in a bad way by the end of the 1950s--his Hollywood career had perished earlier in the decade, he threw away most of his savings on his money-pit restaurant 'The Players' on the Sunset Strip, he had a drinking problem, was considered unreliable and had an adorable young wife and two charming little sons to support. Was giving him this small but not insubstantial role in the movie a  'beau geste' on Hope's part, to help an old pal out? Probably, since Sturges wasn't really an actor. He plays a French playwright who Hope is schmoozing in the hopes of acquiring his newest play as a star vehicle for himself. Sturges scene is five minutes long, shot in a flat, late-fifties lock-off style and is excruciatingly dubbed. Which makes me wonder if it's Sturges voice we're hearing or another actor who was brought in later to replace his voice. My money is on the latter, my theory being that the scene was shot with only a 'guide track' for audio (a scratch recording for future dubbing reference). This wasn't uncommon in Europe as filmmakers there tended to prefer to add sound later rather than struggling for good quality sound on location. Since Sturges had long abandoned the United States, the movie would have needed somebody else to replace his voice once the post-production moved back to Hollywood. The guy doing the voice does a mock-French accent so poor as to render the scene almost unwatchable. And of course it also features Hope, thereby rendering the scene even more grating.

Nonetheless it's filmed evidence of the 'real' Preston Sturges and as such is invaluable. I hope it's not his voice. And I hope he spent the money he made from Hope's generous gesture on several good bottles of Brandy and a bauble or two for the wifey and kiddies.

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Above is a 'featurette' made for God knows what reason about the making of the 1977 movie version of the musical 'The Wiz'. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film was an enormous and enormously expensive undertaking--the most expensive movie ever made in New York at that time (according to this mini-doc)--and was an enormous failure, both critically and commercially, ending the cycle of 'blaxploitation' films that had begun earlier in the 1970s and dooming the Hollywood musical for quite a long time.

Lumet is interviewed as is Rob Cohen, the producer. That it took two New York Jews to end the resurgence of black cinema is a fact one can't comfortably look away from (or comfortably look at, for that matter). Lumet blathers platitudes about how fabulous Diana Ross is, how 'truthful' young Michael Jackson is ("you have to work very honestly around him...' etc.). He also performs a very interesting dance step at 4: 40--did he choreograph as well? I remember the movie coming on the Z Channel (L.A.'s first all-movie cable channel) shortly after the debacle of its 1977 release and turning it off less than halfway through. From the looks of the above doc it appears rather flat though imaginatively conceived. I'm not sure Lumet was the guy for this job, being a little realistic (as well as just being little--five and half feet, supposedly). Would Bob Fosse have delivered a stronger movie? How about a black director? Were their any? Gordon Parks? Melvin Van Peebles? Perhaps an adventurous co-directing team-- a choreographer and a cinematographer working together to deliver the bang/zoom that the movie seems to lack. I like Vilmos Zsigmond and Twyla Tharp for this version.

At the end of the roughly twelve minute doc, their appears to be B-Roll that somebody spliced on, consisting of silent footage of the Motown offices. What was it for? Why is it there to begin with? A somewhat ghostly way to end this look at the movie that temporarily ended the Hollywood musical. "Annie" was only four years away from nailing the coffin shut for another decade and a half.

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Last weekend I went to the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood and saw (among a couple of other films) 'Bye Bye Birdie', starring Ann-Margrock--er Margret--Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde etc. The film, shot in 1962/63, holds up only reasonably well with Margrock--er Margret--being the best reason to revisit it. Part of the problem is that it's poised uncertainly between the disappearing oldish Hollywood and the emerging newish Hollywood--even though 'A Hard Day's Night' hadn't yet appeared it's clear that Hollywood knew that something new was coming on 'the scene' and that musicals needed to be more inventive, filled with a different energy than they'd had in the already forgotten 1950s. The old-school MGM musical was dead, courtesy of the dissolution of the Arthur Freed unit at the end of the decade and MGM's failure to ever get its much touted biopic of Irving Berlin, 'Say It With Music', off the ground. Musicals were still alive, though, thanks to the powerhouse best-picture winning 'West Side Story' and Broadway was now the primary source for film musicals. 'Bye Bye Birdie' was a topical hit (the story involves the drafting of a teen rock and roll idol--Elvis of course) and so what better material to make use of? It sings, it dances, it has groovy teenagers doing sexy stuff and a sort of current topic.

The film that emerged seems to me to falter due to its direction. George Sidney, who helmed among other MGM musicals "Show Boat", "Anchors Away" and"Annie Get Your Gun", was very much a product of the old school system. Indeed, his father Louis K. Sidney was an old-time MGM executive and George basically grew up on the MGM lot, directing his first Our Gang comedies at the age of 21 in 1936. Sidney wound up specializing in musicals and clearly had a special talent for dealing with special talent. Gene Kelley, Frank Sinatra, Betty Hutton, Ava Gardner--all of them trouble--seemed to do well with Sidney. But as a musical maker, I can't make any great claims for Sidney as a visual stylist (no Minelli) or an actors/dancers director  (no Stanley Donen). He was capable, delivered on time and budget and was much respected within the industry, earning multiple Directors Guild of America nominations and a couple of Oscar noms as well. So who am I to say? Below is a four minute clip of Sidney being interviewed about his work with Elvis Presley in 'Viva Las Vegas'. I dig his discussion of his own motorcycle and car collection and how he used it to intimidate Presley.

Alas, Sidney's professionalism doesn't help 'Bye Bye Birdie'. Where the movie should be slick and hip , it instead gets weighted down with unrealized dramatic scenes, ill-conceived story construction, unfunny comedy relief and a general sense of not knowing quite what it wants to be. Paul Lynde saves every scene he's in. Dick Van Dyke is far less self-assured than he is normally. Janet Leigh seems to be in another movie and no wonder--it turns out that Sidney, infatuated with the young emerging Ann-Margrock--titled the story heavily to favor her and played down Leigh's role (and close ups) in favor of the sex kitten talent-bomb that he found himself graced with. In fact, Sidney paid out of his own pocket to reshoot the opening and closing 'bracket' scenes for the credits, giving Ann-M. a solo version of the 'Bye Bye Birdie' theme song (written for the movie). It's pretty frigging great. Dig:

The two other reasons for revisiting the film are the 'Telephone Song' number and "Gotta Lot Of Living To Do". Below I've posted both.

The shows most famous and enduring song, "Put On A Happy Face", is a big cinematic disappointment. The concept is that Janet Leigh is somehow cloned--the 'real' version of her stands by watching skeptically as the hologram version of her comes to life, loving Dick Van Dyke's positive messaging and goofy dancing. I was going to say that the number didn't merit posting but what was I thinking? Failed souflees are often more intriguing than the successful ones so...

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