Saturday, December 3, 2016

Two short notes on Ronald Coleman movies

Last night I ended up screening another movie I'd had no intention of watching. It was on the Turner Classic Movies channel, and something about the title cards and music caused me to pause it while I finished up some miscellaneous household chore. The ability to pause whatever I'm watching is one of the things I like about digital television. (One can rewind and watch something that has just gone by as well. I often pause programs like 'Dancing With the Stars', later fast forwarding through commercials and other time consuming bits of business. I've started that program more than 45 minutes in, and caught up with the live broadcast by the program's end.)

This particular exercise in serendipity involved a 1930 United Artists release called 'The Devil to Pay'. It stars Ronald Coleman as a son of English nobility. We are introduced to his character whilst he is in the process of selling off his home and furnishings (in 'East Africa', no less) thanks to his tendencies to bet on "horses with short noses, and cards that were good but not good enough". He's the kind of charming roué who, back in England, visits his old girlfriend - at midnight! (Gasp!) It's definitely pre-code. Oh, by the way, the girlfriend is a sultry young Myrna Loy in a blonde wig. Of course Mr. Coleman's character, Willie, soon meets a wealthy sweet young thing whose engagement to a Russian Grand Duke is about to be announced. The sweet young thing, with the movie foreshadowing name of Dorothy Hope, is played by Loretta Young. There's plenty of connective tissue for film buffs: Willie's father would soon play Baron von Frankenstein, people like cinematographer Greg Toland worked on the project, a memorable scene involves Ronald Coleman talking with a fox terrier he instantly names 'George' - sadly Myrna Loy has no screen time with George; she'd soon co-star with another fox terrier in the Thin Man series, etc.). The film's favorable review in the New York Times took pains to note that, "The sound recording is remarkably satisfactory, for not only are the voices lifelike, but one even hears George's persistent panting." Often cited as a melodrama, it's really a romantic comedy.

As it happens, one of the first movies I screened with my video projector was another Goldwyn - United Artists - Ronald Coleman pre-code talkie, "Bulldog Drummond", released in 1929. (Just to clear things up, Samuel Goldwyn's company was merged with Metro into the formation of MGM, but he had nothing to do with the new company. United Artists was a releasing company formed to give movie makers better control - and a better percentage of profits - by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. But that is, as they say, another story.) I was familiar with 'Bulldog Drummond' from other early sound movies as well as its 1940's radio shows, so seeing the first sound version had caught my interest. (There were a couple of 'Drummond' silents.) The 1929 picture gets underway when Drummond, a rich, bored, ex-WWI captain, takes out an ad in the newspaper:
Naturally, trouble finds him with all due dispatch. The picture is, as they say, a hoot - full of melodramatic nonsense, a missing rich uncle, a sinister sanitarium, even more sinister shadows on the walls, a torture room, a little light bondage, and Lilyan Tashman. What more could any decent movie fan want? As the review in the New York Times noted, " conveys a strong appeal even to the most blasé individual".
There's any number of other movies and life events with which I should catch up, but as is so often the case, I lack the time to continue just now. And yes, I know these notes are frustratingly brief.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

'The Last Waltz' and old friends.

A bit over a month or so ago, I discovered that buried deep in the "free movies" section of my cable company's streaming options was one for Turner Classic Movies. I'd often wished they would have one, and suddenly it appeared as though the Cinema Gods had smiled upon the retired movie lover. Titles available at first seemed to be those which had just shown on TCM proper. That has changed a bit, with other titles not on the recent schedules popping in. Most of the titles are only there for 5 or 6 days at a time. As my cable box's digital video recorder is almost always full, I was over joyed to get a second chance to watch titles I had missed, or old friends which I wanted to see again. last night, for instance, I watched a 1942 MGM potboiler about an unfortunate event befalling a gold digging Broadway starlet:

I'll comment on that movie another time, but just as a 'circle of life' kind of thing, I'll note that I used to work in Grand Central Station a long time ago. I will add that it made for a rather interesting almost a double bill, as the late afternoon/early evening had been spent with a friend who came over to see the restored pre-code 'Baby Face', which had been on my DVR for two years waiting for the perfect time to watch it. Notes on that one later, as well.

At any rate, last Saturday night I turned on the video projector, intending to go to the streaming TCM option to see what might be expiring that I'd like to see. I had left the cable box on a Vermont PBS channel; 'The Last Waltz' had just started. My immediate reaction was to email a friend to come over - he had been invited to go to see the live concert but chose not to go. I also figured that it would be constantly interrupted and was being used as pledge bait. That turned out to be correct, but I watched the whole thing (slightly over 3 hours) anyway. It had been a long time since I'd seen it. The concert was the Band's farewell performance, held on Thanksgiving in 1976. Adding to the frustration of the breaks was a pledge promotion for a Blu-ray (only available as part of a set of CDs) which had been restored and approved by the filmmaker (Martin Scorsese), with it's soundtrack remixed by Robbie Robertson (member of The Band who produced the movie) for Dolby 5.1. This was frustrating for a few reasons. 1. I couldn't afford it. 2. I didn't have the room on the DVR to record it. 3. The version they were showing had a standard stereo mix. It was still a delight to see it again. Of course, I looked online to see if this new edition was available. It might be a repackaging of previously available material, or not - information was scarce. Now, I can't go to any website without being confronted with ads for 'The Last Waltz 40th Anniversary' special set.

I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog that in the late 1960's and early 1970's, I used to help run a counter-culture coffee house in Ocean City, NJ, called the Purple Dragon. Ocean City had originally been a Methodist camp meeting. When land was sold, a clause was put in the deeds that should the sale of alcohol ever be legalized on the island, the land would revert to the possession of the Methodist Church. Now, when I say that Ocean City was an island, I do mean that literally, not figuratively. The main bridge was at 9th Street. Across that bridge, on the mainland, was a town called Somers Point. And, on one side of a traffic circle, there was a very large liquor store said to have the highest volume of sales in the entire United States. (Across it's access road was a popular club, 'Your Father's Moustache'.) On the other side of the circle was an even more popular club called Tony Mart's. Just next to it was an old fish market. The Methodist church, which funded the Purple Dragon, got that building and opened another coffeehouse, called The Fish Market. (I think that was supposed to be a display of ecumenical humor.) Now, I spent many an evening at the Fish Market. I only mention this as it is my tenuous connection to Tony Mart's. The Band used to play there under the name of 'Levon and The Hawks', a leftover form the days when they played with Ronnie Hawkins. They were, in fact, playing there when Bob Dylan made them an offer to become his back up band.

Needless to say, I was a fan of both The Band and Mr. Dylan. When Dylan ended a multi-year retirement (after the motorcycle accident), he did so by going on tour backed by The Band. When they played Madison Square Garden as the tour's last stop, I was there - with my friends Richie and Keith. That's the same Richard, by the way, with whom I go on camping and canoe expeditions into wilderness areas of the Adirondacks. (Trips which I credit with maintaining my sanity.) At any rate, I went to see 'The Last Waltz' when it played in the theatres. When another friend, John, bought a building in Brooklyn (in partnership with his brother) to rehab, they threw a party. The idea was that they would have something different going on in each room for guests to enjoy while wandering around. At the time, I was working for a film company which had the rights to 'The Last Waltz', and managed to get my hands on one of the brand new 16mm prints to show in one of the rooms. That's the same John, by the way, who was instrumental in my moving from NYC to Boston, and who took me on my first car culture excursions, as well as my first trips to Vermont. He was also one of the kind folks who helped me move here. I've lost contact with him over the years, much to my regret. So John Chiafalo, if you stumble on this, please get in touch.

Now, I'm not going to go into the whys and wherefores of what is probably the best rock and roll concert film ever made, or some of the problems it had. Or the sadness of the years and realizing that Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm are no longer with us. What I will say is that if you've never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so. Here's the concert's, and the movie's, finale (an encore was used as the film's opening). Joining the Band are Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond (Huh? - don't worry about it), Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Van Morrison, and Ronnie Hawkins. Oh, yeah, when you start the clip use the full screen option if it's available to you. And, as the filmmaker requests, turn up your volume.