Vamps, Dames and Porn Stars: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2016

A new year is upon us, and that means every self-respecting person is creating a best of list. This blog is always part of that too, although in a different way. No best of 2016 films will be seen (luckily for me). Instead, we’ll once again look at my ten top ten personal film discoveries of the year. As always, some of these films are obvious classics that I somehow missed before. Some, though, are ones more off the beaten path that deserve a look. They are presented in chronological order.

A Fool There Was (1915)

Just from a pure quality standpoint, the Theda Bara vehicle A Fool There Was is not the greatest film by any means. The story is plenty flimsy and the pacing leaves a lot to be desired, but none of that really matters. The scarcity of Theda Bara’s films alone make this an important and worthwhile film.

With so many silent films lost, there are some things that film fans can only read about but not experience. One of the biggest blind spots is practically all of Theda Bara’s career. An early sex symbol thanks to her vamp persona, Bara is still recognizable today thanks to striking publicity shots like this:


Those images are practically all we have now. Bara perhaps has the worst survival rate of any silent film star. All told, only three of her starring vehicles remain (she appears in another surviving film under her birth name). Of those, one is a later comeback vehicle when Bara was past her peak period. This makes A Fool There Was almost the only look we have about what he vamp character was like. Bara’s aura and presence carries the whole film. Even without much of a supporting cast to work with, Bara makes an otherwise dull film worthwhile. This may be a terribly small glimpse into one of our most unique early stars, but it sure is an important one.

A Busy Night (1916)

This Marcel Perez comedy was discussed here earlier in the year. Even though the idea of playing every role has been done elsewhere, Perez’s one man show may actually be more technically impressive than Keaton’s Playhouse. Perez’s reputation of cleverness is well born out in this film.

Three’s a Crowd (1927)

Also discussed here earlier in the year, Three’s a Crowd displays that the legend of Harry Langdon’s failure as director may be overblown. Not without its warts, Langdon’s directoral debut is an effective attempt at a comedy with some heart and pathos. Langdon creates some great visuals with a memorable set piece. Given more of a chance, maybe Langdon could have grown into a stellar comedy director.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Anchored by a perfectly cast Louise Brooks and a bevy of unsavory and unpleasant character actors, Diary of a Lost Girl is melodrama at its finest. Throughout the the film, Brooks is put through horrors almost too numerous to mention, all the while making the audience ache in pain. The film boasts the kind of ugly character actors long absent from cinema, vicious and heartless. This tale of lost innocence, motherhood and the absence of love is one mighty tearjerker.

Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a Match looks, at least for a few moments, like it could be some good light hearted fare. By the time the film plunges deeper into unsavory and dark territory, you’re both surprised and pretty well hooked.

As someone who loves separate lives and stories converging, Three on a Match was right up my alley. Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis play three former classmates who reconvene and discover they are now leading very different lives. Davis doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the film, but what she does is pretty interesting. She plays the lighter role you would usually expect from Blondell (including an obligatory revealing nightgown). Dvorak is the real star here, giving one of her best performances while getting wrapped up in extramarital affairs, kidnapping and gangsters. Three on a Match fits a lot into just over and an hour, and it never lets up.


Dames (1934)

Don’t let the mass of Ruby Keeler faces scare you. Dames may be a slight notch below some other Busby Berkeley films, but it still packs in a whole lot of fun. The comedy works, and Joan Blondell and Dick Powell especially deliver. Highlights include Blondell’s “Girl at the Ironing Board” and a just lovely “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Just hope that the dancing Ruby Keeler heads won’t cause any nightmares.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Long before creating a lavish wrong man film with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, Alfred Hitchcock told the same story with some major changes. And in some ways, the original version of the thriller might be the better one.

Sporting a much more tightly packed runtime, this original also has some major differences in tone. The Hitchcock British dry humor is much more prevalent, and yet it still feels a lot more serious than the remake. For one, this original boasts an intense and gripping shootout scene that is as impressive as anything else Hitchcock ever did. In addition, Edna Best is a far more compelling female lead than Doris Day. Part of that is because Best just has a lot more to do. Her character makes Day’s seem like a cardboard cutout in comparison. Best’s character is tougher and much more interesting. And she doesn’t sing the same song over and over again either.

The film’s strongest point is easily the performance of Peter Lorre. Getting a chance to watch him play a menacing villain is always a treat, and he delivers in his trademark cold manner. Lorre could have carried a lesser film, but with a witty and fast paced story alongside him, it adds up to an underappreciated Hitchcock gem.


The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Few filmmakers, if any, can make a musical as entertaining as Jacques Demy. It’s debatable  whether this film is better than The Umbrellas of Cherboug, one thing is for certain: this film is about as fun as it gets.

Visually, Demy uses color to create something that is almost unfathomably gorgeous. Practically every outfit worn in the film pops right off the screen with bright colors. The set pieces compliment the beauty of the outfits well, creating visuals that would be just as stunning as still life. On top of all that, the numbers have such a fun and elegance to them as well. And it goes without saying that Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorléac add a whole lot of fun to the mix. The Young Girls of Rochefort is a cure for any bad mood.

American Graffiti (1973)

Every film fan has their blind spots: time periods or genres they just haven’t watched much of. For as heavily I binge on everything 1930s or older, my knowledge of films from decades after is much worse. I’ve seen so few 70s films that admitting to some I haven’t  watched would cause my classic film fan credentials to be revoked.

This year, seeing American Graffiti finally got remedied. Any piece of nostalgia is right in my wheelhouse, so this film was an enjoyable time machine. There’s something universal and poignant about coming of age films, no matter what time period they take place in. A strong period piece with a killer young cast of future stars, American Graffiti proved to be a real treat.

Boogie Nights (1997)

The same could also be said about films from the 90s. Boogie Nights is yet another period piece, this one to the 1970s and the porn industry. It turkey is an all immersive experience. From the look to the tremendous soundtrack, it truly is an engrossing experience to a different time. The stellar cast list stretches on seemingly forever. Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore and Burt Retnolds are all superb, and and every player of the impressive supporting cast hits the right notes.

Most importantly, it proves not to really be about the porn industry at all. It’s one of those tales about life in an entertainment industry, and how it can raise someone up or drop them cold in no time. The specifics may be different, but it’s a tale that can resonate with anyone.

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I’ll Be Seeing You . . . and Other Underplayed Holiday Films

We’re right in the middle of the holiday season, and that means there’s a lot of holiday films around to consume. Most importantly, you’re probably trying to avoid the endless barage of carbon copy Hallmark films, along with arguments about if Die Hard counts as a Christmas film (it doesn’t). There are a lot of true holiday classics out there, including gems that get people watching old films. There’s a lot more out there than just White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, though. If you’re looking for holiday films that are off the beaten path over the next couple weeks, here’s a few selections to tear people away from whatever shameful Christmas film Ed Asner is in this year:

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

A fair warning: enjoyment of I’ll Be Seeing You depends heavily on how much sentimentality  and melodrama one can take. The plot itself is a rather old and common one, including one that comes up later on in this list. Two people (Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten) are both only away from their confined spaces for a short time: Cotten is on leave from a military hospital, while Rogers is due back in prison in a short amount of time. When they meet, neither can bring themselves to tell the other the horrible truth. Instead, they separately decide to have a good Christmas together by keeping their secrets private.

It’s a smaltzy story on paper, and is even more of a sentimental tearjerker in execution. And that’s precisely what makes it so much fun. I’ll Be Seeing You is more of an emotional rollercoaster than most holiday films, all told with the corny and sentimental tone you’d want for a film of the season. Something a little hokey is good around the Christmas season, and I’ll Be Seeing You delivers it in such a charming way.


Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Okay, so this film isn’t that unknown. It’s on TCM every December and is a popular holiday DVD release. And yet, Christmas in Connecticut still doesn’t seem to get the recognition it deserves as one of the greatest Christmas films of all time. Watching it, it’s easy to wonder how it doesn’t get played more during the season, getting as much praise an airtime as the other films of the period. Christmas in Connecticut brings with it that hallmark of the period: the screwball comedy. Few things can bring more comedy than wacky misunderstandings and cockamamie schemes falling part. Throw in a Christmas setting, and you’ve got a great set up for a film.

But what really makes the film work is the incredible cast. Barbara Stanwyck plays a phony food columnist, forced to serve up Christmas meals she can’t prepare for a war hero (Dennis Morgan) at the behest of her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet). Stanwyck is perfect in the middle of the madcap hurricane, doing things like failing to cook and trying to change her (fake) baby. Greenstreet plays the perpetually befuddled man well, and the supporting cast is rounded out with the always amusing character actor SZ Sakall. As the bound to get together couple, Morgan and Stanwyck have a chemistry that is at times adorable and other times downright sultry. With this cast and plenty of hijinx, Christmas in Connecticut brings an incredible amount of fun.


Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Beyond Tomorrow also can be classified as sentimental, but it does have something you’re not likely to see elsewhere: a couple of unique plot elements. It opens with three rich older men thinking of a way to have some company on Christmas. They throw wallets onto the street, wondering who will go to the house to return them. A young man and woman arrive and hit it off. When the three men die in a plane crash, they return from beyond the grave to make sure the people they set up stay together.

Even more of a redemption tale than a Christmas film, Beyond Tomorrow does a good job of fleshing out all the major players involved. The three elder men aren’t just vehicles to bring a couple together at Christmas. They’ve done things wrong in their past, and bringing the couple together after their death serves another role of redemption. They also don’t have much time to accomplish this before they are called away from earth forever. The cast may be unassuming and it may be a somewhat minor tale, but Beyond Tomorrow has an intriguing hook and enough heart to make it well worth it.


One Way Passage (1932)

I know, I know. One Way Passage has nothing to do with Christmas. There is, though, a December holiday that fits into the film: New Year’s Eve. While almost all of the film takes place outside of New Year’s, this romance classic really does fit the bill for an end of the year film.

Without giving away spoilers, the one ending scene on New Year’s Eve couldn’t be more important or powerful. You’ll probably need some tissues handy for it. But more than just New Year’s itself, One Way Passage is about the power of love, new beginnings and endings. William Powell and Kay Francis play two star crossed lovers on a ship, both knowing their love can’t last as death soon awaits them. Neither one can tell the other that truth (there’s that plot again), and they agree to meet again on New Year’s Eve, something that just can’t happen.

Powell and Francis light up the screen and tear at the heartstrings, but the story of their beginning and ending isn’t the only one to be seen. There’s also a highly entertaining and sweet subplot that explores if a criminal and a cop can come together when love strikes them.

Simply put, One Way Passage is one of the unabashedly romantic films ever made, and perhaps one of the greatest films ever. The connection to December holidays may sound tenuous, but it’s really not. And by the time the film reaches New Year’s Eve, you’ll be plenty emotionally invested in the holiday. 

A Classic Film Fan Holiday Gift Guide (2016 Edition) 

It’s that time of year again. As the holiday season arrives, it’s time to go shopping for fellow classic film fans (or as always, yourself). 2016 has brought about another fine collection of new releases that would be great for any classic film fan (hint hint). Here’s a few selections from this year to put under an #OldMovieWeirdo’s tree:


Napoleon

It’s finally here. If there’s a silent film fan in your life, odds are you already know about the blu-ray release of Napoleon. The epic film is not only considered to be one of the silent period’s best films, but perhaps one of the greatest films ever. Long seen only at or poor releases of various lengths, the BFI has remastered the most complete version of this long sought release–five and a half hours in all. This is the one release to get the classic film fan, if they haven’t scrambled to get it already.


Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10

The Forbidden Hollywood series always delivers a great collection of precode films, and this one is no exception. This time the set features two Warren William vehicles, as well as appearances by Kay Francis and Barbara Stanwyck. One can never go wrong with a slate of edgy precode films, which is why this isn’t the only set worth getting . . .

Wheeler and Woolsey: RKO Comedy Classics Volume 2

For some more light hearted precode affair, look no further the second collection of Wheeler and Woolsey films. With a combination of fast ribald talk and musical numbers, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey forever remain one of the best comedy acts of their time. This edition of the set also represents the time before Wheeler and Woolsey worked as partners. This set includes one each of them solo, along with four films as a team. For the dedicated fan, more releases of their work is a welcome addition. And for those unfamiliar with the duo, now it’s even easier to get educated. And that’s not the only comedy collection on the docket this year . . .

Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917-1923

There are many other Keaton collections out there, including shorts from 1920-1923 and an even bigger (and absurdly expensive) edition that includes that set and his classic features. For a more economic and also more comprehensive shorts collection, this one is the way to go. Unlike the previous shorts blu-ray, this one also includes the shorts Keaton made with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. And the edition of those is not just a drop in the bucket: that accounts for 13 more shorts. This is the most complete Buster Keaton shorts collection yet.


Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage by Robert S. Bader

Finally, a new book recommendation. There is never a shortage of Marx Brothers material, and the books covering their careers are numerous. This book, though, is a little bit different. Instead of covering the film career we know so much about, the author focuses entirely on their stage career before hitting the silver screen. For a deeper dive into the early and formative years of the Marx Brothers, this is one to get.