Monday, April 7, 2014

Screen Legend, Mickey Rooney is Dead at 93

We lost another movie legend: Mickey Rooney. Just recently we lost Shirley Temple, another movie icon. Rooney’s career had its ups and downs, but it was a remarkable career any way you look at it. He was once king of the box office, more popular than even Clark Gable, three years running. Many of us will remember him fondly for the Andy Hardy series, not to mention his pairing with another screen legend, Judy Garland.

Here’s an interview that Rooney gave in 2010. It’s interesting (long), but worth a look.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Look at the Life and Times of Bette Davis

A very young and very blond, Bette Davis
By Kate Voss

Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 5, 1908. When she was only seven, her parents separated, and Bette was promptly sent to a boarding school. In 1921, at the age of 13, she moved to New York with her mother, and it was here where she first garnered an interest in acting. Inspired by the films she had seen, Bette auditioned and received a part in a school play, which only cemented her desire to be an actress. To further her dream, she enrolled into the John Murray School of Theatre, where she studied acting alongside a young Lucille Ball and dance with Martha Graham.

After securing a place in George Cukor’s stock theater company, Bette landed her first Broadway role in 1929’s Broken Dishes, which she soon followed up with a performance in Solid South. Upon the urging of a Hollywood talent scout she moved to Hollywood in 1930, where she landed a contract with Universal Pictures and starred in her first movie: The Bad Sister. She spent the next three years acting in 21 films, none of which secured her a place as a respected actress. Bette gained some attention when she starred in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, a film which earned her rave reviews. Afterwards, Bette took a role in the film Dangerous, which won her an Academy Award.

A tense scene from Juarez, left to right,
Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, and Davis
In 1936, after agreeing to star in two films in England, she became entangled in a breach of contract lawsuit with Warner Bros. Davis sued Warner Bros. in England, in an attempt to nullify her contract due to the fact that she felt the studio wasn’t giving her good parts. She lost the case, and the legal proceedings left her broke. However, her streak of bad luck ended quickly when she earned praise for her role as prostitute in Marked Woman which she followed with her second Academy Award winning performance in Jezebel in 1938. But, with professional success came personal failure; her first marriage to Ham Nelson fell apart, and the couple decided to divorce. As has been covered on this blog before, 1939 was Davis’s most profound acting year; fans saw her star in Dark Victory, Juarez, The Old Maid, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. She quickly became of the most commercially and critically successful actresses in Hollywood, as well as one of the most famous and respected.

Paul Henried and Davis between takes on
the set of Now, Voyager
Bette started the 1940’s with more professional successes like The Great Lie, as well as a new husband, Arthur Farnsworth. Then, the year of 1941 saw her star in one of her most famous roles: Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes, which landed her the sixth Academy Award nomination of her career. She spent 1942 leading Hollywood’s war effort by selling $2 million worth of war bonds in two days and opening The Hollywood Canteen, where movie stars would entertain servicemen. That same year she starred in another iconic role for her in Now, Voyager. She continued her successes until her husband suddenly died after suffering a skull fracture, causing her to behave erratically on the set of her next film, Mr. Skeffington. While she did remarry and have a daughter in the late 1940’s, her career was in a state a flux. After a series of box office failures, she was released from her contract with Warner Bros.

Joan Crawford and Davis in a publicity still
for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
However, in 1950 she returned, guns blazing, as Margo Channing in All About Eve, which is widely regarded as her best film, the film is still so popular that it’s widely available through many streaming sites and video on demand services from most cable and satellite TV providers. That same year, she ended her third marriage and married her fourth husband, her co star Gary Merrill. Unfortunately, her career started to dwindle as the 50’s continued and she ended the decade appearing mostly on television. Never one to be counted out, she made yet another triumphant comeback in 1961’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? alongside longtime nemesis Joan Crawford which earned her one last Academy Award nomination. She continued to act in films in the 1960’s like Dead Ringer, Where Love Has Gone, and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Davis as Margo Channing
The first few years of the 1970’s saw Davis tour Australia and England in a one woman show discussing her life and work. She attempted a few television pilots, but none were picked up, and she continued to take supporting roles in films like  Burnt Offerings. She did manage to win an Emmy for her work on made-for-TV movie Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in 1979. Bette began to suffer many health set backs in the early 80’s, including a fight with breast cancer that resulted in a mastectomy and a series of four strokes that left her paralyzed on her left side. Despite her suffering, her adopted daughter B.D. Hyman published a scathing memoir about her mother called My Mother’s Keeper in 1985, which Davis always stated was fabricated. Bette continued to do work for television until she discovered her cancer had returned in 1989 while in France, where she passed away on October 6th.

Her acting legacy and personality have let Davis live on for many years following her passing. With a staggering 11 Academy Award nominations, 2 wins, a career spanning 50 years, countless fans, and the praise and respect of some of the most well regarded directors, actors, and critics, Davis will always remain a Hollywood icon.

Guest blogger, Kate Voss is an entertainment blogger from Chicago. A romantic at-heart, she will be delighting in the classical works of Wilder and Frank Capra this Valentine's Day. You can find her on Twitter at @Kateevoss.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Publisher releases trailer for "John Wayne: The Life and Legend" in bookstores April 1, 2014

Check out this book trailer for Scott Eyman’s new biography of John Wayne. John Wayne: The Life and Legend will be available for purchase at bookstores everywhere or from Amazon on April 1, 2014. I received a review copy a few months ago. To check out my review, click here.

Eyman examines both the man and the legend, which is quite revealing. Even the most devoted Wayne fan is bound to find a lot of new material to chew on in this comprehensive biography.

To see my book review click here.

You can follow Eyman on Twitter @Eyman1

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

“What’s Up Doc?” final film screened in screwball comedy series April 12, 2014

When: Saturday, April 12, 2014 4:00 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

I can’t think of a better film to end our screwball comedy series than with What’s Up Doc? This modern comedy classic directed by Peter Bogdanovitch is a homage to the screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s. It owes much of its plot and structure to Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby, but it more than stands on its own merits.

Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, in their first screen pairing, play Judy Maxwell and Howard Bannister respectively. Judy is a free spirit and college dropout who seems to create trouble wherever she goes. Howard is a Ph.D. and musicologist from the Iowa Conservatory of Music, engaged to Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn) who is a bit controlling, to put it mildly. The trouble all begins in San Francisco when four identical overnight bags get mixed up. Of course Judy and Howard’s bags are part of the mix up and their lives become entangled from there on in.

Streisand and O’Neal were at the top of their box office appeal in 1972, and Bogdanovitch exploits this. Like screwball comedies past, there are inside jokes, and allusions to other films, all with great good humor. Apart from the stars, Bogdanovitch assembled some of the best character actors available, including Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Sorrell Brooks, John Hillerman, Graham Jarvis, and Mabel Alberston to name a few. Kahn, in her movie debut, all but steals the picture. As the constantly unhinged Eunice Burns, Kahn is pitch-perfect. Annoying to both O’Neal and Streisand’s characters, she is never annoying to the audience. When I first saw the film in theaters, audiences howled with laughter every time Kahn was on the screen.

As a screwball comedy, What’s Up Doc? is so good that if released in the late 1930s or early 40s, audiences would have responded to it the way they did My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, and The Lady Eve.

Backstory: This was Peter Bogdanovich’s homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s, as well as a tribute to directors Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, and Preston Sturges.

Trivia: Madeline Kahn was nominated as Most Promising Newcomer, female by the Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes). The Writers Guild of American (WGA), USA awarded What’s Up Doc? Best Comedy Written for the Screen (Buck Henry, David Newman, Robert Benton). The film’s first 2 weekends broke the Radio City Music Hall house record that had stood since 1933.

Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand talk under the table.

Have some Joe and Enjoy the Show!
Before the movie, grab a cup of coffee from Overflow Coffee Bar, located within the Daystar Center. You can bring food and beverages into the auditorium; we even have small tables set up next to some of the seats.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here.To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.

Friday, March 7, 2014

“The Lady Eve” 5th film in Screwball Comedy series screened March 11, 2014

When: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

The Lady Eve (1941) Father and daughter con artists (Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck) travel on transatlantic cruise ships swindling rich passengers in card games. When the two spot a big fish Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to Pike Ale—“The ale that won for Yale”—they decide to take him for all he’s worth. But when the daughter falls in love with their mark, things get complicated and hilarious. Preston Sturges directed his first big-budget hit with with amazing results. A critical and financial success, the New York Times declared The Lady Eve the best picture of 1941, above Citizen Kane! Once you see this film you’ll understand why they came to that amazing conclusion.

This was Preston Sturges’s third film as both writer and director and his first big-budget production, with A-list movie stars. After the critical and financial successes of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, both released in 1940, Paramount gave Sturges free rein to craft The Lady Eve. For his leads, Sturges got Stanwyck and Fonda. From all accounts, both stars enjoyed working with each other and with Sturges. Sturges wrote The Lady Eve with Stanwyck in mind after he saw her performance in Remember the Night the year before. Sturges was so impressed with her characterization in that film that he knew she would be ideal as Eve.

Fonda, who had four films in release in 1940, including The Grapes of Wrath, was happy to star in a comedy. As Charles Pike, Fonda showed his lighter side, being especially deft at physical comedy. Fonda’s numerous pratfalls are one of the film’s major delights. Bosley Crowther in theNew York Times said, “No one could possibly have suspected the dry and somewhat ponderous comic talent which is exhibited by Henry Fonda as the rich young man.” As Eve, Stanwyck is one part of a trio of card sharks mixing it up with rich swells, like Pike, traveling by ocean liner. Along with her father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) and their “butler” Gerald (Melvin Cooper), Eve sees Pike as an easy mark.

A publicity shot during the filming of The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve is filled with a host of great character actors, most of which became part of the “Sturges Stock Company.” This stock company included William Demarest, Eric Blore, and Robert Grieg. The latter two appeared in Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, also released in 1941.

When the movie was opened, Crowther, declared Sturges, “the most refreshing new force to hit the American motion pictures in the past five years.” He went on to say that a “more charming or distinguished gem of nonsense has not occurred since It Happened One Night.”

The Lady Eve is not only one of the best screwball comedies, but one of the best American films ever made.

Henry Fonda said Barbara Stanwyck was his favorite leading lady.

Backstory: Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay for Remember the Night with Carole Lombard in mind. He was disappointed that Paramount didn't secure her services, but when he saw Stanwyck in the lead, he was impressed. Stanwyck told Sturges that no one writes comedies for her. Sturges said he would write one for her; that screenplay was The Lady Eve.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click hereTickets are $5 general admission; $3 for students and seniors. To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Spend Valentine’s Day with Billy Wilder

By Kate Voss

It’s Valentine’s Day once again -- that time of year when, no matter how harsh the weather may be outside, sentimentality abounds. When it comes to classic cinema, Billy Wilder and sentimentality are practically synonymous. However, Wilder wasn’t merely a purveyor of light-hearted comedies, as his body of work includes entries in various genres. Many of the films which he either wrote or directed are typically regarded as among the best of all time.

The Austrian-born Wilder got his start in the film industry in his youth, when he began writing screenplays in Berlin in the 1920s. As the Third Reich became an increasingly menacing presence throughout Germany, Wilder, fearing religious persecution because he was Jewish, defected to Paris where he directed his first feature-length film, Mauvaise Graine (1934). Shortly thereafter, in 1933 (before his directorial debut had even hit theaters in Paris), WIlder permanently settled in Hollywood.

He first achieved notoriety in the states for co-writing the romantic comedy Ninotchka (1939), which was directed by Hollywood veteran Ernst Lubitsch. In the film, we meet three Russians who are in Paris to sell Jewelry that was confiscated from the Imperial family after the revolution. Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) has been sent by an heiress of the Russian family to retrieve the jewels -- that’s when the titular Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), a Russian spy, gets involved. She has been deployed by the Russian government to ensure that the jewels are sold for the monetary benefit of her country.

This was made, of course, during a time of immense political turmoil, and heightened levels of friction Silk Stockings, which was itself adapted into the 1957 film directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
between competing societal ideals in the burgeoning, socialist Soviet empire, and the free-market capitalism models in the West. Ninotchka is stoic, unflinching in her pursuits, and not given to levity or frivolity, whereas Leon is the very embodiment of Western frivolity. Inevitably though, they reconcile their differences and fall madly in love. The film was a major hit, and would go on to inspire the script for the Broadway musical

Wilder went on to bolster his reputation with the script he co-wrote alongside crime writer Raymond Chandler for the noir thriller Double Indemnity (1944), and achieved even greater fame for writing and directing the ultra-self-reflexive Sunset Boulevard (1950).

But many fans will remember Wilder best for a series of romantic comedies he did in the 1950’s, most notably, the comedic masterpiece Some Like it Hot (1959). The film features Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two wayward musicians in Chicago who find themselves fleeing from the mob after they bear witness to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They disguise themselves in drag, and hitch a train cross country with an all-female jazz ensemble. Both of them fall in love with the band’s singer, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe). It feels dated in the very best way possible -- it’s the distillation of
everything that is charming and effective about overtly-stylized romance films from Hollywood’s golden era, and the script for that film is so dense with jokes. If you only ever see one of Wilder’s films, this has got to be the one. It’s regarded by many critics, including Roger Ebert, as one of the best comedies ever made. And if you haven’t already seen it, you might consider cozying up tonight, as you can stream it in its entirety through sites like and Hulu.

Wilder was a true master of his craft, and his work invokes a certain warm, fuzzy nostalgia that no other filmmaker can even come close to competing with.

Guest blogger, Kate Voss is an entertainment blogger from Chicago. A romantic at-heart, she will be delighting in the classical works of Wilder and Frank Capra this Valentine's Day. You can find her on Twitter at @Kateevoss.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

“Bringing Up Baby” 4th film in Screwball Comedy series screened February 11, 2014

When: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

Today Bringing Up Baby starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant is considered a classic. In June 2000, the comedy classic came in at number 14 in the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Years…100 Laughs list. Upon it’s initial release, it’s success was spotty. It played at New York’s Radio City Music Hall for only one week; it was quickly replaced by Jezebel starring Bette Davis. Reviews were mixed, with some of the harshest criticism coming from Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times. Nugent said “Miss Hepburn has a role which calls for her to be breathless, senseless, and terribly, terribly fatiguing. She succeeds, and we can be callous enough to hint it is not entirely a matter of performance.”

The tale of Susan Vance (Hepburn) and her infatuation with paleontologist, David Huxley (Grant) is one that is fast-moving, hilarious, and exhausting! The dialogue is snappy and spirited, as are the antics of Hepburn and Grant, who get to show off their talents for physical comedy. Director Howard Hawks initially considered Carole Lombard, but Hepburn was eventually given the female lead. The male lead was offered to Robert Montgomery, Fredric March and Ray Milland. They all turned it down. Grant having gained new-found fame after his star turn in The Awful Truth, was reluctant to play a scientist, but eventually used the opportunity to renegotiate his non-exclusive contract with RKO, the studio producing the film (Grant made more money than top-billed Hepburn).
Katharine Heburn, Skippy, and Cary Grant

Having had a run of several disappointing pictures, while under contract to RKO, Hepburn’s movie career was in decline. Before Bringing Up Baby’s release, Hepburn was declared box-office poison by the Independent Theatre Owners of America. After Baby’s release, Hepburn returned to the stage and wouldn’t make a movie for two whole years. Grant on the other hand was moving up in the world and was a fan favorite. In 1940, Hepburn triumphantly returned to the screen in The Philadelphia Story, costarring Grant and James Stewart.

Backstory: Besides leads, Hepburn and Grant, Baby is populated with a wonderful collection of character actors, including Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Walter Catlett, and Barry Fitzgerald. And Skippy the dog, who had supporting roles in The Thin Man Movies and The Awful Truth, barks his way through another classic film.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here.To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.

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