M*A*S*H at Malibu Creek State Park

 

Just about an hour north from Los Angeles on the 101 freeway is Malibu Creek State Park near Calabasas, California. Covering over 8,000 acres of rolling hills and treelined streams, the park also contains 2,000 acres of what was once owned by 20th Century Fox as a movie ranch. Like nearby Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area, the Hollywood studios often owned property outside of the city which could be used for locations spanning just about every setting imaginable.

20th Century Fox bought the property in 1946 after having filmed How Green Was My Valley in the area a few years earlier. The Ranch was purchased by the State of California in 1974, and was opened to the public in 1976. Another familiar classic, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, was also shot here, and the “dream house” remains in use as a administrative building.

But perhaps most famously, Century Ranch doubled as 1950s Korea in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). The television version, which began in 1972, allowed Fox to continue to use the outdoor sets they had constructed for the film. The hugely popular program shot exteriors here throughout the 11 season run of the show while the rest was filmed on a soundstage replica of the set back at Fox Studios.

As was written into the storyline of the show’s finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the outdoor set was burned in a brush fire in 1982 during the production of the finale. There’s still a few burnt and rusted vehicles out at the site which are leftovers from the fire. After the series wrapped up, the site had returned to its original wild state. In 2007, the park worked on restoring the clearing where the set once was, and it remains a popular hiking destination within the park.

The hike from the main parking lot is almost 5 miles roundtrip on an out-and-back type trail. The route starts on Crags Road, one of the main pathways through the entire park. This wide service road runs alongside Malibu Creek and is covered well with trees from both sides. From there the road climbs out of this valley and over the only really steep part of the hike, which is a gradual hill up and over into the next little valley area. Once on the other side, the trail turns left into more of a single-track trail through some wooded areas. Emerging out of the trees, a restored Army ambulance on the right marks the entrance to the M*A*S*H site.

Standing in the valley it’s easy to see and match up the same familiar rock formations around the 4077th. The park has set up several informational signs which highlight these locations, and staked into the grassy ground are rope outlines of where the buildings like the Hospital and The Swamp once stood. Near where the hill to the helicopter landing pad once was the park has set up several picnic tables under a shade structure. A replica signpost completes the atmosphere.

These photos were taken on two separate trips, one in February of this year, and one in May. The February trip was perfect, with the hills in all their green splendor. By May, especially with the drought, much of the foliage was already dry.

Malibu Creek State Park offers so many opportunities for hiking, most of them being fairly flat trails. The hike to the M*A*S*H site is one of the most scenic routes I’ve come across out here, and the end destination is a fun location to look around, especially if you’re a fan of the show. The park is open from dawn until dusk and all day parking is $12 per car.

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TCM Classic Film Festival: Making the Hard Choices

TCMCFF_2015-Key-Art_SpartacusThis year marks the 6th time TCM has hosted their Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California. It’s a packed four day experience filled with chances to see a favorite classic on the big screen for the first time, new restorations, and films not easily available for viewing. In addition, the TCMFF has become a kind of annual reunion for classic film fans from around the world to catch up and enjoy a shared passion. The theme this year is “history according to Hollywood,” with many of the films tackling historical events, film history, or how Hollywood has attempted to convey historical narratives. I’m privileged this year to have the opportunity again to cover the festival as a member of the press.

As in previous years, the release of the festival schedule immediately causes one to start brainstorming and prioritizing what screenings are can’t miss and making hard choices in some time slots. Also, trying to figure out when one will eat and sleep (no, really), is a challenge.

So here are my preliminary choices. One thing I’ve learned over the last two years is to be flexible. Sometimes a friend will talk you into a movie you hadn’t even been planning to see. Other times you show up too late to a screening, don’t get in, but get to sit right in front of Quincy Jones while watching The Italian Job (your hastily picked second choice). Sometimes I change my mind just because something sounds more appealing in the moment than it did when I put my schedule together in the first place. But I think what I’ve taken away is that there really are no bad choices, and each event and festival as a whole will be a uniquely individual experience for each person.

Some tips:

1. The venues are all pretty much within one block of each other, with the Ricardo Montalbán Theater being the one exception. For events at the Montalbán, which is on Vine St. near Sunset Blvd, it’s about a 20-25 minute walk give or take how fast you walk. There is a Metro subway line that runs from the Hollywood and Highland complex (where the Chinese Theaters and multiplex is located) to Vine and Hollywood. A one-way fare is $1.75, so it’s a cheap and fast option for those who don’t want to walk.

2. The food issue. I have found it is best to pack snacks, a sandwich or basically any kind of food with you to eat while in line. Because you’ll spend a lot of time in line. What looks like a decent sized gap between movies is really standing-in-line time. Add to that fact that besides a Baja Fresh (fast casual Mexican food) and McDonald’s, there really isn’t much “fast” food around the theater venues, most are “sit-down” type places. The TCMFF organizers have come up with a nice queue system where they begin giving out numbered queue cards when you start lining up for a film screening. Usually you can leave once you have a queue card and then jump back in your place in line once you come back. Luckily, I’ve noticed all the fans are very respectful of this system and each other, so that can give you some time to run and grab a quick coffee or something, but overall I think it’s best to bring your own food.

3. The weather. The festival is about a month earlier this year, but it’s Southern California, so it’s already hitting 90 here. It can still get a little cool (50s) at night, and if it is hot outside the AC inside the theaters might be cranking, so layers are a good idea.

As I said last year, my MO for the festival is usually to see as many new-to-me films as possible. Sometimes I do end up seeing some favorites again, as it’s a blast to see those films on the big screen with a packed house. Here are my preliminary picks for this year’s festival:

THURSDAY:

-Too Late for Tears- I’ve missed this one at UCLA’s Festival of Preservation just a week or so ago, so looking forward to catching it here.

-The Sea Hawk– I’ve never seen this one. Plus, Errol Flynn.

FRIDAY:

-Block one is tough, since there are two films in The Smiling Lieutenant and Inherit the Wind that I haven’t seen. But I think I’m going to go with seeing Peter Fonda and Keith Carradine introduce My Darling Clementine, which is possibly my favorite telling of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral tale.

-Block two is also tough. Everyone keeps telling me I’d love The Purple Rose of Cairo, and I love Alan Ladd, so The Proud Rebel is also intriguing. But I think my love for Anthony Mann might win out with Reign of Terror.

Young Mr. Lincoln. I haven’t seen this one yet either, so a big-screen first time viewing sounds wonderful.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. Never have seen this one either, and am always trying to expand my silent film knowledge. Plus, Carl Davis conducts a new score for this film. Seeing Why Worry? last year with Maestro Davis conducting was a real highlight, and I look forward to these live musical accompaniment events.

-This slot is a toss-up. The War Game sounds really interesting. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would give me a chance to see another Bond film (I’m slowly getting around to watching them) and the opportunity to see Bond in person. The Bank Dick also sounds interesting, as I haven’t seen a W.C. Fields film yet, and am kind of curious about it’s Lompoc, Calif. setting.

BED: I have tried the last two years to go to midnight screenings, and always fall asleep during them. So I give up.

SATURDAY:

Why Be Good? Starting off the day with another silent film.

42nd Street. Dick Powell. New Restoration. Musical. (But there’s a rare Disney feature in this slot as well. Hoping that might be a Sunday re-screen).

Air Mail. This is turning into the John Ford festival for me. But I’m interested in the comparison to Only Angels Have Wings.

Christmas In July. This is actually one of my favorite Dick Powell films, and an interesting transition piece from his musical crooner days to his hardboiled detective roles.

History of the World, Part 1. I am also slowly making my way through Mel Brooks’ films.

Imitation of Life. Another new-to-me film.

SUNDAY:

Sunday is always interesting because there are a whole block of repeat screenings of popular films that aren’t announced until late Saturday, so that often changes Sunday’s plans.

Calamity Jane or Nightmare Alley. A noir or a musical, probably will be a last minute decision.

Desk Set. I think this is the only Hepburn/Tracy pairing I haven’t seen yet.

-The Children’s Hour. Keeping with my seeing-new-to-me films agenda, although seeing The Philadelphia Story on the big screen with a bunch of people is really appealing.

The Grim Game or Kiss Me Kate. The first is a premier of a rare Houdini silent, the second is a 3D showing of a musical I haven’t seen yet. Tough choice.

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Looking forward to another great festival! Please follow me on twitter @angelnumber25 for festival updates during the TCMFF. See you all in Hollywood!

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Pete Kelly’s Blues (Webb, 1955)

zh3wLpCJack Webb, the versatile actor, director, producer and founder of his own Mark VII Productions which oversaw the many famous programs and franchises that Webb created was also apparently a jazz fan. Having grown up with a love for musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and traditional jazz, Webb created a short-lived summer replacement radio series called Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1951, which followed the exploits of the title character, a cornet player in a 1920s jazz combo in Kansas City. In 1955, after having made his directorial debut on the 1953 feature film version of Dragnet, Webb pulled out another one of his radio series as his next film project.

Webb plays Pete Kelly, a cornet player and the leader of his Big 7 combo. They have a regular gig at a local speakeasy but are being hounded by local gangster Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien), who is forcing bands to come under his management and fork over a large percentage of their earnings. Kelly and the band are reluctant to give up their hard earned money, but understand they need the protection. The one vocal opposer of the proposition is Kelly’s young drummer, Joey Firestone (Martin Milner), who intercepts McCarg’s call to Kelly while the band is at a party and refuses the offer. As the band heads home, they are tailed and run off the road by McCarg’s men in an act of intimidation. The following night, Firestone gets into it with some of McCarg’s men. Kelly tries to diffuse the situation with the mob boss, but after the band’s set that night, Firestone is shot in the streets while trying to run home.

In the wake of these events, Kelly and the band decide to accept McCarg’s offer for protection in exchange for the high residual payment. Kelly also loses longtime clarinet player Al (Lee Marvin), who sets off for new playing opportunities with a larger outfit. Kelly also finds complications with Ivy (Janet Leigh), a wealthy party girl who keeps pursuing him. Also hounding him is the Detective George Tennel (a startlingly serious Andy Devine), who is working to take down McCarg. Into all of this, McCarg throws his alcoholic moll, Rose (Peggy Lee), a washed up singer.

Eventually, Ivy and Kelly are engaged, and Rose drinks too much to celebrate. Finding herself singing to an inattentive crowd, an inebriated Rose falls apart on the bandstand, causing McCarg to beat her for her failings. Kelly realizes it’s time to get out of the deal with McCarg, and attempts to buy his way out. When that fails, he is given information that McCarg’s right hand man Bettenhauser is willing to sell out his boss. Frustrated with Kelly’s reluctance to set a wedding date and his preoccupation with everything else, Ivy breaks off the engagement.

Armed with Bettenhauser’s information that evidence stored at the Evergreen Ballroom is enough to bring down McCarg, Kelly heads over to break into the office to retrieve the cancelled checks and invoices. While breaking into the safe, Kelly is startled by organ music playing in the main ballroom, and finds a drunken Ivy there asking him for one last dance. Kelly relents once he realizes it’s the only way to get rid of her, but they soon find themselves surrounded by McCarg’s men. A shootout ensues, with Kelly killing a double-crossing Bettenhauser and causing one of McCarg’s men to kill the gangster. I must note here that apparently although Pete Kelly makes his living playing music, he must keep up his sharpshooting skills. The film ends where it began: with Kelly’s Big 7 playing on the bandstand, Al back in the clarinet chair and Kelly and Ivy reunited.

I watch a decent amount of the 1960s iteration of Dragnet when I have a few spare minutes to cram in an episode, and through that I have become a fan of Jack Webb, even if I find his deadpan delivery somewhat odd and comforting at the same time. I’d argue that Webb’s famous police procedural, which began in radio, almost does not need to be processed visually and carried much of its radio predecessor’s traits. From the bland interiors to the often parodied rapid shot-reverse-shot closeups on the characters, Dragnet definitely does not boast flashy visuals (supposedly a holdover from the first version of the show where to cut costs, actors often read lines off teleprompters to keep a low shooting ratio). In fact, with so much of the plot being narrated by Webb’s Joe Friday, one could probably close their eyes and get all of the narrative information through the spoken dialogue. This thankfully is not the case with Pete Kelly’s Blues, which shows Webb working with his widescreen canvas to a much more satisfying degree than his television programming.

Of course the music is a highlight. Peggy Lee, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, is wonderful as Rose, and has several spotlight vocal numbers. Also in the cast is Ella Fitzgerald, who plays Maggie Jackson, a singer and informant who works at another club where local band members hang out to discuss issues away from the ears of McCarg’s men. She also has two spotlight numbers, one being the title song. With both Fitzgerald and Lee, vocal numbers are allowed to play out with little editing, and it’s wonderful to just watch. The 1920s combo numbers were dubbed by many of the same members who played on the radio show version, which often featured at least two musical numbers within an 30 minute running time. There is a somewhat humorous (at least to me) time warp going on between the combo numbers, which are played in the 1920s style, and the vocal arrangements, which lean much more towards what would stylistically be appropriate in later years of the 30s and 40s. There are little tidbits for jazz fans located throughout the film. I was definitely geeking out when Kelly and Al are speaking about Jean Goldkette’s band when Al is about to leave, and Kelly asks who is in the cornet chair. Al responds that it must be Bix. So Webb’s own passion for jazz definitely shows in this film.

Again, while I am most familiar with Webb’s radio and television work, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by Pete Kelly’s Blues. While not necessarily a great film, Webb demonstrates a good sense of direction, visual space and performance that is much deeper than what is seen on Dragnet. While his own acting is probably the weakest link in the film next to the performances from the rest of the stellar cast, honestly Pete Kelly himself is the lead character in title only, and really the film’s strength lies in the people around him.

Warner Archive has released Pete Kelly’s Blues on a wonderful new Blu Ray edition. The film looks beautiful, with rich colors and natural film grain still present. The edition includes two shorts, the film trailer and a neat menu option highlighting the musical numbers within the film for easy navigation. The movie is definitely worth checking out as an example of a well-crafted musical hybrid film.  Webb’s fake cornet playing isn’t too bad either.

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Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: The Crime Films of Anthony Mann

SummerReadingI just recently finish Max Alvarez’s The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, which was published by the University of Mississippi Press earlier this year. It was a perfect tie-in with a retrospective series the UCLA Film and Television Archive did in the spring on Mann’s work, where I also had the chance to see Alvarez speak about some of the films that were presented.

The book is not a biography of Mann, although Alvarez’s first two chapters cover the director’s upbringing in Point Loma, California, and his early work on the east coach as an actor and stage director. These chapters give enough background biographical information for later reference while talking about the case study films, and also serves as an opportunity for Alvarez to address certain points in Mann’s personal history that were previously unclear or existed because of longstanding rumor.

410iLvz38PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The rest of the book is made up of chapters focusing on specific films from 1942-1951. Narrowing it down to the “crime films,” only, the book explores a varied set of films ranging from B pictures made for Poverty Row independents to bigger-budget noirs made at the major studios. These films are what we’d call police procedurals or film noirs, or in some cases a hybrid of the two. By focusing on these films, it cuts out the more known Mann westerns, like the ones he made with James Stewart. It’s also an interesting sample set because of the exploration of the development of Mann’s own style no matter what the production circumstances.

Alvarez divides his chapters on each film into sections focusing on development, production and reception. For all three, he relies heavily on archival materials such as script drafts and PCA files. In looking at the film’s marketing and reception, Alvarez is able to offer some fun slogans and campaign ideas gathered from film pressbooks. The book also features a substantial amount of textual analysis. While at times some of this felt a little more like plot description with little other substance, most of the examples and their accompanying screen capture illustrations gave good context into Mann’s style and intentions.

Some of the most interesting work done for this book was on a lost noir that Mann directed for an anthology film for MGM called, It’s A Big Country. Reconstructing the plot and production information from scripts, Alvarez paints the picture of a taught noir episode that sounds like a very unfortunate loss.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, and found it a great companion piece to the Mann films mentioned within. As I found watching some of his B crime films, Mann seemed to leave a definite mark on his finished product, no matter what the budget or how implausible the plot. Alvarez’s thorough work highlights the dedication Mann brought to all his movies. The Crime Films of Anthony Mann is also a solid example of looking at a director’s work through production/reception and shows how Hollywood worked within the studios, with outside forces like the Production Code office and with exhibitors and audiences to get their films made and seen.

Special thanks to Laura for making it possible to read and review this book!

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Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: Young Man With A Horn

SummerReadingDorothy Baker’s debut novel, Young Man With A Horn, opens with a dedication that functions as both a clarifying note and a sort of hint to the type of story that will be told. It reads, ” The inspiration for the writing of this book has been the music, but not the life, of a great musician, Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke…” Published in 1938, the book arrived seven years after the passing of the great cornet player. Beiderbecke’s era was gone as well, as traditional 1920’s jazz had shifted into big band swing. Yet Baker’s novel is firmly rooted in the music and feeling of the 1920s, and she manages to capture an authenticity of the jazz scene that I have rarely felt when reading or watching a film.

The story follows Rick Martin, trumpet player, from his childhood as a school-ducking kid growing up in lower-class Los Angeles. He first learns to play piano, then saves money from his bowling alley job to by a trumpet. Through his friend Smoke Jordan, Rick is introduced to black jazz musicians Art Hazard and Jeff Williams, and begins learning his craft and sitting in with the band. It’s obvious from the beginning that Rick has talent, and trumpet playing becomes his singular obsession.

As a young adult, Rick begins to move up the ranks of the white dance bands first in ballrooms in LA and then on to the big groups in New York. Having grown up playing more hot jazz Rick finds the watered-down dance band music not to his liking and often tries to rebel with his own style of playing. While playing with a Paul Whiteman-type orchestra in NYC as the lead trumpet, Rick visits other clubs after he gets off work to jam with Jeff Williams’ group. It’s though these late night sessions that he first meets Amy North, a beautiful yet distant college student. Rick becomes smitten with Amy, and the two end up in a rocky marriage. Amy is somewhat envious of Rick’s status as a top musician, as she claims she is still looking for the one thing is life that she can do well. But in many ways Rick isn’t satisfied with sitting on his talent and continues to strive for perfection while often drinking to compensate for what’s missing in his life and marriage. In the end, it seems that the only people who know Rick best are his fellow musicians. Through what is hinted at being caused by alcoholism, Rick dies from pneumonia with Smoke at his side.

Through dropping hints at song titles and other references, Baker sets her era well. As Gary Giddins mentions in the afterword of the New York Review Books edition, race plays a large factor in the story, and Baker’s African-American characters are given a chance to speak without racially stereotyped dialogue and appear as fully formed characters. That’s not to say the book, which is narrated by a mystery third person narrator, totally refrains from the use of derogatory racial labels and descriptions (it doesn’t), but there is something progressive about its main characters that was carried over in the 1950’s film adaptation.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. As Baker has dedicated her book to the spirit of good music, she seems to have a feeling for that world. Having sat in on late night jam sessions, it’s easy to catch on to the comradery, high level of skill and musicianship and joy that comes out of playing with and being challenged by fellow musicians. I think that’s what I took most out of Young Man With A Horn, that idea that while it’s a tragic story, music in Rick Martin’s life was something to continue to work towards and aspire to, and that it’s a universal language.

This post is part of my summer reading list for Out of the Past’s Summer Reading Challenge.

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Milland Directs Milland: Hostile Witness (1968)

hostile_witnessPerhaps one of the stranger fates to befall a popular leading man of the 1930s and 40s was the late career trajectory of Ray Milland. Stranger still was the fact that he was an Oscar winner, having been awarded the Best Actor statue for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). If not best known for his portrayal of alcoholic writer Don Birnam in present day references, Milland is often recognized for his late career work Love Story (1970) or in such B-films like The Thing with Two Heads (1972)and Frogs (1972). One of Paramount’s most profitable contract players during the studio era, Milland was best known before The Lost Weekend as a handsome and suave leading man in romantic comedies and lighter dramas.

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As a romantic leading man, 1936.

Yet post-Lost Weekend Milland was rarely offered roles that allowed him to push further into the serious dramatic material that he had successfully ventured into with that film. There are exceptions, namely The Big Clock (1948)and Alias Nick Beal (1949) for John Farrow, and Lewis Allen’s So Evil My Love (1948), noirs which allowed Milland to portray more complicated, sinister characters. Milland’s own Welsh upbringing and time in the British Household Calvary gave him an air of British sophistication, something that played well into his casting as debonair gentlemen in the 1930s and 40s and gave an edge of upper-class smarminess to his later roles. Milland’s post-Lost Weekend career can be looked at as an odd and somewhat sad downturn for a once prolific actor, but conversely can be explored through the more varied roles and hats Milland was allowed to wear once his Paramount contract expired.

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Middle-aged, The Lost Weekend

In the 1950s, Milland’s filmography is filled with mostly forgettable comedies and melodramas, with a few westerns thrown in. Like many other older Hollywood stars, he ventured into television as well, and eventually found himself starring in low-budget science fiction/horror films for Roger Corman at American International Pictures. It was during this time period, free from his nearly 20 years at Paramount, that Milland finally got to try his hand at directing, something he had long wanted to do. In total, Milland directed five films, all lower-budget, for smaller companies like Republic or AIP. As a stipulation, Milland had to juggle a lead acting part and often producing and writing duties in order to be allowed to helm these pictures.

Hostile Witness is the last of the five films that Milland directed. Adapted from a play by Jack Roffey by its own playwright, Milland had already played the lead role during its Broadway run in 1966. Taking place in 1960s London, Milland plays successful barrister Simon Crawford. The experienced lawyer has a knack for getting seemingly guilty clients off the hook, and runs his own chambers with an iron fist. Crawford is widowed with an adult daughter, Joanna (Sandra Fehr), and while somewhat an intimidating personality,  is well-liked by his colleagues.

On a visit home, Joanna is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver near Crawford’s flat. Crawford is distraught, and when police and private investigators fail to identify the driver, he vows to kill the man responsible for the accident if he ever finds him.

ray-milland-melville-cooper-michael-allinson-hostile-witness-april-1966-playbill_2320d93710ded9293c3a768492445186Returning to his flat one night, Crawford is struck on the head and left unconscious. He is found and brought in by his friend, Major Hugh Maitland (Geoffrey Lumsden). The next morning, Crawford’s neighbor and friend, high court justice Matthew Gregory, is found stabbed to death inside his apartment. Upon questioning Crawford, the investigator finds a letter from one of Crawford’s private investigators identifying Gregory as the man who hit Joanna. With Maitland as his only alibi, coupled with Crawford’s previous threat to kill the man responsible and other physical evidence, Crawford is arrested as the chief murder suspect.

Insisting that he has been framed for a murder he didn’t commit, Crawford has young Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms), his up-and-coming assistant, represent him in the trial. The odds seem squarely against Crawford, whose case hinges on the testimony of the eccentric Maitland. Pegged as a hostile witness for the prosecution, Crawford takes his own chances with Maitland as the latter’s unstable recollections of the night of the murder could put Crawford’s alibi in doubt.

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Milland and Syms in Hostile Witness

As an example of courtroom drama, Hostile Witness presents a gripping case which is engaging enough to warrant sitting through its nearly two hour running time. Even in his older age  Milland is still a master actor, conveying much subtly through his face and body movements in a setting that does not allow for grand gestures. It is also his aloof quality that makes one wonder if Crawford is telling the truth or really was capable of murder. As a cinematic product, however, the film leans heavily on its stage roots and becomes almost too static and one-dimensional. Hostile Witness suffers from this in that it often feels more like an older television series in its bright, uniform lighting and medium shots. In fact, towards the end of the film, this is highlighted through the almost comic use of shot-reverse-shot between Crawford’s accusations towards a witness and the latter’s repeated response of “No!” Having seen three of the Milland-directed films I would say although he exhibits little discernible visual style, he does seem to understand the basics of the language well, and his films are clean and clear examples of the dominant continuity style. Part of this may be with the quality of the narrative material itself, as I find Milland’s A Man Alone (1955) and Panic in Year Zero! (1962) much stronger and compelling examples of both visual and narrative story telling than Hostile Witness. Yet although Hostile Witness stumbles slightly over these points and its convoluted ending, the film offers fine performances by most of its cast and is worth a look as a more intimate character study-driven whodunit.

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Last Remaining Seats: Footlight Parade (1933)

 

Downtown Los Angeles, like many cities, presents a sort of odd juxtaposition of the old and new urban setting. Walking down S. Broadway, dubbed “Theater Row,” one can still see the old marquees of the grand movie palaces, vaudeville houses and nickelodeons of the early decades of the 1900s mixed in with the newer shops and restaurants. Movie-going in the early years was meant to be an event worth going out on the town for, and the lavish palaces that were built during the 1920s and early 30s reflected that. However, the move to the suburbs post-WWII and the rise of the multiplex relegated these downtown movie houses obsolete. Many are gone now, while others remain in various states of use. While some hint at their magnificent interiors by the art deco architecture outside, most blend in with the rest of the street. Some are still used for live concerts and theater, while others remain vacant or have been converted into large shopping venues or churches.

The LA Conservancy opens up several of these grand venues for movie screenings during its annual Last Remaining Seats series in June. I was able to head down on Wednesday night for a screening of Footlight Parade at the Orpheum Theater. Opened in 1926, the theater was built as part of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit in Los Angeles. The interior is decorated in a French Renaissance theme, featuring white marble and gold leaf details throughout, as well as some impressive woodwork and chandeliers in the foyer and theater itself. The theater also boasts the last Mighty Wurlitzer organ on Broadway, which was played by Robert Salisbury for the night’s pre-show entertainment.

The evening opened with a special floorshow featuring Maxwell DeMille and Dean Mora and his Orchestra playing songs from Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who penned some of the songs in Footlight Parade and many others for Warner Brothers. It was a fun surprise to see Geoff Nudell, an awesome reeds player who is in the LA Winds with me, playing in the orchestra. The pre-show also included a stage presentation of several classic film costume gowns from designers like Irene and Edith Head from Greg Schreiner’s Hollywood Revisited show. While all gorgeous, one that stood out in my mind was the super sparkly mink backed gown that Ginger Rogers wore in Lady in the Dark.

If there was one slight bummer to this experience, it was the print of the film itself, which had several jumps and red marks. Having seen the film several times, it wasn’t really that big of a deal to me, and the times the print was clear, it was a treat to see this in 35mm. While not a full sell-out, the house was mostly packed, and it was an enthusiastic audience. There were plenty of laughs for Joan Blondell’s pre-Code wisecracks and lots of applause.

I love Footlight Parade, even while it presents some pretty problematic material, mostly with the “Shanghai Lil” number. That being said, I think the “By a Waterfall” sequence may be the most impressive Busby Berkeley number I’ve seen, and to watch James Cagney dance is one of my favorite things in the world. I was also able to briefly meet Meredith, who was visiting LA with her family.  We have known each other for a few years on twitter, so it was just another lovely opportunity to finally meet another classic film friend in person.

Last Remaining Seats was something I hadn’t even heard about until this year, but will definitely circle on my calendar for the future. There are still tickets remaining for the last two screenings next week: Luis Buenel’s El gran calavera, and two screenings of Citizen Kane. Information can be found here. The LA Conservancy also offers walking tours throughout the year of the downtown area which also offers an opportunity to see inside some of these old theaters and buildings. Overall, it’s a great event that offers the chance to see a classic film in a historic venue.

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