Richard Lester’s Feature Film Debut with the Mad Jazz Beat

Ring-A-Ding RhythmWhile producer Sam Katzman was busy exploiting the youth culture in the U.S. with quickie productions like Twist Around the Clock (1961) and Don’t Knock the Twist (1962), his contemporary Milton Subotsky was doing the same in England but with a different musical focus. London was in the midst of a British jazz revival driven by the music of New Orleans and Dixieland and this is the sound that inspired It’s Trad, Dad! (1962, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm), which also marks the feature film debut of Richard Lester, whose subsequent film was A Hard Day’s Night (1964) for The Beatles.  Subotsky didn’t just stack the deck with jazz groups though; he also added a generous helping of current pop acts and even tried to scoop Katzman with showcasing Chubby Checker in the new novelty dance, the twist (Katzman still beat him to the punch with Twist Around the Clock which was released first in the U.S.).      It's Trad, Dad! Continue reading

The Secret Cinema Experiment (Feb. 1980 – Dec. 1981, Athens, Ga.)

Secret Cinema program Oct. 1980Have you ever had a fantasy about running and programming your own repertory cinema? Any self-proclaimed film buff probably has and for me it became a slowly emerging fantasy from the time I was seven or older. Unlike those kids who wanted to be firemen, astronauts, professional athletes or other revered professions, I pictured myself as a movie theater owner who could show what I wanted and print availability or attendance was never a concern. While this fantasy faded over the years as I became aware of the realities and headaches of film distribution and theater management, the love of programming movies always stayed with me and for a brief period (Feb. 1980 – Dec. 1981), I ran an invitation only film series out of my home in Athens, Ga. on Pulaski Street that I called Secret Cinema. Continue reading

Beverly Michaels: Wicked Woman

Poster created for Noir City film festival, sponsored by The Film Noir Foundation

Poster created for Noir City film festival, sponsored by The Film Noir Foundation

Voluptuous vixens, murderous golddiggers and greedy femme fatales were a familiar sight in B-movie melodramas of the fifties but Wicked Woman (1953) stands out from the rest of the pack. The look and feel of the movie captures the lurid quality of trashy pulp fiction covers from the same period like Tavern Girl, Passion Has Red Lips or Any Sex Will Do. Even the minimalistic, sparsely decorated sets, that represent a confined universe of dingy boarding house rooms and the neighborhood bar, exude a sleazy authenticity and sense of claustrophobia. And scheming her way through these lower depths is Beverly Michaels in the title role of Billie Nash. Blonde, statuesque and sullen, she is the quintessential hard luck tramp, moving from town to town in a futile search for a change in luck.    Tavern Girl Continue reading

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 Valentine to New York City

A scene from You're a Big Boy Now (1966), filmed on location in New York City

A scene from You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), filmed on location in New York City

Before he broke through as one of the most dynamic and successful directors of his generation in 1972 with The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola had been working his way up from the lower rungs of the film industry since the early sixties in various capacities for producer/director Roger Corman (dialogue director on Tower of London [1962], second unit director on Premature Burial [1962] and others). Although his first full-fledged directorial effort was the sexploitation comedy Tonight for Sure (1962), which was barely distributed even on the grindhouse circuit, Dementia 13 [1963], was really the first indication that Coppola had promise as a filmmaker. Made on a miniscule budget, this gothic murder mystery shot on location in Ireland was a surprisingly stylish and atmospheric genre film that was released on a double feature with Corman’s The Terror [1963]. Yet, it was Coppola’s next feature, You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), that proved to the movie industry and film critics alike that this twenty-seven year old director was already a prodigious talent.     Continue reading

Spider Women vs. Holy Men in a Once-Lost Chinese Film

They look like women but don't be fooled (a scene from The Cave of the Spider Women, 1927)

They look like women but don’t be fooled (a scene from The Cave of the Spider Women, 1927)

Surviving films from the silent era in China are rare. Destruction from wars, government censorship, neglect, and deterioration have taken a sizable toll, so the recent discovery of The Cave of the Spider Women (Pan si dong) from 1927 is a cause for celebration. Even missing its opening scene and a sequence in the middle, the film remains frenetic, pulpy entertainment that was a major commercial success and a career milestone for painter-turned-filmmaker Dan Duyu. Its appeal also stems from glamorous lead actress Yin Mingzhu, one of China’s first major stars. The film’s potent blend of costume drama, fantasy adventure, and choreographed action, as well as slapstick and irreverent sight gags have proved durable conventions in modern-day Chinese cinema.  (This article first appeared in the 2015 program for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival). Continue reading

Adrift in a L.A. Haze

Anouk Aimée in Jacques Demy's Model Shop (1969)

Anouk Aimée in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969)

Los Angeles has served as the backdrop for countless Hollywood movies but in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), the French director’s first and only American film (if you don’t count the 1984 made-for-TV movie Louisiana), the city becomes the real protagonist. With its sprawling urban landscape, oil derricks, desolate beaches and constant traffic, it  provides a vivid canvas for a contemporary love story about romantic longing, missed connections and unrealized dreams. Film writer Clare Stewart referred to the film in the film journal Senses of Cinema as “a road movie that doesn’t go anywhere” but that’s not a putdown. It’s an apt description of what Demy was trying to create here – a drifting, dreamy mood piece.   Continue reading

Ilya Muromets vs. the Dragon

The Sword and the DragonThere is no doubt that my love of all things bizarre, unusual, and other-worldly was influenced to some degree by viewing at an early age Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, The Wolf Man, I Married a Witch, The Wizard of Oz and Walt Disney animated films such as Pinocchio and Fantasia. But Hollywood films weren’t the only ones to fire my imagination and, thanks to some adventurous distributors in the fifties and sixties, I was exposed to a number of offbeat international features that were circulated in English-dubbed versions for kiddie matinees. Some were completely re-edited for American audiences but still cast a strange spell, regardless of their quality.    Continue reading