Musicals from Behind the Iron Curtain

An unexpected top hat and tails dance number performed on piano tops is featured in the 1962 film from East Germany, Midnight Revue.

If you are a dedicated fan of movie musicals, you have probably been tempted to venture beyond the realm of Hollywood’s golden era to explore classic musicals from other countries like France (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Germany (The 3 Penny Opera, 1931) or England (Evergreen, 1934). You would certainly have no trouble discovering top rated favorites from India which produces between 1,500 to 2,000 Bollywood movies a year, most of which include at least three to five musical numbers. It might be harder though to dig up a famous film musical from countries as diverse as…say, Sweden, Japan or Egypt…but they definitely exist and there are more than you would think. What you probably haven’t seen is a socialist musical from Russia or any of its satellite countries during the Communist regime. There’s a reason for that. Those films weren’t exported outside Iron Curtain countries during that era but you can experience a highly entertaining sampler of the genre in East Side Story, a documentary on Marxist musicals that premiered in U.S. theaters in 1997.

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Sean Connery as a Gypsy Grifter

What’s your favorite Sean Connery role before he became famous as James Bond. This question might stump the average movie-goer but film buffs would probably choose one of his menacing villain roles in either Hell Drivers (1957) or Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) or possibly his dashing romantic hero opposite Janet Munro in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), where he actually gets to sing. The latter is easily my favorite with the Irish mythology of leprechauns, pookas and banshees giving it the edge but there is something quite appealing about Connery trying his hand at comedy in the lesser-known British B-movie Operation Snafu (1961), which was released in the U.K. as On the Fiddle (It was also known as Operation War Head).  

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Hot Nocturne

Most Hollywood films about musicians that were made during the studio era were usually biopics and focused on individual artists such as George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue, 1945) and Glenn Miller (The Glenn Miller Story, 1954). It was rare to see a feature film that detailed the ups and downs of an entire band and, in the case of 1941’s Blues in the Night, the featured jazz sextet was entirely fictitious. Originally titled Hot Nocturne, the name was changed just prior to its theatrical release to capitalize on the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer hit song that became its signature tune.

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The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman

During the summer of 1961 a double feature aimed at children was being distributed in selected cities across the U.S.. If you saw the titles on a theatre marquee, you might think they were Walt Disney releases – Bimbo the Great and The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. But anyone who ventured inside the theatre immediately realized that these films were NOT made in Hollywood. And in the case of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, it didn’t even look like the film was made in the 20th century!

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Unlucky Horoscopes

The cast of Thirteen Women consult with Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy, center) over their horoscopes in this publicity photo from the 1932 melodrama.

Throughout most of the 19th century in America, astrology was considered an occult science embraced by a small but growing number of converts. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that an interest in astrological signs and horoscopes crossed over from a cult phenomenon to more popular acceptance on a national scale. This was partially due to the success of The Bowl of Heaven (1924), an autobiography of famous astrologer Evangeline Adams and the influential periodical American Astrology, which began publishing in 1923. It was only a matter of time until Hollywood would capitalize on the movement’s popularity by using it as a plot device in Thirteen Women (1932), one of Myrna Loy’s least known and most peculiar roles.

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Cosa Nostra Bromance

Professional hit men Schaft (Henry Silva, left) and Phil (Jack Klugman) converge on their target in the Eurocrime cult favorite, Hail, Mafia (1965), directed by Raoul Levy.

Do hit men have a code of ethics? It might seem like a bit of an oxymoron to have hit men and ethics in the same sentence but in most movies about organized crime like The Godfather, The Public Enemy or Scarface, there does seem to be some sort of moral code observed among the rank and file of thugdom, regardless of how hypocritical it may seem. Rarely though do we see crime thrillers where hit men have philosophical discussions about their work and Hail, Mafia (1965) is not only fascinating for this reason but it’s also a criminally overlooked little B-movie. Taut, suspenseful, oddly funny at times and a road movie of sorts, the European produced movie stars Henry Silva and Jack Klugman as ill-matched assassins on a journey to silence their target, an expatriate American (Eddie Constantine) living in France.

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Elvis is Leaving the Building

During his lifetime, Elvis Presley made 31 feature films, two theatrical documentaries and numerous TV specials. What is rather surprising is the fact that Hollywood never showcased Elvis as a live performer or in a concert film until the end of his career. How much of that was due to his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is debatable but Elvis on Tour (1972) is regarded as the last official Elvis movie that was distributed to theaters.

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The Insurrection Cometh

What does anarchy look like? The events of January 6, 2021 when a violent mob stormed the U.S. capitol provided a chilling example of social order under siege but this has happened before. Remember New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005? The communications infrastructure was temporarily disabled, support services and emergency aid were unavailable and security became an issue as looting and other criminal activities took place until some semblance of order was restored by the arrival of National Guard troops a few days later. The absence of law enforcement and a rising sense of panic and chaos was broadcast to TV viewers around the world. Michel Franco’s New Order (2021), the Grand Jury Prize winner at the Venice Film Festival, taps into this fear of impending dystopia with a gripping thriller set in the wealthy enclave of what appears to be Mexico City but is never explicitly identified.

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The Lee Art Theater: A Forgotten Cinema Treasure

As a lifelong film lover, I have fond memories of my movie-going youth in Richmond, Virginia. There were not only distinctly different neighborhood venues like The Westover Theater, the Willow Lawn and the Westhampton but also much more opulent movie palaces in the city like the Byrd, the Loew’s and three first-run hardtops, which were situated on one Broad Street block known as Richmond’s Theater Row – the State, Colonial and the National; the latter was later renovated and rebranded the Towne. B-movie double features, sword and sandal epics and English dubbed European genre films were more likely to show up at seedier theaters like The Grand and the Venus. There was even a theater that catered solely to black audiences – The Booker T – and a plethora of drive-in theaters scattered around the city like the Sunset, Rose Bowl and Twin Pines which exhibited some of the most obscure and bizarrely titled films of the period as witnessed by marque headliners Invasion of the Animal People, Daughter of the Sun God and other oddities. But the most eclectic of all was The Lee Art Theater on West Grace Theater, which often paired racy adult features (Russ Meyer’s Lorna, Paris Ooh-La-La) with serious art house dramas (The L Shaped Room, Breathless).

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Ghana

“The camera eye is more perspicacious and more accurate than the human eye,” French filmmaker Jean Rouch once said, and his idiosyncratic documentaries, which were often fusions of reality and fiction, bear this out. Jaguar (1967) is a perfect example of this duality.

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