Category Archives: Film

Hollywood Cat Call — 1961

Open casting call for black cats for the Roger Corman movie Tales of Terror (1962), starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. Plaid was apparently quite popular at the time. (Life magazine photos by Ralph Crane / Nov. 1, 1961.)

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A few days ago I went to see an advance screening of a movie I’d seen a trailer for a month or two ago, and, quite honestly, I would never have gone to see this movie unless a friend had said how much a friend of hers had loved it at an L.A. film festival last year. The movie is called Young@Heart, a British-made documentary about a Massachusetts chorus made up of elderly men and women who cover songs by a lot of surprising bands (The Ramones, Sonic Youth, Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, The Clash, The Bee Gees, David Bowie, etc.). Sounded quirkily tedious, but I decided to give it a shot.

And I’m so glad I did, because it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years. I love this film so much that I feel a little embarrassed that I want absolutely everyone I know to go see it.

It’s very, very funny, and it’s very, very sad, and it’s very, very moving, and it’s better paced and more emotionally satisfying than most movies ever seem to be.

There are hilarious scenes with the men and women (average age about 80) attempting to learn Allen Toussaint’s Yes, We Can Can (in which the narrator tells us the word “can” shows up 71 times and is an almost impossible-to-learn tongue-twister for them). Tension mounts as Bob, the hip young chorus director, wonders if they’ll master it in time for their show and worldwide tour. It’s also amusing to watch them as they hear the songs they’ll be working on for the first time — there are many pained expressions as the group first hears Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia. But it’s also suprising how easily they take to certain songs — there’s a wonderful moment when they completely nail Life During Wartime.

Rehearsing James Brown’s I Feel Good.

The sad moments inevitably come when the group talks about and is faced with mortality and the need to carry on, regardless of roadblocks along the way.

There are two scenes so moving that I wonder if Hollywood writers could come up with anything more powerful. In one scene, the group has learned of some bad news on the way to a performance they are to do at a local prison, but they insist on doing their show, despite the news. The reaction of the mostly young prisoners to this group of elderly men and women singing for them is incredible. There’s no way any person could watch this and not tear up. (There was a teenage boy sitting next to me with his girlfriend, and he was sniffling throughout the entire scene.)

Performing at the prison.

But the moment of moments comes at the end, when Fred Knittle (who is the funniest person in the movie) sings a song I’d never heard before but which, I assume, must be an anthemic super-hit from Coldplay (a band I’ve managed to avoid thus far) — Fix You. I won’t spoil the moment for those of you who might go see it (and EVERYONE should go see it), but listening to this man sing this song (which, in the context of this documentary, has a whole different meaning than Chris Martin probably intended), accompanied by the sound of his oxygen tank … it is powerful and sweet and staggering and life-affirming and just absolutely perfect.

Fred Knittle singing Fix You.

Go see this film.

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Brutus Jones: “Trouble Is My Buddy”

emperor jones posterI watched The Emperor Jones starring Paul Robeson this afternoon, a movie from 1933 based on Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play. I’d never actually seen a Paul Robeson movie before, and this one was pretty interesting, especially as it was pre-code and contained a lot of salacious tidbits that would not have been allowed when the production code started being enforced the following year.

The Emperor Jones features a predominantly black cast and is a notable example of both black cinema and pre-code cinema. I’ve become really interested in a lot pre-code films from the ’20s and ’30s, when “adult themes” were acceptable to the movie-going public. For instance, in this film, Paul Robeson’s character is an arrogant guy who works as a Pullman porter and envisions a life of wealth and extravagance. He cheats on his wife with prostitutes. He gambles. He kills a guy. He escapes from a chain gang. He finds himself on a Caribbean island where he rises from slave to self-proclaimed emperor. He orders that the imperial residence be decked out with mirrors so that he can vainly admire himself and his ridiculously ornate uniform whenever he desires. (I’m not sure how many other Deadly Sins he commits, but it’s a LOT.) He eventually becomes the despot you always knew was bubbling under the surface, and he begins to treat his subjects … despotically. When he realizes an insurrection is imminent, he flees into the jungle where he begins to hallucinate and is, ultimately, killed in a barrage of silver bullets (which were, ironically, made from the melted-down silver coins once used to purchase him as a slave).

People usually think of old black-and-white movies of being sort of … naive and charming, and more than a little removed from gritty and nasty reality. So it’s always a shock to see movies made before Will Hays ruined the fun and began enforcing the censorship code that cleaned up all that stuff that was perverting America. Fortunately, this movie was made before the Hays Code went into effect. It had:

  • A guy who cheated on his wife … repeatedly

  • A whorehouse full of prostitutes and a madame who appeared to be a cross-dressing lesbian (played by Moms Mabley!)

  • Two prostitutes in a knock-down drag-out fight — in evening wear — in a Harlem nightclub

  • Lots of gambling (craps galore)

  • A guy getting killed and his body being left in the middle of the floor in a crowded room, ignored with business-as-usual going on around it, because no one wanted to be fingered for the crime

  • A lawman being hit over the head with a shovel

  • The emperor ordering an entire village be burned to the ground because a handful of people protested the ever-increasing taxes that were bleeding them dry and making him rich

Okay, so he gets his come-uppance in the end, but it was a pretty unapologetic journey getting there.

It was also a little shocking to hear a movie that used the N-word so liberally. Over the years the movie has had dialogue edited out to appease audiences offended by such things (even though the language is true to O’Neill’s play). The version I saw was restored to its original version by the Library of Congress. The restored version also includes lengthy, blue-tinted scenes in which Robeson delivers a soliloquy during which his character becomes a hunted animal and descends into madness. I’m not really sure why the scenes were tinted blue, but I suppose it helped add to the other-worldliness of this climactic part of the film.

Paul Robeson was one good-looking man. There were lots of opportunities for him to strip off his shirt in this movie (another thing the Hays Code frowned upon). Even though he was a despicable character, he was still handsome and charming. I know he was famous for his singing, but since I’m not a fan of musical numbers in movies, I ended up fast-forwarding through several musical interludes (I’m sure Eugene O’Neill, himself, raised an eyebrow more than once at these unnecessary deviations from his play). There were a couple of really good rousing gospel numbers at the beginning, but every time things started veering dangerously close to “Old Man River” territory I hit the fast-forward button.

Not a great movie, but a very interesting one.


emperor jones throne

emperor jones robeson window

emperor jones jungle

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Purple Rain microphone Okay, so I finally saw Purple Rain — a couple of decades after it came out. I always meant to see it, but … I’ve been busy. I was certainly a Prince fan back in 1984, but for some reason I never got around to seeing this movie. Until tonight.

I was amused that it was presented under the aegis of something called the “African Heritage Network” — and that it has been deemed a “movie classic” (at least by hosts Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis). Yep. That Appolonia sure is some classic “actress” — not to mention one fine “singer.” (Somehow I’m thinking it wasn’t either of those attributes that got her into Prince’s “inner circle” in the first place, if you know what I mean — and who couldn’t possibly NOT know what I mean?!)

So. The movie. … wow. I’m having horrifying ’80s flashbacks. Yes, people I knew dressed like that. *I* dressed like that. Sort of. I had that hair, anyway. And I personally witnessed those eyebrows. That make-up. Those puffy shirts. Uh-huh — we looked really silly.

Basically, my responses to the movie:

1) Prince is not a good actor. But he’s a fantastic performer. On stage. In front of a microphone. Not down in a basement, struggling with inner demons. … And not talking.
2) Morris Day, on the other hand, is FANTASTIC!!! I love Morris Day. The scene with him vacuuming is hilarious. He is,without question, the only person in the movie who appears to be able to act. Just so I’m clear on this: I LOVE MORRIS DAY!!!

Morris Day


The thing about that era of Princey-ness that strikes a person is just how busy his little outfits are. Man — there is a LOT of activity going on there: you got your ruffles, your leather, your scarves, your shoulderpads, your studs, your sparkly things, your gloves, your high heels, your sunglasses, your curls and, of course, all that eyeliner. (How long did it take him to get dressed back then?) He looks damned good (not that he doesn’t also look damned silly at the same time), but, I have to say, I feared for his life every time “The Kid” hopped on that Bat-Cycle of his — I thought he ran a good chance of getting a ruffled cuff, a ringlet, or one of those high heels caught in a spoke … and there he’d be, a little purple spot on a Minnesota blacktop — just like poor Isadora Duncan. He IS a sort of overly self-conscious, preening, funky version of Isadora Duncan — if Isadora Duncan had been a Sly Stone/James Brown/Jimi Hendrix acolyte with a Napoleon complex and a really cool falsetto, that is.

As badly-written and acted a movie as it was, there’s no denying the charisma, the sexuality and the talent leaping out of Prince’s every pore. I always thought it was funny when people (i.e. men) would describe him as “androgynous” — a word I suppose they used because he wore things that most men don’t normally wear (but women don’t wear a lot of that stuff, either). A better word might have been “foppish” or “dandy-ish,” because … seriously … who would have EVER not known Prince was a man? The moustache was always a dead give-away, for one thing. Prince just wants to be the center of attention. Besides, ALL of us looked like idiots back then when we would have sworn we were the coolest people to walk the face of the earth. Prince was just the same way — only magnified a million times. (And, of course, I think he actually WAS the coolest person to walk the face of the earth back then!)

So, anyway, as a movie — not good. As a performance film — much, much, much better. I even got all excited hearing the opening strains to “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry.”

Wow. I’m really old.

Purple Rain poster

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