Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Feature: Midnight Shows

by F.T. Rea

In the 1970s, during what was the Golden Age of Repertory Cinema, the presenting of midnight shows was an integral aspect of the programming for many movie houses of that ilk. Although films are still being shown in theaters at the midnight hour, the cultural significance of such screenings has been in steady decline since the end of the ’70s. As with most pop fads, there are plenty of reasons why.

Richmond’s Biograph Theatre might be remembered for many things, some of them good. Most people, who remember it at all, probably flash back onto scenes from favorite films they saw there during its nearly 16 years of operation (1972-87).  

Perhaps the hodgepodge of double features that was central to the format of a repertory cinema had something to do with a sense of postmodern license. Although most of what was done at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, it was somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the development of midnight shows.

As has been noted at the Bijou Backlight in previous posts, I managed the Biograph, 1972-83. While most of the basic style for what sort of product to exhibit within a repertory format had already been established when we opened at 814 W. Grace St. in 1972, we managed to get in on the midnight show phenomenon early enough to have played a small role in shaping America’s love affair with midnight shows.

Of course, late screenings were nothing new when the Biograph opened. And the term “midnight show” had been around forever. Still, the midnight show formula for how to do it consistently had not been established. Something as simple as playing the same program on both Friday and Saturday nights, only at midnight, had not yet been set in stone.

About two months after we opened, a twin bill of so-called "underground" films, “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964), was the first special late show we presented. I think it actually started at 11:30 p.m. Moving such presentations to midnight soon proved better.

Over our initial year of operation we came to understand the sort of pictures that would work best in that special role and how to promote them. Although “The Godfather” (1972) was a critical success and a popular film the year the Biograph opened, it was not the sort of movie that would draw a late crowd. “Fritz the Cat” (1972), released the same year — but barely remembered today — was a good draw as a midnight show.

When we premiered “El Topo” (1970) during regular hours in the spring of 1973 it flopped. Later as a midnight show it did well.

A bootleg print of “Animal Crackers” (1930), a Marx Brothers romp that had been out of release for decades, played well at midnight. Some rock ’n’ roll movies worked, others didn’t. Same with thrillers and monster flicks. The most successful midnight shows needed a cachet of something slightly forbidden, perhaps underground.

In that light, a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television or in a standard movie theater had an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print.

We promoted midnight shows with radio spots on WGOE-AM and with handbills posted on utility poles and in shop windows. We relied on little or no newspaper advertising for midnight shows in the early days. We usually didn’t list them in our regular printed programs, which displayed the titles and some film notes for the movies we exhibited during regular hours.

By showing “Animal Crackers,” we may have been breaking some sort of copyright laws. But the Fan District wasn’t Manhattan or Malibu, so no one who had any interest in the obscure battle over the rights to an old Marx Brothers feature film was likely to notice.

In our first three years of operation we occasionally rented short subjects, old TV shows and even feature films from private collectors who acted as distributors. Some titles were in the public domain, which meant no one actually had the “exclusive rights” to the rent out prints of the movie. “Reefer Madness” (1936) was such a title. Others were like “Animal Crackers,” which, due to a legal dispute, wasn’t in general release.

My bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown and I talked about the propriety of showing bootleg prints of films with murky rights issues several times. I came to agree with them that we weren’t denying the artists or the original production company any money. We weren’t denying the rightful distributor a nickel, either. Instead, we were liberating those films for people to see.

Anyway, we didn’t get caught.

A few years later the issues that had kept “Animal Crackers” out of release were resolved. So we booked a nice 35 mm print from the proper distributor. It didn’t perform at the box office nearly as well as it had before, when it was forbidden.

When the Biograph started running midnight shows in 1972 the bars in Richmond closed at midnight, so there was a lot less to do at 12:01 a.m. than when the official cutoff time was extended to 2 a.m. in 1976.

Another reason midnight shows caught on was that drive-in theaters, which had done well in the '50s and '60s, were going out of style fast. Some of the low-budget product they had been exhibiting found a new home as late-night entertainment in hardtop theaters. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows. In the ’80s that sort of movie began to routinely skip a theatrical run and go straight to cable television.

By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (in June of 1978) going to a midnight show was no longer seen as an exotic thing to do in Richmond. Multiplexes in the suburbs ran them all the time. Which made the timing perfect for a kitschy spoof of/tribute to trashy rock ‘n’ roll and monster movies to become the all-time greatest midnight show draw.

The midnight show craze of the ‘70s could only have flourished then, when baby boomers were in their teens and 20s. It came before cable television was widely available and video rental stores had popped up in nearly every neighborhood.

Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the Biograph's rent. On the other hand, as a promoter, there were times when I bit off more than I could chew.

On October 22, 1982, “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969) opened as a midnight show. I had seen it somewhere and become convinced it would appeal to the same crowd that loved absurd comedies by Luis Buñuel and Robert Altman, plus those trash culture aficionados who had adored previously popular midnight shows, such as “Eraserhead” (1977), or “Harold and Maude” (1971).

A droll murder spree movie in black and white, it turned out “The Honeymoon Killers” mostly appealed to me … when I was in a goofy mood. Unlike most people, I saw it as a comedy. Mostly, nobody else saw it at all.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Five Film Favorites: Movies released in 2013

Greta Gerwig is Frances

by F. T. Rea

This is the first year I’ve seen all of the Best Picture nominees in decades. And, I have to say I liked eight of them just fine. With the Academy Awards about to be handed out on Sunday night, for this week’s list of titles (with notes) I’m going to name my favorite films of 2013.

As far as winners are concerned, I’ll leave the predictions to others, but three of the titles on my list are Best Picture nominees, two aren’t. For basic info on the Oscar nominees, go here.   

Without further ado, in alphabetical order, here’s the list of my favorite 2013 movies:
  • “Captain Phillips” (2013): Color. 134 minutes. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener. Note: This film is so tight and suspenseful it would probably win the Best picture Oscar in most years. This year it has stiff competition. Yes, this is the story of the 2009 hijacking of an American container ship by Somali pirates. Since we know how that turned out, where’s the suspense? Details. And, by focusing on the relationship between the Maersk Alabama’s dutiful commanding officer and the determined leader of the Somali pirates, the viewer is pulled into appreciating the unbelievable stress the two men endured.   
  • “Frances Ha” (2013*): B&W. 100 minutes. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver. Note: Frances is so delightfully scattered and hungry to get her adult life underway, it’s both funny and sadly familiar. Her whimsical adventures as a 27-year-old still-aspiring dancer, looking for a place to live, trying to juggle difficult relationships -- and needing a real job! -- flow together seamlessly through brilliant editing (by Jennifer Lame). This picture is about fleshing out a memorable character; no plot needed. And, as a bonus, it’s a beautiful homage to similar slice-of-life movies from the French New Wave. * It premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2012, but the theatrical release in the USA was in 2013.
  • “Parkland” (2013): Color. 93 minutes. Directed by Peter Landesman. Cast: Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Tom Welling, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti. Note: Yes, we know what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963. But by zooming in on the people most immediately and directly affected by the murder in plain sight of President John F. Kennedy -- the Secret Service men, the medical personnel at Parkland Hospital, the FBI agents, Lee Harvey Oswald’s family and poor Abraham Zapruder (who shot the most famous 8 mm footage in history) -- the viewer gains a fresh perspective on the crime of the century and its aftermath.  
Judy Dench and Steve Coogan
  • “Philomena” (2013): Color. 98 minutes. Directed by Stephen Fears. Cast: Judy Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham. Note: “Philomena” is based on a true story about a woman searching for the son she lost to adoption when she was a teenage girl, forced to live in an Irish convent. Philomena’s ordeal in the convent, where she went when she was pregnant and unwed, looks too much like life in a prison. Decades later, haunted by guilt, she enlists the help of a journalist to help find out what happened to her child. Thus, the movie becomes a detective story with a pair of unlikely sleuths. If Judy Dench’s performance doesn’t win her a Best Actress award it will only add to the crimes dear Philomena has endured.  
  • “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013): Color. 180 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner. Note: Yes, it’s too long. But when you make a movie about overindulgence, maybe it's best made by a director known for his lack of restraint. This story is about the swindlers/stock brokers who struck it rich during the go-go bubble years at the end of the 20th century. It’s about how they did it and how they lived. Talk about a lifestyle! Lots of cocaine. Lots of Quaaludes. Maybe this doesn’t sound all that funny? Well, it is. Although DiCaprio has been tedious in some of his previous roles, this time his performance is surprisingly spot-on.
The only Best Picture nominee I didn’t like?


What 2013 films did I neglect? 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Feature: A Prank for the Ages: Biograph's 2nd Anniversary in 1974

Detail from 1974 Staff Art Show sign
by F.T. Rea 

On a pretty day in July of 1971, I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. It was mostly a big hole in the orange ground between two old brick houses. A friend had tipped me off that she’d heard the owners of the movie theater set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who could write about movies. Most importantly, she said they wanted to hire a promotion-savvy local guy.

Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site. He was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C.

Levy was one of a group of five men who had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership in 1967. Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were smart young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and they picked the right town.

With their success in DeeCee a few years later they were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered the perfect neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema.

A pair of local players, energy magnate Morgan Massey and real estate deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembroke, acquired the land. They agreed to build a cinderblock building just a stone’s throw from VCU’s academic campus for the Biograph partners to rent. The cinema's owners had decided to use the same longtime cinema-related name in Richmond as they had in Georgetown. If it was good enough for D.W. Griffith it was good enough for them a second time.

Some 10 weeks after my first meeting with Levy he offered me the manager’s position. I don’t remember how many competitors he said I beat out, but I can remember trying not to reveal just how thrilling the news was. At 23-years-old, I couldn’t imagine there was a better job to be had in the Fan District. At the time I was working for a radio station, so I had to keep it a secret for a while.

Levy and I got along well right away and we became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

Three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia had merged to become Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968, there were few signs of the dramatic impact the university would eventually have on Richmond. Although film societies were thriving on campus in 1971, the school was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking. A few professors occasionally showed artsy short films in their classes.

Mostly, independent and foreign features didn’t come to Richmond. So, in 1971, the coming of the Biograph Theatre to Grace Street offered hope to optimistic film buffs that even in conservative Richmond the times were indeed a-changing.

My manager’s gig lasted until the summer of 1983. Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre closed four years later. A hundred miles to the north the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2014 there’s a noodles eatery in same building that once housed the repertory cinema I managed for 139 months. Now it’s the oldest building on the block.

On the evening of Friday, February 11, 1972, the venture was launched with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily as the tuxedo-wearers and those outfitted in hippie garb happily mingled. A trendy art show was hanging on the walls. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip. The feature we presented to the invited guests was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates.

With splashy news stories about the party trumpeting our arrival the next night we opened for business with a double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out.

The Biograph’s printed schedule, Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries. It featured the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program, which had no particular theme, were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

Like the first one, which offered mostly double features, each of the next few programs covered about six weeks.

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid.

The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts. As I read everything I could find about what was popular, film-wise, in New York and San Francisco I learned the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current products as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Or both.

What my job would eventually teach me was how few people in Richmond actually saw it that way in 1972. After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed.

As VCU students had been a substantial portion of the theater’s initial crowd the slump was chalked off to warm weather, exams and then summer vacation. In that context the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing customers from beyond the immediate neighborhood.

That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project Levy had put me in charge of developing, using radio to promote it -- Friday and Saturday midnight shows.

By trial and error we learned it took an offbeat movie that lent itself to promotion. Early midnight show successes were “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1971), and an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1967) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964).

With significant input from the theater’s assistant manager, Chuck Wrenn, who was a natural promoter, off-the-wall ad campaigns were designed in-house. There were two essential elements to those promotions:
  • Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience.
  • Distinctive handbills needed to be posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations.

Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots over six packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave was masterful at producing radio commercials; the best I‘ve ever met.

Now DeWitt lives in New Mexico and is known as the Pope of Peppers. He has written dozens of cookbooks and countless articles about food.

Handbill for the event
On September 13, 1972, a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse" (1971), a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light.

Yes, I had been warned that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Taking the liberal side only made it worse. But the two most active partners who were my bosses, Levy and Alan Rubin, who was a geologist turned artist, were delighted with the notion of doing the benefit. They were used to doing much the same up there. So with the full backing of the boys in DeeCee I never hesitated to reveal my left-leaning stances on anything political.

Also in September “Performance” (1970), a somewhat overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the house at midnight three weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends.

The midnight shows were going over like gangbusters. To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. While we had played a few films that were X-rated, this was our first step across the line to hardcore porn.

As “Deep Throat” ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film (16 minutes), “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins. Although I can’t remember whose idea it was to play “Deep Throat” in the first place, it may have been mine. But I’m pretty sure it was Levy who wanted to add “Un Chien Andalou” to the bill.

It should be noted that like "Deep Throat," Buñuel’s first film, was also called totally obscene in its day. Still, this may have been the only time that particular pair of outlaw flicks ever shared a billing ... anywhere.

A few weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond, a judge in Manhattan ruled it was obscene. Suddenly the national media became fascinated with it. The star of "Deep Throat," Linda Lovelace, appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson pussyfoot around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly moments.

Eventually, to be sure of getting in to see this midnight show, patrons began showing up as much as an hour before show time. Standing in line on the brick sidewalk for the spicy midnight show frequently turned into a party. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A determined band of Jesus Freaks took to standing across the street to issue bullhorn-amplified warnings of hellfire to the patrons waiting in the midnight show line that stretched west on Grace Street. It only added to the scene.

Playing for 17 consecutive weekends, at midnight only, “Deep Throat” grossed over $30,000. That was more dough than the entire production budget of what was America’s first skin-flick blockbuster.

The midnight show’s grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing performance of an eight-week program of venerable European classics at regular hours. It included ten titles by the celebrated Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses played extremely well up in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast in the two markets.

Handbill for the Richmond premiere in 1973

Even more telling, over the early spring of 1973 a series of imported first-run movies crashed and burned. The centerpiece of the festival was the premiere of the Buñuel masterpiece, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972). In what Levy and I then regarded as a coup, gambling it would win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, he booked it in advance to open in Richmond two or three days after the Oscars were to be handed out.

We had guessed right, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” took the Oscar, but it flopped in Richmond. The one-year-old cinema’s management team was more than bummed out.

We were stunned by the extent of our miscalculation.

Money had been put up in advance to secure a print, which was in demand because it was doing brisk business in most other cities. The failure of this particular booking and the festival that surrounded it finally forced a serious reassessment of what had been the original plan. The Georgetown Biograph couldn’t prop up its Richmond counterpart forever.


To stay alive Richmond’s Biograph needed to make adjustments in it’s booking philosophy. After much fretting on the phone line between M Street and Grace Street the Faustian deal was struck -- another film was booked that had been made by the director of “Deep Throat,” Gerard Damiano. Significantly, this time the picture's distributor imposed terms calling for “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1973) to play as a first-run picture at regular show times, every night, rather than as a midnight-only attraction.

At this point no one could have anticipated what we were setting in motion by agreeing to expand the availability of “adult movies” beyond the midnight hour. As we hadn't been promoting our midnight shows in the same way we did our regular fare, for the first time the title and promotional copy for a skin flick was included on a Biograph program.

Then an aggressive young TV newsman took Biograph Program No. 12 to Richmond's new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Aubrey Davis. The reporter asked Davis what his office was going to do about the Biograph’s brazen plan to run such a notorious film, especially in light of the then-freshly-minted Miller Decision on obscenity by the Supreme Court. (Miller basically allowed communities to set their own standards for obscenity.)

Eventually, the provocateur got what he wanted from the prosecutor -- a quote that would fly as an anti-smut sound bite. Other local broadcasters jumped on the bandwagon the next day. By the mid-summer evening “The Devil in Miss Jones” opened in Richmond it had already become a well-covered story.

Once again I saw what publicity could do. Every show sold out and a wild ride began. Matinees were added the next day.

On the third day all the matinees sold out, too. By the fourth day the WRVA-AM traffic-copter was hovering over the Biograph in drive time, giving live updates on the length of the line waiting to get into the theater. The airborne announcer helpfully reminded his listeners of the upcoming show times.

Well, that did it!

The following morning a local circuit court judge asked for a personal look at what was clearly the talk of the town. Management cooperated with his honor’s wishes and the print was schlepped down to Neighborhood Theaters’ private screening room, at 9th and Main Streets, for the convenience of the judge.

As Judge James M. Lumpkin admittedly hadn’t been out to see a movie in a theater since sometime in the 1950s, this particular moving picture rubbed him in the worst way. Literally red-faced after the screening, the outraged judge looked at Levy and me like we were from Mars.

Maybe Pluto.

Lumpkin promptly filed a complaint with the Commonwealth’s Attorney and set a date for issuing a Temporary Restraining Order, to halt further showings as soon as possible.

The next day a press conference was staged in the Biograph’s lobby to make an announcement.

Every news-gathering outfit in town bought the premise and sent a representative. They acted as if what was obviously a publicity stunt was news because it served their purpose to play along. After DeWitt -- who was then representing the theater as its ad agent -- laid out the ground rules and introduced me to the working press, I read a prepared statement for the cameras and microphones. (No record of this performance is known to exist.)

The gist of it was that based on demand -- sellout crowds -- the crusading Biograph planned to fight the TRO in court. Furthermore, the first-run engagement of “The Devil in Miss Jones” would be extended -- it was being held over for a second week.

During the lively Q & A session that followed, when Dave scolded an eager scribe for going too far with a follow-up question, it was tough duty holding back the laughing fit that would surely have broken the spell we trying to cast over the reporters.

The TRO stuck, because Judge Lumpkin still had all the say-so. “The Devil in Miss Jones” grossed about $40,000 in the momentous nine-day run the injunction halted. Technically, the legal action was against the movie, itself, rather than anyone at the Biograph. Which obviously suited me just fine.

The trial opened on Halloween Day. Lumpkin served as the trial judge too. I was surprised that the person whose original complaint to the Commonwealth’s Attorney had set the whole process in motion could then hear the case. Objections to that affront to justice fell on Lumpkin’s deaf ears.


On November 13, 1973, Lumpkin put all on notice: If you dare to exhibit this “filth” to the public, then stand by for certain criminal prosecution. So it was that “The Devil” was banned by a judge in Richmond, Virginia.

The plot to answer the judge's decree was hatched in early January of 1974 in the office on the second story, next to the projection booth. Having finished the box-office paperwork, or whatever, I was browsing through a stack of newly acquired 16mm film catalogs.

As it was after-hours, the scent of recently-burned marijuana may have been in the air when a particular entry -- “The Devil and Miss Jones” -- jumped off the page. It was instantly obvious to me the title for that 1941 RKO light comedy had been the inspiration for the banned X-rated movie’s title -- “The Devil in Miss Jones.”

It should be noted that the public had yet to be subjected to the endless puns and referential lowbrowisms the skin-flick industry would eventually use for titles. This was still in what might be called the seminal days of the adult picture business. Culturally, because there was still a blur in the line between edgy underground films and outright porn the somewhat oxymoronic term "porno chic" was in currency. It didn't last long.

The prank's plan called for using the upcoming second anniversary as camouflage. Early on, DeWitt and the theater’s resourceful assistant manager, Bernie Hall, were in on the scheming/brainstorming in the office. Then, in a deft stroke -- suggested by Alan Rubin over the phone -- a Disney nature short subject, “Beaver Valley” (1950), was added to the birthday program, to flesh it out.

The stunt’s biggest problem was security. The whole scheme rested on the precarious notion that the one-word difference in the two titles, which spoke of the Devil's proximity to Miss Jones, simply wouldn’t be noticed. It was something like hiding in plain sight. We believed people would see what they wanted to see, but the staff fully understood the slightest whiff of a ruse would mean our undoing.

Thus, absolutely no one outside our group could be told anything. No one.

The Biograph announced in a press release on DeWitt’s ad agency letterhead that its upcoming second anniversary celebration would offer a free admission show. The titles, “The Devil and Miss Jones” and “Beaver Valley,” were listed with no accompanying film notes. Birthday cake would be free, too!

Somehow, a rumor began to circulate that the Biograph might be outmaneuvering the court’s decree by not charging admission. The helpful rumor found its way into print -- the street gossip section of The Richmond Mercury. I don't know if they knew what was really going on, or not.

The busier-than-ever staff fielded all inquires, in person or over the telephone, by politely reciting the official spiel, which amounted to: “We can tell you the titles and the show times. The admission will be free. No further details are available.”

The evening before the event the phones were ringing off the hook. Reporters were snooping about. One, in particular, stuck around trying to claw his way toward the key to the mystery. In the lobby, as I manned my familiar post at the turnstile, in a conspiratorial tone he said: “It has something to do with the title, doesn‘t it?”

Uh-oh! He was getting too close. To fend him off I decided to take a chance.

So, talking like one spy to another, I told the newsman that what was going to happen the next day would be a far better news story than a story of spoiling it the day before -- that is, if there really is a trick of a sort in the works.

Gambling that it would work, I asked him to leave it alone and trust that once it all unfolded he wouldn't regret it. Fortunately, he agreed to say nothing and he kept his word. His identity must remain a secret.

Feb. 11, 1974: 800 block of W. Grace St.
Up until the box office opened no one else outside our tight circle appeared to have an inkling of what was about to happen. Amazing as it may sound, the caper’s security was airtight. It was absolutely beautiful teamwork!

On the day of the event the staff decorated the lobby with streamers and balloons. We laid out the birthday cake. We tested the open keg of beer, just to make sure it was good enough for the patrons waiting in line to drink. Spurred on by hopes the Biograph was about to defy a court order, by lunch time the end of the line along Grace Street was already reaching Chelf's Drug Store -- which meant about 500 people.

It was suggested to me that we could eventually have a riot on our hands. What would happen if we lost control of the situation?

Nobody knew. That’s what made it so exhilarating!

My collaborators on the staff that one-of-a-kind night on the job were: Bernie Hall (assistant manager); Karen Dale, Anne Peet and Cherie Watson (cashiers); Tom Campagnoli and Trent Nicholas (ushers); Gary Fisher (projectionist). Some dressed up in costumes. Trent wore a clown mask. In case trouble broke out he wanted to be able to take it off and disappear into the lynch mob.

The box-office for the 6:30 p.m. show opened at 6 p.m. By then the line of humanity stretched almost completely around the block. It took every bit of a half-hour to fill our 500-seat auditorium. We turned away at least six or seven times that number.

The sense of anticipation in the air was electric as the house lights in the auditorium began to fade. Outside, on the sidewalk, many of those who couldn't get in to the first show stayed in line for the second show at 9 p.m.

The prank unfolded in layers. Some caught on and left while “Beaver Valley” was running. Most stayed through the first few minutes of “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Only about a third of the crowd remained in their seats through both movies. Afterward, there were lots of folks who said it was the funniest prank that had ever happened in Richmond.

Of course, a few hardheads got peeved. But since admission had been free, as well as the beer and cake, well, there was only so much they could say.

Even though those in line for the second show were told about the hoax by people leaving the first show, the second show packed the house, too. By then it seemed a lot of people just wanted to be in on a unique event, to see what would happen and be able to (honestly) say they were there.

The rush that came from living in the eye of that day’s storm of activity was intense, to say the least. After the second show emptied out, gloating over the utter success of the gag, as the staff and assorted friends finished off the second keg, was as good as it gets in the prank business.

The birthday cake was free while it lasted

Meanwhile, thoroughly amused reporters were filing their stories on what had happened at the Biograph. The next day wire services and broadcast networks picked up the story. We returned to business as usual with an Andy Warhol double feature.

A few days later NPR’s All Things Considered went so far as to compare the Biograph’s second anniversary prank to Orson Welles’ mammoth 1938 radio hoax. Which was fun to hear, but I had the good sense to tell the interviewer that in comparison our stunt was "strictly small potatoes."

Congratulatory mail came in from all over the country. Six months later the Biograph closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema. With two screens to fill the manager’s job became more complicated. As an independent exhibitor, prank or no prank, it wasn’t always easy to rent enough product to fill two screens. The repertory “mission” become increasingly blurred over the next few years.

Thinking back about what an effort it took just to keep the Biograph's doors open in those days, now it seems like it was all sort of an elaborate stunt … pranks for the memories.

*   *   *

Ed. Note: This piece is an excerpt of F.T. Rea's "Biograph Times," a work in progress, soon to be published. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Five Film Favorites: Crazy Protagonists

by F.T. Rea

For this edition of Five Film Favorites the common denominator is craziness. Not just somewhat eccentric, or sort of peculiar. I’m talking about bats-in-the-belfry crazy.

To get on this list the protagonist’s madness is what drives the picture's story. Maybe they’re trying to keep a grip on the reality around them. Maybe not. In each of the movies on the list below, the main character is as nutty as a fruitcake.

However, context is the key to this premise. Therefore, if most everybody in the story is just as strange, then which character is the one that’s off-kilter? The same goes for a plot that depicts a world of pretend. If the customary norms simply aren’t present, then the protagonist’s craziness may just blend in.

Example: David Lynch‘s brilliant surreal joke of a film, “Eraserhead” (1977), doesn’t qualify. In the dark realm Lynch puts before the viewer, Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance), is probably not any more detached from reality on Earth than the rest of the characters. Hey, “in heaven everything is fine.”

The same everybody-is-crazy reason keeps Werner Herzog’s “Heart of Glass” (1976) from being considered for the list.

Following along that line of thought, since it's tricky to find anything like a sane world in the midst of a shooting war, movies set in that particular brand of bloody madness have been excluded this time, too.

In alphabetical order here are my five favorite films with crazy protagonists: 
  • "Network" (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste and irresponsible broadcasting is anticipated with chilling accuracy. This is the flick that gave us the line, “I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Both Finch and Dunaway won Oscars.
  • "Repulsion" (1965): B&W. 105 minutes. Directed By Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (pictured above), Ian Hendry, John Fraser. Note: When a shy manicurist is left alone in her flat she begins to wallow in paranoia. With her sister away on vacation the beautiful young woman descends into madness. Did I mention she’s got a dead rabbit in her purse? Could she be dangerous? You won’t forget this one.
  • “Sling Blade” (1996): Color. 135 minutes. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter. Note: Thornton wrote the play. The fey but lovable character he invented/plays is Karl Childers. In “The Idiot” Dostoyevsky’s character Myshkin can only tell the truth; so he’s seen as crazy. In this very unusual movie honest and gentle Karl wouldn’t kill anyone without a good reason. He told them so when was discharged from the hospital.
  • "Taxi Driver" (1976): Color. 113 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert DeNiro (pictured right), Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks. Note: Travis Bickle is an ignored, alienated veteran. We stare in the mirror with Travis the insomniac as he points his gun asking, “You talking to me?” We ride with him in his cab, as he steers toward becoming a protector of innocence and a vengeful assassin. This neo noir classic is still as eye-popping and haunting as it was 38 years ago. 
  • "Wise Blood" (1979): Color. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, John Huston, Amy Wright, Dan Shor. Note: This is an adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor story about a self-styled street preacher’s twisted efforts to fit into a world of shadows and scams. But he’s an atheist. It’s one of those movies that makes you feel a little bit guilty for laughing, but you can’t help it.

While identifying with a character on the screen is important to many viewers, some of us creative types find a special comfort in watching movies about folks we think are more loony than we are.

The last title I had to cut from the list to get it down to five?

"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) by Herzog.

Until next time, here’s a talking pig with an appropriate finish:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Five Film Favorites: Boxing Movies

by F.T. Rea
Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach in "Fat City"
Following up on Todd Starkweather’s piece about his five favorite sports movies, I‘m going to narrow the focus onto the sport some folks used to call the “sweet science.” And, right from the start, I’m going to say boxing was a sport at one time in history. In 2013, I’m not so sure what to call the spectacle of a boxing match.

If you go back 100 years boxing and horse racing were probably America’s most important spectator sports. People had been watching versions of both for hundreds of years. Then came newsreels and radio in the 1920s, which facilitated America’s love affairs with team sports, primarily pro baseball and college football.

Boxing was important in television’s early days. Over the last 50 years America’s best athletes have found better ways to earn a living with other sports, so the pugilism hasn’t had nearly the talented practitioners it once did. Besides, over the last decade cage fighting has become more popular than boxing with young fans of blood sports.

Since professional boxing has long been directed by the worst elements of society -- what’s the upside to it? -- to me, it’s a wonder prizefighting is still legal. But there are probably more good movies that revolve around boxing than any other so-called "sport."

My five favorite boxing movies are:
  • “Fat City” (1972): Color. 100 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark. Note: In his teens Huston was an amateur boxer. This gritty tale presents two boxers in Stockton, CA. Down on his luck, Keach is past his prime. Of course, he decides to make a comeback. Bridges is the young boxer he meets who has much to learn. Tyrrell is a friend who drinks a lot of sherry. The film plods along, developing its offbeat characters without sentimentality. In a few words it’s hard to say why this film is so good, but it is.
  • “The Hurricane” (1999): Color. 146 minutes. Directed by Norman Jewison. Cast: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber. Note: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a highly regarded middleweight contender in 1966 when he was convicted for murder and went to prison. Eventually, the battle for his release made him into a celebrity. Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane” helped to focus attention on Carter’s plight to be exonerated. Although this compelling biopic bends the truth on some peripheral details, Washington’s spot-on performance is so strong it matters little.
  • “Raging Bull” (1980): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent. Note: Jack La Motta, was a middleweight champion in the laste-40/early-50s. He wasn’t known as a stylish fighter or smooth athlete. He was seen as a fearless brawler who always charged his opponents. He was also seen by those who knew him personally as a cruel, self-absorbed jerk. After his boxing career ended La Motta turned to acting. He appeared in several bit movie roles and on television. This is the movie that De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the role convincingly. 
  •  “Requiem for Heavyweight” (1962): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Ralph Nelson. Cast: Anthony Quinn (pictured right), Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, Julie Harris. Note: Rod Serling wrote the award-winning teleplay for a live Playhouse 90 broadcast in 1956. When it was adapted to the big screen Jack Palance, who played the boxer, was replaced by Quinn. In the opening scene, in which the viewer is looking through the protagonist’s tortured eyes, his opponent in the ring is Cassius Clay (before he became champ and changed his name to Muhammad Ali). Several other real boxers also appear in the film.
  • “The Set-Up” (1949): B&W. 73 minutes. Directed by Robert Wise. Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias. Note: The plot isn’t so unusual. The boxer, Stoker Thompson, is past him prime. His wife wants him to quit. His manager has lost faith in him. The gangsters bet on him to lose and try to fix the fight. Made by RKO in film noir’s heyday, this feature is lean and stylish. Ryan, who was a boxer in college (Dartmouth), is convincing as a prize fighter and as the very kind of guy who might defy gangsters. 
Yes, I liked "The Boxer" (1997), "Cinderella Man" (2005) and "The Great White Hope" (1970) a whole lot. But this time they didn’t make the cut. When “Rocky” (1976) came out, before all the sequels, I liked it, too. Now I can’t separate the original from all those awful follow-ups.

Why professional boxing remains legal in Virginia isn’t clear. It shouldn’t be. Other forms of dueling have been outlawed for a long time. Still, if somebody makes another decent boxing flick, I’ll watch it.

Ed. Note: If you’d like to submit a Five Film Favorites piece to the Bijou Backlight, please do. Take a look at a few of the previous posts in the series and then get in touch with James or me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

High Plains Drifting

Pub. Note: One day several weeks ago when I was noodlin' on some ideas for the Bijou Backlight, I ran into Rob Bullington (Hackensaw Boys, Flight of Salt) at the Richmond Waldorf School, where our kids go to school, and I off-handedly asked him if he had any songs about movies. As it turns it out he did -- or does -- and so, today, we present to you a new type of feature on Bijou Backlight: a fresh take on film from an art form other than the traditional written film reviews, essays and criticism. Let us know what you think of this idea and if you -- or any of your artist friends -- have poems, songs, paintings, photographs, sculptures, etc. that are inspired by the movies. Now, without further ado, enjoy Rob's song, "High Plains Drifting," and the story behind it. -- JP 


“High Plains Drifting”
by Rob Bullington
Performed by Flight of Salt

I’ve been trying to write songs since I was 14 years old and master of three chords on the guitar. Since then, I’ve been in several bands, written lots of songs, learned how to play an assortment of instruments, toured all over the place, met and played with a bunch of rock stars, recorded albums for major labels and participated (somewhat reluctantly) in making videos. Along the way, I’ve learned that sitting down with the goal of writing a song usually guarantees that nothing worthwhile will be written; much better to let songs come along on their own accord.

If this seems like a lazy approach to the craft of songwriting, so be it. I’m not saying it’s the best approach, but it works for me.

Even more importantly, I’ve found that it’s usually best to avoid trying to impose a specific message to a song-in-progress at the outset. Instead, I try to let the words fall into the melody naturally and then later arrange and edit them for meaning.

For instance, I would never set out to write a song about a movie. While songs written for (and used in) movies can be rich and vital (even more so than the movie itself), songs about movies are somewhat more suspect.

Before I go further, however, I should clarify what I mean by “songs about movies.”

I don’t mean simply name-checking a movie in a song (which can be effective if used sparingly) or writing a song about a particular actor or actress (one of the few things that Don Henley and Kurt Cobain have in common) or even writing a song about the movie industry generally (The Kinks and Cracker, among others, have gotten away with this very well).

What I mean is to say to oneself: “Today I will write a song about Gone with the Wind and I will start by describing the outward appearance of Tara.” The results can be so bad as to be cool (look no farther than “Die Hard” by Guyz Nite) or so cool as to be badass (check out Tom Waits’ cover of Daniel Johnston’s “King Kong”). But whether cool, bad, or badass, rarely do these types of songs bear repeat listening.

But then there are those songs inspired by a movie that remain true to the spirit of the movie without being true to the movie itself. These songwriters brandish the same artistic license that permits movie makers to translate novels into film. Or, to put it another way: the license to create something that can stand on its own. Examples of this type of song include “The Union Forever” by the White Stripes (inspired by Citizen Kane) and “Debaser” by the Pixies (inspired by Un chien andalou).

Depending on one’s musical tastes, other songs in this genre include Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight” (inspired by ET: The Extra-Terrestrial) and Iron Maiden’s “Man on the Edge” (inspired by Falling Down). All of which is to say: I never intended to write a song inspired by High Plains Drifter. As soon as I realized, however, that I was writing a song inspired by High Plains Drifter, I did a bit of quick research and learned the following things:

    • It was filmed in a complete town (the buildings had interiors) built on location specifically for the movie.
    • Though inspired by Eastwood’s time in Spain acting in Leone’s Westerns, HPD was filmed in California and the production was ruthlessly more efficient than Leone’s lacksidasical approach to filmmaking: HPD was filmed in sequence, completed 2 days ahead of schedule and under budget.
    •  It was a financial success, but some critics called it “derivative” and “shallow” even though they appreciated the cinematography.
    • It was denounced by John Wayne as a betrayal of the Western genre.

    So, my song wound up being inspired by the movie as well as the circumstances surrounding its creation and release. Soon after the song was finished, I was invited to submit it for the Bijou Backlight blog. After rehearsing it with my band – Flight of Salt - recording a demo version and putting together a video, I am finally able to oblige.

    A word about the video: I am not a videographer, but since this is a movie blog I felt it was important for you have the option to look at something while you listen to the song. Please look elsewhere while you listen if you prefer.

    If you like “High Plains Drifting,” you may download it for free here – and please visit Flight of Salt’s Facebook Page to hear more of our songs and find out where we’re playing around town.

    "High Plains Drifting"

    From a high and windswept plain
    Drifts a man we never know his name
    He takes his guns into that town
    That’s what he does
    He’s the one

    See there’s no need to rehearse
    Just act the best at doing worse
    Until the whole damn town goes down
    Then we cut
    And it’s done

    I’ll take you away and we’ll start a family
    In the middle of nowhere we can build a city
    And when it goes bad
    We’ll do what I said
    We’ll paint the town red.

    Now there’s drugs all over the set
    Cause time is not infinite
    Too much gold and not enough rest
    This ain’t Spain
    It’s the West
    Now the reviews are mixed at best
    They say the lead seems too depressed
    But they love the final shot
    Out of the sun
    It’s the one

    I’ll take you away and we’ll start a family
    In the middle of nowhere we can build a city
    And when it goes bad
    We’ll do what I said
    We’ll paint the town red. 

    Pub. Note: Flight of Salt is playing at the Camel this Thurs., Dec. 19, at 9 p.m., on a bill with The Northerners and Starlighter.

    Thursday, November 21, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Jailhouse Flicks

    by F.T. Rea

    Last time this space was devoted to courtroom dramas, films about trials. What should follow?

    Jailhouse flicks, naturally.

    Movies about people confined against their will have always appealed to me. Liking such movies goes all the way back to when I was a little kid. In those days I felt like a prisoner a lot of the time, especially in school. In one way, or another, films with detainees as protagonists are usually about escape, real or imagined, which may have been the original lure of jailhouse flicks for me.

    This week’s Five Film Favorites list is devoted to movies set in civilian jailhouses/penitentiaries. So if the plot unfolds in a stockade or a brig it’s not included. For my purpose, this time, I’m saying they are military movies. Which means marvelous films like “The Hill” (1965) or “Stalag 17” (1953) must be left for another column’s consideration. The same goes for movies about captives who are hostages. 

    The films on this week’s five are all pictures in which most of the action takes place in a penitentiary. They tell us about the pure tedium of life in the big house, as well as the horrors. As all five are about men in confinement, they also tell us about how mean and bleak a world without women can be.
    • “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962): B&W. 147 minutes. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Telly Savalas, Betty Field. Note: A young recalcitrant prisoner kills a prison guard and winds up in solitary confinement for life. Years later he adopts a sparrow as a pet. Eventually, that leads to the lonely prisoner keeping other birds and he becomes an expert on treating avian diseases. Of course, there’s a cruel warden who tries to put the kibosh on the Birdman’s work and a test of wills ensues.
    The Man With No Eyes in "Cool Hand Luke."
    • “Cool Hand Luke” (1967): Color. 126 minutes. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon, Jo Van Fleet, Dennis Hopper. Note: Luke Jackson (Newman) is a decorated WWII veteran who gets drunk, goes on a parking meter sabotaging spree and ends up in a Florida prison camp run by sadistic guards. This is the movie that put the catch phrase, “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate,” into the lexicon of popular culture.
    • “Dead Man Walking” (1995): Color. 122 minutes. Directed by Tim Robbins. Cast: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry. Note: A prisoner awaiting his execution for a double murder asks a nun to assist him with an appeal; he claims his accomplice actually did the killing. As the condemned man and the nun get to know one another, and his days dwindle, his need to be honest with the only person who cares about him grows.
    • “Papillon” (1973): Color. 151 minutes. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Cast: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Anthony Zerbe. Note: On his way to a French penal colony in the Caribbean Henri “Papillon” Charierre, a thief wrongly convicted of murder, befriends and protects Louis Degas, a forger. The story is about their grueling exploits to survive and escape. Papillon’s over-the-top will to resist his captors and be free are unforgettable.
    • “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994): Color. 142 minutes. Directed by Frank Darabont. Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, James Whitmore. Note: Adapted from a Stephen King short story, this is an inspiring yarn about the power of courage, decency and patience in the face of daunting circumstances. Lots of patience, but all 142 minutes of watching this picture are well spent. Rita Hayworth isn’t actually in this one, but she still plays a pivotal role. It received seven nominations for Academy Awards.  
    In each of the five movies on this week’s list, the prisoners strive to gather and hold onto some shred of their dignity, while facing extremely tough odds. Which is a pretty good plot device for any story, behind bars or not.

    Consequently, the best jailhouse flicks aren’t just about dreams of escape from confinement. They are also about thwarting a timeless villainy that is only too happy to imprison the hapless and the resisters.

    Thursday, November 14, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Courtroom Dramas

    The courtroom in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
    by F.T. Rea

    After the crime has been committed and the cops have investigated it and the handcuffs have been slapped on the culprit some movies end there. The viewer assumes the bad guy will pay for having broken the law.

    In a general sense, the characters in such films are usually developed by what they do -- action. If the story is more about the legal ordeal after arrest, the trial, then it’s usually dialogue that drives the story. Typically, the characters are developed by what they say … and of course, how they say it. 

    This week’s installment of five favorites is on courtroom dramas. Legitimate courtrooms, please, not kangaroo courts. So trials that take place outside of a real courthouse, such as in "M" (1931) or in "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), belong on another day’s list of favorites.

    To further narrow the field, military trials aren’t being considered this time, either. So that means great war films with pivotal trials in them, such as "Breaker Morant" (1980), "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) and "Paths of Glory" (1957) can’t be included on this particular list.

    My five favorite courtroom dramas are as follows:
    • "12 Angry Men" (1957): B&W. 96 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley. Note: An 18-year-old boy/man is charged with murdering his father. Adapted from a teleplay, the story follows the jury’s deliberations to determine a verdict. On the first vote just one juror says he isn’t convinced of the defendant’s guilt. Then the perspectives and prejudices of each juror are examined as they argue their points.   
    • "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959): B&W. 160 minutes. Directed by Otto Preminger. Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Eve Arden. Note: In the late-50s this story about a violent killing and some sex-related issues was a bodice ripper. Stewart is the easy-going defense attorney. Gazzara, the defendant, claims to have amnesia. Remick, a fun-loving temptress, is his wife. The judge is played by Joseph Welch, a lawyer made famous by the live telecasts of the Army-McCarthy Hearings.
    • "Inherit the Wind" (1960): B&W. 128 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Harry Morgan. Note: Adapted from the play with the same title, which was a fictionalized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial (in 1925), the movie offers Matthew Harrison Brady (March) as a William Jennings Bryan-like figure. Henry Drummond (Tracy) as a Clarence Darrow-like figure and E. K. Hornbeck (Kelly) as a H. L. Mencken-like figure. To avoid a spoiler, I can't reveal here who plays the role of the monkey.
    • "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Cast: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall, Phillip Alford. Note: Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, via Horton Foote’s screenplay, was smoothly interpreted to the big screen in this compelling story set in a small town in Alabama during the Depression. A respected white lawyer, who is the father of two precocious kids, is appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.
    • "The Verdict" (1982): Color. 129 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason, Lindsay Crouse. Note: Newman’s character was a hot shot attorney at a big law firm before he let alcoholism unravel his life. A friend and former colleague tosses him what seems to be an easy medical malpractice case, as a favor. Of course, it turns out to be a much more complicated situation and some tough choices must be made. 
    The courtroom in "The Verdict"
    Maybe one reason so many courtroom dramas have been produced is that if most of the scenes are in the courthouse, it saves money on sets. Another reason is that a trial provides a readymade and organized context in which to present a story. The testimony of witnesses can tell the whole tale. The disclosure of the verdict is a natural way to wrap up a story.

    Once the suspense is over the viewers see The End appearing over footage of attorneys gathering up their papers. Whether righteous justice has been wrought, or not, one table of lawyers is usually happier than the other.

    Friday, November 1, 2013

    Short Subject: 'Betty Boop for President'

    Ed. Note: “Betty Boop for President” (1932): B&W. 7 minutes. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Note: This cartoon was released on the Friday before Election Day in 1932. In their day the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, were responsible for putting animated shorts featuring Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman on the big screen. 

    Thursday, October 31, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Scary Movies

    Audrey Hepburn as Susy Hendrix in "Wait Until Dark."

    by F.T. Rea

    For Halloween I thought about making a list of my favorite science fiction movies, or a list of favorite monster movies. Also gave some thought to movies about people wearing disguises. That last one might be fun. But those three angles could be exploited anytime. Instead, this week's episode of five film favorites is about scary movies.

    Not gross, but scary. Not merely suspenseful. Not necessarily monsters, human or otherwise. Movies that made me jump out of my seat, or that thoroughly creeped me out. Movies that made me jittery for hours, if not days, after watching them. Movies that made going to sleep difficult.


    Although surprise is an important element in scariness, to make the list this time the movie has to sustain its fright factor beyond just one or two spectacular jolts of sudden horror or mayhem. So, overall creepiness is just as important as shock. The movie has to have scared me originally, haunted me afterward, and upon subsequent viewings allowed me to still enjoy it. Generally, I won’t put a title on one of these favorites lists if I’ve only seen it once.

    It might seem corny now; maybe some folks prefer the 1978 remake. For me, as a kid, the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was more scary than any movie I can remember from all the low budget '50s features I saw that were designed to frighten an audience. And, there were plenty of them.
    • “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956): B&W. 80 minutes. Directed by Don Siegel. Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones, King Donovan. Note: A small town doctor hears complaints about some of the town-folk. They seem to have changed, not in appearance but in the way they act. With the Cold War raging, this story was seen by some as warning against a communist takeover. Others connected it to McCarthyism and witch hunts.
    • “Psycho” (1960): B&W. 109 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam. Note: Marion, the secretary-turned-thief-on-the-lam, is tired. She checks into the Bates Motel. Norman manages the motel. He's painfully shy and tries to be good, but his demanding mother is awfully hard on him. Marion decides to take a relaxing shower before turning in.   
    • "Repulsion" (1965): B&W. 105 minutes. Directed by Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser. Note: A beautiful but depressed young woman wallows in paranoia and detaches from her connections in life. With a dead rabbit in her purse, she descends into madness. You won’t always know what is real in this early Polanski flick, but you won’t forget Deneuve's quite convincing dangerous crazy-girl character.
    • “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991): Color. 118 minutes. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine. Note: The success of this film launched so many forgettable movies about serial killers, there have probably been more films about serial killers than there have been real serial killers. Still, the spell this one casts over viewers is unique. Oscars? This scary movie won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay).
    • “Wait Until Dark” (1967): Color. 108 minutes. Directed by Terrence Young. Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Note: This taut thriller was adapted from a play. The story pits brave and recently blinded Susy against some truly nasty criminals. The bad guys are sure she inadvertently got a valuable package meant for them. But where is it? Most of the action takes place in Susy's English basement apartment. Basements can be dark and scary places. 
    Spoiler alert reminder: Don’t let any mischief-makers who like to diminish surprises for others tell you much about what happens in these films. If you don't like to be spooked by a movie, then skip watching any of the five on the list.

    The last scary movie to be cut from the list was “Jaws” (1975). In my book that fish is the best movie monster ever. Next week we’ll see if we can publish a more lighthearted list of five film favorites. 

    Friday, October 25, 2013

    Short Subject: 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'

    Ed. Note: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1962): B&W. 25 minutes. Directed by Robert Enrico. Cast: Roger Jacquet, Anne Cornaly. Note: This adaptation of an Ambrose Bierce short story set in the American Civil War was produced in France. It won the prize for best short film at Cannes in 1962 and an Oscar in 1963. American audiences saw it as an episode of Twilight Zone in 1964. If you haven’t seen it before avoid reading spoilers. 

    Thursday, October 24, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Screwball Comedies

    by F.T. Rea

    Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels"
    Like lots of other film buffs I enjoy making up lists of good movies. Comparing lists and discussing the choices with friends is fun. But I try to avoid getting sucked into coming up with a list of the greatest films of all-time, or the most influential, etc. That sort of game can get to be about the credentials of the list-makers. Instead, I go for favorites. My favorites in a specific category.

    To keep it moving, just five favorites. And, of course, such lists are always subject to change, depending on the mood of the moment. Which means my favorite Jack Nicholson movies list might not be the same this week as it was a couple of years ago. Today I’m in the mood for writing about my five favorite screwball comedies.

    The golden age of Hollywood’s “screwball comedies” was during the 10-year run-up to World War II. Since that time many popular features have imitated the style of the screwballs -- a few quite effectively -- but the best, or perhaps the most authentic, screwball comedies drew upon the humor to be found in the distinctions of class that became so obvious in the midst of the Depression.

    Then, too, the women in screwball comedies were quite independent-minded for the times and deliciously sarcastic. 

    Screwball comedies were farces. Frequently, the plots were stretched across a battle-of-the-sexes bed. The screenplays depended on well written dialogue. Mostly, the formula used static cameras focused on witty, attractive stars delivering their wiseacre lines. With their roots in stage plays these wordy flicks thrived on mocking conventions. The dignity of the common man was often lauded.

    No doubt, Depression era movie audiences enjoyed seeing fat cats portrayed on the big screen as fops and phonies who were clumsy in dealing with problems everyday folks coped with all the time.

    Then WWII’s brutal realities suddenly jolted popular culture. It isn’t that Hollywood stopped making comedies, it’s that fashion shifted abruptly and styles changed. Laughing at class warfare was put on hold. Maybe society's old fashioned restrictions on females weren’t viewed as being as laugh-worthy as they had been before the war.

    Movies after WWII moved toward depicting a more harsh reality. Postwar audiences liked action more than witty dialogue. Comedies became more physical, more predictable.  

    Into the 1950s and 1960s the American comedies that borrowed from the template of the screwballs tended to be over-the-top with cuteness and more explicit in their sexual tension. Generally, they lacked the subtleties and timing of the classics. Therefore, no movies produced after the USA’s entrance into WWII are on this week’s list of five favorite screwball comedies:
    • "Libeled Lady" (1936): B&W. 98 minutes. Directed by Jack Conway. Cast: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy. Note: The principle members of the cast were all at their best for this one. While the silly story about duping a spoiled socialite meanders hither and yon, it still works beautifully. Primarily known for the roles he played later in his career than this one, Tracy's youthful energy is striking.
    • "My Man Godfrey" (1936): B&W. 94 minutes. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick. Note: As usual, the suave Powell charms the pants off every female in the story. This feature is chock-full of belly laughs at class warfare absurdities. It’s also a nice variation on the old the-butler-did-it theme. Last but not least: Lombard is perfect in her role.
    • "Philadelphia Story" (1940): B&W. 112 minutes. Directed by George Cukor. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, Roland Young. Note: Adapted from a play written for her, this picture provided Hepburn with a perfect vehicle for what seemed at the time to be a comeback for her. Although the typical screwball plot that pokes fun at the filthy rich isn’t all that unusual, the sparkling performances of the stars won high praise from critics.
    • "Sullivan’s Travels" (1941): B&W. 90 minutes. Directed by Preston Sturges. Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Damarest. Note: A movie director known for his light comedies wants to make a different kind of picture. So he poses as a hobo to see how the downtrodden live. Naturally, he gets into scary trouble and hooks up with a beautiful blonde along the way.
      Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur in "You Can't Take It With You"

    • "You Can’t Take It With You" (1938): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Cast: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold. Note: Adapted from the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. A rich and well-connected guy falls for a middle class gal who lives in a house full of lovable but crazy characters. When the guy and his parents show up for dinner and meet the gal's eccentric family -- uh-oh!
    “His Girl Friday” (1940), which was on my list the last time I wrote about screwball comedies, didn’t make the cut this time. Neither did “The Lady Eve” (1941). Couldn‘t put “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1941) on the list, because that might trigger a digression that would make me miss my deadline.

    Next week a new list of Five Film Favorites will be published.

    Friday, October 18, 2013

    Short Subject: 'Blaze Glory'

    Ed. Note: "Blaze Glory" (1969): Color. 11 minutes: Directed by Len Janson, Chuck Menville. Cast: Len Janson, Chuck Menville, Genedee Cook. Note: A silly spoof of Westerns done in pixilation -- an animation style that uses real actors and props, rather than drawings. This little film surely had an influence on pixilation wizards Steve Segal and Phil Trumbo, the then-Richmond-based duo that created "Futuropolis" (1984).