RETRO REVIEW: TAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL Traces a Star’s Journey from Teen Idol to Cult Icon

Posted on: Nov 18th, 2015 By:

tabhunterconfidential-posterTAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL (2015); Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz; Starring ; Tab Hunter, Debbie Reynolds, John Waters; Opens Friday, Nov. 20Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Trailer here.

By Claudia Dafrico
Contributing Writer

TAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL opens Friday Nov. 20 at the Landmark Midtown Arts Cinema. This enlightening and wonderfully fun documentary  chronicles the long career of actor Tab Hunter and the struggles he dealt with as a gay man in a time marked by intolerance.

In this day and age, people love to insist that celebrity culture has reached ludicrous levels of influence on our daily lives. They say that Kardashians rule the world around us, and this bastion of scandal- mongering and celebrity worship would never have been seen in “the good old days” before Twitter and TMZ. But as TAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL shows us, that presumption could not be further from the truth. This compelling and charming documentary follows film, television, and recording star Tab Hunter from his highs as a teen heartthrob to the lows of family tragedy and a career crisis, all while being closeted for the majority of his working years. Now in his 80s, Tab gets to look back on his tumultuous experience in Hollywood and remind audiences that the cult of Hollywood was just as prevalent in the past as it is today.

tabhunterconfidential_002_Tab_ShowerBased on his memoir of the same name, the film showcases Hunter’s life from his childhood as the son of a German immigrant and an abusive, absent father, to his early (illegal) entry into the Coast Guard at age 15. After being discharged, Tab spent his time horseback riding, which led to him meeting Hollywood agent Henry Wilson and kickstarting his career in film. He served to be little more than eye candy in his first few roles in movies like ISLAND OF DESIRE (1952), which was lambasted by critics (Hunter himself acknowledges his lackluster performance in the film). He nonetheless continued to work, and eventually found success with BATTLE CRY (1955), a war drama based on a bestselling novel. As he went under contract with MGM, Tab quickly became a household name, and teenage girls became infatuated with him. MGM fueled this obsession by pairing him off with Natalie Wood, another MGM star. The two went along with the charade for their sake of their careers, but as Hunter playfully notes in the film, the “couple” had each other’s backs when it came to secrets: Wood was secretly dating bad boy Dennis Hopper while Hunter pursued his first long-term relationship with PSYCHO (1960) star Anthony Perkins.

Tab Hunter and Allan Glaser.

Tab Hunter and Allan Glaser.

The segment in the film that touches upon Hunter and Perkins’ relationship is both touching and heartbreaking. It’s clear from the way that Hunter reminisces that the two really did share a special connection, but the combined strain of homophobia and competing careers sadly prohibited any possibility of a successful romance. After he was nearly outed by a gossip rag in the height of his stardom, Hunter was put under immense pressure to keep his sexuality under wraps and continued to star in typecast roles for MGM. When these conditions proved to be too stressful for Hunter, he made the costly decision to break his contract with MGM, and his subsequent failure to establish himself in non studio productions led to his departure from mainstream Hollywood. He spent a number of years performing in dinner theatre shows and pursuing his love of horseback riding. He appeared in John Waters’ Odorama classic POLYESTER (1981) opposite the fabulous Divine (who he would later reunite with in LUST IN THE DUST [1985]), a move that brought about a resurgence in his popularity. Hunter met his long-term partner Allan Glaser (who produced CONFIDENTIAL) during the production of LUST IN THE DUST, and the two continue to share their lives together in California to this day.

tabhunterconfidential_006_Tab_SwimsuitThe beauty of Tab Hunter: Confidential lies within its refreshing optimism and the endearing nature of its subject. Even when discussing the struggles of his career, Hunter is joking and cheerful, and the portions of the documentary that touch upon his mother’s struggles with mental illness are laced with love and compassion. Hunter, unlike many of his peers who were in a similar situation of dealing with a homophobic Hollywood, ended up with a happy ending. It’s a real treat to be able to watch him express his love for life and remembrance of the past. And if you still believe that Hollywood is at its most scandalous today, be sure to check out this film to see how little has really changed since Tab Hunter’s heyday.

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RETRO REVIEW: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE! An Alluring But Controversial Lugosi/Browning Classic Haunts the Big Screen Once More the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: May 26th, 2014 By:

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935); Dir. Tod Browning; Starring Bela Lugosi, Carroll Borland, Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan; Friday, May 30 (8:00 p.m., 9:45 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.), Saturday, May 31 (8:45 p.m.) and Sunday, June 1 (5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Tickets $5.00; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

As part of the Plaza Theatre’s week-long celebration of Bela Lugosi starting Friday May 30 (full preview here), one of his greatest—and most controversial—motion pictures gets a rare screening: his final collaboration with director Tod Browning, 1935’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE!

Prague, 1935. An aristocrat is found dead, drained of blood, with two puncture wounds on his neck. The locals believe that vampires—in the form of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), whom they believe haunt the nearby castle—are responsible for the murder. Police inspector Professor Zeren (Lionel Barrymore) is skeptical, however, and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery behind the mark of the vampire.

Tod Browning was in need of some luck. He’d had a stellar career making deliciously twisted silent features, most notably starring the incredible Lon Chaney. He was hired by Universal Studios to direct 1931’s DRACULA starring Bela Lugosi (with whom he’d worked on 1929’s THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR). Despite the film’s success, Universal was unhappy with Browning’s work, and he moved to MGM to direct 1932’s FREAKS. That film proved so scandalous and controversial (and commercially unsuccessful) at the time that Browning’s career came to a screeching halt. So, when MGM accepted his proposal to helm a remake of his 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (now considered a lost film, with the last known print destroyed in a 1967 fire), he was determined to make the most of it.

And he nearly pulled it off. Despite the film’s more unsavory aspects being removed (implications of incest between Mora and Luna, which resulted in Mora’s suicide and the pair condemned to an eternity of living death) and the film’s trimming from 75 to 61 minutes, the film works like gangbusters. Up to a point, that is.

You see, in the realm of classic horror, few films are as debated as hotly as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. All of the ingredients of a Golden Age classic are there: a menacing, wordless performance by Bela Lugosi as Count Mora; Carroll Borland as his daughter, Luna, establishing a visual template followed by Maila “Vampira” Nurmi and Morticia Addams; and the deft, atmospheric direction of Tod Browning.

So, what’s the deal?

It’s the twist ending that provides the film’s payoff. It’s an ending that negates everything that came before. Things we have seen with our own eyes are now established as having been impossible. It’s a cheat. Even Bela thought it was ridiculous and pleaded with Tod Browning to change it. A much better ending (that even kept the light tone of the original’s) was suggested, and Browning refused to change course. I’m not going to spill the beans by detailing what happens, but it’s really impossible to talk about MARK OF THE VAMPIRE without bringing up the fact that many see the twist as a crushing disappointment.

And I’m right there with them. It’s such a blow to the film because the rest of it is so good. It’s largely the film that DRACULA could have been if Browning hadn’t been hamstrung by Universal’s budget-pinching measures. (The studio had recently sunk a lot of money into THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and was facing financial difficulties due to the Great Depression. Unconvinced that the horror thing would pay off, DRACULA had many elaborate scenes scrapped and wound up hewing closely to the play in staging the film.) MARK OF THE VAMPIRE’s sets are sumptuous. The effects scenes are brilliantly pulled off, with Luna soaring on bat’s wings and Count Mora materializing out of mist. The photography by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe is glorious. The performances of stage/screen legend Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan are rock-solid and ground the film firmly. The supporting cast (especially Lionel Atwill as Inspector Neumann and Donald Meek as the timid Dr. Doskil) is delightful. It all comes together so beautifully, only to be sold so short by an ending that aims for cleverness and lands in clunkiness.

If you can forgive the film its ending, there is so much there to enjoy. Just discount what you see happen on screen after the mystery has been solved, and imagine that Lionel Barrymore’s Professor Zelen receives a telegram saying something like “Sorry, can’t make it. Train held up at the station. Hope everything works out,” and you’ll walk out of the theater a happier person. But to miss the film on the big screen is to miss one of the best—yet one of the most unheralded—vampire pictures ever to come out of Hollywood’s classic era. Or at least 90 percent of one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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A Marx Brothers Political Uprising: DUCK SOUP Serves Up a Perfect Bowl of Comedy and International Relations at the Movie Tavern!

Posted on: Aug 6th, 2013 By:

DUCK SOUP (1933); Dir. Leo McCarey; Starring the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo) and Margaret Dumont; Tuesday, Aug. 6 and Thursday, Aug. 9 @ 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Aug. 8 @ 11:30 a.m.; Movie Tavern; Tickets here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Movie Tavern’s Retro Cinema series is devoting the entire month of August to classic comedies! And it’s hard to think of a more classic comedy than the Marx Brothers masterpiece DUCK SOUP!

Growing up, I had two obsessions: horror movies and Groucho Marx. In the small town of Lanett, Alabama, we were able to get a handful of Atlanta UHF stations (kids, ask your folks what UHF stations were). WTCG 17—later to become WTBS—had the horror movie front covered. And WHAE 46 had Groucho, with reruns of YOU BET YOUR LIFE that I’d watch every night before bed. That’s where I first discovered the waggling eyebrows, sardonic humor and unmatched wordplay of the mustachioed Marx. I thought he was the funniest human being to ever walk the face of this puny planet. And from there, I worked backwards. When I couldn’t see a Marx Brothers movie, I’d pore over the Richard J. Anobile-edited stills-and-dialogue collection WHY A DUCK? and learn the quips by heart.

All of this is prelude to why I’m tempted to just say “DUCK SOUP is perfect,” drop the mic and walk off stage. What else need be said? It’s perfect, it’s playing, go see it.

But that wouldn’t be a review, now would it? It’s barely an opinion. It’s just this side of being a sentence.

Now, there will be those who will claim that other Marx Brothers movies, particularly their films made at MGM, are better. There will be those who’ll sing the praises of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA or trot out A DAY AT THE RACES. These people are, how do you say, wrong. Sure, those may be more accomplished films. They did pull off the feat of placing the Brothers’ anarchic humor in a traditional Hollywood movie framework. But like Joe Bob Briggs would say, there’s too much plot getting in the way of the story. Too much romantic frou-frou between Allan Jones and whatever leading lady had to be subjected to his bland appeal. And these movies do the unspeakable: they make the Brothers nice. The Marxes are interested in helping people by, say, keeping two love-struck opera singers together or by saving a sanitarium from being foreclosed upon.

DUCK SOUP—like the Brothers’ other, earlier Paramount pictures—has no interest in making the Brothers likeable. All the Brothers want to do is cause disorder and discord. Every Marx Brothers character in the film is either ineffectual or irresponsible, or both. None of them actually want to do what their characters are assigned to do. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the newly-appointed head of the bankrupt nation of Freedonia. He, of course, has no interest in governing. All he has an interest in is the compound interest in the bank accounts of Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, at her Margaret Dumont-iest), whom he is determined to marry. He’s being spied upon by Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) from the neighboring country of Sylvania. They, of course, have no interest in spying on Firefly. They don’t really have much interest in doing anything except pestering the local lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy) or going to baseball games on their employer’s dime. Then there’s the forever-to-be-underrated Zeppo Marx, who—as Firefly’s secretary Bob Roland—is mostly there to provide the “straight man” role for Groucho to lob jokes at. He’s the only person there who seemingly wants to do the job he’s assigned (though Firefly sees him as being incompetent), but that’s Zeppo for you. Say what you will, though, the Marxes never had a better straight man than Zeppo.

There’s so much to love in this movie. There’s the break-in scene, where Chico and Harpo don greasepaint and pajamas and are virtually indistinguishable from Groucho. (There’s no need in referring to them by character name—they’re playing the Marx Brothers here, as they always do.) There’s the Groucho/Harpo mirror scene. The war, in which every character’s costume changes between edits. The “We’re Going to War!” musical number. Groucho’s constant failure to leave the capitol building by motorcycle. The glorious back-and-forth that occurs whenever Groucho and Chico share a scene. The reality-shattering existence of Harpo Marx, who is presented as an almost supernatural agent of chaos (how else does a live, barking dog emerge from the doghouse tattooed on his chest?). I could go on and on all night. Get to know me for longer than a week, and I probably will.

Like most great pieces of art, it wasn’t well-received in its time. During the Depression, filmgoers were put off by the mean-spirited and anti-authoritarian tone of the movie. And critics felt the story too disjointed and harsh, too sour and unpleasant. Pure, uncut Marxism was too much for many to deal with in those dark days. Even Groucho thought little of the movie (but he was, you have to remember, a grouch). But in ensuing years, it’s been reappraised, and for good reason. Its ridicule of war and the Powers That Be helped it gain a foothold in the minds of rebellious youth in the decades since, and appealed to the steadily growing cynicism of the American psyche. It’s now considered a masterpiece and one of the most influential film comedies of all time.

When Woody Allen’s character Mickey, in his 1986 film HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, searches for meaning after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, he walks into a chance screening of DUCK SOUP during the “We’re Going to War” sequence. He recounts:

“I just needed a moment to gather my thoughts and be logical and put the world back into rational perspective. And I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down, and the movie was a film that I’d seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it. I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film. I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself? I mean, isn’t it so stupid? Look at all the people up there on the screen. They’re real funny, and what if the worst is true? What if there is no God and you only go around once and that’s it? Well, ya know, don’t you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell? It’s not all a drag. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.’ And after, who knows? I mean maybe there is something. Nobody really knows. I know ‘maybe’ is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.”

DUCK SOUP, ladies and gentlemen. It’s one of those things that make life worth living.

Because it’s perfect.

*Drops mic, walks off stage.*

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Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS: Fully Restored and Bigger Than Ever in Two Special Atlanta Engagements!

Posted on: May 23rd, 2013 By:

METROPOLIS (1927); Dir. Fritz Lang; Starring Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich and Alfred Abel; Starts Friday, May 24 @ Plaza Theatre (visit website for ticket prices and showtimes); Tuesday, May 28 @ Woodruff Arts Center (free outdoor screening w/ live accompaniment); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s a Fritz Lang kind of Spring, I suppose. That feeling is helped along by two venues showing the most recent restoration of Lang’s pioneering science fiction classic, METROPOLIS, which finally brings the film as close to its original state as possible. The historic Plaza Theatre has booked the film for a full week, and there’s a special outdoor screening of the restoration at Woodruff Arts Center featuring the US debut of a specially-composed score performed live by Georgia Tech’s Sonic Generator.

Last time we talked Fritz Lang, it was about M (1931), the first serial killer-themed horror film. But now, we’re going four years earlier and looking at METROPOLIS, the first feature-length science fiction movie. And in the ensuing years, METROPOLIS continues to be relevant to contemporary life, its themes resonating through the ages as our industrialized society becomes more and more technocratic.

The sprawling plot of METROPOLIS speaks mostly to the topic of class division. In the year 2026, the wealthy preside over the city of Metropolis and lead lives of decadence, while a teeming underclass of workers toil day in and day out, slaves to the machines that provide the power that drives the city above. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich)—the son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the city’s aristocratic Master—falls in love with a labor organizer named Maria (Brigitte Helm) and enters the underground city of the workers. There, he just may serve to fulfill the prophesied role of the city’s “heart”: the man who will help Maria unite the workers and join the city’s “hands” (its workers) with its “head” (the ruling aristocracy). But the ruling class has other plans to keep the underclass down: to kidnap Maria and use a robotic doppelganger to sow seeds of discord among the laborers.

Add in a love triangle, espionage, sabotage, disaster, riots, beautiful art deco set design, Biblical references, hints of occultism, expert use of miniatures and pioneering special effects, and not only do you have an epic that presents a morality play and political polemic depicting class struggle with the rhythm of everyday life, but also a bustling action picture designed to keep viewers enthralled with the kind of futuristic grand spectacle not seen on the screen before.

Unfortunately, that balance was largely destroyed by cuts to the film that took place shortly after its premiere. The film was funded and its distribution controlled by a partnership between MGM, Paramount and German film studio UFA, which was known as Parufamet (a portmanteau of the three studios’ names). Parufamet cut the film from its 153-minute running time to 115 minutes, and later that year it was cut down further by UFA to a brief 91 minute running time. Huge chunks of character exposition and plot points were lost completely. This left much of the spectacle but presented seemingly one-dimensional characters inhabiting the film, which only emphasized the heavy-handedness of the film’s message-laden storyline. A film about people and ideas became simply a film about ideas.

Over the decades, numerous attempts at restoration took place using whatever could be found. The high (or low, depending on your stance) point of 20th-century efforts came with the 1984 release of a version compiled by songwriter/producer Giorgio Moroder. Moroder’s restoration was, at that point, the most complete version of the film available, incorporating all footage known to exist at the time. However, the film was tinted throughout, with its intertitles replaced with subtitles for continuity’s sake, with a pop soundtrack (featuring Freddie Mercury, Pat BenatarBonnie Tyler, Adam Ant, Loverboy, etc.) in place of a traditional score and with its frame rate increased to 24 frames per second (which resulted in an artificially-shortened running time of 82 minutes).

In 2002, Kino Lorber and the F.W. Murnau Foundation released a 124-minute restoration that seemed to be the final word on the film, as all remaining footage was believed to have been lost to the ravages of time. Missing footage was described in newly-designed title cards to fill in the blanks. But shortly afterward, film prints were found in New Zealand and Argentina that contained scenes not included in any existing copy. In fact, the Argentine print was a 16mm reduction of the entire original cut of the film. With these new sources in hand, METROPOLIS was restored to 95% completion (only two short sequences could not be included due to extensive damage). Settling on an acceptable frame rate (the actual frame rates of many silent films are hard to determine), and with the additional sequences restored to their rightful places, the final running time of the now-nearly-complete METROPOLIS is 145 minutes.

And those restored scenes restore a coherency and depth to the film that has not been experienced since its premiere some 86 years ago. The character of Freder becomes heroic rather than a cipher. Maria becomes a fully-rounded character rather than an archetype. Sure, the highly stylized acting familiar to German Expressionist silent filmmaking is still present, which may stand as a roadblock to viewers raised on the naturalistic acting of modern cinema, but the operatic tenor of the performances is almost necessary to keep the actors from being overwhelmed by the sheer size and spectacle of the film’s sets and effects (adjusted for inflation, the film’s budget in today’s numbers would be $200 million, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made, equal to James Cameron’s TITANIC). Without the benefit of speech, the sheer BIGNESS of the movie demands performances as visually loud as the sets are huge.

Though the film was panned upon first wide release (in my opinion, largely due to its being butchered and available only in compromised form), METROPOLIS has since become one of the highest-regarded films in existence, with its influence felt in movies ranging from BLADE RUNNER to DR. STRANGELOVE; from STAR WARS to BACK TO THE FUTURE; from DARK CITY to THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Oddly enough, though, it has found more frequent homage in the field of popular music. The music videos for Queen’s Radio Ga Ga,” Nine Inch NailsWe’re in This Together and Madonna’s Express Yourself have all been inspired by the movie’s themes and visuals. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s own Janelle Monáe has released two fantastic concept albums inspired by the film: 2007’s METROPOLIS: SUITE I (THE CHASE) and 2010’s THE ARCHANDROID. (Based on the title, I’m guessing that this year’s upcoming album, THE ELECTRIC LADY, will round out the trilogy.)

For very different experiences in viewing METROPOLIS this week, let me recommend that you take the film in twice. Firstly, it’s playing a week-long engagement at the Plaza Theatre, where you can sit in the enshrouding darkness and get caught up in the purely visual storytelling of this masterwork as the towering images wash over you to the accompaniment of the gorgeous original score by Gottfried Huppertz. Secondly, though, the film is the subject of a free outdoor screening at the Woodruff Arts Center on Tuesday, May 28, projected on the Anne Cox Chambers Wing of the High Museum. There, the film will be accompanied by a live performance by Georgia Tech’s contemporary music ensemble Sonic Generator (augmented by several additional performers from Atlanta’s vast musical spectrum), performing a score composed by renowned Argentine composer Martin Matalon which is making its US debut. For more details about this singular event, check out this great in-depth write-up in CREATIVE LOAFING by Doug DeLoach.

Either way (or both!) you take it, METROPOLIS is both a film of its time and film of all time; a movie that speaks to the concerns of Weimar-era Germany in 1927 and the “one percent vs. the 99 percent” fights of today. It’s a landmark in science fiction, a landmark in the development of special effects and a landmark in cinematic history, and in its restored condition, it commands the attention like few films ever made.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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