New DVDs: Goldwyn, Hawks, Seiter

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Three handsome Technicolor restorations from MGM DVD slipped in under cover of darkness this week: the ungainly but gorgeously designed “The Goldwyn Follies” (1938), Howard Hawks’s lackadaisical but gorgeously shot 1948 “A Song Is Born” (fodder for those jazz buffs who have commandeered the Oshima thread, but not too much, I hope), and William A. Seiter’s basically indefensible but I-like-it-anyway “It’s a Pleasure,” a low-budget effort for the short-lived outfit International Pictures, starring the Norwegian ice-skating champion Sonja Henie. Further musings can be found in the New York Times.

I’ve been on a Seiter kick since his 1932 “Hot Saturday” surfaced in the recent Universal pre-code collection. In many way, he seems like a better-adjusted, non-alcoholic version of Leo McCarey, who may not have scaled the heights that McCarey achieved but never suffered the long periods of inactivity that McCarey did either. Like McCarey, Seiter learned is craft working on dozens of silent one and two-reel comedies, an experience that seems to have given him a deep ability to appreciate what makes a particular performer distinctive and a concomitant talent for setting those qualities off within an elegantly “invisible” mise-en-scene.

Seiter is responsible for some of the best films by established comics like Laurel and Hardy (“Sons of the Desert”), Wheeler and Woolsey (“Peach-O-Reno”), Abbott and Costello (“Little Giant”) and the Marx Brothers (“Room Service”), and he had a particular gift for drawing out the acting talents of singing stars like Ginger Rogers (five films, including “Rafter Romance” and “Professional Sweetheart”), Shirley Temple (four, including “Stowaway”) and Deanna Durbin (four, including the memorable “Nice Girl?”).

There are some superb screwball comedies from the 1930s, including “We’re Rich Again,” “The Richest Girl in the World,” and “Sing and Like It” (all 1934), as well as the gentler romantic comedies “If You Could Only Cook” (1935) and “The Moon’s Our Home” (1936). And I revisit his Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth South American reverie “You Were Never Lovelier” with undiminished pleasure; it’s possible that Hayworth was, indeed, never lovelier, and Seiter generates a sexual magnetism between his two leads that never quite emerges in the Astaire-Rogers films (including Seiter’s own “Roberta”). His last film was a deeply felt noir, “Make Haste to Live” (1954) with an uncommonly strong female protagonist (Dorothy McGuire), made for pennies at Republic.

For those who don’t know Seiter, I wouldn’t recommend the minor “It’s a Pleasure” as the place to start (but again — who knew Sonja Henie could pull off a dramatic scene?). But there is a lot to discover in the work of this gifted, self-effacing filmmaker, whose only honor during his lifetime was, according the IMDB, a 1956 DGA Award nomination for directing an episode of “Schlitz Playhouse.”

232 comments to New DVDs: Goldwyn, Hawks, Seiter

  • Brad Stevens

    It occurs to me that Preminger’s late films form an interesting pattern. His early films were notable for maintaining a tone of calm objectivity, even when their characters were reduced to states of hysteria. Then, in SKIDOO, there’s a sudden, and completely unexpected outburst of hysteria which is shared by both the characters and the director, an outburst so extreme that it takes several films to dissipate, with traces of it evident (often quite incongruously) in SUCH GOOD FRIENDS, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON and ROSEBUD. But when it finally does dissipate, what we are left with is the absolute calm of THE HUMAN FACTOR; the still point Preminger had perhaps been working towards all long.

  • Very nicely put, Brad.

  • Barry Putterman

    I agree, very well put Brad.

    We should also remember what was going on socially, politically, and within the film industry at that time and Preminger’s very active participation in all of it. Films like IN HARM’S WAY and HURRY SUNDOWN no longer seemed viable, and, given his own circumstances, SKIDOO would seem to be a workable transition.

    We think of what follows as “late period” films. But I’m sure that he felt that he was simply a politically and socially conscious producer/director trying to express himself artistically in a commercially viable way to very new conditions.

  • nicolas saada

    There is outburst in teh 30′s movies like DANGER LOVE AT WORK, if I remember. HUMAN FACTOR is calm, I’d agree. But I think teh whole film works like a time bomb. That last scene in moscow is very tense, strange, uncanny. Is it an outburst ?

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Were the “outbursts of hysteria” a case of Preminger going through a personal change or a case of the director adapting to the zeitgeist?
    Maybe both?

  • Alex Hicks

    That STARK critical and commerical failure of as ambitous an undertaking as HURRY SUNDOWN should be followed in SKIDOO by “a sudden, and completely unexpected outburst of hysteria which is shared by both the characters and the director, an outburst so extreme that it takes several films to dissipate” is not too surprising. Yet auch a largwe reponse becomes more intelligible if the SUNDOWN product, or at least project, was cherished by Preminger.

    Has anyone any lowdown on Preminger’s view of SUNDOWN — or any contrarian view of its quality?
    (Never seen it myself, though this lover of such generally reviled Dixiephobic efforts as THE CHASE and WILD WILD WEST, would love the chance.)

  • skelly

    Not to derail the Preminger discussion (the Preminger retro hits my parts later this month (included is SUCH GOOD FRIENDS), looking forward to it); but on the topic of late films – a question for our friends in France – how was Eric Rohmer’s “Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon” received in France?

    Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon

  • joe dante

    Late to the party, as usual…

    I did have the privilege of seeing some of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, twice.
    Once following an appearance as an audience member during one of Gary Graver’s numerous reshoots and additions to a never-aired Welles talk show pilot, where a bleacher full of us asked (or answered, I can’t remember) questions ostensibly posed by Orson, Burt Reynolds, et al, that had been taped previously. Afterward Gary took several of us (including, I recall, David Carradine) into a Very Small Room and ran about 45 minutes of the OSOTW rough cut on a kem.

    Years later Gary and Oja ran a somewhat different
    assemblage of footage for me and a few others in the Amblin screening room. The same scratches, jumps and splices were present, so I assume it was from the same work print. I believe this was around the time it looked like something might happen with Showtime.

    Oddly, I don’t remember any of the versions I saw including the projection room sequence broadcast as part of Welles’ AFI tribute, and which first made me determined to stay alive long enough to get to see the whole movie!

  • Junko Yasutani

    Thank you for answering my question Joe Dante.

    About HURRY SUNDOWN, it is great Preminger movie. It was success in Japan. Japanese critcs have talked about it with MANDINGO, also great movie, but not thought so in America. European view maybe different.

    Interesting point about SKIDOO and what Brad has said, biography of Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally says Preminger visited Grateful Dead in San Francisco and smoke marijuana, took LSD with them because he was making research about American youth movement. So cause of hysteria for Preminger could be culture shock that is accustomed to in next movies.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Once following an appearance as an audience member during one of Gary Graver’s numerous reshoots and additions to a never-aired Welles talk show pilot, where a bleacher full of us asked (or answered, I can’t remember) questions ostensibly posed by Orson, Burt Reynolds”

    Wow – I had absolutely no idea you were in that. I saw it quite recently. The title is THE ORSON WELLES SHOW; I guess it was shot around 1978 or 1979. Angie Dickinson was also in it.

    The projection room sequence from THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND was definitely present in the compilation of clips that Oja Kodar screened in London in 2003.

  • Brad Stevens

    I just had another look at the first few minutes of THE ORSON WELLES SHOW – Joe Dante can be seen quite clearly, asking Orson Welles and Burt Reynolds “You both say you’re not the best directors of yourselves, so why do you do it?”.

  • Kent Jones

    Jean-Pierre – my mistake, I misread you.

    Junko, I’m curious – why do you think HURRY SUNDOWN is a great movie?

  • Blake Lucas

    “I have immense admiration for OP but comedy is definitely not his forte.”

    Are you sure this is completely fair, Jean-Pierre? A couple of years ago I saw THE MOON IS BLUE again and I think that film is very underrated now. It is quite charming as a comedy, and OP’s comedic style is not like most other directors. Even other long take, fluid camera movement directors like Minnelli tend to make their camera style relatively more simple and functional in comedies (well, not in the ball sequences of THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE which are openly dazzling) but in BLUE Preminger did not–it has long, fluid takes throughout while still being funny. David Niven especially is a delight (no one ever directed him better than Preminger, here, and especially, in BONJOUR TRISTESSE), and of course there is the singular Maggie McNamara who is quite wonderful. The film certainly had nothing overtly shocking to cause its notoriety at the time, but in fact it deserved to be considered sexually daring after all, not because of any language or even incidents but because it shows a single young woman making up her mind about what her sex life will be, debating every side of it, not puritanical about it, and the film endorses this. So much for the allegedly repressive 50s (well, I guess the censorship of the film indirectly supports that even though this wasn’t the reason).

    Anyway, I think it’s a good comedy.

    I’m not so sure about SUCH GOOD FRIENDS. I think it was its rueful, sad side that appealed to me, at least the first time when I too was very affected (like David Hare) by that last scene of Dyan Cannon going out with the children into Central Park. This was the only one of Preminger’s last five films I saw twice, and it didn’t hold up for me the second time, so now I feel disappointed by it but should probably give it another chance sometime. I’m with you on the girdle scene and I have a distinctive memory of some very awkward cutting, where Coco is practically out of the girdle and then in a following shot he’s back in it and struggling with it.

    I’ll go along with THE HUMAN FACTOR as the best of those last ones now, based on the one time I saw it, and of course, it’s no comedy.

    But I must say that I thought Brad’s insight regarding these last five films and how they fit in with his whole body of work was brilliant. Something to take back to them now and so I’m feeling it would be good to see them all again. Probably Chris Fujiwara’s book, which I haven’t read yet, will further motivate me.

    As one whose half-dozen favorite Premingers range evenly over a twenty year period from 1944 to 1963, I guess I can say I’m comfortable with the idea of him evolving stylistically and in other ways as well—while always keeping that sensibility that animates all the films.

    The last one I really love is HURRY SUNDOWN. I saw this on the big screen again about a year ago for the first time since 1967–it had all the qualities that had made his richly woven 60s films so memorable and I don’t know why it isn’t better regarded. So I’m with Junko on this one, and if there’s someone there who hasn’t seen it at all, you might want to just forget anything you’ve heard about it and see for yourself.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘ why do you think HURRY SUNDOWN is a great movie?’

    To me it was surprising change of style for Preminger. It was like kabuki version of Preminger, big gesture, thick atmosphere, rich color, too vivid set piece scene. To me, it was how Preminger was treating race issue, because it was the way to show the feeling about race in America at that time. It was not the timid treatment, but bold attack on the question. Also, he continued with scope comoposition that he could always use so well.

  • Kent Jones

    Thank you, Junko. I wish I shared your admiration.

    skelly, I don’t think ASTREE ET CELADON fared any better in France than it did here, but what a way to go out.

    Johan and David, the Beethoven quartets are absolutely central to PRENOM CARMEN. The movie is infused with them and their onscreen interpretation. SAUVE QUI PEUT is one of his most beautiful films, and though the score is a dreamy electronic job by Gabriel Yared, it also features onscreen music, in the final scene.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I wish I shared your admiration.’

    Kent, I would like to know what is wrong about HURRY SUNDOWN from you, because you can make the criticism from understanding of Preminger, even disagreeing, I could learn something from your criticism.

    I forgot to mention class issue from HURRY SUNDOWN that I liked about it.

  • Kent Jones

    Junko, It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but my memory of the film is that it lacked all the qualities I admire in Preminger. I found it extremely garish, emotionaly and visually. From a social perspective, it was brave of him to make it, but then he was always brave. And, he was always mindful of class. But there’s a strange urge to caricature in many of the films he made during those last years that I find disconcerting, in that film most of all. At many moments, it has the odd weightlessness and exagerration of a cartoon. Something similar hapens during moments in SUCH GOOD FRIENDS and SKIDOO, but it’s undercut in both movies in a way that it isn’t in HURRY SUNDOWN. That’s my experience of the film. I’m sure that many people here will regard this as a deficiency on my part.

  • Blake Lucas

    I wish I had mentioned that while HURRY SUNDOWN is not a comedy, it does show Preminger can mount a wickedly funny scene. I’m referring to redneck and racist sheriff George Kennedy being so easily manipulated by the black characters with their reminders of sexual favors he has enjoyed with them, and even more, their fried chicken. Preminger turns the fried chicken cliche on its head.

    I guess I don’t agree with Junko that it’s a complete change of style, given the way Preminger had been filming scenes of interaction of characters this way for so long, but since she does acknowledge his camera style maybe we agree about that. Preminger was never averse to melodrama though, or the big gesture, and certainly not to bold colors in some of the previous film. I strongly agree with Junko about this film’s treatment of race, which is sophisticated and insightful rather than watchful of taking all the correct poses (and in this respect it does resemble MANDINGO).

    Kent, I just love the weave of the film, the way the narrative cuts in so many effective directions, and does do so in bold strokes. Some of these characters are fascinating and vivid, especially Jane Fonda and Michael Caine in that deeply unhappy, neurotic relationship they have but they are far from the only ones. Beah Richards never had a better part in a movie that I’ve seen. I don’t find anyone a cliche in this movie.

    A sad note: when I saw this at the American Cinematheque last year, Foster Hirsch introduced (very warmly too) and John Phillip Law and Robert Hooks, who played the two guys in an interracial friendship and partnership, appeared for Q & A and said some interesting things about conditions on location during the shoot. Then, just a few months later, Law sadly had died. It was nice these two actors came out for the film–they are both very good in it and had the same rapport off screen.

  • Blake Lucas

    I posted before reading your last one, Kent. I wish you could see it again and wonder if you might now back down from that “cartoon” characterization you are laying on it. Bold and vibrant doesn’t make a cartoon–it can make an American melodrama of the finest kind. I’m not saying this is all the way up there with SOME CAME RUNNING or something, but this is the kind of movie we are talking about. People have laughed at the heightened quality of Minnelli’s melodramas too.

  • Alex Hicks

    Preminger’s fine “Bunny Lake” at 8 tonite on TCM.

  • Dear Glenn: This is out of narrative order, but id you are still soliciting entries for your list of critics who have appeared in movies, I pop up briefly in James Westby’s FILM GEEK as “myself” along with the Oregonian’s Shawn Levy and then-Willamette Week writer Dave Walker, and then I went on to have a cameo in Westby’s THE AUTEUR, as an unnamed movie reviewer on a TV show.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I found it extremely garish, emotionaly and visually.’

    I understand that objection, that is why I said it was like Kabuki drama, but to me, HURRY SUNDOWN has virtue of previous Preminger movies too.

    Surprising to me was change of emphasis in style, I didn’t explain right about that, so I am agreeing with Blake about continuity of framing and interaction of characters. Difference is texture of color and emotional expression. Thinking of THE CARDINAL and EXODUS, the color is sometimes bold but not completely, and sometimes big gesture like priest being whipped by Ku Klux Klan in front of burning cross and harmonica Southern anthem in THE CARDINAL. Complete tone of HURRY SUNDOWN is like that scene to me. What Blake said about the weave of the movie, I agree with that.

  • Kent Jones

    Blake, I think Minnelli’s melodramas are in a whole other universe from HURRY SUNDOWN. If people are intent on laughing at something, they can always find something to laugh at. I’ve sat in a room full of people who found THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS uproarious. At any rate, I really do think that HURRY SUNDOWN plays like a cartoon. I don’t mean it as a value judgment, but a description. My disappointment in the film comes from the fact that it feels like a strategy Preminger resorted to, rathern than one he embraced. I do remember Beah Richards and Diahnn Carroll’s characters as bright spots.

    Junko, your linking of the tone of HURRY SUNDOWN to those scenes in THE CARDINAL seems absolutely right to me. But then, there’s nothing of the greatness of THE CARDINAL for me. That’s what prevents me from being excited by the weave of the narrative, which was always a strong suit for Preminger.

  • Kent Jones

    Junko, I apologize for cramming three uses of the word “me” into one short paragraph. Yikes…

  • Blake Lucas

    “…the greatness of THE CARDINAL.”

    Hmmm. Here’s something we seem to agree on here, Kent. This happens to me, to my eyes and mind, Preminger’s greatest work. And yes, I think it is dramatically mature and subtle in a way that HURRY SUNDOWN is not and doesn’t even try to be.

    My comparison with Minnelli’s melodramas was strictly in terms of “heightening” and “melodrama”–two things that so often seem to provoke derision. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily do that for you–I know that they don’t, and while you might consider one film a “cartoon” or something like it you wouldn’t say it of another melodrama. I don’t consider HURRY SUNDOWN like Minnelli’s melodramas–the two filmmakers may have a few affinities but are individuals who are after different things in their work. SOME CAME RUNNING and HOME FROM THE HILL are probably my two favorites melodramas of that period and films I know extremely well, and
    so I can’t say I put this Preminger on that level.

    But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an outstanding work in so many ways, maybe somewhere among the ten or twelve Premingers I think are the best. Unlike those two Minnellis, it wasn’t a film I knew well when I saw it again a year ago. I did have a positive impression, unlike you, from first release, and didn’t take it down from seeing it on TV because I knew it was a mistake to watch one of his films scanned (this was a long time ago and I’d never do it now). A big screen viewing on wide screen, with color intact, served it well, and now it’s points up for me.

    No more than Junko do I quarrel with your negative opinion of it. I simply wanted to gently suggest you might get back to it given the opportunity and possibly you might see it differently if you do. That’s enough said on the subject I hope.

    But I want to add more generally than this subject of people laughing at films is not a negligible one. So many good and even great films have had to fight against it. Chris Fujiwara recently devoted an article to seeing Douglas Sirk movies in Japan, and how different the audience was in that they didn’t laugh at these films at all the way American audiences have always tended to do, so making them better experiences for viewing with an audience there. This is something Junko might appreciate and might be the beginning of understanding of why HURRY SUNDOWN is better regarded there than it has been here.

  • Kent Jones

    Blake, I’ve seen it perfectly projected on the big screen, and it only made matters worse. With the exception of the scene where Jane Fonda gets down on her knees and blows Michael Caine’s saxophone, I didn’t laugh at it. I just didn’t like it.

    I’m not sure if Junko saw the film in Japan, but I’ve read Chris’ piece on Sirk. I think it depends on where you see a film and when. In the 90s, the audiences at Film Forum in New York were notorious for yukking their way through anything and everything from CAT PEOPLE to BIGGER THAN LIFE. Every movie was an occasion for laugthter. Less so now. What was interesting was that the theater was packed. People kept going back. I could have killed them, but it was a response. My sense was that it concealed a desire to enter into the film, which they found too embarassing. This was the era of SEINFELD, and young middle class New Yorkers were always primed to laugh at rather than with.

    I have to admit that while I’m always ready for a surprise, HURRY SUNDOWN is not something I’m looking forward to re-viewing. I like THE HUMAN FACTOR and elements and moments in SUCH GOOD FREINDS, and I do find SKIDOO kind of touching. Many directors from the studio era had a hard time adjusting to everything. I think Preminger tried very hard to reconcile the what movies had been for him with what they had become, and to stay afloat at the same time. But I really thinnk his great work ended with IN HARM’S WAY. I don’t quite see the kind of development indicated above.

  • Blake Lucas

    You’ll note from my earlier posts that I have struggled with Preminger’s late period also, though for me that struggle begins with SKIDOO,
    simply two films later than for you.

    It’s very true that many directors from the studio era had a hard time adjusting–many that I especially value are in the group. 1967, the year
    of HURRY SUNDOWN was just about past that transitional period when things get really traumatic as they try to find their way. I think he still had it together even if he wasn’t connecting with the audience.

    I assumed you had seen it on a big screen at some point–just saying how this worked for me this last time. I think you said that you have not seen it quite awhile, which was the case with me too. Everyone can choose which films they want to go back to. If I like a director I usually want to see even the ones I didn’t like at all again, but there are exceptions (I guess maybe A SONG IS BORN is in that category) and I haven’t made the effort myself with some of Premingers. I guess TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME JUNIE MOON is the Preminger film I had the hardest time with, and perhaps ROSEBUD as well.

    It’s a related subject as far as studio era directors and that other subject that has come up of “the late film” as going on at BAM now. That relationship can be meaningful and wonderfully so at times even with directors who seem kind of lost in the new currents in the late 60s/70s, but that’s a whole other subject and I wouldn’t want to cover it with some glib comment or reference to a few specific films, which are always debatable.

  • I’ve read Chris Fujiwara’s piece on snickering movie audiences, too. It gives one the cold chills!
    Here in Detroit, Michigan, one rarely encounters snickering audiences. And a good thing, too. People come to movies out of a sincere desire to like them.

  • Kent Jones

    Seeing a director struggling with the currents, which are very strong in this country, is interesting, sometimes painful. Preminger did it bravely. I love those two 16mm films by Vidor.

    Mike, you’re lucky.

  • Miguel Marías

    Belatedly, but trying to be short. I don’t remember who wrote it, but I think it is not fair (nor probably accurate) to attribute either to youth, assuming ignorance of earlier or “more serious”(i.e.,in the canon) movies, or to the deliberate or intinctive purpose of bolstering unacknowledged films as true masterpieces, the idea of defending “A Song Is Born” or, most of all, “Today We Live” (or for that matter, “Man’s Favorite Sport?” or “Red Line 7000″, “Land of the Pharaohs” or “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”). I’m 61 and for some 40 or 35 years have considered “TWL”, “MFS?” and “RL7000″ among Hawks’ greatest, far above “A Girl in Every Port”, “Scarface”, “Twentieth Century”, “Sergeant York”, “Air Force”, “I Was A Male War Bride”, “The Big Sky” and several others. “ASIB” is not as good, certainly, but I find it funny and pleasant, and not that much inferior to “Ball of Fire”. Despite my wholehearted enthusiasm for Preminger, I certainly would not consider “Skidoo”, “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon”, “Such Good Friends” or “Rosebud”, interesting as they may partly be, in the same league as, to mention only “late” films, “Bunny Lake Is Missing”, “Hurry Sundown” and “The Human Factor”, not to mention slightly earlier and much better ones like “Bonjour Tristesse”, “Anatomy of a Murder”, “Exodus”, “Advise & Consent”, “The Cardinal” or “In Harm’s Way”. All of these preferences I certainly could explain, but not here, it would take a long time. But in no way I’m interested in digging out any failed or ill-starred film and try to build for them a reputation. I’m not that powerful. But if I have seen many times along many years, not just once on DVD or TV, “Today We Live”, having seen all of Hawks’ extant work, I costs me quite an effort (it seems like treason to the film) to remain silent instead of defending it when I see it being despised or ridiculed. After all, if everybody had always keep silent, we all would still admiring René Clair far above Jean Renoir, Carol Redd above Hitchcock, Blasetti and De Sica above Rossellini or William Wyler as superior to John Ford.
    Miguel Marías

  • Miguel Marías

    Sorry, I meant “kept” silent and Carol “Reed”, of course.
    MM

  • Kent Jones

    Miguel, that was me, and I said it was A reason, not THE reason.