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Unsung Hollywood classic steeped in the world of ballet, 17 November 2014

In all my years as a film buff, my only exposure to THE UNFINISHED DANCE (1947) was a black-and-white still image from it in a publication I don't recall. It never ran on television when I was growing up, it never played at revival theaters, and no one ever wrote about it or called attention to it in any of the thousands of articles and book chapters on classic Hollywood cinema I've read over the decades. So when I finally watched it, after recording it off TCM on October 8, 2013, I was astounded at how good it was. Why had no one remarked on this film before? Why is this not touted as, perhaps, Hollywood's greatest film about ballet? Everyone talks about Powell & Pressburger's THE RED SHOES (1948), made in England a year later, but no one mentions this film. Granted, THE RED SHOES is some kind of artistic milestone, when judged by its cinematography, sets, costumes, choreography and prestige cast, but it always left me a bit cold emotionally. It depicts a rarefied world with characters that seem more literary creations than drawn from real life. THE UNFINISHED DANCE operates on a much more expressive emotional plane and its characters seem much more real to me. These characters are truly passionate about dance and they live and breathe it every waking moment the way so many dancers in real life do. The young girls in the film who attend the ballet school come out of working-class New York and we can feel the hunger and the energy these characters bring to their chosen art. And the dance numbers, while not quite as long or lavish as those in THE RED SHOES, are all beautifully shot, staged and orchestrated, all in glorious MGM Technicolor.

What fuels this whole film, of course, is the intensity of Margaret O'Brien's central performance as Meg Merlin, a struggling ballet student who worships the company's prima ballerina, Ariane Bouchet (Cyd Charisse), and would, it turns out, do anything to propel her rise to stardom. When a visiting ballet star, La Darina (Karin Booth), is seen as a rival, Meg commits a surreptitious act that injures La Darina and threatens to end her ballet career forever. Meg's guilt drives the rest of the film, going so far as to ruin her close friendship with fellow student Josie (Mary Eleanor Donahue), and possibly derail her future in ballet. Eventually, she reaches out to La Darina and begins the journey to forgiveness and redemption. It's quite a stirring and emotional spectacle and showcases some wonderful actresses who dominate the narrative.

O'Brien, who was all of ten when she made this, gave closeups steeped in feeling like no other child actress. Every emotion that arises during the film plays out on her face. I don't know that I've ever seen another performance by a child star in Hollywood that comes close. One can make a case for Peggy Ann Garner's performances in JANE EYRE (1943) and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945), and even O'Brien's earlier performance in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), but I think THE UNFINISHED DANCE has them all beat. Cyd Charisse and Karin Booth merely have to react to O'Brien to give fine performances. I've seen Booth in other films, but I don't know why she didn't have a more substantial career. She's quite good here, especially in closeup where her striking features are best appreciated, and more than adequate in those dance scenes where she's seen up close. She was, however, doubled in the long shots. As for Charisse, I've seen a number of her MGM musicals, but I've never seen her do the kind of furious ballet dancing she does here. It's quite breathtaking and I wish she'd had more opportunities to display this side of her talent.

Interestingly, the largest male role in the film goes to a then-newcomer who was "introduced" in this film, none other than future sitcom star Danny Thomas. He plays a Greek immigrant shopowner named Paneros who runs a clock store and is the sometime boyfriend of Meg's aunt, who's seen only briefly before heading off on a vaudeville tour and leaving Meg in the care of Paneros, an arrangement that would raise plenty of eyebrows if depicted in a film today. Thomas is certainly charming, but his accented performance is much more self-consciously "folksy" than it would have been if played by one of Hollywood's more skilled character actors at the time. Still, as someone who watched his sitcom ("Make Room for Daddy") as a child, I found his presence here quite comforting and it gave the film added resonance. Another future sitcom star on hand is Elinor Donahue (billed as Mary Eleanor Donahue). I had no idea she'd started as a child performer and it's a fun challenge to imagine how Josie, who knows Meg's secret and holds it over her like a dagger, leading to some vicious behavior, would morph into Robert Young's beloved and level-headed "Princess" on "Father Knows Best." Who knew? She's quite good here and I wonder what other good parts she had as a child.

I'm pleased to see that this film has other positive reviews here. I just wish it were better known and more widely seen. There is a DVD out from the Warner Archive, but it has no extras, not even an audio commentary. It would be great to get one from Margaret O'Brien while she's still with us.

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Average Pokémon movie has the usual mix of virtues and flaws, 17 November 2014

POKÉMON THE MOVIE: DIANCIE AND THE COCOON OF DESTRUCTION is the 17th movie in the Pokémon franchise. While it's not one of the better movies in the series, it has its moments of visual spectacle and excitement and should still delight the series' many fans. The big problem with this one is the sheer multiplicity of villainous factions, all trying to abduct the cute and diminutive Diancie, a jewel Pokémon princess from some underground kingdom. There are at least four factions after Diancie because of her budding ability to conjure diamonds out of thin air. The fact that her diamonds, initially at least, evaporate after a few minutes doesn't seem to deter any of them. Even Team Rocket gets into the act, making for the biggest parts they've had in a Pokémon movie—probably ever!--and one of the few times they've been active villains in one of the movies.

Ash Ketchum and his friends (Serena, Bonnie and Clemont) become Diancie's protectors after rescuing her from a multi-pronged abduction attempt in a remote European mountain town. The most enjoyable scenes come when they travel together and bond and have fun, including a trip on a cruise ship to a big city and a visit to a shopping mall where the girls (Serena and Bonnie) take Diancie to a clothing store and play dress-up. Soon after this, they enter Diancie's underground kingdom where they learn that the heart diamond that powers the place is losing power and only Diancie can restore it, but only after her powers are enhanced by the mystical deer god Xerneas in the forbidden All-Earth Forest nearby. (If Xerneas reminds you too much of the "shishigami" from PRINCESS MONONOKE, you're not alone.) However, lurking in the forest is a formidable Pokémon menace, Yveltal, a giant bird monster that is laying dormant in the "Cocoon of Destruction." Should it be awakened, all hell will break loose.

The action soon shifts to the forest and, as expected, the interventions of all the competing villains—Marilyn Flame, Ninja Riot, Argus Steel and Team Rocket—cause Yveltal to awaken and go berserk, shooting rays that turn everything they touch into stone. Only the intervention of Xerneas can save the day. It's all very spectacular, but doesn't make a lot of narrative sense. I wish there'd been more context provided and more proper build-up, as in last year's Pokémon movie, GENESECT AND THE LEGEND AWAKENED, which set up the antagonists' backstory in a timely and concise fashion. The existence of this massive, unexplored forest and underground Pokémon kingdom so close to a large metropolis is never explained. Couldn't the writers have established its existence in a more remote locale first? It may seem like a minor point to the child audience, but in past Pokémon movies they always took great care to establish the more exotic settings in a more satisfying way. A lot happens in the final 15-to-20 minutes, but it was never terribly suspenseful. Which is too bad, because Diancie herself is a genuinely interesting new Pokémon protagonist and is one that can talk, albeit telepathically. Her scenes with Ash & company and her socialization process after being underground all her life are the best parts of the film and make one wish the action elements had been streamlined a bit. It all got overly complicated with the heart diamond, Yveltal, the All-Earth Forest and everything. I like it when there's one strong antagonist and a conflict that directly impacts our heroes, as in last year's GENESECT film (which I've also reviewed on this site).

This movie is a spin-off of the newest season, "Pokémon the Series: XY," which is now running on Cartoon Network and which introduced Ash's newest set of traveling companions, Serena, Clemont and Bonnie. Serena is, to me, probably the most compatible female counterpart Ash has ever had. She admires and respects him and is always unfailingly supportive. She doesn't compete with him but has her own set of talents and specialties that she indulges in when the opportunities arise. He should keep her around. When they get older…who knows? Clemont is a young scientific genius and Bonnie is his gregarious little sister, not the first little kid the series has had, but certainly the most endearing. They make a great team and I hope they're all featured in the next movie as well.

Color musical with the three biggest pop stars in postwar Japan, 16 November 2014

ROMANCE MUSUME (1956) is a follow-up to JANKEN MUSUME (1955), which I reviewed here on December 12, 2009 and was the first movie in the "Sannin Musume" series featuring the three most popular singers in Japan at the time, Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura. After ROMANCE MUSUME, the trio did two more films together, OHATARI SANSHOKU MUSUME (1957) and HIBARI CHIEMI IZUMI SANNIN YOREBA (1964). Like JANKEN MUSUME, ROMANCE MUSUME mixes musical numbers with light dramatic subplots focused on the lives of three teenage girls in contemporary Japan. Neither film comes with subtitles, so I'm not able to divulge much in the way of plot, but I enjoyed the musical numbers a great deal and the beautiful Eastmancolor cinematography and lavish studio sets.

The film stresses the delights of female friendship as the girls spend a lot of time together and clearly enjoy each other's company way more than that of family members or boys. We see them eating together, cooking and preparing food, playing tennis and collaborating at their place of employment, a large Tokyo department store. Two of them visit the third to watch her flip male opponents in a judo class. At one point, joined by one male friend and a little girl entrusted to their care, they visit a sprawling amusement park, captured in a mix of location shots and a large set depicting the interior of a haunted house attraction. The girls' parents all run shops in working-class neighborhoods, so we see the girls frequently in those settings, a noodle shop, a bakery, and a florist shop. Each girl has a male companion, but they're never seen in any kind of romantic situation.

Hibari's male friend, played by Akira Takarada (GOJIRA), lives in a large western-style house with his wealthy retired grandfather, who likes the girls' company and allows them to spend a lot of time there. A key subplot centers around a sad-eyed middle-aged man wearing a bow tie who brings a little girl to Grandpa's house with the intention of getting the old man to adopt her or simply allow her to live there. It's not clear to me what the man's relationship to the girl is or why he thinks Grandpa should take her, but Akira and the three girls, Rumiko (Hibari), Eriko (Chiemi), and Michiru (Izumi), spend a lot of time entertaining the quiet, unsmiling little girl. The middle-aged man also carries around a photograph of Izumi's mother, who is shown to be single, which implies some kind of relationship between the man and Izumi. Is he her father? I was unable to tell if this question was ever resolved.

Another subplot involves the three girls getting the attention of the press, although I'm not entirely sure why. In any event, a newspaper photographer snaps a picture of them in the store manager's office, followed by a story in the paper the next day. This is followed by the girls attending a live musical performance by...Sannin Musume! Yes, they go to a theater to watch their real selves perform! There was a similar scene in JANKEN MUSUME, but in that one, it was clear that the three girls were fantasizing themselves on stage. Here, the three shopgirls actually watch Hibari, Chiemi and Izumi perform live. When they enter the lobby to sit and wait, they even sit under a poster advertising the three performers with their real names. I don't quite understand how this was possible, but the three musical numbers are great. Izumi does a lively mambo dance number with male backup dancers. Chiemi does a slow jazzy number in elegant adornments, accompanied by dinner-jacketed male backups, that morphs into a Latin dance number. Hibari does a traditional Japanese festival song in full male period garb, complete with samurai sword, and is joined at the end by the other two girls, also in costume.

Chiemi and Izumi both sing popular American songs of the era, with English lyrics interspersed with Japanese lyrics. Izumi sings "Ivory Tower," which was a big hit in 1956, and Chiemi sings "Rock 'n' Roll Waltz," a hit in 1955. In addition to the number Hibari performs at the show, she's seen doing another traditional-style number at a street festival right at the beginning of the film, in full kimono costume, with the other two girls appearing in the accompanying dance troupe. The finale is a six-minute number at the end, recorded as the girls ride bicycles, with long shots on location mixed with studio-filmed close shots of the performers on bicycles built for two with their boyfriends positioned behind them. Each girl sings a solo number, followed by the title song which they all sing together, the first and only time in the film in which the girls perform as a trio.

JANKEN MUSUME had more songs and more location scenes, including shots of Kyoto landmarks. It also had more complicated plot elements, none of which I was able to decipher. Hibari sang some lyrics in English in JANKEN, but absolutely none here. This film has more elaborate sets, including the massive department store where the girls work and the ornate western-style mansion where Grandpa lives.

In his book, "The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture," Japan-based journalist Mark Schilling has this to say about the Sannin Musume films: "Harmless fluff that were little more than showcases for the singing talents of the three stars, the Sannin Musume movies were wildly popular, especially among teenage girls. Izumi Yukimura played a with-it rock 'n' roller who sprinkled her conversation with English words. Chiemi Eri was a good-natured, tomboyish country girl who sang Japanized versions of American pop tunes. Hibari was the old-fashioned Japanese girl, who betrayed no hint of foreign influence in speech or song and stood foursquare for traditional values." This description matches ROMANCE MUSUME better than it does JANKEN MUSUME. Now to see the two later films in the series.

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"I'm a good, professional actor, there's no great mystery about that.", 29 September 2014

I'm a big fan of Robert Mitchum, and have been since childhood, yet I missed his appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show" on April 29, 1971, because I didn't have a TV set at that time. Luckily, TCM ran this interview this past summer (2014) and I was able to record it and finally watch it 43 years after the fact. It was originally a 90-minute show but with all the commercials cut out, it adds up to about 68 minutes of interview. The last film of Mitchum's to be released before this interview was RYAN'S DAUGHTER (1970) and the show features a clip from that film and from NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), the only film clips used. Mitchum did not do a lot of TV interviews during his career. (I only remember seeing him once on "The Tonight Show," in 1977.) He was wary of interviewers and was usually pretty cagey with the press, relying on jokes and tall tales to keep them at bay. He's a little less guarded with Cavett and I suspect he watched Cavett's show a few times before agreeing to do it.

It's always great to see Mitchum raw, as he is a few times here, although one has to put up with him getting progressively drunker as the show went on. (Apparently it was the only way he would be able to keep still for 90 minutes.) He even admits as much early on when he holds up his glass and says, "I've gone from Perrier water to scotch, how do you like that shot?" And it sure looks like scotch in the closeups where he brings the glass up to his lips. (Unless, of course, it's ginger ale and he's just putting us on.) The drinking's never terribly evident, except when his stories get longer and more rambling and build up to nonexistent punchlines. (There are three long stories like this, but they're worth sitting through to get to the good stuff.) There are awkward moments and times when you wish Cavett would just shut up and let Mitchum talk and times when you wish he'd jump in and ask a follow-up question or press for a more detailed answer.

Mitchum does have a lot of good one-liners and he's better when telling about the broad arc of an experience rather than a specific story. For instance, he tells us about his experiences in high school, where he got into trouble frequently; life on a chain gang as a teenager; and his work on Hopalong Cassidy westerns at the start of his movie career, and he makes them interesting by telling us a few incidents that occurred during those periods and interspersing various one-liners, such as when he describes his vagrancy charge as "mopery with intent to gawk." There are occasional peeks into parts of Mitchum's life that he doesn't want us to see. When Cavett brings up his writing of poetry, Mitchum at first denies it, but when Cavett insists that he's read some of it, Mitchum reacts with a glare: "I didn't expect it to leak out." He then reluctantly admits to it and says that it was private and "I'd throw it in the waste basket and someone would retrieve it and blackmail me with it." His modesty about his non-cinematic creative efforts is on display when Cavett mentions an oratorio Mitchum wrote for a benefit for Jewish refugees after the war and staged at the Hollywood Bowl by Orson Welles. Mitchum dismisses it as a "blackout," i.e. a short stage skit that ends with a blackout, and says only that it was performed by the Jewish comic Benny Rubin. There's a paragraph on this performance in Lee Server's excellent biography of Mitchum, "Baby, I Don't Care," and Mitchum's overly modest account doesn't quite match it. I wish Cavett would have pressed him to say more about it. One way he could have framed it would have been to ask him to talk about working with Welles and Rubin. Mitchum had keen observational powers and was often best when talking about some of the people he worked with, as in one instance here where he talks about the great character actor Charles Bickford. Mitchum was a great mimic and could do all kinds of dialects and voice impressions. If only Cavett had capitalized on that.

Mitchum offers an astute assessment of his own talents, "I'm a good, professional actor, there's no great mystery about that," and goes on to lament some of his choices: "I should do much better work. I should have always held out for much better work and I'm sorry to say I haven't always done that." He denigrates the quality of the scripts he was given, even early in his career, and the sheer amount of waste by the studios: "Why would they make a film that has so little chance and do it so badly? I always felt that they could do much better." He describes this practice as unfair to audiences. I just wish Cavett had pressed him for some specific examples.

Mitchum talks about a host of other subjects including his marriage and his appeal to women, again displaying outsized modesty. But one can easily read between the lines if one so chooses.

The interview is available on YouTube and all Mitchum fans should definitely seek it out. Even non-Mitchum fans should watch it--to get a glimpse of what a real movie star was like off-camera in the days before gossip sites, 24-hour entertainment news channels and social media allowed stars to wear out their welcome long before their expiration date.

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Medium-budget pirate film with above-average script, 28 September 2014

When I saw that Sam Katzman was the producer of THE GOLDEN HAWK, I really wasn't expecting much, given his reputation for turning out dozens of low-budget potboilers during his long career. In 1952 alone, the year of this film's release, he produced nine features (five of them in color) and three 15-chapter serials. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by THE GOLDEN HAWK. It had a much more intricate story than usual for Katzman's pirate "epics," boasted much better production values, and offered a more high-powered pair of leads—Sterling Hayden and Rhonda Fleming--than we usually got from him. I'm guessing that Katzman lavished more care on this because the source material—a best-seller by prominent historical novelist Frank Yerby—was more prestigious than anything he usually had to work with. Only one previous Yerby novel had resulted in a screen adaptation—THE FOXES OF HARROW, a lavish 1948 historical drama from 20th Century Fox which starred Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara—and only one subsequent work was adapted—THE SARACEN BLADE (1954), also produced by Katzman.

I was especially taken with Rhonda Fleming's character, who has more than one name in the course of the film, given the multiple identities she takes on. We see her most often as "Rouge," a notorious English pirate queen who is frequently at odds with the hero of the piece, French privateer Kit Gerardo (Hayden), despite the fact that they're in love with each other. She even shoots him at one point when he enters her bedroom and looms over her in her sleep. (It isn't what she thinks it is, but how was she supposed to know that?) Fleming has a dramatic scene where she lambastes Gerardo and his pirate crew for pillaging the land she'd successfully developed into a Caribbean plantation under a new identity during a long absence from the narrative. A bigger-budget Hollywood historical drama might have focused more on her character and the turn of events that created the plantation.

Helena Carter (INVADERS FROM MARS) is quite good as Bianca de Valdiva, a Spanish lady who falls for Gerardo but winds up marrying his chief nemesis, Captain Luis del Toro (John Sutton), a Spanish officer charged with ridding the region of French pirates and privateers. Carter has a regal quality about her as she deals with each of the characters in turn and sizes them up properly before deciding what course of action is best for her. She and Fleming have a heart-to-heart talk late in the film that's actually quite moving. It's the kind of thing we don't see often from women characters in these types of genre films. John Sutton as the Spanish captain is not the cardboard villain he was in so many of these films (e.g. CAPTAIN PIRATE, SANGAREE), but a fair-minded man with secret knowledge about Gerardo that invokes a compassionate response.

Hayden's pirate team consists of Paul Cavanaugh, Michael Ansara, and Raymond Hatton, and all three actors are in the film from beginning to end and seem to be having the time of their lives. Cavanaugh was 63 when he made this and Hatton was 64 (and usually playing old coots in westerns by this point), yet the characters are quite vigorous and the two performers engage in a lot of physical action. Speaking of which, Fleming and Hayden perform a lot of action as well. Hayden seems to do all of his own swordfighting in a duel early on with Cavanaugh (who's doubled in much of the scene), while Fleming does a swimming scene that looks pretty rigorous.

There is a climactic battle between the French fleet at sea and the Spanish fortress at Cartagena which is pretty spectacular for a sequence chiefly involving miniatures and studio sets.

I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of the film, only for its entertainment value as a mid-range studio genre film with colorful sets and costumes, plenty of action, a fast pace, intriguing characters and lively, energetic performers. If there is one false note, it's the sequence set on a South Seas Island with Polynesian dancers and natives, including one veteran Hawaiian actor on hand, Al Kikume (Chief Mehevi in John Ford's THE HURRICANE, 1937). I thought this movie was set in the Caribbean, halfway around the world from Polynesia. Unless Hayden and his crew took a trip there on some business and just didn't tell the movie audience where they were going.

Imaginative Irish landscapes in cartoon about leprechauns, 4 September 2014

The storyline in "The Wee Men" (1947) involves a band of leprechauns in a remote Irish forest who make shoes and deliver them, at no cost, to the poor while protecting their crock of gold. The leprechaun code dictates that they must give up their gold to any man who successfully catches a leprechaun. Young Paddy, on the occasion of his 121st birthday, is allowed for the first time to deliver the shoes, which can only be done on a night with a full moon. In the course of the shoe distribution, Paddy encounters a tall, lanky, greedy miser--all arms, legs, bones, and dressed in black--who makes it his business to catch Paddy and force him to show him where the gold is. Paddy must then come up with a way to outwit him.

It's a slight plot, but it gives the director, Bill Tytla, the opportunity to indulge in some of the most atmospheric production design seen in a non-Disney studio cartoon of the era. From the opening narrated introduction of the Irish setting, seen entirely at night, to Paddy's lone, fearful journey through the forest to the menacing house where the miser lives and the forced trip back through the forest, we get a richly drawn and colored backdrop which reminds us of similar scenes in Disney features, which is no surprise when we consider that Tytla was once one of Disney's most distinguished animators, having made significant contributions to SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA, and DUMBO. Here, the character of the miser is as detailed, dramatic, and imposing a villain as any in a Disney movie.

As I watched it, I noticed similarities to Tex Avery's "The Peachy Cobbler" (1950) and Chuck Jones' "The Wearing of the Grin" (1951), both of which came AFTER this cartoon. Tytla himself made a follow-up cartoon in 1949 called "Leprechauns Gold," which is worth seeing but is much lighter hearted and less intense than this one. One scene in this cartoon, showing the elves making the shoes, features "Start the Day with a Song," which would become the theme song of Paramount's "Screen Songs" cartoon series. This cartoon was part of the Paramount Noveltoon series and can be found in a beautifully restored Technicolor copy on the Noveltoons Original Classics DVD set from Thunderbean Animation.

First studio cartoon to depict invaders from Mars, 3 September 2014

Two years before Warner Bros. sent Bugs Bunny to Mars for "Haredevil Hare" (1948), Paramount sent Popeye there for "Rocket to Mars" (1946), in which Popeye accidentally takes off in a rocket at a technical museum and winds up on Mars where he encounters a green-skinned Martian Bluto and his army of "little green men," all intent on invading Earth. Armed with spinach, of course, our hero fights to stop the fleet before it can launch. There are a few impressive shots of the Martian landscape and the relentless march of Martians and their armored vehicles as they prepare to load up a massive spaceship for the invasion. The gags employed in Popeye's subsequent fight scenes with the Martians are, however, less impressive. The whole threat is handled a little too easily and one wonders what a longer, two-reel cartoon with this theme, with added action and suspense, would be like, especially when compared to the spectacular two-reel Technicolor cartoons made in 1936-39 which placed Popeye in Arabian Nights settings (Sindbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin).

This is, I believe, the first Hollywood cartoon to feature a theme of alien invasion and it came eight years after Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. There were, of course, earlier cartoons with depictions of travels to Mars (e.g. Max Fleischer's Koko the Clown cartoon, "A Trip to Mars," from 1924) and the moon (e.g. Fleischer's "Dancing on the Moon," from 1935) and at least one cartoon I know of that referenced Welles' broadcast (Bob Clampett's "Kitty Kornered," also 1946), but I don't know of any others before this one that actually depicted alien invaders, either on another planet or on Earth. (In Fleischer's earlier Superman cartoons, the threats were always earthbound.) There was renewed interest in this theme after the war as reports of UFOs, or "flying saucers" as they came to be known after 1947, began to increase.

The director here is Bill Tytla, a former top animator with the Disney Studio who was renowned for his work on SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA and DUMBO, and one can see his considerable talent in the overall design of this above-average postwar Popeye entry. The color process used here is the two-color process, Cinecolor, and not Technicolor.

Lots of classic footage in feature-length documentary on the Walt Disney studio, 21 August 2014

"It All Started with a Mouse: The Disney Story" (1989) covers the saga of Walt Disney from his not-so-humble beginnings as an ambitious aspiring cartoonist and animator in Kansas City to the revival of his legacy in the late 1980s when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over management of the struggling Disney studio and gave new life to both its live-action and animation divisions. The film picks and chooses what it wants to cover along the way, with lots of attention paid, for instance, to SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO and BAMBI, but very little to anything in the immediate postwar era aside from snippets of Disneyland and some of the TV shows. It then zips past the later decades to drop down in the 1980s and promote the studio's then-newest offerings, most notably WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988).

In the segments on classic Disney animation, there are lots of interview snippets with Disney staffers from the golden age of the studio, including prominent animators Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and other key personnel. Roy E. Disney, son of Roy Disney, Walt's brother and partner in the studio, is interviewed as well. We see lots of footage from the aforementioned classic Disney features, as well as from the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence in FANTASIA, but also footage from the short cartoons, "Father Noah's Ark," "The Old Mill," and "Clock Cleaners." There is also plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, including a fascinating segment, narrated by Walt, that demonstrates how the multiplane camera worked, as shown by blueprints and animated diagrams, followed by footage of a finished scene that showed how this "super cartoon camera" allowed different levels of background to move at different paces in order to duplicate the actual perspective that a viewer experiences when traveling through a landscape. We're then shown scenes from "The Old Mill" to further demonstrate the use of this camera. There's also a segment where Walt narrates a demonstration of how a scene of Mickey Mouse walking down a country road is animated to show the background moving behind him.

These segments are valuable for aspiring animators and animation historians because they include lots of discussion of character design and character movement, as well as perspective, with visual aids provided by pencil tests, drawings and film clips. Sometimes, an artist or craftsman will play a scene on video and stop and start it to demonstrate the technique he's discussing. For Disney historians, there are eyewitness accounts of Disney's unique method of acting out a story for his animators to show them what he wanted. In one instance, back in 1934, Disney called all his animators into a screening room on the lot for an evening session where he first acted out his imagined Snow White story for the entire group from start to finish. This was to become, of course, the studio's first feature-length animated film, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937). Accounts like this offer a remarkable window into Disney's working methods.

All of these segments would have made a fascinating one-hour documentary on classic Disney animation. In fact, they probably have enough segments like these in the Disney archive to make a whole series on Disney animation techniques. But in this film, after the Disneyland/Disney World segment ends at the 69-minute mark, the final 15 minutes of this 84-minute film focus on the then-new management and their strategies for revitalizing the Disney brand. There are clips from the studio's then-latest fully-animated feature, OLIVER & COMPANY (1988), and extensive footage from the live-action/animation hybrid, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, accompanied by comments from the film's animation director, Richard Williams, who describes various innovations in the film's animation techniques. The interview segments with Eisner, the company's chairman, and Katzenberg, the studio's chairman, were shot when the two men were on the cusp of the high points of their partnership, which would eventually dissolve in acrimony in 1994, six years after these interviews, when Eisner fired Katzenberg just as THE LION KING was racking up record box office receipts. Curiously, the film that sparked the resurgence of the Disney Studio's animation unit, THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989), is never mentioned here, even though it was already in production when these interviews were shot. Still, as a capsule moment of a key turning point in Disney Studio history, this segment is invaluable for its insights into studio management and the particular quirks both Eisner and Katzenberg brought to the enterprise.

This film does not appear to be available on home video nor can it be found on YouTube. For this review I was able to screen a copy taped off the Disney Channel 20-odd years ago.

Tetsuwan Birdy (1996) (V)
Below-average anime from an above-average creative team, 4 August 2014

"Birdy the Mighty" is a four-part anime OAV (made-for-video) series about a super-powered intergalactic policewoman, Birdy Cephon Altera, who takes over the body of a hapless Tokyo high school boy named Tsutomu and has to switch back and forth with him when danger approaches. In the first three episodes she fights various cyborg and android creatures, for reasons that are never terribly clear. Eventually—and way too late in the narrative for anyone to care anymore—we learn that it all has something to do with secret experiments in creating super-soldiers that were begun by the Japanese during the war and are now being revived by a high-powered villainess, Christella Revi, who comports herself like a fashionable corporate head and directs her team to poison Tokyo's water supply with a serum derived from those experiments. Her motive is never spelled out and the implications of Japan's involvement in research like this is never dealt with. Nor is it ever clear why some space federation is involved in all of this.

It's slow going and lacking in any of the excitement that we usually find in anime sci-fi action. There's never any suspense as Birdy fights one android or cyborg per episode in the first three episodes, none of which represent any significant threat to her. Besides, the comic potential of a high school boy coping with the presence in his body of a beautiful, voluptuous intergalactic space warrior is never adequately explored. Yes, there's a scene or two where he switches genders in front of his high school girlfriend, but it's never played for laughs. And there is one scene where Tsutomu's father barges into the bathroom as the boy is supposedly bathing only to encounter a nude Birdy. But even then, it's not staged to be funny. (Didn't "Ranma ½" mine similar territory successfully for 161 episodes?)

It's hard to believe that Yoshiaki Kawajiri is credited with directing something this bland and undistinguished. There are absolutely none of the graphic stylistic touches one would associate with the director of WICKED CITY, NINJA SCROLL or VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOODLUST. Nor would you imagine that this was written by Chiaki Konaka, the man who gave us the scripts for "Serial Experiments Lain," "Armitage III," "Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040" and any number of highly imaginative sci-fi series he is connected with. My guess is that these two had a contract to fulfill and a short deadline and dashed this off without a great deal of thought or effort.

I have this series on a two-tape VHS edition in its English-dubbed version, which I purchased in 1999. I remember taking a long time to see the whole thing back then, if I ever did. I never liked it enough to want to upgrade to the bilingual DVD edition that came out in 2004 and which is now out of print. When I learned that no comments had been posted to IMDb about it, I watched the series again in its entirety to see if it had improved any. It hadn't. To make matters worse, the English dubbing is some of the worst I've ever heard. The actor who does the voice of Tsutomu speaks in a grating high-pitched whine that kills off any sympathy we might have mustered for the character. I'm sure the Japanese track would be easier on the ears, but it wouldn't solve the problems with the shallow script, tame direction, or lackluster concept behind it all.

Paris 1900 (1947)
Dizzying array of archival footage of Paris before WWI, 23 June 2014

Paris 1900: LA BELLE EPOQUE 1900-1914 (1947) chronicles the period between the Paris Exposition of 1900 and the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 and offers a nonstop stream of silent film footage documenting varied activities, cityscapes and street life in Paris in those years, with the emphasis on leisure activities for the well-to-do. There are quick segments on many subjects, including fashion, sports, women's liberation, automobiles, aviation, the Eiffel Tower, public parks, theater, painting, music, literature, and labor strife before a 20-minute finale focused on the clouds of war threatening to rain down on a period of unprecedented peace and tranquility in Europe. The film mixes staged footage and scenes from fiction films with news footage (chiefly by Pathé) and early "actualité" film clips. There is a long list of archival sources credited at the beginning of the film.

There's an almost stream-of-consciousness quality to the editing as it rapidly goes from one theme to the next with the narration barely keeping pace and sometimes staying out of it entirely. The most illuminating segments, from a historical standpoint, include one on the great flood of 1910 when the Seine River overflowed its banks and threatened to turn Paris into Venice; a treatment of women's suffrage, including women operating as "cabbies" driving horse-drawn carriages through the streets of Paris; a segment on artists with shots of Auguste Rodin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet; and a segment on performers including Maurice Chevalier in a silent comedy, Sarah Bernhardt offstage, Lucien Guitry (father of Sacha, a consultant on this film) performing Moliere, and performers whose names I didn't recognize doing Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. Other famous people seen in film footage include Enrico Caruso, Buffalo Bill, opera singer Nellie Melba, writer Andre Gide and playwright Edmond Rostand ("Cyrano de Bergerac"). One segment that does not end well shows a tailor described as "a modern Icarus," rather nervously preparing to jump from the Eiffel Tower to demonstrate his creation, an attachment resembling an automobile air bag and apparently designed to inflate in flight like a parachute.

Towards the end we see a peace conference involving all sorts of world leaders including King Edward VII of England and his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. American industrialist Andrew Carnegie shows up to put in his bid for peace. The film briefly leaves Paris for glimpses of other countries where turmoil was building, including Austria, Russia, Greece, Turkey, and Portugal. Eventually, when war looks more and more inevitable, we see various armies marching and parading, weapons of destruction being tested, and recruits from colonies in Africa and other regions arriving in France and submitting to drilling and training.

The version I saw has sardonic English-language narration voiced by actor Monty Woolley ("The Man Who Came to Dinner"), who makes it sound consistently witty even when things take a darker turn in the final stretch. The English narration was written by John Mason Brown, who had been a drama critic for the New York Evening Post and then a columnist for Saturday Review. As much as I like Woolley's narration, I wonder what the original French narration was like and if it gave the film a different overall tone. There is a lively orchestral score by Guy Bernard that accompanies almost the entire film, giving us a nostalgic sense of lost innocence in its main theme and using all sorts of period tunes and well-known cues to bolster individual scenes. Future director Alain Resnais worked on the film in different capacities while Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, served as a consultant.

An outfit called Grapevine Video sells DVD copies of this film. You can Google them and order through their website.

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