Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Friday, Mar 28, 2014
Thanks less than a million.

Did you hear the one about the idealistic politician who learns he must sell his soul to the corrupt “machine” to secure support, and then, his conscience prodded as much as his libido by the disappointment of a good woman, he finally makes a speech that tells the truth and wins the girl? You’ve heard it if you’ve seen any number of Hollywood political comedies building up to the Big Speech. A very good example from the Depression is Thanks a Million starring Dick Powell. A smart, glossy example from the Clinton era is The American President. A blander example from the dawn of the 1950s is The Reformer and the Redhead, now available on demand from Warner Archive.


It opens with the sharpest satirical comment it’s going to make. An African guide fires a rifle at a lion. When it’s safe, a white man (Ray Collins) pokes his pith-helmeted head from the bushes, grabs the rifle, and rushes over to pose for the photo. His niece (Kathleen Freeman) does the same, and together they swindle a reputation as big game hunters. Back in the California town they control, their self-promotion crosses swords with the local zookeeper (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter Kathleen (June Allyson), who despises those who hunt animals for sport. They lose their zoo jobs, so Kathleen applies to up-and-coming “reform candidate” Andy Hale (the same Dick Powell from the aforementioned Thanks a Million ) for support and eventual romance.


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Friday, Mar 28, 2014
Look away.

Available on demand from Warner Archive is The Vanishing Virginian, the last film directed by spiritual sentimentalist Frank Borzage for MGM. It belongs to a thriving strand of nostalgic small-town Americana that sprang up in Hollywood during WWII, and whose apotheosis was Meet Me in St. Louis. Other prominent examples include The Human Comedy, One Foot in Heaven and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.


Whether set in the past or the present, all are driven by tension between yearning for a supposedly simpler time and a subtle awareness of upheaval and loss spurred by war, which is sometimes mentioned explicitly and sometimes suppressed. They seem like pleasant escapism on the surface but roil with tensions and uncertainties. The contemporary context of this film is evoked in the opening of the New York Times review: “Despite the strict rationing law on sugar, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has gone far beyond the two-lump limit in The Vanishing Virginian”.


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Friday, Mar 14, 2014
In Praise of Margaret O'Brien

Margaret O’Brien was a cosmically, even ironically self-possessed child actor who concentrated her full attention like the seasoned trouper she was, whether listening and watching or leaning forward to enunciate her lines with breathless intensity. She Sure Was Acting, and it went beyond charming into a spellbinding tension between the artificial and the totally credible. Her general preternaturalism made her effectively emotional when required to burst into racking sobs or deliver a tear-stained restraint.


Aside from lending support (such as playing Judy Garland’s little sister in Meet Me in St. Louis), she carried several vehicles herself, beginning with the sentimental WWII orphan story Journey for Margaret. This established her ability as a star in her own right, and was followed by an even more effective vehicle crafted specifically for her precocity, Lost Angel. Here she plays Alpha, an orphan raised behind the walls of a New York institute according to a scientific schedule designed to make her a genius.


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Friday, Mar 7, 2014
Let the pros match and dispatch.

Two out-of-print Paramount DVD’s are now available on demand from Warner Archive.


Joseph Anthony’s The Matchmaker, adapted by John Michael Hayes from Thornton Wilder’s play, is the story now best known through its musical incarnation as Hello Dolly. The story, structure, and characters are exactly the same, as well as some of the dialogue. The biggest difference is that this earlier version employs Wilder’s theatrical device of having the characters frequently address the audience; it’s a trick the musical effectively replaces with song.


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Friday, Feb 28, 2014
Withering lines, dithering cops.

Spinster schoolteacher and amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers was created by novelist Stuart Palmer, perhaps as a younger American answer to Miss Marple. RKO made several films of the character in the 1930s, now gathered in one convenient collection on demand from Warner Archive.


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