Classic Movie Travels: Bobby Hutchins

Classic Movie Travels: Bobby Hutchins

Bobby Hutchins
Bobby Hutchins

Robert Eugene Hutchins was born on March 29, 1925, in Tacoma, Washington, to James and Olga Constance Hutchins. As a child, Hutchins was extremely outgoing and family friends persuaded his parents to take him to Hollywood to be photographed. The photographer was so impressed by Hutchins’ personality and asked to screen test him, with the resulting footage ultimately making its way to Hal Roach Studios. Roach thought that Hutchins would be an ideal addition to the Our Gang series and offered Hutchins a five-year contract.

As was typical of the Our Gang children, Hutchins soon received a nickname: “Wheezer.” Reportedly, on his first day at the studio, Hutchins was running around so excitedly that he began to wheeze. The nickname would remain his throughout his tenure in the series, typically portraying a tag-along brother in silent and sound shorts.

Hutchins’ first appearance in the series was in Baby Brother (1927), playing Horatio. He portrayed a main character in many other installments in the series. His character wore a trademark beanie and corduroy vest.

The Little Rascals, Our Gang

Behind the scenes, Hutchins’ father was particularly competitive and overbearing. Co-star Jackie Cooper once shared the following in an interview:

“You’d go to play with Wheezer, and his father would pull him away, very competitive. I didn’t get a satisfactory answer from my mother or grandmother as to why, but he was to be left alone. I guess his father was trying to make him a star or something. Obviously it never happened as it did for Spanky or some of the other kids.”

When not filming, Hutchins’ father isolated him from the other children and malnourished him, deliberately underfeeding him to keep him small and employable. This also held true for Hutchins’ brother, Richard Rae “Dickie” Hutchins, who also spent time in the series. His plan backfired; while Hutchins photographed well, he lacked the energy and commanding screen presence of his leading co-stars. Hutchins fulfilled the rest of his contract as a background player.

Once his contract was up for renewal in 1933, Hutchins’ parents walked out on Roach, demanding higher pay for Hutchins. As a result, Hutchins missed the final four episodes of the 1932 season, with the new gang leader being portrayed by child star Dickie Moore. Roach ultimately terminated Hutchins’ contract when Hutchins was eight years old. His final appearance in the series was in Mush and Milk (1933).

Beyond his time in Our Gang, Hutchins made appearances in three other featurettes. His parents divorced and Hutchins, his mother, stepfather, and brother moved to Tacoma, Washington. There, he enrolled in Parkland Grade School and, later, Lincoln High School. He eventually worked as a gas station attendant in 1942. After his high school graduation, he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces by 1943, enrolling in the Aviation Cadet Program to become a pilot.

Tragically, Hutchins was killed as a result of a mid-air collision on May 17, 1945. He was trying to land a plane during the last 30 minutes of his basic training when it struck another plane of the same unit at Merced Army Air Field in Merced, California, later to become Castle Air Force Base. Edward F. Hamel, the other pilot, survived. Hutchins was close to graduating from this training program and his mother was scheduled to travel to the airfield the following week for the commencement ceremony. He was 20 years old.

Following his funeral at Trinity Lutheran Church, Hutchins was laid to rest at Parkland Lutheran Cemetery in Tacoma, Washington. His grave is honored with a flag each Memorial Day.

In 1930, Hutchins and his parents lived at 9036 Gibson Los Angeles, California. His father worked as an artists’ manager at this point, presumably for Hutchins. The home stands.

9036 Gibson Los Angeles, California
9036 Gibson Los Angeles, California

In 1940, Hutchins lived with his mother, stepfather Russell Hagerson, brother, and grandmother, in the Brookdale neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington.

The scene of his crash still exists near Castle Air Force Base and is inaccessible to the general public.

Trinity Lutheran Church’s “Old Gray Church” no longer stands but Parkland Lutheran Cemetery is located at 510 136th St. E., Tacoma, Washington.

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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Monsters and Matinees: Meeting The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre

Meeting The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre

Louise Mandore was just a child when she wandered off during a family funeral and accidentally locked herself in a burial chamber. The experience left her haunted by nightmares and with a lifelong fear of being buried alive.

She made sure that would never happen.

Her will mandated the following:

  • Five doctors had to examine her and sign the death certificate.
  • Her body would not be embalmed.
  • The coffin lid would remain open, never to be closed.
  • And one last thing: A phone had to be within arm’s reach of the coffin with a direct line into the bedroom of her son, Henry, so she could call for help by dialing the code H-E-L-P (it’s engraved on a nearby cross in her tomb).
Telephones loom large throughout The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre including the one in the room of Henry Mandore (played by Tom Simcox), that is a direct line to his mother’s crypt.

Darn, if a year after Louise dies, that phone doesn’t start ringing in Henry’s room, with the sounds of a sobbing woman on the other end.

That crying – loud and jarring – is the first thing heard in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, a noise uncomfortably repeated throughout the atmospheric 1964 horror film.

Those opening seconds over grainy images of a cemetery will abruptly shift to overhead views of a large city as dark, dramatic music plays. But wait – the mood changes again. Large waves wash away the cityscape to reveal a beach where a man walks, looking casually chic and handsome in a pullover sweater. The music is carefree and romantic and then abruptly goes all bleak and bombastic again. That shifting tone will continue, keeping us unsettled as the story unfolds.

Walking toward us is Martin Landau as Nelson Orion, the credits announce, then listing “guest stars” like Judith Anderson and Diane Baker. Great cast but guest stars? What’s going on? Is this a television series?

Yes and no.

Martin Landau is a steady, impressive presence as an architect who restores forsaken houses – and people – in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre was the pilot for a planned anthology TV series to be called The Haunted by Joseph Stefano, known for writing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and for his writing and producing on The Outer Limits TV series. This explained why Ghost felt like a nicely done extended episode of The Twilight Zone. (I am not as familiar with The Outer Limits, hence the TZ reference.)

Stefano did Ghost after leaving The Outer Limits and brought some crew members with him. In addition to the notable cast, it also featured the skills of composer Dominic Frontiere and director of photography Conrad Hall (Oscar winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sunshine Kid, Road to Perdition and American Beauty). There is talent here.

* * * * *

Young married couple Henry Mandore (played by Tom Simcox) and Vivia (Diane Baker) live on a large 100-acre family estate with a mansion that would be right at home in a gothic horror film like The Haunting.

Judith Anderson adds to the creepy factor as she lurks about a large mansion as the housekeeper to Tom Simcox and Diane Baker in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

Vivia returns from a three-week trip to take care of charity donations made by Henry’s mother to find him traumatized by those sobbing phone calls. (Henry has been blind since birth.) To ramp up the unease, there’s scary new housekeeper Paulina (Judith Anderson) who terrifies Vivia at first sight, walking out of the shadows with heavy eye makeup and a scowl. Paulina is always quietly lurking about like a specter as she peers out from behind doors and bushes, unnervingly sits in a corner just watching and skulks about the cemetery.

It’s in the cemetery at midnight that Vivia meets Nelson Orion (we’ll just call him Orion because it’s a cool name) at her husband’s request, thanking him for not dismissing her call as a prank. She doesn’t believe in ghosts – nor, surprisingly, does our paranormal investigator – but they are both willing to research the sobbing phone calls to help Henry. Orion, an architect who makes a sizable living at his trade and does this on the side, won’t charge a penny if it is a “real” haunting, but if it’s a fraud, he says, he will tell the police.

A young wife (played by Diane Baker) is frightened by strange occurrences.

They enter the impressive mausoleum, which is the size of a house with multiple rooms, stairs and artifacts. It would be almost homey if it wasn’t inhabited by the dead. As they nonchalantly walk and talk along the dark hallways toward the burial chamber of Henry’s mother, the camera also follows someone traveling the corridors, sobbing. Doors blow open and slam shut, but only the viewer is aware of this at first. Then the force bursts into the mother’s tomb attacking Orion and Vivia, all whirling winds, screeching violins, shrieks and cries. It is terrifying to watch Vivia flail and scream like a madwoman as she bats away at some sinister entity. (Baker is terrific in this film.)

What just happened? They aren’t waiting around to find out, but Vivia has left her purse behind and runs back to get it. Then she inexplicably sits, opens the purse in the tomb and pulls out a vial as everything starts up again: the lightning, the wailing wind and now a visit by a blood-splashed ghostly figure in a black shroud.

Vivia, who clearly has issues, loses it again with this second incident and spends the night at Orion’s ultramodern beach house perched on a cliff to recover. (It’s not clear why he took her there and not home – there is not a romance between them.)

Martin Landau, left, and Diane Baker are terrorized by an unseen force in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre. This scene is inside a crypt where a telephone sits near the coffin of a woman who was terrified of being buried alive.

The next morning, she is soothed after drinking from that black vial, and is then transfixed by a painting of Mission at the Sierra de Cobre on Orion’s immense gallery wall of artwork. He explains his skills were once needed there to solve the legend of a bleeding ghost and a murder. It did not go well as we later learn because our creepy housekeeper just happened to be there at the same time. Paulina calls Orion a charlatan because he failed to “exorcise the bleeding ghost” in Sierra de Cobre and wants him gone. But Orion’s not going anywhere until he can help – and that means helping everyone.

As an architect, he works on the restoration of old, forsaken homes and this “hobby” does the same by restoring people. His belief is that everyone is haunted by something, real or imaginary, and that’s true of these people. Henry wants a paranormal explanation because if it’s not his mother haunting him, then he’s going mad as his father did. Vivia, who is prone to nightmares, seems especially sensitive to paranormal activity and doesn’t handle it well. The mysterious Paulina has something boiling beneath her cold exterior that is ready to explode.

Though only Henry has heard the phone calls, they are all together when a loud and deep banging starts in his room, making a large window seat rumble and cushions fly. Henry and Vivia are terrified, claiming that’s the sound of Louise Mandore pounding her way out of the coffin. Even the skeptical Orion believes it was a psychical disturbance (a phrase he likes to use).

So, what’s really going on?

We’ll get information fast as Orion seeks the truth in his calm, matter of fact way. He uses his housekeeper, Mrs. Finch (delightfully played by Nellie Burt), as a sounding board. She’s a staunch nonbeliever and plays the devil’s advocate for him. The scenes of them talking and throwing ideas off each other get our minds working, too. Drug-induced hallucinations, she suggests? Hidden mechanical devices? This is a bit fun.

* * * * *

Nelson Orion (played by Martin Landau) studies up on his newest investigation by atmospheric candlelight in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

Director Joseph Stefano and cinematographer Conrad Hall do an excellent job of keeping the film tense and melancholy, a great combination for a ghost story. Except for the scenes on the beach, the movie is gloomy at best as Hall plays with light, often filming characters in heavy shadows if not nearly outright darkness. A scene where Orion is reading by the light of giant candelabra is especially effective in keeping the atmospheric mood even at an ordinary moment.

Hall’s camera likes to be overhead, perched above unsuspecting characters as if ready to pounce.  Someone – or worse, something – is keeping an eye on all of them and it’s unsettling. He gives menacing life to the telephone by framing it in the forefront of scenes, dwarfing characters and illustrating the hold it has over them.

As Vivia Mandore (Diane Baker) looks on, investigator Henry Orion (Martin Landau) is surprised that the phone inside a tomb is warm to the touch in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

Terror comes in jolting moments like that early scene with Vivia and Orion in the mother’s tomb. Stefano makes sure the viewer doesn’t get comfortable.

Stefano’s storytelling keeps us intrigued and when he finally unravels all the strings that tie everything together we see that he gave us just enough information to keep us going, but not enough for the full picture so we have a satisfying conclusion to meeting The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

* * * * *

Nelson Orion (Martin Landau) and his housekeeper Mrs. Finch (Nellie Burt) talk through his latest case in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

It’s a bummer that Nelson Orion only lives in this film. I really enjoyed watching him thoughtfully work the case. We can see how Mrs. Finch and architect Benedict Sloane (played by Leonard Stone) are set up to be the two recurring characters in future episodes. I would have enjoyed sitting in on more conversations with Orion and Mrs. Finch.

And what about the beautiful blonde on the beach Orion invited to a haunted house on Friday night? I wonder how that date went – and if there will be a second one. Yes, I feel cheated by only meeting Nelson Orion once and thinking of all the future investigations that never came to be.

But the film gave me a new appreciation for Martin Landau and there is much I have to yet to see by the actor. Plus I will definitely revisit The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre. That will keep me busy.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a writer and board member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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Western RoundUp: Joe Kidd

Western RoundUp: Joe Kidd

It may be hard to believe, given my love for Westerns, but up to this point the only Clint Eastwood Western I’d seen was his early film Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958), which I reviewed here close to two years ago.

I watch relatively few post ’60s Westerns, being leery of the more overt violence often found in films of that era, but I’ve nonetheless been intending to give Eastwood’s “spaghetti Westerns” a try. However, I decided I’d start my Eastwood Western viewing with Joe Kidd (1972).

Joe Kidd Poster 1

I was drawn to Joe Kidd by its locations, including Old Tucson, which I’ve visited a couple of times, and Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, an area with which I have great familiarity. The movie also filmed around Bishop and Sherwin Summit, spots further north of Lone Pine on Highway 395.

I was also interested as the movie was directed by John Sturges. Sturges had previously worked in Lone Pine on Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958). Coincidentally, Sturges also directed the last movie I reviewed for this column, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).

Joe Kidd Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood as Joe Kidd

Joe Kidd is set in Sinola, a town in the American Southwest, circa 1900; the film was actually titled Sinola in some countries. Eastwood plays Kidd, a one-time bounty hunter in jail for disturbing the peace.

Kidd, now a rancher, is recruited by wealthy land owner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to track down Chama (John Saxon), a revolutionary trying to reclaim local ancestral lands for his people.

Kidd initially declines to join Harlan but changes his mind after he finds Chama has injured one of his workers and stolen his horses. However, Kidd quickly becomes dismayed with the brutality of Harlan and his men.

Joe Kidd Lobby Card 1

Harlan’s gang takes over a small village and sends a message to Chama that he’ll periodically kill five hostages if Chama refuses to surrender. By that point Harlan no longer trusts Kidd and puts him in the town church along with the hostages.

One by one, Kidd manages to quietly knock off some of Harlan’s men standing guard at the church, then puts in motion a plan to escape and capture Chama himself. Kidd plans to deliver Chama to the sheriff in Sinola, which will also draw Harlan away from the hostages.

Joe Kidd, John Saxon and Clint Eastwood
John Saxon and Clint Eastwood

I thought Joe Kidd was a solid film with a good performance by Eastwood. He’s clearly an imperfect person, as evidenced by his rather childish behavior as the film opens, but he’s also a strong, observant man who isn’t to be trifled with.

Eastwood’s Kidd may be downright scary at times, but he also has some wonderful moments of dry humor, starting with a scene early on where he holds off one of Chama’s men in a saloon, pouring himself a beer while holding a rifle. A French film poster alludes to this moment:

Joe Kidd Poster 2

There’s also a very amusing set piece near the end where Kidd drives a steam train straight through a saloon, gaining the advantage in a shootout with Harlan’s men.

Robert Duvall is as good as one might expect as the powerful Harlan. Initially the viewer sees Harlan as someone willing to spend money and hire bad men in order to have his own way. As the film progresses, however, Harlan reveals he is completely evil, willing to kill indiscriminately and threaten the lives of innocent women and children if Chama doesn’t comply with his wishes.

Joe Kidd Clint Eastwood 3

Saxon’s character isn’t quite so developed, and he shows himself to be an ungrateful chauvinist in a scene with his loyal girlfriend (Stella Garcia). That said, Saxon does what he can with the material he has to work with, particularly near the end when he and Eastwood reach a situation where “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Chama may not like Kidd trying to take him to the law, but he does recognize Kidd is far more ethical than Harlan.

The section of the film where Joe is held with the hostages but manages to knock off a couple of his captors seemed strikingly familiar…and then I made one of those wonderful movie connections which helped explain that feeling. The Joe Kidd screenplay was by Elmore Leonard, who also wrote the story which inspired the Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film The Tall T (1957).

In The Tall T, Scott is held hostage by Richard Boone, but late in the movie he manages to cleverly dispatch a couple of Boone’s henchmen. No wonder that Joe Kidd sequence seemed so familiar! In another nice connection, The Tall T was also filmed in the Alabama Hills.

Joe Kidd Clint Eastwood 2

Speaking of locations, it’s somewhat amusing to have the characters in Joe Kidd ride out of the Alabama Hills straight into Old Tucson, but that type of editing is also something Western fans are accustomed to seeing. For instance, I recall a Hopalong Cassidy Western where characters in the Alabama Hills shoot at people who are at Iverson Ranch!

The movie was beautifully shot in Technicolor Panavision by Bruce Surtees, son of Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees. Bruce Surtees worked on numerous Eastwood films as both camera operator and cinematographer.

The unique Alabama Hills landscapes look marvelous in Joe Kidd, as shot by Surtees. Here’s a screenshot prominently showcasing Lone Pine Peak, in the background at the left. Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, is deeper in the background, just left of center. I suspect it was as cold as it looks here!

Alabama Hills 4

Here are a couple additional screen captures of the stunning views of the Alabama Hills:

Alabama Hills 1
Alabama Hills 2

As it happens, my husband has taken horseback tour groups past some of the Joe Kidd locations in his role as a tour trail guide for the Lone Pine Film Festival. Fans of the film should considering attending the festival for an “in person” look at the scenery.

There are a number of familiar faces in Joe Kidd’s supporting cast, including Don Stroud, Dick Van Patten, Gregory Walcott, and Chuck Hayward.

It was fun to see Clint Ritchie, who plays Calvin, in this film; Ritchie later spent a couple decades playing Phil Carey’s son on the soap opera One Life to Live.

Lynne Marta, who plays Duvall’s rather giddy mistress, who finds herself attracted to Joe, just passed away in January 2024, at the age 78. Marta was part of a sad story in Hollywood history, providing eyewitness testimony on the shooting death of her friend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer, in 1989.

The Joe Kidd musical score was composed by Lalo Schifrin.

Joe Kidd Bluray

Joe Kidd is a solid mid-range Western with a number of positive things to offer, including good performances, excellent locations, and connections to Westerns past. I found it worthwhile, and seeing it encouraged me to continue digging deeper into Eastwood’s Westerns.

I watched this film on an attractive Universal Pictures Blu-ray released in 2018. The disc had English subtitles but no extras. Two years later the movie was released as a Kino Lorber Special Edition Blu-ray with a commentary track and an interview with cast member Don Stroud.

– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

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Classic Movie Travels: Jean Darling

Classic Movie Travels: Jean Darling

Jean Darling
Jean Darling

Dorothy Jean LeVake was born on August 23, 1922, in Santa Monica, California, to Rollin Darling and Dorothy Hamilton. Her name was changed to Jean Darling at five months old when her mother and father separated. By the next month, she began appearing in films fulfilling baby roles. In 1926, she performed in a screen test for the Our Gang series, working in 46 silent featurettes and five silent featurettes for the series. Her tenure with the series ended in 1929.

As the years went on, Darling worked in other film roles. She attended the Lawlor Professional School for young performers in Los Angeles, California. Darling appeared uncredited in the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy film Babes in Toyland (1934) and as the young Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre (1934). She also maintained a rigorous schedule at the age of 14, performing as many as seven shows a day on radio and the stage in addition to keeping up with her studies.

Our Gang
Our Gang

In 1940, she studied voice and was awarded a scholarship by the New York Municipal Opera Association. After turning down a film role in MGM’s Andy Hardy series, Darling debuted on Broadway as part of the 1942 production of Count Me In. Her stage career thrived when she appeared in the original Broadway production of Carousel in 1945 as Carrie Pipperidge, working in 850 performances of the show.

In the 1950s, she was actively working on radio and television, hosting an NBC New York City television show called A Date with Jean Darling. She also had a show called The Singing Knit-Witch which aired in Hollywood.

Older Jean Darling

On June 14, 1954, she married Reuben Bowen, who worked under the stage name of Kajar the Magician. Darling assisted him with his magic act, singing songs and touring with him internationally. The duo appeared in the May 23, 1955, issue of Look Magazine with Kajar performing a levitation illusion with Darling. She was also photographed visiting the set of the children’s television show Clubhouse Gang, where she is signing autographs for children. She and Bowen had a son named Roy Hamilton-Bowen. She and Bowen ultimately separated in the 1970s.

In 1974, Darling moved to Dublin, Ireland. There, she wrote mystery stories, with over 50 of them published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Whispers. She also took on the persona of “Aunt Poppy,” reading her stories on Irish public radio and television. Additionally, she enjoyed writing radio plays and journalistic writing.

Over the years, Darling gave interviews about her career and time working for Hal Roach and appeared in documentaries on the subject, even attending conventions and film festivals as a special guest. She published her first book of memoirs A Peek at the Past in 1994. Her second memoir, Buttercakes and Banana Oil, was released in 2008. Her final acting role was in The Butler’s Tale (2013), a silent comedy short.

Darling later moved with her son to Rodgau, Germany. She passed away in a Rödermark, Germany, nursing home from a lung ailment on September 4, 2015, at age 93.

Darling was buried at Dudenhofen Friedhof, located in Dudenhofen, Kreis Offenbach, Hessen, Germany. Her epitaph translates to “A star so near and yet so far.”

Today, there are some extant point of interest in relation to Darling’s life.

In 1930, she and her mother resided at 7196 Woodrow Wilson Dr., Los Angeles, California. The home remains.

Jean Darling 7196 Woodrow Wilson Dr., Los Angeles, California
7196 Woodrow Wilson Dr., Los Angeles, California

Her home in Ireland stands at 294 S. Circular Rd., Dublin, Ireland.

Jean Darling 294 S. Circular Rd., Dublin, Ireland
294 S. Circular Rd., Dublin, Ireland

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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Silents are Golden: Fresh From The Vaudeville Stage: Buster Keaton Joins The Movies

Buster Keaton Joins The Movies

Even compared to his fellow stars, Buster Keaton’s early life was uniquely colorful. Born to medicine show performers in 1895 and first appearing onstage when he was barely old enough to walk, he became the star of his family’s vaudeville act when he was a child, made a savvy move to films by his early twenties, and directed and starred in some of the finest comedies of the 1920s. The story of why he left the stage for motion pictures reminds us what a vast, busy, and colorful world of entertainment there was in the early 20th century, and how it proved to be an invaluable training ground.

An ad for The Three Keatons vaudeville act
An ad for The Three Keatons vaudeville act.

Keaton’s earliest days are a bit shrouded in myths and legends–some that were admittedly helped along by his irrepressible father Joe. Joe and Myra Keaton were both traveling performers and worked for medicine shows like the Umatilla Indian Medicine Company, just managing to earn a meager living. Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton was born on a night they happened to be stopping in little Piqua, Kansas for a week’s worth of shows. Various stories have circulated about the“Buster” nickname (one even said it was bestowed by Harry Houdini himself), but it likely came from an English comedian named George A. Pardey, who saw baby Buster fall down a flight of stairs and exclaimed, ”He’s a regular buster!”

Practically since the day he was born, Buster and his parents were on the move as the medicine shows traveled from town to town throughout the Midwest. Joe and Myra specialized in song, dance and comic routines, with rubber-limbed Joe also performing acrobatic tricks. Baby Buster was a ball of energy, and it wasn’t long before he was crawling around on the ramshackle wooden stages–often in the middle of his parents’ performances. By the late 1890s, Joe had figured out how to make Buster part of the Keatons’ act, usually by dressing him in costumes that were a diminutive version of his own. He quickly became a hit with audiences and Joe would claim he could do a whole act by himself at only three years old.

Buster as a toddler
Buster as a toddler.

With their precocious son in tow, the Keatons worked their way up into the thriving world of vaudeville. Vaudeville shows were the most popular form of family entertainment in America at the time and featured a seemingly endless variety of acts that changed every week in hundreds of busy theaters. Buster’s childhood was spent in a whirlwind of singing, dancing, recitations, stage magic, trained animals, clowns, contortionists, comedians–even guys who swallowed and regurgitated live goldfish.

A typical vaudeville house
A typical vaudeville house.

The Three Keatons, as they called themselves, were very popular, specializing in comedy with plenty of wild slapstick. Their act usually capitalized on the common trope of the mischievous boy “pulling one over” on his pa, with little Buster gleefully antagonizing Joe until he gets punted like a football. (Handles were sewn into the back of his jackets to make the tossing easier.) Buster not only had a natural knack for performing pratfalls, but he quickly learned that audiences laughed the most when he kept a straight face through all the mayhem–the famed “stoneface” he’s still known for today.

the Keatons

By the time Buster was in his teens, the Keatons had more of a general roughhouse act, with Buster and Joe squaring off against each other (usually while wielding brooms) while Myra tended to play the saxophone (a comically large instrument for the diminutive gal). By now there were also two younger siblings, Harry and Louise, who sometimes appeared in the act, although they were eventually put into boarding school during the busy theater seasons. Buster would remember fondly how perfectly they all timed their various gags and jokes, and how they knew exactly when the audience would laugh.

A wonderful photo of the Keatons circa 1916, with Buster’s inscriptions
A wonderful photo of the Keatons circa 1916, with Buster’s inscriptions.

This made it alarming when Joe’s temperament began to change. He started drinking heavily, which Myra would explain as “Some can take getting old, some can’t.” A feud with a theater owner led the Keatons to doing three-a-day shows at a less prestigious chain. Once Joe starting taking out his frustrations on Buster onstage, it was clear that the act wouldn’t be able to continue much longer.

Fortunately other changes were in the air, too. Motion pictures, which had frequently played as a part of vaudeville programs, were now wildly popular and movie houses were beginning to take the place of regular theaters. Charlie Chaplin was becoming the biggest star in the world, and everyone was familiar with Mack Sennett’s zany Keystone comedies. Buster himself was definitely a fan of the movies–he recalled seeing Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and Intolerance (1916) multiple times. Little did he know at the time that a new future was just over the horizon.

An early movie theater circa 1911
An early movie theater circa 1911.

By 1916 Buster officially broke up the act, a difficult move for a family as close as the Keatons. Now the sole breadwinner, he decided to find work on Broadway. He was signed for the extravagant revue The Passing Show of 1917, but as luck would have it, he also got an opportunity to tour Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique film studio. Some sources say Buster ran into vaudevillian Lou Anger on the street, others say it was manager Joe Schenck or even Arbuckle himself. Whatever the case, he showed up at the bustling studio at East Forty-Eighth Street and instantly took a liking to both the friendly Arbuckle and the filmmaking process itself.

paramount arbuckle comedies

As Buster recalled, it was the mystery of the camera itself that attracted him the most. Having taken in the wonder of moving images his whole life, he was dying to know just how the machine worked, from the turn of the crank right down to the editing process. Arbuckle not only took a camera apart for him, but allowed him to take it to his hotel for further tinkering.

Excited that he knew the secrets of that camera at last, Buster was equally excited about its possibilities–how desert scenes could be filmed in actual deserts, and seaside scenes at actual seashores. The limitations of the stage were gone, and the infinite possibilities of the motion picture camera were balanced by the stable nature of the film studio itself. “One feature of the films did appeal to me,” Buster remembered, “ and that was that it would mean staying in one place for awhile.”

Buster on the right on his first day of filming
Buster on the right on his first day of filming.

And thus on the morning of March 19, 1917, Buster Keaton returned to the Comique studio and filmed a lengthy comic sequence with Arbuckle involving a can of gooey molasses. Thanks to his decades of vaudeville experience, the sequence was flawless–and he was sold. He would quit The Passing Show, sign on with Arbuckle, act in over a dozen Comique shorts and finally make the leap to having his own studio. In a sense, filmmaking would be an extension of the comedic skills and timing he had perfected on the vaudeville stage, a training ground the likes of which many performers may never see again.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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Noir Nook: 75th Anniversary Noir – 2024 Edition

Noir Nook: 75th Anniversary Noir – 2024 Edition

It has become my tradition around these parts each year to celebrate the 75th anniversary release of some of film noir’s many first-rate offerings. And this year is no different!

There were a number of outstanding noirs released in 1949, including Act of Violence, House of Strangers, and White Heat, but I’m shining the spotlight on four films that are not only great features from that year, but some of my favorites overall; each of these are films that I’ve seen over and over (and over) again – and will doubtlessly continue to rewatch every chance I get.

Criss Cross

CRISS-CROSS (1949) Yvonne DeCarlo and Burt Lancaster
Yvonne DeCarlo and Burt Lancaster, Criss Cross

My list of favorite noirs may vary as the years go by, but no matter how many lists I compile, Criss Cross is a sure bet to make an appearance every time. It stars Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson, who proves that you can go home again – but maybe you shouldn’t. When he does, he reunites with ex-wife Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo), and finds himself embroiled in a variety of noirish behaviors, from mendacity to larceny – and, of course, the betrayal referenced in the film’s title. The cast also includes Dan Duryea as Slim Dundee, the coolest, scariest hood you’ll ever want to encounter.

Criss Cross ticks off some of noir’s most familiar boxes: femme fatale, hapless anti-hero, flashbacks, voiceover narration, painterly use of light and shadow. And it has an absolutely perfect ending. To me, it’s pretty perfect from start to finish.

Favorite quote:

“A man eats an apple. He gets a piece of the core stuck between his teeth. He tries to work it out with some cellophane from a cigarette pack. What happens? The cellophane gets stuck in there too. Anna? What was the use? I knew that somehow I’d wind up seeing her that night.” – Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster)



Richard Basehart Audrey Totter William Conrad Barry Sullivan, Tension
Richard Basehart Audrey Totter William Conrad Barry Sullivan, Tension

This feature serves up a unique opening, with star Barry Sullivan, as police Lt. Detective Collier Bonnabel (one of my all-time favorite noir monikers), demonstrating to viewers with a rubber band his contention that tension is the “only thing that breaks cases wide open.” The case in point involves Claire Quimby (Audrey Totter), a two-timing dame if ever there was one, her unassuming pharmacist husband, Warren (Richard Basehart), and Claire’s well-heeled boy-toy (Lloyd Gough), who turns up very dead.

There’s a lot to love about this film. First off, Totter turns in one of my favorite performances as the oh-so-nasty Claire. The cast includes noir vet William Conrad as Bonnabel’s crime-fighting partner, “Blackie” Gonsales, and in a rare non-dancing role, Cyd Charisse. And, best of all, the plot features an unusual twist that’s different from anything I’ve seen in noir.

Favorite quote:

“It was different in San Diego – you were kind of cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you’re all laughed-out now.” – Claire Quimby (Audrey Totter)


Too Late for Tears

Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy, Two Late for Tears
Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy, Two Late for Tears

Lizabeth Scott is Jane Palmer, a middle-class housewife whose longing to “keep up with the Joneses” becomes her undoing. The film’s action kicks off when a satchel full of cash is mistakenly tossed into the Palmers’ car while Jane and her husband, Alan (Arthur Kennedy), are driving through the Hollywood Hills. Alan insists on turning in the money to the authorities, but Jane is just as insistent (actually, more so) on keeping it. And there’s nothing she won’t do to make sure she does.

For my money, this was the best role of Lizabeth Scott’s career – one minute, she’s vulnerable and sympathetic, the next, she’s cold-bloodedly resolute. You won’t be able to take your eyes off of her. And, once again, just to kick things into high gear, Dan Duryea is on hand, playing the rightful owner of the money in the satchel and gifting us with some of the film’s best lines. Like the one below . . .

Favorite quote:

“You know, honey, you’ve got quite a flair. I like you. Too bad you’re a chiseler.” – Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea)


The Set-Up

Audrey Totter and Robert Ryan, The Set-Up
Audrey Totter and Robert Ryan, The Set-Up

A noir centered around the world of boxing, The Set-Up stars Robert Ryan as Stoker Thompson, an aging boxer who is – according to his devoted but increasingly disillusioned wife, Julie (Audrey Totter) – always “just one punch away” from getting a shot at the title. The film takes place in real time, depicting a single night at the Paradise City boxing arena, where Stoker is preparing for a bout that he feels certain to win. What he doesn’t know is that his manager (Geroge Tobias) has accepted a payoff from a local gangster to ensure that Stoker will take a dive.

There are several first-rate boxing noirs, but The Set-Up is at the top of the list for me. The film’s examination of the various characters is simply outstanding – we see Stoker’s unflagging self-confidence and refusal to concede defeat; Julie’s struggle to continue supporting her husband; the disloyalty of Stoker’s manager; and the varying experiences of Stoker’s fellow boxers, including a nervous newcomer preparing for his first fight and a past-his-prime old-timer who is knocked unconscious during his bout. We even, however briefly, get to know several members of the crowd, from the blind man who has a friend describing each fight, to the woman who at first claims to be squeamish but is later seen screaming, “Let’s have some action!”

Favorite quote:

“It ain’t I want to hurt you, but what kind of life is this? How many more beatings do you have to take?” – Julie Thompson (Audrey Totter)

What are some of your favorite noirs from 75 years ago? Leave a comment and let me know!

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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Monsters and Matinees: 1924 in Horror – ‘Hand’ it to Conrad Veidt

1924 in Horror – ‘Hand’ it to Conrad Veidt

As someone always looking to find new classic horror films to watch, I like to take time early in the year to look back at what our favorite genre was like in the early days of cinema. Going back 100 years is always a good place to look.

Overall, the 1920s gave us timeless horror films from Germany like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920) and Nosferatu (1922); along with John Barrymore and his amazing facial contortions as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920).

The year 1924, however, was a bit lacking. Films labeled horror often came in tandem with the word “comedy” like The Speed Spook, an 85-minute film with a corrupt election, a mystery to solve and a driverless ghost car.

Lon Chaney’s He Who Gets Slapped is also labeled a horror film, but I disagree. I find the story of a heartbroken man who buries his emotions as a circus clown is a tragedy not a horror film. (The Victor Seastrom silent also stars Norma Shearer and John Gilbert and is well worth watching.)

But all is not lost, horror fans. What 1924 cinema lacked in monsters and creatures, it made up for in two excellent films starring German actor Conrad Veidt, Waxworks and The Hands of Orlac.

Conrad Veidt in a detail from the poster of the 1924 silent film The Hands of Orlac.

Hands of Orlac is an exceptional film that reunites Veidt with his Cabinet of Dr. Caligari director Robert Wiene. While the title lets the imagination run wild on what horrific things those “hands” can do, this is a complicated horror movie with romance, anguish, tragedy, murder and terror.

It begins sweetly as a wife reads a love letter sent from her husband, world-renowned concert pianist Paul Orlac (Veidt) who is counting the hours until they are together again. “Dearest! I will embrace you … my hands will glide over your hair,,” his note partly reads with multiple references to his touch and hands a bad harbinger of what’s to come.

A deadly train accident nearly takes his life and disfigures his hands, something his loving wife focuses on with great melodrama. “Holy God! Save his hands. His hands are his life!” the intertitles exclaim. “His hands are more important than his life!”

Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt, left), is horrified to learn the truth about his hands in The Hands of Orlac.

In desperation, the doctor grafts the hands of the executed murderer Vasseur on Orlac who then begins to have strange visions and nightmares. Orlac can feel something is off and when he learns the truth about his hands, it’s more than he can bear. He once brought joy to people with music through his hands; now they are those of a killer.

“Take away my hands – I don’t want these terrible hands,” he begs the doctor.

In the most painful sequences, he pulls back his outstretched hands from touching his wife and can’t put his wedding ring on his finger.

An anguished Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) can’t touch his wife in The Hands of Orlac.

Orlac’s agony manifests itself on Veidt’s expressive face and through his entire body. The lanky actor uses his long arms and hands to his advantage, holding them tautly away from his body as if he is fighting them off. (The movements will remind you of Veidt’s portrayal of Cesare in Caligari.)

He looks at his hands with equal parts horror and hate, fearful of what they will do. As viewers, we don’t know what evil they carry because we’re not sure what’s real or imagined.

Actor Conrad Veidt uses his expressive body to illustrate the pain felt by his character over not being able to play piano anymore in The Hands of Orlac.

Adding to the story is the unease caused by mysterious man in black whose face, when we finally see it, is terrifyingly familiar and begs more questions.

The story makes a sudden shift from focusing on Orlac and his hands to a broader scope. The maid is mighty jumpy and is clearly caught up in something bad. Creditors are calling. There is talk of Orlac’s father who hates him with passion. (How much he hates him is the first logical question.) When a knife Vasseur used in a murder – it has a distinct X carved in the handle – is found stuck to a door in Orlac’s house, it sends him spiraling even more. There is murder, blackmail, confessions and the police.

All the while, my mind was searching for explanations from the human or spirit worlds, and I wavered between the two as the film was becoming increasingly tense and horrifying. I was literally on the edge of my couch for the last 20 minutes and felt spent by the time we learned everything. I was surprised by my strong reaction to the film, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been since Hands of Orlac is deeply emotional and heartfelt even at its darkest. Much of that is owed to Veidt who can say more with his face and body than many actors can with their voice.

Conrad Veidt is terrifying as the sadistic Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks.


Waxworks is a title that conjures all types of great horror ideas. But again, horror meant something different in this era, so we get comedy, tension and horror (via sadism) in this anthology about a young writer creating stories about characters in a carnival’s wax museum.

It was directed by Paul Leni (his last film made in Germany), with some accounts giving co-directing credits to Leo Birinsky. The original German print is considered lost, but there have been restorations that are accessible online and on home video by Kino Lorber and Masters of Cinema/Eureka Entertainment. I was able to stream a 2019 restoration from L’Immagine Ritrovata that is missing about 25 minutes from the original version, but it did not feel lacking, and it looked great.

Veidt, playing the brutal Ivan the Terrible, is joined in the film by two other top German actors: Emil Jennings as Haroun-Al-Rashid and Werner Krauss as the murderous Spring-Heeled Jack (who is meant to be Jack the Ripper). Our romantic poet (actor Wilhelm/William Dieterle, who would later become a well-known director) who write stories about the three characters, puts himself and the lovely daughter of the museum owner in each story as – of course – young lovers.

The first story about Harun-Al-Rashid (from A Thousand and One Nights) is the longest segment and a humorous tale about the “most romantic and mischievous king,” as our poet writes. He is extra-large and jovial, until the black smoke from a baker’s oven causes him to lose a chess game and he orders the baker beheaded (because that punishment certainly fits the crime). But the baker has a beautiful and flirtatious wife who is hard to ignore. While Al-Rashid is ogling the wife, the baker is at the palace where he hopes to steal Al-Rashid’s wishing ring to prove his manhood. The story has a clever ending.

Now we’re on to Ivan the Terrible described as a “blood-crazed monster” who likes to torture people as he turns “cities into cemeteries.” He poisons people indiscriminately, taunting them with an hourglass counting down to their death. But Ivan is paranoid and switches places with a nobleman who then takes a deadly arrow meant for the czar. The tone of this section is much more somber with Veidt and those expressive eyes revealing the madness of Ivan the Terrible.

In the much too short final segment, the poet falls asleep just as he’s writing about Spring-heeled Jack. A nightmarish, expressionist and quite effective dream sequence finds the writer and his girl being stalked through the amusement park by the cold-blooded killer.

Alice’s Spooky Adventure is a 1924 comedy horror short by Walt Disney.

Also from 1924

Here are short looks at three not-so-scary horror films from 1924.

Alice’s Spooky Adventure, a short film notable for being directed by Walt Disney (the Disney touch is easily identifiable), is about a girl (“Little” Virginia Davis) who is the only one brave enough to go into a “haunted” house to retrieve a baseball. Falling plaster knocks her out and she dreams of Spookville where she helps a black cat and fights musical ghosts before she wakes up. I’m sure this both delighted and scared children in 1924.

A headless staffer greets a man (played by Max Linder) who accepts a bet to spend an hour in a haunted castle in the French film Au Secours! (Help!).

Au Secours! (Help! ) is an early entry in the “bet you can’t stay overnight in a haunted house” genre, except here, the bet is to stay for just one hour (11 p.m. to midnight). This French comedy/horror short is from director Abel Gance who would spend much of the next three years on his epic Napoleon.

A room of tuxedo-clad gentlemen, talking about the “strange and unnatural things” at fellow club member Count Maulette’s castle, recall the night they visited and six of them fainted within 10 minutes from the horror(!). The count offers money to the man who can stay in the castle for an hour, but the cowards want no part of it.  Arriving late is singer Max (international star Max Linder) who for some reason leaves his honeymoon bed to join the guys at the club. In need of money, he’s willing to do it.

At the castle, things happen very fast. Pillars move. Lions, tigers and snakes attack. Skeletons and ghostly figures of all sizes (one is even on stilts) emerge. This haunted castle looks more like a fun house by the minute. While it’s humorous and silly at times, it does build tension especially once Max’s wife calls the castle begging him to hurry home because there is a man threatening her in her room.

Unseen Hands is a thriller starring Wallace Beery as a drifter who commits murder and fraud, among other transgressions, leading him to have supernatural visions of the man he killed.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a writer and board member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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Silver Screen Standards: The Pirate (1948)

Silver Screen Standards: The Pirate (1948)

I always say that a splashy Technicolor musical is the best remedy for the dreary days of winter, and The Pirate (1948) certainly makes waves with its lively comedy and energetic dance numbers, even though it proved a box office flop when it first appeared in theaters in 1948. Maybe it was too silly for audiences then, or maybe, as Gene Kelly later opined, viewers didn’t appreciate his hammy parody of silent stars Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore, but I find it absolutely delightful in spite (or maybe because) of its quirks. The Pirate is sometimes referred to as Judy Garland’s “cult” film because it initially bombed, it’s an undeniably weird movie, and it attracts both ardent admiration and loathing. Compared to later cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Hairspray (1988), however, I think most modern film fans will find it very tame. If you haven’t seen The Pirate before, I can’t promise that you’ll love it as I do, but it’s worth seeing at least once for stars Garland and Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli, and the musical contributions of Cole Porter.

The Pirate Gene Kelly and Judy Garland bridge
Instantly smitten, Serafin (Gene Kelly) tries to woo Manuela (Judy Garland), even though she’s about to be married.

Judy Garland plays Manuela, a young woman in a Caribbean town whose Aunt Inez (Gladys Cooper) has arranged her marriage to the much older and very rich mayor, Don Pedro (Walter Slezak). Manuela harbors a deep yearning for adventure and romance, embodied in her fantasies about the legendary pirate, “Mack the Black” Macoco, but she resigns herself to her fate until she meets strolling player Serafin (Gene Kelly), who attempts to win her by pretending that he is, in fact, the infamous buccaneer. Unfortunately for Serafin, Macoco is a wanted man, and playing the pirate might prove to be his final role.

The Pirate Walter Slezak Gene Kelly
Don Pedro (Walter Slezak) and Serafin are rivals for Manuela’s hand, but Serafin knows the truth about Don Pedro’s past and uses it to his advantage.

The Pirate is a movie about make-believe, with an image of piracy rooted in romantic fantasy rather than fact. It intentionally recalls Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926) and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935), sits alongside pirate adventures like The Sea Hawk (1940), The Black Swan (1942) and The Spanish Main (1945), and predates The Crimson Pirate (1952) and all those Disney movies starring Johnny Depp. While most pirate movies are actually about the titular pirate and masculine derring-do, The Pirate digs into the figure’s symbolic value to a sheltered young woman facing a life of perpetual submission, obedience, and dull routine. Manuela, our protagonist, fantasizes about being carried away by a pirate because pirates represent excitement, adventure, and sexual experience. Although the deleted number “Voodoo” might have made the sex angle too explicit for Louis B. Mayer, the theme is omnipresent. The whole movie is basically a bedroom fantasy in which Manuela and Serafin play at being victim and ravisher but are, in reality, all the while working toward a partnership built on mutual love and equality. Manuela relishes playing the martyr to the villagers while she eagerly prepares to meet “Macoco” as a human sacrifice, but the tables – and all the rest of the furniture – turn when she punishes Serafin for his deception, even though she loves him all the same. The fact that Serafin is an actor only adds to the make-believe theme, but, as it turns out, Manuela is quite the ham herself, a quality Serafin recognizes and appreciates.

The Pirate Gene Kelly and The Nicholas Bros
A musical highlight of the movie features Gene Kelly teaming up with the Nicholas Brothers for the first performance of “Be a Clown.”

The comedic sexual fantasy is heightened by the bright colors, elaborate costumes, catchy songs, and relentless energy exhibited throughout the film. You can find plenty of accounts detailing the production problems caused by Garland’s illness and addiction, but in the final film none of that shows. She looks beautiful, sounds great, and has real chemistry with Kelly in the second of their three onscreen collaborations, following For Me and My Gal (1942) and concluding with Summer Stock (1950). Kelly is clearly having a ball with his Barrymore impression and chews the scenery with enthusiasm, but that doesn’t detract from the real skill in his dance numbers, especially the delightful version of “Be a Clown” performed with the Nicholas Brothers. “Mack the Black” is the earworm of the lot, but all of the songs are fun, and Kelly gets to lean into his classical dance abilities for the “Pirate Ballet” number. Garland sports some eye-popping gowns, including a gorgeous wedding dress decked with lace and pearls, but I’m usually more distracted by the series of tight pants worn by Kelly, which show off his athletic figure to great effect. Although the leads rightly dominate our attention, the supporting players also merit mention for their contributions. Walter Slezak makes an amusing and effective antagonist to the couple, alternately menacing and sly or craven and flustered depending on the situation. He ironically gets to embody both the tedium of respectability and the unsavory reality of piracy. Gladys Cooper is less duplicitous as the domineering Aunt Inez, but she also balances seeming propriety and mercenary aims in her determination to marry her niece off to her own financial advantage, and Cooper is fun to watch in the scenes where she takes command over both her husband and her contracted nephew-in-law.

Pirate Gene Kelly and Judy Garland clowns
United in love, Serafin and Manuela perform a reprise of “Be a Clown” together in the film’s finale.

While it’s not the most iconic film for either star, I think The Pirate offers plenty of entertainment, and I’m definitely in the “love it” camp. Granted, I also love that urtext of silly pirate musicals, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (as well as its 1983 film adaptation starring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Angela Lansbury). For more of Garland’s work in the late 1940s, see The Harvey Girls (1946), Easter Parade (1948), and In the Good Old Summertime (1949). Gene Kelly’s other films from this period include The Three Musketeers (1948), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), and On the Town (1949). Pirate movies must have suited Walter Slezak; you’ll also find him in The Princess and the Pirate (1944), The Spanish Main (1945), and the 1972 adaptation of Treasure Island, but he’s especially good in Hitchcock’s WWII thriller, Lifeboat (1944).

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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Classic Movie Travels: Harry Spear

Classic Movie Travels: Harry Spear

Harry Spear

Harry Spear was born Harry Sherman Bonner on December 16, 1921, in Los Angeles, California, to Joseph Bonner and Louise Spear. He was born at French Hospital in Los Angeles and initially resided at 5619 Fernwood Ave., Hollywood, California. His father served in the Navy and his mother was a homemaker. After his parents divorced, his last name was typically listed as Spear.

Spear worked as a child actor and vaudevillian, appearing in Educational Pictures shorts in the mid-1920s, including the Tuxedo Comedies and Smith Family shorts. His grandmother, Bertha Spear, managed his career. He performed in Juvenile Comedies as a character named Ginger, leading to his nicknames of “Ginger,” “Freckles,” and “Hard-Boiled Harry.” He also acted in the Buck Jones western, The Flying Horseman (1925).

Spear’s most notable work was in the Our Gang series, making his appearance at age five in Chicken Feed. He initially worked as an extra until he essentially replaced actor Scooter Lowry, taking over the tough character’s former role. He typically wore an oversized bowler hat during the silent era of the series and appeared as a gang leader. When the shorts started to be produced in sound, actor Jackie Cooper took over the role of the leader, ultimately replacing Spear. However, Spear did appear in some of the sound shorts. His final Our Gang appearance was in Bouncing Babies (1929).

Next, Spear worked in vaudeville and performed a dancing and monologue routine. He traveled frequently and studied dance, even performing anecdotes while on the circuit. Though he was offered a contract to work in a series that paralleled Horatio Alger’s tales, the project did not come to fruition. By the 1940s, he left the entertainment industry and did not stay in touch with his Our Gang cohort members.

Harry Spear, Out Gang
Harry Spear, Our Gang

Spear’s whereabouts were a mystery to his peers and fans for decades. In the mid-1990s, he was traced down as living in San Diego, California, under his legal name of Harry Bonner. Nonetheless, he continually denied being Harry Spear of Our Gang fame.

In between his time in entertainment and this rediscovery, he served as a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was discharged in 1947. In 1947, he married Roberta Althea Moseley, and the marriage ultimately ended in divorce. According to the marriage certificate, this was a second marriage for both him and Roberta.  In 1957, he married Thelma May Yamamoto Boner. He spent his later years freelance writing articles about fishing, a favorite hobby of his.

Spear passed away from kidney cancer on September 22, 2006, and consistently denied any connection with the entertainment industry. He was 84 years old. Spear and his wife are at rest in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, California. His epitaph initially read, “Forever in Our Hearts.” Since his wife’s passing, the epitaph now reads, “Together Forever.”

Today, very few tributes to Spear remain, however his final residence stands at 5369 Vergara St., San Diego, California.

5369 Vergara St., San Diego, California
5369 Vergara St., San Diego, CA

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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Classic Conversations: Talking with the Creators of TCM’s Documentary Series ‘The Power of Film’

Have you been watching the amazing new original documentary series on Turner Classic Movies called The Power of Film? This riveting six-part series explores some of the most popular and memorable American films of all time. New episodes will premiere every Thursday night through February 8. As someone who is obsessed with classic movies and TCM, I’m in heaven! The episodes are hosted and curated by renowned UCLA professor Howard Suber who organizes the episodes in such a unique way. The series is directed by accomplished documentarian Laura Gabbert, written by filmmaker Doug Pray and Howard Suber, and executive produced by Gabbert and Pray. I so enjoyed chatting with Howard, Laura, and Doug about this excellent series. 

Danny Miller: I’m so thrilled that this series exists and that it’s on TCM, the lifeblood for all of us classic movie fanatics. 

Laura Gabbert: They’ve been absolute heaven to work with.

Doug Pray: Yeah, they’ve really been great, and so supportive. 

I love the organization of this series, centered around the human experience instead of following the chronology in the history of film. Is this the way you taught your courses at UCLA, Howard?

Howard Suber: Yes. I’ve been doing it like this for 50 years!

I wish I had been in your classes. Laura and Doug, I understand both of you were students of Howard’s at some point? 

Doug: Yes, and we were actually TAs for Howard at different times. He was and continues to be our mentor so working on this series was kind of like returning home. He definitely had one of the most popular classes at UCLA grad school. 

Laura: People would whisper to us, “Don’t even consider leaving school without taking that class!” It was just a different way to think about film.

The use of clips in this series is just masterful. I’d like the three of you to do all the montages from now on that appear on the Academy Awards, please!

(Laughs). Doug, how many clips do you think there are in the show?

Doug: Oh, there are clips from several hundred films, I think, all chosen very carefully by Howard. 

What a labor of love! But so effective.

All of the ideas came from Howard.  I think the biggest challenge was just trying to navigate 50 years of teaching and breaking it down to six different episodes. If you took all of his lectures, they could probably fill a large barn. So, the hardest process began when Howard started boiling down his themes and principles. It took a long time to say, okay, these are the six days, these are the major themes we’re going to include. There are a lot of great things we learned from Howard that we couldn’t include.

Season Two is writing itself! There were so many concepts I’d never thought of, even in the first two episodes, like the distinctions between fate and destiny and a new way of thinking about movie heroes. Howard, did you feel pressure to include certain movie because they’re universally regarded as “Important Films”? 

Howard: I know there are certain films that people expect to see. If I could have, I would have gone all the way to the present and talked about movies like Oppenheimer which I think will probably win big at this year’s Academy Awards. That would have allowed me to go back to the Greeks and look at what so many of these Big Stories have in common: they follow a pattern of a single character around whom all the action revolves. 

I love your discussions in the series about films that are long-lasting versus the flashes in the pan. There were so many emotional “trigger points” for me, I think I burst into tears four different times in the second episode alone. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, if I see even five seconds of that final scene in The Miracle Worker, I am bawling like a baby. The same thing with the scene when they empty the money on the table in It’s a Wonderful Life. Instant emotion, talk about the “power of film!”

Laura: So true. One of the things we loved doing in this series (and being in Howard’s classes!) was looking at patterns. You might have a horror movie next to a comedy next to a romance next to an action film next to a buddy film. And Howard looks for those patterns that go across all of them. It’s so interesting to us when he compares the endings of very different movies. Nobody would think of those two films together but as soon as you get into Howard’s way of thinking about film, you think, “Oh my God, that makes so much sense!”

Doug: And then you can go even further and look at the endings of so many memorable stories, even before film, in books, plays, Shakespeare. It’s that kind of universality that we were after, and I think that’s what we’re most proud of in this series, that it gets you thinking about the power of storytelling in general which applies to everything. Laura and I make documentaries, and it definitely applies to that as well, really every genre and every form of storytelling. 

Were there certain types of films you felt it important to expose people to, maybe for the first time?

Howard: Oh sure, many. I’m glad we were able to include Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. For the last 30 years or so I’ve taught only graduate students who are usually quite knowledgeable about film history. But still, many of them have never seen Chaplin. 


I remember one of the first classes I ever did over 50 years ago was a seminar entirely devoted to Citizen Kane. But students today? Most are simply not interested. That film has moved down to #48 on the IMDB list of greatest films. Sometimes I think that the arts are like the stock market. Some go up, some go down, and once they’re down, they don’t usually go back up. But, to be honest, I’m not one of those professors who tells students, “You really have to see Citizen Kane,” or any other film. The history of art is like everything else in society. People move on, new stuff comes along. And there are only so many hours in a person’s day, let alone for their education. So, by today’s standards, a lot of people think Citizen Kane is boring. 

Ugh, this is why I’d be a horrible college professor. I’d be screaming at them, “You’re wrong! Watch that movie, idiots!”

(Laughs.) Well, if somebody tells me they think something is boring, it’s not worth it to argue with them. I’m just going to move on to something they might enjoy and think is good. If you argue with them, it’s a lost cause!

Yeah, even in the classic film community, nothing gets people going more than the idea of someone saying “THIS is the greatest film ever made!” I’m always like, “Um…no, it’s not.” 

Laura: One of the things that Howard used to do in his classes was look for something that was coming out that week or month and we’d really analyze that film and whether it was something that we thought was worth our time and would stand the test of time.  

Doug: Right. So, for example, when I was in grad school with Howard, we watched Schindler’s List. Then we looked at the original text and then also back at the movie. I think that kind of approach keeps young people energized. We were definitely learning about older, classic movies, but one of the best things about the class is that we were looking at everything. 

One of the things I love most about TCM’s annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood is seeing people of all ages and background there, just loving these movies. Is one of your hopes with this series that people will see these clips and then want to watch many of these films in their entirety? 

Laura. Absolutely. We hope it’ll pique their interest in these films. There are many young people who have never seen The Godfather, for example. 

Doug: Yes, that is definitely one of our goals. I think this series goes a long way in reframing a lot of these old movies for younger people. We hope some will think, “Oh, maybe I do need to check that out” after they see a film talked about in the same context as one that they love. 

I hope this series becomes a gateway drug for a lot of people. I remember one of my gateways into classic film was the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on TV back in my childhood. They used to have different hosts for it. It really made a big impression on me. We waited all year for it, like a holiday.

Oh, yeah. Episode 6 ends with The Wizard of Oz. It brings together all of the themes that Howard explores in the series. 

Before we go, if I dare to ask the dreaded “favorite film” question, which I personally loathe because my list changes by the hour, are there any titles you’d immediately mention?

Blade Runner.

Howard: I usually say I have two: The Godfather and Singin’ in the Rain.


LauraSingin’ in the Rain is probably in my top two as well. I’d also have to mention The Graduate.

Howard: I love that film, too. I did an analysis of that movie for Criterion when laserdiscs first started.

Howard, did I detect a rare moment of personal bias when you mentioned the main character of that film in one of the episodes?

Ha, yes you did. I had to watch that film so many times to do the voiceover for Criterion. And one day it just occurred to me: Benjamin Braddock is a real jerk! (Laughs.) I mean, what redeeming qualities does he have? Is is smart? Is he funny? Not intentionally!

Laura: But the film works anyway, right?

Howard: Oh, definitely. 

I love that you included that ending with Benjamin and Elaine on the bus. You could do a whole episode on that scene alone, and how everyone interprets it differently. I once heard Mike Nichols say that it only happened because he decided to keep the camera running and Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross didn’t really know what to do. But the moment has inspired many deep interpretations and fights between couples. 

There it is…the power of film!

Watch The Power of Film on Thursday nights on Turner Classic Movies.


–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Danny’s Classic Conversation Articles Here

Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of  About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the StarsYou can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller

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