Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone: Sleuthathon

Movies, Silently’s Sleuthathon is a blogathon I’ve been looking forward to through this cold, cold winter. Not just because I get to participate, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a strange love of Sherlock Holmes and detective fiction. My interest in the detective genre also extends to classic film. The other posts for this blogathon have been quite fun to read – I’ve ever got a few recommendations (that Ginger Rogers as a detective looks super fun). So, make sure to check out the other posts, especially the Sherlock ones, because this is my Sherlock spring, and I’d like to dedicate this post to the most iconic Sherlock, Basil Rathbone.

Rathbone was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but moved back to England at a very young age. His father was a mining engineer accused of spying against the Boers – hence the move. Rathbone was brought up in the English tradition, attending ReptonSchool and working for a year in the insurance business before turning to the stage in earnest. He was drafted in World War I and served in the Liverpool-Scots regiment. He earned a Military Cross for his service.


He was trained as a Shakespearan stage actor, and toured New York and the US several times in the late 20’s and early 30’s. His first film appearance was in 1925 in The Masked Bride. In 1930 he played his first detective, Philo Vance (later portrayed by Nick Charles himself, William Powell) in The Bishop Murder Case. Through the 30’s he made his mark in film playing villains, often opposite Errol Flynn. David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, The Last Days of Pompeii, Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Anna Karenina he all appeared in before becoming Holmes. In 1939 he was cast in a 20th Century-Fox version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Nigel Bruce, and the first of their fourteen films.

Between 1939 and 1946 they made The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (also released 1939), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (both 1942), Sherlock Holmes in Washington and Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (those two in 1943), The Scarlet Claw, The Pearl of the Death, and The Spider Woman (all 1944), The House of Fear, The Woman in Green, and Pursuit to Algiers (1945), and finally Terror By Night and Dressed to Kill (1946). In addition to fourteen films as Holmes, between 1939 and 1946, Rathbone made sixteen other films. He was a busy actor, but what one often remembers of him is his reserve and tight control of his movements and portrayal. He was also an accomplished fencer (no surprise there).

In the late 40’s and 50’s he returned to the stage, winning a Tony in 1948. He later said he would like to be remembered more for his stage work than his films, although he knew he would never escape Holmes. He made a few movies in the late 50’s and 60’s, including a turn as the comic villain in We’re No Angels with Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov. In 1967, he died of a heart attack.


What made Rathbone such an iconic Holmes? Despite his near monopoly on the role, (Only television actors surpass him for number of portrayals, and that sort of doesn’t count. Each Bond actor made fewer films as Bond than Rathbone did as Holmes.) he seemed to be one of the closest embodiments of Arthur Conan Doyle’s vision of the detective. Arthur Wontner, in my opinion a far too mousy Holmes, portrayed Holmes during Rathbone’s run, and did nothing to displace him as an icon. “I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix,” Holmes describes himself. Doyle, through Watson, describes Holmes as

His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most

casual observer.  In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean

that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing,

save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-

like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision.  His chin,

too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.

His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was

possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to

observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments.

Rathbone fits the physical description rather well, but the philosophical “all brain” I think as well, especially in ways Wontner does not.

Rathbone played villains, and as such cultivated a character like a coiled snake, ready to strike. Here, he plays a more benevolent character, although we cannot say Holmes is solving crimes out of the goodness of his heart, he is not a force for evil or destruction. Rathbone’s fencing made him light on his feet and somewhat given to darting, which fit the eccentric Holmes. As Ryan Britt points out in his discussion of the best Holmes portrayal, Rathbone does fall victim to one interpretation that seems contrary to Doyle’s description. Rathbone would never be caught dead with ink on his fingers. His long, elegant fingers, perfect for violin playing, were a gentleman’s hands. And while the sociopathic Holmes of Benedict Cumberbatch may be a bit far (Don’t worry – he gets a full post later in the spring – and full disclosure I watched series 1 and 2 in under 24 hours.), Rathbone is much more suave and put together than Doyle’s Holmes, the somewhat-careless-of-his-appearance experimenter.

Sidney Paget’s drawings, first appearing with the stories in 1891, formed a quick icon of Holmes. Doyle was not satisfied with them, but it nevertheless became a canonical representation, and executives, when preparing a Sherlock film or TV series, went back to the drawings in casting. Arthur Wontner was supposedly continually told of his likeness to Holmes, and likely, they meant the drawings, and not the above cited description. Paget also gave Holmes the deerstalker and cape for The Hound of the Baskervilles specifically. Country-wear, not city-wear, as any good Victorian would know.

Not only Rathbone’s features – his nose, chin, piercing eyes, and rail-thin height – marked him as Holmes. Holmes himself was more concerned with his “brain” – his ability to deduce and store knowledge, and the personality that sprang from that, Rathbone was able to capture. Holmes was somewhat aloof, often withholding information from Watson or others working on cases with him. In actual fact, Watson, LeStrade, or those who consulted with him, did not work with Holmes so much as provide Holmes facts and step back. The Holmes of the stories was secretive, to the point of using many disguises, and held himself aloof. More than once Watson believed his friend dead. Rathbone was not a warm and inviting personality on screen, while Watson’s gullible counter point accentuated this.

A word must be said about Nigel Bruce’s Watson as well. For the Watson accentuates and complements his Holmes. Nigel Bruce was a portly gentleman, shorter and stouter than Rathbone, making Rathbone appear even sharper. Bruce was also gullible, trusting, and kind. His trust in Holmes was often exploited when Holmes was in disguise. He was also the more inviting of the two in consultation, the teddy bear with a pipe. Rathbone himself relied on Bruce, and when in 1953 Rathbone and his playright wife attempted to bring a Holmes adaptation to the stage, Bruce was unable to take his usual role due to declining health and eventual death, Rathbone was unable to continue and the play only ran for three performances.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, The Woman in Green, Dressed to Kill, and Terror By Night are available to stream on Hulu. All fourteen are available on DVD from Netflix.

Basil Rathbone also wrote an autobiography, In and Out of Character. Michael Durxman’s Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films is a more complete and excellent reference than what I have provided.

Sherlock Holmes

Because I’m in graduate school now, I can call my weird obsessions ‘scholarly’ and they’re not so weirdly obsessive. One of those in Sherlock Holmes, which branched into a strange love for late nineteenth and early twentieth century obscure detective fiction. It’s very specific. Anyway, Sherlock Holmes is another love I think I acquired from my father – although he told me Sherlock died at the Reichenbach Fall before I’d seen or read any of the stories – it’s a trick! – but my dad had several books, including a few of the fun Holmes ‘scholarly’ books in which they pretend he is real. I am clearly aware that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, constructed out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s brain, but the scholarship that pretends he is real – and possibly ‘posed’ for some of the early illustrations done by Doyle’s father – amuse me. This spring I’d like to share with you some of my experiences of the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, expansive as it is. I’ll be participating in two blogathons over the course of the series – Movies Silently’s Sleuthathon and the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Speakeasy, and Shadows & Satin (talk about awesome blog names).

Sherlock Holmes 1922

Let’s start with John Barrymore. In 1922, Barrymore portrayed Holmes on screen in a film entitled, cleverly enough, Sherlock Holmes. Goldwyn produced the film, based loosely on the “Scandal in Boehmia” story, which features a foreign prince attempting to suppress a photograph that could create an international scandal. Irene Adler is in possession of the photograph.

Sherlock’s first appearance on screen was much earlier, though, in a brief short in 1900, a Biograph film. In 1905 Vitagraph produced a longer short also featuring Holmes. In 1911, American Biograph produced a series of short comedies about Holmes, starring Mack Sennett. Yes, that Mack Sennett. Holmes continued to be a popular character in early cinema, most likely because of his recognizability – the stories were published in the US as well as Britain – and later because the copyright lapsed and they became part of the public domain.


Arthur Wontner

Raymond Massey was the next Hollywood star to play Holmes – in 1930’s The Speckled Band. Many, many shorts and British versions were produced between 1911 and 1930, but aside from Barrymore, the actors were not screen stars. Massey only made one Holmes film, before Arthur Wontner took over in 1931. He made five films in Britain between 1931 and 1937, but more on his portrayal will be another post.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone

In 1939 (that magical year for movies), Fox produced The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The two would made fourteen films as Holmes and Watson and become the quintessential portrayals of the two. In fact, one of my personal favorite Holmes adaptations is based upon these two – The Great Mouse Detective (1986). The ‘Sherlock’ character is even named Basil – despite being a mouse he bears a remarkable resemblance. Of course, Basil Rathbone will be a separate post later in the spring.

nigel bruce

Nigel Bruce

After Basil Rathbone established the Holmes character, most production companies and actors shied away from challenging it, instead opting for comedic or noncanonical portrayals. Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) starred Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely in a decidedly noncanonical (not based on any of the Doyle stories) story, in which Holmes discovers his brother Mycroft is building a submarine in World War I England. They Might Be Giants (1971) stars George C. Scott as a man in modern New York who believes he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother attempts to have him committed in order to inherit his money, but the committing doctor, Dr. (Mildred) Watson (played by Joanne Woodward), gets caught up in the charade of Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty. Christopher Plummer also played Holmes, in 1979’s Murder by Decree, in a movement back to more serious, thriller-type films; although Murder by Decree is not a Doyle story and sees Holmes investigating Jack the Ripper.

A series for British television called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes aired from 1984-1994 and starred Jeremy Brett. In 2009, the next major milestone in Holmes history came with Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Both portrayed large departures from the typical Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce performances. Even the casting was somewhat ‘against type’ – Jude Law as a young, fit man with a mustache was a far cry from Nigel Bruce. Robert Downey Jr. and Guy Ritchie also portrayed Holmes as more rough-and-tumble – we see Holmes engaged in a bloody boxing match. The device of slowing down the action to allow us to see events as Holmes sees them, presumably (although how being able to see in slow-motion is equivalent to being super observant and having a superhuman memory is beyond me). Rachel McAdams also appears as Irene Adler. Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows – the follow-up – came out in 2011.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock

Current television adaptations include the BBC’s Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch (from basically everything, but lately he was in Star Trek: Into Darkness, played Julian Assange, and voiced Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and Martin Freeman (who catapulted to fame as Biblo Baggins in The Hobbit films, but most ladies will recognize as the awkward naked stand-in from Love Actually) as the duo living in modern day London and CBS’s Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy in Trainspotting) as Holmes and Lucy Liu (Alias, Charlie’s Angels) as ‘Joan’ Watson, in modern day New York City. More on both of these Holmeses and the modern settings in separate posts.

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Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson in Elementary

The Holmes tradition is much messier and more complicated than many other recurring screen characters – definitely more so than the less popular Philo Vance. The allure of the character and of mysteries in general is undeniable, and with only so many stories written by Doyle and only so many really good for adapting into film – liberties are taken often. Rewriting the canon – say by casting a young, thin, smart Watson as opposed to a bumbling, portly gentleman – upsets some Holmes ‘scholars’ (fans), but I think the reinvention is necessary for such a recognizable and well-used character. Even if you’ve never seen a Holmes film, you probably know the name Moriarty. Their names, and Rathbone’s appearance in particular, entered into popular culture and common memory long ago. Doyle never intended the Holmes stories to be his legacy, and they’ve become even bigger than an author’s legacy through the thousands of screen portrayals and adaptations.

The Second Annual Muse Awards: 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon

31 days of oscar1

Last year, I bestowed my first annual Muse awards on Ida Lupino, Gene Tierney, and Gloria Grahame. As I mentioned then, only Lupino ever won an Oscar, and their collective accomplishments remain obscured by the femme fatales they played. I write about strong women all year long, from Barbara Stanwyck in last year’s Paramount blogathon to my summer-long tribute to Jean Arthur. The often overlooked actors and filmmakers are another passion of mine, in my Supporting Actors and Behind the Camera series, I highlight them, including my favorite character actors like Gail Patrick. For this year’s Muse awards (idea lovingly stolen from New York Women in Television and Film) and as part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon Snubs weekend, I would like to introduce Marion Benson Owens, better known as Frances Marion.


Now those of you who know your film history are saying Wait a minute, Frances Marion was the first female screenwriter to win an Oscar! She was even the first person to win two! She can’t fit into the Snubs category! I would contend that Marion’s other work: her screenplays for husband Fred Thomson which she wrote under a pseudonym, her war reporting in Europe during World War I, and her longevity in the motion picture business qualify her for this award on this weekend.

Born Marion Benson Owens in San Francisco in 1888, she was the middle child of three. Her parents divorced when she was young. Marion was kicked out of grammar school a few months after her father’s remarriage. She also suffered from polio, spending several months at home in bed. After her recovery, she was sent to boarding school outside San Francisco. As a teenager she also traveled with her mother to Mexico and Alaska, and was invited to join her mother’s dinner parties and mingle with the adults. At sixteen, she returned to San Francisco to attend the Mark Hopkins Art Institute. While Marion was a voracious reader and writer, she really wanted to paint. She married an instructor at the Art Institute, Wesley De Lappe, when she was eighteen. Wesley was occasionally employed as an artist, and Marion took a job as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. Working for Hearst started a lifelong working relationship, even if her first marriage did not last. At the age of 23, already a divorcee, Marion married Robert Pike, who worked for his father’s successful steel firm. The two moved to Los Angeles.

Still more interested in painting than the infant motion picture business (this was 1912), Marion took a job painting posters for a theatre. When laid off, she worked freelance in advertising. Through acquaintances, Marion met Lois Weber, one of the first female directors, who offered her a position as ‘one of my little starlets.’ While Marion was interested in costume and set design, those in Weber’s unit often crossed from designer to actress to writer, and Marion became an actress, changing her name to Frances Marion.

After Weber moved to Universal, Marion signed on with Mary Pickford, as an actress, with the possibility to write. Robert had gone back to San Francisco, the marriage over, and Marion moved in with Mary and her mother Charlotte. Marion’s friendship with Mary Pickford would last a lifetime and would be an incredibly successful working partnership. Marion’s first solo script for Mary was The Foundling, for which she was paid $125. Marion moved to New York in 1915, to the famous Algonquin and landed a job at former Broadway producer William Brady’s World Films. She was head of their scenario department at twenty-seven years old. In 1915, she also participated in a march for women’s suffrage. At The Algonquin and at work, Marion rubbed shoulders with actors and producers who would become household names. She had met Marie Dressler as a cub reporter in San Francisco, and the two had now become close friends. If you were a friend of Marion’s, you were a friend for life.

In 1918, Marion met an Army chaplain named Fred Thomson and fell in love at first sight. The war in Europe had already begun, and now with a sweetheart overseas, Marion wanted to help with the war effort. She was commissioned with the Committee on Public Information, reporting on women’s activities overseas. She spent most of 1918 in France, between Paris and the front, and returned to New York in early 1919. Marion returned to writing scenarios and later that year, married Fred.

With Marion’s encouragement, Fred co-starred with Mary Pickford in one of Marion’s screenplays, Just Around in the Corner. The couple moved back to Los Angeles, and Fred launched his career as a movie cowboy and action hero. Marion continued to write scenarios, working with almost every major player in Hollywood at the time and being paid more each time. But she still found time to make sure Fred’s scenarios were up to snuff, working under the pseudonym Marion Jackson. Fred and Marion built a ranch in the hills and while Marion was often frustrated with the economics of the motion picture business and thought of leaving to write novels, she kept a close eye on her husband’s career.


After the birth of their first child, Marion accepted a contract at MGM and settled in. Tragically, Fred died in 1928 of tetanus, at the age of 38. Frances was devastated. She took several months off of work and moved out of their ranch home. A little over a year later, in 1930, Marion married George Hill, a director and longtime friend. After their marriage, Marion found out George was an alcoholic.

It was also in 1930 that Marion won the Academy Award for her screenplay of The Big House. She had attended the first Academy Award ceremony the previous year and found the evenings long and long-winded. She was back at work at MGM the next morning.

Marion and George divorced in 1933, and less than a year later, George killed himself in the home Marion had provided for him. Suffering several tragedies as well as financial worry and struggles with the studio during the Depression, Marion’s health suffered. She was hospitalized several times for collapse, exhaustion, and overwork. She began to work from home, in bed. She worked off and on for MGM, returning for stretches in 1935 and 1937, and for the last time in 1943. Each time her contract and benefits were reduced, and in 1946 she left for good – moving to Warner Brothers to work with fellow female screenwriter Bess Meredyth and her husband Michael Curtiz.

She worked sporadically for various producers between 1946 and 1960 and in 1965, wrote her memoir, later to be titled Off With Their Heads: a Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood and published in 1972. She died of an aneurysm in 1973 at eighty-four.

Through her career, Frances Marion made friends with starlets, producers, fellow writers, politicians, and proved herself to be a loyal friend, as well as a talented businesswoman. She worked hard to find jobs for her friends: Marie Dressler before her success with Wallace Beery and George Hill throughout his career to name only two. She raised two sons, Fred Jr. and Richard (who she adopted with Fred Thomson). Fred Jr. married and had a son in 1948; he was also a George Eliot scholar with a PhD from Yale. Richard joined the Navy and studied engineering. Marion also wrote several acclaimed novels and short story collections: her first Minnie Flynn was published in 1925 and the last The Powder Keg in 1953. Several, including The Powder Keg were adapted into films (it became Caged with Eleanor Parker). She is given credit for over 300 screenplays.

frances and mary

Information for this post was drawn from Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp, which I highly recommend for its accounts of Marion’s private life, friendships with other early female screenwriters, and filmography and bibliography of Marion’s work.

As a side note, this is my 100th post on Spoilers!

Behind the Camera: James Wong Howe

As we are still just beginning the new year and everyone’s resolutions are still going strong, I would like to start something new as well: a new series. This series focuses on the people behind the camera, who we all know play an important role in making films, but are, by virtual of that role, less identifiable to us.

Confession: I used to skip the credits at the beginnings of old films. They just seemed so long and pointless, you know? Nowadays we often have credits over opening sequences that set up the film, and these credits are usually short and include only a few cast and crew. Not so in olden days. Credits were title cards, accompanied by images – drawings or still photos – with music. Usually the studio card – often the only animated one – can first. RKO’s radio tower on top of the earth or MGM’s roaring lion are recognizable ones. Next came the star’s name (according to their contract), in frilly script, then the actual title card. Followed by the rest of the actors, a card for writers, a card or two for crew (hair, make-up, sound, cinematography, gowns, art direction, music, etc.), occasionally an extra card for the director/producer (according to their contract), and then the film.








What I’m interested in are those two middle cards with Gowns by… One-Name-Designer. Or Music By… Max Steiner. Studios had contract crew, like they had contract players. You think Humphrey Bogart made a lot of gangster films for Warner Brothers, you should see how many film credits Doug Shearer has for sound at MGM. And an MGM production without art direction by Cedric Gibbons, a Warner Brothers film without make-up by Perc Westmore, a Columbia film without hairstyles by Helen Hunt? Didn’t exist. Cinematographers had a bit more flexibility (like directors some were contract and some moved between studios more), and I’d like to start with perhaps one of the most talented cinematographers of classic film, James Wong Howe.

Now, full disclosure, Alain Silver’s James Wong Howe: The Camera Eye is the main source for this blog post. Silver interviews Wong Howe about getting his start in Hollywood, through his recently completed (at the time of the interviews) The Molly Maguires, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Sean Connery. Some of the book is technical; Wong Howe details different lighting set-ups, etc. but while not the most interesting for a layman, it does provide useful information about how early Hollywood worked. Wong Howe wasn’t just a brilliant cinematographer (and this was true particularly in the case of William Daniels, as well), he was a skilled lighting designer.

james wong howe1

James Wong Howe was born in China in 1899 and moved to the States as a boy, where his family settled in Washington state. He was interested in still photography, and when he was a teenager was a boxer for a time. He moved to California and pursued several odd jobs, before running into a boxing friend who was working on a Mack Sennett picture. He was intrigued by the business of photographing film, but it wasn’t until 1917 that he went to work for Alvin Wyckoff, Cecil B. DeMille’s cameraman. Wong Howe’s job was to keep the garbage and refuse cans around the camera department clean. About 6 months later, he was promoted to clapper boy, then to camera assistant by DeMille. From camera assistant, Wong Howe became second cameraman, he recalls around 1919 or 1920. The second cameraman was literally the operator of the second camera, set-up right next to the first camera. The second camera produced as identical of a shot as possible, but it provided a second negative, useful for creating prints for foreign markets, or just having a back-up negative.

The story of Wong Howe’s promotion from second camera to first camera was fortuitous. To earn extra money (his starting salary was $10 a week), he began taking publicity shots for stars. The Hollywood publicity machine, full of agents and PR men had not fully come into being yet, but the new stars still needed photographs. In photographing Mary Miles Minter (probably second only to Mary Pickford in those early days), Wong Howe was able to make her light blue eyes appear darker, whereas previously the type of film used always washed out her eyes. In 1922, he became first cameraman on Drums of Fate, at Mary Miles Minter’s request.

james wong howe3

Wong Howe’s career began in early Hollywood and stretched into the 1970’s, along the way he accumulated quite a resume. From starting with Cecil B. DeMille and Mary Miles Minter to Howard Hawks, W. S. Van Dyke, William K. Howard, George Cukor, John Cromwell, Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle, Raoul Walsh, numerous other directors, and almost every star you can think of. He was a freelance director of photography from 1922 to 1933, when he took a contract at MGM. Manhattan Melodrama (the notable first pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy) was his first picture for MGM. At MGM he earned $500 a week. He moved to Warner Brothers in 1938, to shoot Algiers with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. Algiers was his first Academy Award nomination. He stayed at Warner Brothers for the next ten years.

The 1940’s and early 50’s were not a high point in Wong Howe’s career, because he was Chinese and racism, especially against Asian people, was running high in America during World War II, he was something of an anomaly: a professional, successful Chinese man. However, because of anti-miscegenation laws, he was not allowed to marry his fiancée Sanora Babb, a white woman. The two married in Paris, but were not legally married in the United States until the repeal of the law in 1949. He was also known to associate with blacklisted actors and directors and while not subpoenaed by the House on Un-American Activities Committee, he was scrutinized.

james wong howe5

In the mid-50’s, he was once again nominated for an Oscar for The Rose Tattoo (1955), which was his first win. He was nominated again for The Old Man and the Sea (1958), his first for a color film. Hud was his second win in 1963. He shot The Molly Maguires in 1970. In 1975 he was hired for Funny Lady (the sequel to Funny Girl), but he collapsed on set and was temporarily replaced. He did finish the shoot and earned an Oscar nomination for his work. He died in 1976 from cancer.

james wong howe4

Other career highlights often mentioned are his use of a fish-eye lens in Seconds (1966), the exemplary work in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Transatlantic (1931) – his first sound film, Pursued (1947) for his use of landscape, and Body and Soul (1947) when he put a cameraman on roller skates in the ring with the boxers. Wong Howe started in Hollywood at the time when it was still finding itself and experimentation was more common. As the studios built their empires, experimentation was left by the wayside. Wong Howe continued to try new things, which is shown by the expanse between his first use of a velvet curtain to darken Mary Miles Minter’s eyes in 1922, the roller skates in Body and Soul in 1947, and his final Oscar nom in 1975. He is always called an innovator, and he was.

New Year

I’m excited to announce that I will be starting library school in a few weeks! Library school is when you want to be a librarian or an archivist, so you get a Master’s in Library and Information Science. Previously, I announced that I was starting graduate school in Media Studies, and after my first semester, I’ve decided to go in a different direction. Well, a more specific direction. I talked about it before, but I am interested in film archiving and digital archives, and while I loved my archives class, the program I was in would not prepare me for a job in the field. Library school will give me more practical training, which I am super excited to geek out over. So, once again, posts here may get fewer and farther between, but I am hoping to get a few ready and post every other week.

So besides finishing my first semester of grad school, applying and being accepted to a new grad program, and planning said new grad program, I’ve of course still been watching movies.  I am loving the new Watch TCM app, which allows you to watch a live stream of the broadcast (from your computer or mobile device) or access movies on demand (that have aired in the past week or two). You do have to have a cable subscription, but overall, it’s a good app. Although, if you see a movie ‘on demand’ that you want to watch, watch it right then, because it may expire soon. Because of rights issues, films are only available a short time after air date. But, TCM does re-air the same films, so there’s a good chance you can catch it again.

Other exciting announcement: in addition to this blog of my classic movie rantings, ramblings, and musings, I’ve started building a portfolio website to house my academic work. You can check that out: and see what I’ve been musing on in my classes. I’ll probably include a few more colloquial updates there as well about library school in general.

On to my third year of blogging!

It’s my 2 year Blogaversary!

Last year, I introduced you to a few of my favorite things (don’t worry this is not going to turn into an Oprah thing). Of course I’ve continued watching films over the past year (I’ve even seen some new releases!), and some have made it onto my favorites list. It’s strange when creating an account on a website and a security question asks what my favorite film is. Maybe I should just direct the security question to this post.

More of my favorite films (in no particular order)

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)


Hitchcock’s only comedy (arguably), starring the formidable Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard as a quarreling couple. Best conflict resolution strategy ever imagined.

The More the Merrier (1943)


Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn accidentally move in together due to a housing shortage. Coburn schemes to get Arthur and McCrea together. Hilarity ensues. Remade in the 1960’s as Walk Don’t Run with Cary Grant.

The Newsies (1992)


Before it was on Broadway, The Newsies was a little Alan Menken-composed film with tons of boy extras and great group dance sequences. Featuring an 18-year-old Christian Bale (FIGHT DANCING ALONE IN AN ALLEY) and a fast-talking New Yorker named Racetrack, age 12. And Bill Pullman. And tap dancing.

The Giant Mechanical Man (2012)

mechanical man

Jenna Fischer (Pam on The Office) and Chris Messina (general heartthrob) play 30somethings who don’t know what they want to do with their lives. They meet at their dead-end jobs at the zoo, and Jenna doesn’t know she’s met Messina before, as the Giant Mechanical Man, the silver-painted busquer she connects with.

Bottle Rocket (1996)


Wes Anderson’s directorial debut, co-authored with Owen Wilson, centers on Luke Wilson, as he leaves a sanitarium and goes along with his friend (Owen) as he plans a heist, until Luke falls in love with the hotel maid.

The Royal Tenebaums (2001)

royal tenenbaums

“Royal bought the house on Archer Avenue in the winter of his thrity-fifth year,” Alex Baldwin informs us. Another Wes Anderson-Owen Wilson masterpiece. Baldwin narrates; Gene Hackman is a manipulative father, Angelika Huston his estranged wife (Danny Glover her new beau), and Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwenyth Paltrow play their children, once prodigies, now all grown up.

The Fountainhead (1949)


Like the novel, too ambitious and heavy-handed in places, but the cinematography is perfect, and Patricia Neal is a star.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)


The first film noir to be directed by a woman (Ida Lupino) and no woman appears in it. Instead of the usual femme fatale, men fill the women’s roles of partner-best-friend-temptress in an interesting twist.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

moonrise kingdom

No words other than ‘enchanting’ for Wes Anderson’s most fantastical and romantic picture yet.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

safety not guaranteed

April from Parks and Rec and Mark Duplass (writer of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and a midwife on The Mindy Project), along with Nick from New Girl star: Duplass puts an ad in the paper for someone to time travel with him, April joins him.

Mr. Lucky (1943)


Cary Grant co-stars with Laraine Day (a kind of Priscilla Lane-esque noir heroine, usually). Grant is a gambler always looking for an angle, and he finds it with Day’s War Relief organization, planning to swindle them out 200 G’s. Of course Grant isn’t all tough guy – he learns to knit and falls for Day, and the romance is not easy by any stretch. Surprisingly moving and heartbreaking.

Frances Ha (2012)


Noah Baumbach directs and co-writes with Greta Gerwig, who also stars as Frances. The story of the love of two best friends, Frances and Sophie, against the backdrop of being 27 and figuring out what you are doing with your life. Shot in New York (and Paris) in black and white, it is true, hilarious, and delightful.

Caged (1950)


Eleanor Parker stars as a wide-eyed young girl who is sent to a women’s prison. She comes out a hardened criminal. Parker’s first Best Actress nom.

Ratatouille (2007)


A Pixar animated film, about a rat with dreams of becoming a chef. He meets a gangly trash boy at a restaurant and they team up and make headlines in Paris’ restaurant scene. It’s adorable and smart and wonderful.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

whats up doc

Peter Bogdonavich directed Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand in this riotiously funny movie from the 1970’s. I know, high praise for a movie from the 70’s, but this is laugh out loud, fall out of your chair, can’t breathe hilarious. It’s not a one-two punch, it’s a one-two-three-FOUR punch. The story is simple: 4 suitcases that are identical are staying at the same hotel, but it balloons from there.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

much ado

Joss Whedon’s adaptation is just that an adaptation –Shakespeare in modern day. With Whedon’s usual suspects turning in great performances – the lovely black and white – and shooting in a little under 2 weeks at Whedon’s home – it’s pretty close to perfect.

Paris Blues (1961)

paris blues

Duke Ellington composed the music. Paul Newman plays the trombone. Sidney Poitier plays the saxophone. Martin Ritt directed. What else do you need to know?

Zorro, season 2

Season 2 of Zorro differs from the first season in that it features famous guest stars and shorter arcs. The season begins with Don Diego in Monterey, backing a plan to gather money from rancheros and send a representative to Spain to purchase much-needed supplies. (It is unstated, but one can assume pirates and bandits are a problem in rural California and far-flung ranches are not getting what they need.) The Monterey episodes last the first 13 episodes of the season – again the same number as an arc in season 1, but the storylines within the Monterey arc are much shorter, lasting 1 to 3 episodes. Yes, here we see stand alone episodes.

Diego has high hopes of hanging up his Zorro mask, now that he is in Monterey, but when the plan to buy supplies goes awry, Zorro must step in. Sergeant Garcia and Corporal Reyes are also called in from Los Angeles for support. Also in Monterey, the acting governor tries to set up a police state, necessitating Zorro recusing the peons and keeping the peace. Another short storyline features Don Diego’s (and Zorro’s) first serious love interest. There were a few childhood sweethearts in season 1, who showed up as beautiful young women, but one was treacherous and one was disappointed in Diego for being so weak. Neither of them last beyond 2 episodes. Ana Maria is the daughter of Don Gregorio, the man who proposes to go to Spain and bring back supplies; she is introduced in the initial Monterey storyline. She returns in a third storyline, along with a friend of Diego’s, Ricardo. Ricardo has fallen in love, and reveals it is Ana Maria, who Diego was also in love with. Unfortunately, Ana Maria is in love with Zorro. Sergeant Garcia and the governor hatch a plan to offer Zorro amnesty if he will unmask himself in front of everyone and give up Zorro-ing. Ana Maria is thrilled, believing he will give up everything for her. Don Alejandro reveals that he knows Diego is Zorro by clubbing his son over the head and attempting to keep him from revealing Zorro’s identity. In the end, Diego agrees with Alejandro, the peons’ need for Zorro should come before his own happiness. With that, we return to Los Angeles.

Back in Los Angeles, the storylines are even shorter. Famous guest stars receive 3 episode storylines, but most episodes are stand alone. Cesar Romero appears for 3 episodes, as Diego’s mother’s brother (his uncle, Alejandro’s brother-in-law), with lots of get-rich-quick-schemes. Annette Funicello also appears, as a girl who has come from Spain to join her father whom she has not seen for 12 years. But no one in California has ever heard of her father and most believe she is making it all up. Both problems need Zorro to help resolve them. Jeff York’s storyline features the actor as a mountain man, who comes into town and tangles with the authorities. His mountain man song is a personal favorite. Then comes Senor Basilio, the greedy emissary from Spain. Basilio is played by Everett Sloane and bcked by henchman Capitaine Mendoza (Robert J. Wilke). He first appears on the scene, interrupting Sergeant Garcia’s birthday party and criticizing Los Angeles as sloppy and disloyal to Spain. Basilio has been sent by the king of Spain to elicit war bond sales from wealthy Californians (remember, 1820’s, Spain is at war with France and England). However, Basilio is greedy and Zorro must keep him from stealing the money meant for Spain. The final episodes of the series are focused on the injured governor storyline. The governor of California, who we met in Monterey, is injured when his carriage overturns near the de la Vega hacienda. The governor is brought there to recuperate, which will be a long time. The governor appoints Capitaine Arrellano as acting governor to continue his goodwill tour, urging Californians to re-assert their allegiance to Spain. Arrellano is swayed by a rebel group called the Robotos, who plot to kill the governor. Zorro must keep the governor safe, while Diego must balance his feelings for the governor’s beautiful daughter Leonar.

And that’s it. Two seasons.

Popular themes included:


Rebel groups

Loyalty of California to Spain


My favorites of season 2 include:

Sergeant Garcia and Corporal Reyes’ banter in episode 31 “An Affair of Honor” – the poor corporal gets booted to private!

All of the guest stars – was this an Arrested Development-like desperation move to improve ratings?

The episode where Senor Basilio rigs the treasure chests bound for Spain with gun powder – episode 67 “Treasure for the King”


Zorro, season 1

And now, without further ado, let me take you through two glorious seasons of Zorro.

Season 1 opens on a ship: Don Diego has received a strange letter from his father, urging him to leave school in Spain and return to California. Diego complies, and finds out aboard ship, from his fencing companion the captain, that Los Angeles (the tiny pueblo) is under the thumb of a dictator. Diego decides to take on the disguise of the dandy, while becoming “the fox” in order to fight the dictator.

The structure of this first season was 13-episode arcs, within a 39-episode season. The first 13 episodes are concerned with Capitaine Monastario, a corrupt military dictator oppressing Los Angeles. Within the Monastario arc, there are smaller, multi-episode plots. The first of these is a ranchero, Don Nacho (it’s short for Ignacio), who is arrested by Monastario, freed by Zorro, and seeks asylum in the nearby mission.

Episode 14 sees Monastario defeated. A white eagle feather is found on the new villain and The Eagle becomes the new “Big Bad.” A new magistrado (magistrate) is sent to Los Angeles; he is in the employ of this Eagle. (Fitting, the Fox and the Eagle facing off.) The magstrado is the middle arc (episodes 14-26), and after he is defeated, various Eagle henchmen appear in the final 13 episodes of the season.

The drawback of the structure of 13-episode arcs with multi-episode storylines within those arcs, is that episodes tend to run together or become very similar. Dropping in on an episode in the middle of the Don Nacho storyline may be confusing – why is he seeking asylum at the mission in the first place? Well, you need to go back two episodes, to see Monastario arrest him on trumped up charges.

On the other hand, the episodes become very alike. Week in and week out, for a about 3 months, Zorro battles one villain. With the last arc with various henchmen, at least there is a different face on the villain. The first arc features only Monastario. How stupid is Monastario that Zorro always slips through his fingers? It becomes tedious. It is also difficult to place an episode without looking up guest stars. Even the directors were very often the same (mostly Hollingsworth Morse, Charles Barton, and Norman Foster). Often plot descriptions available online could describe almost any episode within an arc or a storyline. The same basic event happens almost every week.

Highlights of season 1 include:

Zorro fighting Don Alejandro – with Alejandro unaware that this is the son he is so disappointed in.

The appearance of Corporal Reyes in episode 14.

Sergeant Garcia’s catchphrase – added to almost any order or arrest: “…please?”

Using Bernardo as a body double for Zorro.

Save Zorro!

Previously, I mentioned that Disney committed the atrocity of coloring the beautiful black and white Zorro television episodes when re-airing began. This is an unfortunate fate, also suffered by Cary Grant in 1937’s Topper, and often, after colorization, it becomes difficult to find copies of the original black and white. When Disney released Zorro on DVD, the first iteration was the colorized version. Not cheap and annoyingly split into several different volumes per season, these can still be purchased online.

Thankfully, in 2009, Walt Disney Treasures released the original black and white versions on DVDs – and on one DVD set per season (of which there were two). Also available on Amazon, these are also not cheap.

The episodes my dad would tape for me from Vault Disney appeared in both formats. The most popular episodes, or at least the ones aired most frequently were the later episodes in season 2, especially the ones with famous guest stars like Annette Funicello and Cesar Romero. These were usually kept in black and white, but I don’t believe I have ever seen season 1, episode 1 in anything but its colorized form. That particular episode was just aired as colorized.

In beginning to watch season 1 on YouTube (thanks ZorroChannel), all of the episodes were colorized. I began to worry. Were the black and white versions not available? Were the VHS tapes, not on the first lives when Zorro was recorded (My family reused VHS tapes like nobody’s business, taping over something we’d already recorded and watched. Only a few movies survived not taping over like Duck Tales: The Movie – The Treasure of the Lost Lamp [1990].[1]), some of the only copies of the black and white originals? Thankfully, no. Those VHS tapes survive as interesting pieces of ephemera; archivists and historians would LOVE the commercials for So Weird. Even the old Disney channel logo which annoyingly, to me at least, appears in the bottom right corner, will someday be of interest in the history of design or of Disney. But, they are damaged. Episodes were not taped completely (the timer on our VCR may not have worked properly, or maybe the clock was off) or the VHS itself was damaged in the past 20 years (living through several floodings of my parents’ basement). These copies are not preserved perfectly, but at least they are not some of the only copies

So when I started watching season 2, I was thrilled to find another channel on Youtube (just called Zorro) which featured the whole season in black and white, in good quality. Colorized versions of season 2 are also available on Youtube, but with actually much lower quality and often taped from television.

All of this to introduce you to some themes I will be revisiting: preservation, formats, and archives. My academic and career interests are tending in that direction, and also my personal (rational or irrational) obsessions, such as with Zorro.

[1] You guys. This movie was so amazing. One part Indiana Jones, one part Aladdin, one part really butchered Arabian Nights, and one part Walt Disney. I am clearly enjoying these trips down memory lane, and let me say again: I had great taste in movies as a 4-year-old.