Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, ambitious middleweight boxing contender
The Bronx, Summer 1941
Film: Raging Bull
Release Date: December 19, 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Design: John Boxer & Richard Bruno
Today would have been the 100th birthday of Jake LaMotta, the tough middleweight boxer born July 10, 1922 who was cinematically immortalized by Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance in Raging Bull. Now considered one of the best movies ever made, Raging Bull was adapted by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin from LaMotta’s similarly titled autobiography, inspired by his own nickname “the Bronx Bull”. Continue reading
John Garfield as Nick Robey, desperate small-time thief
Los Angeles, Summer 1951
Film: He Ran All the Way
Release Date: June 19, 1951
Director: John Berry
Wardrobe Credit: Joe King
John Garfield, one of the most talented and naturalistic actors of Hollywood’s “golden age”, died 70 years ago today on May 21, 1952. Garfield had long been troubled with heart health issues, but it’s been argued that the resulting stress brought on by harassment from the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee contributed to his early death at the age of 39, nearly a year after the release of his final film, He Ran All the Way (1951).
James Dean as Caleb “Cal” Trask, angsty and entrepreneurial farmer’s son
Salinas, California, Fall 1917
Film: East of Eden
Release Date: March 9, 1955
Director: Elia Kazan
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
James Dean’s first of only three major credited screen roles also resulted in his first of two posthumous Academy Award nominations, starring as the moody Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, itself a loose retelling of the story of Cain and Abel set in California’s Salinas Valley around the time of America’s entry into World War I.
Cal and his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) vie for the affections of their father Adam (Raymond Massey), a prominent farmer and draft board chairman, whom Cal hopes to impress by growing beans to raise funds that would support the family and supplant some of Adam’s own financial losses. As Cal’s success in the bean-fields grows, his competition with his brother extends to Aron’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris), growing closer to her after they meet up at a county fair. Continue reading
Roscoe Lee Browne as Philippe Dubois, smooth-talking Martinican-American sleeper agent
New York City, Fall 1962
Release Date: December 19, 1969
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Following last month’s look at a “hero costume” from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller Saboteur, I want to continue exploring style from the lesser-known entries in the Master of Suspense’s oeuvre. Loosely based on the “Martel affair” and events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Topaz was Hitch’s final movie centered around espionage, though I consider it to lack much of the spark that fueled his earlier successes like North by Northwest.
The single exception in Topaz may be a brief scene made more memorable by the appearance of Martinican agent Philippe Dubois, portrayed by Roscoe Lee Browne, the multi-talented star of stage and screen born 100 years ago today on May 2, 1922. Continue reading
Robert Cummings as Barry Kane, civilian aircraft mechanic
From Glendale, California, into the High Desert, Spring 1942
Release Date: April 22, 1942
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime thriller Saboteur—not to be confused with his earlier movie Sabotage—was released 80 years ago this month. Though production began just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the idea had actually been months in the making after Hitch’s original pitch to David O. Selznick. “We were in 1941 and there were pro-German elements who called themselves America Firsters and who were, in fact, American Fascists. This was the group I had in mind while writing the scenario,” Hitchcock later explained to François Truffaut.
Despite his traditional elements of the wronged man, the beautiful blonde, and the “MacGuffin,” Hitch identified several disappointments with Saboteur, most notably in the casting of his two heroes and the villain. Of leading male star Robert Cummings, who portrayed the accused saboteur, Hitch commented to Truffaut that “he’s a competent performer, but he belongs to the light-comedy class of actors,” though this wouldn’t stop him from casting him a decade later in a strong supporting role in Dial M for Murder. Continue reading
Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, ambitious film actor, singer, and dancer
Hollywood, Spring 1927
Film: Singin’ in the Rain
Release Date: April 11, 1952
Directed by: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
Costume Designer: Walter Plunkett
What better way to welcome April showers than by celebrating the 70th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain, which was widely released on this day in 1952, just two weeks after it premiered at Radio City Music Hall.
Now considered not just one of the best musical films but one of the best movies of all time, Singin’ in the Rain centers around Hollywood during the waning months of the silent era as studios made the shift to “talkies” following the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927. The transition is no problem for the multi-talented Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), who shares his portrayer’s finely honed abilities to sing, act, and dance, but previews for Don’s latest feature—the period drama The Dueling Cavalier—illustrate that Don’s brassy, vain co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) is woefully underprepared for the new phase of their career, her shrill accent eliciting laughter and frustration from the test audiences.
Brainstorming over late-night sandwiches and milk with his professional partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and his new love interest Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), Don’s brain trust determines that The Dueling Cavalier could potentially be retooled as a musical, with Kathy dubbing Lina’s grating voice behind the scenes. This being a musical, the trio celebrates their breakthrough with a rousing rendition of “Good Mornin'” as the rain falls outside, followed by a gleeful Don kissing Kathy goodnight and—delighted with the prospects of his professional and romantic futures—singing the titular ditty as he dances home in the downpour. Continue reading
Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, opportunistic carny-turned-nightclub mentalist
Buffalo, New York, Winter 1941
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Costume Designer: Luis Sequeira
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
On the eve of the 94th Academy Awards, I wanted to revisit the “golden era” style of quadruple-nominee Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s evocatively photographed adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name. Continue reading
Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, Cuban-born bandleader, actor, and TV producer
Los Angeles, September 1952
Film: Being the Ricardos
Release Date: December 7, 2021
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Costume Designer: Susan Lyall
I grew up watching I Love Lucy, my childhood punctuated by many memories of me channeling inordinate levels of anxiety at Lucy’s antics into pacing around my grandmother’s kitchen while the decades-old drama unfolded in black-and-white from the small TV tucked on a corner countertop. Almost thirty years later, I still can recollect Lucy pitching Vitameatavegamin or stomping grapes with better clarity than anything I may have binged on Netflix over the last year.
As the real Desi Arnaz was born 105 years ago today on March 2, 1917, let’s take a look at Javier Bardem’s Academy Award-nominated performance as Desi in Being the Ricardos. Continue reading
Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle, newlywed honeymooner
Egypt, September 1937
Film: Death on the Nile
Release Date: September 29, 1978
Director: John Guillermin
Costume Designer: Anthony Powell
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today would have been the 70th birthday of Simon MacCorkindale, the English actor whose breakthrough role was in Death on the Nile, the 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery of the same name.
James Stewart as George Bailey, reluctant banker
Bedford Falls, New York, Spring 1932
Film: It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Date: December 20, 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson
Released 75 years ago today, It’s a Wonderful Life has become an enduring Christmas classic… almost by accident! Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s self-published novella The Greatest Gift, the movie had been relatively well-received at the time of its release, even earning five Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture, but it would be overshadowed by the epic blockbuster The Best Years of Our Lives that told the story of servicemen returning from World War II.
Despite being a personal favorite of director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life seemed destined for obscurity as just another “old movie” when a clerical error prevented proper renewal of the copyright. Though small royalties were still owed as it was derived from Stern’s story, TV stations leapt at the chance to air high-quality, low-cost seasonal programming, launching It’s a Wonderful Life to its status as a perennial favorite for holiday viewers by the 1980s.