Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928)

Tod Browning's silent 1928 story of revenge in the African Congo provides a challenge to modern viewers, given that it relies on hyper-racist stereotypes and deeply rooted misogyny for much of its horror, but if you're looking for something truly horrifying then West of Zanzibar (1928) certainly fits the bill. It packs an astounding amount of perverse cruelty into 65 minutes of film, most of it perpetuated by Lon Chaney as a paralyzed villain on a vendetta against his romantic rival and the child who symbolizes his betrayal. Lionel Barrymore and Warner Baxter also have prominent roles, although Mary Nolan takes most of the abuse as the young woman persecuted by Chaney's monstrous vengeance. Chaney is, as always, mesmerizing in a dark and complicated role, but be warned that this film is no stroll in the park.

Chaney plays the magician Phroso, who loses the use of his legs in a fight with Crane (Barrymore), the man who is stealing his wife. Later the wife turns up again with a baby in tow and promptly dies. Over his wife's corpse, Phroso swears vengeance on Crane and his child, thus embarking on an eighteen year mission to ruin Crane, debauch his daughter, and murder them both by invoking the ritual sacrifice performed by a tribe of African cannibals. Phroso makes himself a voodoo master in the remote African camp by using his magician's tricks, but his relentless desire for revenge blinds him to a painful truth until it is almost too late to change.

Chaney's performance is the highlight here. He begins as a sympathetic victim, a good man buffeted by unkind fate. His world crumbles when his beloved wife abandons him and her suitor cripples him, but these events alone do not change him. He only chooses evil over good in the church where he finds his wife's body, with the helpless infant crying nearby. The scene swells with terrible irony; Phroso looks on the Virgin and Child, and instead of pity for his wife's daughter chooses hate. From then on he embraces cruelty, sending the girl to be raised in a Zanzibar brothel while he cheats Crane of his ivory haul. Chaney plays Phroso as tragic, then monstrous, with slight hints of the vestiges of his humanity peeking through from time to time just to remind us of what he once was. His dead legs provide a physical parallel to his withered soul, and Chaney is, of course, brilliant in the way he manages to convey both the bodily and the spiritual wreckage.

Everyone else mainly reacts to Chaney, and the emotions called for are horror, disgust, fear, and loathing. In his own way, Lionel Barrymore's Crane is just as much a monster as Phroso, wreaking havoc and creating misery without ever worrying about the consequences of his actions. He laughs at Phroso's folly because he feels no pity for its victims. Mary Nolan, as Maizie, is chief among these; her tragic eyes and body language suggest so much more about her suffering than the title cards can convey. Warner Baxter plays a good man mired in Hell as Doc, but Maizie's arrival stirs his numbed conscience, and the pair eventually gather the courage to defy Phroso. These two characters get more nuanced development in the 1932 version of the story, Kongo, which fleshes out the doctor's narrative and their budding romance. The superstitious natives also react to Phroso, but they're so hideously stereotyped that they remove the viewer from the moment, and it's hard to blame the actors playing them for being unenthusiastic about selling their roles.

If nothing else, West of Zanzibar proves (yet again) that silent horror is by no means tame; Browning pushes buttons and tests limits in ways that no horror director of the 40s or 50s could. It suffers from the usual limitations of its era, especially where racist, colonialist attitudes are concerned, and it exploits the sexual degradation of its main female character in deeply uncomfortable ways. It might be preferable to start with other Chaney films if you aren't already well versed in his work or silent movies in general; try The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), or The Unknown (1927). For some of Browning's more controversial work, see Freaks (1932), or try his very weird collaboration with star Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll (1932), in which Barrymore plays the man obsessed with revenge. Browning and Barrymore also team up for The Show (1927). For a different look at Warner Baxter, try The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).

Monday, July 24, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947)

Director Peter Godfrey's modern Gothic offers two iconic stars - Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck - as its leads, which is reason enough to see The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) in spite of its flaws. Bogart, who played heavies off and on throughout his career, is back on the dark side as a painter who finds artistic inspiration by murdering his wives, while Stanwyck is unusually naive as his current wife and next intended victim. Supporting performers include Nigel Bruce as an atrociously incompetent doctor and Ann Carter as Bogart's beguiling daughter, while Alexis Smith is particularly memorable as a predatory seductress who might be getting more than she expects by tempting Bogart's unhinged artist to leave his wife for her. Bogart, Stanwyck, and Smith all give fine performances, but the film suffers from a lack of suspense that undermines its chilling premise.

Stanwyck plays Sally, who becomes the second wife of painter Geoffrey Carroll (Bogart) after his first wife dies. Sally doesn't suspect that her predecessor's demise was murder, and Geoffrey goes to great lengths to hide his crimes even as he contemplates a second disposal to make way for wife number three. Goaded by the offers of the beautiful Cecily (Alexis Smith), Geoffrey intends to make Sally another victim of his maniacal need for a new muse to drive his work. Geoffrey's young daughter, Bea (Ann Carter), eventually reveals some of his secrets, and Sally realizes the truth about her husband, but her revelation might come too late to save her from his murderous schemes.

The two leads are the chief attraction here, though both are somewhat out of their element. Humphrey Bogart never looks like an artist, but he does make for a credible killer, and it's great fun to watch his Geoffrey come unhinged whenever his secrets are threatened. By the end of the film he has gone right off the rails, justifying his actions with a horrifically sexist assertion that his art is more important than any woman's life. The simmering intensity that Bogart exemplifies works well for dangerous, unstable characters, and his performance here provides a parallel to his more celebrated work in The Petrified Forest (1936), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). Stanwyck, normally a tough cookie and occasionally up for murder herself, here has an ingenue's role, and one of the film's frustrations is that we expect a Stanwyck character to be smarter. Stanwyck plays Sally as loyal, kind, and unsuspecting, which is what the role seems to demand of her, but it's not as good a part as the actress deserves, and Alexis Smith has the meatier role as the scheming Cecily. Stanwyck would get a much better chance to play an imperiled wife in the 1948 film, Sorry, Wrong Number, showing what she could do with a part more suited to her talent.

While the casting issues cause some obvious problems, the chief complaint about The Two Mrs. Carrolls is its inability to generate suspense. The film shows us up front that Geoffrey murders his first wife, creating dramatic irony for the audience as we wait for Sally to catch up. This approach can work well in a narrative, depending on how the unfolding events are handled as the protagonist learns the truth, but Sally stays in the dark so long that we wonder if she's paying attention. When she does finally figure it out there's a flood of information dumped into the last act so rapidly that we don't have time to savor Sally's discoveries. Even the reveal of the gruesome portrait of Sally as an Angel of Death - which ought to be a major moment - seems rushed. We see it briefly and then it's gone as Sally rushes on to the next piece of evidence. Great Gothic thrillers, whether literary or cinematic, use the slow build of rising suspicion and horror to drive the plot and the heroine forward to the inevitable confrontation with the villain. One has only to compare this movie's poisoned milk scenes with the one in Suspicion (1941) to see how differently a really suspenseful film handles the same concept. The 1940s, in fact, saw a host of excellent Gothic thrillers appear in the wake of Rebecca (1940) and the Jane Eyre inspired boom that followed, and it's a shame that The Two Mrs. Carrolls falls short in comparison with its sister films.

In spite of its failures, classic movie buffs will want to see The Two Mrs. Carrolls because it's the only picture to pair Bogart and Stanwyck. It's also worth seeing for fans of Ann Carter, the child star who so memorably plays the young protagonist of The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Peter Godfrey directs Alexis Smith again in The Woman in White (1948), which continues the Gothic trend, as does Cry Wolf (1947), which has Godfrey directing again for Stanwyck. For more of Smith and Bogart in a tale of murderous marriage, try Conflict (1945). Most of the Warner Bros. films are available as DVD on demand from the Warner Archive, including The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The First Time: Memorable Movie Introductions

In my last post I talked about the first time I saw George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), which got me thinking about the other movies I remember seeing for the first time. If you're like me, you watch so many movies that a lot of the viewings run together (which is why some of us have film journals to keep track), but other experiences stand out. Perhaps it's the place where it happened, or the other people who were there, or maybe it's that the film itself made such a huge impact on you as a first-time viewer. I made an effort to think about the movies I can clearly remember seeing for the first time, and here's the list I came up with, as well as what I can recall about the circumstances in which I saw them.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

This is the first movie I distinctly remember seeing for the first time, at a drive-in in Jesup, GA, in 1981. Given my long-standing love for SF/F and special effects, it's no shock that I loved it. It also stirred my interest in mythology, which fueled a passion for all things literary.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

All seen in 1988 at the Governor's Honors Program in Valdosta, GA (see my post about that)

Alien (1979)

At a fraternity house at Georgia Tech in 1989 - the brothers were drunk, but I was sober, and I got so sucked into watching the movie that I paid no attention to the shenanigans going on around me, much to the disappointment of the guy who hoped I'd be scared by the film and need his manly protection. I think he left when I started laughing at the death scenes. (No, I don't remember now why I thought they were funny!)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)

At an NC-17 film series at Emory University in late January 1991, with the man I would eventually marry. Oddly enough, this series formed the basis of most of our first week of dating, an odd start in terms of content but fitting given how many movies we have seen together since. Of the two, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover made by far the greatest impression. I can still close my eyes and see whole scenes of that film, though I have not watched it again in all these years. The ending in particular is impossible to forget. This was my first real exposure to foreign films as such, not to mention NC-17 films. I went back to Emory's little theater for a Star Trek marathon, Prospero's Books (1991), and My Own Private Idaho (1991) during my college years, all memorable in their own ways.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Talk about a weird double feature! I saw both with a large group of friends from Agnes Scott and Emory. We all went to an Atlanta theater for Silence of the Lambs, which left us feeling freaked out by the time it got over. Luckily, we came out of the theater to find a floor show of Rocky Horror recruiting an audience for their midnight screening. It turned out that Frank-N-Furter was a high school friend of some of our folks, and we all got in for free. Silence is the better movie, but Rocky Horror was more fun; it was the first time I saw the live show.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Another group trip with a different crowd of friends - this one involved a pickup truck full of freezing college students at a drive-in theater outside Atlanta. I don't know why we thought it was a good idea to sit in the back of a truck on a freakishly cold night, but nobody lost any toes. I had to watch the movie again a few years later because I was too cold to pay that much attention to it at the time, but I'll never forget the experience itself.

Easter Parade (1948)

Most of these entries have been movies that were new at the time, but I got to discover this charming musical as part of a senior colloquium on comedy in 1992. The professor who showed it was Pat Pinka, and she was obviously delighted to present it to a room full of English majors. We studied many excellent works during this seminar course, including Swift's "Modest Proposal" and Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, but Easter Parade stands out as an example of the pure joy of a different kind of comedy.

Most of this list comes from my college years, a formative time, I think, for most young people, but for me especially because the town where I grew up had limited my access to so much of art and popular culture. I was lucky to get away to Atlanta and liberal arts campuses where I could explore literature, film, and my own identity. I went to museums, live theater, the ballet, and pretty much every movie theater in the greater metro area. So many of those movie experiences were memorable because it was all so new to me; even having friends with whom to see those movies was new. Now I see movies in the theater with my family all the time, but I also get to show movies to groups at libraries and lifetime learning programs, and I think the communal experience of watching and talking about a film makes a big difference.

I also talk about seeing some of these films for the first time in this post, so head over to that if you're interested in the portrait of the cinephile as a young girl theme.

What are the movies you remember seeing for the first time? Where were you and who were you with? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My First Summer of Cinema - 1988

George Romero's death this week has left me feeling nostalgic about the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was also the first time I heard of Romero, saw a zombie film, and found out that movies were something people could take seriously and discuss as forms of art. Almost thirty years later, it's an experience that still resonates as a profound influence on my life and the person I eventually became.

I was spending the summer studying Communication Arts at the Governors Honors Program, a free camp that sent qualifying Georgia high school students for six weeks of academic opportunity at the Valdosta State campus. Despite the fact that it was 100 degrees in Valdosta and my dorm had no air conditioning, I was truly happy for the first time in my life. I was a lonely, bookish, skinny girl from a rural town in South Georgia. My conservative, religious parents controlled my life and frowned on my interest in becoming a writer or an artist while refusing to confront the causes of the deep depression that resulted from being trapped in such a situation. Getting away from them and out of town for the whole summer was a miracle in and of itself, but spending it with other nerdy, smart kids and having real friends for the first time while learning the most amazing stuff was almost too good to be true. I don't exaggerate when I say that Governor's Honors changed - and saved - my life.

In addition to days spent learning about literature from college professors (also my first time being around college professors!), we had a constant stream of bonus opportunities in the evenings and on weekends. One of my friends suggested that we attend a film series of social commentary shockers, and I went along, having no real concept of what that meant. I had not been allowed to see horror movies or R rated movies of any kind at home; we didn't have cable, and my parents exercised strict veto power over anything I tried to rent at the video store or see in the pitiful two screen theater downtown. During the film series we sat in desks in a dark, blessedly cool classroom, taking in these movies that I had never heard of before but would never forget seeing. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was up first, horrifying us with its gruesome zombies but really punching us in the gut at the end. Next came One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975); the discovery that frontal lobotomy was actually a thing that happened to people gave me nightmares for days. We finished up with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which was probably my favorite of the series if only because I was instantly charmed by Donald Sutherland, whom I had never seen before. Each picture shocked, terrified, and delighted me. It felt transgressive to be watching them, and I certainly didn't mention them to my parents.

The professor who showed the films introduced them and led discussions afterwards, something I often did as an English professor and still do today as a speaker at libraries, lifetime learning programs, and retirement communities. It made the movies so much more interesting to know something about them going in and have a lively conversation afterward. I don't remember if I contributed to the discussions back then; I was probably too ashamed of my own ignorance when many of the kids around me were obviously more schooled in the issues and the films. I remember a lot more about that series, though, than the Hitchcock screenings that ran in the student center, where we didn't have introductions or discussions. The academic, engaged approach made a big difference in the overall impact of the films.

Comm Arts kids were called "Commies" - we got shirts! Yes, I kept mine.

It's strange to look back thirty years later and realize that something so minor - just a few evenings of movie screenings, led by a knowledgeable person who thought kids should know something about film - would alter me in such an enduring way. I knew from the moment I arrived at Governor's Honors that it was the single best thing that had ever happened to me. It would go on changing my life in huge ways for the next several years, but I didn't suspect then that an introduction to George Romero's zombie classic would put me on a path to decades of passionate engagement with the art of cinema. Thanks, Mr. Romero, and thanks to that professor who wanted us to see those films. I'm trying to carry on the good work.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Making a Hollywood House in Alabama: Movie Posters and Art

Errol Flynn is in the bedroom, of course.
As part of an ongoing effort to make our house a more interesting and personally relevant space (as opposed to a collection of things other people chose for us or handed down), I finally got frames for the posters I bought at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Los Angeles. If you haven't been, Larry Edmunds is a true Hollywood treasure, a place were cinephiles can revel in film posters, books, lobby cards, and other items related to cinema. If I lived in driving distance of the store I'd be in there all the time, but, sadly, it's a long haul from Alabama. Any movie buff planning a visit to L.A. should definitely put Larry Edmunds on the must-see list.

Unfortunately, the Jezebel and Adventures of Robin Hood posters I picked up are an odd size, so I never did find frames that were a perfect fit. I finally gave up and matted them, but I'll be giving that more thought if and when I manage another trip to L.A. I'm probably a little too old to just tape posters up like I did as a college student (back then my prize possession was a British quad poster for The Lost Boys). Besides, I don't want to damage them!

Wonderground Gallery postcard prints
I'm also working to frame and hang a number of pieces from the fabulous Wonderground Gallery stores at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Everyone at my house is a serious Disney fan, and the kitchen has slowly been transforming into a Wonderground Gallery tribute space over the last few years. You can find the most unusual and interesting art at the two galleries, with prints featuring classic Disney characters, attractions, and Star Wars (a LOT of Star Wars). The smallest prints - 5x7 postcards - are only $5 each, and I come home from each Disney trip with another 4 or 5 cards. I only wish I had bought some bigger pieces on my last trip! They offer a few items from the collection at the Disney Store website, but it's a pale substitute for visiting the actual stores.

For those who can't travel, there's always AllPosters.com, where I found some good deals on a couple of classic movie posters on my most recent visit. I'm not rich enough to shop at FilmPosters.com, but if anyone wants to buy me an original Curse of the Cat People poster for $2,750.00 I'll be glad to take it!

Jezebel guards the jewelry box.
I've got a number of stills, promotional photos, and other postcard sized movie items, so I'll be working over the next few weeks and months to figure out how to get them onto the walls and out of the drawers around the house. I realize I need to stop being so cheap and go in for some larger art that will really make an impact in a room. I'm curious about how other film fans display their favorite movie posters and art, so I'd love to hear about it! Where do you buy your movie memorabilia, and what do you do with it?

Monday, June 12, 2017

12 Mummy Movies Worth Watching

At an abysmal 17 %, the Rotten Tomatoes rating of the new version of The Mummy (2017) might have you hiding in your sarcophagus instead of rushing to the theater, but, luckily for mummy lovers, Hollywood has produced plenty of better pictures in the genre. You can save your dollars for another round of Wonder Woman and still get your Egyptian undead fix with any of these twelve films, which show the long history of the movie mummy and the many different ways the character can be treated.

1) THE MUMMY (1932) - Boris Karloff shines in this original outing for the iconic monster, although he spends most of the film in more human form as Ardath Bey. The role gives him a chance to use his hypnotic voice, something he was denied as the mute creature in Frankenstein (1931), but it also helps to cement his importance as a leading player in classic horror. This dreamy contemplation on the pas de deux of love and death sets the tone for many of the mummy movies to follow, as well it should. After 85 years, it remains the greatest example of the genre and still captivates audiences as Imhotep lures his lost love back to his immortal side.

2) THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940) - It took eight years for Universal to make another mummy movie, this time without the powerful appeal of Karloff. While The Mummy's Hand isn't a great movie, it does have its charms, and it sets up a series of pictures featuring the character of Kharis. The later Kharis films star Lon Chaney, Jr. as the mummy, but in this outing Western actor Tom Tyler shuffles beneath the bandages as the undead menace. The later films, which fall further into strict matinee fare, include The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944), and The Mummy's Curse (1944).

3) THE MUMMY (1959) - In the late 1950s, Hammer rebooted the Universal monster tales with a series of gorgeous, lurid productions starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and this retelling of the mummy story adds a little of the signature Hammer sex appeal to a story that already has a weird romance as its driving force. Lee shambles tragically as the mummy Kharis, while Peter Cushing plays the archeologist trying to stop an ancient Egyptian curse from depriving him of both his life and his lovely spouse.

4) BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971) - This is a later, sexier Hammer production from the early 70s and a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1903 novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars. While it's light on actual mummies, the film is memorable for Valerie Leon's allure and a higher body count than many earlier films. Daily Dead has a good review of the film here, if you're interested in learning more, and most Hammer fans will find it worthwhile if imperfect. Some of its problems aren't really the fault of the film, since Peter Cushing bowed out early due to his wife's illness, and director Seth Holt died during filming.

5) AMAZING STORIES: "Mummy Daddy" (1985) - OK, so it's not a movie, but this mummy story has so much love for classic Universal horror that you have to see it, anyway, and it's one of the most beloved and memorable episodes of the influential television series. Tom Harrison stars as an actor in full mummy makeup who takes off from location to greet his new baby's arrival, although along the way he gets into all kinds of trouble thanks to his scary costume and the presence of an actual mummy shambling about the swamp. The plot of the episode mirrors an old story about Boris Karloff rushing to the hospital for his daughter's birth in full costume as Frankenstein's monster, but you'll find tributes to many Universal monster movies over the course of the episode.

6) TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE (1990) - Admittedly, only the first segment of this horror anthology film is about mummies, but it's memorable enough that I include it here (honestly, I remember it scaring me half to death when I saw it in the theaters as a teenager). "Lot 249" stars Christian Slater, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, and Robert Sedgwick in a plot about a college student's gruesome revenge against his classmates. The segment is adapted from the 1892 short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which helped to establish many of the conventions of the mummy horror tale, so this is a good one to track down if you're interested in the history of supernatural mummy stories.

7 and 8) THE MUMMY (1999) and THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001) - Although its history of rebooting the classic monsters has been spotty at best, Universal really knocked it out of the park with Stephen Sommers' delightful 1999 adventure, which mixed scares, laughs, and action in equal measure. Arnold Vosloo is an imposing, muscled Imhotep, accidentally brought back to life by archeologists and bent on resurrecting his long lost love. Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Oded Fehr, and John Hannah have such great chemistry as our heroic team that it's good to see them back in action for the 2001 sequel, even if the second movie doesn't quite measure up to the first. Like the Amazing Stories episode, part of the charm of this version is its love for the films that have come before, so it pays to watch the 1932 version first and then watch the 1999 one. You can probably skip the later installments of the franchise unless you're really invested in Dwayne Johnson as the Scorpion King.

9) BUBBA HO-TEP (2002) - There's nothing else out there quite like Bubba Ho-Tep, but people who have seen it love it, and I'm happy to be yet another fan urging you to put this one on your watch list. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis star as nursing home residents who take up their walkers and canes to fight a murderous mummy, but they're not just any old geezers, they're Elvis and JFK, still alive but rather the worse for wear. Adapted from a short story by Joe R. Lonsdale, Bubba Ho-Tep is either your kind of thing or it isn't, but it's a terrific example of horror comedy's ability to juggle its two genres' demands. It's weird and scary and absolutely hilarious, and it's one of those movies that every monster film fan really ought to see.

10, 11 and 12) NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM trilogy (2006, 2009, 2014) - This is a more kid-friendly way to watch some mummy movie adventures, but the three pictures borrow a lot from the genre's traditions in service to the plot of having museum exhibits that come alive at night. Ben Stiller leads a huge cast of well-known stars in all three pictures, and the focus is squarely on comedic adventure, but those who know their mummy movies will see the films putting familiar conventions to work in interesting ways. The ancient Egyptian pharaoh character, Ahkmenrah, figures in all three pictures and is played by Rami Malek, whom you will recognize immediately from his current TV series, Mr. Robot. The Night at the Museum movies mark one of the few times a person of actual Egyptian heritage has gotten to play an Egyptian mummy.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Orry-Kelly and WOMEN HE'S UNDRESSED (2015)

Gillian Armstrong's 2015 documentary film about Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly is currently streaming on Netflix, and it offers an intriguing look at the life of the three time Oscar winner, who dressed stars as iconic and diverse as Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, and Natalie Wood. The documentary uses dramatic recreation and a wry performance by Darren Gilshenan as Orry-Kelly to tell the story of the Australian costume designer's early life and long - if uneven - career in Hollywood. While it's obviously of interest to classic film fans with an eye for fashion, Women He's Undressed also provides a straightforward consideration of the problems of being a gay man in Golden Age Hollywood, when many stars and people behind the scenes were driven to keep their personal lives secret for fear of exposure, scandal, and expulsion.

The dramatic recreations are fun, sometimes quite cheeky, and good at conveying Orry-Kelly's sense of humor. The documentary also relies on interviews with various stars and costume designers who knew Orry-Kelly, including Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, and Ann Roth. These segments flesh out different aspects of Orry-Kelly's life, including his experience as part of the industry's gay community and his relationships with people like Jack Warner and his wife. One thing we don't see much of is film footage of Orry-Kelly himself, although we do get some still photos and snippets of letters, particularly those between the designer and his devoted mother. Film clips instead focus on the clothes and the actresses he dressed in his most successful work; these are, of course, important to understanding the designer's contributions to cinema, but it would be nice to see more of the real Orry-Kelly in the mix.

The documentary wades right into the ongoing debate about Cary Grant's sexual orientation; Orry-Kelly and Grant - then Archie Leach - knew one another and lived together early in their careers in New York, but Grant snubbed Orry-Kelly once stardom arrived. In fact, Grant really doesn't come off in a positive light, which is sure to upset some viewers, but it's clear that Orry-Kelly was deeply hurt by the end of their friendship, and this film is about his perspective.

Overall, Women He's Undressed succeeds at raising interest in and awareness of Orry-Kelly's life and work; it will send a lot of classic movie fans back to Jezebel, Some Like It Hot, and Gypsy for a fresh look at the ways in which the clothes make the pictures. Bette Davis devotees should, in particular, make time to watch the documentary and consider the designer's crucial role in shaping Davis' look in many of her most memorable roles. If you're interested in seeing more films from Australian director Gillian Armstrong, you might try her 1994 adaptation of Little Women or her 2010 documentary, Love, Lust & Lies.