Classic Movie Star Museums: A Travel Guide

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Next month marks the grand opening of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa. During the last 30 years more than one million visitors have reportedly journeyed to Winterset to tour the small house where Wayne was born on May 26, 1907 but now fans of the much beloved movie star will be able to enjoy a brand new 5,000 square facility built alongside Wayne’s original home. The museum features the largest collection of John Wayne memorabilia in existence including original movie posters, film costumes, props, scripts, photos, personal letters, original artwork, sculptures, a customized automobile and a movie theater where visitors can enjoy a documentary about Wayne and watch his films. The grand opening will take place between May 22-24 and includes a ribbon cutting ceremony presented by Scott Eyman (author of John Wayne: The Life and the Legend), a rodeo show and a guest appearance from actor, rodeo competitor and politician Chris Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s son) who appeared with Wayne in BIG JAKE (1971). Color me impressed! I think it’s encouraging to see small towns like Winterset celebrating their film history. For more information, please visit their official website: John Wayne Birthplace Museum

In light of this news, I started thinking about other smaller museums outside of Hollywood dedicated to preserving the memory of classic movie stars. I follow some of them on Twitter and occasionally try to share information about their fundraising efforts but now that spring’s arrived and many of us are starting to plan summer vacations I thought I’d put together a list of the small hometown museums that have sprung up across the U.S. honoring their local celebrities. It should be of interest to classic film fans who are planning a road trip soon or it just might surprise someone who unknowingly has a museum dedicated to a Hollywood personality in their own backyard.

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January 18, 2014
David Kalat
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What, No “What, No Beer?”

This coming Wednesday at 6 am Eastern, TCM is running What, No Beer?    It is just about as unloved as a movie can be.  If all the hatred and invective thrown at this 65 minute-long 1933 comedy were somehow bottled up and concentrated, it could power a small city.  (And ladies and gentlemen, that’s my modest proposal to solve the energy crisis—wean us off foreign oil and start using movie criticism as an alternative fuel source).

In the past  I have used this forum to defend Buster Keaton’s MGM talkies—but even I sniffed at What, No Beer?  2014 is a new year, though, and with the new year comes the possibility of redemption and renewal for all things.  I mean, if we can find détente with Iran, then certainly we can find a way to rehabilitate What, No Beer?

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KEYWORDS: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, What No Beer?
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Blog post (or Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton Make a Picture)

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In July of 1963, acclaimed Irish playwright/poet/novelist/weirdo Samuel Beckett traveled to New York City to oversee the filming of his first and only screenplay, a silent two-reeler starring Buster Keaton. Would you like to know how that all came about? Me, too. So let’s get our checkbooks out…

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Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, and Clark Gable: Together at last

On Sunday night, TCM will be screening a lesser-known romantic comedy from 1938 called Too Hot to Handle.  Regular readers of this blog with encyclopedic memories may recall that I wrote about this a while back, but it’s a story that bears repeating, and embellishing upon, so indulge me.

 

The thing you have to know going in, though, is that while Too Hot to Handle is a solidly entertaining action-comedy from Hollywood’s Golden Age, in which two top movie stars (Clark Gable and Myrna Loy) frolic their way through some expensive stunt-addled set pieces, I’m not necessarily calling your attention to this film purely for its own modest merits.  Now, Arsene Lupin, Next Time I Marry, Modern Love, The Windowthose are movies to climb mountains for.  If you miss those films when they come along, that’s when you have to seriously question whether watching movies is really your forte.  But if you miss Too Hot to Handle, what you’re really missing is a chance to wrestle with the curious legacy of Buster Keaton.  But that’s going to take a while to explain.

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Oops, my bad

Every week my blog postings here are riddled with errors. Most of them are spelling glitches that I would like to blame on Apple, and my habit of writing these on my iPad with the aggressive spell-check feature turned on. But in amidst all my spelling mistakes are more serious errors–like my apparent inability to distinguish Jude Law from Rufus Sewell, or the fact that I thought Joel McCrea’s name was Joel McCrae. Not to mention all my grievous errors of thought (did I actually argue here that Star Trek The Motion Picture was a good movie? Why, yes, yes I did apparently)

So this week I pay tribute to all the errors that great filmmakers I admire left in great movies I love.

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F.W. Murnau’s comedy masterpiece, Sunrise

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is one of those reliable standbys certain to show up in most critics’ Best Of lists.  Thanks, Greg, for noting that Sight and Sound placed it 5th in their latest silly list.  It was the very first selection chosen to inaugurate Eureka’s Masters of Cinema DVD collection.  It won (for all intents and purposes) the first ever Oscar, has been placed on the National Registry, and was the first silent film put out on Blu-Ray.  I could keep going—you get the point.  This is one of those “safe” choices, beloved by the pointy heads but not a crowd-pleaser (I mean, c’mon, with a pretentious title like Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, are you kidding me?).  Right?

A few weeks ago I played around with viewing Last Year at Marienbad through the lens of science fiction, by way of making its more obtuse aspects less alienating.  But Marienbad is a deliberately off-putting exercise.  Sunrise is, by contrast, a picture whose artistry is intended to be accessible to mass audiences.  It is conventionally beautiful, conventionally narrative, conventionally stirring.  It needs no apologies or excuses, it’s just excellent in every way.

But that won’t stop me from approaching it from an oblique angle, just to be ornery.  The fact is, Sunrise can actually be enjoyed as a comedy.  Yeah, you heard me.  Now click that “more” button below the fold and let’s have some fun!

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The 1927 Effect

Conventional wisdom will tell you that the arrival of talkies killed off silent film, especially silent comedy.  (This is, for example, the premise of The Artist, and a couple of generations earlier the premise of Singin’ in the Rain).  I’ve been tilting at this windmill pretty much since I showed up on this board back in 2010, but I don’t think I’ve ever been properly systematic about organizing my counterargument.  So, I intend to devote the next several weeks to exploring this moment in film history in some detail.  It’s going to be story about F.W. Murnau and Harry Langdon, Charley Chase and Cary Grant, Howard Hawks and Mack Sennett—it’s going to build a bridge from Murnau’s Sunrise to Hawks’ His Girl Friday.  It sounds like a sprawling mess, and maybe it will be, but in my mind’s eye this all ties together.  We’ll see.

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The Great Ones: On & Off the Set Photographs

The celebrated photographers Ruth Harriet Louise and George Hurrell are partly responsible for creating the mystique and allure that surrounded the first major stars of the studio system. Their spellbinding portraits transformed actors like Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn and Joan Crawford into objects of beauty to be desired and worshipped, a Hollywood version of the greek gods. But the flip side of this were the candid, behind-the-scenes shots and odd publicity stills that showed another side of the stars, one that depicted them at work, relaxing on the set, playing a practical joke on fellow coworkers, or pursuing some favorite ordinary pastime like gardening, barbecuing or spending time with their children or pets.

Enter the behind-the-scenes exhibition.

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Too Hot to Handle

Too Hot to Handle—a fairly forgotten romantic comedy from 1938, a passable entertainment but not the sort of movie likely to inspire much deep discussion.  Or is it?

Too Hot to Handle

See, this unassuming movie ties together many of the themes we’ve been working with since the end of December—this is a movie about movies, specifically about how movies lie, and how people who lie tend to make movies.  Like Melies’ faked coronation of King Edward VII, these are newsreels that lie—documentaries that are secretly fictional (which is the sort of thing we had on our minds at that very first film show in 1895, with the Lumiere Brothers’ very first film being a staged “documentary”).

The film in question is by Jack Conway, whose virtues I sang back on February 4, and is a quasi-remake of a Buster Keaton silent classic—one that calls into question the conventional wisdom of what happened to the silent clowns when the movie started to talk.

That’s a lot to pack into one movie—so let’s get started unpacking it.  This week, Too Hot To Handle!

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The history of the history of silent comedy

We begin our story at the end.  The end of what, you ask?  The end of silent comedy.  It is March of 1949, twenty years after sound came to Hollywood and laid waste to the traditions of silent slapstick.  It is St. Patrick’s Day, and the California Country Club is playing host to an event called the Mack Sennett Alumni and Remember When Association.

The aging wrecks of once sprightly comedians have convened, decked out in ill-fitting finery that went out of fashion back in the days of Prohibition.  They are here to reminisce, to drink, to throw pies at each other.  Mack Sennett, one of the true pioneers responsible for creating Hollywood as we know it, has seen to it his friends don’t waste their efforts on something so ephemeral as mere fun.  He’s brought cameras—to record their shenanigans  for posterity.  This is how he built his empire—by letting funny people do what came naturally and let the cameras roll.

Keystone Kops a sagging

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