Need help figuring out what to watch this week on Warner Archive Instant? The Retro Set has you covered with our must watch Warner Archive picks! Each week, we select a small handful of must watch titles from the Warner Archive Instant catalog: some hidden gems, others well-known and beloved classics. All deserving of a look or two (or five).
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This week we’ve got This week’s edition of Must Watch Warner Archive Instant includes the deliriously campy cult classic THE BAD SEED, silent comedy masterpiece THE CAMERAMAN, and some lovably batshit pre-code courtesy Busby Berkeley in FOOTLIGHT PARADE.
Must Watch Warner Archive Instant: 10.23.14
Wade’s Pick: The Bad Seed (1956)
Filed under the “So Bad It’s Good” department, The Bad Seed is based on the (then) shocking play, which itself was based on the (then) shocking book about the creeping dread a mother experiences when she slowly realizes her blonde-haired, pony-tailed angel is a sociopathic killer. Little Rhoda Penmark (little Patty McCormack) comes home after a boy mysteriously dies at a school picnic. Her worried mother, Christine Penmark, (Nancy Kelly) questions Rhoda about the boy’s death, and finds her daughter strangely cool about the whole affair. Further investigation reveals many people (children, neighbors, dogs) fear Rhoda, and her penchant for lying and worse…for violence. The more Christine digs, the more she discovers a path of unexplained thefts and deaths that leads with bloody footprints to cute, polite little Rhoda.
This overwrought melodrama brought most of the stage actors to the screen, in a somewhat successful (depending on your expectations) film adaptation that too often shows its stage roots with a claustrophobic, one room setting. Still, Nancy Kelly as Christine gives such an “over-the-top,” “anything goes” performance, it’s a marvel to watch while hoping she doesn’t pop a blood vessel before the credits roll. No spoilers, but the Hays office predictably changed the ending in a laughable way. The biggest kicker of all is the “curtain call” the film replicates from the play, with a painful “all is forgiven” routine between mother and daughter that will make you “spit-take” and maybe even cough up a popcorn kernel. If Baby Jane is your speed, you absolutely must check out The Bad Seed.
Carley’s Pick: The Cameraman (1928)
From the very beginning, motion pictures were … magic. Of course, the medium has evolved to become one of the most important means of artistic expression that we’ve ever had; complex, subjective and ever-evolving. But sometimes all we want– indeed, all we need– is a little magic. And perhaps the magic of cinema is found, in its purest form, in silent comedy. Hardly a definitive statement, but after re-visiting Buster Keaton’s 1928 classic The Cameraman, newly available on Warner Archive Instant streaming, I am hard pressed to find anything more magical than the visual purity of silent comedy. The film, a riotously funny romantic comedy, hasn’t aged a day in the last 90 years, cementing Buster Keaton’s as one of cinema’s most enduring—and modern—leading men.
In The Cameraman, we have a socially awkward tintype street photographer whose only impetus for going into the newsreel business is the fact that he has fallen head over heels with a girl (the smoking hot Marceline Day) who works at the newsreel office. The fact that her beau is Buster’s opposite in every way – tall, conventionally handsome, elegant – is a challenge that Buster is determined to meet. Of course, things are destined to go tragically wrong for the eager young novice, to howlingly funny heights. (Spoiler: Buster does end up getting the girl.) But this is exactly why Buster is such a modern hero and why this film in particular hasn’t aged a day in the last 90 years: because life is chaos. Buster knows it. And his films, like The Cameraman, get it. That’s why when Buster single-handedly fights an urban turf war, finds himself stranded sans skivvies in a public pool, or falls 15 feet from a collapsing piece of scaffolding, it may be awe-inspiring to look at but more than that: deeply relatable.
One definition of magic is “The exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring for entertainment.” And the skilled sleight of Buster Keaton’s hand in The Cameraman (indeed, the exceptional skill in most all of his work) fits Merriam-Webster’s definition to a tee. How did he do it? Volumes have been written on it, but the result is magic. This does not imply that silent films are in some way uncomplicated or without depth. Quite the contrary in fact. And those delicate complexities and layers of humor and heart are integral to the magic of silent film, so wholly embodied in Keaton’s The Cameraman.
Jill’s Pick: Footlight Parade (1933)
It’s no secret that we’re crazy about the 1930s, especially those naughty little pre-codes. And if it’s a pre-code musical? Even better. One of our favorites from this indulgent, anything-goes era is Lloyd Bacon’s Footlight Parade, featuring choreography from the one and only Busby Berkley. The film was released in 1933, the same year Berkeley created the dizzying stage numbers in 42nd Street (also directed by Bacon) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (dir. by Mervyn LeRoy). Needless to say, it was an extraordinarily prolific year for Berkeley and his brand of filmed dance. Footlight Parade features an all-star cast with Warner Bros. pre-code mainstays James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, along with Retro Set favorites Guy Kibbee and Frank McHugh.
Chester Kent (Cagney) is a Broadway producer (a rather unsuccessful one at that) who, at the dawn of the talkies era, decides to produce elaborate musical prologues to entertain movie-going audiences before the picture begins. Kent’s investors strike a potential deal with the owner of a theatre chain in the city, but in order to secure the contract, Kent must produce three prologues in three different theatres back-to-back. He also must impress the theatre owner…a seemingly impossible feat. Kent is up to the task, especially with the help of his secretary, Nan (Blondell), and a talented (but super quirky) team of choreographers, dancers, and singers.
Alright, that’s enough plot. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Let’s cut straight to the weird and wonderful…
Busby Berkeley was a space cadet. Seriously. He was really out there. It’s hard to narrow down his most batshit insane choreographed numbers (because they are all batshit insane), but all the ones in Footlight Parade have to be high on that list. They’re also some of his most impressive and completely badass. Let’s start with the rehearsal number Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. Ruby Keeler, a grown woman, is prancing about in a cat costume. She’s dancing, in that really weird, but endearing Ruby Keeler way, on a mural of a creepy-looking moon. Then she flirts with a “tomcat” who looks more like a malnourished tiger than alley cat. Then there’s the “you just gotta see it to believe it” Honeymoon Hotel, By a Waterfall, and Shanghai Lil prologue productions that make you ask questions like: “How are they doing this on one stage?”; “The audience can’t possibly see that, can they?”;”Is that an opium den?”; “Is that Baby Billy Barty trying to get lucky?”
Come to Footlight Parade for Cagney and Blondell’s great one-liners (“As long as they have sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”), stay for the cats, legs, and innuendo-laced choreography.