Friday, June 23, 2017

Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Promotion

Showman of the Screen by A.T. McKenna
Showman of the Screen
Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Promotion
by A.T. McKenna
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813168715
September 2016
296 pages
University Press of Kentucky

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"I love this business which is not really a business. The film industry is composed of an indescribable collection of dreamers and schemers, geniuses and phonies, sharpshooters and lunatics. It's action, on the screen and off." - Joseph E. Levine

Joseph E. Levine Presents... was not just a phrase, it was a declaration. Levine was a movie producer and promoter but he also wore many other hats including exhibitor, distributor, presenter and packager. He lived and breathed the movie business and by the mid-20th Century he was practically a household name. Levine dealt in exploitation of many different types of movies including art house imports from Europe, low-budget B-movies, war epics, spaghetti westerns and mainstream films. He sought out opportunities where others would've turned up their noses. Author A.T. McKenna explains, "he dealt in films from all over the world and from all over the cultural spectrum, becoming one of the most versatile movie promoters of his generation."

In my quest to seek out the stories of those who worked behind-the-scenes in film, I was drawn to Showman of the Screen, McKenna's biography on Joseph E. Levine. What distinguishes Levine from others is that he marketed himself as much as he marketed his films. This added to his successes and even contributed to his failures. McKenna refers to Levine as a showman, much in the style of P.T. Barnum. In the book he says, "the object may not be extraordinary but the showman's job is to render the object extraordinary."

Levine grew up in poverty in the Boston's West End. He learned how to hustle and eventually got into the movie business in the 1930s. He started his own company Embassy in 1938 which grew over the years from exhibition and distribution of films no one else wanted to take on, to the production of films in the 1950s and 1960s. Levine the showman worked on many movies in varying capacities. In some cases he'd be heavily involved and in others he'd merely slap on his name to a film that he was only indirectly involved with. Levine developed the art of saturation marketing. He believed in low movie budgets but big marketing ones. The more a film was in the public consciousness, even if the movie itself wasn't very good, the better the chances it would be a box office success. Levine was a maverick in his time and McKenna wisely points out that if it wasn't for criticism from intellectuals and high-brow critics, such as Levine's long-time nemesis film critic Bosley Crowther, that he wouldn't have had the success as an industry outsider that he did.

"We will go as far as we can and stay out of jail." - Joseph E. Levine

Levine's career was full of ups and downs. McKenna points out that Levine made decisions quickly and sometimes the decisions were good ones and sometimes they were bad ones. He also had various phases in his career. At one point he championed films like the Gaslight Follies (1945) and Hercules (1959) with unconventional marketing techniques. When American audiences developed a taste for what foreign films had to offer, Levine delivered. In the late '50s and early '60s he brought films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), The Law (1959), Two Women (1960) and others to the US. For the Two Women, he worked closely with Carlo Ponti and star Sophia Loren to campaign for her eventual Oscar win. Eventually he became too public a figure and was spoofed in Godard's Contempt (1963) which he later renounced. The Maysles brothers' documentary Showman (1963) shined too bright a spotlight on Levine and he was very displeased with the final product. Levine suppressed the documentary and its the reason why its not available on DVD and only rarely screened.

"He made commercial art, and he made art commercial." - A.T. McKenna

By 1966 Levine's career hit a snag. He put his all into scandal ridden The Carpetbaggers (1964) and was embroiled in a bitter battle for the top Harlow film of 1965. There were two Harlow (1965) films one starring Carroll Baker, Levine worked on that one, and one starring Carol Lynley. His career bounced back with The Graduate (1967) and after that he almost exclusively left behind the b-movies and art house films of his former days and worked solely on what he thought were quality films. These include The Producers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), A Bridge Too Far (1977) among others. He also worked on controversial films like The Night Porter (1974). His career ended with his final film Tattoo (1981) which he worked on with his son Richard Levine.

McKenna's book isn't chronological, rather it's arranged into themed chapters focusing on one aspect of his career. It does jump around a bit but not too much that I couldn't follow the thread once I figured out what year of Levine's life was being discussed. Showman of the Screen is incredibly detailed. I've never read a biography on a film industry figure that was so focused on a career more so than the personal life of the subject. Levine's life was his career so in many ways this makes sense. Sometimes I found the story thrilling and sometimes I was bogged down by it. The book has its ups and downs much like Levine did. Overall though I enjoyed the book and I'm so glad I picked it up.

Showman of the Screen by A.T. McKenna adeptly explores the tumultuous and exciting career of bigger-than-life producer and promoter Joseph E. Levine.

Thank you to the University Press of Virginia for sending me this book for review! 

This is my first review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Zaza (1923)

Zaza (1923)

In 1923, Gloria Swanson was a bonafide star. She had over 40 films under her belt and a few more years of silent film fame ahead of her before the industry transitioned to talking pictures. Then there is her fabulous comeback with Sunset Blvd. (1950) which is a completely different story.

Hollywood director Allan Dwan, inventor of the camera dolly, had his eye on Zaza, a French play by playwright duo Pierre Berton and Charles Simon. The play was a major hit, capturing the end of the Gay Nineties of Paris for future generations. It was adapted into film a couple of times before Dwan got his hands on it. Dwan convinced Adolph Zukor of Paramount to buy the rights for a film adaptation and he had one star in mind for the lead role: Gloria Swanson.

Dwan and Swanson had met briefly at a Hollywood party before but had never worked together. The director's reputation preceded him and Swanson knew well that he had worked with countless other big name film stars. It was inevitable that they would work together. However Swanson was worried that Zaza would prove to be just another period costume picture. She'd been in several leading up to 1923. According to her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Dwan told her "I want your costumes to be authentic and exciting, sassy and vulgar, and Norman Norell will give me exactly what I want." In this film adaptation, Dwan and his team switched things up to portray the story in a more modern setting with costuming to match.

Swanson was so excited for the role that she delayed having minor surgery in New York City to be in the film. Dwan convinced Paramount producers Jesse L. Lasky and Adolph Zukor to speed up the filming schedule for Swanson's sake. They found a mansion on Long Island that doubled as a French chateau. Swanson stayed in actor Richard Bennett's NYC apartment and commuted to Astoria and the mansion for filming each day. This was back when Paramount had a studio in Astoria, Queens and did a lot of filming on Long Island.

To star alongside Gloria Swanson, Paramount enlisted H.B. Warner, an actor whom contemporary audiences will recognize as Mr. Gower from It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Back in the early '20s he was a well-known stage actor and went on to play Jesus Christ in Cecil B. Demille's King of Kings (1927). Also in the cast is Mary Thurman who plays Florianne, Zaza's on stage rival. Tashman had much promise as a film star but tragically died in 1925 at the age of 30 when she caught pneumonia while making Down Upon the Suwanee River (1925). (Side note: that film also stars Charles Emmett Mack who also tragically passed away while making another film two years later.) Fans of Helen Mack will delight in seeing her at the age of 10 playing the role of Lucille Dufresne.

Zaza (1923) is a story about famed soubrette Zaza (Gloria Swanson) who dreams of performing in Paris and falling in love. She has her eye on patron of the arts Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner) but her drunk Aunt Rosa (Lucille La Verne) is trying to persuade her niece to snag Duke de Brissac (Ferdinand Gottschalk) instead (after all he has a nice wine cellar!). Zaza is a temperamental star, quick to bouts of anger and loves to drive her rival soubrette Florianne (Mary Thurman) mad with jealousy. Both Zaza and Florianne want Bernard but what neither of them knows is that he's married and unavailable. However, Bernard can't help himself and gives into Zaza's charm. She wins him over at her French chateau where she is recovering after a fall. They spend time together before Bernard is called away for a position in Washington D.C. He's been estranged from his wife who comes back into the picture only when she sees his prospects increased. Eventually Zaza discovers that not only is her love Bernard married but he also has a charming little daughter Lucille (Helen Mack). She can't bring herself to break up the family and she runs away from Bernard. The story becomes less about life about the stage and more about the romantic drama caused by Zaza and Bernard's passionate love for each other. The story doesn't end there and you'll have to watch the film to find out what becomes of the two.

Gloria Swanson in Zaza (1923)
Gloria Swanson as Zaza

Even though Dwan promised Swanson that this wouldn't be another costume picture, Zaza (1923) is kind of another costume picture. My fellow vintage fashion enthusiasts will delight in the extravagant and sometimes ridiculous fashions donned by Gloria Swanson in the film. Imagine the merchandising that could have resulted from this film? Swanson wears Z-shaped earrings and a bracelet with Z mark on it that could have easily been sold to young women who wanted to be as fabulous as Swanson. Swanson wears a fantastic flower dress, dons an outlandish feathered hat, 1920s shoes that are to die for and in one scene she has what looks like about 50 earring type jewels dangling precariously from threads of teased hair. It must be seen to be believed.

Gloria Swanson as Zaza. Photo source: Pinterest

The film starts out as a comedy but quickly turns into a romantic drama. It was quite enjoyable and worth watching especially if you have an interest in Gloria Swanson. It does have his bad moments including one racist remark uttered by Zaza and an unfortunate scene with a hunchback. This is one of those films in which the history of the movie is even more interesting than the plot.

Swanson worked well with Dwan and they went on to make 7 more films together. The play Zaza was adapted several times including a 1938 version that starred Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall. Zaza revitalized Gloria Swanson's career, which had been in a funk after all those costume pictures, and it catapulted her fame. Any anonymity she enjoyed prior to Zaza was long gone.

Zaza (1923) Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber

Zaza (1923) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. The music for the film is by my favorite silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis whom I've written about on this blog numerous times. He adapted the music from the original 1923 cue sheet.

Thank you to Kino for sending me a copy of this film for review.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My History with DVD Netflix and a Giveaway

One service that has been integral to my life as a classic film enthusiast is DVD Netflix. Over the years I’ve come to rely on the DVD rental service to enrich my life with classic movies but also contemporary, indie and foreign ones too. (And TV shows, lots of TV shows!) Before I share my own personal history of my time with DVD Netflix, let’s take a brief look at the history of the company.

Netflix, founded in 1997, was started as a DVD subscription service. Subscribers would visit the Netflix website and request discs rather than visit brick-and-mortar video stores like Blockbuster. Netflix sent out their very first DVD, a copy of Beetlejuice (1988), in March of 1998. The service grew in popularity and eventually overtook Blockbuster and rendered video stores obsolete. The subscription service worked on the model of renting a certain number of discs at a time or number of discs per month. Subscribers explored the library, marked the films and TV shows they wanted to watched and built a queue of future disc deliveries. A bright red envelope, which would become the signature of Netflix, arrived in the mail with the disc at the top of your queue. Once you were done, you’d put the disc back in the original mailer which would repackage into a convenient prepaid envelope ready for mailing. Convenience was key to the success of DVD rental service. Then in 2007 Netflix added streaming to the mix. They became the pioneers in streaming entertainment and a part of the cultural lexicon. In 2011, Netflix’s streaming service was so popular and such a big part of their business they attempted to split off the DVD portion. They came up with the name Qwickster which was met with online backlash. Netflix wisely scrapped this idea. In 2015, they successfully split the DVD service to, also known as DVD Netflix. The service also includes Blu-Rays if you upgrade your subscription. Netflix's streaming service and their original content is now separate from the DVD Netflix rental service. However, the company kept both services linked for user convenience.

I joined Netflix in August of 2002. My friend Amit, who used the service to get his Anime fix, signed up a couple of years earlier and kept signing its praises. Persuaded by his enthusiasm I signed up. The first movie I ever rented was Wonder Boys (2000) and a few months later I rented my first classic movie DVD Some Like it Hot (1959). At the time I signed up I still wasn’t quite a classic movie fan. I developed a love for movies as a teenager in the late 1990s and loved new movies about bygone eras. In my early twenties I was exploring a variety of contemporary and indie movies and it wasn’t until I took a film course in college that I got hooked on classic films. Renting classic movies from Netflix helped fuel that early passion. While I watched a lot of TCM, I relied on DVDs from Netflix to single out particular films. If I liked a particular actor, actress or director, I’d use Netflix in order to rent every film of theirs that was available. Besides a couple of times when I was in college and had to cancel Netflix briefly, I’ve had the DVD part of the service almost continuously since 2000. These days I use it to help with my blog research, to explore the canon of a particular director, to plug in holes in my classic film knowledge and also to watch newer movies I missed at theaters.

Earlier this year I was invited by DVD Netflix to be one of their Directors. This means I’m an online ambassador for the service and I help them come up with fun posts and social media ideas to promote the brand. For example, here is my post on the blog about Classic Sports Movies.

Photo source: DVD Netflix
To celebrate my 10th anniversary and also my almost 15 years with DVD Netflix, I’m hosting a very special giveaway. If it’s been a while since you’ve rented DVDs from DVD Netflix or you’ve never tried the service before, now’s your chance. I’m giving away 3 $100 DVD Netflix gift cards. If you get a one-at-a-time DVD Netflix subscription, this give you a year of the service! The contest runs from now until Friday morning. You must complete all of the prompts. All entries will be double checked. Good luck!

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