Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Hollywood in Kodachrome: 1940-1949

Hollywood in Kodachrome: 1940-1949 
by David Wills
November 2013
It Books (Now Del Street Books)
Hardcover - 9780062265548
352 pages

Barnes and Noble
While perusing the gift shop at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston recently I came across a copy of Hollywood in Kodachrome: 1940-1949. The beautiful image of Lauren Bacall on the front cover caught my eye and when I opened the book I was stunned. This coffee table book was filled with the most vibrant and stunning images of classic film stars. I knew this book had to be mine.

Hollywood in Kodachrome is a simple book celebrating a technology of a bygone era that produced amazing visuals in photography and cinema. In a time when visual artists were still trying to find the best method for producing color images, Kodachrome produced clear and crisp images that were vibrant and could convey the glamour photographers wanted to capture. Rich in reds and yellows the photos in this collection are in such good condition, thanks to the longevity of Kodachrome, that you’d think they were taken yesterday. This book is a veritable feast for the eyes especially for those of us who love the glamour of the 1940s.

Guy Madison and Alan Ladd

 The book starts with a foreword by actress Rhonda Fleming who shares her memories of Kodachrome and whose photos are featured in the book. There is a short introduction by author David Wills explaning the history of Kodachrome from it’s inception to it’s discontinuation in 2009. Then the book is broken up into six chapters each with a different theme. Each chapter starts with a quote from someone in the business about working with Kodachrome and with the stars. Themes include glamour, charisma and stars and stripes. There is a short chapter dedicated to Lucille Ball whose pale complexion and bright red hair was perfect for Kodachrome. Her nickname in the 1940s was “Technicolor Tessie”. I especially loved the chapters on posed candids (reality stylized) and selling the dream (stars in advertisement).

Ann Miller

Fans of 1940s fashion can look to this book as a vibrant collection of outfit ideas. I marveled at the care and attention placed on just the right dress or suit, lighting, hair, makeup and the perfect placement of accessories. Some of the outfits are accessible and could be recreated with modern day materials. Others are simply aspirational; the fodder for dreams of a more glamorous life.

Stars included in the collection of photographs include:

Dana Andrews
Lauren Bacall
Lucille Ball
Joan Crawford
Bette Davis
Kirk Douglas
Rhonda Fleming
Errol Flynn
Rita Hayworth
William Holden
Alan Ladd
Veronica Lake
Ann Miller
Robert Mitchum
Maureen O’Hara
Tyrone Power
Frank Sinatra
Gene Tierney
Spencer Tracy
and more

This book does have some flaws. The text size for the introduction is excessively large. It made me feel like I was reading a large print edition of a book. I also wish there was more information about Kodachrome. I would not recommend this as a reference text. It’s purely eye candy with a little information thrown in. The book doesn’t open very well and double-paged spreads require breaking the spine a bit in order to take in the full image in all it’s glory. I also didn't think the birth and death dates were necessary for the image captions. It dates the book. These are minor flaws though and the book’s strengths overcome its weaknesses.

Hollywood in Kodachrome is worth your investment. If you are a visual person and love classic film, especially the 1940s, this book is a must for your home library.

Vanessa of Stardust reviewed this book in June. Check out her post!

This is my fourth and final review for my summer reading challenge! I purchased this book at my local bookstore.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry by Mel Watkins

Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry
by Mel Watkins
Originally published 2005
Paperback - 978140096763
368 pages

Barnes and Noble

How should we approach talking about Stepin Fetchit? Carefully. Very carefully.

Actor Lincoln Perry, also known by his show business name Stepin Fetchit, has one of the most complicated legacies in the history of movies. Perry’s early history is a common one. He escapes a poor upbringing to find wealth and success in Hollywood. However Perry’s circumstances were much more complicated. He was African American and his film roles were of stereotypical black caricatures. These performances were problematic yet accepted in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Today they are completely unacceptable and difficult to watch. In early Hollywood, black actors and actresses were often relegated to roles of maids and servants. The comedic roles actors like Perry performed involved black characters who were sleepy, dumb, shiftless and easily spooked. While actresses like Hatti McDaniel and Louise Beavers were able to fight for better representation in film they still had to work within the confines of the system. The author makes the case that they played maids but they played sassier maids. Perry’s sleepy eyed Stepin Fetchit couldn’t transcend its caricature.

Actor Lincoln Perry, aka Stepin Fetchit

Perry excelled in comedy and his talents skyrocketed him to fame and fortune. He made a big splash on stage and screen, was highly sought after by the industry, was written about frequently in newspapers and industry magazines and even had his own column in the Chicago Defender simply called Lincoln Perry’s Letter. He would have been a much more prolific actor in film however he became notoriously difficult to work with and scandals plagued him. By the 1950s he was much less in demand and by the Civil Rights movement and into the late 1970s he was looked upon as a pariah. Perry fought back claiming that his career opened doors for actors like Sidney Poitier. However by the time he died in 1985 he was no longer a major figure in the African American show business community and today he is largely forgotten.

Lincoln Perry with his friend Muhammad Ali

I’m not qualified to discuss the portrayal of African Americans in early film. However, author and critic Mel Watkins is and he does a fine job in this book. The reader learns a lot about Perry’s career in film and stage, his family and his romantic relationships. The subtitle suits the book perfectly: “The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry”. Not only do we learn about Perry’s life but he also learn a lot about the time in which his career both flourished and failed. Watkins discusses many other African American entertainers at length most notably Clarence Muse, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Willie Best, Flip Wilson and Bill Robinson.

This book isn’t perfect. Sometimes the writing gets pretty dull. Although I was very interested in the book, I slogged through it and it took me much longer to read than it should have. Personally I’ve been going through a difficult time so my attention span wasn’t at full capacity and you need it for this book. There are lots of details and Perry was up to a lot of shenanigans, all of which are meticulously recounted in the book. If an author was going to write a book about the problems of early African American film roles, Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fetchit would be the perfect figure to anchor the story.

I recommend this book to classic film buffs who are looking to expand their knowledge about lesser known stars and also want to learn more about race in early film history.

This is my third review for my summer reading challenge. I purchased this book directly through Random House.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

God Speed: My Father, Rafael Matos

Rafael Matos

My father passed away on Saturday after a long illness. I was with him for several days up until the day he died and was able to tell him many times how much I loved him. I'll be forever grateful for those opportunities.

I inherited many of my dad's traits: his curiosity, his love of travel and geography, his unbreakable desire for independence and stability. Indirectly through him I acquired a love of history, a fascination for the 20th century in particular, a penchant for quality and an eye for beauty. My dad could be difficult but he was much calmer in his later years. And even though he didn't say it much I knew from his actions that he loved me. He even had a special smile just for me and I got to see the last one just a few days before he died.

My love of classic film is partly due to my dad. Every time I watch an old movie I think of my dad. How old was he when the film was made? What was he like as a kid/teenager/adult? Did he watch this movie in the theater when it was released? What did he think of it?

I miss my pai ("dad" in Portuguese). I'll miss him forever but I know he's not suffering anymore.

Some years ago I wrote two pieces on this blog about my father. I encourage you to read them.

God speed Pai!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Documentary Review: Best of Enemies (2015)

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Several months ago I watched the documentary Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia (2013). Then I watched it again. And again. And again. I was mesmerized by this brilliant documentary as well its fascinating subject. It was timely, filmed shortly before Vidal’s death in 2012, powerful and illuminating with almost unfettered access to Vidal himself as well as his friends and colleagues. In that documentary we see some footage of the infamous William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal debates. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more about their debates as well as their vitriolic hatred for each other. That’s when Best of Enemies (2015) stepped in.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville and released by Magnolia Pictures, Best of Enemies tells the story of Buckley and Vidal’s debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions and broadcast by ABC News. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Buckley was a staunch conservative and Vidal an unapologetic liberal. Both men were highly intelligent and well-spoken commentators. They both had failed at getting into public office, Buckley ran for Mayor in 1965 and Vidal for Congress in 1960. They recognized television as a powerful platform to deliver their political ideologies and both accepted ABC News’ invitation to debate with each other on live television. What resulted was explosive and would forever change TV news and the lives of both men.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Buckley and Vidal hated each other. A lot. In the opening scene of the documentary we see archival footage from the 1970s of Gore Vidal. He’s giving the cameras a tour of his stunning home, nestled on a cliff in Ravello, Italy. Vidal takes the camera crew into the bathroom where a framed collection of photographs from the infamous debates hangs above his bathtub. Vidal snidely says of Buckley “he’s a well-known right-wing commentator whose name seldom passes my lips.” Buckley didn’t like to talk about Vidal either. ABC News approached him first about doing a debate with a liberal commentator during the conventions. He said he would not want to debate with a communist or Gore Vidal. They gave him Vidal.

When Buckley lost his cool. BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Best of Enemies stitches together footage from the ten debates, ABC news coverage, some of it unedited, interviews with a wide variety of talking heads as well as archival footage of both Buckley and Vidal. Both sides are represented as equally as possible however things don’t turn out as well for Buckley who lost his cool in one of the last debates. It’s one of the most infamous moments in TV news history. Vidal calls Buckley a Crypto-Nazi and Buckley calls Vidal a queer and threatens to sock him in the face. That moment is pivotal in the documentary as well as the lives of both men.

Gore Vidal and Paul Newman in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Classic film fans, especially ones interested in the culture of the 1960s, will be fascinated with this documentary. It provides a lot of context of what was going at the time politically and culturally. Gore Vidal was no stranger to Hollywood. He was a screenwriter and novelist and his films include The Catered Affair (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), The Best Man (1964), Myra Breckenridge (1970) and Caligula (1979). In 1968, his novel Myra Breckenridge had just been published and was hot topic. Clips from the film adaptation can be seen in the documentary as well as clips from Ben-Hur, Caligula and The Best Man. There is an extended reference to Sunset Blvd. (1950) too. Classic film enthusiasts will spot familiar faces such as Raquel Welch and Henry Fonda and there is also archival footage of Paul Newman and Arthur Miller at the Democratic national convention. Newman was good friends with Vidal and was often in the studio during the debates.

The filmmakers chose some excellent interviewees for the documentary. My favorites include Dick Cavett (talk show host), Richard Wald (former president of NBC News), George Merlis (ABC publicist), Christopher Hitchens (political essayist who passed in 2011), James Wolcott (Vanity Fair), Sam Tanenhaus (biographer of Buckley) and Reid Buckley (Buckley’s brother). I also really loved the commentary from Brooke Gladstone of NPR who put the debates in the context of the history of TV news and John McWhorter of Columbia University who analyzed the language and the importance of the discourse. Fun fact: at one point Buckley exclaims “this is balderdash now!” It was also neat to listen to actors John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer narrate written pieces from Buckley and Vidal.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 Here are some of my favorite quotes from the documentary:

“Networks, did they deal in controversy? No. Did they invite controversy? No. They were in the center. They were cementers of idea not disruptors of idea.” – Richard Wald, NBC News

“Bill Buckley was the first modern conservative intellectual to see that ideological debates were cultural debates. And what he did was to put conservativism on the march and that’s the creation of the movement we have today.” Sam Tanenhaus

“ABC was the Budget Car Rental of TV news” – Frank Rich, New York Magazine

“This has always been an anti-intellectual country. These days anybody who spoke like those two men in public would be seen to be heartless.” – John McWhorter, Columbia University

“The network nearly shat.” – Dick Cavett on the Buckley-Vidal incident

“Argument is sugar and the rest of us are flies.” – Richard Wald, NBC News

“More and more we are divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation because what binds us together is the pictures in our heads. But if those people are not sharing those ideas they’re not living in the same place.” – Uncredited

The reason I was most drawn to this documentary is my fascination with Gore Vidal. He is arguably one of the most interesting public figures of the 20th century. This documentary satiated my interested and piqued a new one about his rival Buckley.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I could go on for a long time about this documentary but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Instead I want to give you a plan of action. First, watch Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia on Netflix Instant. Second, do a little research on William F. Buckley Jr. to keep things balanced. Third, find out which theater near you is showing Best of Enemies and go see it! This documentary premiered at Sundance to much critical acclaim. It was the opening film for the recent AFI Docs festival. You can watch at select theatres starting tomorrow. Visit the official site for the schedule.

Summary: Best of Enemies (2015) is a powerful documentary depicting a tumultuous time in political history, a turning point in TV news and highly contentious relationship between two intellectual equals William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. This film entertains as much as it provides history and context. I highly recommend it.

Thank you to Magnolia Pictures for sending me a screener to review!


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