Monday, November 23, 2015

Trumbo by Bruce Cook

by Bruce Cook
Grand Central Publishing
originally published 1977
ISBN: 97814555564972
352 pages

Barnes and Noble

Dalton Trumbo changed my life. The year was 1997. I was a junior in high school and up until that point English was my worst subject. My English teacher assigned us to read Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun. I didn’t fully realize the power of a good story until I read that book. Put into the hands of a master story teller, a reader can be transported into a completely different world and expose them to thoughts, feelings and ideas that would have normally been outside of their realm of understanding. Reading Trumbo’s novel set me on the path for my present career in book publishing for a lifelong love of literature and film.

“The writer is the ship’s architect and the director is the captain.” – Dalton Trumbo
Trumbo mastered the craft of writing whether it was with novels, screenplays, political speeches, essays or short stories. He had a proficiency in the technical aspects of writing that made him a mainstay in Hollywood. Trumbo found his biggest success working as a screenwriter for various studios during the 1940s and into the 1970s. He continued to write even when he was blacklisted by Hollywood and had to use fake names or the names of other writers as a cover.

Biographer Bruce Cook spent the summer of 1973 interviewing Dalton Trumbo at his home. He also spoke extensively with Trumbo’s family and industry peers. At the time, Trumbo was suffering from the effects of the cancer that would eventually kill him and the biography starts with his time writing for Papillon (1973) and his cancer diagnosis. The reader is then transported back to Trumbo's hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado where we learn about his family and upbringing, the influence his father had on him as well as the circumstances that brought the family to Los Angeles.

Trumbo would never have become a screenwriter if he hadn’t made that move to LA. He found himself at the right place and the right time to start a career in Hollywood. Trumbo began as a reader for Warner Bros. then established himself as a screenwriter working on movies for Columbia Pictures, MGM, RKO as well as independent producers such as the King brothers. Films discussed in the book include Tender Comrades (1943), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Gun Crazy (1950), Roman Holiday (1953), Spartacus (1960), Exodus (1960), Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and Papillon (1973).
“It was a campaign, brilliantly planned and daringly executed, and Trumbo was the general.”
It was inevitable that Trumbo’s political views would get him in trouble. He joined the Communist party in 1943 and four years later he would be facing the House of Un-American Activities Committee. His defiance landed him in jail for 10 months when he was found in contempt of Congress. It was during the Waldorf Agreement of 1947 that the movie moguls named Dalton Trumbo as one of the Hollywood Ten and he would be blacklisted from Hollywood for over a decade. What’s remarkable about Trumbo is that he fought against the blacklist before it even began and chipped away at it until it finally broke down. Trumbo kept writing and his movies kept getting made even if his name didn’t appear in the credits. While some sources point to Kirk Douglas’ credit of Trumbo for Spartacus (1960) as the beginning of the end of the blacklist, this biography points to Otto Preminger naming Trumbo as the writer for his screenplay of Exodus (1960), an announcement that made the front page of The New York Times.

Dalton Trumbo facing down the HUAC
“Breaking the blacklist became a kind of monomania with him. He saw to it that as much movie work as possible was directed to writers who were, like himself, working on the black market. Trumbo did an enormous amount of work during this period, but he passed nearly as much of it on to others. He was determined that so many scripts be written by those on the blacklist under pseudonyms, behind front names, or however, that the blacklist itself would become a kind of joke. And that, of course, was exactly what happened.”

The focus of this biography is Trumbo’s amazing career as a screenwriter. We learn some things about his family, a bit about his wife Cleo and less about his children. This isn’t a profile of a man; this is a profile of a screenwriter. Readers do get some insight into Trumbo’s personality but what more we could have learned was set aside to make room for some of the extraordinary events in his career. This is an authorized biography of Trumbo but the man himself had very little input and the final product was left to biographer Cook’s capable hands.

Trumbo by Bruce Cook was brought back into print with a new package just in time for the release of the Trumbo (2015), a film based on Cook’s biography. This new edition includes a foreword by filmmaker John McNamara chronicling the life of his copy of the original book as well as an insert featuring behind the scenes photographs from the movie. Both of these add-ons seemed unnecessary and while they make this a true movie tie-in edition, they don’t really add anything of value to the book.
“Trumbo was that, certainly: a prodigy of the will. He hung in there—survived, prevailed, even triumphed on a couple of occasions. Ultimately, that is why he is worth our attention.”
Not without its problems, Trumbo by Bruce Cook does stand as a definitive biography of the legendary writer Dalton Trumbo given his involvement as well as in-depth interviews with sources who are no longer with us. There is some bias from Cook’s point of view but not as much as there would be had Trumbo written it himself. This biography stands up many years later where others would have quickly become outdated or irrelevant. The true value of the book to modern day readers is its extensive chronicling of the history of the Hollywood blacklist and Trumbo’s role in breaking it down. It’s a period of history of interest to many film buffs and there is a wealth of information about it in this book.

At the time of writing this review I have not yet seen Trumbo (2015) and I’m curious to see how this biography was used in the making of the film. I think it’s important for classic film fans to go beyond actors, actresses and directors and to learn about the other important people who were responsible for making their favorite movies.

Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review. They have generously offered to provide a complimentary copy to one of my readers! Enter my giveaway below for a chance to win.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015) - #HaroldandLillian

“They were the heart of Hollywood.” – Bill Krohn, film critic

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015) will have its US premiere today at DOC NYC. From director Daniel Raim and executive producer Danny DeVito comes a touching and informative documentary that tells the story of Harold Michelson, a storyboard artist and production designer, and Lillian Michelson, a film researcher. This dynamic duo worked in Hollywood for over half a century helping to create the films that we know and love today. This documentary is about their extraordinary work, their collaborations with each other over the years and their long and fruitful marriage.

Never heard of Harold or Lillian Michelson? That’s a wrong that this documentary is trying to right. Even though Harold and Lillian worked on countless films with studios such as Columbia, Paramount, Zoetrope, MGM and DreamWorks and were responsible for some of the most iconic images in movie history, their work often went uncredited. But people in the film industry knew Harold and Lillian well and relied upon their extraordinary talents. This documentary is not only about the love Harold and Lillian had for each other but the love Hollywood had for them.

Lillian and Harold Michelson (Source)
“It starts with Harold and Lillian being a loving couple. They truly were people who together created art.” – Rick Carter

Harold and Lillian met in 1945 when Lillian was just 17 years old. Harold’s artistic skill was discovered while he was in the Air Force during WWII. Lillian grew up in an orphanage and read books to escape. Both developed their unique talents at a young age and brought them to Hollywood when they moved there in 1947. It started when Harold became a storyboard artist at Columbia completely by chance. An executive at the studio asked him if he was the artist who drew a particular piece. Harold said yes, even though it wasn’t really his. He was desperate for the job the executive was offering him and this got his foot in the door. The rest is history. In an interview the good-natured Harold reflected on the incident and hoped the real artist didn't wind up selling insurance. During this time, Lillian supported Harold as a housewife and mother to their three sons. However she wasn’t content with that role and pursued her own career in the industry as a film researcher; a job well-suited to a woman with a big imagination and a love for books. And so began two long and productive careers in Hollywood.

“Harold’s brain was the best computer there was.” – Tom Walsh

To create his storyboards, Harold drew with a combination of charcoal and ink. He had an extraordinary talent to make the unreal look real. He knew how to put a scene together in such a way that it would convey a certain message on screen. Harold could see what the camera saw and directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, acknowledged Harold’s talent for perspective. Even though Harold was nominated for two Oscars, a lot of his work has gone unrecognized. Storyboards were often destroyed because they were not deemed important or directors didn't want it known how much they depended on these artists for their work. In Harold's case, some of his storyboards survived and are showcased in the documentary.

A film researcher’s job is to “stimulate the filmmaker’s imagination and creativity.”

Lillian's pride and joy was her research library which she lovingly referred to as her fourth child. She started her career as an apprentice to Lelia Alexander who then sold her library to Lillian. The research library grew over the years and moved from studio to studio. It lived at Paramount, Francis Ford Coppola gave it a home at Zoetrope and it finally moved to DreamWorks. Lillian would work with art directors, production designers and writers and her visual research would guide filmmakers in picking the right props, costumes, furniture, automobiles, etc. for the movie. Lillian was feisty, curious and very well-connected.

Alfred Hitchcock, Harold Michelson and The Birds. Original sketch featured in Harold & Lillian. (Source)

Harold and Lillian often collaborated together and Lillian's research would guide Harold in developing his storyboards. They also worked on projects independently. The documentary looks closely at a number of the films they worked including The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Johnny Got His Gun (1970), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Scarface (1983). I loved the story of how they worked on The Birds (1963) with Alfred Hitchcock and in the documentary you can see Harold's storyboard juxtaposed with actual shots from Marine (1964). You know that iconic shot from The Graduate (1967) where Dustin Hoffman is framed by Anne Bancroft's leg? That was Harold's idea! And you can thank Lillian for the period accurate underwear in Fiddler on the Roof and for putting her life at risk interviewing drug lords for Scarface.

Harold and Lillian in bed with The Graduate (Source)

“They were like two peas in a pod.” – Danny DeVito

Raim's documentary also explores the Michelson's marriage with all of their ups and downs. We learn about their autistic son Alan, the dark period in Harold's life after an accident put him out of commission and the sweet hand-written and hand-drawn cards Harold would create for Lillian for every birthday, anniversary and holiday. Harold passed away in 2007 and Lillian is still with us. In the documentary we see archival footage from past interviews with Harold, lots of home videos and extensive interviews with Lillian Michelson who was very much a part of the project.

We also hear from a variety of industry folks. Talking heads include Mel Brooks, Danny DeVito, Francis Ford Coppola as well as a variety of production designers, art directors, film historians and storyboard artists. During their careers Harold and Lillian nurtured new talent and developed bonds with other artists. It's clear how much love Hollywood had for them.

Lillian and Harold Michelson (Source)

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is a charming tale that will move you to tears. This fine documentary shows a deep love for its subjects with a bit of whimsy added in. I loved all of the moments we get with Lillian as she tells us their story and it breaks my heart that Harold is not by her side. The use of original storyboard like illustrations by Patrick Mate to depict moments in the lives of the Michelsons is an inspired and entertaining touch. I'm a sucker for well done documentaries about interesting people and this film fits the bill. I'm not going to lie, I was a sobbing mess by the end. This is a documentary with a lot of heart and I was really moved by the story.

This is a must see for any film buff. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story premieres tonight at DOC NYC fest. I hope it will screen in other cities, especially Boston! For more details, check out the Harold and Lillian Facebook page or follow the #HaroldandLillian hashtag on Twitter.

A special thanks to Emma Griffiths PR for giving me an opportunity to review this documentary.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror Review

On a chilly evening on the eve of Halloween, scores of people made their way towards Symphony Hall in Boston for a truly spectacular event. F.W. Murnau’s classic horror movie Nosferatu (1922) would be projected on a gigantic screen that hung above the orchestra pit. A new score, created by eight Berklee College of Music students under the supervision of renown professor Sheldon Mirowitz, would be performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra and conducted by legendary Keith Lockhart. It was a magical evening full of fun Halloween costumes and incredible music.

The event started with an introduction by Berklee president Roger H. Brown. He told the audience that Berklee is the only college where you can major in film scoring for your undergraduate degree. The school has worked with the Coolidge Corner Theatre over their years for their Sound of Silents series. The students compose an original score for a silent movie and perform the music live in accompaniment with a screening of a film at theatre (see my review of their performance of Sunrise here). The school graduated into a new relationship with the Boston Pops Orchestra and Keih Lockhart.

If you're from Boston you are well acquainted with the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, something us locals look forward to every Independence Day. Whether your on the Esplanade watching it live or sitting at home watching it on TV, it's not an event to miss. Just watch this clip of the Boston Pops performing the 1812 Overture as fireworks light up the sky. It'll give you goosebumps.

Even thought I've lived in this state all of my life I have never seen the Boston Pops perform live nor have I been inside Symphony Hall. Before the event started, Carlos and I were craning our necks to take in the splendor of the hall's interior. It's an enormous space and according to the BSO's website, “Symphony Hall [is] the first auditorium designed in accordance with scientifically derived acoustical principles.” It's enormous but because of the way it was constructed the music fills the space.

After Brown's speech he introduced Sheldon Mirowitz, professor of film scoring at Berklee who has a long resume of TV and film scoring credits as well as three Emmy nominations. Mirowitz gave a very eloquent speech. He brought up the question: why do we need horror movies? His answer: we need to see our fear to better understand it. This is spot on and exactly why so many of us watch not only horror films but pretty much any film. They help us process reality.

After Mirowtiz's speech it was time for the show. The orchestra tuned up and conductor Keith Lockhart came out. I used to play in a school orchestra when I was much younger (second violin, hey!) so I love watching all of the rituals that go with orchestra performances.

I had high expectations for this event especially having been so moved by Berklee's performance of Sunrise (1927) back in 2010. The Symphony of Horror event did not disappoint.

The beautiful music filled up the massive hall and there was a dramatic moment in the middle that just blew me away. There were all sorts of sound effects to go with the action on screen. The rats crawling, the horse trotting over the fields, the drummer/messenger toward the end and pretty much any shot of Count Orlak was accompanied by some creepy music. The orchestra made good use of their percussion instruments!

There were two guest performers accompanying the Boston Pops. One was Rob Schwimmer who played the Theremin and Michael Bierylo who performed the Moog Synthesizer. The Theremin was the hit of the evening. We overheard several patrons talking about it or mimicking it’s trademark sound as we all exited the hall.

Symphony Hall capacity is 2,700 and the space was almost full. I estimate that there were about 2,500 people there for the event. This is by far the largest classic film event in size I've ever been too. The audience reaction was for the most part very good. We all applauded after each of the five acts, an extra applause for the wonderful dramatic moment in the middle and a standing ovation at the end. This is the longest continuous piece of music the Boston Pops has every performed and there was no intermission so I give them credit for their ability to keep us enthralled with their music. I would have liked more dramatic moments but the music has to match the film's pace and content.

Professor Mirowitz sat a few seats away for most of the piece and I noticed him looking around to take in the audience's reactions to the film and music.

Silent films are often an endurance test of an audience’s patience, suspension of disbelief and their attention. Not everyone could hack it and we did notice some people leaving before the film was over.  The couple sitting next to us grumbled most of the time and left half-way through. It's their loss.

Lots of folks attending the event got into the Halloween spirit and were wearing scary costumes. Even a couple of the ushers dressed up. The audience members ranged widely in age: little kids, teens and young adults all the way to older folks. The whole spectrum. And there were a lot of couples, Carlos and I included.

There is a long tradition of scoring Nosferatu (1922). Most of Hans Erdmann's original score for the film has been lost and the film itself only survives because of sheer luck. All original prints were destroyed because of a copyright dispute; the story is basically Dracula without calling itself Dracula. Copies were eventually found and Nosferatu eventually became the cult classic that it is today. Did Murnau ever think that this film would be presented in such a way almost 100 years after it was made?

I'd be remiss to not point out the excellent work done by the Berklee students who created the score for Nosferatu. Congratulations to Amit May Cohen, Matthew Morris, Elena Nezhelskaya, Emily Joseph, Hyunsoo Nam, Joy Ngiaw, Jungwan Han and Victor Hong! When the eight students took the stage at the end of the event the crowd erupted in applause.

Thank you to the BSO for inviting me to cover this event. Carlos and I had a blast!


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