Friday, August 26, 2016

2016 Summer Reading Challenge - Second Round-Up

I'm so proud of all of you for getting your read on this summer! There have been lots of great reviews and I'm impressed how participants are deviating from traditional bios and trying out some interesting books. Memoirs, self-help books, novels and more. Kudos to Danny of for his dedication to Barbara Stanwyck!

A friendly reminder, if you're a summer reading participant please make sure you submit links to me. If you don't want to win the final prize just let me know. I still need the links however!

Here is the second set of classic film book reviews. You can find the first review round-up here.

Danny of
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan
Showmen, Sell It Hot! Movies as Merchandise in Golden Era Hollywood by John McElwee
Stanwyck: The Untold Biography by Jane Ellen Wayne
Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith
Warren William:Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood by John Stangeland 

Erin of Always Classic

The Hustler by Walter Tevis

Grezilda of Doesn't She Ramble
The Group by Mary McCarthy

Java of Java's Journey
Elizabeth Taylor Takes Off by Elizabeth Taylor
The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven
Searching for My Father, Tyrone Power by Romina Power
Walt Disney's Peter Pan

Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland

Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film
Conversations with Classic Film Stars

Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Into the Dark by Mark A. Vieira

Lindsey of The Motion Pictures
The Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant by Jennifer Grant
LIFE Goes to the Movies 
The Real James Dean edited by Peter L. Winkler

Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes
The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair

Raquel of Out of the Past
Into the Dark by Mark A. Vieira
The Dawn of Technicolor by David Pierce and James Layton

Rich of Wide Screen World
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Kate Remembered by A. Scott Berg

The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons by Jerry Beck and Leonard Maltin
Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan

If I missed your review, send me a link via the Google form, e-mail or on social!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Song of Russia (1944)

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in Song of Russia (1944)
Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in Song of Russia (1944)

1944 was a good year for actress Susan Peters. She was nominated the previous year for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Random Harvest (1942) and MGM was grooming her for stardom. They were giving her more substantial parts including roles in Assignment in Brittany (1943), Young Ideas (1943) and the pro-Soviet Union propaganda film Song of Russia (1944). Tragedy would strike New Year's Day 1945 when a hunting accident left her paralyzed.

Song of Russia (1944) showcased Susan Peters at her best. Peters had a sort of lingering melancholy and her eyes glistened as though she were always seconds away from crying, whether from joy, pride or sorrow. The leading role of Nadya, opposite star Robert Taylor, was perfectly suited to her because it allowed her to play herself but with a fake Russian accent.

American conductor John Meredith (Robert Taylor) heads to Russia with his manager Hank Higgins (Robert Benchley) for a nationwide tour conducting the music of Tchaikovsky. Nadja, a talented pianist, is desperate to get John's attention. She and all of the musical prodigies that inhabit her small Russian village of Tschaikowskoye want John Meredith to conduct at their humble music festival. Nadja wins him over and they soon fall in love. But their happiness is short-lived as Russia is on the brink of war with the Nazis. Will Nadja and John's love for their home countries get in the way of their love for each other?

"We have serious differences. Socially, culturally. We cannot even discuss them." - Nadja
"We'll discuss them tomorrow. The day after." - John

Song of Russia was a WWII propaganda film to help strengthen the bond between the US and it's ally Russia as they joined forces to defeat the Nazis. This was last film Robert Taylor made before he joined the Navy. Years later during the HUAC hearings, the conservative and anti-Communist Taylor suggested he was blackmailed into making this film. His reluctance to star in it met with pressure from MGM and supposedly he was told if he didn't make the film there would a delay in him getting into the Navy. Taylor named names to the HUAC but didn't go so far as to say outright that he was blackmailed. Not only did MGM deny the claim made by Taylor, they also refused to admit that Song of Russia was a propaganda film.

“It is true, of course, that Russia was our ally in 1943, and that our government was very friendly to the Soviets. But that was not why Song of Russia was made.” – Louis B. Mayer

Despite what Mayer said, no one who watches this film will see it as anything but a pro-Russia movie. It was directed by a Russian, Gregory Ratoff, and although it was filmed on the MGM lot in Culver City travelogue and documentary scenes of actual Russia are woven into the film to make audiences feel like they were there. We go on a tour of Moscow and we see real war footage. Nadja orders John a traditional Russian meal at a fancy restaurant. In order to get as many Russian terms into the scenes as possible, she goes a bit overboard and requests Borscht, beef stroganoff, zakuski, pirog and other Russian dishes. Tchaikovsky's music is the soundtrack of the movie making it a quasi-musical. Robert Taylor's John Meredith is ignorant of Russian culture so as he learns about Nadja's country the audience learns as well.

Susan Peters, Robert Taylor and Russia are the stars of this film but it's important to note some of the smaller performances by other well-known actors. Child actor Darryl Hickman plays Nadya's nephew and the script gives him some substantial scenes. Robert Benchley is under-utilized as Taylor's publicist and manager. Jacqueline White has a small and sorry role as a young resident of Tschaikowskoye. John Hodiak, Joan Loring and Tamara Shayne also appear in the movie.

I was impressed with Susan Peters' performance in this film. She aptly plays the piano (no body double or camera tricks were used) and she even does some traditional Russian dancing. She's a good match for Robert Taylor and holds her own in the picture.

Song of Russia is a WWII curio that has its place in movie history. It's a must-see for history buffs. For all it's pro-Russian sentiment, in the end audiences came away from it with one final message: America is the greatest nation of them all. Once you see the film you'll know what I mean. Whether you agree with this message or not, it was a fundamental principle that drove 1940s Hollywood.

Song of Russia (1944) is available from the Warner Archive on DVD-MOD.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection.

TCM article on Song of Russia

Film Producer Denies Song of Russia Red

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935

The Dawn of Technicolor book

The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935
by James Layton and David Pierce
448 pages - 9780935398281
February 2015
George Eastman House
Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

Technicolor wasn't just a technology. It was a vision, a company, an aesthetic and a movement. Film scholars James Layton and David Pierce gave themselves the monumental task of detailing the early and complicated history of Technicolor. The end result was the book The Dawn of Technicolor published by George Eastman House (now known as the George Eastman Museum). The focus of this book iss the formative time between 1915 and 1935 when the film industry was still growing and changing and when the forces behind Technicolor defied all odds to bring color to the movies.

"In enduring these twenty challenging years, Technicolor solidified its position as a market leader in Hollywood and perfected its technology to set the standard for the industry." - Layton and Pierce

It's important to note that this book does not seek out to tell the history of Technicolor movies. Rather it seeks to tell the story of how Technicolor as a technology was invented, implemented and how it eventually became an industry standard.

"Motion pictures are an art form enabled by technology." - Layton and Pierce

The level of technical detail in this book can be overwhelming. It is not a light read but one that is worth the time of any serious film student or budding scholar. Layton and Pierce thoughtfully lay out the history of the company that started Kalmus, Comstock and Westcott, Inc. in Boston, grew into Technicolor which expanded over the years and eventually made it's permanent move to Hollywood. There is much detail about the important figures in the company, many of whom were engineers from MIT. Biographical inserts go into detail about the life and careers of these figures.

Herbert T. Kalmus and company worked tirelessly to make Technicolor a functional and desirable part of making movies. They worked at a financial loss for many years.  Studios resisted Technicolor in those early years because of cost, availability of equipment and potential for failure. It was difficult for the engineers at Technicolor to ensure consistent quality when creating prints. Color film required more attention and money than a black-and-white film. According to the authors, "the film companies were vertically integrated operations, and they wanted to control as many aspects of their business as possible." 

Making Technicolor work required tenacity, constant tinkering and perfecting of the technology and a strong belief that there was a future in color films. The industry's transition to sound also resulted in a boom for color movies. As you read the book you learn about the ups and downs, the business and technological difficulties with Technicolor as well as it's eventual transition from the two colors of red and green to a three color process.

The Dawn of Technicolor book
Interior spread of The Dawn of Technicolor. Note the green and red tinted pages and custom bookmark.

The Dawn of Technicolor is a scholarly work formatted as a coffee table book. This proved to be a challenge for this read. The text is rich with detail and there were not enough visuals for it to be the type of book that you can just flip through. It took me several hours to read this book and I carried it with me everywhere. It weighs a great deal, is very cumbersome to hold and it was inevitable that the spine would break from the strain. If I were the publisher of the book, I would have gone with a smaller format, still large enough to showcase the gorgeous visuals but small enough that one could spend hours reading it comfortably.

The book has over 400 glossy pages, red and green tinted pages to mimic 2-strip Technicolor and extensive backmatter. After the main body of text, there is an annotated filmography which is worth the price of the book alone. It is over 100 pages long and includes extensive detail on every single early Technicolor film ever made. Not only does it list basic information like title, director, studio, cast, synopsis, release date but also has information on the Technicolor elements, whether they exist, notes about the release and reception as well as the current status of archival holdings. Films in this filmography include all color silents and talkies, feature films with color inserts, shorts, animations and abandoned films like The March of Time (1930). It boggles my mind how much work must have gone into collecting all this information and laying it all out. It's worth going through these and learning about the different films. There is no information about home video release in this filmography.

The films discussed in the book start with The Gulf Between (1917) and end with Becky Sharp (1935). Other films discussed at length include:

Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), The Toll of the Sea (1924), Ben-Hur (1925), Seven Chances (1925), The Black Pirate (1925), The American Venus (1926), The Mysterious Island (1928), The Viking (1928), Redskin (1928), On with the Show (1929), Rio Rita (1929), Sally (1929), The Show of Shows (1929), King of Jazz (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Mamba (1930),  Whoopee! (1930), Doctor X (1932) and more.

A heads up to my fellow Boston area classic film enthusiasts, there is a lot of detail in the book about Technicolor's origins in Boston. Our city was a hub of scientific innovation and it's interesting to see how a city so far away from Hollywood could have such an impact on the film industry.

Painstakingly researched, The Dawn of Technicolor is the definitive book on the history of this technology.  There is no resource anywhere that will have the level of detail and the volume of information on early Technicolor. It sets the standard for future scholarly works. This book comes highly recommend and is a must for your film studies library.

Now I leave you with a new-to-me discovery, the Fashion News color shorts of the late 1920s. I had never heard of these until I read the filmography in The Dawn of Technicolor. I found one from 1928 on YouTube. Enjoy!

This is my third review for the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. I purchased a copy of The Dawn of Technicolor at Cinefest in 2015 and got it autographed by both authors.

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