Monday, July 24, 2017

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016)

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016) movie poster
"Obits have next to nothing to do with the death and absolutely everything to do with the life." - Margalit Fox
 
Classic film enthusiasts are well-acquainted with obituaries. The deaths of our beloved stars are a common occurrence. When someone dies we take the time to reflect on their life. Reading obits on and offline is one of the ways we celebrate the life and mourn the loss. When I first started this blog I always knew that I didn't want to write obits. At first I would post little tributes instead with just a few words and a picture or two. Even then it became too much and I abandoned the practice. I have the utmost respect for those who regularly write obits even more so now that I watched the new documentary Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016).


Directed by Vanessa Gould, Obit. takes a deep dive into the work by the obit team at The New York Times. Talking heads include current and former obit writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, Paul Vitello, their boss William McDonald as well archivist Jeff Roth and various others who contribute to the The New York Times obits.

Newspaper obit writers are a dying breed. Once considered to be the most boring section of a newspaper, today's writers have breathed new life into this form of journalism. The New York Times obit team focuses on writing pieces that educate, illuminate and entertain. They capture the essence of a life while also telling the reader an enthralling story. While they try to do justice to a life there is also the need for impartiality. These writers are not afraid to explore the negatives along with the positives. There is a keen eye on research. Obit writers race against the clock to pull together as much information as they can in a short amount of time. This means calling family members of the deceased, speed reading clips that are pulled from The New York Times' "Morgue" and using other resources to build the skeleton of the obit. Then there are the creative minds of these writers whose talent for the written word weave the tales of lives well-lived or not at all.

Scene from Obit. Photo source: Kino Lorber


One minute into Obit. and I was hooked. I was utterly fascinated by the process of researching and writing an obit. Viewers follow the writers on a typical day at the office but we also get to hear about some of their previous work too. The position of an obit writer used to be the lowest rung on the totem pole of a newspaper; a job relegated to someone on their way out. I get the sense that while The New York Times obit team isn't one of the top departments it is still respected.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure to be as prepared as you can, knowing that you'll never be prepared." - William McDonald


We get a peak at how the obit team pitches for a page one piece (either a top story or a "refer", a call out to the obit section on the bottom of the front page). Viewers get to see the "Morgue" where decades worth of news clippings arranged by subject and subject matter. There are insights on how photographs are selected, how the length of obits are decided on and how they approach advances, obits written ahead of a person's death. There is also a spotlight on individual obits for figures like adventurer John Fairfax, author David Foster Wallace, Marshall Lytle of Bill Haley and the Comets, stunt pilot Elinor Smith, actress Farrah Fawcett and singer Michael Jackson. These were fascinating and we learn quite a bit about the process.

Archivist Jeff Roth in the "Morgue" - Photo source: Kino Lorber


I was hoping this documentary had more classic film related figures but alas it did not. The only person mentioned was Elizabeth Taylor who's obit was a big deal for the team. There are some clips of movie stars like Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe but none are focused on. I think it's still worth the time of classic film fans to watch this documentary especially if you're like me and read obituaries on a regular basis.

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016) is an illuminating and informative documentary on the writers who give the recently deceased one final send-off. This is a must-see!





Obit. (2016) will be available from Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 1st. You can pre-order the movie by using the buy links below.


Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me the Blu-Ray to review!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Betrayed (1944)


Betrayed (1944) poster
In 1949, Robert Mitchum was a household name. By that time he had made a splash in the genre that was later dubbed film noir with movies such as The Locket (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Crossfire (1947) and the noir we all know and love Out of the Past (1947). That last film made him famous and his arrest in 1948 for the possession of marijuana made him notorious. The King brothers, Frank and Maurice King, must have been following the trajectory of Mitchum's career very closely. Five years earlier, Mitchum made two films for the King brothers and poverty row studio Monogram Pictures. The first one was Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944) (you can read my review here), a WWII housing shortage comedy starring Simone Simon. Mitchum had a very minor role in that film. He got a juicier part in When Strangers Marry (1944) which also produced by the King brothers and distributed by Monogram. In that film Mitchum didn't have the lead role but he was third billed with his name truncated to Bob Mitchum so it would fit the poster. Fast forward five years and Mitchum was now making movies for Howard Hughes at RKO. And he was doing well. If you know anything about the King brothers you'd know that when they saw a money-making opportunity they pounced. With Mitchum's fame and notoriety firmly established in Hollywood, Maurice and Frank King re-released their two Mitchum movies. They bumped up his name to top billing, altered the posters to more prominently display the star and changed Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore to And So They Were Married and When Strangers Marry to the more ominous Betrayed.



When Strangers Marry (1944) poster. Compare with the Betrayed poster and how Mitchum's name is positioned.


Betrayed (1944), aka When Strangers Marry, is a film noir directed by William Castle and based on a story by George Moskov. The movie starts with the murder of wealthy drunk Charlie (Milton Kibee). He was last seen with traveling salesman Paul Baxter (Dean Jagger) who helped Charlie to his home. The police discover Charlie had been strangled with a pair of silk stockings. Baxter recently wed Mildred (Kim Hunter). The two have barely known each other, meeting only three times before they married and haven't seen each other since the wedding. Mildred can't find her husband and enlists the help of her former beau Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum) and the police. Everyone begins to suspect Paul Baxter has been up to something. He doesn't want to be seen in public and has been acting very shady. Police begin to investigate with some help from Fred. Does Mildred really know the man she married? The story takes twists and turns in the way a good mystery should.

Kim Hunter and Dean Jagger in Betrayed (1944)


This was a new-to-me noir and I quite enjoyed it. The movie can be melodramatic at times especially when things heat up towards the end. But overall its an enjoyable 67 minute poverty row noir. Dean Jagger effectively plays the paranoid salesman on the run. Kim Hunter is charming as Mildred and I like that her character grows from befuddled to more independently minded. Milton Kibbee adds a bit of dark humor at the beginning of the film. Neil Hamilton, a familiar face in the 1930s and 1940s, plays Lieutenant Blake. Rhonda Fleming has a bit part in the last scene of the movie which effectively closes the loop on the entire plot.

Mitchum and a dog. Enough said?


Then there is Robert Mitchum. I might be biased considering the fact that he's my favorite actor but Mitchum is an absolute charmer in this movie. There were a few glorious moments for swooning. He's shirtless in the Turkish bath scene. Mitchum is at the peak of his handsomeness and the camera lingers long enough on his beautiful face for viewers to take in some of his gorgeous features. And he's often seen with an adorable Boston Terrier. My husband said "Robert Mitchum chillin' with a dog, that's all you need in your life." Too true. Too true. There's one important scene at the height of the film's drama that Mitchum may have overacted. He was still relatively knew to acting and this was before subtlety became his strong suit.

Betrayed (1944) is a good noir with a fine cast, decent tension and a fun plot twist. TCM will be showing it as When Strangers Marry (1944) on Robert Mitchum day August 6th during Summer Under the Stars. That day also happens to be the 100th anniversary of Mitchum's birth.

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Betrayed (1944) is available from the Warner Archive Instant Streaming. This movie is also available on DVD-MOD from Warner Archive's shop. You can buy the DVD-R by using this link. Shopping through my buy links and banners helps support this site. Thank you!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive Instant for the opportunity to review this film!


Monday, July 17, 2017

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic
by Richard Sandomir
Hachette Books
304 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780316355056
June 2017

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

The Pride of the Yankees (1942) is considered one of the greatest sports films of all time. It served as the template for how movies about inspirational athletes would be made. It cemented Lou Gehrig as not only a legend of baseball but an important figure in American history. And Gehrig's final speech, one that demonstrated gratefulness in spite of his dire circumstances, would inspire generations to come. 75 years after it's initial release the film still has the power to move audiences to tears.

“Its greatest achievement was to establish a formidable, continuing physical legacy for Gehrig, almost like an annuity that renews itself with each showing.” - Richard Sandomir

Lou Gehrig had a fantastic career throughout the 1920s and 1930s as the Yankee's first baseman. His records for home runs and consecutive games played are still impressive many years later. Gehrig's life was cut short at the tender age of 37 when he died from ALS. His name would become synonymous with ALS and up until recently it was generally referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. It wasn't long after he died when Hollywood realized that Gehrig's story would make for a great movie. But it took Gehrig's widow Eleanor to lead the charge.

Richard Sandomir's new book The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic profiles the making of the movie in great detail. Gehrig died in June 1941 and the movie was released in July 1942. He was still in the public consciousness and with the start of WWII, audiences were ripe for a good story about a homegrown hero. Eleanor Gehrig was instrumental in getting Gehrig's story in front of Hollywood moguls. She was driven both by a desire to support herself and to honor her husband's legacy.

Producer Sam Goldwyn saw more potential in the love story between Gehrig and Eleanor than he did in Gehrig’s baseball career. The problem was Goldwyn knew nothing about baseball. In fact most of the people who worked on the film knew little to nothing about America’s greatest pastime. But what they did know is that Gehrig's story was special and if they played their cards right it would make for a blockbuster film.

The first step in making the film was to find the man who would play Gehrig. An open audition was conducted but it became clear early on that Gary Cooper would be a great fit. There were problems at first. Cooper was older, not very familiar with baseball and was a righty to Gehrig's lefty. But, as Sandomir points out, Cooper playing Gehrig was "a near-perfect marriage of modest, heroic subject and an actor who specialized in modest, heroic characters." The role of Eleanor was important too. Actress Teresa Wright was new to Hollywood but her career was already skyrocketing. She had an Academy Award nomination under her belt and this film would be her first opportunity to shine as a leading lady. With the real-life Eleanor full involved in overseeing the making of the film, there was a lot of pressure on Wright to capture the spirit of Eleanor and to do the film justice.

Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Photo source: Doctor Macro

As is the case with many biopics of the golden age of Hollywood, The Pride of the Yankees plays fast and loose with the facts. However, Eleanor Gehrig made sure that her husband and his sport were portrayed as accurately as possible. Author Sandomir goes into detail about all of the preparation for both the fictional and biographical aspects of the film. There was both the care and neglect to accurately portray baseball. There was an effort to make Cooper look like a real left-handed baseball player (the author adeptly debunks the myth that the scenes were flipped for the camera). I was particularly fascinated with the scenes that didn't make it into the final film. For example, after Gehrig's baseball career ended he had a short stint as a parole commissioner, a part of his life I'm very eager to read more about. A scene in which he is checking in on a parolee dying of cancer was written for the film. However, the film ends with the rousing final speech which suited the movie and made for a more dramatic ending.

I loved reading about Gehrig’s famous “The luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. According to Sandomir, it doesn’t exist in its entirety. There are only snippets from news clips and a bunch of transcriptions that vary greatly. It was never fully transcribed and its very possible that Gehrig had written some of it down but also spoke some lines that just came to him. The film alters the speech and includes the famous line at the very end. "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." is #38 on the AFI's top 100 list of the greatest movie quotes of all time.

Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper - The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There's so much more in this book too. We learn about Babe Ruth's involvement in the movie and his connections to Hollywood. Then there was Lou Gehrig's own, brief and failed attempt at an acting career. There is a wealth of information about the actors, the shooting, the editing, the screenwriting, the film's reception and what happened to the key players years after the movie was released. At the heart of the book is the story of a fallen man who lived the American dream and who's story was shared in a way that ensured his legacy for the rest of the century and beyond.

If you enjoyed The Pride of the Yankees (1942) I implore you to read this book. It's a fantastic deep dive into the making of a classic. My only small complaint about the book is that it does lapse into repetition as well some unnecessary plot description. In some circumstances including the plot makes sense in context but at other points it felt like filler. However, if it's been a while since you've seen the movie the plot points included might serve as a refresher. Sandomir's book is well-rounded and well-researched. It's the story of a movie but it's also so much more than that. It makes for great summer reading. I took this book to the beach with me and lounged with it on my front porch.


This is my second review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Thank you to the good folks at Hachette books for the opportunity to review this book. As a treat for my readers they are generously offering 10 copies of the book for giveaway! The contest runs from now until Sunday. Good luck!

CONTEST IS NOW OVER. Congrats to the winners: Vanessa, Keisha, Lindsay, Meg, John, Noelle, Christopher, Christian, Moshe & JT!

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