Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones

The Lives of Robert Ryan
by J.R. Jones
Wesleyan University Press
May 2015
Hardcover ISBN: 9780819573728
376 pages

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Robert Ryan was endlessly likable, despite the many villainous characters he portrayed on screen. There was just something about him. He brought a sense of authenticity to every role and you could tell he loved his work. Behind that wrinkled brow and severe scowl was a man who was an average Joe who just happened to be an extraordinary actor. Chances are, if you're a classic film fan, you count Robert Ryan as one of your personal favorites.

Born and raised in Chicago and educated at Dartmouth College, Robert Ryan tried out many jobs before finding his true calling: acting. As a child he appeared as an extra in Essanay Film Manufacturing Company films. After college he was invited by a friend to participate in a theater production and he was hooked. Ryan made his way to Hollywood where he studied at Max Reinhardt School of Theater. It was there he met fellow actor and soon to be wife Jessica Cadwalader. After playing some bit parts in Paramount films, Ryan was drafted into the Marines during WWII. When he came back he concentrated on his movie career at RKO. He took a huge gamble starring in Crossfire (1947) as violent Anti-Semite. The liberal minded and gentle Ryan was the complete opposite character. However, he excelled at playing bad guys and Crossfire would jumpstart his career and earn him his first (and only) Academy Award nomination.

“One thing Ryan had understood… a controversial role can help an actor’s career.” — J.R. Jones

Many films followed including Berlin Express (1948), The Boy with the Green Hair (1948), The Set-Up (1949), Clash By Night (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Billy Budd (1962), The Longest Day (1962), The Professionals (1966), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and his final film Executive Action (1973). Ryan would often play loners, outcasts and those figures on the perimeter of society. Off screen, Ryan was a fiercely private man. He opted out of the Hollywood scene and preferred to spend his off time with his wife and three children. Ryan became an outspoken critic of war, was a member of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and partook in Civil Rights efforts alongside his friend and Odds Against Tomorrow co-star Harry Belafonte. He had a penchant for booze and was troubled by bouts of depression. But he never let any of that get in the way of his work. Ryan built a reputation for coming to work on time and prepared and for befriending crew members as well as his fellow actors. Ryan passed away in 1973 at the age 63 which is a damn shame because he at least had a good decade or more left in him to continue his excellent body of work.

Robert Ryan and Jessica Cadwalader. Photo Source

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones offers a compelling look at the life and career of one of the finest actors to ever grace the silver screen. The author has clearly done his research as he pieces together the story of a man who was far from being an open book. The book benefits from extensive interviews with Ryan's children, especially his daughter Lisa Ryan, as well as access to the 20 page memoir Ryan wrote for his family shortly before his death. There are lots of great anecdotes, insightful observations and eye-opening revelations. The book leans towards the positive but the author isn't shy to share some of the darker elements of Ryan's life.

Classic film enthusiasts will love the behind-the-scenes information and following the trajectory of Ryan's acting career. The book does gloss over Ryan's later films and extrapolates more on his early work, especially some of the notable performances in films like Crossfire and The Set-Up. Some hardcore classic film enthusiasts won't mind this but I wanted the author to linger more on some of his later films.

The true star of the book for me was Robert Ryan's wife Jessica Cadwalader. I gobbled up any information offered to me about her extraordinary but ultimately sad life. There is extensive information about how she transitioned from being an actress to being a writer, how she and Ryan were fundamental in starting the Oakwood School, a private progressive elementary school in Los Angeles that is still going to this day, and how she suffered from the limitations posed on women, wives and mothers in the '50s and '60s. She had a mental breakdown in 1958 and reading about the circumstances that lead to it made me want to throw the book across the room in anger.

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones is an excellent biography that delves deep on the life and career of a beloved classic film star.

Thank you to Wesleyan University Press for sending me a copy for review!

This is my second review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

This happens to be my 100th book review! Check my book review page for the full list!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

2020 Summer Reading Challenge: First Round-Up

It's that time again! It's time to share all of the wonderful reviews that the participants of this year's Summer Reading Challenge (winter for those of you on the Southern Hemisphere!) have been writing. I have a whopping 38 participants this year including my husband who joined at the last minute. And I'm so proud of this eager group of classic film lovers because they have really dived into their TBR stacks with great enthusiasm. I encourage you to read every single one of these reviews (I did myself, why shouldn't you?)

Happy reading!

Andy at AndyWolverton.com
Painting with Light by John Alton
The Psycho File by Joseph W. Smith III
The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin

Breanna of Bresfilms41
The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan
Jimmy Stewart by Marc Eliot
Olivier by Anthony Holden

Carlos of Live Fast Look Good
The Man Who Seduced Hollywood: The Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer, Tinseltown's Most Powerful Lawyer by B. James Gladstone
Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson by W.R. Wilkerson III

Jess of Box Office Poisons

Lee from Lee Mac on YouTube
Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham
Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life by Sophia Loren
TBR list

Pacia of Sylvia Plath, Shirley Jackson, and Dorothy Parker Walk into a Bar…
Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth
West of Eden: An American Place by Wendy Vanden Heuvel

Raquel of Out of the Past
Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock by Christina Lane

Rich of Wide Screen World
The Real Tinsel by Bernard Rosenberg and Harry Silverstein

Photo Source: @_robby_c on Instagram

Robby on Instagram
Growing Up in Disneyland by Ron DeFore

Sarah from Goodreads

American Prince: A Memoir by Tony Curtis

Photo Source @classicsarah_ on Twitter

Shawn of The Everyday Cinephile
Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity by Jacqueline Najuma Stewart

Steve from Goodreads
Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart by Scott Eyman
The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel

Vanessa of Super Veebs
Complicated Women: Sex & Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle
Swanson on Swanson by Gloria Swanson
The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

If I missed your review, make sure you submitted it to the Book Review Links form at the bottom of the challenge page.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock by Christina Lane

Phantom Lady
Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison
The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock
by Christina Lane
Chicago Review Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9781613733844
400 pages
February 2020

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"Alfred Hitchcock would not have become 'Hitchcock' without her." — Christina Lane

I first learned of Joan Harrison when I saw her name pop up in the title credits for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour television show. I was deep into my binge watch of that series when I noticed that Harrison was replaced by Norman Lloyd as executive producer. It was only when I read Christina Lane's excellent biography Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock that I learned why Harrison left the show. While Harrison had been fully involved in the original series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, she was less enthused with the new format coupled the pressure to find original stories that would work for the hour long presentation. According to Lane, Harrison "was a woman who liked to be in control." If she didn't feel the work was suited to the best of her abilities or that she could do better elsewhere she removed herself and moved on. This is a woman I needed to learn more about.

Christina Lane's biography offers readers a portrait of a headstrong woman with a passion for both storytelling and the business of movie making. Harrison refused to take the path set for her as a woman. She wanted more and she was determined to get it. Harrison got her start in the business when she answered Alfred Hitchcock's want ad for a personal assistant/secretary. She was a terrific writer, editor and visionary and she quickly rose in ranks to writer and eventually to producer. According to Lane, Harrison "championed women's stories and alternative narrative methods." She believed that films should have complex and dynamic female characters. Highly collaborative, she oversaw continuity of story and vision and had a hand in procuring stories as well as launching writer's careers. Harrison helped groom Jane Greer for her career at RKO (but quickly left when Harrison saw Hughes was bad news) and was instrumental in Robert Mongtomery's career at Universal. She was nominated for two Oscars in the same year, for best adapted screenplay for Rebecca (1940) and best original screenplay for Foreign Correspondent (1940). I admire the fact that Harrison felt strongly against the blacklist and when she transitioned to television work, producing shows like Janet Dean, Registered Nurse and the two Alfred Hitchcock anthology series, she used the opportunity to help blacklisted talent get back to work.

“She was realizing that the women’s angle -- the persistent search for filmic ways to penetrate the mind of a sympathetic female character -- was her greatest motivation.”— Christina Lane

Phantom Lady is an exquisitely written and thoroughly researched biography of an extraordinary woman. Author Christina Lane is an associate professor of film studies at the University of Miami and writer. Lane offers readers tons of interesting information, beautifully crafted sentences and thoughtful observations. There are extensive interviews with surviving members of Lane's circle of friends and colleagues including living legend Norman Lloyd. Films discussed include: Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1940) (lots of information about that darned ending!), Phantom Lady (1944), Nocturne (1946), Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Once More, My Darling (1949), etc. There are plenty of spoilers so if you're not familiar with the film plots you may want to skip ahead a paragraph or two when the synopsis is discussed in the text. There is quite a bit of information about Harrison's love life which may or may not be interesting to the reader. Lane offers juicy tidbits while being careful not to cross over into the territory of salaciousness.

I'm particularly interested in learning more about people behind the scenes of film making, beyond actors and directors. The role a producer is not fully understood or appreciated by many and there was much to learn from here through Harrison's involvement in various projects. Lane does an excellent job deciphering what Harrison's contributions as a screenwriter and producer would have been based on research but also educated guesses where information was lacking.

A truly enlightening and empowering read. Highly recommended!

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for a copy of Phantom Lady for review.

This is my first review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

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