Monday, January 17, 2022

Charles Boyer: The French Lover by John Baxter

Charles Boyer
The French Lover
by John Baxter
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813155524
University Press of Kentucky 
298 pages
November 2021 

“For generations of film and theater audiences, Boyer was the archetypal Frenchman — cultivated, courteous, and seductive, yet never quite at home in a culture not his own. The sense of loss conveyed in his murmuring baritone voice was the very essence of romance. Women longed to comfort him; men wanted to become his friend.” — John Baxter

Charles Boyer charmed audiences for decades playing suave and debonair leading men in countless classic films. Audiences swooned at films like The Garden of Allah (1936), Algiers (1938), Love Affair (1939), Madame de... (1953). Boyer terrified us with his intensity in films like the psychological drama Gaslight (1944). His life began and ended with great tragedy but in the middle he found many ways to thrive doing what he loved best: acting.

Charles Boyer: The French Lover by John Baxter offers everything a reader would want out of movie star biography. It's compact, chronological, and concise. It's well-written and thoroughly researched. It offers just the right balance of personal and professional. It never crosses over to sensationalism yet delivers plenty of insights. The reader will come away feeling like they really got to know Charles Boyer as a person and as an actor and will immediately look for movies to watch to extend the experience. 

More books like this please!

Boyer in 1939 rehearsing for his appearance on the
radio drama series Hollywood Playhouse.
Credit: NBC. Source: University Press of Kentucky

Some takeaways from the book:

  • Boyer came from a place of privilege and the author describes his journey to Hollywood as a progression rather than a struggle. 
  • Boyer loved reading and amassed a large collection of books (including over 3,000 first editions). He also had a penchant for gambling and smoking.
  • He was highly competitive and had a knack for memorizing dialogue. So much so that he would memorize all the parts of a script.
  • He was intensely private and turned down interviews whenever he could. Baxter writes “Boyer lived in relative simplicity, with only one other permanent staff member: his double and stand-in Irving “Fig” Newton, whom he kept on retainer. A part-time secretary handled business correspondence and fan mail—which, as an independent, Boyer had to respond to himself, rather than leaving it to a studio press office. He subscribed to no clippings service and did not employ a press agent. Requests for interviews were politely declined.”
  • Despite developing a reputation as "the French lover", Boyer was quite the misogynist and was open about his disdain for women. This changed when he met the love of his life Pat Paterson. Baxter writes “Marriage had softened Boyer’s hostility toward women. His new manner was gentler, amused, provocative.”
  • He started his career in Hollywood in bit parts or starring in the French productions of American films like The Trial of Mary Dugan and The Big House (my review of the three versions of that film can be found here)
  • Boyer insisted on leading roles because he valued his talent and knew that top billing meant top pay and top treatment. After WWII and with the rise of television, he began to take on more character roles in Europe.
  • Boyer's father died at a young age. He was met with tragedy later on in life when his son died by suicide and his beloved wife died of cancer. Boyer ended his life two days after Pat's death.

The author goes into detail about Boyer's working relationship with his leading ladies including Irene Dunne, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Mia Farrow, who grew up next door to the Boyers, was interviewed for the book and is quoted several times. Not every film is discussed the majority are. I found this a welcome relief as some biographies do try to tackle each and every film and if the subject's filmography is quite extensive this in turn can become quite exhausting. Some notable films discussed include: Red-Headed Woman (1932), Caravan (1934) Liliom (1934), The Garden of Allah (1936), Conquest (1937), Tovarich (1937), Algiers (1938), Love Affair (1939), All This, and Heaven Too (1940), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), The Constant Nymph (1943), Gaslight (1944), Cluny Brown (1944) and many more. There are some light spoilers but I didn't feel like it was necessary to be well-versed in Boyer's filmography to be able to enjoy the book. 

If you're a Charles Boyer fan or even mildly interested in him, don't miss out on this excellent biography.

A big thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Hollywood Victory by Christian Blauvelt

Hollywood Victory
The Movies, Stars, and Stories of World War II
by Christian Blauvelt
Foreword by Dr. Robert M. Citino
Hardcover ISBN: 978076249992
TCM and Running Press
240 pages
November 2021

“By the end of the war, motion pictures, having become the voice of the nation, would end up as the definitive American art form– America’s greatest cultural export to the world.” — Christian Blauvelt

During WWII, movies reached the peak of their cultural influence over the American public. Hollywood rallied to support the war effort in many ways. Actors served overseas or entertained the troops. Directors documented battles on film to keep the American public back home apprised of what was happening during the war. Hollywood stars traveled all over the country selling war bonds. The Hollywood Canteen, started by John Garfield and Bette Davis, entertained the troops giving them a morale boost before they went off to battle. And it was movies like Confessions of a Nazi Spy that rang the alarm bells that something truly sinister was happening abroad. And when the United States officially entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, movies offered the public a unique form of encouragement to help get through the struggles ahead.

Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars, and Stories of World War II by Christian Blauvelt takes a look at the many ways Hollywood participated in the war effort and bolstered the American public. This book featured themed essays that tackle many aspects of WWII Hollywood in a way that is both informative and visually appealing. It includes a wide breadth of stories; some classic film fans will be familiar with and others that will be quite enlightening. The behind-the-scenes or lesser known stories alongside the ones we come to expect to be told about the war enriches the reading experience.

Key figures discussed in the book include: Lena Horne, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Jimmy Stewart
Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Leslie Howard, Veronica Lake, Hedy Lamarr, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Otto Preminger, Anna May Wong, Orson Welles, Bob Hope, Carmen Miranda, John Huston, Hattie McDaniel, James Cagney, John Ford, Edward G. Robinson, Billy Wilder, Paul Robeson, Marlene Dietrich and many more.

“Entertainment is always a national asset… Invaluable in time of peace, it is indispensable in 
wartime.” — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Movies discussed at length include: Confessions of a Nazi Spy, The Great Director, Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver, The Human Comedy and many more.

Much attention is given to the history of minorities during WWII. There are several essays about how Hollywood's involvement with Latin American talent as part of America's Good Neighbor Policy, how Chinese American actors were used to depict Japanese characters, how black soldiers were treated during the war and about black talent including Lena Horne and Hattie McDaniel who were very active on the homefront.

The essays are presented in a rough chronological order so you follow the story of Hollywood during WWII from right before Pearl Harbor to the end of the war in 1945.  I particularly enjoyed reading about how the studios approached telling war stories, about the Hollywood Canteen and the Hollywood Victory Caravan, how individual films made an impact on both audiences but also key power players and how each star approached their involvement in the war effort. I wasn't particularly interested in the pieces on Disney however animation enthusiasts will be eager to read more about that. 

Hollywood Victory is a must have for classic movie enthusiasts who have a particular interest in WWII history.

Thank you to TCM and Running Press for sending me a copy of Hollywood Victory for review. 

Check out the video below to see what else I've been reading.

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