Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 In Review

Another year has come and gone and 2012 is just around the corner. This year was definitely a year of reading. I was fed up with having a superficial knowledge of classic cinema that I started diving into many biographies in search of more background information and context to add to my current mental classic film database. I didn't post as often as I'd like because I was too busy reading, watching movies and living life (I even got engaged and started planning a wedding). However, I'm proud that I didn't just abandon my blog and that I shared something with you all each month. Here is my look back at 2011:

February - Robert Mitchum's BFF, the sultry and headstrong actress Jane Russell passed away. I wrote about Bette Davis' uglification for The Private Lives of Essex and Elizabeth (1939). Thanks to Warner Archive, I finally got to watch the Mickey Rooney - Marilyn Monroe roller derby film Fireball (1950)

March - I tackled Elia Kazan's labor of love America, America (1963), a film I thoroughly enjoyed even though many others criticize it. Elizabeth Taylor passed away. I got to see one of my favorite films The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) at a local theater. That film takes place in my hometown Boston and stars my favorite actor Robert Mitchum.

April - Google honors Charlie Chaplin. I shared a video demonstrating Kinetic Typography using Abbott & Costello's famous Who's On First skit. And I got to see my favorite Hitchcock film, Rear Window (1954), at my favorite repertory theater, The Brattle.

May - The love of my life Carlos proposed to me and I said yes! He's always been so supportive of my enthusiasm for classic film and of this blog. I finished the Bogie Marathon I started in November of 2010 with We're No Angels (1955).  I was invited to watch the documentary These Amazing Shadows (2011) at the Coolidge Corner Theater.

June - This was probably the most active month for me on the blog.  The Somerville Theater had a classic film series and I saw Captain's Courageous (1937). I read and reviewed the book Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant by Jennifer Grant. I got to see Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) at the newly restored Art Deco theater The Paramount. I even took extra pictures of the Paramount too. I tackled the 800 page book Frank: The Voice even though it was missing my favorite decade of Frank Sinatra's career, the 1960s. I did a week long IOU series in which I watched and reviewed films that were sent to me or recommended to me by friends. I might do that again in 2012.

July - I went back to The Brattle to see The African Queen (1951). I fell for Nell Shipman when I read her autobiography The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart. I read and reviewed Elizabeth Taylor: A Passion for Life by Joseph Papa and my favorite Young Adult author Gigi Amateau interviewed him. The interview appears as a guest post on the blog. We got the opportunity to see the amazingly talented Jeff Rapsis before live music for 3 Buster Keaton films. I read and reviewed the book Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart

August - I went back to The Somerville Theater to watch Ninotchka (1939) and to see Jeff Rapsis perform more live music alongside 3 more Buster Keaton films. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Rapsis about his fine work. 

September - I fell head over heels in love with Jack Klugman and devoted a whole week to the man. I reviewed his book Tony and Me and did posts on 12 Angry Men (1957), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The Detective (1968), and his TV shows The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. .

October - I gave myself a lot of reading to do. First I tackled two biographies on directors including John Huston and Nicholas Ray.

November - I read and reviewed Piper Laurie's autobiography and Marc Eliot's biography of Steve McQueen.  I started watching a lot of Steve McQueen films but unfortunately couldn't find the time to review them. I did make some time for The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and posted a lot of fun screencaps.

December - I created  a holiday gift guide for classic film fans. I read and reviewed the behemoth biography of Spencer Tracy. I also finally posted my interview with These Amazing Shadows (2011) co-director/producer Kurt Norton

While I didn't have very many posts this year, I feel like the ones I did take the time to write were of quality. I'd much rather have fewer posts that I could be proud of than a year full of fluff pieces.

I hope you all have a Happy New Year! Thanks for reading and come back in 2012.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Interview with Kurt Norton, co-director/producer of These Amazing Shadows (2011)

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Norton, director/producer alongside Paul Mariano of the amazing documentary These Amazing Shadows (2011). This interview was conducted earlier in the year but I have been saving it to post here to celebrate the documentary's broadcast on PBS tomorrow! A big thank you to Kurt Norton for granting me the interview and for introducing me to These Amazing Shadows.

1) How did you two come to decide that you wanted to film These Amazing Shadows?

Paul (Mariano) saw an article in the New York Times in 2008 about the National Film Registry. He was struck by two things: that he had never heard of the National Film Registry and a statistic quoted in the article that 90% of films made before 1920 no longer exist and 50% before 1950 are lost forever. He called and told me about the article. I, too, had never heard of the National Film Registry. We both consider ourselves fairly knowledgeable about film, so it was quite a surprise that this very cool list of America's most important films existed and we knew nothing about it. We had just come off two documentary projects that didn't work out for a variety of reasons. We both liked the idea of doing a documentary on the movies. Seemed like a lot of fun. Paul called Steve Leggett at the Library of Congress who coordinates the National Film Registry and found out that no one had ever made a film about the Registry. We dove in without really figuring out what our story would look like. How do you make a movie about a list?

2) How did you two meet?

We met in 1985 at the Contra Costa County (California) Public Defender Office. Paul was a Deputy Public Defender and I was an defense investigator. We became friends, then discovered our common interest in filmmaking. Our first collaboration was making goofy videos for the office softball team end of season party. By a weird coincidence in those softball videos we used a lot of clips from famous movies, which we audio dubbed with our own dialogue.

3) How long did the documentary take to film and produce?

We spent over two years producing These Amazing Shadows. One reason it took that long was because we had difficulty figuring out how to tell our story. We spent a lot of time at first focusing on film preservation. As time went on our story evolved into one about the movies - its power, how it connects us all, how it reflects who we are and the joy it brings people. Another reason it took so long was because we had to find just the right people to work with: our producer Christine O'Malley, editors Doug Blush and Alex Calleros, graphic designer Brian Oakes, composer Peter Golub. We found them one by one - it was a very challenging process. The only person we had in place to began our project with was our outstanding director of photography Frazer Bradshaw. It was important to us and the project to find just the right people - people with the right temperament, point of view and artistry.

4) Working together as directors, did each of you have different roles to play or did you work side-by-side during the process?

We worked side-by-side. Sort of a two-headed monster. Having two directors is both a blessing and curse. It is a blessing because often two heads are better than one to develop ideas. Also, when one of us was feeling low energy the other was there to carry the load. The negative part is that sometimes people we worked with would get confused as to whether it was necessary to get both our approvals for decisions. It was a little cumbersome at times. Mostly it was very positive. Making a film, narrative or documentary, is a real marathon. The director has to inspire and motivate the production team - keep the whole ship moving forward. Having a partner is a real advantage because we kept inspiring each other and in turn the whole team. In terms of the interviews Paul and I took turns. By just luck of the draw Paul interviewed Rob Reiner and I interviewed Christopher Nolan. There was no grand plan as to who interviewed whom.

5) Why do you think it's important for people to know about Film Restoration and The National Film Registry?

It is important for people to recognize that our cultural heritage won't just take care of itself. We have to, as individuals and a society, make focused efforts to preserve our culture. Movies are an important part of that goal because as Robin Blaetz, one of our interview subject says, film is the art form of the 20th century. It is amazing how ideas, habits, fashions can get lost or forgotten from one generation to another. For us to connect as human beings we need to understand each other. Understand where we have come from - our connections - our common history - the good and the bad. Our lives have become so busy and technology is pushing change to the point that rather than a generation being measured in perhaps a thirty year block, it is now measured in three to four years. If that is true, then we need to protect our cultural heritage more than ever. We are lucky in this country that we have institutions like the Library of Congress. We found in the Library a part of the government that really works. That is because of the people who work there - they are passionate and dedicated. I know it sounds corny but it is true. Whether you belong to the Tea Party or are a liberal Democrat you can take pride that the Library of Congress works.

6) How did you come to select the films that were discussed in the documentary?

We, meaning our production team, had certain ideas about what films we should include in our documentary. We went dutifully about our interviews asking people about those films. But, what we found was that people told us about films they thought important. When a person tells you about a film they love or find important there is passion. We realized that we needed to follow the path being laid before us by our interview subjects. It was in their passion that we found our story. The films that Paul and I love didn't matter because we were not in front of the camera. Our interview subject took us on a great trip that we formed into our documentary.

7) How did you come to select the people who were interviewed in the documentary?

We selected people to interview that we thought were interesting - had something to say. A lot of people are wonderful, but don't really have anything to say. A good interviewer can bring out the best in anyone. Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley and Terry Gross are good examples of that. But, just bringing out the best is not good enough for a documentary. The person has to have some inherent ability to express their inner world and passion. That is what makes them documentary worthy, so to speak. Convincing prominent people to be in a documentary being produced by two guys with no discernible track record is very difficult. We got a lot of rejections from some great people. Our success in getting interviews was based on two thing: persistence and luck. We got Christopher Nolan because his daughter and our editor Doug Blush's daughter share the same piano teacher. It was through that personal connection we were able to submit our request. Dumb luck can sometimes be pretty important.

8) What do you hope that These Amazing Shadows accomplishes?

We hope that These Amazing Shadows entertains and inspires people. We certainly want to create awareness about the need for film preservation and the preservation of our cultural heritage in general. But, we've found that something else has happened that we couldn't have anticipated. We've had high school and college students come up to us after a screening and tell us that because of our film they want a career in filmmaking. We never expected that kind of response. So many people have told us how they have rediscovered the movies. Fallen in love with movies from the 1930s and 40s. Watched an experimental film for the first time in their life. Preservation is important, but it is the films themselves and how they affect people that is most important.

9) Tell us a little about your social media campaign for the documentary.

Paul and I are not in our 20s or 30s. Before this project I knew nothing about facebook, twitter, blogging, foursquare, tumblr, etc. We found with a limited promotion and advertising budget that social media was very important. We realized that there were people out there that had established connections to online communities with a shared interest. And, that those connections are very powerful. It took us a while to tap into that world. We began by just surfing the net looking for bloggers and facebook pages who we simply enjoyed reading. We learned a lot from just reading and reading. We started our social media campaign in December of 2010. We now know we should have started it a year before. It takes time to make the right connections. I am afraid that we won't really know how to have a really effective social media until 2012! Thank goodness for my 26 year old niece, Tessa Rexroat, because she really educated us.

10) These Amazing Shadows has already been screened at big film festivals such as Sundance. Tell us a little about the cross-country tour of the documentary and the reactions you've been getting so far. (as of June 2011)

In many ways distribution is harder than making the documentary. Marketing the film is so challenging because the market place is so crowded. We suffer a bit because we have been slow to develop a clever marketing hook. Film preservation is not the most exciting hook. I was at the Denver FilmCenter recently and before the screening people were coming up to me and saying, "So, this is a clip show?" Well it kind of is, but it is so much more than that. After the screening the same people came up to say how much they loved, learned and were inspired by our film. Though our marketing can be poor, once we get people in the theater they love our film. We are very lucky to have IFC behind us. They have been so supportive. They own our North American distribution rights. Even though they have guided us it is still the responsibility of the filmmakers to promote the film. Because we are the ones who have the most passion about the project. We were also lucky to be part of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. That festival is such a boost for a documentary like ours. It's short hand in our country for "a good film." Sundance began a whirlwind experience that has not stopped for almost six months. We still have a long way to go because we are scheduled to be broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens on December 28th and our DVD will be released by PBS Video in the fall. We just keep telling ourselves sleep and free time is highly overrated.

Monday, December 26, 2011

These Amazing Shadows on PBS and a Blu-Ray Giveaway

"All these people who worked on these things, who are all gone now, but they've left behind these amazing shadows for us to enjoy." - George Willeman

Back in May, I had the amazing opportunity to watch the documentary These Amazing Shadows (2011) at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA (you can read my original review here). This documentary chronicles the history of the National Film Registry, which is part of the Library of Congress. The films that are made part of the registry vary greatly. They can be full-length cinematic films, documentaries, shorts, music videos, etc. but they all have something in common. They are considered to be culturally, historically and aesthetically significant. The National Film Registry choses 25 films to add to their list each year. Films are a living history of our culture. And anyone who doesn't believe that, needs to watch These Amazing Shadows! In the documentary, many industry professionals, actors, directors, even film writers like The Self-Styled Siren, are interviewed. It's a wonderful documentary that I think film fans and skeptics alike need to see this film. 

And now you can! These Amazing Shadows is available on DVD and Blu-Ray as of last month. Also, PBS is showing the documentary as part of their Independent Lens series. It airs on Wednesday December 28th (check your local listings for time and channel).

PBS has a fun but very challenging Film IQ test you can take. If you want to vote for a film to be included in the 2012 list of 25, you can learn more about how to vote here. Also, if you are curious about which films are not included in the Registry yet, the Library of Congress has a master list you can browse here.

These Amazing Shadows is all over the internet. They have a main website, a trailer, a Facebook page, a Twitter account (this one is fun to follow!),  and a wonderfully informative blog that is updated regularly.

Stay tuned because tomorrow I will be posting an interview with one of the directors Kurt Norton! 

And now for the giveaway! Thanks to the PR folks for These Amazing Shadows, I have the opportunity to give away 4 Blu-Rays of the documentary. 

Contest Rules: Fill out the form below to enter. US & Canada Only. One entry per person, contest ends at 11:59pm EST on Janury 5th. Winners will be chosen at random and announced on the blog. Good luck!

The contest is now over.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Spencer Tracy by James Curtis

Spencer Tracy
by James Curtis
Knopf (Random House)
October 2011
1,024 pages
$39.95 Hardcover

Spencer Tracy by James Curtis is the most definitive biography on the legendary actor. There will never be another book as informative as this one and there will never be another biographer who has had as much access to information about Spencer Tracy as James Curtis had. It took Curtis 10 years to research and write this book and the wealth of information found within the covers of this biography demonstrates his hard work and attention to detail.

Physically this book is a brick. It's just over 1,000 pages and if you discount the front and back matter, the meat of it clocks in at 878 pages. It's a heavy book and because of that it's a tad bit difficult to read. I experimented with various positions including propping the book up on a firm pillow, which seemed to work the best. One time I had it propped on my chest, I accidentally let the book go, it slid and hit me right in the mouth. Ouch! If you are an eBook person, this book is available on various eReaders. I'd rather suffer and have the physical book myself.

Spencer Tracy is known for many things. He was one half of the famous Hepburn-Tracy coupling (both on screen and off), he was a familiar face in films from the 1930s to the 1960s, and by some accounts he was also known as an adulterous drunken Catholic. However, people are always infinitely more complex than the labels we chose to place on them. What I love about reading biographies is that you get an opportunity to discover some of that complexity and move beyond the stereotype, the rumors, and the labels.

The front matter consists of a table of contents and an Acknowledgements section and the back matter has a section on the various biographies of Katherine Hepburn (some of which make claims that the Curtis refutes), a stage and film chronology, notes with sources and an index. If you are going to read any of the extra matter, make sure you read the Acknowledgements because this is the most enlightening. Spencer Tracy's daughter Susie Tracy adamantly felt that a "thorough and balanced biography of her father needed to be written, and the time to talk to the people who knew him was running out." Curtis took on the task of writing this biography and Susie gave him access to photos (some I'm sure have never before been published), Tracy's datebook, letters, telegrams, etc. She also gave Curtis access to people who knew Tracy but wouldn't have been allowed to have been interviewed without Susie's connection. There are two important things to note about this. Although Susie gave Curtis access to a lot, she didn't have final say in how the book would be written or what was to be included or left out. However, I do think that Susie's assistance and blessing helped mold the book into what it is now.

It is clear in reading this book that Curtis was being very respectful of Spencer Tracy as well as Louise Tracy (his wife) and their children (Susie and John). While I do love salacious reads, I do also enjoy reading books that are matter-of-fact and don't rely on juicy gossip to interest readers. Curtis sticks to the facts and while we read about the good and the bad, he doesn't try to share more than is necessary. At times I felt that Curtis may have been a little too adoring of Louise and too critical of her major rival for Tracy's heart, Katherine Hepburn. And I wonder if this is because of Susie's influence. However, he does state that Susie and Katherine became friends and does defend Katherine on several points. Basically, Curtis sticks to facts but there is a bit of a bias in favor of Tracy's family.

This book is very thorough. Every year, every play, every movie, every major event in Spencer Tracy's life is covered with incredible detail. There is a lot of information too about the John Tracy Clinic for deaf children. Relevant photographs, with sources named, are sprinkled through the text. I like this better than the photo insert you find in the middle of most biographies. I always find myself flipping back to that section to look at photos and I didn't have to do that with this book. This is a challenging read. The writing is can be a bit dry but because of the sheer volume of information that Curtis shares, there wasn't much room for fancy language. He does employ use of cliff hangers at the end of certain chapters which makes you want to keep reading. However, I highly suggest reading this book chapter by chapter. It will take you a while to finish but at least it'll give you some time to soak in the information.

What I enjoyed the most about this book were the stories of Spencer Tracy in relation to other actors or with directors/producers/other industry people. Tracy was good friends with a lot of his fellow actors and as the years passed it saddened him to see so many of them die. He was a great actor, adored by many and a lot of actors and actresses felt it a privilege to work with him. He had some close friendships with actors including his BFF Pat O'Brien and Clark Gable. There is one really funny anecdote from the book. Gable and Tracy would pull pranks on each other on set. When Clark Gable was crowned the King of Hollywood, Tracy took the opportunity to embarrass Gable. The book says

 "Gable sought his revenge... when he had the hot fudge sundae that always appeared at the finish of Tracy's lunch made with a perfectly formed scoop of mashed potatoes. Tracy dug into the thing and devoured it down to the last spoonful without ever changing expression."

I know a lot of you will be put off by the page count but you shouldn't be. Not everything can be condensed into one page of trivia facts on IMDB or a few paragraphs on Wikipedia. It's an accomplishment to tackle a book this long and to learn as much as I did while reading it. So while it's not the most fun read out there, I do hope Spencer Tracy fans and classic movie enthusiasts alike will give this book a shot.

Full Disclosure: My boss got this book, took one look at it's length and handed it over to me. I immediately hugged it in my arms and thanked her. Thanks Susan!

Here is the author talking about how he came to write the biography and clears up some misconceptions about Tracy. I love that he took the opportunity to spotlight Spencer Tracy in such a definitive biography like this one! Also below is a free preview of the book. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Holiday Gift Guide for Classic Film Fans

Do you have a classic film fan in your life? Or perhaps you are one and want to spread the joy to others? Why not buy a classic film themed gift for them for the holidays? Now I could list a whole bunch of DVDs, Blu-Rays and Boxed Sets for you but that's no fun. You could easily just browse some great online shops like the TCM Store, Kino Lorber, Barnes and Noble or Warner Archive for ideas. However, if you are looking for some non-DVD/Blu-Ray gift ideas, why not consider one of the following:


Buy books for the holidays! As most of you know, I work in the book industry. So buying books supports me. How, so? You buy a book, it supports the industry, I work in the industry, it keeps food on the table, clothes on my back and a roof over my head. Do you know how much Carlos eats? It's a lot! Keep us fed, buy some books. Besides, books are cool!

Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design - by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham - Wow! What a gorgeous book. Saul Bass is the legendary designer of title sequences from great films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and many others. This is makes for a great coffee table book, discussion piece or just a fun book to flip through.

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film by Richard Barrios - This book comes highly recommended from early film expert Jonas, also known as the Talkie King, who blogs over at All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!. This title is perfect for that budding film historian in your life.

Turner Classic Movies Crossword Puzzles -If your loved one is a TCM fanatic and thinks crossword puzzles are a lot of fun, this is the perfect gift for him or her. Inspired by the crossword puzzles in TCM's Now Playing Viewer's Guide, this book has 80 puzzles sure to keep anyone entertained for hours!

Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo and illustrated by Julia Denos - A fabulous picture all about Audrey Hepburn. It's a great way to pass down your love of Hepburn to a child or for collectors of all things Audrey.

For children's books I also recommend: Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat, a picture book about Ella Fitzgerald which was inspired by the Abbott and Costello film Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942) and Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire, a picture book about the two young siblings growing up in show business.

For other book ideas, check out my book review series called Get Your Read On. I've reviewed numerous books of interest to classic film lovers.

Holiday Cards

Classic Movie Cards from Silents and Talkies - These are amazing! Designed and colored by hand by the uber-talented Kate Gabrielle. There are 7 in all, including some Happy New Year's cards. You can get all 7 designs or mix and match or buy all of 1 kind. 

Home Theater

Panasonic 3D Wi-Fi Blu-Ray player - Let's face it. Most classic film fans have been reluctant to get Blu-Ray players. Heck, a lot of us are still trying to update our VHS collections to DVD! However, so many wonderful classic films are being introduced to the Blu-Ray format that your old movie lover is missing out by not having a player! CNet gave this particular Blu-Ray player by Panasonic a rating of "excellent". It's on sale at Best Buy for $159.99 with free shipping.

DVD Storage Box - One of the biggest dilemmas for any classic film fan is where to store all of ones DVDs and Blu-Rays. If your loved one has more films than they know what to do with, get them a couple of DVD storage boxes. These are a great alternative to furniture and fit well on bookshelves. You can stack them, move them around and hide them in nooks and crannies. Carlos and I have several of these!


Immortal Ephemera eBay Store and Website - My good friend Cliff sells lots of great Classic Film ephemera at his eBay store and on his website. Most items are under $10  You can find over 500 vintage stills, trading cards, tobacco cards, press photos, etc. Cards are $0.99 US shipping (unlimited) and other items are shipped free (US only). International Shipping is available as well. If your loved one is a big fan of a particular star from the Golden Age of Hollywood, check out Cliff's Shop by the Stars page and you can see what he has available for each actor or actress. These items make great gifts for the collector in your life!


Metropolis Mug from Brattle Theater - For just $12, you can get this fantastic Metropolis mug and support my favorite repertory theater at the same time. Win-win!

1:18 Steve McQueen Bullitt 1968 Mustang Fastback in Highland Green - Calling all Steve McQueen Fans! Calling all Car Enthusiasts! This is a wonderful toy replica of the Mustang that Steve McQueen drove (sorta) in the classic car chase scene from Bullitt (1968). I'm sure Carlos is salivating over this one.

Etsy - is full of wonderful vintage and hand-made collectibles which are sold by independent sellers and artists. Check out this Paul Newman Charm Metal Bracelet. Each charm is a photograph of Newman enclosed in a glass and metal casing.


Ticket Stub Diary - What's more fun than collecting ticket stubs? It's wonderful going back to see all the films you've enjoyed at the theater. But where do you put them all? Chronicle Books offers a Ticket Stub Diary for $14.95. You can also keep museum passes, concert tickets and lots of other stuff in here!

The Original Whirley Stovetop Popcorn Set - This set comes with a stovetop pot and stirrer, 3 popcorn packs and 4 popcorn tubs. Perfect present for your classic movie fan who loves to munch on popcorn while enjoying films!

What will you be buying for your beloved classic film fan? What do you hope you'll be getting for the holidays?

Full Disclosure: I found all these items online myself! I have not been influenced by any companies and I am not being compensated to feature any titles. I did include some affiliate links but that's it!

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