Monday, December 28, 2015

Owning Bachelor Mother (1939)

I have a confession to make. I have had in my possession 11 different copies of the Bachelor Mother (1939).

It all started over a decade ago when I was discovering my love of classic film. I taped a series of films off of TCM with my VCR. All of the films had the word "bachelor" in the title: Bachelor Mother (1939), Bachelor Father (1931), Bachelor Apartment (1931), Bachelor Bait (1934) and Bachelor in Paradise (1961) .

Out of all of those "bachelor" movies, Bachelor Mother was my favorite. I fell in love with it so much it became my favorite film of all time. I would watch and re-watch my VHS recording and would catch TCM airings during the holidays. Then the inevitable happened. I lost the tape. I went months without seeing my favorite movie until I was able to tape it off TCM once again. And that wasn't enough. I taped it once more so I could have a back-up.  Months later I found the original tape and I had in my possession three VHS recordings of Bachelor Mother.

A few years later the good folks at Warner Archive released Bachelor Mother on DVD-MOD and I couldn't get it into my hot little hands fast enough. It wasn't a perfect copy, the DVD-MOD is defective. It's devoid of chapters and if you stop it at any point you have to start all over. I asked Warner Archive and they told me I had a defective copy. I bought a second one thinking that the defective copy could be my back-up. Unfortunately that second copy was defective too. But that was okay with me. I was just grateful that my beloved film was on DVD.

Then Warner Archive was in trouble. Their parent company was making some cuts which included massive layoffs across the board. Before all this had happened they had their final 5 for $45 sale. I decided to make a purchase not only to support Warner Archive but do something a bit wacky. I bought 5 copies of Bachelor Mother and none of them were for me. I decided to send these copies to friends.

My friend Le over at Critica Retro told me on Twitter that she had never seen Bachelor Mother. Warner Archive doesn't distribute outside the United States and Le lives in Brazil. What if I just sent her a copy so she could watch it? What if I just spread the love of my favorite film to my friends? That would be such a fun thing to do.

I sent those fives copies to five friends and recently when I made another purchase from Warner Archive I bought yet another copy of Bachelor Mother (1939). My 11th copy! And this one is for you.

I'm hosting a giveaway to send one DVD-MOD copy of Bachelor Mother to a reader as a New Year's gift. It's open internationally and all you need to do is fill out the form below. Contest ends January 1st, 2016 at Midnight EST.

Have you every owned multiple copies of a movie? Do you send copies of your favorite film to friends and family? I want to know.

'Appy Nuuu Chea!

Further reading:
Coolest Classic Film Stuff I Own Part One and Part Two.
Seeing Bachelor Mother (1939) at TCMFF and why I love it so much.
New Year's and Bachelor Mother (1939)

GIVEAWAY: The giveaway is now over. Congrats to Sally the winner!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Keep Moving by Dick Van Dyke

Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging
by Dick Van Dyke and Todd Gold
Weinstein Books
264 pages/5 hours, 20 minutes
October 2015

A legend of TV and film, Dick Van Dyke celebrated his 90th birthday recently. With his new book Keep Moving he’s become the poster boy for living a happy fruitful life regardless of age. On the surface this book looks like a self-help book on aging and this might deter younger readers. However the book is part-memoir part-guide to living a good life. We learn just as much about Dick Van Dyke’s life as we do about improving our own.

The chapters break up the content into themes. In one Van Dyke looks over the major events in the 90 years and grades them like a report card. In another he details how he met and courted his current wife Arlene. There is even a chapter dedicated to his friendship with Carl Reiner and includes an extensive conversation they had about working together and what it means to be living at such an advanced age. Van Dyke loves Reiner’s joke about waking up every morning, checking the obituaries and if he’s not in them he has breakfast. They have a serious conversation about death. What it is to lose a spouse and how we should think about impending death.

Van Dyke shares stories about his famous brother Jerry Van Dyke, his previous wife Margie, his partner Michelle and his current wife Arlene, experiences he’s had during his career and how much he has enjoyed this late stage in life. His recommendations for enjoying old age include dancing, exercising, eating what you want in moderation (Van Dyke eats two big scoops of ice cream with Hershey’s syrup every night), enjoying your hobbies, continually improving yourself and not sweating the small stuff.

While this book is written with the help of another author you never get the sense that the narration belongs to anyone other than Dick Van Dyke himself. Dyke has a refreshing outlook on life and a lively spirit and it rubs off on you. It can't be helped. The text can get repetitive with points revisited a few times throughout the book. There isn’t much structure but the themed chapters make the book read more like a collection of essays than a continuous narrative.

I listened to this book on audio, read by Dick Van Dyke which was a special treat. He's quite the charmer. I love audio books and there is something magical about hearing a famous person tell you their story. Van

I purchased this book on Audible. There are quite a few celebrity memoirs there and I encourage you to give them a chance. Keep Moving is 5-1/2 hours long and I enjoyed listening to it on my commute to work.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Elbert Coplen Jr., the infant star of Bachelor Mother (1939)

Little Elbert Coplen Jr. went on to make a splash in Hollywood that didn’t last past the toddler stage.

At the tender age of 8 months, Elbert Coplen Jr. played John ("Johnnie") in the hilarious RKO comedy Bachelor Mother (1939). His father, Elbert Coplen Sr., was a mechanical engineer at the now defunct Douglas Aircraft Manufacturing Co. in Los Angeles and his mother, maiden name Callanan, was a housewife. RKO had a call out for babies 6 months of age to appear in the film. 50 mothers auditioned their babies for the part and director Garson Kanin chose little “Bert” Coplen. Kanin didn’t necessarily want the most well-behaved baby. He was looking for a baby who was photogenic, healthy and wasn’t prone to many crying fits.

According to The Milwaukee Journal, Kanin thought crying babies were sick babies. Little Bert’s scenes were shot in short increments. He never worked more than 2 hours a day and was paid $75 a week. Other babies were used as stand-in for some scenes. Little Bert grew three teeth during filming and director Kanin had to re-shoot certain close-up shots for continuity reasons. Little Bert was born Elbert Milan Coplen Jr. on August 18th, 1938 in Los Angeles, CA. I did some digging and couldn’t find much on him. If he is alive today he would be 77 years old. He married Joann Coplen and they had two children, Scott and Lori. It's possible he resides in Southern California. His father Elbert M. Coplen Sr. is credited as co-inventor of the Snap Fastener .

If you have any information I could add to this, please feel free to contact me!

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd

The Ice Cream Blonde
The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd
by Michelle Morgan
9781613730386 - 288 pages
Chicago Review Press
November 2015

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How will you be remembered after you die? If you’re like me you dread the idea of being remembered for how you died rather than how you lived. It’s sad to think that all those moments of happiness, the accomplishments and the relationships can be canceled out by a brutal end. Maybe this is why I’ve always had a soft spot for Thelma Todd. I think it’s a shame to remember her as that actress who was found dead in her garage. I like to think of her as the Massachusetts native who had a knack for comedy, a great work ethic, a realistic outlook on life and healthy skepticism of Hollywood. While readers of biographer Michelle Morgan’s The Ice Cream Blonde might be drawn to the mystery of Todd’s untimely demise, they’ll find that they will also enjoy a story about a real woman whose life was more than the sum of her unfortunate circumstances.

“She possessed a charm and grace that never failed to win them over.” - Michelle Morgan

From a very young age Thelma Todd seemed to be destined to become an entertainer. Born in Lawrence, MA in 1906, Todd was drawn to dancing, singing, modeling, public speaking and performing in general. After her brother William died at the age of 7 as a result of a freak accident, one Thelma witnessed, she became both son and daughter to her parents. She had a great relationship with her mother Alice Todd, who encouraged her talents (they remained close for the rest of Thelma’s life), and a complicated relationship with her father who wasn’t as enamored with the idea of his daughter being an entertainer. The tomboy blossomed into a stunning beauty who turned heads and drew admirers from both sexes. The gals wanted to look like her and the guys wanted to be with her.

Although she was very skeptical of Hollywood, the Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor scandals put her off even more, she was on the fast track to become an actress. Drugstore and department store jobs led to modeling job which led to a part in a small local film which led to her becoming Miss Lawrence and then Miss Massachusetts in 1925. Todd was studying to be a teacher at the Lowell Normal School (which eventually expanded to become University of Massachusetts Lowell) when a friend signed her up for the Paramount Pictures School. Yes! Famous Players-Lasky had a school on Long Island that’s sole purpose was to train young talent for a future in Hollywood. Once Todd started at the Paramount Pictures School she was immediately given small roles in big pictures including Fascinating Youth (1926) with Clara Bow. Hollywood was calling her name.

“It is only to the very few – the lucky ones – that Hollywood brings success and happiness.” – Thelma Todd

This was a very non-traditional way of getting into the business and when Todd and her mother Alice moved to Hollywood, Thelma got a lukewarm reception. She struggled with small dramatic roles until Hal Roach saw comedic potential in her. Todd found success in comedy with performances alongside comedy teams such as Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey and the Marx Bros. At Hal Roach Studios she became part of her own comedy duo with a series of shorts co-starring Zasu Pitts who was eventually replaced with Patsy Kelly when Pitts left the studio. Todd wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to be known as a dramatic actress and sought opportunities at other studios, even filming in England and at one point briefly and disastrously changing her name to Alison Lloyd. But it wasn’t meant to be. Comedy was her strong suit.

Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd in Maid in Hollywood (1934)

“[Hal Roach] had watched on of Thelma’s dramatic roles and advised to her to stop being serious and stick to doing comedy.” - Michelle Morgan

In Morgan’s book we learn quite a bit about Todd’s career as well as her romantic relationships, her brief marriage to Pat De Cicco and her friendships with Ida Lupino and Patsy Kelly. Then there was Roland West and his wife Jewell Carmen whose presence in Todd’s world would lead to all sorts of problems that possibly led to her untimely death.

“She was a smart girl. She had a fine brain inside that beautiful head of hers. She was clever in every way.” Patsy Kelly on Thelma Todd

Thelma Todd struggled with self esteem and often doubted her talents as an actress. Because Todd lacked the huge ego of other stars, she had a very realistic view of Hollywood and knew that longevity in the business wasn’t a given. She became the co-owner of the Sidewalk Cafe in Santa Monica and started dividing her time with the new restaurant and her acting career. Todd had a marvelous work ethic and this side business was intended to secure her future. It was around this time that everything started to go downhill. Her cafe attracted gangsters and gamblers, she received anonymous death threats from a figure who referred to himself as the Ace and was even physically attacked at her own establishment. The details get kind of murky but author Michelle Morgan does a great job parsing out all the information and piecing it together.

Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe

Thelma Todd was found dead on December 16th, 1936, slumped over in her car inside her garage. So what exactly happened to Thelma Todd that previous evening? You’ll have to read the book to find out. The author lays out three possible scenarios: murder, suicide and accidental death. Murder is the most likely of the three. It was a sad end to such a vibrant who had much more potential in her if she had been allowed to go on.

What I love about this book is how the author humanizes Thelma Todd. As a reader we really get to know Todd. It’s difficult not to be charmed by her generous spirit, her dedication to her work and her vivaciousness. Todd seemed like a down-to-earth person. She enjoyed the Hollywood nightlife and maybe she didn’t make the best decisions about romantic partners but she had a very realistic outlook on life. Having read so many biographies about actors and actresses whose insecurities lead to bizarre behaviors that were tolerated because of their fame (I’m reading a Frank Sinatra biography right now hence this observation), it was really refreshing to read about someone completely different from the Hollywood norm.

The Ice Cream Blonde by Michelle Morgan is a must read for fans of Thelma Todd and for anyone interested in a good story, albeit with a tragic ending, of a lesser known figure in film history. It reads in chronological order to Thelma Todd’s life except for the beginning which starts with a bit about the mystery surrounding Todd’s death. There is an insert of black-and-white photos of Thelma Todd and the book isn’t bogged down by footnotes, something I very much appreciated.

The book isn’t perfect. I felt the narration was a bit simplistic at times. This does make it a quicker read than other more dense biographies. I also didn’t care for all of the film review quotes found throughout the book. I would have rather read more behind-the-scenes information about each film (especially for Follow Thru!). However, I did enjoy how much detail there was about Todd’s life in Massachusetts and her love for Lawrence. I live near this town and at one point even traveled to the cemetery where Thelma and her mom were laid to rest. I’d love to go back and do some more exploring of Thelma Todd’s Lawrence with this book as my guide.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Ice Cream Blonde. It’s is a fine specimen of good storytelling, thorough research and thoughtful humanizing of an otherwise tragic figure.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of this book to review. They have been doing a great job publishing books of interest to classic film fans.

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