Wednesday, May 24, 2017

2017 Summer Reading Challenge

It's that time of year again! Break out your best sunglasses. Pour yourself a tall glass of iced tea. Find a sunny spot and get reading.

I'm proud to announce the 5th annual Summer Reading Challenge. This is a great opportunity to dust off those classic film books you've been collecting and to start absorbing all their wonderful content. The challenge is to read 6 books over the summer which averages to 2 books a month. If you don't think you can read 6 in that time span I encourage you to sign-up anyways! Those who read 6 will be eligible for the final prize but you can still participate with fewer books. 1 is better than none.

Make sure you bookmark the official page of the Summer Reading Challenge. You'll find a link conveniently placed in the top navigation bar for easy reference. I'll have some fun prompts too as the challenge progresses. If you have any fun ideas let me know!

Here are the details:

2017 Summer Reading Challenge

Sign up for the challenge here.
Read a classic film book
Write a review and post it on your Blog, Instagram or Goodreads profile
Submit your review link here.
Repeat until you have read and reviewed 6 books!
Review 6 and be automatically entered to win a prize.

Challenge runs from June 1st until September 15th, 2017. Sign-up before July 15th.

See full details below.

What counts as a classic film book?
  • Biographical book about some from the classic film era. Biography, autobiography, memoir or a collection of interviews or letters all count. Can be about an actor, actress, director or other cast or crew member.
  • Book about films – specific film(s), genre, film-making process, etc.
  • A photography or art book related to classic films, fashion, style or a particular person.
  • Film criticism or analysis
  • 20th century novel that was adapted into a classic film
  • Novel fictionalizing a classic film or an actor/actress from old Hollywood.

You can read one book in each category, 6 books in one category or mix it up. Read a book you’ve never read before or re-read an old favorite. The book can be brand new or long out-of-print. I'm flexible about what constitutes "classic film" and I'll accept anything up until the 1970s. Beyond that, please check with me before submitting your review. If you can't read all 6 that's okay! Try your best. Every book counts.

If you complete all 6 reviews by September 15th you’ll be eligible to win your choice of the following two prizes:
  • One single disc DVD-MOD from Warner Archive, film of your chosing.
  • A surprise grab bag of three new classic film books.
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Monday, May 22, 2017

Hollywood Divided by Kevin Brianton

Hollywood Divided
The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist
by Kevin Brianton
University Press of Kentucky
October 2016
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813168920
174 pages

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powell's

On October 22, 1950, more than 500 directors met at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a Screen Directors Guild meeting. The topic on hand: Cecil B. DeMille's call for the dismissal of SDG's president Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Many big-name directors including John Huston, John Ford, Rouben Mamoulian and many others would deliver speeches either for or against the recall. This meeting occurred during the thick of the Hollywood backlist era and quotes from the speeches would live on for decades sometimes morphing into different variations. It represented what Kevin Brianton, author of Hollywood Divided, calls "one of the bitterest chapters in American cinema history."

It's easy for us to put the people involved in this meeting into two distinct camps: liberals and conservatives. And depending on your political views these two camps would also carry the label of good people and bad people. It's true that liberals were eyed as potentially dangerous because they were most likely to have ties to Communism. And it's also true that conservatives led the charge to seek and oust industry members who they thought were clearly Communist. However, as Brianton explores in his book, the divide between liberals and conservatives wasn't always very clear. Some directors attending the meeting identified as Republican yet made very liberal movies. Others considered liberal sometimes leaned conservative. On DeMille, Brianton explains "it would seem that his rigid conservative ideology drove him one direction, while his personal afflictions tugged him another way." In this book, Brianton breaks down the different motivations and ideologies of many of the top directors involved in this infamous SDG meeting and we discover that not everyone, even the two big players in all of this DeMille and Mankiewicz were as clear cut in their two political camps as most people like to think.

Brianton's book is incredibly detailed. Everything you could possibly want to know about SDG's 1950 meeting can be found within its pages. Its meticulously researched and told in a very unbiased way. The first part of the book explores the events that lead up to the meeting. The second part breaks down almost minute by minute the events of the gathering. And the third part explores the meeting's legacy and the myths that came out of the oral history of that important moment in film history.

I was interested in learning about DeMille's background and how he lead the charge of many conservative movements in the industry even as early as WWI. Directors Mankiewicz and Ford and their motivations and actions are explored closely as well. I'd love to read some additional books exploring the Hollywood Blacklist. Actor Robert Vaughn wrote a book called Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting which I have my eye on. If anyone were to write a book about how films before, during and after the blacklist era both had an effect on the blacklist and were affected by it, that would be a book I'd pick up immediately. If anything this slim volume on one aspect of a dark moment in Hollywood history whet my appetite for more reading.

If you're researching the Hollywood blacklist, Kevin Brianton's Hollywood Divided is a invaluable resource. If you're looking for an overall history of this era, this book would only be a supplement to your reading but still worth your time.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (8)

Finally it's getting warm here in New England. For me, warmer weather means a lot more time spent outdoors reading. I love sitting on my front porch with a tall glass of iced tea and a good book.

My summer reading challenge will be announced soon. In the meantime, here is a list of new classic film books. Are you new to my list? Here are the details. Publication dates range from May to September 2017 and these dates are subject to change. Books include biographies, memoirs, scholarly texts, coffee table books and more from a variety of publishers. Links lead either to Goodreads or to shopping pages where you can buy the book directly. Using my buy links helps support this site. Thank you!

by Peter Turner
176 pages – May 2017

by Brian Solomon
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
400 pages – May 2017

Hollywood Hellraisers
The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson
Skyhorse Publishing
336 pages – May 2017

by Therese Grisham, Julie Grossman
Rutgers University Press
264 pages – May 2017

by Editors of the Official John Wayne Magazine
Media Lab Books
156 pages – May 2017

by Kirk Douglas and Anne Douglas
Running Press
221 pages – May 2017

by Gabriel Hershman
The History Press
288 pages – May 2017

The Life and Career of Ruby Keeler
by Ed Harbur
BearManor Media
May 2017

by Thomas S. Hischak
Rowman & Littlefield
368 pages – June 2017

Dance and the African Diaspora
by Joanna Dee Das
Oxford University Press
288 pages – June 2017

by Rob Backer
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
360 pages – June 2017

Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic
by Richard Sandomir
Hachette Books
304 pages – June 2017

The Salvation of an American Icon
by Greg Laurie & Marshall Terrill
American Icon Press
220 pages – June 2017

by Kendra Bean & Anthony Uzarowski
Running Press
272 pages – July 2017

Essays on Frontier Fixtures of the American Western
267 pages – July 2017

by Michael Owen
Chicago Review Press
336 pages – July 2017

by Tim Hanley
Chicago Review Press
256 pages – July 2017

by Guy Barefoot
Wallflower Press
144 pages – July 2017

Hans Hamer
208 pages – July 2017

The Past, Present And Future Of Women Working In Film
Alicia Malone
236 pages – August 2017

David Thomson
Yale University Press
232 pages – August 2017

Stefan Solomon
University of Georgia Press
320 pages – August 2017

Jeremy Black
Rowman and Littlefield
208 pages – August 2017

by Douglass K. Daniel
University Press of Kentucky
400 pages – September 2017
Amazon – Barnes and Noble – Powells

by Eugenia Paulicelli, Drake Stutesman, Louise Wallenberg
Indiana University
304 pages – September 2017

by Susan Pack
520 pages – September 2017

Life Lessons From the Fairest Lady of All
by Victoria Loustalot
Lyons Press
208 pages – September 2017

by Kathryn Sermak and Danelle Morton
Hachette Books
304 pages – September 2017

by Cindy De La Hoz
Running Press
288 pages – September 2017

Here are my previous round-ups :

New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (1)
New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (2)
New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (3)
New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (4)
New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (5)
New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (6)
New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (7)

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Beguiled (1971)

The Beguiled 1971

Union soldier John "McB" (Clint Eastwood) finds himself injured in Confederate territory. A young girl named Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), is out in the forest picking mushrooms and stumbles upon him. He's near death and Amy takes pity on him and brings him back to her all girls school. The women are reluctant to help an enemy soldier but take him in anyways. At first their intent is restore his injured leg, bring him back to full health and turn him into the Confederate Army. But it's been a long war and they've been lonely. And it's nice having a handsome man around especially one as vulnerable as John. He takes advantage of their situation and starts seducing three of the women. The headmistress Martha (Geraldine Page) carries a dark secret with her and sees a dalliance with John as a way to reignite old passions. Then there is the modest Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) who tends to John's leg and dreams of a romantic life outside the school. And then there is the more sexually aware Carol (Jo Ann Harris) who is not conflicted by her desires for an affair with the mysterious soldier and by the need to turn him into the local Confederates. Once the women discover John's true nature they turn on him. What follows is a downward spiral into what seems more like a fever dream than reality.

The Beguiled (1971) was directed by Don Siegel, produced by Clint Eastwood's production company Malpaso and distributed by Universal. It's based on Thomas Cullinan's novel published in 1966. After the movie was released Cullinan followed with two additional novels The Besieged and The Bedeviled, both Confederate Civil War era stories. The film was poorly marketed as another Eastwood action film when it was really a psychological drama. As a result it did poorly at the box office.

This film came to my attention when I heard of Sofia Coppola's new adaptation The Beguiled (2017) which releases next month. Intrigued by the film's concept, I went back to the original. And I've always been curious about Elizabeth Hartman who stars in one of my all-time favorite movies A Patch of Blue (1965) and this was a good excuse to watch more of her work.

The Beguiled is a mesmerizing movie. It's dark and unrelenting. It's fascinating to see how the dynamics of relationships change during war time. The film has some great performances by Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in particular. There is a feverish quality to the movie that heightens the psychological drama.

Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled (1971)
Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled (1971)

The film tests the waters of propriety in the way that many films did in the 1970s. Eastwood kisses the young Ferdin in a scene that is uncomfortable to watch. Some will see it as a kiss to keep her quiet as the Confederate soldiers march by. Others will see it as an unnecessary moment of inappropriate sexuality. There is also the them of inc-st in the movie. Martha, played by Geraldine Page, has a passionate and sexual affair with her brother who at the time of the story is missing in action and presumed dead. John discovers her secret and the audience is clued in to this with several flashback scenes. I'm curious to see if the new adaptation incorporates these scenes from the original. I also wonder if they'll do away with the slave character Hallie played by Mae Mercer. She's a strong female character who fights back but depiction of slaves on film is always problematic territory.

If you're at all interested in seeing Sofia Coppola's version of The Beguiled, I highly encourage you to try the original too. I rented the film from DVD Netflix and it's currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Below are the trailers for the 1971 and 2017 versions.

Listen to me discuss The Beguiled (1971) on the Our Friends Said They'd Listen podcast.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dancing Lady (1933)

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford - Dancing Lady (1933)
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford - Dancing Lady (1933)

 Richie rich Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) is out on the town with his equally wealthy friends. They're bored and looking for some amusement. They head to a burlesque show where dancers Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) and her roommate Rosette LaRue (Winne Lightner) are entertaining the crowd with their moves and a bit of stripping. The police raid the joint and the dancers are arrested. Tod and his friends, not wanting the night to end, watch the courtroom spectacle that ensues. Tod has his eye on Janie and bails her out of jail. He romances her but quickly realize he's in direct competition with her first love, dancing. With his influence and her tenacity, Janie gets a dancing part in Patch Gallagher's (Clark Gable) new show. She's conflicted by her love of dance, her affection for Patch and her sentiments towards Tod and the lavish lifestyle that comes with dating him. Not willing to compete with Janie's first love, Tod tries to sabotage her career by convincing Patch's backer to pull out of the production. Many people lose their jobs, something the wealthy Tod hadn't considered but pains Janie who understands the struggle. In the end, Patch and Janie must find a way to continue on with the show.

Dancing Lady (1933) is a backstage musical showcasing both MGM's established talent and newcomers alike. It's an experimental film in more ways than one. MGM had the rights to James Warner Bellah's novel, previously serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, and the powers that be saw an opportunity to compete with Warner Bros.'s successful 42nd Street (1933). But first they needed a star.

Joan Crawford was Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick's top pick for the film. She wasn't a classically trained dancer but was a known hoofer thanks to her dancing in The Hollywood Revue of 1929Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). According to Crawford biographer Donald Spoto, Crawford was hesitant at first. She only accepted when Mayer offered her an opportunity to be a part of the story development. Even then she almost jumped ship. It wasn't until Selznick sealed the deal with some reverse psychology. He told her she wasn't right for the part saying "I think it's more Jean Harlow's style." There was no way Crawford was going to concede to letting Harlow have the part. Selznick and Mayer sweetened the pot by adding two major MGM stars, both love interests of Crawford's, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone to the film.

With their main star secured, MGM faced some difficulties with their two male leads. At first Robert Montgomery was supposed to play the part of Tod Newton but had to bow out. That's when Franchot Tone stepped in. Clark Gable got ill, either with a leg infection or an appendectomy, sources differ on what really happened, and MGM had to keep production going while the Gable was convalescing.

Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady (1933)
Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady (1933)

Then there were the newcomers. Dancing Lady served as a platform to establish some major talent. First there was Fred Astaire, the only true dancer of any significance in the film. Selznick had his eye on Astaire during his time at RKO and when he moved to MGM he brought Astaire with him. Astaire played himself in what would be his true film debut. And we all know what happened after that.

Also in the film are Ted Healy and the Three Stooges. This was before Moe, Larry and Curly broke away from Healy and became the trio we all know and love. Healy plays Patch's assistant stage manager while the Stooges are stage hands whose background gags add some levity to the film. The Stooges are poorly utilized and if you blink you might miss one of their scenes. While this wasn't their first film, it was still early days for the trio and the film helped give them the exposure they needed for their future career.

Eve Arden fans will delight seeing her in a bit part as a frustrated actress. Nelson Eddy has his first credited role playing himself. Then there is Robert Benchley, who wasn't technically a newcomer but Dancing Lady served as the start of the MGM career. It was a delight to see Sterling Holloway in an early credited role as the show's writer. On the flip side was then film veteran Winnie Lightner who was reaching the end of her short career in movies. Lightner was an underrated gem of the era and is not given nearly enough of the screen time that she deserved.

Dancing Lady is a mixed bag. It suffers from too much going on in the story. The plot would have benefited from some simplification and fewer characters. But if that had been the case we'd miss out on performances from the likes of Arden, Benchley, Lightner, Holloway, etc. Joan Crawford was not really a dancer and it shows. But the role of Janie was as close to the real Joan Crawford as you could possibly get. She was perfect for it. The final show number is lacking in actual dancing. Someone at MGM made the unfortunate decision to have Astaire and Crawford sing. They don't sing as much as they talk to music.

Regardless of it's flaws, the film was a success at the box office, earned a profit for MGM, which was no small feat during the Great Depression, and it gave a boost to so many careers. For budding film historians, Dancing Lady is a good study of the mechanics of the studio system. It demonstrates how a major studio like MGM utilized a combination of established stars while also building up new talent.

Dancing Lady (1933) is available from the Warner Archive. You can buy the DVD-R from the WB Shop by using this link.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Dancing Lady (1933) for review!

Monday, May 8, 2017

What's Up, Doc? (1972) with Peter Bogdanovich #TCMFF

Peter Bogdanovich and Dave Karger at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival
Peter Bogdanovich and Dave Karger at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival - Photo source: Getty/TCM

Director Peter Bogdanovich's follow-up to his Academy Award-winning drama The Last Picture Show (1971) was something wildly different. What's Up, Doc? (1972) is an homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Heavily influenced by Cary Grant and Bringing Up Baby (1938), it brought back a comedy style that was fun for the whole family. Bogdanovich insisted that it be a G-Rated picture making it a movie for adults but one they could take their kids to see.

What's Up, Doc? stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal as a mismatched pair. O'Neal plays Howard Bannister, a musicologist attending a convention in San Francisco with his uptight fiancee Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn in her film debut). His plaid overnight bag contains igneous rocks for his research project. Unfortunately for him, three delinquents who are up to no good also have identical plaid bags. Howard meets Judy (Barbra Streisand), a highly educated, free spirit who is hanging out at the hotel looking for amusement. She zones in on Howard and doesn't let go, much to the bewilderment of Howard's fiancee Eunice. Howard is desperate to get Judy off his back, to make things right with Eunice and to get the highly sought after musicology grant to fund his research. But as it is in screwball comedies everything goes hilariously wrong and builds up to one rip-roaring side-splitting climax. 

Poster for What's Up, Doc? (1972)

Cary Grant is essentially the third star of the film even though he doesn't make an appearance in the movie. There are numerous references to his scenes in Bringing Up Baby. Ryan O'Neal's character is a Cary Grant screwball type and Bogdanovich had O'Neal meet up with Grant to get some pointers. O'Neal was also heavily influenced by Bogdanovich. Buck Henry noted that in the film Ryan O'Neal was playing Peter Bogdanovich playing Cary Grant. Barbra Streisand's character is named Judy, an  reference to Grant who was often associated with saying "Judy, Judy, Judy." Needless to say, if you are a Cary Grant enthusiast you'll have fun picking up on all the references. What's Up, Doc? is influenced by other films too. There is a wonderful scene in which Streisand does a Humphrey Bogart impersonation then sings As Time Goes By to Ryan O'Neal as he plays the piano. Casablanca (1942) fans will appreciate the homage. The epic chase scene shot on location in San Francisco is a spoof of the iconic car chase in Bullitt (1968).

What's Up, Doc? is a flat out funny film. But not everyone will agree with me. Streisand didn't think it was funny and I've heard from others who have tried to see the humor in this film but just couldn't. I love to laugh and have always had an appreciation for comedy in all its forms. I love the zaniness of What's Up, Doc? and this film is a new-to-me favorite. I saw it for the first time at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, just one day before my very first visit to San Francisco.

At the festival entertainment host Dave Karger interviewed director Peter Bogdanovich before the start of the film. One of the things I admire about Bogdanovich is how much he loves and appreciates classic movies. In the interview he said that his favorite genre of film is the screwball comedy, in particular The Awful Truth (1937), The Lady Eve (1941), Twentieth Century (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Screenwriter David Newman came up with the title What's, Up Doc?, a reference to Bugs Bunny which is also called out in the film when Judy greets Howard saying the famous phrase while munching on a carrot. Bogdanovich said, "I loved the title because it's a catchphrase we all grew up with."

What's Up, Doc? came about because of Barbra Streisand. She had seen Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show and wanted to work with him. Streisand had just done a comedy and was looking for a drama. Bogdanovich had just done a drama and wanted to work on a comedy. With the support of John Calley, head of Warner Bros, Bogdanovich proceeded with his idea for a contemporary screwball comedy. Writers Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton worked on a original screenplay based on Bogdanovich's concept and it was full steam ahead for What's Up, Doc?.

As you can see in the trailer Bogdanovich was a very hands on director. Streisand had fun making the movie but got annoyed when Bogdanovich's tried to give her direction on everything including how to sing the As Time Goes By number. She was also overshadowed by newcomer Madeline Kahn who's god-given talent for comedy was a surprise to Kahn herself.

As for the trailer, director of photography Laszlo Kovacs shot some behind-the-scenes footage without Bogdanovich's knowledge. They were working on a complicated camera move when Streisand was laying on a piano, slides off and then moves to sit next to Ryan O'Neal. Bogdanovich acts out the scene with O'Neal as you can see in the trailer.

And that epic car chase scene? It took up a good chunk of the budget and production time. Filmed on location on the streets of San Francisco, it used multiple vehicles and lots of gags. My favorite scene is when the vehicles careen by two workers holding up a pane of glass and a man on an impossibly tall ladder hanging up a sign. It's so much fun to watch. Karger asked if it was true that the car chase scene was 25% of the film's budget. Bogdanovich replied, "Yes it was. The picture cost more than $6 million which is nothing compared to today's pictures. John Calley [head of Warner Bros.] called me on the first day of shooting we were in San Francisco in the airport. And John says, the chase scene is going to cost a million bucks. I said, well that's fine. He said, can you cut it down a little bit? I said no, I think it's going to be the high point of the picture. He said, if we make a deal with McDonald's can you bring McDonald's into it? I said, I can have them wreck a McDonald's. The deal never went through."

No Peter Bogdanovich interview would be complete without some impersonations. He treated us to a Cary Grant one which is always a treat. Bogdanovich told Grant that his movie was going to play at Radio City Music Hall. Grant replied "that's nothing! I had 28 picture play at the Hall. I tell you what you must do. Just go there and stand in the back. And you listen and you watch while 6,500 people laugh at something you did. It will do you a lot of good."

I love discovering new favorite movies at the TCM Classic Film Festival. It's the perfect venue for discovery especially when there is a special guest on hand to discuss the film. If you haven't seen What's Up, Doc? yet, it's available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The China Syndrome (1979) and Michael Douglas at #TCMFF

Michael Douglas and Ben Mankiewicz at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival
Michael Douglas and Ben Mankiewicz at the 2017 TCMFF. Publicity Photo courtesy of Getty & TCM

Timing is everything. Michael Douglas's nuclear thriller The China Syndrome (1979) debuted on March 16th, 1979 and twelve days later a nuclear meltdown occurred on 3 Mile Island. The fictional event and the real life one would forever be connected.

In the film Jane Fonda stars as Kimberly Wells, a TV news reporter relegated to covering fluff with dreams of breaking a big story. When her and her news crew, including cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), are working on a report at a local nuclear power plant, a tremor signals an emergency with the plant's reactor. Shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) is the only who understands the severity of the situation. Jack faces a major fight against the head honchos and staff at the plant who don't believe him and will do anything to prevent a public scandal. With the help of Wells and her crew, Jack makes a valiant attempt to reveal the truth and save the plant and the community before it's too late.

I had the honor of being in attendance of a special screening of The China Syndrome (1979) at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival. The movie had me on the edge of my seat. It's a fantastic thriller with a timely message.  Following the movie, we were treated to Ben Mankiewicz interview of actor/producer Michael Douglas.

It all started with a packet in the mail. Douglas remembered, "this script came to me unsolicited by a guy name Mike Grey who was a documentary filmmaker out of Chicago who had done a movie called The Murder of Fred Hampton. That was a Black Panther leader who was murdered by Chicago Police. Mike's background was an engineer and he sent this script which really read as a brilliant horror movie. And I looked at it as a scary horror movie with this power plant being the monster. It was only then after we committed to the picture and got involved with the verisimilitude of nuclear power that I became more of an advocate of this was the really issue that's defined the rest of my life in terms of the elimination of nuclear weapons."

Mankiewicz joked with Douglas that opening unsolicited material might be something people got away with in the 1970s but not today. As Douglas then noted unsolicited scripts can't be accepted because of legalities involved. So if you're thinking you can take Mike Grey's lead and send Michael Douglas your movie script, think again!

Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome (1979)
Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome (1979)

It took a while to get The China Syndrome going. Jack Lemmon was on board pretty early but he had to wait for almost a year to start working. During that time he set aside other projects. Douglas shared a funny memory of Lemmon. On the set, Lemmon couldn't get started with out his morning cup of coffee. Once he had his cuppa joe he'd perk right up and exclaim "it's magic time!" A cup of coffee is also key to the plot of the film.

Richard Dreyfuss was also on board to play the lead role of a TV news reporter. Douglas joked that, "Richard Dreyfuss had a couple of hits come out and all of a sudden Richard was gone." Director James Bridges and producer Douglas were scrambling to figure out how to replace Dreyfuss. Douglas shared the following story: "A studio executive [told us] 'Jane Fonda is developing the Karen Silkwood story here and maybe you guys should talk.' [They were] competing projects. Jane and I, with our familial histories sort of sized each other up. She was initially going to try to persuade me in some way to kill The China Syndrome ... And I was going to tell her that we were further ahead on The China Syndrome that you should put a dagger in Karen. Eventually it worked that we were ready to go and we changed Richard Dreyfuss' role and had it re-written." Karen Silkwood, a nuclear power plant employee who was preparing to leak information to the press, died in a car accident under mysterious circumstances. Her story was incorporated into The China Syndrome.

Mankiewicz pointed out that Douglas took his role as camera man Richard Adams very seriously. Douglas had studied with NBC camera man Bob Brown, who was shot down by members of the Peoples Temple shortly before Jonestown's infamous mass suicide.

When you watch the film you'll notice the eerie silence of the end credits. Director James Bridges and producer Michael Douglas had hired a composer for the film. But when the ran the reels without the music they discovered it was better without any music.

Once the film was in the can, Douglas and Bridges were ready to release it to the world. Douglas said,  "It did very well actually for the kind of picture it was. However we did hold in there for the first week. [It was] heavily criticized. People said, 'how irresponsible of Hollywood to be doing a film on nuclear power!" Mankiewicz followed up by pointing out, "the campaign against this movie, Michael's underselling it I think a little bit, was very well organized. It was a corporate energy based organized protest to beat back this film."

Twelve days after the release, the 3 Mile Island nuclear power plant has a meltdown. Douglas said, 
I tried to explain it that it was a complete epiphany to me. I'm not a religious person but I thought somebody's telling me something." Douglas and Bridges hired former General Electric quality assurance experts to help with the movie. According to Douglas "they had lost faith and went to the other side." The China Syndrome depicts a process of 150 logical computer steps and when Harry Latham, a writer for Esquire magazine, analyzed the process it was discovered that over 90% of the steps depicted in the movie were accurate. Did the publicity of the real life nuclear disaster help the movie? Not so much. Most people saw enough clips of the movie on the news or were too frightened by the real event to endure a movie about it.

The China Syndrome marked a turning point in Douglas' career. Douglas said, "it became part of my history of doing movies that had sort of a zeitgeist speaking about what's going on at the time. It has stuck with me as the most incredible in my career in terms of tying it with what was going on in real time.

During their conversation, Ben Mankiewicz and Michael Douglas spoke at length about Douglas' TV show The Streets of San Francisco. Douglas left in the fifth year of the show to produce One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Being let out of a TV contract like that was virtually unheard of. The show's star Karl Malden and producer Quinn Martin knew about much Cuckoo's Nest meant to Douglas. Being released from the show helped him launch his successful movie career.

Transitioning from being a TV actor to film was virtually unheard of at the time. According to Douglas, "the argument was that if you're there for free who's going to pay for you. So before me it was really only Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood who had made the transition going from television to films."

Being on The Streets of San Francisco helped shape Douglas' methods and work ethic. In the interview he shared the following: "when you do a television series, we were in San Francisco and we were filming six days a week. In those days we did 26 hour shows in a season. Six days a week, 8 and a half months straight through. You're looking at these scripts that are coming in and you get pretty good about structure. You also get really good about working together as an ensemble and I take my hat off to Karl Malden. Who was such an extraordinary actor and such a team player that you learn that you are not the most important thing in the project. The material is the important. I'm an old-fashioned structuralist. I've learned from the prologue, three acts and epilogue. My first desire is to be moved if it's funny or sad. Secondly I analyze the material pretty carefully and see if it's structurally sound. Then my interests are all over the place depending where it may be."

Karl Malden took Douglas under his wing. According to Douglas, "in those days, the second banana was two feet back in soft focus" By season two, Karl Malden gave Douglas a more substantial role and let him lead some of the episodes. I love that Malden always called Douglas "buddy boy", a nickname that used to irk Douglas but now it's a name he fondly remembers.

My husband was especially excited to see Michael Douglas. Here he is watching his favorite actor in person.
I feel very privileged to have been able to attend this special screening and to hear the legendary Michael Douglas in conversation. It was fascinating and definitely a highlight of the festival for me. I couldn't help but hear Kirk Douglas in the voice of his son. This will be as close as I'll ever get to the other legend!

Related link: Carlos' review of the book Michael Douglas: A Biography by Marc Eliot.

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