Monday, November 21, 2022

The Automat (2021)


Even if you've never set foot inside of an Automat, chances are seeing one in an old movie will fill you with a sense of nostalgia. There's something magical about that place. They only existed in New York City and Philadelphia but their reputation spread far beyond those city limits. Horn & Hardart Automats were cafes where you essentially served yourself through an automated service. Little glass cubicles lined the walls. You put nickels in the slot, turn the brass handle and a delicious treat would be waiting for you on the other side. Before Doordash and online ordering, the Automat was the most technologically advanced way to get inexpensive and delicious food quickly. The cafe had an air of sophistication. Coffee was poured from their signature dolphin head spouts, elegant tables made up the main dining room and signage offering Pies, Hot Dishes and Salads lined the walls. The Automat offered a magical combination of quality food and atmosphere at a low cost. It's not something that exists anymore—the last Automat closed in the 1990s—but it's something we all so desperately wish could come back. In a time of hyperinflation, being able to access a bit of elegance and quality food for not a lot of money seems like a dream.

I was thrilled to write a piece for Turner Classic Movies to accompany their new programming line-up for November 22nd: The Automat. Ben Mankiewicz will be interviewing Lisa Hurwitz, the filmmaker behind the excellent new documentary on the history of the Automat. The line-up includes screenings of The Automat (2021), That Touch of Mink (1962), an encore of the documentary, Easy Living (1937), Thirty Day Princess (1934) and Sadie McKee (1934). What all of the feature films have in common is that they each feature a working woman in dire financial straits who seeks out an Automat for some solace and nourishment.

Here is a snippet from my TCM article about the new documentary:

"Directed by Lisa Hurwitz, The Automat (2021) explores the history behind Horn & Hardart as well as the Automat’s cultural influence. It playfully starts with comedian Mel Brooks pondering the significance of making this documentary and his own personal memories of Automats being “one of the greatest inventions and insane centers of paradise.” The film is bookmarked with Brooks’ performance of his original song, a sweet tribute to the Automat. In between we hear from well-known names including Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who all share their personal memories of what the Automat meant to them. Hurwitz interviews experts including Automat historian Alec Shuldiner and Lorraine B. Diel and Marianne Hardart, authors of “The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece”. Then there are the interview subjects with intimate knowledge of the business side of Horn & Hardart. The most fascinating of these was John Romas, the former Vice President of Engineering who had many stories to tell, as well as a treasure trove of gadgets stashed away from when the final Automat closed. What The Automat documentary excels at is offering viewers a contextual history of how this business was born, how it thrived and how it became part of the social fabric of New York City and Philadelphia. It was a 20th century phenomenon that was truly of its era."

The Automat (2021) is available on DVD from Kino Lorber as well as on digital from Kino Now. The DVD includes an extended video interview with Mel Brooks, commentary by director Lisa Hurwitz, archival footage Horn & Hardart, a theatrical trailer and English language subtitles.

I highly recommend watching all 53 minutes of the extended Mel Brooks interview because he has some great stories and goes off on some interesting tangents. I enjoyed hearing him talk about how his brother helped him with homework, how he secretly would eat ham and cheese sandwiches at the Automat and not tell his mom and hearing him give Hurwitz advice on how to make and promote the documentary (which she didn't need but is charming nonetheless!).

AmazonBarnes and NobleDeep DiscountKino Lorber — Official Website

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of The Automat (2021) for review.

Friday, November 18, 2022

So Proudly We Hail (1943)

Directed and produced by Mark Sandrich, So Proudly We Hail (1943) is a fictional depiction of the Angels of Bataan, a group of nurses during WWII who tended to wounded soldiers in Bataan and Corregidor. The film stars Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake as three nurses who are serve in Bataan. The story is told in a flashback sequence from the point in which some of the nurses have been rescued and brought to Australia. This tempers the story giving us a bit of hope at the beginning despite what we'll see throughout the movie.

Colbert plays Lt. Janet Davidson, affectionately known as Davey, a loyal and reliable nurse who cares deeply about her work and her fellow nurses. In present day she's in a catatonic state, unable to speak, and the story follows the series of events that led her to that point. Lt. Joan O'Doul (Paulette Goddard) is the life of the party mostly concerned with the social aspects of her job. Lt.d Olivia D'Arcy (Veronica Lake) is the total opposite; she's grown bitter having gone through the trauma of seeing her husband die during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Out of all the characters, she's got the most interesting character development. 

The film follows the particulars of their work and their relationships with each other and the men in their lives. While we don't ever meet Olivia's husband, we do see Joan fall for Kansas (Sonny Tufts), an aw-shucks football-player-turned-Marine, and Davey fall for Lt. John Summers (George Reeves), a headstrong medic with a tender heart.

So Proudly We Hail! is one of several movies about the Battle of Bataan and one of two released that same year about these nurses in particular. MGM released Cry 'Havoc' (1943) a couple of months after Paramount Pictures released So Proudly We Hail!. Cry 'Havoc' is a fine picture in its own right and boasts a stellar cast including Margaret Sullavan, Ann Sothern, Joan Blondell, Marsha Hunt and Ella Raines. While they both told similar stories, So Proudly We Hail! leans more on the dramatic elements, giving viewers more of a sense of the danger the troops and the nurses faced during the Battle of Bataan. The script was based on Lt. Colonel Juanita Hipps' best-selling memoir and adapted for the screen by writer Allan Scott.  There are several storylines happening at once which makes the plot a little difficult to follow. However, that also speaks to the chaotic nature of the environment. When the film released in September 1943, many of the nurses were still imprisoned by the Japanese as POWs so this film must have been quite poignant for contemporary viewers. 

According to TCM writer Jeremy Arnold, So Proudly We Hail! was a perfect combination of "the combat film and the woman's picture." You have the intense battle scenes with both visual and sound effects (the movie was nominated for an Academy Award in this category) juxtaposed with "a wedding, a honeymoon (in a foxhole, no less), a dance, childbirth, mother-son scenes, and even a negligee which figures prominently in the plot." The negligee plot line was tiresome and it seemed like it was thrown in there to give Goddard more to do. Otherwise, I felt the combination of elements really made this for an enjoyable mix of serious drama and more lighthearted moments.

TCM writer Rob Nixon notes that Chief Nelson Poynter of the Office of War Information "meddled in almost every aspect of the script." Some of these worked in the film's favor by softening the good vs. evil elements and focusing more on team effort and hope. The film begins with a thank you to various units and advisors and is followed by a written introduction providing the viewer context before the story begins. Poynter was also responsible for a monologue delivered by Walter Abel who plays a Marine chaplain. It is a very sentimental monologue but I quite enjoyed it. There is something quite comforting about the emotional aspects of these films released during WWII. There is a profound sense camaraderie and a willingness to work and make sacrifices for the greater good.

"We're a sentimental people, and I think we're proud of it. Despite the fact that our enemies deride us for it, it makes us the stronger... Have faith... Not a blind faith, but faith in those things in which we believe. We must have such faith in those things, such faith in ourselves, such faith in mankind that we are tough about the things we believe in, so tough that we will fight to the death to make those tender and sentimental beliefs like Christmas... a reality forever. Now, God bless us. Every one." - Chaplain (Walter Abel)

As far as the performances are concerned, Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard essentially play a variation of a character type they've been known to play. Goddard's role was expanded to give her more screen time. Sonny Tufts, in his film debut, serves as her romantic interest. While she was the one nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, I think, if anything, that nomination should have gone to Veronica Lake. She has a short but powerful role and her intensity really stands out amongst the other performances. Her character is by far the most interesting because she's an outlier and an example of how war changes people. Lake wrote about the film in her memoir. She spoke about how Colbert and Goddard did not get along on set. She was proud of the film, writing to her then husband John Detlie:

“So Proudly We Hail is more than just another Hollywood film, John. It’s a salute to the military. I’m proud to be in the film.”

The film includes several mentions of Superman which is fitting given that George Reeves would go on to play the role years later. It's said that Reeves was inspired by his performance in the film to join the Army Air Corps.

So Proudly We Hail! (1943) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. It's been restored from a brand new 2K master and looks as good as a black and white film can look. Extras include audio commentary by film historian Julie Kirgo, various Kino Lorber theatrical trailers and English language subtitles.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of So Proudly We Hail (1943) for review!

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Interview with John Stangeland, author of Aline MacMahon: Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting

I'm thrilled to be joined by writer and biographer John Stangeland. We chatted over a decade ago about his Warren William biography (review here and interview here). Now he is back with an excellent new biography on the much-beloved character actress Aline MacMahon, out now from the University Press of Kentucky. I was honored to have contributed this blurb for the book's publication:

“Stangeland shines a much needed spotlight on one of the great actresses of stage and screen whose talent and versatility was admired by many. ... Absorbing and highly readable, this biography will rescue MacMahon from obscurity and give her the recognition she so greatly deserves.”— Raquel Stecher, film historian and critic

Now onto the interview!

Raquel Stecher: Congratulations on your new book! In 2010 you published your book Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. How did you chose Aline MacMahon as the subject of your next biography?

John Stangeland: I had been aware of Aline for quite a while. I probably saw Five Star Final—her first film—when I was about 12 or 13. I started looking closer at her while I was writing the Warren William book, since they share two films together. That was when I first noticed how different her acting style was in comparison to the other actors of the period. I mean very obviously different—almost as if she was pulled from the modern era and placed among that earlier style of acting. That intrigued me, so I started digging into her story.

Raquel: Aline MacMahon was best known for her work as a character actress but many don’t realize that she was one of the original Method actors. Can you tell us a bit about her approach to her craft?

John: Well, this is one of the things that made this project a book instead of an article. I discovered that in America the Method goes back much further than most people know, and that Aline is not just a devotee, but is the first popular actor to use the technique on both stage and screen here in the West. Aline's initial training dates all the way back to 1923—nearly 30 years before Marlon Brando made the Method a household word. This explained to me why in 1931 she looked so naturalistic in comparison to everyone else on screen. She was applying the method technique before anyone else: using emotional recall, creating a character history, dredging internal motivation. Her most succinct description about the effect of the Method on her technique was that the lessons "taught me how to concentrate."

Aline as a Marseille prostitute in the Broadway production of Maya (1928).
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: In your book you discuss Aline MacMahon’s rich inner life, her social conscience and activism. How did her politics affect her career?

John: Aline's maternal aunt Sophie Irene Loeb was a well-known activist and writer in New York City just after the turn of the century. Before Aline was even a teenager, Sophie would take her on inspection tours of the NYC slums so she could experience the dark side of poverty and immigrant life. From that seed Aline became a progressive liberal who believed in charity and government programs for the poor. Eventually that developed into a benign interest in Communism and issues of social justice. Unfortunately, the late 1940s and '50s was a dangerous time to be a Communist, or even Communist-curious. When the hysteria of McCarthyism spread out across America, Aline found herself blacklisted as a Communist (although she never joined the party) and largely unable to work on TV, films or stage for the greater part of a decade. Simultaneously, both she and her husband spent fifteen years under covert surveillance by the FBI. Fortunately Aline was philosophical about the situation, but as her exile lengthened she finally hit a wall. "Some dimming of the luck is to be expected," she said. "But by God, have we been condemned to purgatory forever? Life is for laughing, too...."   

Raquel: In your biography you said that even though Aline McMahon wasn’t a big star it didn’t mean that her life story wasn’t interesting. What are some other facts that readers might not be aware of that may pique their interest in learning more about her?

John: There are quite a few doors into Aline's story. In the early 1920's she became a member of the Neighborhood Playhouse, where she developed close friendships within NYC's then-underground gay and trans subculture. She had a fascinating love affair of equals; in 1928 she married Clarence Stein, a New York based architect and city planner. Clarence, well-known and highly respected in his field (there are more than a few books about him), supported all of her endeavors, including liberal politics, and her career, which took her away from New York for six months a year. They both loved exotic travel, and during the era of the steamship they went to places rarely visited by polite Americans, including India, Siam (Thailand), Bali, Iran, and, in 1937 an around-the-world cruise where they lived for three months in China. The Steins also counted as their friends a who's-who of some of the 20th Century's great figures in the arts: Diego Rivera, Isamu Noguchi, Eugene O'Neill, Moss Hart, George Kaufman, E.E. Cummings, Thomas Wolfe, Aline Bernstein and many others. The Steins also endured some Dickensian setbacks which always reminded them how fortunate they really were. They never took their success for granted and always tried to help people who did not have as much as they did.

Aline shooting a scene from Kind Lady (1935) with Basil Rathbone.
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: What kind of research did you do for the book? Did you encounter anything surprising or revelatory that changed the course of your writing?

John: The research went from Los Angeles to New York and a bunch of places in between! It is always fun to visit the Warner Bros. archives in L.A., and the Shubert archives in New York—but the BIG revelation came when I visited Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Aline donated some of her papers there, and her husband's papers went there after he died in 1975. Looking through her papers was wonderful, but limited. Many of her other effects were in New York and the archive there had some nice things but nothing noteworthy. However, when I got to the Clarence Stein papers I was shocked to find thousands of letters between Aline and Clarence, beginning the DAY she first left for Hollywood (January 1st, 1931) and stretching for decades. THAT was exciting, and a little daunting. It took months to go through those letters.

Raquel: Can you talk a bit about what those letters were like and what they revealed about her career?

John: On one hand they were a daily diary of her time in Hollywood, with unfiltered thoughts about her directors and co-stars. (Warren William? "A ham." Edward G. Robinson? "He's getting a big head." Paul Muni? "So warm and nice." Michael Curtiz? "A violent fool who never made a good picture." Mervyn LeRoy? "My dear Svengali.") More importantly, the letters give real insight into her character. Even in her private moments she was very thoughtful about social issues and usually worried about others more than herself. She didn't dwell on bad things, and even in the worst of times—her husband's mental breakdowns and her own blacklisting—she maintained a sense of perspective. The letters reveal a remarkably intelligent woman—she was one of the few college educated women of the old Hollywood—and a compassionate one as well.    

Raquel: Do you have a favorite Aline MacMahon performance?

John: My favorite is probably Heat Lightning (1934), which was also her first starring role. For me it is a hidden gem of the pre-Code and a scorching proto-Noir. On the comedy side, she's hilarious as Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933 and as May Daniels in Once in a Lifetime (1932), a role that she originated for the Broadway production. Lifetime is very rarely shown—I don't remember ever seeing it on TCM —but worth seeking out if you can find a better print than they have on YouTube!

Aline during the readings of the Sean O'Casey memoir Pictures in the Hallway (1956).
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: MacMahon worked as an actress for 55 years. What do you think drove her to work for as long as she did despite the difficulties she faced with the studio system and the blacklist?

John: Aline didn't just love acting, she once said "I must act to live." When she had a great role and was operating at the top edge of her capabilities, she felt completely fulfilled. It did not equate to money or fame—one of her favorite things she did was a series staged readings of the memoirs of Sean O'Casey, for which she was paid something like $5 a performance. If it was challenging and of high quality it made her feel alive. I think she was always chasing that next opportunity to feel satisfied in her art—to work with a Eugene O'Neill, or to be in the cast of Hamlet at Kronborg Castle in Denmark, which she did in 1948. 

Raquel: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

John: Of course I want the reader to be entertained, and hopefully learn something new about the movies, or about creative character. But ultimately I want people to get to know Aline MacMahon as more than just someone who entertains them on screen. I have developed a real soft spot for her; so intelligent, talented, thoughtful, curious, loyal and compassionate. A wonderful person to know.

Raquel: What are you working on next? Where can readers find you online?

John: The next project looks like it will be a novel. It begins in 1912 when a young man arrives in Chicago from Kansas looking to join the film industry and finds work at Essanay studios. From there we follow his path through the history of Hollywood into the early 1980s, during which he will encounter recurring characters in Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery, Karl Brown, George Spoor, Sam Zarkoff and others. It's early in the planning stages, but will be a bildungsroman combined with a peculiar history of the film industry.

I'm not super involved on social media, but on instagram you will find me at: #studioerahollywood and (for you comic book fans out there) #atlascomicschi. On Facebook the page is Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood, which doubles as an Aline MacMahon / old Hollywood page.


Aline MacMahon
Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting 
by John Stangeland
University Press of Kentucky
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813196060
416 pages
November 2022

A big thank you to John Stangeland and the University Press of Kentucky for this opportunity!

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Viva Hollywood by Luis I. Reyes

Viva Hollywood 
The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film
by Luis I. Reyes
TCM and Running Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762478484
September 2022

"Latinx artists both in front of and behind the cameras are committed to creating entertaining, compelling stories, unforgettable characters, and indelible images of humanity that will bring a greater understanding of the society and the world we live in. They have a long history in the evolving art of motion pictures since its inception and are taking a more prominent place in the present and future of Hollywood and the world’s cinematic landscape.” — Luis I. Reyes

Hispanic and Latino artists have been part of the fabric of Hollywood from the very beginning. Because we are such a diverse mix of races and ethnicities, these actors and actresses have been cast to play a variety of roles that ranged from the exotic to the stereotypical and everything in between. Stars like Rita Hayworth had to change their name and appearance to become more mainstream. While others like Anthony Quinn had a look that was ethnically ambiguous enough that they were cast in everything except for their own ethnicity. Some represented certain ethnic types like the Latin lover, the spitfire/señorita or the bandito. Unfortunately, when there were big Latin roles to play, like Maria in West Side Story (1961), Hollywood preferred to cast white actors in brownface rather than their equally talented Latino counterparts. When Hollywood wasn't ready to make room for Latino artists to be their authentic selves, they persisted, carving a path for themselves and for future talent to change perceptions and open up potential for better representation.

In his new book Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film, author Luis I. Reyes takes on the monumental task of sharing the stories of the many, many Hispanic and Latino artists, both in front of and behind the camera, who contributed to film history in their own unique ways. The majority of the book focuses on the classic film history but there is still plenty of information about artists working today.

The chapters are organized both chronologically and thematically. I was was most interested in the discussions on early matinee idols, how the Good Neighbor policy opened doors for Latino artists during WWII, problem/race pictures of the 1950s and 1960s, and the influx of Latino-focused movies during the 1980s and 1990s. 

Each chapter includes individual biographies of key figures where relevant. Some of these individuals include: Gilbert Roland, Dolores Del Rio, Antonio Moreno, Ramon Novarro, Lupe Velez, Rita Hayworth. Carmen Miranda, Cesar Romero, Maria Montez, Olga San Juan, Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Quinn, Rita Moreno, Raquel Welch, etc.

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press via Edelweiss

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press via Edelweiss

Here are some interesting facts from the book:

  • “When [Dolores Del Rio] was promoted in the press as Spanish or Castilian being white and European was considered superior to being Mexican, with its Indigenous pedigree, a discriminatory view that has not wholly disappeared today—she quickly insisted on being correctly described as Mexican.”
  • “At the peak of her Hollywood career in 1945, Carmen Miranda was the highest-earning female performer in the United States.”
  • “After the war, Romero and his good friend and fellow Fox star Tyrone Power took off on a two-month goodwill promotional tour of Latin America, sponsored by the studio and the US State Department. Power, who had served as a marine pilot during the war, flew a twin-engine Beech aircraft on the twenty-two-thousand- mile trip aided by a copilot. Romero, who spoke Spanish, acted as principal translator.”
  • “[Xavier] Cugat decided to follow his musical calling, and inspired by the Afro- Cuban rhythms he was exposed to in his youth, he formed a Latin dance band with six musicians. This was a daring move in the 1920s, when Latin music was virtually unheard of in mainstream America except for the [Argentine] tango, which was labeled “gigolo music.”
  • “In 1969, actors Ricardo Montalban, Val de Vargas, Rodolfo Hoyos Jr., Carlos Rivas, Henry Darrow, Gilbert Avila, Luis de Córdova, Robert Apodaca, and impresario Tony De Marco formed Nosotros (the Spanish word for “we, the people”), an actors’ advocacy organization dedicated to improving the image of Latino/Latina and Spanish-speaking peoples in Hollywood movies, television, theater, and radio.”
  • Stand and Deliver has become one of the most widely seen movies of any made in the United States through all media platforms, but also because it has been showcased in middle schools and high schools across the country as an inspirational and motivational teaching tool.”

As with many other TCM and Running Press books, Viva Hollywood is beautifully designed. I enjoyed the color palette (red, gold, orange, light purple and teal) as well as the recurring Art Deco style motifs. 

With that said, I was mostly disappointed with the book, especially in how it presented its information. The themed chapters started with a few pages of history and context. These were interesting and I wish they were fleshed out essays. Instead they served like introductions to a series of Wikipedia style biographical portraits. There were so many of these that they became laborious to get through. I admire the author for cramming in as much information as he possibly could. There are so many artists covered from actors, actresses, directors, musicians, dancers, etc. You'll be hard pressed to find someone who was left out. However, this came at the cost of an enjoyable reading experience.

I would recommend Viva Hollywood as a reference guide to dip in and out of rather than a book to read from cover to cover. 

Thank you to TCM and Running Press for sending me a copy of Viva Hollywood to review! Please check out my reviews of other titles from their imprint.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Desire (1936)

Car engineer Tom Bradley (Gary Cooper) is a Detroit transplant working at the Bronson 8 plant in Paris. He's dreamt of visiting Spain ever since he was a child and when he finally gets some time off for vacation, he takes a new Bronson 8 model car on a roadtrip to the Spanish countryside. There he meets Madeleine de Beaupre (Marlene Dietrich), a fake Countess and professional jewel thief who just successfully swindled a very expensive pearl necklace from jeweler Aristide Duvalle (Ernest Cossart). Unbeknownst to Tom, Madeleine is part of a network of thieves, including Carlos Margoli (John Halliday) and Aunt Olga (Zeffie Tilbury) who traipse across Europe preying on the wealthy elite. When Madeleine steals Tom's Bronson 8, and then wrecks it, he tracks her down. Both Madeleine and Tom develop an attraction to each other. But what will happen if Tom finally learns about Madeleine's criminal exploits?

Directed by Frank Borzage and produced by Ernst Lubitsch for Paramount, Desire (1936) is a dazzling romantic drama bolstered by its two magnetic leads. The film certainly has the Lubitsch Touch with plenty of wit, charm, humor and sophistication. There are plenty of very subtle sexual connotations which makes for enjoyable repeat viewings. While I don't feel like Cooper and Dietrich quite matched the chemistry they had in Morocco (1930), they still make for a captivating duo. Desire is perfect escapist fare offering viewers a highly romanticized vision of Europe and a tantalizing story of an all-American man falling in love with an exotic European woman. And as an added bonus, Akim Tamiroff, one of my favorite character actors, has a small role in the film as a Spanish police official.

Desire (1936) is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The quality is absolutely stunning. Marlene Dietrich sparkles, especially in her Travis Banton designed wardrobe, and overall the film feels so fresh and new. The Blu-ray edition is from a new 2K master and the disc includes English language subtitles and a variety of related Kino Lorber trailers. Also included are two audio commentaries. I'll be honest, I was frustrated listening to both of them. One track features two film historians and one of them continually talks over the other. The second one just has the one historian but the pronunciation of Frank Borzage's name (as well as Akim Tamiroff's) kept throwing me off. However, there are lots of great insights to take away from both commentaries and I do recommend listening to both of them. I was particularly interested in the discussion about John Gilbert, who was originally set to play the Carlos Margoli character. Dietrich, who was in a relationship with Gilbert at the time, helped get him the part. But poor health kept him away and John Halliday was cast instead. The observation was that had Gilbert been in the film the Madeleine—Tom—Carlos triangle would have been more sexually charged. Gilbert died in early 1936 before the film was released. 

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Desire (1936) for review.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Final Roundup: 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge

The 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge is officially over. I'm so proud of all the participants for tackling their stack of books and for everyone's continued enthusiasm for the challenge. Great work! I look forward to seeing what you all read next year.

This year 13 participants finished the challenge. Here is the list

Alejandro V.
Andy W.
Chris M.
Chuck P.
Greg B.
Jess I.
John M.
Ralph C.
Raquel S.
Robert B.
Shawn H.

And this year I decided to select five winners for the giveaway. These winners will receive one Kino Lorber single-disc DVD or Blu-ray of their choosing. Congrats to:

Chuck P.
Jess I.
Ralph C.

Now on to the reviews!

Alejandro on Goodreads

"Curtis delivers a worthy biography that so rich in detail that it will surely be a valuable resource for fans of Buster Keaton."

Andy of Journeys in Darkness and Light

"I love big concept books and The Genius of the System is certainly that, taking a broad scope of the subject, frequently zooming in for a closer look then zooming out again for the big picture."

"What we get from this book is a detailed account of the production of the film... you'll gain a tremendous amount of knowledge and enjoyment from reading Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic"

Angela of The Hollywood Revue

"if you’re more in the mood for a in-depth character study about ambition, class, and the American dream, An American Tragedy holds up very well."

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (adapted into A Place in the Sun)

"If you’re a big fan of The Graduate, the book is worth checking out, if only for those smaller but interesting differences that come up throughout the book. It’s a fast but enjoyable read."
The Graduate by Charles Webb

"I’m a big fan of Night of the Hunter, both as a book and a movie. The extra details we get in the book make John Harper a truly fascinating and compelling character."

The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb

Ari of Classic Movie Muse

"Robert Nathan’s lyrical prose is absorbing in its depth and detail. He draws the reader into his atmospheric mood piece with profound questions and statements on art, life, love, death, and time."

Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan

Carl on Instagram

"Whilst Blonde is admirably clearsighted on the unpleasant aspects of the American film industry, its speculative attempt to portray Marilyn Monroe’s psychology is not entirely successful."

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

Chris of Digging Star Wars

"Stevens achieves something rare: a sincere retelling of Keaton’s life and filmography, sandwiched into an interesting premise…or an overall dissertation."

Greg on Goodreads

"This is a fine, straightforward bio on Claude Rains that will be a treat to his biggest fans looking for a fairly in-depth look at the man's life and career. I feel like something was missing here, though."

"Yes, you are given an exhaustive, detailed account of the making of one of the greatest Films in Cinema History from the very first conceptualizations of the original idea through to the first Theatrical screening and onto its legacy, but I think this book kind of transcends this format and becomes an epic tale in and of itself. "

Image courtesy of Jess of Box Office Poisons

Jess of Box Office Poisons

"The Brideson sisters are very engaging writers here, and punctuate their biography with contemporary sources to their subject. Gene's career is told as much through their lens as it is through what was being written about Gene in movie magazines or reviews."

"Richard Zoglin's biography is more than just an examination of the comedian, it's an attempt to put him in context of how he once represented the best of Hollywood but then became a relic who might've overstayed his welcome..."

John on Goodreads

"This is a well-researched, detail-laden, heavily illustrated, deep dive into the 100 years of making movies and film history in and about New York City."

"[The author] made clear that both she and Millicent had their share of struggles achieving successes through equality in the workplace - Millicent, so much in fact that her work on the "Creature From the Black Lagoon" was all but erased. It is great to see that she now has gotten the well-deserved acknowledgment."

"As a baseball fan, I have always thought that this was a "must-see" classic for baseball/film fans... It was great to read about it and be enlightened by the many factors that went into its production."

Image courtesy of Karen of Shadows and Satin

Karen of Shadows and Satin

"I can’t recommend this book enough – both interesting and informative, it has served to illuminate a significant facet of the entertainment industry and forever heighten my awareness about this important subject."
Backwards & in Heels by Alicia Malone

"I’ve always been far more captivated by the women of pre-Code than the men, but LaSalle’s book has piqued my interest in these gents (especially Barthelmess!) and resulted in my adding more than 50 movies to my watchlist."

"This was one of the best (if not THE best) biographies I’ve ever read... the book ends with Mike Nichols’s death, and I actually cried. I mean, like, SOBBED. It was as if I were experiencing the death of someone I knew – and that was because, after reading this bio, I felt like I did."

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris

"I knew the story, having seen the film numerous times, but that fact didn’t spoil my immense enjoyment of this novel. It was written in a “real time” format, with each chapter a different time, beginning at 9:30 pm, which added to the tension and suspense."

Sorry, Wrong Number by Allan Ullman and Lucille Fletcher

"it’s a bizarre tale that I didn’t quite grasp or appreciate on the silver screen and, frankly, didn’t much care for after having read the play."

Suddenly, Last Summer by Tennessee Williams

"I enjoyed the play just as much as I did the film – Hellman did a superb job bringing the characters to life..."

Toys in the Attic by Lillian Hellman

Peter of Let Yourself Go... To Old Hollywood

"I would not recommend this book for those seeking to learn more about Ida Lupino's life and career. As a biography of Lupino, it is completely lacking."

Ida Lupino By Jerry Vermilye

"This is an excellent first-hand look at a character who personified the image of the glamorous classic Hollywood movie star and played into that image with all her energy—highly recommended."

Ralph on LibraryThing

"Author Geoff Dyer revisits a favorite film Where Eagles Dare and proceeds to dismantle it with an affectionate eye and wry tone in "'Broadsword Calling Danny Boy' Watching Where Eagles Dare"."


"The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith is an evocative richly detailed story of the earliest days of filmmaking featuring pivotal encounters with historic figures such as the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison while taking place in prominent historic film centers of yesterday and today..."

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith

"Maybe someday a revised, updated and expanded edition could be produced of this fantastic book. Just wish I had read it sooner!"

"One could not ask for a better tour guide than Steven Bingen who... is a former studio executive who spent the majority of his career working on the lot at Warner Bros. where he tells us he often acted as guide for visiting VIP guests. He puts that experience to good use welcoming readers on the tour... "

Raquel of Out of the Past

"Danger on the Silver Screen is as fascinating as the stunts described within its beautifully designed pages."

"Hollywood Tiki has a lot to offer classic movie fans especially those who love movies with exotic settings or the beach movies of the 1960s. There is much to learn here about how Tiki cinema really spoke to audiences who were dealing with the aftermath of war and the changing times."

"If your love for music runs as deep as your love for film, Rock on Film: The Movies That Rocked the Big Screen deserves a spot in your book collection."

Robert of Robert Bellissimo at the Movies

"a fantastic new book... this is a topic I've long been interested in."

Sarah on Goodreads

"I loved it and would recommend to anyone! This was a great read that had me laughing out loud a few times and smiling even more often."

"This book covers a wider span of time than the film, and briefly touches on the similarities I listed earlier. I enjoy stories written in the '20s, and this one was a fun, quick read."

Shawn of The Everyday Cinephile

"For covering a century of history, this book is a compact, fun read even when behind-the-scene business decisions and box office numbers are discussed."

20th Century Fox by Scott Eyman

"Heritage of the Desert is a worthy entry into the Western genre and clearly had a lasting impact on the genre in novels and films." 

"Hoyt, the manager of the wonderful online resource The Media History Digital Library, uses his extensive knowledge of early trade papers to provide readers context behind dozens of regional and national trade papers that document the film industry."

For more reviews check out:

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Rock on Film: The Movies That Rocked the Big Screen

Rock on Film
The Movies That Rocked the Big Screen
by Fred Goodman
foreword by Sir Michael Lindsay-Hogg
TCM and Running Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762478439
July 2022
288 pages

“One of the beauties of rock movies is that sometimes they capture the time and sometimes, dangerously, they’re ahead of the time.” — Sir Michael Lindsay-Hogg

If your love for music runs as deep as your love for film, Rock on Film: The Movies That Rocked the Big Screen deserves a spot in your book collection. Written by former Rolling Stones editor Fred Goodman, Rock on Film features 50 must see movies that captured the heart of rock and roll. Each film is also paired with a viewing, making each recommendation a double bill and adding many more rock movies to the mix. The book also covers movies that feature hip hop, R&B, punk and other genres but primarily focuses on how rock and roll transformed popular culture as we know it.

Some notable films discussed include The Girl Can't Help It (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), The TAMI Show (1964), Viva Las Vegas (1964), A Hard Day's Night (1966), Don't Look Back (1967), Gimme Shelter (1970), Woodstock (1970), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), La Bamba (1987), etc. And those are just some of the early films as dates range from the 1950s to the present day. Goodman does a great job connecting the present with the past and demonstrating the evolution of how film portrayed musicians on screen. A bounty of knowledge, Goodman's insights are both informative and illuminating. In his introduction Goodman writes, 

"the fifty films profiled in this book... are intended to be illuminating rather than definitive. Since the intention is to showcase both crowd-pleasers and buried treasure, the compendium begins with appreciation for the films that most fans see as indispensable, and they constitute a context and yardstick for the films that follow... My aim is to mix the serendipity of new discoveries with an added appreciation for familiar favorites while guiding you through the history of rock as seen through the insightful lens of Hollywood and independent filmmakers."
Each film is given its own 4 page chapter. There many color photographs throughout and the book is presented in a nice jacketed hardcover edition. It does have quite a potent "new book smell" but it's nothing that won't dissipate over time.

Interior Spread courtesy of Running Press

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“When the prominent use of the song “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets provided a big box-office boost to 1955’s youth-gone-bad drama Blackboard Jungle, it marked the first time Hollywood took notice of rock’s growing appeal.” — Fred Goodman

“The industry responded with the first generation of rock and roll films: a raft of low-budget jukebox musicals whose shallow plots were jerry-built around nightclubs, talent searches or disk jockeys–setups that made dropping in performances simple.” — Fred Goodman

“There’s a striking difference between the way the Beatles and the Rolling Stones approached film projects: essentially every film the Beatles made during their career was directed by a commercial journeyman, while the directors selected by the Rolling Stones reads like an art house who’s who, including Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Frank, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.” — Fred Goodman

“The music became a character in my movie. It was really the narrator. In a way, music is how you write the story.” — John Waters

“The biggest piece of the puzzle is Ann-Margret. Viva Las Vegas is the only Elvis film with a strong leading lady who can match him for moves and sex appeal. She was also the only actress to receive co-star billing with Elvis.” — Fred Goodman

“A triumph of Gimme Shelter is that there is no mythology here. The Maysles brothers, part of the direct cinema movement that was the American doppelganger of France’s cinema verite, created their art by standing back and capture what developed.” — Fred Goodman

Rock on Film includes interviews with five filmmakers: Cameron Crowe, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, Taylor Hackford and John Waters. I've read and reviewed many TCM/Running Press books and this is the first one I've seen to featured extensive interviews.

I enjoyed how Goodman examines all the different ways films used rock and roll and was most intrigued by the documentaries featured. A couple of which I watched immediately upon reading the book. In order to really appreciate this book, you must be interested in both rock and roll and music history especially since there is a heavy focus on that element.


Fill out the form below by September 25th for a chance to win a copy of Rock on Film!

The giveaway is now over. Congratulations to the winners Angela M. and Devan V.!

This is my sixth and final book review for this year's Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of Rock on Film to review!

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Danger on the Silver Screen: 50 Films Celebrating Cinema’s Greatest Stunts

Danger on the Silver Screen 
50 Films Celebrating Cinema's Greatest Stunts 
by Scott McGee
TCM and Running Press
288 pages
Paperback ISBN:9780762474844
April 2022

“Stunt work taps into our brains, giving us pleasure by simply watching human beings do things we, the audience, cannot. Marvelous acts like jumping out of a window and surviving thrill us and remind us that while we are safe in our seats, others are capable of doing amazing things for the camera.” — Scott McGee

There's nothing quite like the thrill of watching an action movie. Stuntmen and stuntwomen brave great danger—fast speeds, hairpin turns, nerve-wracking heights and literal fire with often a scant margin of error—to give us, the audience, an experience that we can't duplicate in real life. If you've ever watched an action sequence and wondered "how did they do that?" then I have the book for you.

Danger on the Silver Screen: 50 Films Celebrating Cinema's Greatest Stunts by Scott McGee is your definitive guide to action movies and stunt techniques. While the book focuses specifically on a list of 50 action movies, you'll find many more mentioned throughout. The movies presented range from silent era classics to modern action thrillers beginning with Way Down East (1920) and ending with Baby Driver (2017).

This paperback book features French flaps and full color pages. Each chapter focuses on 1 action movie (or a pair of movies). Little time is spent on the plot and the majority of the text breaks down the stunt sequences, how they were executed and the masterminds behind them. The chapter starts with an image (still or poster), a quote from a reviewer or stuntman, a brief cast and crew list as well as a listing of the stunt team members. This last bit is important since stuntmen and stuntwomen often did not get on screen credit for their work. McGee does a fantastic job breaking down the particulars of the stunts, explaining them, giving the reader background on the stunt team as well as providing screenshots to help visualize. I recommend heading to YouTube where you'll find clips of many of the stunt sequences McGree writes about. This helps with really appreciating the work that went into making that stunt look effortless. The chapters also include other images and newspaper-style article about a related stunt from another movie or something relevant to the article. 

For those of you more interested in the older movies, here are some of the early ones that the author writes about at length: Way Down East (1920), Robin Hood (1922), The Black Pirate (1926), Safety Last! (1923), Wings (1927), Hell's Angels (1930), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Stagecoach (1939), Ben-Hur (1925 and 1959), How the West Was Won (1962), The Great Escape (196, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Bullitt (1965), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and more. James Bond fans will be delighted that many of the films in the series are featured here.

Some notable stuntmen and stuntwomen mentioned include: Richard Talmadge, Yakima Canutt, Bud Ekins, Charles H. Hickman, James W. Gavin, Hal Needham, Dar Robinson, Grant Page, Debbie Evans, etc. There is also much attention put on the actors who did the stunts themselves like Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“In epic adventures, fantasies and contemporary action pictures, it was [Douglas] Fairbanks who made the impossible seem easy.”

“The airplane has been a crucial vehicle for movie stunt work, almost since its invention. Things really took off after the end of WWI, when former fighter pilots, looking for paths to apply their skill set and a penchant for taking risks, landed in the movie business.”

On Steamboat Bill Jr. “When the wall started to move, and it landed perfectly with a tremendous thud, Keaton’s bravery and commitment was that much more impressive because he stayed completely in character.”

“In terms of sheer grandiosity and cinematic impact, the chariot race in the 1959 Best Picture winner Ben-Hur is among the greatest action scenes ever.”

“[It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World] was one of the first major Hollywood productions to put stunt work front and center, not just as an element in the filmmaking, but as a selling point to the general audience.” 

“Great stunt scenes throughout history depend on the collaborative nature of filmmaking, drawing upon cinematography, editing, acting, and direction. The Bullitt car chase was a textbook example…”

“The Bond stuntmen, mostly British, were among the best working in the world. They brought ingenuity, execution, and visual appeal to the films’ action, setting the template for what audiences worldwide expected from the rough and physically demanding world of 007... The attention to cinematography in capturing not just the visceral excitement of the stunt work and action but the beauty of the surroundings has remained a mark of the Bond films to this day.”

“The craftsmen and artists of taking the falls, crashing the planes, and enduring the flames suffer the ignominy of going unmentioned or, when they are credited in print, being misspelled.”

“Tom Cruise is a modern-day Hollywood star whose fearlessness makes him seem like a direct descendant from stuntmen-stars of the past. As a Fairbanksian star and producer, Cruise is his own boss when making the calls, whether he’s outside skyscrapers or helicopters or wherever a normal person would not go.”

Danger on the Silver Screen is as fascinating as the stunts described within its beautifully designed pages. McGee does an excellent job giving the reader context and background. Describing stunts is no small feat considering but its done quite well here. You don't have to have seen the movie discussed to appreciate the chapter but watching a trailer or clips online will definitely improve the reading experience. Stunt work has been a male dominated field since the beginning of the film industry. I appreciate that some attention was given to the work of stuntwomen (and actresses too). I wish there had been pictures of the stunt team members because that would have helped to put a face with the name.

I want to hear from you! What's your favorite movie stunt? How about your favorite action movie?

This is my 5th review for the Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to TCM and Running Press for sending me a copy of Danger on the Silver Screen for review!

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