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.

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