Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Topper by Thorne Smith

This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.


Constance Bennett (Marion Kerby)
Cary Grant (George Kerby)
Roland Young (Cosmo Topper)
Billie Burke (Mrs. Topper)

One of the most beloved screwball comedies to come out of the thirties, Topper (1937), directed by Norman Z. McLeod, stars Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as a pair of free spirited ghosts who show middle-aged bank executive Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) what it really means to live. During their lifetime, Marion and George Kerby (Bennett and Grant) happily spent their days enjoying lavish parties, plenty of booze and wild road trips through the countryside. On one tragic day, George’s erratic driving causes them to have a fatal head-on collision with a tree. They shed their bodies but their spirits remain on earth in various degrees of visibility. As ghosts in limbo, their mission to ascend to heaven is to take Topper under their wing. They draw him away from his humdrum life with his uptight wife Mrs. Topper (Billie Burke) and the madcap adventures begin.

Topper (1937) was an adaptation of Thorne Smith’s 1926 novel of the same name. Born out of the prohibition era and the Jazz age, Topper is chock-full of fun alcohol-fueled escapades. Smith mostly wrote comedies and Topper and its sequel Topper Takes a Trip were his best known works. Topper pokes fun at the lifestyles of the upper and upper-middle class families while also driving home the simple but potent message that life is worth living.

At the heart of the novel is the opposition between hedonism and sensibility. Cosmo and Mrs. Topper live their lives as as though it were a “summer of Sundays”. Topper himself is caught in between. He wants to live life but the people who surround him view passion and enthusiasm as personal failures. As though there was a thing as too much enjoyment. Marion and George Kirby are described as “the fastest young couple in town” whose journey culminated in “a gay life and a quick death.” I love this line in particular which compares the Kerbys to the social set that the Toppers belonged to:

“The Kerbys had not belonged to his set, the solid substantial, commuting set, but had gathered round them, from all parts of the country, a group of irresponsible spirits, who would suddenly appear in a swarm of motors, riot around the town and countryside for a few days, and then as suddenly disappear in a cloud of dust and a chorus of brazen horns.”

Throughout the book, the dichotomy between living and just existing becomes the story’s strongest theme. Just existing is considered a form of death and characters who are truly living can either be physically dead or alive. Topper’s journey is referred to as an “incredible vacation,” a way for him to break out of his shell and tap into his inner joy. The Mrs. Topper character in particular serves as a warning that being “half alive” is no real way to live. Here are some quotes from the book that explore the theme of living vs. dying:

“For the first time Topper’s established routine of living gave place to a disorderly desire to live.”

“Mr. Topper came to regard himself as a corpse, without, however, enjoying a corpse’s immunity to its surroundings.”

“Any creature, man or beast, who has the capacity and desire to enjoy life deserves that enjoyment.”

Although in the book the Kerbys don’t need to help Topper to get into heaven, they do make it a mission to help Topper come out of his shell. The Kerbys in the film are ghosts who, when fully visible, inhabit the world of the living as members of society but when invisible cause absolute chaos when invisible. In the book the Kerbys are described as “low-planed” spirits. High planed spirits don’t live on earth nor can they make themselves visible. Low-planed spirits can store up “ectoplasm” (???) to achieve varying degrees of “thickness”. It’s all a very bizarre way to describe ghosts but in a way this works especially when it translates to a visual medium like film.

If you remember from the film, at one point George Kerby disappeared and you may have wondered: where did Cary Grant go? In the novel, George goes off on a seaside adventure leaving Marion behind to galavant with Topper. The scenes where Marion and Topper get into some riotous fun together, sans George, is a way for Topper to have a makeshift affair without committing actual adultery. Marion proclaims she’s no longer married now that she’s dead and Topper is embarrassed when hotel staff come to investigate reports of an unregistered woman in his room. A little tantalizing but never crosses the line which makes the film censorship friendly in the age of Hays Code enforcement. Having an emotional affair with Marion becomes a more important element of the book while in the film it's treated as a light flirtation.

The butler Wilkins, played by Alan Mowbray, who is constantly judging Topper and siding with the more sensible Mrs. Topper, isn’t in the book at all. Instead, Topper’s constant companion at home is his beloved cat Scollops. There are several running jokes about how the Toppers suffer from indigestion (“dyspesia”), how Mrs. Topper insists that Topper always enjoys a good leg of lamb for dinner, the predictability of which annoys Topper. The book also includes three other ghosts that aren’t in the film: the Colonel, his wife Mrs. Hart and their dog Oscar, who struggles to become fully visible and instead can only be seen in partial form.

I’m impressed by how the screenwriting team Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran transformed Thorne Smith’s story into an enjoyable 1-1/2 hour screwball comedy that allows the triumvirate of Bennett, Grant and Young shine. The novel takes a while to get to introduce the Kerbys and there are so many stories with Marion and Topper gallivanting around that the more concise approach the film takes allows the story not to lose steam as it does quite often in the novel. Unfortunately the author never lived to see the film adaptation in 1937 because he died at the age of 42 in 1934. Or perhaps, his ghost attended the premiere? We’ll never know.

Topper by Thorne Smith is a bit of a mixed bag but still quite enjoyable. I read Modern Library’s 1999 paperback edition.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Noir Bar by Eddie Muller

Noir Bar
Cocktails Inspired by the World of Film Noir
by Eddie Muller
TCM and Running Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762480623
May 2023
248 pages

“Noir Bar offers a booze-based excursion through America’s most popular film genre, pairing easy-to-master recipes with the kind of behind-the-scenes anecdotes I like to include in my film intros and books.... This book is designed to be a drinking companion for anyone taking a deep dive into the glamorous and gritty world of noir.” — Eddie Muller

Cocktails and film noir make for a perfect pair in TCM host Eddie Muller's latest book: Noir Bar. Presented in alphabetical order, Noir Bar features 50 different films, each with a cocktail recipe to accompany it. Muller's curation of titles is as exciting as the cocktails he picks for each. The recipes were carefully selected by Muller—who is both the Czar of Noir and an experienced mixologist—to tie into the movie. The connection between noir and cocktail can be as simple as a reference to the title, protagonist or one of the actors. Some are thematic based on elements of the story. And there are numerous Eddie Muller originals. As someone who loves both film noir and cocktails, I had fun reading how Muller ties the cocktail to the movie and his reasoning behind each choice.

Here are some of my favorite film noir and cocktail pairings:

  • The Blue Gardenia (1953) The Pearl Diver — This is a hat tip to the Tiki cocktail that Raymond Burr's character buys for Anne Baxter in order to get her intoxicated. Not many cocktails in the book have a direct connection
  • D.O.A. (1949)The Last Word — The name is a reference to the protagonist's plight to get the "last word" on his murder. The cocktail recipe ingredients put together look reminiscent of the luminous poison from the film.
  • Hell’s Half Acre (1954)Mai Tai — This film noir takes place in and was filmed on location in Hawaii. As someone who has enjoyed many a Mai Tai in Oahu, I appreciated Muller's tips on how to make a quality Mai Tai at home.
  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Johnny & Earle — Named after Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte’s characters, this Eddie Muller original is probably the most clever cocktails in the whole book. He writes: “My mixology strategy here is obvious and symbolic—like the end of the movie. Two base spirits that rarely engage with each other are unexpectedly combined: Jamaican dark rum… and Southern Comfort… In the spirit of the story, my formula calls for fifty-fifty use of the two spirits…The bitters and the Allspice Dram smooth things out between two headstrong leads.”
  • Pickup on South Street (1953)Bloody Mary — Eddie Muller prides himself on his signature recipe and this cocktail happens to be director Samuel Fuller's drink of choice.
  • Suspense (1946) Belita — This frozen cocktail is named after the film's star Belita and is a hat tip to her career as an ice skater.

And of course I had to make the Out of the Past (1947) Paloma. In the book Muller writes, 

"this [is a] humble concoction of tequila, lime, and grapefruit soda... Mitchum, of course, would have waved off grapefruit soda in his tequila. Granted. This one's for Jane [Greer]." 

I've had Palomas in the past but have never made one at home. I'm not terribly experienced when it comes to crafting cocktails. I appreciated Noir Bar's front matter which includes Muller's introductions on spirits, garnishes and tools to have on hand as well as a guide to basic cocktail making techniques. And for those of you who love to look up old cocktail recipes and are often dismayed by how many of them contain egg whites, fear not because this book only has one such recipe!

The mix of titles include some of the most famous entries into the film noir canon as well as some obscure titles I've never heard of—and everything in between. Two of my favorites, Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), were missing but that didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book.

Each film noir has a 4-6 page entry complete with a brief foray into the film's history, an explanation of the cocktail pairing, a recipe and some images from the film. Some of the cocktails are presented with a stylized photograph that has a sort of hazy 1980s neo-noir vibe to it that gave me a twinge of nostalgia. The book is a nice compact size but because of its binding and dark matte gloss pages, I do suggest placing it in a cookbook holder for reading and reference purposes if you can. I would not recommend this for someone who abstains from alcohol because the book leans heavily on the cocktail related content. They are not sections you can just skip.

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press. Champagne Cocktail to accompany Sunset Blvd. (1951).

Noir Bar is the perfect companion for film noir enthusiasts who enjoy a well-made cocktail.

Don't forget to drink responsibly!

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of Noir Bar to review!

Saturday, May 20, 2023

2023 Classic Film Reading Challenge


2023 #ClassicFilmReading Challenge
May 20th to September 15th, 2023

It's my honor to announce that the 2023 #ClassicFilmReading Challenge is now live! 

Every year I host this challenge to encourage you to read and review six classic film books this summer/winter (depending on which hemisphere you live on). 

If you don't think you could read and review six books but could review one or two, I encourage you to still join! It's fun to participate even if you don't complete the challenge. 

If you do finish all six books then you: 
1) get bragging rights  
2) are automatically entered into a giveaway to win a Kino Lorber Blu-ray or DVD of your choice. Open internationally!

I encourage you to participate even if you don't think you'll read all 6 books. All readers are welcome.

Throughout the challenge I'll be sharing review round-ups here on the blog and on my Twitter @RaquelStecher—and possibly elsewhere if Twitter goes bust. Make sure you use the official hashtag #classicfilmreading when sharing your reviews. And feel free to share your #classicfilmreading stack to showcase what you plan to you plan to read.

Here is how the challenge works:
  1. Sign up for the challenge 
  2. Read a classic film book
  3. Write a review and post it on your Blog, Podcast, YouTube, Instagram, LibraryThing or Goodreads. Must be a public post. 
  4. Use hashtag #classicfilmreading on social media.
  5. Submit your review link (see form on the official page)
  6. Repeat until you have read and reviewed 6 books!
  7. Review 6 and be automatically entered to win a prize.
Please use the review link form to submit your reading stack too!

Challenge runs from May 20th until September 15th, 2023. Sign-up before July 15th, 2023.

All of the details of the challenge are on the official page including the sign up form, the book review submission form, rules, deadlines and what counts as a classic film book. 

Feel free to use the reading challenge graphics.

Visit the official page for more details and to sign up!

Sunday, May 14, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: 10 Interesting Facts about Chinese-American Actress Soo Yong

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

You may be familiar with Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong from films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Piccadilly (1929) and Shanghai Express (1932). But have you heard of Soo Yong? Yong was a couple years older than Wong but started her career in film over a decade later than Wong did. She appeared in over 20 films from the mid 1930s and into the 1960s alongside big name stars such as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mae West, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, William Holden and Marlon Brando. While it’s easy to compare the two because they were both Chinese-American actresses working in the Hollywood studio system, they couldn’t have been more different. Wong was an international movie star and style icon. She pushed the boundaries of how an Asian-American woman should look and how she should act on screen. She was constantly fighting a system that didn’t know what to do with her. 

Yong was quite different. She was never a big star and instead became a reliable character actress. And Yong’s model was quite different Wong’s. She presented herself as the “Chinese New Woman”, an educated woman who gave the performing arts a level of sophistication. According to Professor Gao Yunxiang of Ryerson University, "White Hollywood was smitten by Soo Yong, whose educated, middle-class persona contrasted with the flamboyant and controversial star Anna May Wong. Wong’s film persona, created for her by racist Hollywood casting decisions, irritated China’s Nationalist government.” Yong would spend her life presenting a different image of Chinese-American womanhood both on screen and off. Professor Yunxiang goes on to say that Yong offered “an alternative to the familiar binary stereotypes of the subservient China doll and the vicious dragon lady.”

Having heard little of Soo Yong, I decided to do some research on her life and career. Here are some interesting facts about this little known figure from film history.

  • Soo Yong was born October 31st, 1903 in Hawai’i to Chinese immigrant parents. She was orphaned at the age of 15 and raised by her sister in Honolulu. Yong eventually lived in California, New York, Florida and Maine but eventually came back to spend her final years in Hawai’i.
  • Yong’s initial career track was actually to become a teacher. She attended the Mid-Pacific Institute and the University of Hawai’i, got her Master’s in teaching from Columbia University and even studied for her PhD at the University of Southern California (although I couldn’t find any information on whether she completed her doctorate). According to film historian Arthur Dong, “Soo Yong was one of the earliest Chinese American women to enroll in an American college.
  • Yong got her start as an actress on stage. She appeared in plays written by Zhang Penghun and had a role in the Broadway production of The Letter opposite star Katherine Cornell. Fluent in Mandarin and English, she served as an on stage translator for Mei Lanfang’s Peking Opera, which was sponsored by the China Institute and traveled across the country in the early 1930s. Yong became known as a cultural translator building a bridge between Chinese culture and American audiences. She was billed as “the charming mistress of ceremonies.”
  • While she was studying for her PhD at USC, Yong began acting in films at MGM. Her first role was in The Painted Veil (1934) playing Greta Garbo’s Chinese maid Amah. Her next film China Seas (1935) has her paired with C. Aubrey Smith as his romantic companion Yu-Lan. There is a great scene in that movie where she is seated with Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Rosalind Russell, Clark Gable, C. Aubrey Smith and Robert Benchley. Harlow’s character China Doll is kicking up a fuss to which Yu-Lan (Soo Yong) replies: “The more violent a storm, the sooner it subsides."
  • I first took note of Yong in Mae West’s Klondike Annie (1936) where she plays West’s traveling companion who is dropped off in Seattle to be reunited with her lover. Yong mostly played Chinese or Chinese American characters. Asian actors were often made to play many nationalities so this was unusual for the time. In the 1950s, she did play a few Japanese characters but it was more the exception to the rule.
  • Yong worked for several major studios. She made 4 films for MGM, 4 for 20th Century Fox, 6 for Paramount and made 1 film each for Warner Bros. Universal and Columbia. She also performed in indie productions such as The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), Big Jim McLain (1952), Flight to Hong Kong (1956) and The Hawaiians (1970).
  • Anna May Wong and Soo Yong never worked together but their paths did almost cross on two separate occasions. Both actresses auditioned for the lead role of O-Lan in MGM’s The Good Earth (1937). Both were frustrated to lose that plum role to caucasian actress Luise Rainer. Wong doesn’t appear in the film but Yong went on to have a minor role in as “Aunt”. Fast forward to 1961, both Wong and Yong are slated to appear in the first major Asian-American Hollywood production Flower Drum Song (1961). Wong unfortunately died of a massive heart attack before filming began and the role of Madame Liang eventually went to Juanita Hall. Yong appears in a small role as Madame Yen Fong and can be seen primarily in the Chop Suey musical number
  • After retiring from film in 1970, Yong appeared in a few television episodes of Hawaii Five-O. Her final on screen performance was in Season 2, Episode 5 of Magnum P.I. in 1981. She plays an old Vietnamese woman in Honolulu’s Little Saigon and has two scenes with Tom Selleck.
  • While living in Winter Park, Florida, Yong ran a successful Chinese novelty shop called The Jade Lantern. There she sold sold jewelry, handbags, silk, linen, furniture and other arts and crafts. According to Professor Yunxiang, “customers shopped there for a lifestyle associated with her glamour and were served by the star they recognized.”
  • Her second husband C.K. Huang was a Chinese businessman who supported the arts. Due to an immigration law, they couldn’t marry until 1941 without Yong losing her American citizenship. Once that law changed, they were able to wed. Together they left an endowment to the University of Hawai’i at Mano. The Chun Ku and Soo Yong Huang Foundation offers grants and scholarships to students interested in Chinese Studies.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Sambizanga (1972): Luso World Cinema Blogathon 2023

"On February 4th, 1961, a group of militants set out from Sambizanga, a working-class district in Luanda, intending to storm the capital's prison. At the same time, they gave the signal for the armed struggle for national independence that has engulfed Angola ever since. But for years before that day, thousands of fighters in the villages and towns had braved the police's reign of terror, patiently paving the way for insurrection and organizing a clandestine network of political movements. And so, on a work site in the midst of the Angolan bush, we find a certain Domingos Xavier..."

These words begin Sambizanga (1972), director Sarah Maldoror's poignant story about Angola's battle to gain independence from Portugal. The film stars Domingos de Oliveira as Domingos Xavier, a construction worker who lives in Sambizanga, a working-class community on the outskirts of Luanda, the capital city of Angola. Suspected of being member of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola or MPLA), Domingos is arrested by Portuguese officials. His devoted wife Maria (Elisa Andrade) goes on a quest to discover what happened to Domingos and find out where he's imprisoned. Her journey gives the viewer an opportunity to explore the landscape and culture of Sambizanga and Luanda. Domingos' story gives us an insight on Angola's severe income and racial inequalities and just what was at stake for Angolans in their rebellion against the Portuguese.

"The rich give in a way that keeps the poor poor and give work to keep the rich rich. If there were no rich, there'd be no poor.... It's the labor of the poor that earns money for the rich and makes the rich richer. But the poor? Always in the same fix."

Sambizanga was based on José Luandino Vieira novel The Real Life of Domingos Xavier published in 1961. The screenplay was a collaboration between novelist Maurice Pons, French director Sarah Maldoror and her husband Mario Pinto de Andrade, an Angolan native and the founder of the MPLA. The film was produced and released during the final years of the Angolan War of Independence and the actors were mostly non-professionals and members of the MPLA. Sambizanga is considered the first feature film (non-documentary) produced by a Portuguese speaking country in Africa. 

If you're looking to expand your horizons with international films especially ones made by female filmmakers, make sure you check out Sambizanga. It's currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and it's part of Criterion's boxed set Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project Vol. 4. The edition they have was restored by The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna. Sambizanga offers a straightforward story of familial strife and incarceration as a platform to further explore the nuances of inequality, Angolan pride and a pivotal moment in the country's recent history. Storywise, it's quite reminiscent of the American film Sounder (1972), released the same year which also tells the story of a wife (Rebecca played by Cicely Tyson) in search of where her husband (Nathan played by Paul Winfield) has been incarcerated. The two films would make a great double-bill and if you're reluctant about trying out Sambizanga use Sounder as a jumping off point.

This review of Sambizanga (1972) is my entry into the 2023 Luso World Cinema Blogathon hosted by Spellbound with Beth Ann and Crítica Retrô. I've had an interest in participating in this blogathon for a while because I'm half-Portuguese and Portuguese is one of three languages I'm fluent in. Furthermore, one of my half-sisters lived in Angola for sometime and I had an Angolan pen pal growing up. I picked Sambizanga because of my personal interest in Angola, the Portuguese language and African cinema. For anyone interested in the Portuguese language, Sambizanga is mostly in Portuguese (Lingala and Kimbundu are also spoken) and the dialogue is quite easy to follow which makes it perfect for language learning or improving fluency.

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