Showing posts with label Chicago Review Press. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chicago Review Press. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock by Christina Lane

Phantom Lady
Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison
The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock
by Christina Lane
Chicago Review Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9781613733844
400 pages
February 2020

AmazonBarnes and NoblePowell's

"Alfred Hitchcock would not have become 'Hitchcock' without her." — Christina Lane

I first learned of Joan Harrison when I saw her name pop up in the title credits for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour television show. I was deep into my binge watch of that series when I noticed that Harrison was replaced by Norman Lloyd as executive producer. It was only when I read Christina Lane's excellent biography Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock that I learned why Harrison left the show. While Harrison had been fully involved in the original series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, she was less enthused with the new format coupled the pressure to find original stories that would work for the hour long presentation. According to Lane, Harrison "was a woman who liked to be in control." If she didn't feel the work was suited to the best of her abilities or that she could do better elsewhere she removed herself and moved on. This is a woman I needed to learn more about.

Christina Lane's biography offers readers a portrait of a headstrong woman with a passion for both storytelling and the business of movie making. Harrison refused to take the path set for her as a woman. She wanted more and she was determined to get it. Harrison got her start in the business when she answered Alfred Hitchcock's want ad for a personal assistant/secretary. She was a terrific writer, editor and visionary and she quickly rose in ranks to writer and eventually to producer. According to Lane, Harrison "championed women's stories and alternative narrative methods." She believed that films should have complex and dynamic female characters. Highly collaborative, she oversaw continuity of story and vision and had a hand in procuring stories as well as launching writer's careers. Harrison helped groom Jane Greer for her career at RKO (but quickly left when Harrison saw Hughes was bad news) and was instrumental in Robert Mongtomery's career at Universal. She was nominated for two Oscars in the same year, for best adapted screenplay for Rebecca (1940) and best original screenplay for Foreign Correspondent (1940). I admire the fact that Harrison felt strongly against the blacklist and when she transitioned to television work, producing shows like Janet Dean, Registered Nurse and the two Alfred Hitchcock anthology series, she used the opportunity to help blacklisted talent get back to work.

“She was realizing that the women’s angle -- the persistent search for filmic ways to penetrate the mind of a sympathetic female character -- was her greatest motivation.”— Christina Lane

Phantom Lady is an exquisitely written and thoroughly researched biography of an extraordinary woman. Author Christina Lane is an associate professor of film studies at the University of Miami and writer. Lane offers readers tons of interesting information, beautifully crafted sentences and thoughtful observations. There are extensive interviews with surviving members of Lane's circle of friends and colleagues including living legend Norman Lloyd. Films discussed include: Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1940) (lots of information about that darned ending!), Phantom Lady (1944), Nocturne (1946), Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Once More, My Darling (1949), etc. There are plenty of spoilers so if you're not familiar with the film plots you may want to skip ahead a paragraph or two when the synopsis is discussed in the text. There is quite a bit of information about Harrison's love life which may or may not be interesting to the reader. Lane offers juicy tidbits while being careful not to cross over into the territory of salaciousness.

I'm particularly interested in learning more about people behind the scenes of film making, beyond actors and directors. The role a producer is not fully understood or appreciated by many and there was much to learn from here through Harrison's involvement in various projects. Lane does an excellent job deciphering what Harrison's contributions as a screenwriter and producer would have been based on research but also educated guesses where information was lacking.

A truly enlightening and empowering read. Highly recommended!

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for a copy of Phantom Lady for review.

This is my first review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson

Hollywood Godfather
The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson
by W.R. Wilkerson III
Chicago Review Press
352 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9781613736609
September 2018

Amazon — Barnes and Noble — Powell's

"All his life Billy was in love with the impossible." — Joe Pasternak

Billy Wilkerson’s biggest dream was to be his own boss. He accomplished that in spades when he founded The Hollywood Reporter in 1930. The first issue ran September 3rd of that year and up until the day he died Wilkerson would be heavily involved in the day-to-day operations and would write 8,320 daily editorials himself. His success with The Hollywood Reporter came from constant innovation, aggressive tactics to sell ad space and the shrewd buildup of influence. At one time, Billy Wilkerson was the most powerful man in the entertainment industry.

A medical school drop out, Wilkerson transitioned to film and wore many hats in his early days in the industry. He worked in sales, marketing promotion, film criticism and journalism, all of which gave him wisdom and experience to make The Hollywood Reporter a success. In New Jersey he owned a Nickelodeon and a luxe theater. He eventually moved to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. He worked with his friend Joe Pasternak and with actor El Brendel on a film project called Help Yourself. He shopped it around but no one bit. Hollywood had rejected Wilkerson and it hurt. Badly. He exacted revenge in a monumental way by going after the studio moguls with the first daily trade paper for the film industry.

Wilkerson went on to have other business ventures including the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and the Cafe Trocadero and Ciro in Hollywood. Many of his business ventures were innovative but ultimately failed him financially or personally. Wilkerson was tight-fisted with money and very demanding of his employees. He was a devout Catholic but also a man of many vices. He was a reckless gambler and had a severe Coca Cola addiction that ruined his health. Wilkerson was vehemently anti-communist and used his power, his connections with Howard Hughes and the public platform of The Hollywood Reporter to take down perceived communists in the industry. He could be very cruel, was unapologetic about his actions and used his mob connections to his advantage. The only thing that could truly be admired about Wilkerson is his business acumen and innovation. He was always thinking on his feet.

"The most successful figures in the entertainment industry... shared a sense of determination, an ability to weather massive misfortune." - W.R. Wilkerson III
Billy Wilkerson and his son W.R. Wilkerson III - Photo Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Billy Wilkerson: Photo Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson effectively chronicles the life of a difficult man who had a profound influence on the film industry in its early days. The biography is written by Wilkerson's son. I'm always a bit cautious about biographies written by family members. However, while reading the book I kept forgetting that the book was written by Wilkerson’s son. It felt very unbiased and thorough. The author leaves no stone unturned and is not afraid to explore the ugly side of his father's life story. And there was plenty of dirt to dig up. Perhaps the most shocking was Wilkerson's involvement with the Hollywood Blacklist. Even after the fact, Wilkerson was unapologetic about what he had done.

This biography offers a comprehensive look at Wilkerson's life and career, with a particular focus on the later, and his dealings with close friends including Joe Schenck, Joe Pasternak, Greg Bautzer (his lawyer), Howard Hughes, Johnny Rosselli (a mobster) and Lana Turner. The author conducted extensive interviews with his father’s right hand man George Kennedy who helped supply much of the information found in the book. Many people refused to be interviewed and it's a testament to the author's efforts that he pursued as many avenues and angles as he could to offer such a thorough biography.

 Thank you to Chicago Review Press for a copy of Hollywood Godfather for review.

Please note that this book review is not an entry into my summer reading challenge.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Life of Raymond Chandler

A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler
by Tom Williams
Chicago Review Press
9781613736784 - 384 pages
January 2012

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

Was Raymond Chandler, the author who invented detective Phillip Marlowe, as interesting as his creation? This question was on my mind when I began reading A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.

Born in Chicago on July 23rd, 1888 to Maurice and Florence Chandler, young Raymond had a troubled childhood. His father was an alcoholic, setting the stage for Chandler’s own struggles with alcoholism, and he abandoned the family early on. Left to their own devices, Florence and Raymond moved from Chicago and eventually settled in England where Chandler received a good education at Dulwich. Unfortunately he could not secure the funds to go to college but this did not stop him in his pursuit of a literary career. At first he made an earnest attempt at being a poet but failed miserably. After living in France, he returned to London to fetch his mother and traveled across the pond then across the continent to Los Angeles. Williams notes, “he left London as a failed British writer and arrived in America as a new man.”

Although Chandler always thought of himself as a Brit, it was his life in California that set things in motion for this new stage of his life and career. But those early days in Los Angeles were not devoted to writing. He fought in WWI by way of Canada because he could not enlist through either the US or England. When he came back from the war he devoted himself to his mother Florence. He met the woman who would be the love of his life, Cissy. Unfortunately his mother disapproved of the union and Chandler waited until Florence died before marrying Cissy. Chandler was 35 and Cissy was 53 pretending to be 43. The age difference would prove to be a thorn in Raymond’s side for the length of their marriage. His relationships with Florence, Cissy and other women in his life are explored in detail in the book. The women had the greatest influence on his ideals, the characters in his stories and his motivations in life. The author also touches upon Chandler’s possible homosexuality.

His literary career was put on the back burner in the years that followed. He began drinking and became an alcoholic in the 1920s. It was until Chandler lost his cushy job at Dabney Oil Syndicate that he picked up writing again. He took a correspondence course on fiction and started writing pulp stories for the magazine Black Mask. These proved to be popular and while Chandler didn’t see himself as a mystery writer he enjoyed the work.

Chandler's pulp stories improved as he developed and honed his skills. Author Tom Williams defines the pulp short genre as the following:
“The stories tended to revolve around a central male character who, more often than not, operated alone. Toughness was an essential virtue, as was a strict moral code that divided the world into good and bad, right and wrong. And the stories were characterized by simple, muscular, almost brutal prose.” 
 Chandler had a strict moral code “right and wrong were sharply defined in his world.” This bled into his writing and would often determine the fate of different characters in his stories. His stories explored “feelings of paranoia and disillusionment” and had a strong sense of place. This can be seen in his novels like The Big Sleep where Los Angeles and Hollywood are front and center in the narrative. Williams demonstrates themes in Chandler’s work with passages of text and plot points, character studies and how events and circumstances in Los Angeles shaped Chandler’s story.

“Along with The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, [The Big Sleep] has come to represent the high peak of the hard-boiled genre.” – Tom Williams

Moving beyond short stories, Chandler began to write novels. His first was The Big Sleep, published by Knopf and establishing detective Phillip Marlowe as a noir figure. Williams says, “[Phillip Marlowe] was a step forward from the characters of the pulp stories – a fully realized man rather than a vehicle for action.” What differentiated Chandler works from his peers James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett was the focus on character and setting and less on mystery and plot. Also Chandler’s narrative was in the first person which would later prove to be a strength for noir. Williams calls these elements “the key to his success.” Chandler wrote several novels, most of them featuring detective Marlowe. The biography goes into detail about The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye and others. Most of his novels were initially flops. His first publisher Knopf neglected to market them well, didn’t see Chandler’s true potential. In the end Chandler’s stories proved to have legs in Hollywood and beyond.

Raymond Chandler's cameo in the film Double Indemnity

“All writing that has any life in it is done with the solar plexus. It is hard work in the sense that it may leave you tired, even exhausted.” – Raymond Chandler 

I enjoyed reading about Raymond Chandler’s work as a novelist, short story writer and screenwriter especially. Hollywood came knocking and Chandler got a gig as a screenwriter at Paramount. His first project was working with Billy Wilder on adapting Cain’s Double Indemnity for the big screen. But Chandler got a rough start in Hollywood. He couldn’t see eye-to-eye with anyone and when Double Indemnity was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar he didn’t even show up to the ceremony. Yet is work continued as he adapted The Blue Dahlia, And Now Tomorrow, The Unseen and other movies. He briefly worked on the adaptation of his own novel The Lady in the Lake. Always an admirer of Hitchcock, he was thrilled to work with him on adapting Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train but the two butted heads and Chandler was kicked off the project. Chandler might not have appreciated the modest success of his novels and film adaptations at the time because he could not forsee the fame and recognition that was to come.

Raymond Chandler portrait from LIFE magazine

The depth of research found in this book is often mind-blowing. I love that careful attention to detail. I read many biographies and can always tell when the author took the time and effort to leave no stone unturned in their quest for information. Some readers find the transparency of research in a biography to remove them from the narrative of the story. You get that sense a little bit at the beginning of the book but the narrative voice eventually finds its stride. This book is also the perfect example of how you can have a biography without footnotes. Nothing frustrates me more than a book with too many footnotes, it disrupts the flow of reading and often times isn’t necessary. Williams expertly weaves all the information into the narrative.

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe
 So to answer my original question, was Chandler as interesting as Marlowe? While Chandler imbued the Marlowe character with many of his own traits, Chandler as a central figure in this biography is not as interesting as his creation. Frankly he was a fuddy duddy who had a strange viewpoint on the opposite sex and proved to be difficult in both professional and personal relationships. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want to keep the allure of a mysterious Chandler or if you’re willing to take a closer look at the man behind Marlowe.

Thoroughly researched, this comprehensive biography dives deep into the life of one of the most notable storytellers of the 20th Century. It’s highly recommended to any readers interested in Raymond Chandler, the writing process and the birth of noir.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of this book for review!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Real James Dean

The Real James Dean
The Real James Dean
Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best
edited by Peter L. Winkler
Chicago Review Press
9781613734728 - 368 pages
August 2016

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

When we look at the legacy of classic film actors and actresses there is a natural hierarchy. There are those obscure names known by a select group of people, characters actors that are beloved by a small following, legends who became part of the fabric of the 20th Century but contemporary audiences might struggle to identify and then there are the immortals whose images have transcended their lives and careers to become timeless icons. Among that last group there are only a handful of names including Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

“He made only three motion pictures, yet sixty years after his death he remains one of the world’s iconic movie stars.” – George Stevens Jr. (foreword)

Dean stands out among that bunch because of the impact he made having only lived 24 years and starred in a scant three films. However, his legacy benefited from his brief life. Those who attached themselves to his image continued the narrative after his death. He didn’t live long enough to have box office failures, career ending scandals or to grow old and fade away. Dean died with a beautiful corpse and at the height of his skyrocketing career. In a morbid way he let us write the rest of the story by dying in that tragic car accident on September 30th, 1955.

James Dean death came at the height of his East of Eden (1955) fame, immediately after filming Giant (1956) and weeks before the Rebel Without a Cause (1955) premiere. The impact of his death on the general public during that time was massive. He developed a cult following who was ravenous for anything they could get their hands on. They wanted as much James Dean as they could get and the people who inhabited Dean’s world became known for being part of different milestones in his short life. In The Real James Dean, a collection of essays, interviews and other writings edited by Peter L. Winkler, we get to hear their stories. We see James Dean through their eyes.

Earth Kitt and James Dean
 "James Dean has become a perennial hero to nonconformists.” – James Bellah, college friend

This anthology has a vast array of voices. It’s organized in a chronological way so it reads as though it’s a biography of sorts. Starting off with James Dean’s grandmother, high school drama coach, fellow college students, teachers the collection then moves on to his love interests, both male and female, his fellow actors on Broadway, TV and Hollywood, journalists, gossip columnists, directors, and many more. It’s a comprehensive view of James Dean’s life coming from all angles. There are full essays, excerpts from memoirs, clips from interviews and newly fashioned essays meant to present snippets and quotes. There are also outtakes which are longer quotes that complement preceding essays. This book is incredibly well-organized and there was a natural flow to the narrative. It reads like one big biography with each chapter written by a different writer. If you struggle with standard biographies, this is a good alternative. You could read the book cover-to-cover or dip in an out by reading individual pieces. I recommend reading the book straight through as you’ll see themes develop over time.

"Rebellious, secretive, and calculating, he opted for acceptance via the route of stardom... Sensitive and violent by turns, both the boy and the girl next door, he projected the ambivalent sexuality and chastity of the classic deal -- if in spirit he was perhaps more Icarus than Apollo." - Frank Corsarso

Some of the notable voices in this collection include writings by the following:

William Bast
Rogers Brackett
Hume Cronyn
Shelley Winters
Eartha Kitt
Elia Kazan
Raymond Massey
Hedda Hopper
Nicholas Ray
Natalie Wood
Jim Backus
George Stevens
Dore Schary
Mercedes McCambridge
Alec Guiness
and more

There are also quotes from Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Pier Angeli and Dennis Hopper. The collection even includes a piece by James Dean that he wrote in high school as well as a piece by Rolf Wütherich who was in the car with James Dean on that tragic day.

James Dean and Rolf Wütherich on the day of the accident

The stories paint a portrait of James Dean as a moody individual who was obsessed with matadors, sensitive about his talents but also thought highly of them and was determined against all odds to make it big as an actor. He was difficult to understand but people were drawn to him like moths to a flame. Fame came to those associated with him. They became known as the people who knew James Dean.

Each of James Dean’s three major roles represent some aspect of his life and it’s true that he really did play himself on screen. There a lot of behind-the-scenes stories, some repeat themselves and some stand alone. Readers get to know quite a bit about James Dean’s sexual relationships with both men and women with a spotlight on his failed and overly romanticized relationship with actress Pier Angeli. Most of what happened to James Dean happened in the last 6 years of his life and as I read the text I could only marvel at what he was able to accomplish in such a short time.

James Dean and Pier Angeli

The Real James Dean by Peter L. Winkler is a fascinating read with each essay offering a unique reflection from one of Dean’s contemporaries. It’s much more approachable than a full in-depth biography. Winkler introduces each piece with background and includes footnotes to clarify any inconsistencies in the text. Memory is a fallible thing and there were factual errors that needed to be clarified.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me this book for review. They were also generous enough to let me host a giveaway for one copy of the book (US Only)! Just leave me a comment below to enter. Contest ends 10/2 and winner will be announced 10/3!

Update: Contest is over. Congrats to Katy the winner!

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook