Friday, October 17, 2014

American Titan: Searching for John Wayne by Marc Eliot

American Titan: Searching for John Wayne
by Marc Eliot
Dey St. Books (HarperCollins)
97800622690030 - Hardcover
432 pages
November 2014

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound (your local Indie bookshop)

"As a crusader for freedom, he loved beating up on bad guys. He was, after all, the king of the cowboys." - Marc Eliot

American Titan: Searching for John Wayne is my fourth Marc Eliot biography. I've read his books on Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Steve McQueen (and my husband reviewed his book on Michael Douglas). Eliot’s bios have always proven to be informative and entertaining. They’re not definitive or exhaustive rather they paint a picture through story-telling.

Eliot refers to this book as a “revisionist biography” of John Wayne. He says, “I wanted to examine him from an auteurist point of view, to put the emphasis on his work, to show how the films reflected his personal life, and how in turn, he reflected himself in his films.” He didn’t interview any of Wayne’s family members, friends or colleagues, something he admits to in his author’s note. Eliot says, “I prefer to bring my point of view of my work, rather than having a point of view influenced by ‘experts’.” However, Eliot does indirectly rely on these experts and he often cites memoirs written by Maureen O’Hara and Wayne’s third wife Pilar as well as interviews by Peter Bogdonavich throughout the text.

John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in Rio Grande (1950) (source)

“John Wayne is not just an actor, and a good actor, he is the United States of America.” – Maureen O’Hara 

Born Marion Mitchell Morrison in 1907, Wayne’s parents were less than ideal role models in his life. His father Clyde made bad business decisions and put little effort into his marriage to Wayne’s mother Molly. She doted on Wayne’s brother Robert and often neglected her oldest son. The parents’ influence on a young Wayne would greatly affect his financial decisions and romantic relationships as an adult.

John Wayne at USC

Wayne picked up the nickname “Duke” as a kid. He named his dog “Duke” and the local firefighters would refer to the pair as big Duke and little Duke. Eventually, the firefighters started referring to Wayne as Duke and the name stuck. Wayne went to USC on a football scholarship. Finances were tight so he depended on the scholarship and extra jobs to be able to finance his education. It was while at USC that Wayne got into films playing bit parts and working as a stage hand. His early encounter with John Ford and other important people in the industry helped him get in start in films. Ford was impressed with Wayne’s ambition, his willingness to work and his honesty. Raoul Walsh was also impressed by these qualities and cast him in The Big Trail (1930). Walsh said “what I needed was a feeling of honesty, of sincerity and Wayne had it.”

"I got nothin' to sell but sincerity, and I been selling' it like the blazes ever since I started." - John Wayne

Marion Morrison soon became John Wayne. He developed many trademarks including his speech, walk and gun twirl. Wayne was determined to do good work. He knew his limitations as an actor but also realized that he had a lot to offer audiences. Wayne worked with John Ford, Howard Hawks, Howard Hughes, William Wellman and John Huston among others. He had contracts with Fox, Columbia Studios, Monogram Pictures, RKO and created his own production companies including Wayne-Fellows and Batjac.

John Ford and John Wayne (source)

“If Ford justified Wayne’s star power, Wayne helped Ford join the pantheon of American auteurs. Each made the other greater by his presence.” – Marc Eliot 

Eliot’s biography focuses on two things: his career as an actor and his relationship with key figures in his life. If John Wayne is the main character of the story, John Ford is his trusty sidekick. Together they made 23 films and Ford features most prominently in this biography. Ford was tough on Wayne, especially on set, but at a certain level they understood each other. I thought Maureen O’Hara, a good friend of Wayne’s and famous for being his leading lady, would appear often in this biography but alas she did not.

The author delves into Wayne’s three marriages with Josephine, Chata and Pilar as well as his relationships with Pat Stacy, Marlene Dietrich and Claire Trevor. He isn’t afraid to dig up some dirt but in comparison to the Cary Grant and Steve McQueen biographies, this one is pretty tame. As a Latina, I have always been amused by Wayne’s penchant for Hispanic women.

"Some men collect stamps. I go for Latin Americans." - John Wayne

John Wayne with his first wife Josephine and Loretta Young

John Wayne with his second wife Chata

John Wayne with his third wife Pilar (source)

Wayne’s body of film work is key to understanding his life and career. Eliot takes his time with the big movies as well as the failures that influenced Wayne’s career trajectory. Readers will learn about films such as The Big Trail (1930), Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), The Alamo (1960), True Grit (1969) and more.

He had professional rivalries with Gary Cooper (he had a strong, negative reaction to the film High Noon) and Henry Fonda. Wayne often negotiated good terms on his movie deals. He’d ask for money up front or against profits plus up to 10% of future profits. He made a lot of money but never really built any substantial wealth. Wayne was reckless with his money, made bad investments, his marriages and divorces drained his funds and a few people took advantage of his trustworthy nature and stole from him.

There is a lot of focus on Wayne’s politics in this book. He was conservative and very anti-Communism. Wayne served as president of the Motion Picture Association and according to some was responsible for the blacklisting of several people in Hollywood. Wayne’s politics drove much of what he did however he wasn’t above working with or becoming friends with Hollywood liberals.

Eliot makes an interesting observation about Wayne’s public battle with cancer. He likens it to Rock Hudson’s public battle with AIDS. Being open with fans and media outlets about their health created awareness. Eliot’s epilogue recounts Wayne’s final days dealing with stomach cancer and his last public appearance at the Oscars in 1979.

Overall American Titan is a good and informative read but I feel like I might have outgrown Eliot’s biographies. I wanted something more substantial. My husband has been reading this biography alongside with me and I think it’s more well-suited to him than it is to me. Carlos reads for entertainment and I read to study and learn. I’d be remiss not to mention Scott Eyman’s biography on John Wayne which also published this year. It’s been getting rave reviews and although I’ve never had any particular interest in John Wayne, I’ll probably read it to get a different look at Wayne’s life and work.

Carlos reading American Titan

I won a copy this book from Goodreads as part of their First Reads giveaway program. What I received was a galley/ARC (uncorrected proof) which contained errors, inconsistencies and some missing back matter which should be corrected/added upon final publication. Throughout the first half of the book, availability of Wayne’s films often appeared as footnotes. It was noted if the film was on DVD, YouTube or aired on TCM (note that the lifespan of a free movie on YouTube is very short so those notations will quickly become outdated). This was terribly distracting and I’m hoping they’ll work this into a list in the back versus keeping this as footnotes in the text. There wasn’t an index or any photos but I’m sure these will be added later. The photos, if they are added, will most likely be an insert in the middle of the book. I also hope the Author’s Note gets moved to the front matter. I found Eliot’s explanation of his intentions with this biography to be useful in understanding the book and would have served me better had I read it first.

Thank you to Goodreads and Dey Street Books (Harper) for sending me a copy of American Titan to review!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Old Hollywood at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A Columbus Day visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston cost us nothing but gave us many riches in return. Two exhibits in particular made this classic-film-loving-gal's heart sing.

The first exhibit was a collection of photographs by Yousuf Karsh entitled Karsh Goes Hollywood. This exhibition was in one of the lobbies near the information desk and food court. Not ideal but it gave the photographs much more exposure to museum guests than one tucked away would have.

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) was a renowned photographer who captured the portraits of many important figures including authors, musicians, dignitaries and actors among others. The MFA's exhibition focused on Karsh's photographs of classic Hollywood figures. These notable members of the Hollywood elite included: Judy Garland, Walt Disney, Laurence Olivier, Leslie Caron, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Princess Grace, Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Clark Gable, Anita Ekberg, Gregory Peck, Sydney Greenstreet, Bette Davis, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff.

The 20 figures were presented in a "who's who" kind of fashion. A visitor would walk through the exhibit, examining each portrait and trying to guess the person. The pieces were not labeled but each came with a hint, usually a line of dialogue from a notable film the person was associated with. There was a key with the list of all the names for people to reference once they were done guessing.

Joan Crawford, 1948 - Yousuf Karsh

Lauren Bacall, 1966 and Elizabeth Taylor, 1946 - Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh exhibit at the MFA, Boston

Carlos checking out the Yousuf Karsh exhibit at the MFA, Boston

Anita Ekberg, 1956 and Clark Gable, 1948 - Yousuf Karsh 
Sydney Greenstreet, 1946 and Gregory Peck, 1946 - Yousuf Karsh

After the Yousuf Karsh exhibit, we made our way through the museum and found ourselves in the Contemporary Art section. Last time I was here, I saw this amazing Hollywood Stars Paper Dress. It wasn't there this time but I came across another piece that was equally dazzling.

Double Blue Barbra (The Jewish Jackie Series), 1992 - Deborah Kass

My good friend Frank had told me about the next exhibit and I'm glad he did because I would have missed it otherwise. Hollywood Glamour: Fashion and Jewelry from the Silver Screen showcases the costumes (evening gowns, dresses, evening jackets, etc.) and accessories from a very elegant time in film history. The pieces ranged from the late 1920s to the early 1940s with a primary focus on the 1930s. None of the pieces were, by themselves, notable but presented together it was showcase of glamour that would appeal to classic film fans and fashion devotees alike.

The exhibit was very crowded and considering the tight quarters it was difficult to maneuver around all the people to view each piece. It took a while but I managed to take in every single one. On a screen in the back, they looped film clips of the actresses wearing the pieces on display. It was quite exciting to stand next to a costume worn by Norma Shearer or Gloria Swanson. I nearly fainted when I saw Jean Harlow's dress from Bombshell.

Hollywood Glamour: Fashion and Jewelry from the Silver Screen Exhibit - MFA, Boston

Sign for the Hollywood Glamour exhibit 

Hollywood Glamour Exhibit

Joan Craword photo and Gloria Swanson, 1927 by Edward Steichen

Marlene Dietrich's hostess gown for Desire (1936), designed by Travis Banton

Mary Ellis' evening gown for Paris in Spring (1935), designed by Travis Banton 

Carole Lombard's evening dress for No Man of Her Own (1932), designed by Travis Banton

Betty Grable's evening gown in This Way Please (1937), designed by Edith Head

Betty Hutton's jacket and pants for The Perils of Pauline (1947), designed by Edith Head

Greer Garson's blouse and skirt for Julia Misbehaves (1948), designed by Irene

Norma Shearer's evening jacket for Her Cardboard Lover (1942), designed by Robert Kalloch

Mae West's dress for Every Day's a Holiday (1938), designed by Elsa Schiaparelli

Jean Harlow's evening gown for Bombshell (1933), designed by Gilbert Adrian

Joan Crawford's dress for This Modern Age (1931), designed by Gilbert Adrian

Gloria Swanson's evening dress for What a Widow! (1930), designed by Rene Hubert

Line-up of costumes

Jewelry display including pieces owned by Ginger Rogers, Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford

Fashion illustration

Letters and other art

Film clip being screened of Carole Lombard in No Man of Her Own (1932)
This is not the best exhibit I've ever encountered. The costumes on display were chosen more for their overall look together (many pieces were gold lamé) rather than their importance or significance. And the crowd of museum goers inside the exhibit were rather rude. Even with the experience's shortcomings, it was still a delight to see a splendid showcase of glamour from a bygone era.

The Karsh Goes Hollywood  and Hollywood Glamour exhibitions can be seen at the MFA in Boston until March 8th, 2015. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel by Christina Rice

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel
by Christina Rice
Hardcover - 370 pages
University Press of Kentucky
October 2013

Barnes and Noble

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel by Christina Rice is one of the finest books I have ever read. It's taken me a long time to sit down and write this review because frankly I've been intimidated by it. As a biography of an obscure figure from film history’s past, it’s a simply a masterpiece. From the brief preface you can already tell that the author has a passion for all things Ann Dvorak. Author Christina Rice’s reputation precedes her though and she is known among many classic film enthusiasts as the leading expert on Ann Dvorak. She runs and in 2013 she did daily posts on Dvorak that lasted the entire year. Such an elusive and poorly known figure as Ann Dvorak was required someone with determination and passion to tell her story. There's no one else who could do it justice.

Author Christina Rice puts together the puzzle of Dvorak's life so we can see the bigger picture, even though there are plenty of pieces missing. In other words, the author does a lot with a little. Children usually carry on the legacy of their parents. For those with fame and recognition, their name is held up by future generations who appreciate their work. Dvorak was childless and a forgotten figure of film history by the time she died in 1979. She was lost to us until the home video era and a resurgence in interest in Pre-Code films. Dvorak was rediscovered when so many of us fell in love with her via Three on a Match (1932) and Scarface (1932) among other films.

Ann Dvorak
Photo Source

Dvorak never became a big star but it wasn't for lack of charm or talent. She was rebellious against a studio system that often punished her with suspensions and lackluster roles. Even before Bette Davis and James Cagney, Dvorak stood up against Warner Bros. and the notorious Jack Warner. Dvorak went from child actress to dancer to supporting actress to lead actress, demonstrating along the way her capability to adapt and transform. But true stardom was not meant to be.

Another reason for Dvorak's star's limited rise was because she always prioritized her romantic relationships over her acting career. She was especially invested her her first marriage to actor Leslie Fenton. Their honeymoon took her away from Hollywood for a year but she relished her time abroad. Fenton's influence can be seen in Dvorak's penchant for traveling, reading and even esoteric hobbies such as bacteriology. Dvorak was married three times and her last marriage to Nicholas Wade brought her to Hawaii where she would live out the rest of her days in relative obscurity.

Rice's biography of Ann Dvorak is a wonderfully thorough look at the actress' life and career. Much time is spent on Dvorak's complicated relationship with her mother, who was also an actress and an intriguing figure in Dvorak's life. There are plenty of photos throughout the book and lots of detail about Dvorak's films as well as her TV and theater work. The book starts with a fascinating introduction which serves as a snapshot of Dvorak's life but also demonstrates the author's passion and tenacity for the project.

I highly recommend this book to anyone. Classic film fans and Ann Dvorak admirers will appreciate it as a primary source. I also think readers who appreciate well-written biographies about interesting women of the past will find a lot to enjoy in this book.

A big thank you to the University Press of Kentucky for sending me this book to review.

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