Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker by Peggy Caravantes

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker
Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy
by Peggy Caravantes
Chicago Review Press
Hardcover - ISBN: 9781613730348
February 2015

Barnes and Noble - IndieBound - Powell's

Josephine Baker was an entertainer in the truest sense of the word. She had a charismatic personality that enchanted audiences and entertained people from around the world. Baker was a tireless worker and traveler and a fearless champion for social justice and civil rights. As the title and subtitle of the book indicate Josephine Baker was many things: dancer, singer, activist and spy but also  visionary, mother, wife, lover, daughter, sister and friend.

Peggy Caravantes' The Many Faces of Josephine Baker is a simple yet informative biography presented with a young audience in mind. Students who read this book will learn about an important figure in the history of African-American performers, the Civil Rights movement, WWII, the Cold War era, the theater life of Paris and much more. I would not limit this book only to young readers as it serves as a nice primer to the life of Josephine Baker. I didn't know much about her and this book served as a wonderful introduction. I plan to read Josephine and the Rainbow Tribe by Matthew Prat Guterl, a scholarly text about Baker's failed utopian experiment. I found this part of Baker's life fascinating. It's thoroughly covered in Caravantes book but my curiosity makes me want to read even more about it.

"As beautiful as the night, Josephine Baker is the dream, the clown, the great sensation of the evening." -  Henri Jeanson

Baker grew up poor in St. Louis. Her poor upbringing had both positive and negative effects on her adult life. It both drove her ambition as well as her reckless spending. At one time Baker was the richest black woman in the world however her financial situation was always on the border of disaster. She spent money on extravagancies, travel, animals as well as social justice projects. She was always running out of money. Baker performed on stage for her entire adult life. When in financial despair, those performances always paid handsomely. Besides, she loved the stage. It was never a burden for her to perform and her talent never dwindled. It's safe to say that Josephine Baker was happiest when she was performing.

"She longed for a happy home life but could not resist the footlight's pull." - Caravantes

How did Baker become one of the most famous black women in the world? Sheer perseverance. Josephine Baker made opportunities for herself and would take advantage of any situation she could find to move up in the theater world. She went from living in poverty in the segregated south to living in Paris and performing at the Folies Bergere. Her knack for dancing and comedic performance as well as her willingness to learn and improve her skills made her talents blossom.

Josephine Baker

This slim volume of a book manages to explore many aspects of Josephine Baker's life. We learn about her love affairs, her husbands and her romantic relationships with women including the author Colette and artist Frida Kahlo. Baker traveled all over the world and made numerous trips through Europe and South America. She felt most at home in Paris. In France segregation didn't exist in the way it did in the US. Baker felt it was unfair that she would be treated well in Paris yet would face racial prejudice in her home country. Baker became one of the earliest figures in the Civil Rights movement and championed many social justice causes. During WWII, she became a spy against the Nazis when she worked for Charles de Gaulle. Until her dying day, she always fought for equality.

"Josephine believed she could do more to advance race relations by performing with interracial casts in Paris than with all-black cast in the United States." Caravantes

The most interesting part of the book for me was the extensive look at Baker's Rainbow Tribe. She adopted 12 children, 10 boys and 2 girls, all from different parts of the world, different races and different religions. She purchased a castle, Chateau de Milandes, which was open to the public. With the Rainbow Tribe, she wanted to prove that people from any race or religion can exist together in harmony. She also championed for a College of Brotherhood, an educational institution based on the same idea of the Rainbow Tribe, but it never materialized. The Rainbow Tribe was in many ways a failure. Her career, and her constant need for money, prevented her from putting enough effort into the project that it required, including being a full-time mother to her adopted children. This book includes a fascinating where-are-they-now? chapter in the appendix about the members of the Rainbow Tribe.

Fans of classic movies will be interested to read about Baker's friendship with Grace Kelly and about Baker's film appearances. Folks who are interested in 20th century history will be fascinated by all the figures who became pat of Baker's life in one way or other. These include political figures such as Fidel Castro, Juan Peron, Robert Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle.

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker is a concise and informative primer on the life of star who made her mark on the entertainment industry as well as on the Civil Rights movement.

Thank you to Meaghan from Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of this book to review! This publisher have some great classic film books coming out this Fall including one on Thelma Todd and a biography on Douglas Fairbanks both of which I can't wait to read!

This is the first of my reviews for my Summer Reading Challenge! I'm on a roll with my reading so I hope to have more up very soon.

Now I leave you with a film clip featuring Josephine Baker's famous banana dance.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

2015 Summer Reading Challenge - First Round-Up

I hope everyone has been having a fantastic summer (or a mild winter if you live in the southern hemisphere). June was such a whirlwind for me but luckily I've been able to catch up on some reading this month. I'm behind on my challenge but glad to see everyone is plugging along. Shout out to Vanessa from Stardust who already has 5 books read and reviewed. WOW!

There is still time to sign up for the challenge! Head on over to the dedicated challenge page and fill out the form at the bottom by 7/15 to enter.

Note to participants. You have to sign-up for the challenge and submit your reviews so I can keep track of everyone.

There are currently 23 participants! I'm very happy that so many of you decided to participate. There are already many wonderful and insight reviews. Below is the first round-up:

B.G. of Classic Reel Girl
Hope: Entertainer of the Century by Richard Zoglin

Eric from Classic Era Movies
All the Best Lines: An Informal History of the Movies in Quotes, Notes and Anecdotes by George Tiffin

Grezilda of Doesn't She Ramble
Nykri Tapiovaara by Sakari Toiviainen
Rock Hudson: His Story by Sara Davidson

Kate from Silents and Talkies
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by Josephine Leslie

Kristina of Speakeasy
Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969
Warner Bros.: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot by Steven Bingen

Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings
Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. by Jacqueline T. Lynch
The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones

Liz from Now Voyaging
Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel by William Wellman Jr.
Garbo by Norman Zierold
A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

Rich from Wide Screen World
Scandalous by J. Torres and Scott Chantler

Vanessa from Stardust
‘Tis Herself by Maureen O’Hara
Ziefeld and His Follies by Cynthia and Sara Brideson
Hollywood in Kodachrome by David Wallis
Some Like It Hot: 50th Anniversary Companion by Laurence Maslon
Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star by Peter Cowie

If I missed your review, let me know!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic
by Cecilia de Mille Presley and Mark A. Vieira
Running Press
Hardcover - pages
November 2014

If you're going to invest in a high quality coffee table book, you shouldn't just go for looks alone. There is a pride in ownership of Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic. Not only is this oversize book a beauty to behold it's also chockfull of interesting information about one of the grandfathers of Hollywood. The glossy pages hold an array of images pleasing to the eye but it's not a book just to flip through. Take your time, pore over the pages, linger on the words, read it like a book for the full experience.

The organization of the text and images in the book is one of the best arrangements I've seen in a coffee table book. It feels organic in its construction. You have the trusted voice of historian and photographer Mark A. Vieira and the insider voice of DeMille's granddaughter Cecilia. There is a little bit of bias because a family member was involved in the book however I never felt it was anything but honest. The book serves more as a tribute to a legendary filmmaker rather than a critical look at his career and it's very transparent about that fact. The front matter includes a glowing introduction by director Martin Scorsese who saw DeMille as a publicity savvy visionary and a foreword by producer Brett Ratner who painted DeMille as a showman whose films served as entertainment for many generations.

If you wanted to give the book an alternate title it could be Cecil B. DeMille: The Showman. The theme of DeMille as entertainer was the glue that holds the story of his life and career together. DeMille's movies were commercial successes because he gave audiences what they wanted; epic stories with fantastic visuals and charismatic stars.

"Mr. DeMille loved to make movies that took you out of your seat and placed you in another time, another world. He was a great showman." - Leatrice Joy

The book is divided into seven chapters with multiple sub-chapters within each. Along with the introduction and foreword we get a short piece by Cecilia de Mille Presley called "My Grandfather" and a preface by Mark A. Vieira about the purpose of the book. The chapters follow DeMille's life and career in chronological order with a bigger focus on his movies more so than his personal life. 

The book is primarily written by Vieira with insights from de Mille Presley presented throughout the book in paragraph-long inserts and quotes in the main body of the text.  There are quotes from voices of the past including Henry Wilcoxon, Mary Pickford, Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, Leatrice Joy, and Cecil B. DeMille himself. Photos throughout the book have detailed captions adding nice additional content. The book also contains artist renderings, costume design sketches, behind-the-scenes photos, production notes, photographs of film memorabilia and publicity photos. Most photos are a good size with some stretching out over double page spreads and others tucked in among text. Some material has never been seen before.

"DeMille took a great deal of care with the production stills for his movies." - Martin Scorsese

DeMille knew these would be useful in promoting his films and today they make up the pages of this beautiful coffee table book. This is the first pictorial coffee table book about DeMille and the visuals help you escape into the world of his films.

There was a lot of interesting information in the book. I liked reading about DeMille's long working relationships with Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Gary Cooper and Henry Wilcoxon.

"He believed in women's abilities. Not many other producers were hiring women for jobs behind the camera at that time." - Katherine de Mille Quinn

DeMille was influenced by art and was a very visual director. Critics didn't like his work but the public loved him. His films were known for lavish sets, exquisite costumes and bathtub scenes. He loved to add an element of sex to his movies. I love this quote:

"Motion pictures cannot be made without sex. Take it away from films and you take away their very life." - Cecil B. DeMille

Throughout the book readers learn about the various studios DeMille worked with, the actors, actresses, visual artists as well as behind-the-scenes tales from his extensive catalog of films.

Films covered in the book include:
The Squaw Man (1914) and (1931)
The Ten Commandments (1923)
The King of Kings (1927)
The Godless Girl (1929)
Dynamite (1929)
Madam Satan (1930)
The Sign of the Cross (1932)
This Day and Age (1933)
Four Frightened People (1934)
Cleopatra (1934)
The Crusades (1935)
The Painsman (1936)
The Buccaneer (1938)
Union Pacific (1939)
North West Mounted Police (1940)
The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944)
Unconquered (1947)
Samson and Delilah (1949)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The Ten Commandments (1956)

Here are some images of the book in all it's glory! These include my favorite spreads.

On Samson and Delilah - "As concerned as he was with details, DeMille's primary focus was on five big scenes. These could be advertised. These would prompt word of mouth. These had to be show stoppers, played by bigger-than-life stars in eye-catching costumes." - Vieira

I could tell this book was lovingly put together with great attention to detail. Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic is a great investment in your classic film library and a must-have for fans of old Hollywood.

Thank you to Running Press and their PR team for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Note: This review is not an entry of my summer reading challenge! I should be reviewing my challenge books soon.

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