Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Book Review: Conversations with Classic Film Stars

Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood's Golden Era
by James Bawden and Ron Miller
9780813167107 - 440 pages
The University Press of Kentucky
April 2016

“We possessed a treasure trove of rare interviews with some of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s golden years.” – Bawden and Miller

When you find yourself sitting on a gold mine, what do you do?  Keep it to yourself? Share it? Lucky for us classic film fans James Bawden and Ron Miller decided to share theirs. New from one of my favorite publishers The University Press of Kentucky, Conversations with Classic Film Stars is oral history in book form. Within its pages are interviews with 34 of the most beloved stars, collected over a few decades by TV journalists Bawden and Miller. Each interview was conducted face-to-face with the individual and recorded on audio. Some of the interviews were one-time occasions whereas others were composites of several conversations. The interview questions are edited for clarity and continuity but the words themselves are directly from the stars. Each conversation gets its own chapter and includes background on the actor or actress, “setting the scene” which describes how Bawden and Miller came to interview the stars, the Q&A format of the interview plus a couple of black-and-white photos for good measure.

The 34 interviews are broken up into 7 categories: Silent film stars, Leading Men, Leading Ladies, Queens of the Bs, Singing Cowboys, Four Very Special Stars and Bob Hope gets his own category Giant of Comedy. Some of the featured stars include:

Jackie Coogan
Gloria Swanson
Cary Grant
Joan Fontaine
Joseph Cotten
Maureen O'Hara
Joan Blondell
Melvyn Douglas
Luise Rainer
Roy Rogers
Jane Greer
Keye Luke
Irene Dunne
and more

Even if you’re very familiar with the star being interviewed there is always some hidden jewel of information to discover. While I was taking notes for my review I picked out one interesting fact from each of the interviews. Here are some notable ones:

  • Gloria Swanson was a champion for organic foods and loved to push her weird bean sprout diet on other people.
  • Van Johnson was hit by a drunk driver and almost died because police were arguing over the jurisdiction of where the accident took place.
  • A Letter to Three Wives (1949) was supposed to be four wives with Anne Baxter as the fourth.
  • Douglas Fairbanks Jr. avoided doing action films while his father Douglas Fairbanks, whom he affectionately called "Pete", was still alive.
  • Anna Lee referred to Fritz Lang as a "sadist".
  • Glenn Ford got his stage name from Glenford in Quebec, his dad's hometown. His real name was Gwyllyn Ford.
  • Rosalind Russell was MGM's back-up Myrna Loy.
  • Keye Luke started out as a fine artist and helped paint one of the original murals in Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
  • Jane Greer developed Bell's Palsy early on in life. This is why we rarely see her smile in her films.

You get a really good sense of the individual’s personalities. Rosalind Russell was fiesty, Van Johnson was very protective of his sexuality, Glenn Ford and Jane Wyman were very fussy, Joan Blondell was as charming as you'd image she'd be and Cary Grant talked about Cary Grant as though he were a separate person. My favorite interview was with Keye Luke, famous for playing Charlie Chan's #1 son. Harold Russell, of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) fame, had a non-profit organization, Harold Russell Association Inc., which helped the disabled get job training and placement. After some research I discovered that the original office is on my daily commute to work!

All of the stars included in the book have passed on (the only exception at the time of this review is Kirk Douglas). There are several recurring themes I've noticed. Because many of the stars were interviewed later in their lives there is a lot of discussion about their TV work in addition to their film career. Most of the stars equated billing in film credits with their current level of success. There is plenty of information about what it was like behind-the-scenes, working with other actors and the challenges of the studio system.

For those of you classic film fans who hail from Canada, many of the interviews took place in Toronto!

I spotted some errors in the book. For example in Jane Wyman’s interview, a publicity photo of her with Ronald Reagan in Brother Rat and a Baby (1940). It incorrectly lists them as the parents in the film when it was really Eddie Albert and Jane Bryan. In the same interview the authors claim that Wyman is the only “movie actress” ever to be married to a president not realizing that Nancy Reagan was also a movie actress. In the intro to Gloria Swanson’s interview, the authors explain why she never married Joseph Kennedy. I don’t think the authors are giving the reader much credit here. We know why! I found the simplicity of the text and the assumption about the reader a bit frustrating but the quality of the content makes up for this.

Conversations with Classic Film Stars

Conversations with Classic Film Stars was a quick enjoyable read. This book is perfect for someone who doesn’t want to invest their time in full-scale biographies but still wants to learn something new and interesting about their favorite stars. And if you’re like me and just devoured a 900 page biography, a compilation of short interviews makes for a great palate cleanser.  Conversations with Classic Film Stars would make a great gift for someone who is just starting to develop a love for old Hollywood or for someone who has had  a life long passion for classic movies.

Thank you so much to The University Press of Kentucky for sending me this book for review!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Anna Karina to visit the US for Band of Outsiders (1964) Restoration Premiere

Anna Karina in Band of Outsiders

French New Wave legend, Jean-Luc Godard muse, style icon and all around goddess Anna Karina is making a rare visit to the United States. She’ll be in California and New York to promote the US premiere and theatrical release of a new restoration of Band of Outsiders (1964). This film is one of several collaborations between Karina and her ex-husband director Jean-Luc Godard which also include A Woman is a Woman (1961), Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Le Petit Soldat (1963),  Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Alphaville (1965) and Made In USA (1966).

Anna Karina in Band of Outsiders
If you’ve ever wanted a glimpse at Anna Karina in person, now is the time! I’ll be at the TCM Classic Film Festival and seeing Anna Karina at a screening of Band of Outsiders is very high on my wishlist. I’ll have lots of competition for the coveted seats in the theater but if I make it in I’ll make sure to report back here.

Now is your chance to see Anna Karina in person and to watch the new restoration of Band of Outsiders!

Anna Karina – Band of Outsiders appearances
April 28th – May 1 – TCM Classic Film Festival – Hollywood, CA
April 29th – Cinefamily – Los Angeles, CA
May 3rd – BAMcinematek – Brooklyn, NY
May 4th – The Museum of the Moving Image – Queens, NY
May 6th – Film Forum – New York, NY (in conjunction with a Karina-Godard one-week festival running 5/6-5/12)

Karina’s tour is funded by Turner Classic Movies, French Cultural Services and Unifrance. The Band of Outsiders was restored by film distributor Rialto Pictures.

Monday, April 4, 2016

On honoring my father's wishes and The Miracle of the Bells (1948)

Timing is everything.

My father passed away in August and since that time I have been in charge of his settling his affairs. Recently I took a day off to get a few errands done including delivering my parents' tax forms and paperwork to their lawyer. He's been in the business for 52 years and still does everything with pen and paper. When I entered his office I was struck by the lack of technology. He had a simple fold out desk, a basic chair, and paperwork scattered everywhere. There was no computer. He did everything the same way he had been doing it for the last half century. I delivered my parents' paperwork knowing that this is what my father would have wanted. He would have wanted his taxes to be done by the same lawyer who had been doing them for the family since the 1980s. He would have wanted them to be done with pen and paper. He would have wanted a paper check for his tax return. As my father's daughter I saw to it that his final tax forms were done the way he would have wanted because honoring the wishes of the dead is the responsibility of the living.

Later that same day I watched the RKO film The Miracle of the Bells (1948). It had been recorded on my DVR in December when TCM had their Frank Sinatra month and I forgot about it. I picked a film at random from my DVR and wouldn't you know it it's a film about carrying out the wishes of someone who has passed away. It's like the universe was waiting for this exact day for me to watch this movie.

It's a bizarre little film. Fred MacMurray plays press agent Bill Dunnigan. He brings the body of deceased actress Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) to her hometown. She left him very specific instructions on what to do after she died. Olga wanted a funeral service held at St. Michael's church, 6 girls dressed as angels surrounding her casket, ringing of church bells and a burial at the top of a hill where her parents were laid to rest. Coaltown is aptly named because of the thriving mining business. The town is also the reason why Olga's parents died and why she died, the coal dust weakened her lungs and tuberculosis set in. Dunnigan's first encounters with the people of Coaltown is disheartening. No one remembers Olga, they speak ill of her father who was known as a town drunk and the funeral director (Harold Vermilyea) wants to squeeze every penny out of Dunnigan. His faith in humanity is restored when he meets Father Paul (Frank Sinatra, yes that Frank Sinatra) of St. Michael's church. Father Paul's humility, patience and willingness to listen allows Dunnigan to open up about Olga's story which the audience see through flashbacks.

Publicity photo of Fred MacMurray, Alida Valli and Frank Sinatra from The Miracle of the Bells (1948).

She's determined to become a star and knows she has very little time to achieve her goal. Dunnigan steps in as her savior in more ways than one.  As it turns out Dunnigan has discovered a wonderful new talent in Olga and works to get her the role of Joan of Arc in a film produced by Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb). Olga turns out a marvelous performance only to die the day after the film is finished. Harris threatens to shelve the film and reshoot it with another star. Dunnigan is determined to save Olga's legacy. He wants to make her funeral a national story. How does he do it? He pays 5 churches of Coaltown to ring their bells continuously for 72 hours hoping this will bring national attention to Olga and change Harris' mind about shelving the film. In order to make a difference Dunnigan will have to go big or go home.

The Miracle of the Bells (1948) might have an odd plot but this quirk film will draw you in and hold your attention. You can't help but root for the main characters even while you're scratching your head with confusion. The first scenes of the film show Dunnigan (MacMurray) bringing Olga's body to Coaltown and this sets a morbid tone to the film. It's not a weepy nor is the film overly sentimental. Which is odd because I think that was the intention in the first place. Because this film is so strange its quirks make it seem more genuine despite of itself. There are religious overtones but it's not heavy handed. Flashback scenes give us plenty of time to learn about Olga and to watch as her relationship with Dunnigan develops. They also give us a respite from the somber tone of the present day's situation.

This movie did not fare well despite it being based on the best-selling novel by Russell Janney. It suffered a financial loss at the box office and it was released when Frank Sinatra's career was on a downward spiral. Most people give this film unfavorable reviews however I liked it despite its flaws. Maybe you just have to be in the right mood to enjoy it.

The Miracle of the Bells (1948) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films.

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