Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Blood on the Moon by Alan K. Rode

Reel West: Blood on the Moon
by Alan K. Rode
University of New Mexico Press
Paperback ISBN: 9780826364692
March 2023
136 pages

“The film transplanted the dark urban environs of the city into the West’s iconography.... Akin to Chandleresque private detective or a returning WWII veteran trudging through the brick alleys and gilded neighborhoods of the apocryphal urban noir environment, Mitchum travels through a similarly alienating domain, where loyalties shift and things are assuredly not what they initially seem.” — Alan K. Rode

Robert Wise's Blood on the Moon (1948) has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. It's come to be appreciated as a notable film of its era—one that strikes a perfect balance between its two genres: the Western and the Film Noir. Based on the novel by Luke Short, the film stars Robert Mitchum as Jim Garry, a gunslinger who is hired by his old buddy Tate (Robert Preston) to settle a dispute between Tate and a cattle rancher. Jim falls for the rancher's headstrong daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and comes to realize that Tate is actually scheming to steal the rancher's cattle from under him. The story unfolds like a Film Noir detective story with a notable Western backdrop, a thrilling bar brawl and a climactic shoot-out.

In 2020 the Warner Archive Collection released a Blu-Ray edition of Blood on the Moon that garnered much excitement from the classic film community. In 2023 the film was screened at the TCM Classic Film Festival to a packed theater. Blood on the Moon was introduced by film historian Alan K. Rode who recently published a book solely about the movie.

Blood on the Moon by Alan K. Rode is part of the University of New Mexico Press' Reel West series in which each book focuses on one particular film from the Western genre. This slim volume on Blood on the Moon offers readers an opportunity to learn about the background of the film, the key players involved and its place in film history.

The book manages to be comprehensive without bogging down the text with superfluous information. The introduction examines the context and importance of the film. The following chapters details the pre-production, in-production and post-production life of Blood on the Moon while giving the reader background on the notable individuals involved. We learn about the author of the original novel, Luke Short, screenwriter Lillie Hayward, home studio RKO, director Robert Wise, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, actors Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Phyllis Thaxter, Robert Preston, Walter Brennan and more.

Some interesting facts from the book:

  • The title Blood on the Moon is a reference to a “hunter’s moon” which appears red or to a total lunar eclipse. It “has been considered a foreboding signal or a portent of doom.”
  • One of the last movies green-lighted for RKO by Dore Schary before Howard Hughes took over.
  • The movie rights to Luke Short's novel Gunman's Chance were bought by RKO. It wasn't developed until director Robert Wise and Theron Wrath came across several versions of the script in the story department and realized that it " a viable film property that had been mishandled by RKO.”
  • "Preston and Mitchum were a simpatico team who worked well together and enjoyed playing practical jokes on Barbara Bel Geddes and Phyllis Thaxter.”
  • “The leading actors were selected by Dore Schary, but Wise cast all the supporting players…”
  • The film had a bigger budget than other Westerns produced by RKO. It still went over budget due to inhospitable weather.

Author Alan K. Rode's Reel West: Blood on the Moon is an informative and engaging read. This concise book gives the reader plenty to chew on without overloading them with too much research. I recommend this book only to readers who are familiar with the movie as you'll need knowledge of the plot and the key players in order to appreciate the information presented to you.

This is my second book review for this year's Classic Film Reading Challenge.

I purchased Blood on the Moon from Larry Edmund's Bookshop this past April. My copy is autographed by the author.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: All for Beauty

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


All for Beauty
Makeup and Hairdressing in Hollywood's Studio Era
by Adrienne L. McLean
Rutgers University Press
Paperback ISBN: 9780813563589
326 pages

Ever since I started following makeup artist and historian Erin Parsons on TikTok (watch her full-length vintage makeup collection tour on YouTube, it’s amazing!), I’ve been interested in learning more about makeup in old Hollywood. So when I saw that Rutgers University Press was publishing Adrienne L. McLean’s new book on studio era makeup and hairdressing, it was a no brainer that this book would find its way into my research library. 

All for Beauty: Makeup and Hairdressing in Hollywood’s Studio Era by Adrienne L. McLean is a scholarly text that examines the business of makeup and hairdressing within Hollywood (silent film era to the late 1960s), the emergence of artists within the industry and the techniques implemented. McLean primarily focuses on “straight makeup” which is to say it excludes costume makeup that is made to exaggerate, depict a historical period or to transform an actor into a fantastical creature. We’re talking foundation, blush, lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, false eyelashes, some contouring, body makeup. Hairdressing is less of a focus but the author does examine the use of wigs in film and how some of the top makeup artists began as wigmakers.

McLean’s book is heady stuff and not a light read. If you're interested in the subject matter, I recommend reading the book a little differently. The final chapter Cosmetics, Coiffures, Characterization is the one you should start with first. This is where movie star makeup is examined at length in terms of intent, method and end result. Then if you find yourself wanting more information on the business side of things or want to learn about the individual artists, then read the introduction and first two chapters.

The author’s intent with the book was to examine, in her words, “why people in studio-era Hollywood movies, usually but not always stars, look so unnaturally perfect on the screen.” Starting in the silent era, there was a pushback against exaggerated makeup on screen. There was a shift towards a more natural look but one that depicted an actress (and actors too) as perfectly flawless. McLean also discusses at length how patriarchy, capitalism, sexism and racism were the strongest forces behind makeup and hairdressing as a business and as a science in the industry. Key figures include: Max Factor, the Westmores, Sydney Guilaroff, Vic Meadows, William Tuttle, Robert Stephanoff, Dot Ponedel, Jack Dawn, Ben Nye, etc.

There are a numerous color and black and white photographs throughout as well as some makeup charts from specific movie productions. It’s a relatively short book at around 300 pages (229 pages of actual reading material before you get to the backmatter). But it's quite dense as its packed with lots of information.

Here are some interesting quotes from the book:

“Motion pictures are often invoked as major factors in turning ordinary women’s cosmetic use into normative, indeed indispensable, components of public femininity rather than signs of moral looseness or depravity.” 

“any application of color or shading was likely to read as a dark blotch or a stark line. Filmmakers working with orthochromatic were therefore unable to employ either foundation or rouge to represent basic states like robust health, a tan, youth, or a bloom on the cheeks. (As Kevin Brownlow remarks, silent actors are ‘strangely pale; there are no olive skins or tanned complexions’ because of the amount of greasepaint and powder used.)” 

Robert Stack wrote in his autobiography “of the efforts studio head Jack Pierce and the ‘makeup boys’ at Universal made to turn him into a ‘young Robert Taylor’ for his first starring role, opposite Deanna Durbin, in 1939, which included darkening and straightening Stack’s hair and giving him a hair lace widow’s peak.”

Lauren Bacall, a former model, had to elicit Howard Hawks’s help to keep Perc Westmore from straightening her teeth, plucking her eyebrows, shaving her hairline and in general ‘redesign[ing her] face’ for her first test in 1943 for To Have and Have Not.” [Hawks wanted her exactly as she was.]

“It was the first stop of the day for most if not all Hollywood actors and makeup artists and hairdressers became some stars’ trusted, and often influential, friends and companions. This was certainly the case with Rita Hayworth and Robert Schiffer and hairdresser Helen Hunt; Barbara Stanwyck and her hairdresser Hollis Barnes; and Marlene Dietrich, Joan Blondell, and Judy Garland and Dot Ponedel.”

“According to [Donald] Bogle, actor Herb Jeffries, who ‘had experimented with makeup for Black Americans,’ also had a substantial impact on the looks of [Lena] Horne and Dorothy Dandridge in their films and personal appearances, although white makeup artists worked on both.”

Cary Grant made himself very tan so he could avoid the use of cosmetics for his films. For North by Northwest (1959), “Eva Marie Saint had to wear foundation, according to [makeup artist William] Tuttle, ‘probably two or three shades darker than we’d put on the average man to get a closer relationship between the two.’”

"[Esther Williams] had to look perfectly groomed underwater as well as on dry land… The body makeup that WIlliam Tuttle eventually settled upon for Williams, a mica-laced powder with the salubrious name of Texas Dirt… Ultimately simple Vaseline mixed with baby oil (Sydney Guilaroff later claimed it was olive oil) was used for the maintenance of her hair in studio tanks and pools."

One of the most famous of Lena Horne’s stories about her early days at MGM in the 1940s has to do with the Max Factor company’s development of a ‘Light Egyptian’ Pan-Cake especially for her (there were other shades of ‘Egyptian’ as well), which Horne claims was instead used on white actors (like Ava Gardner as Julie LaVerne in Show Boat) who were taking roles that Horne herself was not allowed to play."

“The long scar on her left cheek that Carole Lombard suffered as the result of a 1926 automobile accident was acknowledged in interviews and fan magazines at the time, but disguised by makeup as well as careful framing in her films and publicity photos.”

In Mary Astor’s book A Life on Film she wrote “There was eyebrow shadow, brown, and mascara, black and then something that was called ‘cosmetique,’ a black cake of guck that was melted over a spirit lamp and then applied to the ends of the eyelashes with a match or a toothpick. This was ‘beading’: It accomplished what false eyelashes do today…”

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother"

Straight Lady
The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother" 
by Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian
Lyons Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9781493060405
208 pages
October 2022

“For more than four decades, the statuesque funny lady played the role of an austere dowager and grande dame of the social set on stage and screen... Margaret [Dumont] suffered each insult or physical assault with a classic assurance that made her the greatest grande dame in the history of filmed comedy.” — Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian

The Marx Brothers had a winning formula for their success as a comedy team. Each brother had their own individual persona and when put together with their physical antics and whip smart verbal jabs—they really had some of the best comebacks of all time—they created this magnificent maelstrom of chaos that left audiences in stitches. Before making a movie, they'd take their story concept to the stage to perfect their antics before a live audience. By the time the cameras started rolling, they were primed and ready to make movie magic. But one of the most important elements of their formula was having a straight man or lady. Whether it was their brother Zeppo Marx or a comedienne like Thelma Todd, their performances were enhanced by the presence of someone who could keep their composure. Arguably their best comedic partner was Margaret Dumont, a talented actress who excelled at this role and became an important member of the Marx Brothers troupe.

In their book Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother", authors Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian make the case that Margaret Dumont not only played a pivotal role in the Marx Brothers' success but that her own success was intrinsically tied to theirs. Dumont and the Marx Brothers had a sort of symbiotic relationship and while they would work on projects separately, there some something special about their collaborations.

This biography is fairly short with about 159 reading pages. It's clear that there isn't that much information about Margaret Dumont and the authors did a great job filling in the timeline with interesting information about the Marx Brothers and the movies they made with and without Dumont. It reads very much like a Dumont-Marx biographical hybrid. 

Here are some interesting facts about Margaret Dumont from the book:
  • She changed her name from Daisy Juliette Baker to Daisy Dumont and eventually to Margaret Dumont. Her past was riddled with scandal—she was born out of wedlock and the result of an extra marital affair—so changing her name was crucial if she was going to have any success in the theater. She changed Daisy to Margaret when she graduated from ingenue roles to dowager ones.
  • She briefly gave up acting when she married John Moller Jr. and became a society woman. He died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic and after his death she returned to the stage.
  • After the success of The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), the public became convinced that Margaret Dumont was secretly married to Groucho Marx and the two had a difficult time trying to dispel the rumor.
  • Dumont suffered many injuries as a result of the Marx Brothers' physical antics. She was notably injured during the making of Duck Soup (1933) and by the time she made A Day at the Races (1937) she wore a harness "to prevent from having her ribs broken."
  • The Marx Brothers loved to pull pranks on Dumont off-screen. In one instance, they went too far when they called the cops to report Dumont was working as a hotel prostitute. After the incident, Groucho Marx apologized to Dumont and promised that they'd never do anything to hurt her again.
  • Margaret Dumont was passed over for several Marx Brothers pictures. Most notably for Go West (1940) because the thought was that a Western setting wouldn't suit her established persona of a society woman.
  • Dumont collaborated with many comedians including W.C. Fields, Danny Kaye, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton and Jack Benny. She was permanently typecast as a straight lady and "pompous dowager" despite her great range as an actress and singer.
  • Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont reunited for a skit on a TV variety show in early 1965. Dumont died shortly after this reunion and their episode aired one month after her death.

Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother" is an enjoyable read and recommended for Marx Brothers enthusiasts who want to know a bit more about Dumont. The book is very matter-of-fact and it's straightforward and simplistic approach will appeal to readers who want to focus on the information rather than read something with more editorial interjections. The edition I read was a slightly oversized but slim hardcover edition with a beautiful dust jacket and plenty of black-and-white photographs within. 

Thank you to Lyons Press for sending me a copy of this book for review.

This is my first review for the 2023 Classic Film Reading Challenge.

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