Jan 11, 2023

Book Review--Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner's North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home


 

Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home 
Doris Rollins Cannon 
Down Home Press, 2001 

When I had Ava Gardner Museum board member Lora Stocker as a guest on Watching Classic Movies podcast, she kindly sent a package of goodies from the gift shop afterwards. One of the items was Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home. I’d read more than one book about Gardner, but I was intrigued by the idea of exploring her roots, because I think her pride in where she came from had a lot to do with her appeal. I also loved that it was a local publication, written by the chairman emeritus of the Museum. 

Based on interviews with family and friends of Gardner, it’s a bittersweet volume, because many of these people have passed since the publication of the book. It’s best looked upon as a sort of supplement to Gardner’s memoir (which is referred to here), filling in the blanks, getting to the truth of various stories, and providing a fuller perspective on a woman who was never especially impressed that she became a star. 

The first part of the book tells the story of Ava’s childhood through the eyes of those who knew her. Part two focuses on the years after she went to Hollywood through the lens of her contacts with home. There’s also a chapter devoted to the creation of the museum, in which Ava tries to visit it when it is closed and declines to get someone to open it up because she figured she’d lived it all herself. 

In essence, the book is a collection of anecdotes like that. Gardner never failed to charm, throughout her life, and there’s a lot of love for her here. Unlike many versions of her life story, she isn’t shown to be a miserable, poverty-stricken child. Of course there were lean years, but thanks to the work and care of her devoted mother and a strong family and community, she thrived as a child and didn’t lack anything she needed. I found it a heartwarming read, a brief one too at 142 pages, but there’s a lot to this slim book. Cannon was able to find a remarkable number of people to reminisce. 

When Lora asked me to record a tribute to Ava for the Museum’s celebration of her 100th birthday, a lot of what I had to say was backed up by Grabtown Girl, a tribute to a woman who found strength in her roots. 


Many thanks to Lora Stocker for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 4, 2023

On Blu-ray: Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958)


 

Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) is probably most famous for its poster featuring the titular giantess stepping over a busy freeway with a car in her hand, a bit of creative marketing which doesn’t reflect the plot of the movie in any way. 

While the movie isn’t nearly as sensational as its marketing, it’s nevertheless a fun 66 minutes of sci-fi chaos. I recently revisited the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

It takes most of the running time of this flick to get to the giant action. In the first part of the movie Hayes is the draw, with an over-the-top, but sympathetic performance. She plays a wealthy woman with an unfaithful husband, played with oily sleaziness by William Hudson. 

With a gigantic diamond around her neck that looks like a decoration from a chandelier and tears streaming down her cheeks, Hayes pounds the wall in frustration. She’s hooked on a toxic guy, and she knows she can’t leave him. The only one who cares for and understands her is her butler, but he is powerless to overcome her self-destructive ways. 

Hudson is openly cheating on Hayes with a bubbly blonde played with effortless immoral flair by Yvette Vickers. When Hayes meets an extraterrestrial giant in the desert one night, the alien encounter eventually supersizes her as well. It’s only a matter of time before her hubby discovers the consequences of his actions. 

Understandably, the best part of the movie is when Hayes assumes giant form and begins to take revenge on the world. Up until that moment though, the film moves at a good pace, with brisk action and lively character actors, like George Douglas in a tremendously goofy performance as the town’s sheriff. 

It was strange seeing this movie with such a clear picture after years of less pristine VHS and television viewings. I honestly liked the grittiness before, but seeing everything with such clarity was also a revelation. 

Special features on the disc include a trailer and a commentary by film historian Tom Weaver and Yvette Vickers which was one of, if not the last projects she did before she died in 2010. She does a great job reminiscing; Vickers loved the pace of making ‘B’ pictures and had a lot of happy memories to share about the production of the film. 


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 29, 2022

Review: A trio of fascinating books about Marlene Dietrich

Marlene 
Marlene Dietrich 
2022 (originally published 1989) 

Marlene Dietrich: Photographs and Memories Compiled by Jean-Jacques Naudet 
Captions by Maria Riva 
with Werner Sudendorf 
2022 

Marlene Dietrich’s ABC’s: Wit, Wisdom, and Recipes 
Marlene Dietrich 
Updated Edition 2022 (originally published 1961)  

All from University Press of Kentucky 


It took me a while to decide what I had to say about the University Press of Kentucky’s release of a trio of books about Marlene Dietrich this year, one new, the others reissues. I got a bit hung up on finding the truth of the woman in these publications, when what I truly loved about them was that they communicated her essence, which simply put is what gave her star power. Together, they tell a varied story about a complex woman, revealing different facets about the always vocal star. 
For a more complete story, I suggest reading Maria Riva’s memoir of her mother, but these three books are each essential in their own way. 

As with any memoir, Marlene by Marlene Dietrich tells what the actress was willing to tell, embellished by how she would like to be. She writes in a dramatic, almost poetic fashion, which is similar in style to the song introductions she made when she toured as a singer later in life. 

Dietrich goes into detail about her childhood, her rise to fame, and seems to have been especially affected by her service as an entertainer for the troops during World War II. It's an interesting read and as a story of her life it presents her essence well. I think the truth can be pretty well divined in reading this and Riva’s memoir, but the point of the book is how fascinating it and its author can be.


Marlene Dietrich: Photographs and Memories
is the new release of the bunch. It’s a gorgeous tribute to her aesthetic, which was a unique combination of the elegantly feminine and dapper masculine. An introduction provides context for the images to follow, and captions by Maria Riva lend a richness to the images, which consist of a healthy helping of classic Dietrich photos and color pics of several of her dresses and accessories. The garments are a marvel of style and construction and a visual treat for any fan of fashion.


I was most excited to finally read Marlene Dietrich’s ABC’s: Wit, Wisdom, and Recipes. This book is far more revealing than Dietrich’s memoir. It shows the actress was truly the devoted hausfrau she was rumored to be, deeply respectful of the workers who supported her in her craft, and generally kind at heart, though with a bit of vinegar she doesn’t always try to conceal. The extent of her enormous love for herself is rare to see even in a star; she knew her value and wasn’t afraid to speak about it. For that reason, this is an enormously entertaining book. 

While my excitement over finally reading the ABC’s gives that book an edge in my mind, I can’t say which of these publications I find most essential. Overall, it’s a matter of taste and what aspects of the star the reader finds most intriguing. The full picture here is that Dietrich worked in a profession of artifice but enjoyed a life with down-to-earth pursuits as much as the glamour, maybe even more so. Individually and combined, they present the legend well. 


Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing copies of the books for review.

Dec 24, 2022

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night

 


It's been my holiday tradition for years to share a scene from Lady on a Train (1945) in which Deanna Durbin sings a beautiful version of Silent Night. Well not this year, the video has been removed from YouTube, but a recording of Durbin singing the song is still up, so I'm sharing that! Go see the film too if you haven't, it's a lot of fun.

Season's Greetings and Happy New Year to you all.

Dec 20, 2022

On Blu-ray: A Stunning Cast in John Huston's The Night of the Iguana (1964)


 

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched Night of the Iguana (1964) and I’ve always gone into each viewing thinking of it as an Ava Gardner film. Which isn’t entirely off-base. It’s one of her best; she gets the chance to truly act, still gorgeous, but far from the glossy movie queen image that brought her fame. 

This is much more than a Gardner flick though. It’s full of incredible performances, brought to their heights with the support of director John Huston. It’s best described as a great ensemble piece. I was reminded of that when I recently revisited the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

Based on a stage play by Tennessee Williams, Night of the Iguana is a simple story that covers the breadth of human need and desire, as is typically case with the playwright’s works. Richard Burton is a defrocked clergyman making his living as a tour guide. He trundles up to a cheap Mexican hotel, with a bus full of confused school teachers and one 16-year-old (Sue Lyon) who is determined to seduce him. There he reconnects with the owner of the ragged establishment and widow (Ava Gardner) of an old friend he’d hope to see. Soon they are joined by an artist (Deborah Kerr) and her ailing poet grandfather (Cyril Delevanti), who have no money, but hope their skills will pay their bills from day-to-day. 

What follows is a series of emotional collisions, between the tour guests and Burton (Grayson Hall is especially indignant as their leader), the sexually charged Lyon and Burton, Gardner and Burton, Gardner and the constantly cash-poor Kerr, and at great length, Kerr and Burton. All of these interactions vibrate with the messiness of life. The misunderstandings, missed connections, frustrations, and chaos that come with being human come to life in that particular way Williams had of bringing truth and high drama together. Everyone is at their best here; the set stories that Huston was a sympathetic and encouraging director are shown to be accurate on the screen. 

What struck me on this watch though was Burton and Kerr. They have several frank discussions which I’ve come to see as the most profound strength of the film. These two strangers who have spent their lives staying within certain boundaries open themselves up to each other and enjoy a free and deep emotional intimacy. It’s moving, sad, and in a lot of ways amusing to see them connect and, in a way, hold confession for each other. 

I’m grateful for this film and the many ways it works as entertainment and something a little deeper. It’s a great showcase for its cast and the prime example of how lucky we are that a director as complex and intelligent as Huston had the power of studio budgets and support for as many years as he did. 

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and the illuminating documentary shorts On the Trail of the Iguana and Night of the Iguana: Huston’s Gamble. Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Dec 16, 2022

Video Book Review (w/Transcript)--TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema


I had a great time making this video review of one of my favorite books of the year. There were so many wonderful surprises in TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema. It is a well-written, loving tribute. If you'd rather read the review than watch it, there's a transcript below

   

Transcript: 

What makes a film “cult”? Why do cult films matter? These are questions of never-ending interest to me and I recently got a little more clarification about it from a great new book. 

 There are several things to love about TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema. It’s a varied and entertaining book, perhaps more varied than you’d expect a book of this nature to be. It’s not your typical cult movie tome. 

Based on choices from Turner Classic Movies’ long-running Underground program, there’s a lot of knowledge and excitement about unusual and unconventional cinema to be found here. This is the first book about cult film I’ve read that was written by women. Millie de Chirico is a long-time TCM programmer and is best known for programming for the Underground and serving as host of the channel’s Slumberground YouTube series. She’s also cohost of the I Saw What You Did Podcast, and I enjoyed having her as my guest on the Watching Classic Movies podcast. Quatoyia Murry is a writer and will be a familiar face to viewers of Slumberground as she has made several appearances on the show. 

While de Chirico and Murry split duties on selecting and writing about films for the book, the entries are not marked by author. They are so similar in thinking and style that I wasn’t able to tell who wrote about which film unless I knew previously about a certain favorite (yes, Millie definitely wrote about Elizabeth Taylor in Secret Ceremony). 

The movies are divided into five appropriately rebellious categories: It’s Crime Time, Domestic Disturbances, Fright Club, Rebellion and Youth Movements, and the bizarre topper: Visual Delights and Other Strange Mind Melters which describes a lot of cult films. 

While there are plenty of titles here that will be familiar to cult film fans, there’s also a lot of unusual, lesser-known choices, including several movies that I’d never even heard of, let alone watched. I loved the resulting variety, which, while it certainly included what would generally be considered best-of cult favorites, was also full of personal choices. As a result, I felt more invested in this book. There’s an honesty to the choices because they come from a true love for the films and it gave me more trust in the new-to-me titles. 

I loved the book’s forward by Patton Oswalt. What a perfect choice, Oswalt’s own book about his love for movies, Silver Screen Fiend would be a perfect companion to this one. He writes about cult films, “creating a tiny space of worship and adulation” and I agree that this is one of the important qualities that unifies all movies of this nature. 

De Chirico and Murry also take that almost reverential tone. They respect these wild cinematic journeys. There’s no “so-bad-it’s-good” mockery. And that makes sense, because if a movie is entertaining enough to draw a cult following and inspire several rewatches, then it may not be conventionally good, but it is good. 

I found even the entries from familiar films to be interesting, because going beyond plot descriptions and analysis, each selection is put in perspective according to its time. You get an idea of how different movies challenged perceptions, pushed boundaries, and brought new ideas to the world into which they were released. That can be good to know, because when a movie is familiar or is early in countering ideas that have long since changed with the times, we can start to take it for granted. There’s always a feeling that the authors are explaining why a choice matters. 

I found the sidebars in the book to be useful. They expand your understanding of the choices in a variety of ways, so that you end up with a lot more than 50 films to consider. They come in a few general categories: OMG Moments, a Spotlight On section about a specific actor or filmmaker, Genre-ly Speaking which includes titles related to the entry for more viewing ideas, so you can check out more Canuxploitation for example. 

If you are familiar with any of the books TCM has published in partnership with Running Press, you’ll recognize the format here. Basically, design is handled with as much care as content. There are lots of film stills and movie posters and the layout feels cult without straining to be hip, which is good, because trying to be cool is extremely uncool. 

A small word of warning, I did notice a plot detail that had I seen it before I watched the film, it would have changed my experience in a significant way. Though I can’t recall seeing any others, I wondered if there were some I had missed. It isn’t a big issue, and I think the authors meant to be careful of spoilers, but tread carefully if that is something that matters to you. And I say that as someone who generally doesn’t worry about spoilers because I am usually more interested in the way things happen than the specific twists and turns of the plot. 

This was one of my most highly anticipated books of the year, so I thought I would enjoy it, but it exceeded my expectations. There’s such a high level of care here in choice and execution, a feeling that the authors wanted to make sure every film, star, and filmmaker got due respect. I was also stunned by how much I expanded my to-watch list. I realized how narrowly I had been defining what makes a film cult. In some respects the idea of what fits that category has become the most deadly thing of all: conventional. These choices pushed boundaries just like the films themselves and I appreciated that. 


 Reels/TikToks I have made about films in the book: 




Dec 10, 2022

YouTube Video--A Film Noir/Mystery Christmas: 6 Classic Movies to Watch


 

I've been having a great time making Reels/TikToks lately, so I decided to go a little longer on YouTube. There's a lot of noir/mystery flicks that feature Christmas. I shared some of my favorites: