Apr 28, 2013

Quote of the Week

Dietrich -- I don't know her. I wasn't on any of her films, but I shouldn't think that Miss Dietrich ever said, "Don't put so-and-so in a scene with me," or "I don't want her in my film." Dietrich didn't have to worry about that. She didn't have to. You didn't look at anybody else in a scene she was in anyway.

- Ann Sheridan

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Apr 25, 2013

Classic Movies at Seattle International Film Festival

Though I would love to be spending time with my fellow classic movie fans at TCM Classic Film Festival right now, I have to say I was thrilled to attend the press launch for the Seattle International Film Festival today. As always, they've got an inspiring line-up of classic films on the schedule, and I can't wait to share them with you all.

The enormous movie event will be from May 16 to June 9 this year. Among some of the goodies to come: gems directed by Elio Petri, Marcel Carné and Laurence Olivier, a classic Indian musical and a horror film from Saul "creator of every credits sequence you ever loved" Bass. And perhaps most exciting of all, I'm going to check out that new print of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, a film I have somehow never seen, despite loving everything else Lloyd has done.

There's no festival quite like SIFF. It is the largest and most well attended in the United States. Seattle is a film town, and this is our crown jewel. I'm going to show you why. Stay tuned for more festival fun!

To learn more about the festival, check out the SIFF site.

Apr 24, 2013

Book Review: When Hollywood Met Hitler

Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939
Thomas Doherty
Columbia University Press, 2013

Whenever I used to think of Nazis in Hollywood, I'd have visions of Bugs Bunny mocking the Führer or newsreels trumpeting the progress of US battles in World War II. I never thought of the period leading up to war, where the world slowly became aware of the horrors unfolding overseas.

Though you wouldn't know it from its screen output, the relationship between Hollywood and Hitler began long before the war began in 1939. Doherty explores this little-discussed period, where studios tread lightly when it came to the rise of Hitler, but resistance to Nazi power increased.

In the early thirties, Nazi Germany began to purge its film industry of Jews. Since this meant also disposing of valuable talent, the Hollywood press responded in baffled wonder, at first casually calling it "the Hitler anti-Jew-thing." Tossing out skilled movie professionals was like throwing away money--and why on earth would you want to do that?

The move crushed the German film industry. While US voices were rising against the Nazis in the early thirties, a pro-Führer film could just as easily be rejected for screenings in American theaters because of poor quality. Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was a firm believer in the power of film to deliver Nazi messages. He was infuriated by the pathetic output caused by his own anti-Semitic dismantling of the industry.

Enter Lena Riefenstahl. The sturdy actress, athlete, dancer and filmmaker made a pair of poetically beautiful films, Triumph of the Will (1935) and the two-part Olympia (1938), with the purpose of boosting the Reich. Even the strongest anti-Nazi voices had to admire the beauty of Riefenstahl's fluid, striking work. While she claimed to the end to only be a freelancer, and not a member of the Nazi party, she was one of the most famous faces associated with the Reich.

Leni Riefenstahl directs
Doherty devotes an entire chapter to Riefenstahl, and it is one of the most fascinating in the book, because it demonstrates how easy it could be to become seduced by the power of the Nazis and justify an association with the Reich. The filmmaker seems to have been completely confused as to why she received a hostile reception when she brought Olympia to Hollywood in the thirties.

While Hollywood did give the cold shoulder to Riefenstahl, it was slow to protest the Reich. When Hitler first came into power, Warner Bros. quickly understood the horror of the situation and closed its German office. Other studios were reluctant to give up profits, when this whole Nazi thing might blow over and business as usual could resume. As tensions rose, more offices closed, with some Jewish employees running for their lives. MGM held out the longest, determined not to lose its profits.

Partly because of Hollywood reluctance to offend Germany, Hitler was a rare sight on screen in the thirties. The subject was practically non-existent in films, and mostly avoided in newsreels. Theater owners also knew that audiences were going to the movies to escape their troubles, and assumed that they would not want to see the troubles the Jews endured under Nazi rule. Still, there were some early anti-Nazi films, such as the docu-drama Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934) and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany (1936), which in a great publicity stunt actually starred the captive in question.

Nazis hovered over Hollywood in the thirties, keeping track of, and occasionally trying to influence activities in the film capital. Often, they would find they had no power. In one incident, Georg Gyssling, the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, sent threatening letters to the cast of an anti-Reich flick, telling them to withdraw from the movie, or else. The move backfired, as the letters were instead published in local trade press to a huge uproar.

Hollywood was a haven for escapees of Nazi rule. The industry welcomed these talents, from the world-famous director Fritz Lang, to lesser-known screenwriters, composers and performers, though it couldn't always give them the same prestige they had in their homeland. Germans like Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch used their resources to help as many new arrivals as they could. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League formed in 1936, and became an influential voice, while actors including Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Gale Sondergaard used their influence to fight against Nazi influence.

By the late 1930s, the violence overseas was impossible to ignore. As it had always been difficult to smuggle film out of Nazi Germany, audiences began to stay home to get more detailed and up-to-date information from radio reports. Hollywood eventually caught up though, and by the time war broke out officially in September, 1939, it was open season on Nazis. Adhering to the belief that "aggression undeterred is aggression encouraged," tinsel town started up its propaganda machine and began to edge its audience towards war.

I hadn't expected to be so captivated by Hollywood and Hitler. Despite the horror of its details, it was a riveting tale. I was encouraged to learn of the people in the film industry who fought the Reich throughout this period, often against impossible odds, through activism, filmmaking and support of the victims of the Reich. Even under pressure, there were plenty who refused to remain silent and I found that inspiring.

This tough, fascinating read is bolstered by Doherty's always impeccable research. Hollywood and Hitler is sure to be an enduring reference for this tense period in history.

Many thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a review copy of the book.

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Apr 21, 2013

Quote of the Week

The secret is to let the audience feel through the actress, rather than having the actress feel for the audience. When you can do that, you involved the audience almost without their knowledge or awareness.

-Shirley MacLaine

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Apr 14, 2013

Quote of the Week

Clark and I were like two kids starting together...nobody knew that he was going to be a legend. [My costars] weren't legends to me. They were just attractive and charming people.

-Myrna Loy

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Apr 7, 2013

Quote of the Week

When asked what it takes to succeed in the acting profession, Bette Davis would answer, "the courage to be hated."

-Frank Langella

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Apr 4, 2013

Roger Ebert Tributes

I look to books for facts and to movies for feelings. -Roger Ebert

There have been so many wonderful tributes to Roger Ebert today, I'd like to share a few that especially touched me.

I've always admired the great love affair between Chaz and Roger Ebert. To me, her loss has been the saddest part of the news today. Chaz' statement is a strong testament to the depth of their connection.

Like the writer of this essay on NPR, I've never known a world without Ebert. I remember watching him and Siskel on TV as an insomniac 12-year-old, and collecting his books as a teenager. Even though I often disagreed with him, I got to know his style so well, that I could tell whether or not I would like a movie by reading one of his reviews and making adjustments for my own tastes.

It was almost more enjoyable to read reviews of the movies Ebert hated. When he became angry about a crappy movie, his voice became much more conversational. It was like he was sitting next to you complaining.

What I liked the most about Ebert was that he was a well-rounded person. You never had the impression that he spent all his time in the movie theater. He seemed to crave adventure, and new experiences, and that feeling extended to the screen:

"Most people choose movies that provide exactly what they expect, and tell them things they already know … What happens between the time we are eight and the time we are 20 that robs us of our childhood curiosity? What turns movie-lovers into consumers? What does it say about you if you only want to see what everybody else is seeing?"

Of course, Ebert never lost that curiosity. I hope that that quality is recognized as a part of his legacy, because while he was famous for his love of the movies, he was great because of the way he could express his love for life.

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Apr 3, 2013

Book Review: Marilyn, by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem
eBook edition, 2013
OpenRoad Media

…Monroe's personal and intimate ability to inhabit our fantasies has gone right on. As I write this, she is still better known than most living movie stars, most world leaders, and most television personalities. The surprise is that she rarely has been taken seriously enough to ask why that is so. -Gloria Steinem

It is no longer bold to claim that that Marilyn Monroe had intelligence, talent and sensitivity. The perception of her as a sex joke is now old-fashioned, so much so that it is almost difficult to believe that so many in her time refused to take her seriously.

Though it is in no way definitive, Gloria Steinem's classic 1988 biography of Marilyn Monroe, now available in this electronic edition, played an influential role in that changed public perception of the troubled actress. After many men had taken a shot at writing about her, here was a sensible feminist thinking through Monroe's life from the viewpoint of a sympathetic woman. She dug into her past to find the reasons for her behavior and the childlike sexpot image she created. Suddenly, the troubled goddess was human.

It wasn't always that way. As a teenager, Steinem slunk out of a screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), embarrassed by the cooing gold digger she saw on the screen. Appreciation of her comedic and dramatic talent took time, as she came to view Monroe's persona as an act of survival in a man's world.

Steinem gave Monroe credit for her intelligence, determination and compassion. She acknowledged that it was a miracle she had the strength she did, given the way her childhood permanently damaged her sense of security, self worth and ability to make lasting connections with others. Maybe Monroe was doomed from the start, but her brilliance gave her the will to change the world, and that is one of Steinem's key points.

Marilyn is more about Monroe the person. Very little attention is given to her film career. You could almost call this a character study instead of a biography. Steinem pokes around the details of her life, revealing the sadness of her lonely childhood and the tawdry events of the starlet years. It isn't a happy story, but you get a sense of Monroe's passion for learning and amazingly modern world view, which seems to indicate she felt some tenderness and joy.

The foundation of the book is an project that was abandoned upon Monroe's death. Shortly before her passing, she had been collaborating with George Barris on a series of portraits and intimate interviews. Recently fired by her studio, she planned to use the project to prove her worth and find work again in the industry that meant so much to her. Years later, it was Steinem's words instead that accompanied the photos.

The Marilyn in Barris' photos is typically charismatic and at ease with the camera. It's astounding how she could reach out through a image and make you feel the force of her personality. I can't think of anyone else who has been able to match that quality.

I viewed the book on a laptop, and I found that some of the photos were a bit blurry and pixelated. Understanding the limitations of the original format, I didn't find that too distracting, or bothersome, but it was noticeable. I imagine they would look sharper on a smaller screen, as with a reader.

This is a classic book, and I'm excited to see it in print again. I love how OpenRoad Media has brought this and other important movie books back into circulation. Here's hoping they'll continue to dig up gems like these from the past.

Deepest thanks to OpenRoad Media for providing a review copy of the book.