Jul 30, 2014

Book Review--The Wizard of Oz FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Life According to Oz

The Wizard of Oz FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Life According to Oz
David J. Hogan
Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2014

The title The Wizard of Oz FAQ doesn't quite accurately describe its contents. Rather than simply providing the answer to frequently asked questions about the monstrously popular Oz, it attempts to cover its entire universe, with varying success. It starts with the books written by Frank L. Baum and continues beyond the production of the 1939 film to its overall effect on the culture at large. It doesn't add up to a cohesive whole, but there are lots of fascinating tidbits in its 400 pages.

The book's biggest problem is that it lacks flow. This is primarily due to the many side trips it takes for biographical sketches, additional information about elements of the main text and other assorted trivia. Sometimes these asides are interesting, but for the most part they feel unnecessary and weigh down the narrative.

I found the profiles especially draggy; particularly those of peripheral players like the original tin woodsman Buddy Ebsen, who had little to do with the final film. It wasn't necessary to get a full career overview of an actor whose voice would be heard in a few songs, or of other cast and crew members who would have little to do with the final product. These sections take focus away from the film, rather than increasing interest in its background.

It was interesting to learn about the different influences on the production of The Wizard of Oz. This was the rare film directed and written by committee that turned out well. Its multiple creative influencers shaped the look and feel of the production in several ways, occasionally going in strange directions. Director George Cukor served briefly as a consultant on the film and his suggestion to tone down Garland's doll-like Dorothy make-up and hair so that they would better suit a Kansas farm girl surely did much to solidify the film's legacy. The script was also similarly streamlined, and saved from being dated with the removal of a scene where the characters are attacked by "Jitterbugs" while singing a tune that was very much of its time.

I also enjoyed learning about the many details that made up a production of this size. How many banks of hot arc lights, munchkins, backdrops and carefully constructed costumes it took to make it all look effortless. Some of the trivia is enjoyably odd, like that Terry, the terrier who played Toto, had to have an enema every morning so that he wouldn't leave any deposits on the yellow brick road.

There's a lot more information here about The Wizard of Oz than I wanted to know, probably more than most people would want to know. It's not an enjoyable cover-to-cover read. However, the book is structured so that it is easy to pick and choose from different elements, from the history of Oz overall to specific areas like costumes and music. It covers so much ground that it's bound to have something to please any Oz fan, and for readers who want to totally geek out on the subject, it's a bonanza.

Many thanks to Applause Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jul 21, 2014

On DVD: The Counterfeit Plan (1957) and Slander (1957)

This week I watched a pair of new releases from Warner Archive, both made in 1957. They differed so much in sophistication that it was hard to believe they hit theaters the same year.

The Counterfeit Plan is the less glossy of the two, a brisk Warner Bros. release featuring the reliably sleazy Zachary Scott as Max Brant, a convicted murderer who escapes the gallows ready to commit a new crime. In a brutal opening scene, his convoy is attacked on a road in the French countryside. With his captors dead, Brant flees to a waiting plane with one of his rescuers and is flown to England.

There they invade the estate of former partner-in-crime Louie Bernard (Melvyn Johns). Brant blackmails the world-weary retired criminal into setting up shop again. He needs his forgery skills to start a large-scale counterfeiting operation.

It's remarkable the amount of effort this thug puts into the project too. He's clever, hardworking and ambitious. It's difficult to understand why he didn't just go legit in the first place, but then this is a killer. He has trouble in his blood. It's clear that there's no way this risky scheme could go on for long, but Brant and his associates plug ahead, quickly finding buyers for their fake cash and setting up a distribution network.

Bernard's daughter (Peggie Castle) shows up unexpectedly, reminding Max that he hasn't left much time for play. Repulsed by his leering and the revelation of her father's criminal past, she puts all her resources into escaping. She finds quite the match in the nasty Brant.

The Counterfeit Plan is reminiscent of many crime flicks, but it has character, avoiding the rut of its clichés. This is mostly due to Scott, who is magnetically evil, though never a bit attractive or sympathetic. He speaks in this hypnotically deep voice with a nasty little rattle at the back of it. As rotten as he is, you understand why he has won the loyalty of his men. He's reliably clever and he never panics, because he always has a plan.

It's great fun to see Scott released from the studio settings of many of his more famous films. He's an edgy actor, full of well-compressed energy. It makes more sense to see him outdoors occasionally, with the wind blowing in the trees and unexpected sights like a random shot of a feral cat strolling by in the background.

The movie also takes its subject very seriously, sharing many details about the complex work of counterfeiting. It's amazing how exhilarating it can be to learn about paper pulp, chemicals, ink and watermarks when it is presented at the right rhythm. It makes the shock of its violent moments more surprising. This is an engrossing little crime flick.

While Slander is in a fashion just as brutal as The Counterfeit Plan, the MGM production feels almost childish in its lack of complexity. In an atypically subdued performance, Steve Cochran is H.R. Manley, publisher of the Hollywood Confidential-style tabloid Real Truth.

The magazine's motto is displayed in large letters on an imposing sign in Manley's office: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." He lives by this too. Despite the title, there is no actual slander to be found in this film.

Manley is plenty of trouble though. Not all psychopaths are serial killers; Cochran plays the publisher with an unrelenting coldness that leaves no doubt that he will not have a charming change of heart by the final scene. He ignores any truth that doesn't please him, anything that threatens his feeling of control. His own mother, whose life he has planned to the minute, can see the evil in him.

Faced with declining sales, Manley looks for dirt about a Broadway star with a spotless reputation. Scott Martin (Van Johnson), a children's puppeteer on the rise was a childhood friend of the actress and he knows her secrets. He also served four years for a violent crime he committed as a youth, desperately trying to help his poor and sick mother. The publisher tries to strike a deal, Martin gives him information, he doesn't print the story about his troubled past.

Martin is too decent to betray the actress to save himself. Manley follows up on his promise and the puppeteer is ruined, losing a prestigious television gig. His wife (Ann Blyth) and son (Richard Eyer) stand by him, but they suffer.

Slander moves along grimly, tight with tension, but oddly not very suspenseful. After Martin is exposed, he and his wife are hit with a string of hardships, some expected, others shocking. The worst of them feels off, giving a certain inevitability to the outcome that's a bit deflating.

In a more compelling film, that misfortune could have had some weight, but Slander's message is too simplistic, almost scolding. It makes it clear that scandal sheets are bad, but doesn't offer much more commentary. In a downbeat situation with nothing to mull over, it's difficult to maintain enthusiasm.

Though Blyth and Johnson are a bit stretched in their borderline melodramatic roles, they are deeply sympathetic. Neither of them are particularly powerful performers, but they exude an appealing strength and decency. It was also fascinating to see the usually blowsy Marjorie Rambeau in a quiet, but intense performance as Manley's mother.

Slander is an adequately engaging drama, appealing enough for fans of the stars.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review.

Jul 16, 2014

Book Review--Sharon Tate: Recollection

Sharon Tate: Recollection
Debra Tate
Running Press, 2014

Sharon had real talent. She was going to be a big star.
-Deborah Kerr

She had the world at her feet, but never lost touch with who she was, or became blasé about how fortunate she had become. The superficiality of the movie world didn't fool her one bit.
-Claudia Cardinale

I've often wondered what Sharon Tate would have accomplished had she lived longer than 26 years. She was blessed with the most remarkable gifts: jaw dropping beauty, a kindness of heart that gave her useful vulnerability as an actress, and a laid back skill for comedy that brought a wry sparkle to movies like The Wrecking Crew (1966), one of her last screen appearances.

In Sharon Tate: Recollection, the actress's sister Debra has compiled a collection of photos and memories from those who knew her, while adding her own fond reminisces about her famous sibling. It's a much-needed tribute.

It's always frustrated me that the events of Tate's death have so thoroughly overshadowed what she accomplished in the years before. The blossoming actress made an enduring impact, primarily as one of the great beauties of her generation and as a bold fashion influence, but also for her remarkably pure perspective on life and dynamic screen presence.

Recollection is essentially a coffee table book, dominated by photographs. Most of them are from the years Tate was famous, though there's a healthy collection of shots from her childhood. Beautiful even as a baby, she won her first beauty contest while still in diapers. The early photos are of a happy, close military family. These previously unpublished photos, and the memories of those who knew her as a child were fascinating to explore.

Later photos are mix of stills, publicity shots and public appearances, with a sprinkling of private pics. There's also a good gallery of Tate's magazine covers and lots of posters. Many of these are presented beautifully, with lots of full-page images and a clean, simple design.

My only complaint was that several images were arranged so that they spread from a full-page image across to half of the adjoining page. In almost every case where this format was used, I would have rather have seen an uninterrupted image on a full page than a larger, broken one.

The text is light, though poignant. It's presented in an extra large font, which balances nicely with the images. About half of the quotes in Recollection are already widely disseminated across the web and other media. Many are thoughts from people who are now gone, most of all Sharon, but also her mother, costars like Orson Welles and David Niven and admiring friends including Truman Capote and George Harrison. As familiar as some of these sentiments were, I did enjoy seeing them compiled this way.

There were also several short recollections written specially for the book, among them thoughts from friends Jane Fonda, Joan Collins and former costars Patty Duke and Lee Grant. Tate's husband Roman Polanski also contributes a short, bittersweet foreword. It's touching, and at the same time almost tedious, how similar a lot of these memories are. Clearly Tate didn't put a mask on for anyone, because their recollections of a gorgeous, gentle and intelligent woman almost seem to have been agreed upon.

It is that openness and sensitivity that had set Tate on the road to great success. Maybe she looked perfect in a bikini, but she was always more than a body. That she was beginning to transcend that so early in her career is astonishing. In its images and essays, Recollection captures all these facets of Tate, crediting her for how she focused on her craft and the unique way she approached a brutal industry.

As joyful as it can be, Recollection is a tearjerker. There's no way to avoid it. The loss of Sharon Tate is too great. It is impossible not to wonder what could have been. Still, it is above all else a celebration, and one I enjoyed very much.

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

This is a great interview with Tate, in which she is promoting her first film, The Eye of the Devil (1966). You get a great sense of her intelligence and charisma:

Jul 9, 2014

Book Review: The Man Who Shaped Hitchcock's Style

Hitchcock's Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett
Charles Bennett, ed. John Charles Bennett
University Press of Kentucky, 2014

One of my fans...took my virginity on a cemetery gravestone. We were in the churchyard, and I remember she did not remove her hat.

It was necessary to put Hitchcock in the title of actor, producer, director, and above all, writer Charles Bennett's posthumous autobiography, and not just because it was with the director that he did his most notable work. This entertaining book would have slipped away without notice had there not been the draw of that famous director's name. As can be seen from the quote above, there was plenty excitement in his life beyond working with the master of suspense.

Screenwriters have always gotten the shaft in Hollywood. They're the ink-stained wretches shoved away in a suite of offices, expected to produce brilliance, but generally not celebrated for it unless they also direct their work. And this is a shame, because a good script is the first stop on the journey to cinematic greatness, it's the birth of the story, and the elements that give it form.

That's just what Bennett did for Hitchcock in his UK years. The pair collaborated on six features. Writing scripts for the likes of Blackmail (1929), The 39 Steps (1935) and Sabotage (1936), the young screenwriter all but pioneered the modern suspense film, giving it a structure and character that continues to influence movies today. A lot of the praise we pay Hitchcock belongs to this writer who was so sensitively attuned to the rhythm of suspense.

Though he was never again quite as inventive as in those early years, Bennett led a productive, thrilling life. As a young man in England, he survived fighting as an underage soldier in World War I, found modest success as a stage actor and eventually discovered his passion for writing.

He wasn't all work though, in his early years there were plenty of parties, with some of the brightest talents of the day. At one wild Fleet Street gathering, a guest disappeared across the rooftops, and when he returned from exploring the city from this point of view, he was found to be the budding writer Evelyn Waugh. Bennett's story is full of bright, curious characters like these and with his adventurous approach to life, he belonged among them.

Bennett writes in an entertaining, energetic style. I found myself racing through the text, though it was full of rich, colorful details. It was like being strapped into a speeding race car, exhilarating, but with an uneasy feeling of impending disaster. 

He packs in a lot of stories without overloading his narrative. Chats with a nude Tallulah Bankhead in her dressing room fit right in with tales of his relationship with George Gershwin, the time mobster Bugsy Siegel was a tenant in his California home and his risky spy work during World War II.

There are likely plenty of tall tales in Bennett's biography, and he clearly leaves out many of the darker elements in his life. These holes in the story are addressed by the writer's son, and book's editor, John Charles Bennett in a couple of devastating, but I felt necessary chapters at the end of the book. Hearing of the struggles of the younger Bennett's mentally and physically ill mother, his father's second wife, and of his own horrifying childhood pulls a lot of air out of the story Bennett senior floats, but also adds poignant depth to what has come before.

It would be a huge mistake to ignore Hitchcock's Partner in Suspense because it isn't about a glamorous star or an eccentric director. Bennett's story reflects the relative freedom of a screen and stage writer to experience all life has to offer, in comparison with a more set-bound star. It's one of the most fascinating entertainment biographies I've read, alive with the perspective of a man who was passionate about adventure, the craft of writing and the world around him.

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