Oct 29, 2014

Book Review--Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema

Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema
Anne Helen Petersen
Penguin/Plume, 2014

Scandals of Classic Hollywood is not as scandalous as the sensational cover would have you believe, but it succeeds in its own way. Instead of titillating with the sex and deviance promised in the title, this is essentially a thoughtful examination of tinsel town celebrity from the 1920s to the end of the studio system in the 1950s.

Based on Buzzfeed writer and former professor Anne Helen Petersen's beloved Scandals of Classic Hollywood series on Hairpin.com, it draws on some of the information covered on the website, but is almost entirely new text. The tone is also different, more serious, less bloggy. Which is a shame, because I know that light tone is what endears a lot of people to the writer who is affectionately known as "AHP" by devoted fans.

As a sort of antidote to the fact-flouting sensationalism of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, Scandals relies on research to cover some of the most notorious events and personalities in Hollywood history, and several that are considerably less explosive. Stories include Fatty Arbuckle's murder trials and Wallace Reid's struggle with drug addiction, which are contrasted with the more benign, if highly public romances of famous lovers including Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and Bogie and Bacall.

The fourteen subjects are revealed, analyzed and treated with great compassion. These profiles are less about digging up dirt than going into the past to demonstrate how little gossip and perception of celebrities has changed.

Though I enjoyed the book for the most part, there were several things in Scandals that rankled the film nerd in me. I was distracted by little inaccuracies, like that the mansion that housed Biograph in New York was referred to as a studio lot, and bigger gaffes such as the claim that the notorious model Evelyn Nesbit Thaw's lover killed her husband when in fact it was her jealous hubby who pulled the trigger on her former lover Standford White. I'm nitpicking, but I'm always wary of any work where easily accessible facts such as these are missed.

There were also statements I took issue with, like the claim "…Jean Harlow was an ice queen, beguiling men with her aloof coolness…" What? No, there was nothing about Harlow that was icy or aloof, whether on screen or in her own life. Think of Red Dust, Bombshell and Public Enemy, among many more. The woman was all heat.

It was things like this that made me feel Petersen had done some good research, but didn't really have a true understanding of the golden era of Hollywood. She's studied it enthusiastically, and she makes interesting observations about that time, but it isn't in her bones. The depth at which she does understand the era is sufficient for an interesting read, but could prove frustrating for more devoted fans.

As one who clearly falls high on the movie geek spectrum, there was little here that was new to me, but I appreciated Petersen's analysis of the stars and their times. I especially liked the final section, in which Petersen discusses Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. She makes some great observations here, discussing the way the men influenced each other, and the movie industry, in a thought provoking manner.

Overall, the book was an interesting read. Petersen has combined her academic roots and blogging experience into an intelligent and highly readable style. The text always flowed nicely and was never dry to me, though I can see how it might disappoint readers in search of something jucier. It is not likely to be a revelation for the TCM crowd, but could be a good start on classic Hollywood culture for emerging film obsessives or for those fascinated with celebrity culture.

Many thanks to Penguin/Plume for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 27, 2014

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) on Blu-ray

When I settled in to watch the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of Yankee Doodle Dandy, I was expecting good, corny fun. Lively dance numbers, old-fashioned tunes--sweet-natured stuff. It had been several years since I'd seen it, and I had forgotten the emotional impact this deeply patriotic film could have. As I later snorted into a soggy tissue, I remembered.

There are several things that make this highly-fictionalized biopic of composer George M. Cohen good: legendary songs, straightforward, but energetically paced production numbers, smooth direction by Michael Curtiz and a cast including seventeen-year-old Joan Leslie and Walter Huston.

James Cagney makes it great though. It's a pleasure just to watch him move. He's made of springs, jelly and grasshopper legs. His dancing is great, he apparently did a fine impression of Cohan's stiff-legged style. However, it's just as much fun to watch him walk, turn his head or poke his finger in the air.

He was so alive, so explosive that you can see why he was cast as all those live-wire mobsters, but the actor also used that quality to great effect in Footlight Parade (1933). How could Warner Bros. have allowed nine years to pass before they cast Cagney in another musical? I always think of him as a great musical star, but sadly those were his two big opportunities to show what he could do in tap shoes, and so little at that in the earlier film.

Cagney was a life-long dancer though. In his autobiography, he talks about taking out his tap board whenever he felt the need to get a little exercise. He was always in good form and he proved that in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

What makes Cagney's performance a cut above the typical musical leading man was that he was also a deeply effective dramatic actor. That is what elevates this production beyond a simple fantasy about a famous man.

Of course there's more to this meticulously crafted film. The period details are strung together nicely, from the elaborate costumes to gas flames flickering from wall sconces in the vaudeville dressing rooms. One of the best thing about this Blu-ray edition is that you can enjoy all the craft that went into what you see on the screen.

By now I'm used to having my socks knocked off while newly appreciating a movie on Blu-ray, but I found I was especially appreciative of this one. I've always thought that this musical would have been more effective in color, but after seeing it in Blu, I no longer feel that way. I changed my mind in the middle of the famous Yankee Doodle Dandy number, when the camera scanned a line of chorus girls garbed in glamorous gowns.

You could see every strand of their swept up hairdos, each detail of their gowns. There was added sparkle in their jewelry. It elevated the whole experience.

Special features include a trailer, commentary by Warner Bros. film historian Rudy Behlmer, several audio clips of song rehearsals, a radio show, a cartoon, a short documentary of the making of the film, and a rather brutal wartime short starring Cagney, Ann Sothern and a very young Margaret O'Brien orating for dear life. Leonard Maltin also presents "Warner Night at the Movies" which adds a Casablanca trailer and newsreel to mimic a 1942 cinematic program. I was especially touched by a brief interview with John Travolta, in which he reminisced about his five year friendship with Cagney.

I'm delighted to have been reminded what a treasure this film is. I can just imagine how comforting its patriotism must have been to a country at war. Today that feeling of pride still rings true in an age of deeper cynicism.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 23, 2014

Book Review--Paul Robeson: A Biography Re-Released as an Ebook

Paul Robeson: A Biography
Martin Duberman
Open Road Media, 2014
(Originally published 1988)

Equality might be denied, but I knew I was not inferior.


It's been a long struggle that I've waged, sometimes not very well understood.


It is because Robeson made his protest bitterly that we can be more light-hearted now.

-Harry Belafonte

I've admired the multi-talented Paul Robeson for many years and according to my blog stats, the readers of A Classic Movie Blog do as well. My profile of the singer, actor, athlete and activist has been in my top five post views since I first published it in 2010. I always knew I had a lot more to learn about this remarkable man though, so when Open Road published a new ebook version of Martin Duberman's exhaustive 1988 biography, I knew I had to finally read it.

Though I knew Paul Robeson had led and intense and often difficult life, I was not prepared for the emotional impact of this book. It is expertly written, and astonishingly well organized given the number of details Duberman had to work with, but it was almost overwhelmingly difficult to absorb the indignities and stress this mighty man endured.

Still, if you admire Robeson, this is the definitive version of his life. His story is as rich and vibrant as it is devastating and here you get the full scope of it, and told from a satisfying variety of perspectives.

Duberman was approached by Robeson Senior's son, Paul Robeson Jr. (who died in April of this year) to write the book. He gave the author unprecedented access to the Robeson Family Archives which he supplemented with several dozen interviews with many of Paul Senior's co-workers, friends and family.

Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was a reverend; his mother died in an accident when young Paul was six. The son of an escaped slave, he did not encounter intense racism in his early life, but he was also not immune to its insults and he learned quickly to have pride in himself despite the way society viewed his race.

He was a football player at Rutgers, where he endured violence from racist opposing team members and attained hall of fame status. The young student also excelled as an orator, bringing audiences to tears with his moving presentations. Law school followed, but upon graduation, Robeson found that he could not find clients, and even secretaries that would work with a black lawyer.

By then Robeson had met and married his wife Eslanda, known as Essie. It was the beginning of a complicated relationship in which she would try to control him and he would abandon her frequently for other women, tours and whatever else might grant him freedom, income or both. Still, she was a smart woman and she understood that Robeson's gifts needed to be nurtured.

Essie steered Robeson towards the stage and concert singing. He quickly found success and for the rest of his life, whatever controversy dogged him, he was always able to make a living as an entertainer. There were journeys to Europe, where he found even more success as an actor and concert singer. He also fit several movies into the mix, though he often struggled to ensure his performances would be a source of pride to his race.

Always rigidly intolerant of racism and segregation, Robeson devoted himself to the elevation of his race, and particularly in the United States. He fell in love with the Soviet Union, where, apparently blind to the country's human rights issues, he raved about the respectful way people of color were treated. Accusations of communism were flung, the US government got nervous, in the end, Robeson would lose his passport for a decade and suffer excruciating blows to his reputation.

Duberman relates these events of Robeson's life in remarkable detail. This is especially amazing considering that Paul did not keep journals and didn't like to write letters. Fortunately, Essie was prolific on both counts, and her voice often dominates the early portions of the book. Duberman is careful to note where Mrs. Robeson strays from the truth, or at least puts a rosier lens on unpleasant events.

Essie's account of Robeson's life is balanced nicely by the many interviews he conducted, several of them with true intimates of the man. He was clearly a complicated person and the many facets of his personality are presented more than examined by Duberman. There is plenty of analysis from his interviewees.

Though Robeson only appeared in a handful of films, he made a significant impact as one of the few black men who played substantial roles in the movies of his era. From the experimental film Borderline (1930) and the Oscar Micheaux production of Body and Soul (1925), to his legendary performance in Show Boat (1936) and strong British films such as Jericho (1937), his influence was widespread. While his cinematic performances were for the most part a sideline to the rest of his career, I felt there was sufficient coverage of his roles to satisfy movie fans.

In fact, I would recommend this edition of the biography to anyone curious about Robeson's film work, because at $2.99, it is worth the price to simply read those sections. Not that I would recommend that. Paul Robeson led a rich, fascinating life, and his story is worth reading from beginning to end.

Overall, this book remains an awesome achievement and a must-read now that it is so accessibly priced.

Many thanks to Open Road Media for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 21, 2014

On DVD: Olivia deHavilland Goes Screwball in Government Girl (1943)

As a screwball comedy, Government Girl misses the mark, but while the laughs never come when they seem to be prompted, I was never bored watching this film. It's not exactly good, it definitely isn't bad, or even so bad it's good. Perhaps the best description is odd.

Olivia de Havilland is Elizabeth "Smokey" Allard, a secretary working for the US in packed-to-the-gills World War II era Washington. Assigned to an ambitious munitions manufacturer (Sonny Tufts) with plenty of business savvy, but no knack for handling government red tape, she helps him navigate D.C. politics and falls in love. Given the lackluster, and sometimes unpleasantly aggressive attitudes of her other suitors, you can't blame her.

Smokey also tries to find a private room for her perky roommate May (Anne Shirley) and her new husband, a sergeant who she married on his leave, and tries to manage the slights of Agnes Moorehead as a breezily snooty D.C. hostess. In fact, there's rarely a moment that she isn't blasting full speed ahead to solve some kind of a problem.

The cast is decent, several rungs above serviceable, but they often seem to be acting in different films. Most noticeable is the lack of chemistry between de Havilland and Tufts. It's hard to believe they have much interest in each other, let alone feel blossoming love. Moorehead comes off the best, cozily comfortable in her deliciously rude role. She elevates everyone around her in her brief scenes.

It's easy to spot the scenes that are supposed to be hilarious. There's a wild motorcycle ride and a drunk scene so wacky you wonder how it even came to be. I don't recall laughing much at either, but I loved both of them. The pacing was weird, and there was no magic to the execution, but the actors are uniformly goofy, as if they all came from the same insane asylum. There's palpable energy here, if misdirected, and it was fascinating to watch.

I enjoyed the way Government Girl explored the challenges of life in D.C. in the early days of the war. The city was full of young women working temporarily for the war effort. They filled every available room, preened for the few eligible bachelors in town and scrambled for steak, stockings and other wartime rarities. All of these issues are played for humor and hit the mark more often than not.

I'm not a big fan of de Havilland, I respect her more than I like her, but her missteps in Government Girl almost made me adore her. I've read that she desperately did not want to make this film. She had been fighting for stronger roles and this part on loan-out to RKO did not meet her standards. In fact, she would not make another film for two years as she fought to be released from her Warner Bros. contract.

I didn't know that when I watched the movie, but in hindsight, I'm guessing that the weird vibe I kept catching from her was resentment. Maybe she overplays and flails around because she actually couldn't handle this kind of comedy, but I wonder if some of the off-kilter quality of her performance comes from boiling anger. Perhaps that's why even though she isn't particularly funny, de Havilland is strangely appealing in this role. The fire in the real woman was colliding with the frothy intent of her character.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 19, 2014

Quote of the Week

Looking at yourself in a mirror isn’t exactly a study of life.

-Lauren Bacall

Quote Source

Oct 16, 2014

On DVD: Billie Dove and Marion Davies in Early Talkies

I've been enjoying checking out a few of the early talkie rarities recently released by Warner Archives. Last week I wrote about Bette Davis' breakout role in The Man Who Played God (1932). While that film helped launch an actress at the beginning of a legendary career, One Night at Susie's (1930) and Five and Ten (1931) feature two stars in the final years of screen stardom, in addition to a scene stealing turn from a formidable character actress.

Marion Davies and Billie Dove were both popular actresses of the silent age. When talkies came along, they each made a fairly smooth transition, though neither of them would act in films for much longer. It was the beginning of a decline in popularity for Davies though, while Dove, though still popular, was ready to retire from the screen. Helen Ware, a busy supporting player in silents and early sound features never had the glamour girl image of co-star Dove, but she dominates One Night at Susie's with a soulful, powerful performance.

In this pair of dramas, you get a pleasing glimpse of how these ladies navigated early talkies.

In One Night at Susie's (1930), Mary (Billie Dove) is a showgirl who kills a predatory producer to save her virtue. Boyfriend and press writer Dick (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) insists on taking the rap, much to the dismay of his foster mother, the titular Susie, played by Ware.

Susie runs a boarding house, where she serves as a sort of den mother to reformed mobsters. She's got the respect of these thugs, even arranging a ceasefire between two warring gangs in the opening scenes.

Dick is the orphaned son of a convict and Susie has essentially raised him, making sure he doesn't turn out like her boarders. When her young ward becomes engaged to Mary, she is wary, but eventually comes to understand that the showgirl is loyal, and just as devoted to Dick's happiness as Susie.

It's a smooth little drama, with an odd mixture of charm, sleaze and tension. At just over an hour (contrary to the 92 minute time listing on the DVD case), it wraps up just before the action becomes a bit too creaky.

Dove is cute in her sleek cloche hats and Fairbanks is charming, though unfortunately slathered with a distracting amount of dark eye make-up in his prison scenes. Ware really does steal the film though. She's the only truly relatable character, because she makes you feel her dilemma and the depths of her motherly love for Dick.

I was also impressed by the set design in Dick's trial scene. The strange hybrid of art deco and expressionist styles, minimalist furniture and tall ceilings gave the proceedings a aptly nightmarish feel. It was startling, and fascinating, to see something so artfully executed in the midst of film that was for the most part rather run-of-the-mill.

Though Marion Davies is characteristically charming in Five and Ten, you get the sense that she feels weary of the whole acting thing. She stars opposite handpicked Hollywood newbie Leslie Howard as a nouveau riche heiress trying to find her place in high society.

While Davies attempts to charm Howard away from his predictably cold and connected fiancée, the rest of her family struggles to find happiness as wealthy outcasts. Her father is a five-and-ten store merchant who has worked his way from Kansas to Park Avenue. He willfully ignores the unhappiness of her lonely mother, who finds solace in a steamy affair. Her brother is expected to work in the family business, but also feels abandoned by his father and concerned about his mother.

It all adds up to an hour and a half of wincing and discomfort, with Davies suffering slights from snobby society dames and Howard playing a version of his familiar gentle tease role. I've never been able to understand what women see in him. He never seems worth the tears to me.

Davies elevates Howard though. She somehow makes him more attractive with her love, if still not entirely admirable. Even in the midst of torment, there is a lovely lightness about her. She has a beautifully expressive face and a natural air, but at the same time she shimmers with movie star glamour.

As painful as it can be to watch lovely Marion struggle, she's always enjoyable and here she is nicely supported by her cast.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 14, 2014

Book Review--Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood
William J. Mann
Harper, 2014

I love this book. It reads like a novel, but everything, from the words spoken to the color of the wallpaper is true. Just check the thirty pages of tidily referenced notes at the end of the book.

When Tinseltown arrived on my doorstep, I was a bit wary. I loved that it covered the Hollywood scandals of the 1920s, and particularly the mysterious murder of director William Desmond Taylor. I'd always wanted to more about what happened, or at least what was believed to have happened. But a novelization?

I feared cheesy dialogue, and narrative that took truth off the rails into fiction no more intriguing than reality. I've been there, and those books are painful to read. Fortunately Mann puts his readers at ease right away with a preamble, in which he explains that while the book is in narrative style, the facts are as solid as in a reference book.

It turns out this style is an excellent way to work through all the details of Taylor's case. It's full of fascinating characters: friends, admirers and enemies. These personalities are brought to life in satisfying detail, truly as if they are characters in a book. Their stories run away and towards each other, intertwining, then separating, but always somehow easy to follow.

The narrative revolves around three actresses who were significant in Taylor's life: his best friend Mabel Normand, the young Mary Miles Minter, who suffered an unrequited love for the director, and Margaret "Gibby" Gibson a small time film actress with whom he was briefly acquainted.

These women drive the story, their lives serving as a way to understand who Taylor was, what Hollywood was like in those days and ultimately, who killed the director. In fact, that's one of the most intriguing things about the book: Mann makes a very convincing argument as to the identity of the murderer.

While Tinseltown can be enjoyed as a murder mystery, it also provides an interesting history of some of the most influential players in early Hollywood. I've never been so fascinated to learn about movie moguls like Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew.

Even more surprising was the sympathetic way William Hays was portrayed. While I hadn't exactly seen the guy as a villain, I always thought of him as the guy who help take a lot of the fun out of the movies. I now have a lot more respect for what he was trying to do as the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

I was especially touched by the way Normand and Taylor's friendship was portrayed. The two were kindred spirits. They bonded over their love of books and spent long evenings talking about literature, work and their lives. You get a sense of the loss the actress felt when her friend was taken away from her so suddenly.

It was also interesting to get a peek at the life of an actress who didn't do so well in Hollywood. Margaret Gibson never came close to the fame Normand and Minter knew, though she eventually went to illegal means in her quest for stardom, and ran with some rough company who did their own damage to the industry. She managed sleazy notoriety instead, which was damaging enough to her career to require a professional name change.

As with Gibson's story, the other scandals in the book all seem to affect the Taylor case in some way, whether directly or by their general influence on the movie industry. There's the notorious Fatty Arbuckle murder trials, a scandalous night several movie bigwigs spend in a bordello, Normand's struggle with drugs and Wallace Reid's tragic death from his own addiction. There's so much detail to take in that it might have been difficult to wade through it all if it hadn't been told in narrative style.

While Mann's diligent detective work is admirable, it is the smooth construction of the book that makes it work. He writes beautifully, with a good sense for mood, suspense and the emotions of his real-life characters. I'd love to see his take on other classic Hollywood stories.

Many thanks to HarperCollins publishers for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 9, 2014

On DVD: Bette Davis Breaks out in The Man Who Played God (1932)

After an unsatisfying six film run with Universal Studios, 22-year-old Bette Davis thought she was through in Hollywood. Her contract had not been renewed by the studio, and she was preparing to return to New York, and the stage, when she received an offer to play opposite the much-respected George Arliss in, The Man Who Played God (1932). Davis' breakthrough role in this film set her on the road to movie stardom. Now her sparkling performance can be enjoyed in a sharp new DVD from Warner Archive.

As a teenage classic movie geek, I would constantly watch the television documentary Bette Davis: A Basically Benevolent Volcano (1983). I'd recorded it from public television. I'm astonished the tape didn't break from overplaying.

Davis was my true introduction to old movies. Before her there had been flickers of interest, but nothing like the jolt I felt watching her for the first time in Dark Victory (1939). I idolized her like no other actress. I sobbed when she died in 1989.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it features extensive interviews with Davis. Early on, she tells the story of how Arliss called her to ask if she might come to Warner Bros. studios to interview for the part. She thought the elegant-voiced Englishman was a friend playing a joke. It took him several minutes to convince her he was indeed the George Arliss.

Fortunately, Arliss persisted and Davis caught on. That interview at Warner Bros. won her both the role and a start at the studio that would make her a star.

Arliss had had a long association with The Man Who Played God, first on Broadway in 1914 as the play The Silent Voice, and then in 1922 as a silent. The 64-year-old actor was revered in Hollywood, so much so that he was billed as Mr. George Arliss.

Today, it can be difficult to understand why Arliss was so adored. While his Academy Award-winning performance in Disraeli (1929) charmed me more than I expected, in that film, and in this one, I've felt for the most part that his appeal is not quite timeless. There's something about his dark lipstick and the way his upturned nostrils photograph that unsettles me. It's also hard to love a guy who seems so amused by himself when you cannot figure out why.

I don't think Arliss' appeal has been totally lost to the ages though. He has presence, and he is sympathetic in his role as a famous pianist who loses his hearing. Pursued by Davis, who is young enough to be his daughter if not granddaughter, he struggles through a life without music. The pianist learns to read lips, and eventually finds joy playing philanthropist to the people in the park below that he spies on with his binoculars.

In the meantime, Davis' character falls in love with a man closer to her own age, though she attempts to reject him out of loyalty to Arliss. The old pianist happens to catch one of their conversations with his binoculars though, and instead of being irritated--or maybe even a little creeped out that he's been spying on her, she is relieved that he understands her struggle.

The movie moves along at a good clip, with a plot just novel enough to keep it interesting and lots of sharp supporting performances. It's Davis that makes it special though. Without her, it would simply be a charming early sound flick. Seeing a screen legend being born makes it a lot more fun. She's not quite the Bette Davis yet, but the electricity is there, and within a couple of years her career would really catch fire.

Here's the clip from Bette Davis: A Basically Benevolent Volcano (1983) where Davis talks about her phone conversation with Arliss. The story begins at about 5:45:

The notorious box office failure Sincerely Yours (1955), starring Liberace in his only feature film lead, is a remake of The Man Who Played God. There's not much in common between the two, aside from the plot, but I had a lot of fun watching this odd misfire. The film is currently streaming at Warner Archive Instant.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 6, 2014

Book Review--My Days With Princess Grace of Monaco: Our 25-Year Friendship, Beyond Grace Kelly

My Days With Princess Grace of Monaco: Our 25-Year Friendship, Beyond Grace Kelly
Joan Dale (with Grace Dale)
In-Lightning, 2014

Since she first arrived on the shores of Monaco, her face partially obscured by a domed white hat, there have been rumors and speculation about Princess Grace of Monaco. Though her life would be even more public as a royal than as Grace Kelly, movie star, she was in many ways unknowable. The freshness of her beauty and the regal bearing that made her seem born to palace life fascinated her subjects and drew visitors from around the world, but out of duty, and a personal need for privacy, she would only share so much of herself with the world.

In My Days With Princess Grace of Monaco, much as with Grace, Howell Conant's book of intimate photos, you get a glimpse of the real woman. Using correspondence, journal entries and her own unforgettable memories, long time friend Joan Dale shares her memories of the times she spent with the princess in Monaco and around the world. She reveals a Grace who dazzles with her personality as much as her beauty. A kind, generous soul who values service to those in need, simple pleasures and above all, family life.

The book reads like a journal, with all the repetitive tedium and fascinating details to be expected from daily documentation. Dale met Grace when both women were in their twenties, while her husband Martin was in Monaco on diplomatic duties. The two were lonely in the tiny principality, both far away from home and missing family and friends. They formed a close friendship.

My Days With Grace follows these women and their families as they navigate busy, stressful lives. At first it all seems so superficial, as Dale describes glamorous galas, month-long vacations in the mountains and princely games of golf. There are only so many times it is interesting to hear about the wealthy elite noshing on caviar and salmon while displaying diamonds the size of quail eggs. To top it off, the young diplomat's wife raves on and on about how Grace and Rainier like her and husband Martin, as if she is in the throes of a passionate love affair.

Dale has heart though. She was clearly a loyal friend to the royal family when they could trust few others, and Grace above all. The women had a remarkably warm relationship, which undoubtedly had much to do with the refuge they offered each other throughout their tumultuous lives. The friendship actually was as profound as a love affair, if deeply platonic.

It is common knowledge that life as a royal in the public eye can be a strain, but Dale draws on her firsthand experience with the family to show just how living with that level of attention felt. She reminds readers that only Grace chose a life in the public. Her husband Prince Rainier and children Prince Albert and Princesses Carolyn and Stephanie did not have a choice.

Dale shares stories of the years she spent with the royal family, raising her children alongside Grace. Her two sons often played at the palace, in addition to sharing lessons, birthday parties and vacations. It was interesting to read about daily life at the palace and how Grace brought warmth to her role as a Monegasque royal.

The book is also a deeply loving tribute to the Princess, who comes off as almost too good to be true. Dale shares stories of Grace's generosity and unpretentious manner. She worked much harder than necessary to improve the lives of her subjects, endearing them to her as they criticized her American ways. She was also a devoted mother, cultivating strong relationships with all three of her children despite the intensity of her schedule. At least in the early years of marriage, she was also a happy wife. It was fun to read about the playful relationship Grace enjoyed with her Prince.

Though Dale never claims that the princess was perfect, she nearly comes off that way. The stories ring true too, dovetailing nicely with what has been known about Grace publicly. Mrs. Dale is loyal to her friend, allowing her some privacy, while alluding to troubles in her life and marriage to give as full a picture of their lives as possible. It's a nice balancing act.

Dale also writes in detail about the notorious push by French President Charles de Gaulle to overtake Monaco in the early sixties. For the most part, she sticks to her point of view, though she also speculates about the motives of the French and is not entirely unsympathetic to their perspective. Not knowing very much about this story (which was the focus of the supposedly highly-fictionalized Grace of Monaco [2014]), I wondered who was truly in the right, though it seems there was a great deal of bullying from the French government.

In one of the most touching passages of the book, Dale shares her extensive journal entries from a month-long cruise she took with the royal family not long before Grace's untimely death in a car accident. It was fascinating, if bittersweet, to read about the Princess' last family vacation, and comforting to know they had a final opportunity to bond before tragedy struck.

It struck the family hard too. Rainier and the children never got over her death and neither did Joan Dale. She died not long after Rainier in 2005, feeling that the world she loved had faded away.

Dale is a participant in history, not a writer. Her memoirs are based on letters and journals, and as she died before its publication, she was not able to participate in final preparations for the book. For these reasons, the narrative can lack flow. There's lots of repetition and often memories get jumbled together without any logical progression.

It can make for rough reading at times, but this is a fantastic story, and well worth seeing through to the end. Dale's daughter Grace worked with her mother on an early draft of the book years before she passed and she has done well completing the project without her. There are also several pages of amazing intimate shots of the Dales and the royal family together. The book would be worth a look just to get a glimpse of these alone.

I enjoyed this touching, revealing memoir of a remarkable woman and those who were enraptured by her remarkable personality and great beauty.

Many thanks to In-Lightning for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 5, 2014

Quote of the Week

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That is the sadness of being human today. We still don’t realize that there is no “other”. We still think we are the audience to everything; we don’t understand we are not witnesses, we are participants. You cannot save the world....But if we do allow beauty, if we don’t kill movies and concerts and ballets and books we still have a chance.

-Liv Ullmann

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