Jul 29, 2015

Book Review--My Life As a Mankiewicz: An Insider's Journey Through Hollywood

My Life As a Mankiewicz: An Insider's Journey Through Hollywood
Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane
University Press of Kentucky, 2012 (paperback version 2015)

Though I knew little of writer/director/producer Tom Mankiewicz' career before I learned his story, the surname was all I needed to draw me to his autobiography. 

It's a familiar name for film fans, who love his Oscar-winning father and uncle, Joseph and Herman respectively--and of course the popular TCM host his cousin Ben. As Mankiewicz notes in an extensive opening section about his family, the pursuit of excellence was a family quest, inspired by his grandfather's obsession that his brood be the best-of-the-best. Now his 2012 memoir is available in paperback from University of Kentucky Press and the complexities of his life as a member of Hollywood royalty can be savored anew.

While Tom Mankiewicz did not attain the fame and status of his older relatives in the movie industry, he did make a name for himself in a variety of roles and became a sort of behind-the-scenes legend as a much sought-after script doctor. 

His was a success story in many ways, but the true glamour was in the people he knew. Mank, as he was called, seems to know this and thus focuses most of his story on the many stars in his life and their times together.

Straddling both his father's generation and his own, Mank knew a lot of famous people, and he witnessed some of their most memorable moments. Invited by Frank Sinatra's daughter Nancy, he was present when the singer recorded My Way. When Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their infamous affair on the set of Cleopatra (1968), he was their wingman for an evening get together so as to distract the press. As yet more paparazzi invaded Robert Wagner's home while he hid away after Natalie Wood's death, it was Mank who ran interference.

Mankiewicz tells his stories in a series of brief, entertaining vignettes. While the book is laid out chronologically, it's easy, and fun to skip around sections without losing too much comprehension. The overall effect is of sitting in a bar, listening to an old timer talk about the good old days. I often found myself realizing I was starting to read another section again, and continuing because I liked it so much the first time around.

There is a chapter for each decade of Mank's professional life, followed by a series of mini profiles for that period called galleries. These are stories of the dozens of accomplished people he knew from Tuesday Weld and Liza Minnelli to Brando and close friend Natalie Wood. The never-married writer appears to have been quite the ladies man, and while you sense his fear of commitment, he remembers his former loves with affection, never seeming to exploit them for their fame or treat them like notches on his bedpost.

Overall, I loved the feeling of affection in the book. Though he has his complaints, for the most part Mankiewicz appreciates the people he has known and he sometimes even actively strives to explain the idiosyncrasies of the rich and famous. His sensitivity, and the sense of humor that surely led to his success as a script fixer, had me alternating between tears and laughter.

While I'm sure the entertainment industry has changed a lot since Mank was in his prime, his insider experience will likely still hold some value for aspiring filmmakers. He goes into great detail as to how he accomplished what he did in such a fickle industry, and where he went wrong as well.

Because he has devoted most of his memoirs to others, a lot about the real Tom Mankiewicz is and will remain a mystery (he died in 2010, before the book's publication), but the history he shares is rich and fascinating and demonstrates love for an industry better known for its nightmares. It's a shame this fascinating man is no longer with us, as he would have been an amazing guest at TCM Classic Film Festival. Fortunately, he has shared his story here, and I'll be revisiting it many more times.

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

Jul 26, 2015

Quote of the Week: Luise Rainer

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I don’t believe in acting. I think that people in life act, but when you are on the stage, or in my case also on screen, you have to be true. You must feel it, and give birth to it, like to a child.

-Luise Rainer

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Jul 23, 2015

On DVD: Gena Rowlands Makes Her Debut in The High Cost of Loving (1958)

Co-starring with Jose Ferrer, in one of seven films the actor would direct, Gene Rowlands makes a solid screen debut in The High Cost of Loving (1958). This low-key comedy can sometimes be a bit too leisurely, and occasionally loses momentum, but the maneuverings and intrigue in its office settings ring true. The film is now available of DVD from Warner Archive.

Rowlands and Ferrer are Jim and Ginny Fry, an affectionate couple who have enjoyed a peaceful nine year marriage. Their placid lives are shaken when Ginny discovers she may be pregnant, and Jim finds himself in doubt about his status at his company, which has recently been purchased by a wealthy conglomerate.

The opening scene, in which the couple wakes and prepares for a new day, is a precisely calibrated amusement, perfectly demonstrating the synchronization that comes naturally to the pair. It begins when the alarm goes off, and Rowlands hand stretches across the gulf between their two beds, prodding her husband awake.

The next eight minutes are silent as they dress, bathe, eat and read the paper. They are a team, trading duties: she brings him orange juice in the shower, he makes the coffee. After years together, they are wordlessly affectionate, comfortable enough to allow each other the space to begin the morning in peace. This sequence tells you everything you need to know about the couple as the story unfolds.

When they finally speak to each other, Ginny reveals her suspicions about the pregnancy. Jim is stunned, after years of trying, it is an unexpected prospect. Though he is happy, you wonder if he realizes that in nine months, their mornings will never glide along with that kind of efficiency again.

While the couple waits through a series of tests to confirm Rowlands condition (including the truly horrid rabbit test, which is fortunately long out of use), Ferrer faces another kind of suspense at the office. The new owners of his company are diligently working to determine which employees are valuable to the organization. While Jim has been a success in his department, he finds he has not received an invitation to a luncheon for those employees who are found to be top tier.

Bouncing between post-doctor visit calls from Ginny and distressing, confusing revelations at the office, Jim becomes paranoid. Though certain of his value, he isn't privy to the closed door meetings between executives, and he becomes increasingly certain that he will not be promotes as he had hoped. He even fears being fired. These scenes will be all too painful to anyone who has endured the gossip, miscommunications and unpleasant surprises to be found in a changing business environment.

While the office intrigue can be fascinating, the constant miscommunication, or even lack of communication can become tiresome. You begin to wish that everyone would get into one room together and take a few minutes to hash everything out. The simpatico relationship between Ginny and Jim is a welcome oasis from the insanity of the company maneuverings.

In her screen debut, Rowlands is far from the complex roles that would define her persona, but she is a confident movie actress right from the start. It's not a showy part, but she gives her character a quiet strength and intelligence that feels ahead of its time.

Though Rowlands and Ferrer have a cozy chemistry, I never could get past their significant age difference. With nearly thirty years between them, they seemed more like father and daughter. Still, their affection feels authentic and their partnership appealingly modern. Always in sync, even down to the way they make a midnight sandwich together, they demonstrate how a marriage can stay strong throughout considerable stress.

It was also fun to see future television stars Nancy Kulp and Jim Backus in supporting roles. Backus had some of the most unusual lines in the slightly quirky script by Alford Van Ronkel (the screenwriter clearly has a sense of humor, he is credit as Rip Van Ronkel). You really have to pay attention when he says, "I don't mean to mow your lawn, but I think you should leave your hat where it's hanging, staking a claim worth mining might be difficult right now." It takes a talented actor to handle a mouthful like that.

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.

On DVD: Howard Keel is a TV Cowboy Times Two in Callaway Went Thataway (1951)

I went into the raucously enjoyable Callaway Went Thataway (1951) with no previous knowledge of the film, and found it to be a nice surprise. The witty, entertaining and original comedy features sharp performances from Fred MacMurray, Dorothy McGuire and Howard Keel. Perhaps this fun flick, which lost money upon its original release, will find a wider audience now that it is available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

McGuire and MacMurray are Deborah Patterson and Mike Frye, a pair of promoters who have successfully repackaged a series of B-cowboy flicks for television. Kids across the country glue themselves to the set to watch Smoky Callaway (Keel) heroically ride the range. The only problem: the real life Callaway has been missing for ten years and network bigwigs want him to promote tie-in products and make new films.

In danger of destroying their careers, Patterson and Frye hire the actor's agent (Jesse White) to find Callaway. In the meantime, they receive a letter and a photo from Stretch Barnes, an angry Colorado cowpoke who is a dead ringer for the star. He doesn't like the notoriety his appearance gives him, but when the promotional pair descend upon his ranch and tempt him with a lucrative contract, telling him the real Smoky is dead, he agrees to stand in for the missing cowpoke.

It turns out there's a big difference between a screen cowboy and the real ranchman. Sure he can ride, but he's also soft spoken, polite and barely able to manage the swagger of a movie cowboy. Eventually though, with help from Deborah and Mike, he gets the hang of it and he becomes an even bigger star than the real Callaway.

Things get complicated when the agent finds the drunken, womanizing Smoky in Mexico and tricks him back to the US. Though Patterson and Frye are much happier with their clean-cut replacement, they send the star to a spa to dry out, which he avoids by stashing alcohol all over the facilities. Of course the identical cowboys eventually meet, and it isn't peaceful

While I wouldn't go so far as to call this a lost classic, Callaway is consistently enjoyable and its three stars dive into their roles with enthusiasm. MacMurray is suitably self-centered as a guy completely clueless about his bad behavior. Dorothy McGuire has a rare chance to be funny, reacting to her partner with the sly awareness of a woman who has seen it all. It was refreshing to see her cut loose after watching her suffer through so many dramas.

It is Keel who is the real revelation though. He dials down the booming manliness from his musical roles and creates a pair of interesting characters. Stretch may be the most sensitive the actor has been on the screen, and he is hilarious as he nails Smoky's boozy sleaziness.

As an interesting bonus, there's also a trio of cameos by some of MGM's biggest stars. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise by saying who, but it was great to see these topline performers pop up in a fairly modest production.

Callaway is good, light-hearted fun, offset nicely by the acidity of its views on fame and the entertainment industry.

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.

For another perspective on the film, take a look at Laura's review from Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.

Jul 20, 2015

On DVD: Family Fun in Banjo (1947) and Gypsy Colt (1954)

I recently enjoyed watching a charming pair of family-friendly films newly released from Warner Archive. Banjo (1947) and Gypsy Colt (1954) both share charming pre-teen leads, stories of losing a beloved animal, and are packed full of clichés, though not to their detriment. Each film is charming and enjoyable in its own unique way.

Banjo is the name of Georgia farm girl Pat Warren's (Sharyn Moffett) dog. The pup is her constant companion and a great comfort to her since her mother's death. Her father has more difficulty adjusting to the loss. A drunken, reckless horse ride leads to his death.

Pat is sent to Boston so that she may live with her Aunt Elizabeth (Jacqueline White), who doesn't like dogs or the idea of suddenly having a child as her ward. She forces Banjo to stay confined in a small kennel. When he keeps escaping and causing trouble, she sends him back to the farm. Pat is heartbroken and determined to follow her dog back home.

The plot of Banjo is familiar, and you'll find no surprises as to what happens, but it is approached with a pleasing light humor, a cast of appealing actors and a script that stops just short of being too cute.

It's a shame that Sharyn Moffett didn't star in many films, because she has a refreshing, forthright air unusual for a child actress. In some moments, she made me think of a less mannered Margaret O'Brien. Unfortunately, the actress hit her stride as a lead just as she was entering into an awkward age for young performers in Hollywood. She was apparently not established enough to attempt the transition to teen and adult roles.

I liked the interactions between Pat and her friends, both on the farm and in Boston. The kids have a pleasant naturalness to them and the script gives them lots of quirky moments that make the story a bit more novel. I also liked that the kids in the Boston scenes were friendly, rather than falling into the old cliché of turning their noses up at the farm kid.

The script is by prolific screenwriter Lillie Hayward. This is one of the two films she produced. Director Richard Fleischer, the son of legendary animator Max Fleischer, does well with the material, adding suspense to a sequence that seems tacked on when the story resolves itself a bit too quickly. I found it amusing that the future helmsman of crime flicks like The Narrow Margin (1952) and Armored Car Robbery (1950) made such a tender story in his early career.

Gypsy Colt is in many ways a more substantial film, with a stronger sense of peril and more fully developed characters. The MGM drama features rosy-cheeked Donna Corcoran as 10-year-old farm girl Meg MacWade. 

Each afternoon at three, Meg's horse Gypsy meets her at the schoolhouse so she can ride him home. Their bond is threatened when an extended famine forces her parents (Ward Bond and Frances Dee) to sell their horse to a wealthy racehorse enthusiast. 

Gypsy continues to be devoted to Meg, escaping and returning home multiple times. This much to the anger of the harsh trainer (Lee Van Cleef) employed by the new owner to care for the horse. Van Cleef brings all his shifty-eyed Western villain sleaze to his role, playing it like a mustache twirling silent film cad.

While not overly sentimental, Gypsy Colt is a deeply heartwarming film. Bond and Dee are beautifully sympathetic to Meg's feelings for her horse. While they encourage her to be strong and accept the necessity of the situation, they never dismiss her pain. Bond is especially tender, approaching his daughter's problems with appealing gentleness and understanding.

Corcoran is another fine juvenile actress with an unfortunately brief film career. Given the right roles, she could have easily transitioned to an adult career. In a school room scene after Gypsy has been sold, Meg thinks she hears her horse whinny and starts to go to him. Her alarm in that moment, and the way she struggles to contain herself are remarkably nuanced. It's a wonderful bit of silent acting.

While Van Cleef's character is intentionally made to be a bit cartoonish, the characters are for the most part given a pleasing depth. They are allowed moral complexities which give them an unusually genuine feel.

Both films for the most part remain appropriate for family viewing. Parents may wish to discuss a few racial stereotypes regarding the farm staff and their children in the early scenes of Banjo. There's also an extended scene where Pat and her Boston friends engage in extremely dangerous play with a rifle. The horse in Gypsy Colt is whipped by the Van Cleef character briefly and more sensitive viewers may be disturbed by a scene where the horse collapses from exhaustion during an escape. 

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.

Jul 16, 2015

Review: 3-D Rarities from 3-D Film Archive and Flicker Alley

For many years, the most popular image associated with 3-D has been that of an 1950s-era audience wearing two-tone shades and gazing up at a mainstream movie, most likely a sci-fi flick or a western. The story of the format is more complex though. There are 3-D films that date back to the silent age, and they have been used for everything from promotion and children's programming, to burlesque and documentary.

Now in a set of 22 beautifully-restored films compiled by 3-D Film Archive and released by Flicker Alley, the full glory and reach of 3-D can be admired.

While it is of course preferable to view the disc in 3-D, it can be watched in 2-D. I ended up having to do this when I realized that my Blu-ray player did not have the 3-D capability that I though it did. A huge disappointment, but I found the collection fascinating viewing nevertheless. Still, I'm tempted to upgrade my player to get the full experience.

The program is divided into two parts: The Dawn of Stereoscopic Cinematography and Hollywood Enters the Third Dimension. Part one is a quirkier mix, including silent film and a few experimental movies, while the Tinseltown clips are, unsurprisingly, a bit more on the glossy side.

While the first documented 3-D film exhibition was recorded in 1915, that collection of test footage is thought to be lost. Program-opener Kelley's Plasticon Pictures (1922/1923) is to date the earliest existing movie in the format. It provides a basic introduction to 3-D for audiences, in addition to an interesting series of shots around 1920s Washington D.C.

The film is followed by a series of amusing tests were all sorts of things are flung or dramatically pointed at the screen, from fresh flowers and ladies on swings to a menacing man with a gun. It's a surreal sequence of images, many of them filmed in silhouette. By the 1930s, test reels capture more than moments, as can be seen here with brief vignettes capturing a ball park, a racing car and a rollercoaster ride.

Many of the 1950s clips demonstrate the ways 3-D was used for advertisement. There are film trailers for a musical, a western and a pair of sci-fi flicks. A promotional travelogue for the Bolex Stereo camera is most appropriately filmed in the format. There are also films advertising the Pennsylvania Railroad and Plymouth Sedans, both of them interesting documents of their times.

My favorite films in the set were a quartet of animated shorts, Now is the Time (1951) and Around is Around (1951) created by Canadian experimental filmmaker Norman MacLaren, Oh, Canada (1952) by his collaborator Evelyn Lambart and Twirligig (1952) by MacLaran's student Gretta Ekman. These fanciful, and often playful films put 3-D into the hands of artists, and the results are mesmerizing. Instead of flinging things at the screen for the thrill of it, the filmmakers use the whole screen to explore the depth offered by the format.

One of the elements I found most intriguing about the collection was the incredible variety of the shorts. While the stop motion The Adventures of Sam Space (1960) was made to thrill children, the next film on the disc, I'll Sell My Shirt (1953), is for titillating adults. This cheeky burlesque short, which hasn't been seen in over sixty years, featured a lady swinging toward the audience before a brief striptease. The action then segues into a segment with a pair of male comedians and yet another lady who soon loses her laundry. Any disc that features a Caspar cartoon, a prize fight newsreel and an anti-nuclear warhead documentary is not going to bore you, 3-D or not.

Bonus features include a brief clip from Francis Ford Coppola's The Bellboy and the Playgirls (1962) and several 3-D photo galleries, including View-Master reels, comic books and images from the 1939 New York World's fair. The set also includes a detailed booklet with a solid background on each of the films which I found very useful.

This is a special set, and the care that went into the selection of the films and restorations is evident. I hope that 3-D Film Archive is hard at work producing 3-D Rarities Two.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the disc for review.

Images courtesy of 3-D Film Archive.

Jul 13, 2015

On DVD: Eddie Cantor 4-Film Collection

In a new collection from Warner Archive, four Eddie Cantor films produced by Samuel Goldwyn offer a glimpse into some of the popular comedian's best cinematic offerings. Palmy Days (1931), The Kid From Spain (1932), Roman Scandals (1933) and Strike Me Pink (1936) were an extension of the star's already phenomenal success on Broadway and the radio.

Though there was a time when he was beloved by millions, the appeal of Eddie Cantor has not translated to modern times as well as that of his peers. While the regular inclusion of blackface in his act can make latter day audiences squirm, I've always felt that the main issue is that his humor was particularly suited to his times. The more evergreen elements of his shtick are often physical--and in that area he amuses with a wide-eyed panic unlike any other star.

While Cantor's image was that of an innocent stunned by the sensuality of beautiful women, the camera in the three earlier films is not nearly so shy. Goldwyn packed these productions with scantily dressed Goldwyn Girls (including Paulette Godard, Betty Grable and Toby Wing) who would shimmy and shake in braless abandon. Strike Me Pink is notably more modest, relying more on costar Ethel Merman's astonishing pipes to draw attention.

As a set, the films helped me to better understand the Cantor appeal. While he didn't completely captivate me, I did appreciate how many facets there were to his talent. He really did know how to sell a song; it's easy to see how Depression era audiences could have felt encouraged by his energetic prancing and confident delivery. When he sings, he gives the impression of being out on a brisk walk. Cantor also had an unusual way with physical comedy, where he sometimes seemed simultaneously out of control and possessed with superhuman strength in a way that reminded me of Buster Keaton.

It is often the bits of patter that date Cantor. The rhythm of the comedy seems more suited to the vaudeville stage than film. Here he is at his best when he embraces absurdity, like the way he randomly makes duck noises in Palmy Days and somehow inspires other people to join him.

Palmy Days was Cantor's second film for Goldwyn, after the dreamy two-strip Technicolor Whoopee! (1930), a co-production with the comedian's former boss Florenz Ziegfeld. Though only filmed a year later, it's a markedly more assured production technically.

It takes a while for Cantor to appear. The opening number focuses on a most unusual bakery, where the bakers all look like showgirls. They dress in revealing halters, and in a most bizarre twist, break in the middle of the day to work out in the bakery's expansive gym and strip down for cold plunges in the indoor pool.

Cantor comes to the bakery undercover as an efficiency expert. He's really the abused employee of a fake psychic, and has been sent there to fulfill the man's prophecy that supervisor Charlotte Greenwood will meet her true love the day after their session together.

This was one of Busby Berkeley's early turns as dance director, and you can already see his talent for kaleidoscopic dancer formations, though on a more modest scale than he would achieve in later years. 

While I most admired the racy musical numbers and spotless Art Deco sets, I did enjoy the chemistry between Greenwood and Cantor. They're especially funny together in the closing scenes as they scramble to escape the evil psychic, doing everything wrong in the most oddly graceful way.

I found The Kid From Spain the weakest film in the set, partly because I could not accept Robert Taylor as a Mexican. As the college friend of Cantor in this Mexican-set comedy romance, he is handsome, but bland and just got in the way.

Though for the most part I felt the film lacked the peppy pace of the other titles in the set, it has some of the best standout moments as well. Most of these happen in the bullfighting climax, which is both funny and scary.

Of the four films, Roman Scandals dips the deepest into fantasy and has some of the best music. It is the story of a humble resident (Cantor) of the small town of West Rome, who uncovers a corrupt plan to evict several townspeople to build a jail the town doesn't need. Before he can blow the whistle, he finds himself transported back to ancient Rome.

There he has the good fortune to meet Ruth Etting, a torch singer whose appeal has similarly failed to bridge time with a widespread audience. He is also beguiled by Gloria Stuart, who plays a kidnapped princess. David Manners is typically bland as the hero and love interest, but his legs look pretty darn good in a toga. Character actor Edward Arnold has just the right girth and point to his nose to play the evil emperor.

Among the most memorable songs are the jaunty, earworm opening number Build a Little Home and Etting's devastating rendition of No More Love. You can just see the end of the pre-code era coming as Berkeley's numbers unfold to that last tune. They are among the most lurid of the period, depicting a highly eroticized slave auction with nude girls covered by their long platinum hair and leering buyers clearly imagining what they will do with their purchases. Those showgirls really were naked from the waist up too; Berkeley paid them extra to come in after hours and film their scenes with a skeleton crew.

Overall the production is better written too, with funnier gags and better verbal humor than in Cantor's earlier films. It is almost as if the comedian is finally translating his humor from the stage to the screen. The physical humor, the best of which can be seen in the riotous chariot race finale is also more polished, inspiring both thrills and laughs.

Strike Me Pink is more reliant on laughs, as the enforcement of the Code meant those Goldwyn Girls had to put on some clothes. Ethel Merman makes up for the end of the sexy fun by showing some serious pipes in this early film role. She is a nightclub singer with mob connections, who is also idolized by meek dry cleaner Eddie Pink (Cantor).

When Pink is hired to manage an amusement park, he finds he must leap out of his comfort zone to protect his employer's investment against mobsters who want their dirty slot machines in the park. The best of the humor arises from the way Pink tricks the mobsters into thinking he is a force to be reckoned with.

It's a well-paced flick, with a screwball approach that makes it feel a bit more timeless than Cantor's earlier films. 

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

Jul 9, 2015

On DVD: Lucille Ball and Chester Morris in John Farrow's Five Came Back (1939)

Twelve people take a flight to Panama City, but as the title warns, Five Came Back. While there is great tension as to who makes that return journey, it is the interactions among a strong cast of characters, and economical, skillful direction by John Farrow that make this recent release from Warner Archives special.

The group is a tidy selection of types, among them a good-hearted prostitute (Lucille Ball), eloping socialites (Wendy Barrie and Patric Knowles), a kindly elderly couple (C. Aubrey Smith and Elizabeth Risdon) and a mob gunsel (Allen Jenkins) with some decent impulses, if not a heart of gold, with the young son (Casey Johnson) of a crime boss in his care.

They crash in the jungle, miles away from civilization, and it's a Hollywood-style crack-up all the way. No one appears to be injured, or even ruffled by the experience. Suits are unwrinkled and clean, Ball's hair remains perfectly curled, and even the little boy doesn't seem too fazed by the ordeal. Though the group appears to face near certain death, they collectively shrug their shoulders and make the best of it.

Still, it's an effectively made film, pulling at your emotions without dripping into sentiment. Though the RKO production had a lower budget than the studio's typical output, it never feels cramped or static. Farrow uses close-ups and sweeping shots of jungle foliage to give the proceedings texture, injecting enough life that it's hard to believe the actors are confined to a set. With so few settings that the film could easily be translated as a stage play the director makes you feel the danger lurking in the trees beyond their campfire.

The cast is fascinating as well. Rising star Lucille Ball is a standout as the tarnished but decent lady-of-the-night, while Chester Morris shows unusual depth as one of the pilots, just a couple of years away from his Boston Blackie series. John Carradine, Allen Jenkins and C. Aubrey Smith are always good to see in the credits, and they are reliably charismatic here. I thought Smith was particularly warm and sympathetic in his role, an interesting change from his typically more severe and elitist characters.

Child actor Casey Johnson is cute in a refreshingly natural way and Wendy Barrie and Kent Taylor are nicely nuanced in less showy roles. I was particularly impressed with Maltese actor Joseph Calleia as an anarchist on his way to be executed. I've seen him in several other films, but never has his intensity grabbed me as it does here. He demonstrates through his actions just why he got himself in trouble--and how he still might have more sense than any of the other passengers.

While I'm not claiming that Five Came Back is as good as Casablanca (1942), given the limited resources Farrow had I think it similarly ended up being much better than expected. If it hadn't been released in a year packed with instant classics, it might have gotten a bit more breathing room and the acclaim it deserves.

Farrow would remake his own film as Back from Eternity (1956), starring Anita Ekberg and Robert Ryan. While I don't think that more lavish version was as elegantly conceived, it is also a solid production and well worth checking out. It is currently available on the Warner Archive Instant streaming service.

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.

Jul 8, 2015

Book Review: Missing Reels, by Farran Smith Nehme

Missing Reels
Farran Smith Nehme
Overlook Press (US)/Duckworth Publishers (UK)

Missing Reels is a novel about the search for a lost film, filled with characters in 1980s Manhattan who act like the fast-talking denizens of a 1930s screwball comedy. That's a lot of nostalgia pulling from different directions, but all the elements come together nicely in this addictively entertaining debut from Farran Smith Nehme, better known in the classic film world as the beloved writer of the popular movie blog Self-Styled Siren.

Yazoo City, Mississippi transplant Ceinwin Kelly (pronounced KINE-win) works behind the jewelry counter of a New York City vintage clothing store, where she admires the merchandise, but is constantly tortured by her ill-tempered boss. At night she chain smokes and watches old movies on VHS with her two gay roommates, or goes to the repertoire theater by herself. 

She dresses like a 1930s starlet, or 1920s, depending on what one of her roommates can snag with his five finger discount. An elegant and mysterious elderly woman in her building named Miriam attracts her attention, and it isn't long before she learns that she had a brief career in film.

Miriam had one starring role, in the long thought lost silent film The Mysteries of Udolpho. Ceinwin becomes obsessed with finding the film, and she enlists a growing cast of characters in her quest, among them collectors, preservationists and Hollywood old-timers. She also falls in love with British mathematician and academic Matthew, who provides crucial aid in her search.

This book is tailor made for fans of classic Hollywood. There are loads of mentions of films, stars and other bits of history from the golden age of the industry. I always lit up with pleasure when another reference worked its way into the story, be it a nod to Jean Harlow, or a line quoted from All About Eve (1950). I can see how Missing Reels could appeal to fans of quirky romances and those who are nostalgic about New York City in the eighties as well.

The search for the movie doesn't begin until nearly a third of the way into the novel, which I think bothered me because I found the romance that made up the rest of the story less engrossing. 

Part of my problem was that I couldn't warm up to Matthew. I can't have much love for a guy who cheats on his overseas fiancée and strings along a much less experienced woman. I found him more overbearing than charming. It was hard to root for this pair when I kept thinking Ceinwin could do better.

However, the man is extremely helpful when it comes to tracking down information in the pre-internet age. In that regard, Matthew and Ceinwin are a good team. 

Once the cinematic detective work began, I couldn't put the book down. Real details about film, like the different ways nitrate and safety reels smell and how the preservation process works are combined with "if only it were so" fictional creations like the Brody Institute, a remarkably resourceful organization dedicated preserving film and the prickly Miriam who I would love to encounter in real life.

The characters Ceinwin meets in her quest are a varied lot, and her dialogue with them is witty and often funny. I laughed out loud throughout a bizarre scene featuring a Topo Gigio puppet. 

These quirks made the twists and turns of the amateur sleuth's detective work all the more entertaining. I keep referring to the action as "scenes" because the whole thing felt like a movie unreeling before me, not striving for reality, but rather the heightened romance, action and brilliance of an entertaining flick.

On top of all that, Missing Reels contains a plea that we take film preservation seriously, and realize that films in need of restoration are crumbling away in archives, sheds, attics and barns all over the world. That this serious message is at the core of such an amusing read makes me love it all the more.

Thank you to Duckworth Publishers for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jul 6, 2015

On DVD: Robert Morse in Quick! Before it Melts (1964) and Sandra Dee in Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding! (1966)

While I'm normally wary of any film that has an explanation point in its title, I found the sixties comedies Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding! (1966) and Quick! Before it Melts (1964) to be a lot of fun. Both are newly released on DVD from Warner Archive.

Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding is both very much of its time and slightly ahead of the curve. It draws its laughs out of the horrors of attempted date rape, sexual objectification and an overbearing stage mother, but it also features a heroine who isn't shamed for becoming pregnant out of wedlock and who is celebrated for her independent nature.

Sandra Dee stars as young secretary Heather Halloran, who finds she's got a baby on board after a night of passion with her boss (an unpleasantly stiff George Hamilton). They are in love, and he has already proposed, but she has turned him down because of his stuffy ideas about keeping a wife in the home. Heather has other options though, her vocal coach, a friendly shoe salesman and a randy next door neighbor are all eager to take her to the altar (Dick Kallman, Dwayne Hickman and Bill Bixby respectively).

To further complicate matters, Heather's mother (Celeste Holm) has been on a lifelong quest to force her marginally talented daughter into a career as a singer. Heather fights this all the way through college, and then suddenly, oddly becomes interested in pursuing the stage, even though she is gainfully employed and apparently happy in her job-- expect for that whole sexual tension with the boss thing.

Though it is full of the sort of farcical humor and visual quirks (SO many comical freeze frames) that could sink a 1960s comedy, Doctor floats along giddily with good-natured goofiness. The cast members appear to be having fun, digging into the absurdity of their roles and playing slightly, and entertainingly over-the-top. Bixby is especially amusing; he seems to delight in the sexual amorality of his essentially good-hearted character. He demonstrates solid comic chops here.

As good as the supporting cast is, it is Sandra Dee who makes all the insanity work. I've always found her to be a remarkable star. She's got all the gloss of an adorably glamorous sixties ingénue, but veers from that role just enough to show a bit of grit and naughty glee. The perpetually perky Dee is perfectly suited to frothy flicks, but is never insubstantial herself. There are moments when a giggle slides into a warmer, more knowing laugh, or the look in her eyes hints at something darker within.

Dee is given a great character to work with too. She is seen to be in a predicament when she becomes pregnant, but is never judged for her sexual encounter. Even when she cuts loose in an effort to forget Hamilton, her actions are seen as amusing, rather than problematic. She smokes, drinks and parties, but she is never degraded.

It's an interesting comedy that tangles lightly with issues from a time of dramatic social change.

Quick! Before it Melts has a similar attitude about women and sex. The film approves of the former being barefoot and pregnant and the latter happening after marriage, but acknowledges that it can be exciting to explore other possibilities.

It stars Robert Morse and George Maharis as a journalist and photographer team who are sent to Antarctica to dig up stories. Morse is engaged, but susceptible to beauties like Tiara (Anjanette Comer) a mixed-race beauty with Maori blood he meets on a stopover in New Zealand. Maharis is a ladies' man, adored by every woman he meets and drunk on their charms himself.

Though the comedy can drag a bit in the early scenes, it's an amusing novelty, not above using the cutesy appeal of penguins, but also with a bit of a racy feel. The script keeps you on your toes, starting to lead you down a certain path and then making amusing diversions.

When Morse's boss, who is also father to his fiancée calls, he asks what he is doing, and the younger man bluntly answers, "I'm trying to seduce your daughter," to which the unfazed bossman replies that he hopes he has better luck than he did with his wife. There's also a charming love scene where Morse sighs to Comer, "You're so beautiful" and she groans, "I know, it's a bore," before she pulls him into a passionate kiss.

An unusual flick, with lots of second tier stars doing first rate work.

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

Jul 5, 2015

Quote of the Week: Vittorio De Sica

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Never shed tears for something that cannot shed tears for you.

-Vittorio De Sica, to Sophia Loren