Sep 30, 2015

Book Review--The First King of Hollywood: Douglas Fairbanks

The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks
Tracey Goessel

Gatsby on a jungle gym.
-Critic Michael Sragow, about Fairbanks

In an epic new biography, pioneering film star Douglas Fairbanks finally gets an in depth exploration of his eventful life. This entertaining book is heavy on the detail, but also humorous and full of compassion for its subject.

Fairbanks was responsible for an overwhelming number of firsts in the Hollywood movie industry. Among the biggies: he co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was a founder of United Artists, the first major distribution company for independent filmmakers, and his marriage to fellow trailblazing actress Mary Pickford made them the first celebrity movie couple.

He was one of the first international movie stars, a cultural icon who popularized tan skin, casual dress and a jaunty superhero stance that would inspire comic book artists. When Technicolor was in danger of going out of business, he used the process to tasteful effect in The Black Pirate (1926); he promoted young directors like Victor Fleming who would change the industry (the filmmaker would skip the Gone With the Wind premiere to attend the actor's funeral); and while sound might have hastened the end of his career to some degree, he embraced it and many other new technologies.

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And yet Fairbanks is nowhere near as lauded as his contemporaries. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and even film director DW Griffith have all won more respect, attention and distribution of their films. He isn't exactly forgotten; the swashbuckling image of the actor is one of the most famous of early film, but he hasn't been given much credit for his contribution to a developing industry, or the consistently high quality of his work.

In her study of Fairbank's life, Goessel has used research from never published material drawn from film historian Kevin Brownlow's files, and the contents of several of the many love letters and cables Fairbanks and Pickford sent to each other. These personal elements, coupled with a thorough examination of the actor's public life do much to reveal his true character. It turns out the enthusiastic, joyful face he showed to the world was much like his own, though he had his weaknesses, including crippling jealousy and the inability to make himself unpopular by rebuking anyone directly, and that especially on the set.

Fairbanks is revealed to be an essentially humble, kind man who rejected social norms like racism and who not only didn't mind that his wife was more famous than he, but promoted her and listened to her advice about how to improve his own films. This is not to say he didn't love the perks of fame, using his notoriety to meet royalty and heads of state, though he was equally at home with prizefighters and cowboys. He had the common touch, but he could also be a snob.

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Aside from the ups and downs of Fairbank's love life, including his scandalous affair, marriage and divorce from Pickford, he managed to avoid public shame or personal degradation at a time when the industry seemed in danger of collapsing due to both. From an early age he rejected alcohol and followed a strict physical fitness regime. Staying fit wasn't difficult for the actor; he could never sit still anyway.

Goessel goes deep into the events of Fairbank's life, recounting stories of a mischievous childhood troublemaker who was on the stage by age thirteen. She offers a detailed, rich portrait of the times he lived in while staying close to her subject. There's a sort of affection in the way she relates his life, even when there is reason to be skeptical of the actor's almost too perfectly organized tales. Lots of Fairbank's quotes are prefaced with, "he claimed".

In keeping with this respectful tone, the author is discreet when discussing more intimate topics, such as the Pickford/Fairbanks affair. The text is revealing, but there is no unnecessary or unseemly detail. 

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While there is plenty of space devoted to his personal life, the production of, and inspiration for his films is thoroughly covered. From his busy stage career to the actor's enthusiastic pursuit of movie stardom, and his rise from comedies like The Nut (1921), and the influential actioner The Mark of Zorro (1920), to his famous fantasy and swashbuckler roles like The Thief of Baghdad  (1924) and Robin Hood (1922), his was an astonishingly successful career.

While the book is doorstop weight, it's lightly humorous, engaging style keeps the many details interesting, rather than overwhelming. It helps that Fairbanks was such a colorful character. There are lots of amusing anecdotes, including stories of the actor demonstrating to his stunt man how a scene should be approached by doing the stunts himself, the enclosed running trench he had installed in Pickford/Fairbanks Studios so he could go on nude runs, and his delight at making practical jokes and clowning around with best friend Charlie Chaplin.

I have to admit that I approached this biography with more a sense of duty than curiosity. It was partly my adoration of Mary Pickford and mostly a dedication to having a thorough cinematic education that drew me in. I didn't expect to enjoy learning about Fairbanks so much. Now I am inspired to see more of his films and revisit some of his classics that I have enjoyed, but maybe not fully appreciated in the past.

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

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Sep 24, 2015

Book Review--I Lost it at the Video Store: A Filmmakers' Oral History of a Vanished Era

I Lost it at the Video Store: A Filmmakers' Oral History of a Vanished Era
Tom Roston
The Critical Press, 2015

What video stores and the proliferation of videos did was to democratize access to movies and film history.
-Tim Blake Nelson

There were once video stores I'd gone to so often that I'd memorized the way each row of cassettes looked, permanently associating those particular images with the films inside. When I didn't show up on Two-For-One Tuesday one week at the store I frequented in college, the lady at the counter told me she'd been worried and wondered if she should check up on me. In those days, it never occurred to me that there'd be a time when I didn't have my choice of brick-and-mortar rental places.

As it turns out, the lifespan of the video store would be relatively short--ranging from about 1980 to 2005. In I Lost it at the Video Store: A Filmmakers' Oral History of a Vanished Era, journalist Tom Roston explores that brief history and gets the perspective of several filmmakers, many of them former video store clerks, who share their experiences in the age of VHS. The interviews are arranged by subject, giving it the feel of a round table discussion though each person spoke with Roston individually.

Of the twenty-three interviewees, most are directors, with a sprinkling of producers and film executives. Many of them are independent filmmakers who made their names during the heyday of the video store, and often because of it as well. Allison Anders, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino speak of their early fascination with the idea of renting films and how suddenly it became an option when before they had had so little control over what they saw and when.

These directors, and other independent mavericks like Nicole Holofcener, Doug Liman and John Sayles touch on both the emotional and practical aspects of the video age; they're as likely to talk about the impact of images on VHS boxes or the smell of the carpet in a favorite store as they are the education in film they received one rental at a time. The biggest thrill: having directed enough films to have your own director section in the store you frequent.

I found it interesting that younger filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock and Joe Swanberg were more open to streaming, and the latter despite the fact that he worked as a video store clerk. Though many of the more established directors have seen different cycles in the consumption of film, from the weakening of the theater experience in the face of video to the decline of VHS and DVD as streaming gained in popularity, they seem the most resistant to the loss of brick and mortar stores.

One of the most amusing aspects of the book is the way Tarantino and Smith's interviews are juxtaposed in such a way that they appear to be having a debate about the way films should be viewed. Smith loves both video stores and streaming and confesses that his addiction to film is so intense that he will watch a movie on a phone to get his cinema fix. On the other hand, Tarantino refuses to watch a movie on his computer and prefers to have physical copies of films, so much so that he bought the entire stock of the independent store Video Archive when it went out of business.

There's also some space devoted to the rise of corporate video stores, which may have hastened the decline of the whole business by killing so many mom and pop rental spots. These corporations had the money and volume of purchase necessary to cut deals with the studios, making it easier to profit. The rise of these companies led to a dip in film variety and quality, which has continued in many respects in the age of streaming.

The interviewees are for the most part white males, with a few important female voices included. I found myself curious to get the viewpoint of filmmakers of other races, such as Spike Lee, Gregg Araki, John Singleton and Robert Townsend. Perspectives like these would have brought an interesting dimension to the book.

I Lost It At The Video Store is a quick, fascinating read, consumable in an afternoon, but substantial. It gives equal attention to cultural and business matters and offers a lot of food for thought as we, to paraphrase Smith, leave behind the anticipation of video and embrace the instant gratification of streaming.

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

Sep 20, 2015

Quote of the Week: Sophia Loren

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I often feel as young as I did back then….aging can even be fun if you know how to spend your days, if you're satisfied with what you've achieved, and you're still curious about the world around you.

-Sophia Loren

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Sep 15, 2015

Book Review--Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean's Final Hours

James Dean Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die
Keith Elliot Greenberg
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2015

The cult of James Dean has endured decades longer than his life, which barely extended into adulthood. His short, but eventful twenty-four years have been the subject of endless analysis and multiple biographies. Now in a new book, Keith Elliot Greenberg explores the day of the fatal crash that killed the actor and the unprecedented fandom that would grow after his death.

Though Dean was film actor for only two years, and not in the public eye for much longer as a stage and television actor, he made an impression that has endured for generations of fans. He had the good fortune of being born with both the talent and ambition necessary to make a splash in Hollywood quickly.

The James Dean you meet in Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die is not the angry rebel often associated with his legend, but a high-energy small town boy with a strong connection to his roots. Though the actor lost his mother at an early age and was not able to maintain a strong relationship with his father, he was loved and wanted by his aunt and uncle and lived a happy childhood on their Fairmount, Indiana farm. 

Dean had an early love for speed. The actor bought a motorbike as a teen and would race it as fast as he could get away with. As a popular high school student he participated in sports and drama, and was known for his confidence and ability to excel in many areas. He was confident and destined for success.

Since his fatal accident, there has always been the rumor that young Dean had a death wish. He'd talk about "flaming out" and his idea to pose in a coffin for Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock in a famous photo shoot screamed symbolism to all who wished to see it. To those who knew him though, the actor seemed high on living, and almost too much so. As his friend and costar Natalie Wood said, "He may have grabbed to strongly at life." That impulse is likely what also helped him to rise so quickly as an actor.

During Dean's brief time in Hollywood, many of his peers were envious of the actor's fast rise to fame. His impact was almost immediate. Even in a bit part, where he spoke a few lines at a soda fountain, he oozed charisma. His inventiveness as an actor made a stir on his sets; the young actor was adept at accessing the emotions of his characters, and giving them bits of business that exposed their true selves more thoroughly than with any line they spoke.

The book explores this appeal as it leads up to the crash, searching for that claimed death wish. When you realize what he had going for him, it doesn't seem likely that Dean would be unnecessarily reckless. He had projects to look forward to, and he knew he had yet to reach his peak.

All three of the films Dean starred in were worthy of classic status. While East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) all showcased him as similarly rebellious, emotionally unsteady characters, there was no doubt he had the talent to grow as an actor as he found many nuances to distinguish these roles. He certainly had the role models to draw from too, meeting Alec Guinness, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Sal Mineo, Sammy Davis Jr. and Eartha Kitt, among many others in his short life.

When Dean bought the notorious Porsche in which he'd lose his life, many of those he knew were repelled by it. One time girlfriend Ursula Andress was too frightened to ride in the low slung car. Eartha Kitt had a terrifying drive with the actor and swore he'd die in the car. Guinness made the same comment when Dean coaxed him out of a restaurant to proudly showed him his new acquisition.

Dean felt confident in his abilities to drive the car safely though, and it appears he acted responsibly that final day. Greenberg follows his last ride and reveals that upon investigation of the crash he was sober and not driving excessively over the speed limit. The problem was more of visibility; the low, light-colored car was likely not seen in time for the driver that hit it to stop.

While the loss of Dean so young continues to inspire grief among fans, perhaps the most heart wrenching stories in Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die are of the men who survived the crash. Donald Turnspeed was a college student when he hit the actor's car, and the shy, reserved man was hounded for the rest of his life by fans of Dean. Even more heartbreaking is the story of mechanic Rolf Wutherich, who sat next to the actor in the car and never got over the trauma of both the crash and the way the world responded to him afterwards.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the book is its exploration of Dean fan culture. Greenberg describes the annual James Dean Festival in Fairmount and how the town has become a monument to the actor. Dean's cousin Marcus has accepted that the farm where the town's most famous son grew up will always be a tourist attraction, and he has tried to be friendly to curious visitors. There are some who have even settled in the town because they feel inspired by the actor.

At times the book can feel a bit padded. There's a long story about the supposed long history of bad luck associated with Porsches that includes a detailed description of the assassination of the Archduke of Ferdinand that feels unnecessary. Another lengthy detour into the chaotic funeral of Valentino in an attempt to draw parallels between the two actors is similarly superfluous.

This is a compelling read though, drawing on extensive interviews with what appears to be every living person who had any association with Dean. There are a lot of perspectives here and they are woven together into an interesting, meaningful narrative.

Many thanks to Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book for review.

All images from Classic Film Scans.

Sep 11, 2015

On DVD: The Lighter Side of Kay Francis in The Feminine Touch (1941)

After all melodrama I sniffled through in the pair of Francis flicks I reviewed earlier this week, I needed something lighter, and I got it with The Feminine Touch (1941). Francis takes a supporting role in this comedy about jealousy in romantic relationships now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Don Ameche stars as a college professor who has been burning the midnight oil finishing his book, Jealousy and All Its Aspects and Universal Applications. As much as he seems to know about this disruptive emotion, he doesn't appear to feel it himself, much to the irritation of his wife (Rosalind Russell), who would like a bit more possessiveness in her man.

When Ameche's frustration with his university position drives him to quit, the pair takes off for New York to meet the publisher (Van Heflin) they hope will publish the now former professor's book. This pointy-bearded Don Juan and his sharp-witted assistant (Francis), give the couple a lot more field experience in what it is like living with the green-eyed monster.

The four are an amusing trio, though I always felt as if something wasn't quite working among them. Part of the problem is that Ameche,while very charming, is not nearly as dynamic as his costars. His chemistry with Russell is also a bit off, but then, I never thought he was brilliant in an onscreen pairing until he teamed up with Ralph Bellamy in Trading Places (1983).

Heflin charms everyone else off the screen, as he normally does, and Russell is full of her typical snap. Francis is more of a revelation, she is as beautiful and perfectly groomed as audiences expected of her, but backs that up with good timing and a light comedic touch.

One of Ms. Kay's astonishing hats

This is a solidly pleasing production: the costumes and sets are impeccable in that lush, MGM way and Francis and Russell get plenty of opportunities to look smashing in ridiculous hats that would destroy most ordinary women. The attempted seductions and misunderstandings can threaten to become tiring, but there's always a snappy line or a twist on convention that rescues the scenes that begin to flag.

After spending most of her career suffering in dramatic gowns, Francis seems to be enjoying jumping into a lighter role. She approaches her biting lines with gusto, seemingly less focused on suffering prettily, and relishing the chance to show off her comic chops. Though pre-code Kay will always be my favorite, her maturity here is appealing.

Though The Feminine Touch is often more amusing that funny, the last sequence is a hilarious bit of slapstick that is both original and incredibly silly, and elevates all that came before. It's a bright finale for an unusual, and essentially enjoyable comedy.

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.

Sep 9, 2015

On DVD: Kay Francis in I Found Stella Parish (1935) and Confession (1937)


There is no movie genre that makes me ugly cry more profusely than the maternal sacrifice melodrama. Perhaps Barbara Stanwyck has played the most famous of these mothers in Stella Dallas (1937), where she stood in the rain, an outcast, looking through the window at her daughter's wedding, eyes glimmering with proud tears, but Kay Francis more than made her mark as a suffering mama. In a pair of new releases from Warner Archive, the actress suffers nobly and jerks tears relentlessly. If that sounds unbearable, it isn't. These are well-paced, entertaining dramas.

In I Found Stella Parish (1935), Francis is a celebrated London stage actress who is also mother to a charming six-year-old played by Sybil Jason. When a blackmailer threatens to reveal an unpleasant incident from her past, she goes incognito and slips away with her daughter to the States. Her cover is blown by a curious reporter (Ian Hunter) who realizes too late that he wants to help, not expose the actress.

Of course one of the most important elements of a good maternal sacrifice flick is the child. After all, there is no tension if the kid doesn't seem worth the fuss. Francis has a charming chemistry with Sybil Jason, who is adorable, but not so precocious that she steals the spotlight from her leading lady. The South African actress had been imported from her British home to be the Warner Bros version of Shirley Temple. While she doesn't quite have Temple's sparkle (and who did?), she's an appealing actress, wide-eyed, earnest and not too cloying.

Francis had an interesting ability to manipulate her audience. When her eyes become wide with grief and fill up with tears, she is clearly playing on your emotions, but the actress never comes off as too melodramatic or silly. You can see her acting, but you can also see how her heart is hurting, and it is devastating. As Stella Parish she uses all her tricks, moving efficiently through her troubles, but always with great heart and warmth.

Confession (1937) reteams Francis with Hunter as a husband and wife whose happiness is threatened by the concert pianist (Basil Rathbone) who conducted her in her successful career as an opera singer, and who is still determined to possess her. He forces a scandal through which Francis is divorced and forced to leave her daughter with her father.

Francis barely exists as a singer in cheap clubs, always searching for her child. Soon after she finds her, she discovers the teenager kissing the very pianist who destroyed her life. Unable to bear the degradation of her daughter, she kills him. The trial that follows is grueling for the singer, and not due to fears of her own fate, but because she wants to spare her daughter from the public shame of learning of her past in the courtroom.

I've never seen Francis' glamour more thoroughly trashed in a film. At first, efforts to make her look sleazy are only somewhat successful. Plastered with heavy make-up and sporting a curly Harpo wig, she somehow still comes off as lovely and statuesque, if gaudy. By the trial scene she finally looks thoroughly ravaged, though her look would still gain her some cred in the Goth crowd.

All this deglamorizing was perhaps an attempt to make something more of Francis than her well established reputation as a gorgeous, suffering clotheshorse. However, with or without the glitz, she was always able to communicate the greater depths beneath her beauty. Francis may not have had the fire of contemporaries like Davis and Stanwyck, but she was always a pleasure to watch; she had her own, unique power, a sort of tenderness propped up by a steel backbone. 

In the moving final scene of Confession, a simple special effect is used to communicate the emotion beneath Francis' controlled appearance. The gentleness and wisdom with which she approaches that moment is all her own. Though she never had a child herself, the actress effectively demonstrates the maternal pull, and how it can inspire great sacrifice.

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.