Sep 29, 2016

Book Review--Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart

Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart
Mike Peros
Hollywood Legends Series
University Press of Mississippi, 2016

Though Dan Duryea made his name playing slippery cinematic cads, it turns out he was one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, just like fellow screen rascals and beloved citizens Basil Rathbone and Audrey Totter. What is it about being good that makes it so easy to play bad? Biographer Mike Peros doesn't get into that in his new book about the actor, but he creates a satisfying portrait of one of the studio era's most memorable performers.

Though he played both good and bad characters and even starred in comedies, for most classic movie fans the name Dan Duryea evokes crime and film noir. His most memorable roles were as lady slapping, sneaky snakes in dark flicks like The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Too Late For Tears (1949) and Criss Cross (1949).

Actors live to play great parts, so it isn't surprising that, like many stars who experienced typecasting, Duryea wanted to break out of the bad guy parts, but he knew how to face facts. Being mean paid the bills and it was what he did best. He was rewarded for his philosophical attitude with a career that lasted to the end of his life and which eventually led to a better variety of parts on film, television and the stage. That said, his audience always preferred him in the black hat.

Though he was attracted to acting from an early age, Duryea first became an advertising executive with the reasoning that he'd have a regular paycheck to support his family. While he was successful in the industry, he was also unhappy and became so stressed out that he had a physical breakdown. His wife Helen essentially told him she'd rather deal with irregular paychecks than a dead husband.

Once he changed careers, Duryea never had trouble finding work. It wasn't always the best of work, and starting with strong supporting roles in movies like The Little Foxes (1941) Ball of Fire (1941) and Pride of the Yankees (1942) was good as being set up for a fall, but he had a satisfying career, in good part thanks to his own practical attitude about the industry. Though higher-paying movies were always his primary interest, he was happy to work in radio, on television and on the stage to pay the bills, with the added perk of often finding more interesting parts. These pursuits often gave him the higher profile he needed to receive more movie offers.

Peros' portrait of Duryea reveals a contented family man who was beloved in his community and in the film industry. He was blissfully married to his wife for over thirty years, adored by two sons for whom he was never too busy to build a relationship and even led a Boy Scout troop. Always interested in the needs of those less fortunate than himself he often devoted time and money to improving the lives of others. He spent and invested his money wisely, apparently never had an affair (though he does seem to have been a bit of a flirt), didn't do drugs and drank in moderation.

With a scorecard that good, you might expect Duryea's life story to be a bit dull. In some respects that's true, as complications are generally the spice in your typical biography. In lieu of colorful stories from the set and stories of illicit lady loves, much of the text is devoted to detailed plot descriptions. Still, for the most part this is an engaging read, because it is deeply satisfying to admire the intelligence with which this consummate professional approached his life and career. He was a smart, compassionate man, who brought joy to those around him and the reminisces of the people he knew are some of the best passages in the book.

While Duryea did not have many friends in the film industry, those he did have were life-long companions. Some of the best stories from his time on the set are about his frequent costar and pal Jimmy Stewart. While stuck on location with Stewart in Durango, Colorado, he would sit on the corner with Jimmy and costar Audie Murphy, drinking beer and betting on which direction the next car to go by would be driving. On another set, Stewart and Duryea had an ongoing competition as to who would say good morning first, which led to a four AM phone call on one occasion and a noisy loudspeaker greeting on another.

The warmth of those stories essentially reflect the tone of the book, which is affectionate, though not overly worshipful. Peros offers a thoughtful and I thought well-informed analysis of Duryea's strengths and weaknesses as a performer. As a man, as hard as it may be to believe, he seems to have been essentially flawless.

This is a solid effort, sure to please fans of Duryea or film noir.

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

A few more titles I have reviewed from the University Press of Mississippi Hollywood Legends Series:

Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad

A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright

Garden of Dreams: The Life of Simone Signoret

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman

Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-up

Sep 27, 2016

On DVD: John Barrymore in a Pre-code Version of Moby Dick (1930)

"Call me Ishamael." Herman Melville's opening line to Moby Dick is one of the most famous first sentences in English literature, and yet, when a large volume of the book is opened to the first page in the credits of this pre-code take on the novel, there is no Ishamael in sight. The man himself never even makes an appearance.

Making its DVD debut from Warner Archive, Moby Dick (1930), starring John Barrymore and Joan Bennett is one of those adaptations that is better appreciated if you don't concern yourself too much with the source material. As a window into a classic literary work it flops. As a slick, efficient Warner Bros adventure and romance it's great entertainment.

It is more accurate to say that this version of Moby Dick is a remake of the silent The Sea Beast (1926), which also starred Barrymore and was very loosely based on the book as well. Both films keep a couple of Melville's characters, the whaling ship and Ahab's quest for vengeance, but little else. Instead of an exploration of class, social and religious issues, you get a romance, some comic sketches and a couple of action scenes.

The opening scenes introduce a playful, mischievous Ahab who has a way with the ladies. Unlike the novel, he has yet to lose his leg to Moby Dick. As he alights on the dock after a long sea journey, in a perfectly pre-code moment, the randy seaman asks a young woman her age. When she says she will be eighteen next Wednesday, he leers, "see you next Wednesday."

Ahab then proceeds to get drunk and steal his brother's girl, Faith (Bennett), who doesn't seem to have gotten the memo about being in a relationship in the first place. He wins her by drunkenly staggering into church and flirting with her as she plays a pump organ, the hymns blurring and spinning on the book page in front of him. Seemingly unconcerned by his alarming behavior, Faith promises to wait three years for his return from the sea so that they may be married. A certain whale puts the brakes on that romantic plan.

Moby Dick provides Barrymore with many excellent opportunities to be a ham, and while he takes full advantage, he also knows when to reign himself in. Particularly in his scenes with Bennett he becomes more reserved, indicating that he has finally found a woman with whom he doesn't need tricks. He finally feels that being himself is enough and he portrays that realization with subtlety.

It is the action that really makes this film pop though. A pair of exciting whaling scenes have great, scary effects, made all the more believable by the terror of Barrymore and his shipmates. While the whale has an undeniably rubber and paper-mâché look, it is still frightening to see it looming over Ahab and his mates. In another shocking moment you get the astonishing spectacle of The Great Profile plunging a harpoon into a whale's back, laughing maniacally while torrents of blood gush over him.

While the production speeds along with the typical efficiency of a Warner Bros pre-code, it has a pleasing visual flair. Scenes are filmed with an eye for detail, like a lovely low shot of the ladies' full skirts peeking out from the pews during the church scene, or an elegant overhead view of Ahab sliding down a rope from the top of a ship's mast. While director Lloyd Bacon was never known to be a great stylist, he would often grab small, interesting moments like these, a bit of flair that I have always thought to be unfairly overlooked in the non-musical parts of musicals he made with Busby Berkeley in particular.

The supporting cast is pleasing, though with few stand-outs. Bennett is sweet and determined, but a bit wooden as Ahab's beloved and Lloyd Hughes makes as little impression as he is meant to as the peg-legged captain's brother. Noble Johnson is given predictably moronic lines as the Polynesian shipmate Queequeg, which is disappointing, because he is a magnetic presence and could clearly have done much more with the role.

The DVD image is mostly clean and clear. There are some scratches, most of them minor, though there are brief moments when a swirl of scratches appear on the screen. This isn't a pristine copy, but highly watchable.

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 23, 2016

Elizabeth Taylor on Blu-ray: The Legend Emerges in a Trio of Films

There are few screen actors who have gone through as many career changes as Elizabeth Taylor. In the first part of that astonishing professional journey she transitioned from a sweet-tempered child actress, to a gorgeous ingénue and then decided that she was more than a movie star; she was going to learn how to act.

A trio of Blu-rays now available from Warner Archive vividly document Taylor's growth as an actress from her teenage years to middle age. Father of the Bride (1950), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) showcase many facets of her developing talent. She was always a strong presence on film, and could have endured many years on her beauty, charisma and professionalism. That she continually took her skills to a higher level, and so often proved her critics wrong, is evidence of Taylor's strength in an industry and society bent on defining her from the beginning of her career.

Father of the Bride (1950)

As the title makes clear, Father of the Bride is Spencer Tracy's show. His performance as an exasperated, frightened and ultimately proud parent of a young bride dominates and elevates what could have been a much more fluffy, inconsequential film. He is helped along by Joan Bennett, who perfectly nails the resigned placidity and practicality of a long-married, mid-century wife, and Taylor as a young bride who tries to go with the flow, but who cannot hide her true feelings.

In her first adult role, Taylor is already a polished performer and starting to mine the deeper meanings in her characters. Here she could have been a passive ingénue, but she takes more power for herself by communicating her emotions with visceral energy. You really feel the passion throbbing inside of her as she daydreams about her man or when they quarrel and she begins to understand the depth of her emotions. When she chats with Tracy in an impromptu hallway conversation she's hip and offhand, telegraphing the confidence and maturity developing in her character and in herself as a performer.

Perhaps this is why, despite playing essentially a supporting role, her presence in the film is always more prominent in memory.

Special features on the disc include two newsreels: one of Taylor's first wedding day, an ill-fated marriage to hotel heir Nicky Hilton that did much to publicize the film, and the other footage of the cast of Father of the Bride meeting President Truman.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

This film adaptation of this Tennessee Williams play is yet another production where the memory of Taylor is more prominent than her actual screen time. Of course this has much to do with that seductive shot of her lounging in a slip on a brass bed. Even the sight of the elaborate twists and knobs on its frame can inspire an erotic thrill.

While it is true that the film centers on a long dialogue between Paul Newman and Burl Ives as a tortured son and distant father, Taylor once again finds a way to distinguish herself. Taylor was Oscar nominated for her portrayal of Maggie the Cat, a woman who struggles to compete with the memory of a man her husband Brick (Paul Newman) loved.

In a film full of characters jockeying for position in the world of Big Daddy (Burl Ives), Brick's wealthy father, she is coolly aware of how her beauty and understanding of the people surrounding the cranky patriarch can work to her benefit. The one exception is her own husband, and her frustration over not being able to manage this key aspect of her life is so palpable it practically leaks out of her pores. She simmers with frustration and lust. It was the start of Taylor playing determined, strong women not content to wait passively for men to decide their fates.

Special features on the disc include commentary by Williams biography Donald Spoto, the featurette Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Playing Cat and Mouse and a theatrical trailer.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

In the opening scenes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the combative married couple Martha (Taylor) and George (Richard Burton), wander drunkenly home from a party. Martha laughs loudly and George angrily shushes her; he seems embarrassed of her. And yet, the pair is oddly in sync. They easily match their strides. Weaving together unsteadily, they seem united if uneasy.

While the film and the Edward Albee play upon which it is based are famous for the dysfunctional relationships at its core, it is clear that Martha and George really are far more united than they seem. When they invite the young couple Honey (Sandy Dennis) and Nick (George Segal) back to their place for a post-party tipple, their solidity becomes increasingly more apparent despite the discord between them.

While Honey and Nick seem constantly at odds, with Nick seeming shocked and uncomfortable about his wife's behavior and Honey blithely ignoring his objections, Martha and George are oddly as in step as they were in that walk home. They may not be peaceful, but they instinctively feel that a strong marriage is based on a sort of understanding. As ugly as the games they play with each other are, they accept the often-changing rules and that keeps them together, oddly content.

Taylor certainly had plenty of real life battles with Burton to draw from as she created the screen version of Martha. The stage actors in the cast had been skeptical of her talents, and were surprised to find how polished she was as a performer and how well she understood film acting. She'd had a lifetime to build to this role and it would be the pinnacle of her conventional success in Hollywood.

In the years to come, Taylor would play increasingly louder, drunker and more unhinged characters. These roles would often be written off as trashy camp, though beneath the pure pleasure of that uninhibited noise her ability to project emotional depth was continually developing. She somehow understood society's discomfort with unruly women, but had been through far too much to care what anyone thought. Martha is the true start of that wild, untamed aspect of her career.

The film looks beautiful on Blu-ray, but where Taylor is concerned, it is almost too polished. It already took great effort to make the still stunning actress look like a dowdy professor's wife; here, despite the aging make-up, messy do and frumpy clothes, she glows in a way I haven't noticed in previous formats. Her beauty dominates the attempt at fiction. That has the unusual effect of making her performance even more touching. You sense that Martha has so much more to give and that the life she is living is an unnatural state of being for her.

Special features include commentary by Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, commentary by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who made the film shimmer with his inimitable style and the featurettes: Too Shocking For Its Time and A Daring Work of Raw Excellence.

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

Sep 21, 2016

Book Review--Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936
Edward Sorel
Liveright Publishing Company, 2016

In 1936, actress Mary Astor swept Hitler and Franco off the front pages of newspapers when a diary detailing her extramarital sexual romps was made public. 

The star's ex-husband attempted to present the steamy tome as evidence of her unsuitability as a parent when she took him to court to win full custody of their four-year-old daughter. Before judgement could even be made on the admissibility of the document, passages from the diary, and a few made-up and misrepresented entries, were leaked to the press. The sensation they created didn't end Astor's career, but the incident was nevertheless a rocky ride for the actress and the men she named in her writings.

In a new book, Edward Sorel tells the story of Astor, her affairs and the trial, illustrating the drama with amusing, evocative and sometimes quite saucy drawings. While the focus is on the scandal, there is also significant biographical detail and a brief discussion of her films.

Sorel has made his career as a prolific illustrator and cartoonist, with his pictures and pictorial essays appearing in publications like The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair and Esquire

Here he proves he could have been a writer too. Sorel's style is light and humorous, drawing on years of satirical works. He writes with the tone of a man who has seen it all and who has nothing left to prove. This leads to a certain amount of narrative risk-taking which is occasionally odd, but mostly pays off.

The story of how Sorel came to be fascinated by Astor is an amusing tale in itself. While ripping up the old flooring in an apartment he owned with his wife in the sixties, the artist found stacks of newspapers that had been used to level the floor. A headline about Astor's trial caught his eye. Then he found more headlines and became obsessed with her story. You don't have to imagine him sitting there poring over these papers either, because he perfectly illustrates the moment in a full color drawing showing himself hunched on the floor, reading intently.

Sorel plugs himself into the story in other ways as well, a tactic that can be surprisingly effective, though sometimes he goes off a bit too far into his own world. These head scratching moments are fortunately brief and at least interesting to read if not always an essential part of the story. When he does effectively link his personal obsession with Astor and his own relationship experiences to the narrative, it gives the story a freshness that is rare in a biography.

I've seen Mary Astor's Purple Diary described as a graphic novel, but it's more accurate to call it a heavily-illustrated book. Sorel's pictures focus on the most dramatic aspects of Astor's story, creating images that are full of action, humor, sex and intrigue. The drawings look gorgeous. They are beautifully colored and bubbling with life.

I liked this breezy, unique and well-researched take on one of Hollywood's most salacious scandals. While it doesn't shy away from the sensational aspects of the story, it is ultimately a respectful tribute to Astor's strength, intelligence and passion.

Many thanks to Liveright Publishing Company, a division of W.W. Norton and Company, for providing a copy of the book for review.

Sep 18, 2016

Quote of the Week: Anna Karina

I think personally that every actress should do a little film. Even a short film. And all directors should act, to know how difficult it is also the other way around.

-Anna Karina

Quote Source

Sep 14, 2016

On Blu-ray: David Hemmings as Alfred the Great (1969)

Making its Warner Archive DVD debut, Alfred the Great isn't an unheralded classic, though it has some fascinating elements. Starring David Hemmings in the title role and Michael York as Guthram, a brutal Viking with a Prince Valiant bob, it's a visually striking epic with inventive battle scenes, and a jumble of a script with lines that even seem to baffle the stars.

On the verge of taking vows for the priesthood, young Alfred is convinced to go to the aid of his brother King Ethelred (Alan Dobie) on the battlefield. Second to the throne, he wants to reject the politics and violence of ruling, but he's a natural leader, something his brother knows and welcomes. He's also a great strategist, drawing from keen observation of his own life experiences to triumph on the battle field against the Danes who have invaded their land. When Alfred's brother dies, there's no doubt that his destiny has been laid out for him.

Before his brother's death, Alfred had married, but not consummated his union with Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome), a Mercian princess. Trapped in his new role, the frustrated king finally brutally takes his bride and she becomes pregnant. In a battlefield negotiation, the randy Guthrum takes Aelhswith as a peace offering, and is quite willing to wait for her to give birth. As it turns out the princess finds her captor more sexually appealing than Alfred, though his brutality repulses her.

And this is a brutal film, full of whippings, nun rapings and bloody sacrifices. It constantly hammers home the point that this was not a pleasant age to be a woman. The showy, stagy script is essentially a collection of proclamations and speeches, spit out with similar fury.

Despite all the fury and bloodlust, there's a sort of hippy dippy vibe to the film, with all the shaggy hairdos and an occasional band of jesters tone. That feeling extends to the battle scenes, as if a bunch of flower children have taken some bad acid and gone berzerk. It's a sloppy, nasty tableau, anticipating the actual grubby decline of the sixties. For that reason, there's a freshness to Alfred's dilemma. His ninth century angst feels not that far removed from modern anxiety.

While the darkness of the interior scenes can make it difficult to make out details, the outdoor location photography is richly-colored and appropriately not lush in a pretty way. The DVD image is good and the images essentially clear.

David Hemmings is comfortable in his role as the clever, smug ruler. His Alfred rebels with the knowledge that he is smarter than everyone else. Still, he is always tortured by the knowledge that his desire for peace will always be at odds with his talent for war. This portrayal is not much removed from his cocky photographer in Blow-Up (1966) who finds himself stunned by the cruelty of the world around him while still inhabiting his own reality.

The film is also notable for featuring Ian McKellan in one of his first screen roles. As Roger, a bandit who aides Alfred, he is engaging and noble, but oddly not as attractive as he would be in later years when he finally achieved international stardom.

As Roger's consort Freda, Vivien Merchant is an intriguing presence, more powerful and with greater autonomy than the other women in the film, though for an unnamed reason she never speaks a word. Rumor is it was the actress's rebellion against the quality of the script, and while I have not been able to confirm this, given the quality of the rest of her stage and screen work, it is plausible she protected her reputation by remaining mute.

Overall, Alfred the Great isn't that great, but its connection to the youthful turmoil of the day, and the ingenuity of its battle scenes lend it some distinction.

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.