Nov 22, 2017

Book Review--You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood's Golden Era

You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews with Stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era
James Bawden and Ron Miller
University Press of Kentucky, 2017

One of the saddest things about the passing of writer and TCM television host Robert Osborne was that the entertainment world lost one of its best interviewers. Knowledgeable, attentive and always a gentleman, his subjects were often inspired to open up because they trusted him, and rightly so. I often thought of this while reading You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews with Stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era a collection of dozens of interviews of classic film stars conducted by journalists James Bawden and Ron Miller. These two possess all the desirable qualities Osborne did and it shows in the depth and candid nature of their work.

The book is organized into several sections, with both broad and specific categories. There are the extensive Leading Men and Leading Ladies chapters and then smaller tributes to child stars, movie monster men, character actors and the like. Context is provided for each interview, including a brief biography of the subject and a description of the circumstances of the interview; both of which were helpful in understanding the conversation to follow.

Bawden and Miller draw material from long careers and strong relationships with the residents of Tinsel Town. The names could be as big as Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda. While these conversations with industry giants are satisfying, devoted classic film fans might treasure hearing the words of lesser known performers like Bonita Granville, Jack Elam and Hurd Hatfield even more. Overall, it’s an interesting gathering of talents, intriguing enough that it was difficult to decide which one to read next.

In his introduction to the book, Miller outlines his rules for interviews, which are grounded in respect for the humanity and personal privacy of his subjects. He reveals that often that regard for boundaries would lead to more confidences shared rather than less. For that reason, both he and Bawden, who seems to have taken a similar approach, drew something richer than a production history or a few benign on-set remembrances from these stars. You learn how Bette Davis was so disgusted kissing poor, sour-faced Edward G. Robinson that she had to close her eyes or get the low-down on Jane Russell’s conspiracy theories about the death of Marilyn Monroe. The stars stay remarkable to the reader for the unusual lives they’ve led, but they also become more human.

There’s an almost bittersweet feel to the You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, because the interviews were mostly conducted late in the careers of the stars featured. Most of them have happy experiences to share and a sense of satisfaction with their successes, but there are also disappointments, loss and regrets. There’s Victor Mature, who made as much money as he had to, as soon as he could, and happily retired to marriage, fatherhood and the golf course, but there’s also Buster Keaton, who struggled after the silent age and had to work past his desire to do so because of unlucky investments and a rocky life. For the most part though, it’s fascinating to learn how these stars felt about the remarkable lives they led and especially how they interacted with other performers. It’s encouraging that they seem to have so many genuinely appreciative memories to share about each other, though it's always entertaining to get a little jab here and there as well.

This is an addictive book. It’s charming, revealing and graceful in a way that speaks to the past. I would hope every aspiring journalist would read this and take a lesson from the rewards these men reaped by simply treating others with respect.

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

Nov 17, 2017

On DVD: A Myrna Loy and William Powell Double Feature

Myrna Loy and William Powell co-starred in thirteen films, and they are by far most popular for playing the adorably debauched Nora and Nick Charles in the Thin Man series. While this is understandable, the pair create the most effervescent of screen couples as hard-drinking, merry spouses, it is a shame that the rest of their efforts have fallen aside as a result. Almost all of their pairings are satisfying entertainment and many are as worthy of classic status as those famous mysteries. This pair of flicks now on DVD from Warner Archive provides two solid examples of their best non-series work.

Evelyn Prentice (1934)

So much of the success of this society murder drama depends on the appeal of Loy and Powell. It could have come off a bit creaky had it been made a few years earlier and with less adorable leads. As it is, it isn’t one of the best of their pairings, but it is solidly engrossing and much helped by the glamorous clothes, clubs and fancy parties that form their milieu.

Loy is the titular society wife of a busy lawyer. Though deeply in love with her husband, she never sees him and soon finds herself in too deep with a flirtatious, but dangerous writer. Mr. Prentice is not much better, briefly giving in to the advances of an emotionally fragile client, who is played by Rosalind Russell with unnerving gravity and banality given how she would later sparkle in even the darkest of roles.

Una Merkel is perfect as Loy’s best friend, really the only actress who could go from goofy to gravely serious with such ease as she does here. In a wonderfully tense courtroom scene Isabell Jewell is remarkably effective as one of Powell’s clients. There are so many times that she could have gone over the top, but she instead maintains a marvelous tension that ebbs and flows in a monologue in which she almost steals the film.

Special features on the disc include the comedy short Goofy Movies #3, the cartoon The Discontented Canary and a theatrical trailer.

Love Crazy (1941)

While Loy and Powell are charming and romantic in all of their films together, I think this is their sexiest pairing. They are so erotically in sync with each other that you almost feel guilty intruding on their time alone together. As an eccentric couple celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary, they so clearly still have honeymoon-caliber hots for each other that you’d think nothing could drive them apart. Instead, they spend the entire film being pulled apart for the silliest reasons and making great comedy in the process.

I watched this with a packed house at the TCM Classic Film Festival and it was clear the crowd felt itself in the presence of a classic. Perhaps the larger success of the Thin Man series has overshadowed it to a degree, but there’s really no good reason this funny flick isn’t better known. The giddily balanced mix of sharp wordplay and physical humor are the most adventurous of the Loy and Powell films and the risks it takes pay off.

The supporting cast is full of marvelous troublemakers. Florence Bates is a nightmare as Loy’s clueless mother, who thinks nothing of crashing and ruining her daughter’s anniversary dinner. Gail Patrick is predictably slippery as Powell’s former and still interested lover and Jack Carson is amusingly brash as the alliteratively ridiculous Ward Willoughby. The title is appropriate, because this crew gets increasingly wilder, topping itself with new absurdities until the very end.

Special features include the cartoon The Alley Cat, a Screen Directors Guild Playhouse Radio Broadcast of the story and a theatrical trailer.

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.

Nov 8, 2017

On DVD: 6 Pre-Codes from Warner Archive

With a wave of new releases, it is clear that Warner Archive has not forgotten its promise to keep pre-code fans satisfied, despite the end of its Forbidden Hollywood series. Here are six titles making their DVD debut:

Broadway Babies (1929)

For a while in the late twenties and early thirties, it looked like Alice White was shooting to big screen stardom. With big eyes, fluttering eyelashes and bubbly charm, this blonde Clara Bowish-pixie confidently made the transition to talkies, as can be seen here in her screen musical debut. She had a limited talent though; her appeal was more of the featured player variety. Money demands, audience disinterest and scandal contributed to her woes and eventually she returned to her secretarial roots.

Here White is at her best, holding the screen with marginal dancing and singing talent, but managing to be mesmerizing nevertheless. As a showgirl who drops her boyfriend for a bootlegger and shares a room with two other aspiring stars (the adorable Sally Eilers and Marion Byron), she trots out all the tropes that would become standard in years of films to come. The film is at its best when the trio of showgirls is together; their energetic interplay is always fun to watch. Unlike those notorious early screen musicals with leaden choreography and awkwardly-paced numbers, here the many songs are light-hearted and entertaining, with fleet-footed tapping and pleasing production design.

Playing Around (1930)

Here White plays the daughter of cigar counter manager, who is bored with her childhood sweetheart (William Bakewell) and looking for excitement. You can’t blame her, as the eternally startled-looking boyfriend orders buttermilk when he goes to a nightclub and scolds her constantly. Sleek, playful gangster Chester Morris seduces her with his sense of fun and she doesn’t bother to ask him how he makes his living. She soon learns the truth about him in the worst way, when one of his crimes affects her family.

You hope White will eventually search for an option three as both Bakewell and Morris are no good for her. She’s fun to watch and Morris seems to be getting a kick out of adding weird touches to his sleazy, but stimulating character.

Big Business Girl (1931)

In one of her early “vulnerable, but not so innocent” roles, 18-year-old Loretta Young plays a socialite in debt who goes to work while her musician husband (Frank Albertson) skips across the pond for a Parisian gig. She works her way up in an ad office, from secretary to copy writer (sound familiar Mad Men fans?). With his signature wolfish grin, boss Ricardo Cortez goes after Young and she is diplomatic for the sake of her career, much to the irritation of Albertson when he returns. The thing is, he has also compromised himself romantically to get ahead. Joan Blondell appears in a small part, she doesn’t make an appearance until the last fifteen minutes of the film, but she gives the proceedings so much life that it is worth watching the film to see her.

She Had to Say Yes (1933)

This drama is based on a concept that was surely icky at the time and which has become downright repulsive over the years. In Busby Berkeley’s directorial debut, Loretta Young is a secretary in a clothing manufacturer’s office who is pressured to entertain out-of-town buyers for a “bonus”. As one dame in the steno pool notes, “a bonus is only one of the things you can get from an out-of-town buyer.” The film plays lightly with sexual harassment and assault, presenting women as objects to be ogled and offered for sale. Young finds herself in an impossible position, expected to remain honest and pure while her self-absorbed beaux demand the freedom to do as they please. While there is no chance Young will remain single at the end of it all, it is dispiriting to see her abandon her standards with an air of inevitability. Depressing as it is, this is an excellent portrayal of the limitations women endured and continue to face today in a male dominated world.

Wide Open (1930)

Edward Everett Horton gets to play a rare romantic leading role in this farcical comedy about an ambitious phonograph company employee who finds himself in the crosshairs of two amorous ladies (Louise Fazenda, Patsy Ruth Miller). He doesn’t seem to care for their kind, even quipping at one point, “I never spoiled a reputation in my life…male or female.” The cast is full of gum-snapping, wise-cracking supporting characters that play to the back row like seasoned vaudevillians. As Horton’s patient maid, Louise Beavers comes off better than her character is written; crackling with her unique, wide-eyed charisma.

While the performers have pep and there’s an amusing absurdity to it all, the film becomes a long hour in the end.

The Washington Masquerade (1932)

Lionel Barrymore is an idealistic lawyer who wins a senate seat and sets his sights on cleaning up Washington. Instead he falls for and marries Karen Morley’s glittering society dame, who is seeing the dangerously pretty Nils Asther on the side and plotting her husband’s corruption. These elements play out as expected: with Barrymore hooking his thumbs into his vest and mulling each noble word, Morley talking sweet on one side and dirty the other and Asther always looking up to no good, as he does.

Alongside the predictable, there are many subtle delights in this film that give it more punch than you’d expect. It’s filmed with care, with beautifully composed shots and evocative lighting. Barrymore is framed at a distance, beneath an enormous doorway and you feel how he is in over his head. There is also the fascinating interaction between Morley and Barrymore; she was such an intelligent actress and he seems to respond to her, letting her excise the ham from his performance in their scenes together (he lets loose the rest of the time). As Barrymore’s concerned daughter, Diane Sinclair makes much of what would normally be an unsympathetic, if noble role, telegraphing her profound worry without a hint of the jealousy or pettiness that could have threatened the depth of her performance.

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.

Nov 3, 2017

Book Review--Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart

Hank & Jim: The Fifty Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart
Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster, 2017

What you learn is never what’s said. It’s what’s done.

-Jane Fonda

I’ve always felt that platonic relationships don’t get enough attention from biographers, though they can often be the source of the most fascinating stories. With his new book, Hank & Jim, Scott Eyman demonstrates just how satisfying it can be to explore an enduring friendship. Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart offered each other solace that they couldn’t find from anyone else and their complex personas and uncomplicated bond make for an intriguing history.

The actors met briefly in college and truly connected when they were roommates with two other struggling stage-struck friends in New York. When they eventually migrated to Hollywood, the pair rented a house together, building a home base for each other until Fonda married. After that, they would often live close enough for frequent visits and just as often work across the country from each other, going wherever the roles led them, but their bond endured to the end of their lives.

While the men were different in significant ways: Stewart was warm, right wing and adored making movies; Fonda was icy, firmly liberal and preferred the stage, they shared a sort of detachment from others. Essentially self-contained loners, they found their greatest bond in simply understanding each other and that would often mean that the things they didn’t say to each other were as significant as the things they did. They were perhaps at their closest when they spent hours together not speaking at all. The men also shared a sense of duty and honor, not always unwavering when it came to personal relationships, but solid professionally and when it came to their military service in World War II.

In their early years, the pair behaved like two boys at play. Though both men cut a swath through the ladies of Hollywood, there was nevertheless a sort of innocence to them. Obsessed with building elaborate model airplanes from their New York days to the early years in Hollywood, they’d spend hours funneling their excess energy into their latest project. Fonda and Stewart also had a soft spot for animals, which got out of control when a colony of feral cats overwhelmed their rental home. They were also fond of playing elaborate practical jokes, which they learned to execute with devilish skill.

The first part of the book is most rich with stories of the two. As they move on to marriage, parenthood and varied careers, their stories diverge for long periods. For a while, it feels like the best of their years together are behind them, but in the closing chapters the full meaning of their friendship emerges and it is incredibly moving.

As much as Fonda and Stewart could be loners, the other relationships in their lives were vibrant, with many of them enduring for decades. They were both eternally in love with Margaret Sullavan, though Fonda was the one to marry her, if briefly. He would find a less turbulent love with his fifth wife Shirlee and Stewart found a partner for life when he married a widow named Gloria and became father to her twin sons. Loyal friends included the photographer John Swope, director Josh Logan and actor Burgess Meredith, and their stories reveal much about the things Fonda and Stewart valued most.

I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes shared by renowned Hollywood storyteller actor Norman Lloyd (now his life would make a fascinating book!) Perhaps most touching though are the memories shared by the men’s children, and particularly Jane and Peter Fonda, who were often frustrated in their attempts to reach their icy father, though the love was clearly there.

Now that I have read a few biographies written by Eyman, I am certain that I could loathe the topic of his next book and still give it a try. He’s got a wonderful knack for finding the right tone for his subjects, so that while each new title has a familiar standard of quality, the feel is always markedly different. That mixture of reliability and novelty is unusual and always interesting.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of the book for review.

Nov 1, 2017

Blu-ray Review: The Green Slime (1968)

The Japanese-American co-production of The Green Slime (1968) never makes claims for greatness, but delivers plenty of wacky amusement. This film has the unusual honor of being featured in the first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and that distinction tells you everything you need to know about it. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, it is certainly unforgettable.

Shot in Japan with a Japanese crew and director Kinji Fukasaku [Black Lizard (1968)] and starring a Western cast, you get a sense of how serious the proceedings are meant to be when the groovy title tune begins blasting over the opening credits. Sung by Tom Jones-like Richard Delvy who hollers enthusiastically about Green Slime, it prepares you for a wild ride.

The film begins with astronauts on an American space station discovering an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. They are told by command they must blast it to dust before it makes contact. While planting explosives on the threatening mass, the men discover several globs of mysterious, throbbing green goo, which grow quickly, disabling some of the group’s equipment. As they barely escape the asteroid before it blows, a small, green globule rides away with them on the pants of one of the astronauts.

When the goo-smeared garb is put in a decontamination chamber, the glop expands, because it thrives on the energy used to purify the materials from the mission. The green stuff quickly grows into a squealing monster (think Sigmund the Sea Monster, but evil and non-verbal) with a single red eye, and who emits electricity from wildly waving tentacles. When the crew attempts to kill it with laser guns, the energy only gives it more strength, while its green blood rapidly grows into more monsters.

In the midst of this there is a tiresome love triangle between the mission’s leader, the slightly too soft-hearted Commander Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel), his fiancĂ©e, mission doctor Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi) and his estranged friend, and her former lover Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton). Always critical of Elliott’s leadership style, Rankin attempts to take control of the mission, in addition to stealing back Dr. Benson. She knows he isn’t good for her, but she’s not over him, and she seems to be working a bit too hard to convince herself she loves Elliott. It’s a valiant attempt to add some humanity to the film, but unnecessary since it works as a goofy, absurd, action flick.

The real excitement is with the bizarre, squealing green creatures. They kill with the electricity that shoots through their waving tentacles and keep multiplying without any sign of slowing down. Uncommunicative and seemingly without emotions, these are definitely not sympathetic monsters.

These crazy creatures are the centerpiece of a truly odd film. There’s also a bizarre club scene (with amazing 60s fashions) where dancers stiffly jerk to and fro like they’re all getting over back injuries and the exterior models and effects work are enjoyably fake looking, like watch a bunch of vintage toys in action. The background players are also about as believable as paid mourners (in one victorious scene a man and woman actually join hands and awkwardly dance around in a circle). Sometimes the overall effect is like watching a bunch of kids at play.

The Green Slime is both similar a lot of 60s sci-fi programmers and like nothing else. Try it as a double feature with Tentacles (1977) if you dare.

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