Quote of the Week: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

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She was a rogue wave, a loose electron, an arrow aimed straight for his ailing heart.

-Sophia Loren, about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

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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.

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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Warner Archive: 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.

Warner Archive: 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.

Warner Archive: 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.

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.

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