Book Review--The Legendary Partnership of Wayne and Ford


Wayne and Ford: The Films, The Friendship and The Forging of an American Hero
Nancy Schoenberger
Doubleday Books/Nan A. Talese, 2017

John Wayne and John Ford are legends of American cinema. Both together and apart they made some of the most magnetic films Hollywood had to offer, but it is unlikely they would have reached the heights they did if they hadn't found each other. In a new book Nancy Shoenberger explores the life, work and relationship of these complex, influential men, focusing attention on the way they interpreted and communicated masculinity.

I was drawn to Wayne and Ford because I liked the way Schoenberger handled dual biography in her 2011 tome Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. Here she tackles a less tumultuous, but similarly layered relationship. There's less heat, but plenty of intrigue.

Of the 200 films Wayne made in his long career, only 69 would be westerns, but they were his most significant roles, and mostly due to his work with Ford. Likewise, the director, who even somewhat ironically referred to himself as a maker of westerns approached many genres successfully, but found his greatest success making fantasies of masculinity and honor in the Monument Valley with his greatest star.

Wayne and Ford charts the simultaneously abusive and familial nature of their relationship. Though Ford inspired loyalty in his actors, who felt he gave them the artistic success they craved, he was a harsh and sadistic taskmaster. The director saved the worst of his abuse for Wayne, who always took it without complaint, even when he reached the heights of his success. Nevertheless, their bond was lifelong and both could depend on each other for help throughout their careers, whether or not it was requested.

Schoenberger looks for insight into this unusual relationship by digging into their personal lives and films. As both men often had great control over the way their movies were made, they were often a reflection of who they were. Despite the differences in their personalities and relationships, in their cinematic explorations of love, duty and what it is to be a man, the two are found to have similar values.

While there was not much that was new to me here, having read individual biographies of Wayne and Ford, being able to focus on their bond and films helped me to better understand the influence they had on each other and their public. In Wayne, Ford saw much that he wanted to be, and in a way he resented his manly physicality. The actor may not have understood this, but he was always aware that the director had essentially made his career after a decade of making cowboy flicks for kids and it is possible he never thought to think past that reality.

In the end, John Ford and John Wayne are only two humans, who lived their lives and passed on, and yet it is endlessly compelling to speculate about these complex men. Wayne and Ford is to be relished because it takes great care and enjoyment in that pursuit.

Many thanks to Doubleday Books/Nan A. Talese for providing a copy of the book for review.

Blu-ray Review: Charisse and Kelly in Brigadoon (1954)


The MGM production of the Learner and Lowe musical Brigadoon (1954) is a mixed bag, overwhelmed by inelegant artifice, but not without its moments of misty magic. Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly and Van Johnson lead a pleasantly quirky cast, directed by Vincente Minnelli. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, with the welcome addition of three musical numbers from the show, that were edited from the final cut, in the special features.

Kelly and Johnson play a pair of American tourists who are in the midst of an unsuccessful hunting trip in the Scottish highlands. They come upon a curiously old-fashioned village, which they learn comes to life one day every century. They have arrived on the day of a wedding and become involved in all the drama and romance that entails.

As MGM's baseline was uniformly high during its musical heyday, Brigadoon has much going for it. Minnelli captures a dreamy, romantic mood, the cast is vibrant and jolly, and the musical numbers are executed with slick efficiency. It doesn’t always keep a steady momentum, but it moves well enough.

However, this screen adaptation of the Broadway sensation never quite finds its heart. As beautiful as it can be, it never feels as lush as it should. This is primarily due to studio insistence that the film be made on a soundstage instead of the outdoor locations it clearly needs to work as cinema. It is hard to enjoy Kelly and Charisse swooping around plaster rocks and painted backdrops when you know how magical it would be in the open air.

Kathryn Grayson was originally cast to play Charisse's role, and if she had, perhaps the musical would have been more focused on its strong point: the gorgeous score. Though it has its acrobatic moments, Brigadoon is best as a singing show. Though it was logical to bring more dance numbers into the production with Charisse and Kelly as leads, it doesn’t suit the spirit of of the production. Watching Johnson and Kelly break into a tap number in an otherworldly Scottish village gives you the feeling they have dropped into the wrong film.

While Minnelli for the most part films his cast to advantage, his staging of the musical numbers lacks impact. Too often he goes for a wide shot filled with rocks, trees and fake heather, making you work to focus on the players stranded in the middle of the screen. The moments in the score that should hit you with swelling emotion get lost, slipping away without payoff.

Part of this is also due to the cast, which with its dancing focus simply can’t do justice to the swooning romance of the score. It might have worked better on the soundstage if it had featured artists who could have mined the music for its full emotional impact: like Kathryn Grayson or Jane Powell singing in close-up with Howard Keel. It could have been magical if they’d been able to film that kind of combination on location.

Charisse and Kelly have their swoony moments though, even if they aren’t entirely suited to the material. Brigadoon should satisfy those who enjoy the pair together. Johnson is also enjoyably prickly, taking his cheerful young man persona in an interesting direction.

I always thought it was a shame that the tender Come to Me, Bend to Me didn’t make it into the film and was thrilled to see the outtake for that number in the special features. Also included are From This Day On, Sword Dance and an audio outtake for There but for You Go I. The Blu-ray image quality is solid, capturing the rich colors of the production.

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

Book Review--Anne Bancroft: A Life


Anne Bancroft: A Life
Douglass K. Daniel
University Press of Kentucky, 2017

Though she acted for decades, on the stage, screen and television, Anne Bancroft will forever be known as Mrs. Robinson. That role in The Graduate (1967) ensured her immortality. A best actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962) added mainstream respectability to the mix, but there is so much more to the life and career of this unusually dedicated actress. From her screen debut in 1952, Bancroft worked steadily, never becoming a huge star, but nevertheless building a reputation as one of the best actresses of her generation. In her first full-length biography, Douglass Daniel tells the whole story, revealing the professional and personal details of this complex, compassionate and fascinating woman.

Bronx-born Bancroft’s career was filled with near misses. She almost starred on the stage in Funny Girl, she was close to filling the role that Suzanne Pleshette played in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and that pattern continued until she more easily fell into character parts in her later years. While there were various reasons for losing these gigs, including her own high standards, it was often because she didn’t have the box office clout or star image to convince producers she could sell a film. Though Bancroft thrilled Broadway, television and film audiences with Emmy, Tony and Oscar winning performances, she continually found she had to hustle for roles.

Her flashiest triumphs aside, Bancroft wasn’t a major star. She was an actress and a particularly dedicated one at that. If there is any common thread in Daniel’s book, it is that she took her craft seriously and approached it with integrity. Maybe stardom could bring better roles, but the quality of her material and her performance were always more important.

As much as Bancroft craved and thrived living the actor’s life, she valued her family equally, if not more, and often made her personal life a priority. One of the most pleasing elements of the book is the way it explores her relationship with her second husband Mel Brooks. While this pairing of comedian and dramatic actress always seemed to puzzle the public, their marriage is one of the great Hollywood love stories. The pair was steadfastly devoted, living with compassion for each other, working around hectic schedules to be together and celebrating each other’s successes without a hint of jealousy.

The same is true of their son Max. Bancroft loved her much-desired only child to the point of smothering him, though she usually stopped short of such excesses. When she learned that Max had a learning disability, the actress put her career on hold so that she could ensure he got the proper guidance. Judging from the young Brooks’ successful writing career, she was effective. While Max was young, Anne worked little and favored projects that would allow her to return home at night. She even recorded herself reading bedtime stories so that her son would be read to sleep on those nights she couldn’t make it home.

That loyalty and devotion extended to Bancroft’s professional life. She was steadfast in her methods and professional demeanor. The many former co-stars and directors quoted in the book had a similar story to tell: that she had a laser focus on her work and approached each role with serious intensity, that she was not always up for making friends, but that she also never put on the airs of a star and could be counted on to help another actor shape a performance, sometimes saving a co-worker’s job in the process.

As Bancroft avoided the wild side of the Hollywood lifestyle and its pitfalls, she never suffered the effects of living too hard. Free of drugs and alcohol, excessive toxic relationships and poor financial decisions, she had the resources and grounding to be choosy about her work and flourished because of it.

Daniel takes a straightforward approach to telling Bancroft’s story, easily weaving together the personal and the professional. Given the wealth of material he has gotten from his sources, he wisely avoids adding his own analysis of the actress and lets her friends and associates fill out the details of her personality. The result is a rich, authentic portrait which effectively captures her essence.

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

Documentary--Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches (2016)


It's long baffled me that Rod Taylor isn't more revered by classic film fans, because as an actor and as a star, he had everything. Handsome, versatile and just as talented as the other top actors of his era, he could have coasted on swoon appeal, but always had a lot more to offer. In the Robert de Young-directed documentary, Pulling No Punches, the actor has his say and is lauded by his peers, biographer, industry associates and filmmakers. The attention is long overdue.

Pulling No Punches is built around a series of interviews with Taylor that the filmmakers conducted in late 2012, less than three years before his death in January 2015. The film could have succeeded solely on the strength of the actor's funny, energetic and bluntly honest reminiscing; he's a great storyteller, always leaving you wanting more. Though he is no longer as pretty as in his heyday, he's still incredibly sexy, because he is confident and witty in that endearingly open way that seems to be a unique trait of Australians.

I like the kinetic energy of the film that was built around these interviews. With retro graphics, smoothly paced editing and a snappy soundtrack, its rhythm interestingly mirrors Taylor's live wire, but suave persona. While it does eventually dig into Taylor's start in the industry, it begins by diving right into Sunday in New York (1963), swooping through film clips and talking head interviews like a reader flipping to the good parts.

That momentum is maintained throughout the film, which covers the basics, but goes at those details in an unconventional way, touching on films here and there, unfolding in an essentially chronological order, but with great focus on keeping the proceedings lively. As Taylor's career was all over the map, I can't think of a better approach to his filmography. It would be very difficult to cover the scope of his many achievements, but by zooming in on a variety of roles and experiences, the film covers a surprising amount of territory in less than an hour and a half.

It's almost comical to see the way Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright and Angela Lansbury still swoon over Taylor in their interviews, decades after working with him. They see the magnetic and manly, but not macho appeal that seems to have been lost on many and, as two-time costar Maggie Smith notes, the seemingly effortless way he was able to work on set and build a character. Maybe Pulling No Punches will broaden the cult of Taylor. Once you join it, your heart never stops palpitating, but I recommend it heartily and this film is a good explanation as to why.

Many thanks to the Inkwell Films for providing access to the film.

DVD Review: Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Undercurrent (1946)


A new wave of Katharine Hepburn flicks recently released on DVD from Warner Archive drew me to a pair of titles that, while not among her most celebrated, were of interest to me because of their unusual quirks. Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Undercurrent (1946) vary in critical, box office and artistic success, but it is worth shining a light on both of these underseen films.



Sylvia Scarlett was a critical and box office bomb upon its release and time has not revealed that response to be unjust. It is a Hepburn picture by billing, but it is perhaps most notable for being the film where Cary Grant's persona truly began to take shape. Kate plays the daughter of an embezzler and thief (Edmund Gwenn) who must masquerade as the teenage Sylvester in order to escape the authorities with her father. They meet grifter Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) in their travels and team up with him to attempt to make a living without stooping to work.

Hepburn is handsome, but profoundly irritating as a boy and the action zig zags in an erratic way, sort of moving forward, sort of getting nowhere, but it is all so bizarre that you can't look away. Fluffy-haired Brian Aherne is appealing as Michael Fane a cheerful artist who is drawn to Sylvia, but doesn't quite understand what he sees in this handsome young boy. His confusion and the female advances "Sylvester" must manage are among the most interesting elements of the film.

While homosexuality was seen as repellant, even deviant at the time, the characters here don't seem overly concerned when they touch upon it. It makes you wonder if there were a few closeted souls in the audience who took this as a positive bit of representation. Sylvia is repulsed,but not too scandalized by the prospect of gay eroticism, but the lady who attempts the seduction seems mostly amused by her mistake. Michael is not only less tortured, but a bit intrigued.

Romantic maneuverings aside, it is Cary Grant's transformation from handsome mannequin to sexy devil that distinguishes the film. While his lame Cockney accent hits the ears with a splat, his charm makes up for much of that awkwardness. This is the true screen debut of the debonair, mischievous and dangerously flirtatious Grant that would become a legend even outside of his own understanding.



In the more critically and financially successful romantic noir Undercurrent, Hepburn is Ann Hamilton, a wealthy socialite approaching middle age, who unexpectedly veers into marriage with handsome businessman Alan Garroway. Perplexed by his reluctance to discuss his brother Michael (Robert Mitchum), who seems to have disappeared due to some kind of disgrace, she tries to learn more about this scorned sibling. In the process she finds herself drawn to this figure of mystery, at least partly because he is so elusive, but also because he seems to perfectly fit her sensibilities.

I love the idea of falling in love with someone you've never seen and director Vincent Minnelli creates a dreamy feeling of romance even though the prospective lovers are not acquainted for much of the film. That mood is so intense that when Alan becomes jealous of his wife's obsession, the change in tone feels like a brutal intrusion.

Undercurrent is ultimately an odd film, because the leads are brilliantly cast, but they don't quite fit together. Mitchum perfectly fits the image of Michael that Ann has created, but Hepburn is not a good fit for him. They are discordant in temperament onscreen and apparently were in real life as well, where she seemed to think he was a no-talent skating by on his looks. It's an odd situation where she is not well cast opposite her love interest, but she also fits her role quite well. It is the same for Taylor, who is dangerously seductive, but not believable as a man obsessed with Hepburn. In a way, that lack of cohesion adds intrigue to the film, because it creates an imbalance that keeps you slightly on edge.

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.


DVD Review: Edmond O'Brien Hits the Range In Cow Country (1953)


Cow Country is an essentially unremarkable, but pleasing western. It was made as one among many simple programmers, but star Edmond O'Brien is a reassuring presence and Peggy Castle steals the show with a bracingly memorable scene. The film is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Those who are familiar with the work of Edmond O'Brien (D.O.A. [1950], The Barefoot Contessa [1954], Seven Days in May [1964]) may not feel his image screams western star, but he actually made several films in the genre and even starred in a few. Instead of ambling across the screen like the lanky, muscular Wayne type, he has an efficient manner, focused on the most practical path to his desires. Though his presence is subdued, he's one of the few stars who is made more intriguing by the decency he exudes. You sense a history of pain behind that moral fa├žade and it draws you to him.

He plays Ben Anthony, a range rider who is in charge of a freight line in Texas. When the wealthy owners of a local rendering plant put pressure on struggling cattlemen to sell their stock, Anthony leads the resistance against the corrupt businessmen. He must also compete with business rival Harry Odell (Robert Lowery) for the love of his childhood crush Linda Garnett (Helen Westcott).

Cow Country is the kind of film that could fade in the memory, settling in with other deliberately unremarkable westerns, but it is instead unforgettable because of Peggy Castle. As Melba Sykes, an impoverished but ambitious member of a family squatting on a ranch belonging to Linda's father, she is more passionate and lively by far than any of her costars.

Odell has been romancing Melba behind Linda's back and when she realizes he doesn't intend to marry her, she goes after him with a whip. She doesn't hold back either. It is a wildly entertaining scene and cathartic to boot. I'd like to see a film starring this character, because this moment alone makes the western worth a look.

As Anthony faces increasing violence from his adversaries, the film climaxes in a series of tense, well-paced action sequences that are much more engaging and suspenseful than the action preceding them. These opportunists are willing to be ruthless and it is frightening what they do to get what they want.

It's an enjoyable flick, engaging in a low-key way and with enough spice to keep the energy up.

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.

The National Film Registry: Nominate Your Picks By Friday, September 15!



Ever since its establishment in 1988, each year the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress selects 25 American-made films to add to the National Film Registry. The group strives to pick "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films," in the hopes of recognizing not just award winners or box office champs, but a wide range of works that encompass American filmmaking. Inclusion on this list is huge, because every title is guaranteed to be preserved and made available to the public.

One of the most exciting elements of this process is that the public has input into which films are selected for the list. For a short period each year, film fans can send recommendations for up to 50 films via the Library of Congress website. If you want to have your say, the deadline for making suggestions is Friday, September 15.

Don't know what to recommend? The Board has you covered! Here is a list of significant films that have not yet made it to the registry. Many classic film fans have been stunned to see how many classics still haven't made the cut, but 25 films a year isn't much when you've got over one hundred years of film history to consider. As honored as the board members must be to participate in this process, it isn't easy.

To learn more about the selection process, I recommend watching the 2011 documentary These Amazing Shadows, which I reviewed here.

You can make nominations for the list here.

And if you need ideas, here's that list of films that have yet to make the list. UPDATE: A reader noted that one of my choices Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) had been added to the registry in 1992, so keep in mind that this list isn't quite up-to-date!

The National Film Registry Class of 2017 will be announced in December.

Of course I couldn't resist making my own list, which I have shared below. Which films would you pick?

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906)
Kid Auto Races At Venice (1914)
Stella Maris (1918)
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)
The Scarecrow (1920)
The Blot (1921)
Beyond the Rocks (1922)
Robin Hood (1922)
The Toll of the Sea (1922)
Why Worry? (1923)
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
The Merry Widow (1925)
Moana (1926)
The Cat & The Canary (1927)
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Wedding March (1928)
The Letter (1929)
Whoopee! (1930)
Night Nurse (1931)
Possessed (1931)
Downstairs (1932)
Kongo (1932)
Shanghai Express (1932)
Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Bombshell (1933)
Employees Entrance (1933)
I'm No Angel (1933)
Queen Christina (1933)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Nothing Sacred (1937)
Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Love Affair (1939)
Rebecca (1940)
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1940)
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
Gaslight (1944)
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
The Southerner (1945)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
The Lady From Shanghai (1948)
Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)
Harvey (1950)
Alice In Wonderland (1951)
Scaramouche (1952)
Pretty Poison (1968)
The Landlord (1970)
Claudine (1974)
Cooley High (1975)
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