On DVD: 1939 Rarities Full Confession and Beauty for the Asking

I recently had the chance to check out a pair of pleasantly entertaining 1939 rarities making their debut on DVD from Warner Archive: Full Confession, with Victor McLaglen and Beauty for the Asking, staring a pre-hilarious Lucille Ball. While it is understandable that this slight pair got lost in the shuffle during the legendary year in Hollywood that brought Gone with the Wind, The Women, Wuthering Heights and the like to audiences, they have their own charms.

I’ve always looked on Victor McLaglen as a more sincere version of Wallace Beery. He blunders around in much the same way, relying a bit too much on his physical power and impulsive decision making to get through life, and finding trouble because of it, but unlike Beery, he seems to understand his weaknesses on some level. He isn’t “aw shucks” about it, but rather has the decency to feel a little shame when he goes too far.

In the John Farrow-directed Full Confession (1939), he plays this familiar character in a story that often feels more like religious melodrama than the crime drama it is claimed to be. McLaglen is Pat McGinnis, a somewhat cuddly, but also dangerous man who is arrested after he steals a fur coat for his waitress girlfriend Molly Sullivan (Sally Eilers). He is shuffled off to a work farm to serve out his sentence, with the police unaware that he has committed the much more serious crime of killing a policeman during another attempted warehouse crime earlier in the night.

Through an unfortunate series of events, the warehouse night watchman Michael O’Keefe (Barry Fitzgerald) who McGinnis knocked out before the crime is convicted of the murder and faces execution. His pastor Father Loma (Joseph Calleia), who also knows McGinnis, learns the truth and much of the film involves his quest to free O’Keefe.

It’s a bit alarming the way the soundtrack full of weeping strings and several scenes of McGinnis and Sullivan being sweet on each other seem to be indicating that Pat isn’t the dangerous monster he is. Impulsive, aggressive and with no apparent desire to assimilate into society, you know that violence and despair are in Molly’s future if they marry and there are moments that she seems to realize that as well. Father Loma is fully aware of how dangerous and reprehensible the situation is though and he doesn’t hesitate to talk tough.

While none of it is terribly compelling, the disconnect between the film’s attempt to present a sweet couple and the darkness of the truth is intriguingly unsettling. Calleia is also oddly interesting; his sureness of purpose and complete moral certainty could only fully work in a cinematic world, but he lends an interesting edge to his determined man of religion.

Long before Lucille Ball realized her comic genius, she was an appealing, if not totally dazzling star of several genres besides comedy. Starring in the romance Beauty for the Asking (1939) as a beauty salon attendant who cashes in on her brilliant recipe for cold cream while shaking off a yen for the lousy boyfriend who dumped her, she is sharp, lovely and deeply sympathetic.

The bad beau is salesman Denny Williams (Patric Knowles) who leaves the lovely Jean Russell (Ball), for whom he feels passion, for the unpolished but insanely wealthy Flora Barton-Williams (Frieda Inescourt), who can provide him with comfort and access to plenty of illicit society side pieces. Jean realizes Denny is no good, but she can’t shake her passion for him and when Flora has him help her with her cold cream business as a term of her financial support, she struggles to hold him at arm’s length.

On the sidelines is the much cuter Jeff Martin (Donald Woods), who helps Jean with ads and waits hopefully for her to notice him. As her slightly dim-witted gal pal Gwen, Inez Courtney supports Jean’s business and her desire to put a Denny in the past. She is also responsible for the comic elements of the film. In a scene of physical comedy that is at odds with the more dialogue-driven humor of the rest of the film, Courtney is mildly amusing, and knowing what we do of Ball now, it is odd to see her gamely playing straight woman to a much lesser comic performer.

Beauty for the Asking
is at its best when it embraces the feminism at its core. Jean thrives while pursuing her dreams of business success and she isn’t ruthless in fulfilling them either. In fact, she throws genuine, generous support to Flora; their strengthening sisterhood is the most satisfying aspect of the story. Most films from this era featuring strong-willed, independent women force you to avert your eyes from implausible endings where the heroine collapses from the exhaustion of being great and retreats into marriage. Here there is no compromise and instead a satisfying feeling of victory.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 fiancée, 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.

Book Review--Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation

Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation
Beverly Gray
Algonquin Books, 2017

I had a great time reading Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, a new book by Beverly Gray that traces the production of Director Mike Nichol’s classic film The Graduate (1967) on its 50th anniversary. Though I have heard stories about the making of this movie for years, in reading this lively history I’ve learned how much richer, entertaining and even touching the full story is.

Gray was a college student when the film was released and well understands the youthful angst that inspired her generation to embrace it. As a longtime part of the entertainment industry, including ten years working with Roger Corman, she brings industry savvy and connections to her story. In addition to looking at the film’s effect through her own lens, she explores that of other generations, mindsets and cultures.

The book is divided into three parts: a production history, plot rehash and analysis of the film’s effect on society. I most enjoyed the first part, which was full of behind-the-scenes tidbits, including the new-to-me fact that Eddra Gale, the quirky actress who played seaside temptress La Saraghina in Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) made a
cameo appearance in a bus scene (not that bus scene), and that the filmmakers deemed her appearance significant enough to give her a credit. The blow-by-blow of the plot in the middle of the book felt unnecessary, though Gray does offer some interesting commentary. Objectively, the final section, with its expansive review of The Graduate phenomena and the impact it has had over the last five decades is the strongest and most thought provoking.

Gray writes in a lightly humorous tone, weaving a diverse array of facts and anecdotes into an airy, enjoyable read. It is for the most part an upbeat history, though there are some sober moments, including memories of Nichol's heartbreaking childhood and the way his feelings of being an outsider led him to choose the emphatically non-WASP Dustin Hoffman to play a privileged Californian loafer. For the most part it appears that The Graduate brought joy to most who were involved with the production in addition to being almost universally beloved among audiences.

Another bit of trivia about the cultural effect of The Graduate that amused me was learning about this commercial Dustin Hoffman made for Audi that riffs on the famous final scene of the movie. Meant for overseas audiences, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I thought it was sweet:

Many thanks to Algonquin Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Blu-ray Review: Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom in The Illustrated Man (1969)

The Illustrated Man (1960) is trilogy of terror-tinged sci-fi tales drawn from Ray Bradbury’s eighteen story anthology of the same name. Rod Steiger stars as the titular tattooed drifter in a framing story with Robert Drivas and then-wife Claire Bloom, and in various roles in the stories which his skin art describes. This eerie film has now made its debut on Warner Archive Blu-ray.

In the framing story, Steiger comes upon fellow wanderer Drivas, whom he frightens with his bullying demeanor and the shock of what was at the time considered a freakish number of tattoos covering his body. He begins to tell the younger man the story of what he calls his “skin illustrations”, which were inked by the enigmatic Felicia (Claire Bloom) in her isolated rural home.

The Bradbury stories that follow: The Veldt, The Long Rain and The Last Night in the World oddly don’t capture the writer’s imagination. While there are some fascinating concepts here, they are limply developed. The first is the scariest, set in a future where a children’s virtual reality game inspires sadism and violence. Though the others have a compelling sense of dread, they don’t do much to justify their existence.

Steiger’s sweaty, angry performance lacks subtlety, but he’s one of those actors who manage to hold your attention even when flying off the rails. He’s an unsettling match for Drivas, who has a shifty look that belies his role as an innocent youth down on his luck. You see a past of shameful deeds in those guilty eyes.

Claire Bloom savors her various roles with more elegance. She is smoothly evil as the skin illustrator, with the look of a woman who relishes the trouble she can cause. She has the appearance of threat lingering just below the surface of that coldly serene smile, like she’s hiding a pair of vampire’s fangs.

While the film could have used a stronger directorial hand and more developed script, it has its intriguing moments. The performances have more force than the production itself and the novelty of the set design and costumes add some interest. There's also a great futuristic tinge to the soundtrack in the Veldt sequence. It’s a misstep, but an interesting stumble.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a theatrical trailer and a fascinating featurette, filmed at the time of shooting, which shows the exacting process of applying Steiger’s fake tattoos and a brief glimpse at the actor and wife Bloom behind the scenes. 

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

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 façade 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)

Blu-ray Review: Lana Turner and John Wayne, An Oddly Compelling Pair in The Sea Chase (1955)

John Wayne, German. It doesn't make sense on paper, nor does it on the screen. In The Sea Chase the All-American cowboy doesn't seem remotely European, but he is reliably heroic as a morally sturdy naval officer in this sturdy war drama. He even makes you buy that Lana Turner, as a glamorous spy, could fall for him.

Wayne is Karl Ehrlich (really), a naval captain stationed on a freighter called The Ergenstrasse in Australia at the start of World War II. Though he despises Hitler, he realizes he must consider his crew's right to choose where their allegiances rest. He sets sail, escaping internment by the British, and takes on the challenge of returning his men to their homeland.

Facing the threat of mutiny, a treacherous Nazi sympathizer on his crew, and being under hot pursuit by the Brits, Ehrlich's life is further complicated by the arrival of Elsa Keller (Turner), who is also on the run. As the only woman onboard she is another dangerous distraction as he scrambles to find more wood to fuel the drastically understocked ship.

Of course Wayne and Turner have to fall in love, even if you'd never put them together. As a couple, they don't sizzle; this isn't a hot movie romance, but it is intriguing. It's more that they express the exhaustion of people who have lived hard and are ready for the comfort of someone who understands them. 

The love affair wouldn't have worked if Turner had landed in one of Wayne's westerns or he in one of her high-toned dramas, but the open seas is a fine middle ground. Their regard for each other is what makes them so touching together.

Turner slinks around in a tight, low-cut white dress, making the crew members drunk with lust. Wayne is scandalized; he knows she has driven a man to suicide. For her it is simply life, she causes a fuss as a matter of course; it has become background noise to her. 

So has dressing to kill. There's no need for her to wear a jaunty red scarf with her tight white sweater while stuck on a freighter, but it's how she plays the game and perhaps the glamour cheers her up. Also, she is Lana Turner, movie star. Even when she has to resort to men's dungarees to have clean clothes, she works it.

The pair are supported by a solid cast, with reliable actors like Dick Davalos (East of Eden), Alan Hale and James Arness onboard. Tab Hunter also makes an early appearance as a crewman. At this point in his career he couldn't even shout "land ho!" convincingly, but he clearly has presence.

Though this isn't quite the pulse-pounding actioner it aims to be, the slow build tension can be effective. Director John Farrow provides some genre thrills while also capturing the despair and destruction of this mostly self-contained bit of World War II drama.

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

Book Review--Living Like Audrey: Life Lessons From the Fairest Lady of All

Living Like Audrey: Life Lessons From the Fairest Lady of All
Victoria Loustalot
Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

Victoria Loustalot's new lifestyle guide for Audrey Hepburn fans is a pleasant compilation of photos, quotes, biography and insights into the life of the beloved actress. While there is not much new here for fans of the Oscar-winning actress, there is some interesting analysis and appreciation of her most admirable traits.

It's a lovely turquoise-hued volume, and while the book has an appealing look, I found it difficult to navigate. Every few pages the text is broken up by block quotes and multiple pages of images. While these are enjoyable and will likely draw many fans, it turns reading the text into a sort of dance, where you get to the unfinished sentence at the bottom of the page and have to decide whether to flip forward a few pages to finish the thought or hope you can remember where you left off after admiring a photo or two and reading a quote. Ending pages before photos and quotes with completed sentences would have done much to improve the design.

Photos are presented full page at a minimum, with some spilling partly over to the adjacent page. I recognized many from movie stills and magazines in this attractive collection. The quotes about Hepburn are also familiar; I recognized many from the 1997 A&E Biography special Audrey Hepburn: The Fairest Lady (I am pretty sure I have that program memorized. I actually heard the voice of Richard Dreyfuss in my head praising Audrey exactly as he did in his interview). In this respect, the book was in many ways a pleasant repackaging of familiar material.

What I found most interesting about Living Like Audrey was Loustalot's thorough examination of Hepburn's greatest qualities. While classic movie fans are familiar with the kind, gentle and giving aspects of the actresses' personality, she is not as often celebrated for her wit and wisdom. Here I found a satisfying tribute to her sense of humor, and the dark wit behind it.

Hepburn is also given credit for the profound way she spoke about humanity. When she told an interviewer speaking to her about her work with UNICEF that she didn't "believe in collective guilt, but I do believe in collective responsibility," in one non-judgmental, but emphatic statement she demonstrated strength, intelligence and a firm call to action. This is the best of Audrey. Instead of letting the starvation and fear she suffered in occupied Belgium during World War II make her cynical, she became a steely fighter for the vulnerable. Loustalot nicely emphasizes this side of the actress and her activism.

Living Like Audrey isn't required reading for Audrey fans, but it offers many delights and interesting insights.

Many thanks to Rowman & Littlefield for providing access to the book for review.

Book Review--Exploration and Discovery in Stan Brakhage: Interviews

Stan Brakhage Interviews
Suranjan Ganguly, ed.
University Press of Mississippi, 2017

I would rather think of myself as someone leaving a snail's trail in the moonlight than someone sitting and consciously making an art.

-Stan Brakhage

One of the most influential experimental filmmakers, Stan Brakhage created inspiring cinematic works for over fifty years. In those decades he explored non-narrative shorts, documentary, silent works and even scratching and painting his visions directly onto film stock. In a new book the scope of that work is revealed in a collection of eight interviews with Brakhage which span his career.

Brakhage literally had a unusual vision of the world because he had a visual impairment, and one which he sometimes ignored, stumbling through the world without the glasses that sharpened his focus. He spent much of his career attempting to translate that perspective, in addition to the other ways of seeing he experienced, to film, something he speaks about frequently in these interviews.

In crafting that vision, Brakhage worked to present a true view of his world, attempting to avoid creating works that were more decorative than meaningful. He was especially fixated on the process of making films that showed the pattern of colors and light that he saw with his eyes closed. By showing different kinds of vision like these, he would in essence communicate a fuller view of his life experience.

After having watched many of Brakhage's films over the years, it was fascinating to get a look at his process and what he intended to communicate with his various works. He was a fluid filmmaker, exploring many different ways of approaching his art, but there's always a core theme of obsession with detail and the process of finding beauty in ugliness as a way to accept the painful elements of life.

A frustrated poet and visual artist, once Brakhage knew film was his calling, he tried to tap into what only that medium could offer. He rejected narrative and, for the most part, music to explore what he could do with a purely visual, moving form. In rejecting these conventions, the filmmaker was able to free himself to a more straightforward, pure message and it was fascinating to read about his perspective on something as simple as the way light affects the way an object appears.

On occasion Brakhage would also push against the conventions of interview. At one point he challenges an interviewer who tries to recenter the conversation by saying "we're getting off on a series of abstractions." Those abstractions were at the center of existence for him and the most important things to explore.

It was also interesting to read about the different ways Brakhage's wives influenced his work. He was married to Jane Brakhage for thirty years, and her vision, contributions to the conception of his work, filming and editing were all key to the films he made in their years together. She was also his frequent subject, something which she allowed, but ultimately struggled to fully accept. In contrast, Brakhage's wife Marilyn Jull, who was with him for the last decade-and-a-half of his life refused to be his subject, changing once again his perception of his work, while also giving him guidance as to where to set his focus.

Overall the book was an interesting journey, one that might be mysterious to those unfamiliar with Stan Brakhage's work, but an important work for anyone interested in filmmaking.

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