Book Review: Francis Ford Coppola Talks Film and Innovation


Live Cinema and Its Techniques
Francis Ford Coppola
Liveright Publishing Corporation/W.W. Norton & Company, 2017

When Live Cinema and Its Techniques landed on my doorstep, I approached it with personal interest, though skeptical that it would be of interest to the readers of A Classic Movie Blog. Written to be a guide to producing live cinema, a concept that Coppola had made the focus of a pair of elaborate workshops which he describes in the book, I thought it would perhaps be too technical to be of general interest. While this short volume does have its technical aspects, its appeal is more wide ranging than I expected, dipping into film and television history, Coppola’s career and his practical and humane philosophies about working with cast and crew. Call it a technical, autobiographical film history.

Coppola’s book is diverse because the concept of live cinema encompasses so many aspects of film and television history. The essential idea is that a film be made live, like an early television drama, but filmed using cinematic methods and staging. As a counterpoint to an industry that is almost exclusively made of canned product, it is meant to bring energy and a pioneering spirit back to a medium in which filmmakers typically use modern innovation to make movies in much the same way they have been made for decades.

In order to explain the idea of live cinema, and perhaps also convince filmmakers of its worth, Coppola conceived the book as a technical manual and production guidebook. He is a storyteller though, driven by history, full of interesting anecdotes and continually excited about his profession. Here Coppola tells his life story as much as he provides guidance, divulging how he helped his The Godfather leads bond by having them sit down to a meal together, sharing an embarrassing Academy Awards ceremony experience where a pot-laced cookie caused him to make an entertaining mess of the best director presentation and many stories of how he faced failure by taking even greater risks.

It’s an interesting variety of observations, interwoven with film and television history tidbits, which ultimately reveals a compassionate, passionate artist who approaches his craft with a collaborative, family-minded perspective. His focus on filmmaking and appreciation for different points of view and the needs of his cast and crew make me think of the best of filmmaking talent today. I don’t know if directors like Ava Du Vernay and Barry Jenkins have looked to Coppola as a role model, but their positive, enthusiastic and people-focused approached to production is similar and points to what the act of filmmaking should be in an age where the worst aspects of the industry are coming to light.

Live Cinema is essential reading for filmmakers and Coppola fanatics. More casual readers may be less impressed with the technical aspects of the book, but there are enough anecdotes and fascinating tidbits throughout to make it a generally engrossing read.

Many thanks to W.W. Norton for providing a copy of the book for review.

On DVD: Guy Kibbee and Glenda Farrell Triple Features


I’ve appreciated Warner Archive’s strategy of packaging lesser known flicks in thematically arranged sets. It’s a great way to rediscover forgotten titles and get exposure to movies that, while worth a look, might not be of enough interest to justify individual release. With the recent release of a pair of triple features starring the beloved character actors Guy Kibbee and Glenda Farrell I got a bit of what I expected along those lines, but also some wonderful surprises.

Sharp-witted, high energy Glenda Farrell was one of the most reliably entertaining supporting and sometimes starring performers of the studio age, finding her peak as the fast-talking bright spot in many films in the 1930s including a series in which she starred as reporter Torchy Blane. Oddly, she doesn’t quite have that magnetic presence in this trio of films. She is a welcome sight, but somehow not playing to her strengths.

The best of the three is The Law in Her Hands (1936), in which she plays wing woman to Margaret Lindsay. They are well matched as a pair of recently graduated lawyers who overcome sexism and their rookie status by hooking up with a mobster who is predictably in need of constant representation. Lindsay has a lawyer boyfriend who insists that she stop being a success at her career and settle down to cleaning his apartment and having babies. Unsurprisingly, the scenes with Lindsay and Farrell have the most zest.

Here Comes Carter (1936) is pretty much a flop due to the unpleasant presence of leading man Ross Alexander as an obnoxious radio gossip. There’s not a lot of Farrell zing in her performance as the on air star’s girlfriend. Perhaps she didn’t feel she had much to play off of. Sadly, Alexander would commit suicide less than a year later at age 29, on the anniversary of his wife’s own suicide.

Farrell fades into the ensemble as the former fan dancer wife of a stage producer in Dance Charlie Dance (1937). It stars the hapless Stuart Erwin as a man with an inheritance who decides to invest in a play so that he can raise money to buy a hotel in his hometown. Jean Muir costars as a kind secretary who helps the neophyte investor. The story, with its crummy show that becomes an accidental hit is reminiscent of The Producers (1967), though success leads to a different set of problems.




While the Farrell triple feature was a somewhat entertaining jaunt for this Glenda completist, the Guy Kibbee triple feature was full of delights. I found something to love in each of the films and enjoyed seeing a less sleazy side of this most valuable Warner Bros play (which is not to say his sleazier roles lack enjoyment).

Mary Jane’s Pa (1935) is an odd little flick about a newspaper editor (Kibbee) who gets the wanderlust and abandons his much younger wife (Aline MacMahon) and daughters. He thinks that he is leaving them financially healthy, but an investment goes sour and MacMahon must struggle to make the newspaper a success. As the years pass, she does just that and even begins to fall in love with a local politician.

Then Kibbee reappears, and though he deserves nothing more than a kick out the door, he bonds with his daughters, becomes a housemaid for his skeptical wife and finds out where the bodies are buried before it’s too late. It’s a pleasantly busy little flick, with an somewhat unsettling, precocious performance by Betty Jean Hainey as the titular Mary Jane. While it’s impossible to believe that Kibbee and MacMahon could have ever had the hots for each other, they are well matched and make an essentially ridiculous situation seem almost plausible.

In The Big Noise (1936) Kibbee is a textile factory owner who gets shoved out of his own company. He moves to California for his health, but ends up buying into a dry cleaner and taking on the mob protection racket. It was so fun to watch Kibbee play this determined, clever and lovable character. He perfectly embodies the optimism and can do spirit of a successful businessman. Marie Wilson of the My Friend Irma series is also charming playing a similar dim bulb character as a laundry employee.

My favorite of the trio is Going Highbrow (1935), in which Kibbee and Zasu Pitts pair up as a newly rich couple who become social climbers. Kibbee is reassuringly avuncular as a game guy who will cheerfully do anything to please his wife and Pitts is pleasingly high strung as a woman who may be a bit pretentious, but never cruel or disloyal.

The supporting cast here is especially delightful, with Edward Everett Horton reliably fluttering around the edges of the action. This was the first time I’d seen a film with June Martel, who was so down-to-earth and yet intriguing as a waitress Kibbee helps that I was thoroughly depressed to find she didn’t make many films. Judy Canova pops with charisma as Martel’s supportive waitress friend; she makes a lot of a role that isn’t written as fascinating as she plays it.

Overall this is such an interesting set, with unusual stories, great performances and a chance to see Kibbee center stage and at his best.

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.
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