Book Review--Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece


Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece
Michael Benson
Simon & Schuster, 2018

Upon its release, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) became a sensation as a sort of Disneyland ride for grown ups. With its innovative, and trippy special effects, it was the perfect flick to experience while riding high on your favorite mind enhancer. In the years since, it has become a cultural touchstone, quoted and referenced often, if rarely on anyone’s list of favorite films. In a new book, Michael Benson explores the technical and artistic journey of the film’s production and the impact it made on audiences upon release.

The book’s greatest strength is in the interviews Benson has conducted with key players in the film. His conversations with 2001 scribe Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick’s wife Christiane, and several members of the cast and crew enabled him to craft a richly detailed history. So much of the story is related directly by people who made the film that you get a palpable feeling of what it was like to be there. For that reason, this is an especially lively and engrossing production history.

Having access to so much first source information has also enabled Benson to dig into the complexities of making the film, where second unit location shooting often held as much drama as Kubrick’s action at the studio. It is easy to see why movies go over budget and schedule when presented with how many tasks make up the creation of a scene, let alone an entire production. Understanding the importance of all of those elements is what made Kubrick an effective, and occasionally infuriating, filmmaker.

Space Odyssey features a fascinating cast of characters, the most riveting being author Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick. Much attention is given to Clarke, a brilliant eccentric whose pre-moonwalk knowledge of space was instrumental in bringing a sense of reality to the film. He wrote the story as a novel first, with Kubrick’s input after which he had little to do officially with the production, but he is present throughout nevertheless and his unconventional thinking helps to maintain a sense of wonder in an increasingly technical undertaking.

Benson explores Kubrick’s complexities with impeccable objectivity, allowing his interview subjects to analyze a man who could be both generous and monstrous. When it came to the film, there was no crew member too insignificant to grab his attention. He was open to new ideas and would make time for anyone who had an inspiring concept. His passion for making exactly the film he wanted would sometimes go too far though and he often disregarded the safety of his cast and crew in order to get the shot he wanted. In a particularly disturbing passage, the director knowingly lets stuntman Bill Weston experience oxygen deprivation to the point of death because of his determination to get a shot.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this book is that I went into it not a particular fan of 2001: Space Odyssey and came away eager to give it another chance. Rewatching the film afterwards, I found the experience profoundly different because I had a greater understanding of the passion and intelligence behind it.

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

TCM Classic Film Festival 2018: My Tentative Schedule


I am delighted to have received my media credentials for TCM Classic Film Festival 2018! It is always an honor to attend this fun event and I am looking forward to sharing TCMFF with you all for a fifth year.

This year's festival takes place from April 26-29 and the theme is Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen.

As a seasoned festival attendee, I have learned not to sweat my schedule too much. There's always a lot to see and many conflicts. It's also hard to slow down sometimes and take a break to eat, or get at least a few minutes of sunshine. Whatever happens though, TCMFF holds many amazing experiences. My advice to attendees new and experienced: focus on having fun, enjoying the moment, and setting aside just a little time to take care of yourself, because trying to see and do everything will just burn you out.

My tentative schedule so far, almost certainly subject to change:

THURSDAY

I'm not sure which events I will attend the first day of the festival. The opening night party and Bruce Goldstein's So You Think You Know Movies classic movie quiz event at Club TCM are among the most tempting.

I ended up with a sort of sisterhood theme for my first night's films:

Finishing School (1934), Chinese Multiplex
Stage Door (1937) in nitrate, Egyptian Theatre

This is the only day of the festival that was a no-brainer for me movie-wise. There are plenty of other things I'd like to see (Throne of Blood [1957] is tempting me and may be a last minute schedule change for the second slot), but these two would be a great start.

FRIDAY

Intruder in the Dust (1949), Chinese Multiplex
Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Egyptian Theatre
None Shall Escape (1944), Chinese Multiplex
I Take This Woman (1931), Chinese Multiplex
Leave Her To Heaven (1945), in nitrate, Egyptian Theatre
The World's Greatest Sinner (1962), Chinese Multiplex

I love Intruder in the Dust star Juano Hernandez and it would be great to see Donald Bogle introduce the film, but it is possible I could give in to the lure of Strangers on a Train (1951). I've never seen this film on the big screen and I think it would be exciting to experience this thriller that way.

It is possible I will also bag None Shall Escape (1944), a completely new to me film, to see Three Smart Girls (1936), as I have never seen a Deanna Durbin film in a theater.

Might also have to skip I Take This Woman (1931) to get something to eat, but Leave Her To Heaven (1945) in nitrate and Timothy Carey in the apparently bonkers The World's Greatest Sinner (1964) are non-negotiable. They are the two films I am most looking forward to seeing at the festival.

SATURDAY

Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Chinese Multiplex
This Thing Called Love (1940), Chinese Multiplex
Sunset Boulevard (1950), TCL Chinese Theatre
The World of Suzie Wong (1950), Chinese Multiplex
Scarface (1932), Chinese Multiplex
Night of the Living Dead (1968), Chinese Multiplex

I love the tonal shifts of my schedule this day: sleazy noir, romantic comedy, two classic dramas, pre-code crime and one of the best horror movies ever made. I'm especially looking forward to seeing Nancy Kwan before Suzie Wong and John Carpenter introducing Scarface. This will be my stargazing day to be sure. It is possible I might chicken out and skip the midnight horror. That film always makes me feel like I am 13-years-old again; as perfect as it is, it always hits my terror bone. That's just as much a reason to see it though--we'll see.

SUNDAY

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), TCL Chinese Theatre
Mostly Lost: Identifying Unknown Films at the Library of Congress, Club TCM
A Star is Born (1937), Egyptian Theatre

I'm curious to see what the TBA titles will be for Sunday. If I can get up early enough, it will be amazing to see Sergio Leone's legendary western on such a magnificent screen. I already feel misty thinking about that dreamy Ennio Morricone soundtrack. It is possible that I will otherwise keep a lighter schedule this day. This is the time of the festival when I am starving. Steak and eggs might take priority over films. I considered seeing Phantom of the Opera (1925) for my last film of the festival because I am not planning to see any other major silent screenings, but A Star is Born seems like the perfect weeper to wrap things up and I would love to end the festival at the Egyptian Theatre.

Then on to the closing night party at Club TCM and spending those last few precious moments with my movie people!

You can follow my festival adventures on Twitter and Instagram. I'll post more a more detailed follow-up here the week after TCMFF. Can't wait to get to Hollywood!



Book Review--Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film


Giant:Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film
Don Graham
St. Martin's Press, 2018


Edna Ferber’s Giant is an epic book that was adapted into an epic Hollywood film. That production featured a cast of Hollywood legends, up-and-coming stars, and durable character actors. In a new book, Don Graham reveals what happened when all these personalities coexisted for a time on a remote location in Marfa, Texas.

The book is at its juiciest when it dishes about its leads: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. While I did not find much new here about these stars, the juxtaposition of their histories demonstrates what an odd trio they were: perfectly matched in some respects, horribly at odds in others. This is reflected in their varied relationships on set, where Dean and Hudson despised each other, while Taylor went back and forth between the two, having dramatically different experiences with both men.

Around these three there was another social whirl, with supporting players for the most part excluded from the company of the stars like high school outcasts. Some, like emerging method actress Caroll Baker would find themselves drawn into that exclusive crowd and intoxicated by the acceptance. Others, like the seasoned Mercedes McCambridge, were less concerned with status, instead focusing on finding comfort and entertainment during a grueling shoot.

So much of the production of the film is about these relationships and how director George Stevens presided over the group. For that reason, it makes sense that cast and crew interactions dominate the story here. This isn’t a film about technical issues, but rather the culture it reflected and the community that brought it to the screen. Author Edna Ferber felt strongly about her novel and the way that it was translated to the screen, and though she had little power over how the adaptation was approached, she never failed to provide input, and her point of view contrasts in an interesting way with the Hollywood take on Texas.

Graham also digs into the details of pre-production and the critical reception after the film’s release. He shares a some interesting tidbits, like the fact that Stevens seriously courted Audrey Hepburn for the role of Leslie Benedict and that he originally envisioned Alan Ladd as Jett Rink. It’s intriguing to imagine how dramatically these casting choices would have changed Giant.

This is a compelling portrait of a massive film. It covers a lot of ground, but remains engaging. I thought there was more biographical background than necessary on the three stars, but found the production notes fascinating and a solid document of the complexities in managing such a massive production.

Many thanks to St. Martin's Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

On DVD: Faye Emerson and Zachary Scott in the Twisty Noir Danger Signal (1945)


One of my suspense genre pet peeves is the plot that requires the protagonist to miss obvious red flags and continue to plunge into danger. It’s hard to root for someone who doesn’t have a lot of common sense. Danger Signal, which recently made its DVD debut from Warner Archive, manages for the most part to avoid falling into this trap. Here the predictable and the novel co-exist in an interesting film with a solid cast of players who didn’t often get star treatment.

Faye Emerson is Hilda Fenchurch, a serious-minded stenographer who falls for her mother’s (Mary Servoss) mysterious new boarder Ronnie Mason (Zachary Scott). This much to the dismay of a shy scientist at her office, Dr. Andrew Lang (Bruce Bennett), who has a crush on her, and to the curiosity of the sophisticated Dr. Jane Silla who employees her (Rosemary De Camp). Then her kid sister Anne (Mona Freeman) returns home from a stay in a sanitarium to treat tuberculosis, further complicating the dynamic at home with Ronnie.

The film begins with a mysterious scene, in which a woman is seen collapsed on a bed, while the hands of a man are shown removing her wedding ring and taking a large wad of cash out of her wallet while the landlady pounds at the door. The man is Ronnie and he jumps out the window just in time to escape the repercussions of whatever he has been up to in that room. Given this information up front, it’s easy to assume that Ronnie will keep whoever he meets in the dark until the final climax.

That isn’t the case though, because Hilda is a remarkably intelligent heroine. While she initially gives in to Ronnie’s smooth line, she quickly realizes he’s trouble. What’s refreshing is the way she thoroughly discards her crush, seeing the situation for what it is. This is not a woman to be brought down by passion. Emerson plays this even-handed character with steady elegance, granting her her flaws, but always showing the strength within her. She is a woman with a good foundation.

It’s almost amusing how completely Ronnie misses that he has met his match in Hilda. He’s so accustomed to destroying women that it hasn’t occurred to him that one could beat him at his own game. Every time he starts to lead the plot down a predictably menacing path, she steps in to take the action in a different direction. Bennett and DeCamp are equally intelligent, and that mental acuity gives them the means they need to help Hilda. They are a mighty team against Scott, who plays his role like he just came from doing the same thing in another film and is a bit shocked to see things aren’t playing out as usual.

Basically, this is what a suspense thriller looks like when it is dominated by intelligent, clear-thinking people. Freeman takes on the more traditional role of the easily flattered ingĂ©nue and Servoss plays a woman simply too good-hearted to believe in Ronnie’s evil. Otherwise, everyone else seems to know where the bodies are buried, which gives this sharp film and its pleasing cast an extra edge. This is an 'A' quality production, despite its 'B' trappings.

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.

Happy 96th Birthday Doris Day!



Happy Birthday to Doris Day, who has always brought sunshine to the world and who has been spending her retirement making life better for animals. Had to share this lovely fashion show from THE DORIS DAY SHOW to celebrate her day.

If you would like to give Ms. Day a gift, why not donate to The Doris Day Animal Foundation?


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