Book Review: A Novel Inspired by a Photo of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl


Delayed Rays of a Star
Amanda Lee Koe
Penguin Random House, 2019

I was surprised to learn that Delayed Rays of a Star is Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel. It is the kind of serenely self-assured, wise work you would expect from a long-established author. I understand the temptation to use the vibrant lives of real movie stars as the basis for literature, but so often the results can be an awkward marriage of fact and less-than plausible fiction. Koe not only draws herself into the heart of these three film legends, but she creates a transcendent narrative around them.


Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong & Leni Riefenstahl by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1928

Koe’s inspiration was a series of photos Alfred Eisenstaedt took of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl at a party in East Berlin in 1928. At the time Dietrich was edging towards fame, Wong had already found footing as a supporting and occasional lead player in silent films, and Riefenstahl had not yet started directing, but had a thriving career as an actress known for her athletic roles. They are a fascinating trio: glamorous, celebratory, and visibly not entirely in sync with each other.

Beginning with the lives of these three women, who each broke ground in their own way, Koe melds fact with speculation and creates a world that includes a few imagined supporting players in their lives. From a hapless worker on Riefenstahl’s film set to a pair of immigrants who meet through their very different relationships with Dietrich, it’s an often fascinating, though occasionally plodding exploration of class and privilege.


Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong & Leni Riefenstahl by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1928

While I appreciated the social texture Koe gave her narrative by folding less fortunate souls into the lives of her celebrated trio, I was most touched by the emotionally rich relationship she imagined between Dietrich and Wong. She has crafted a connection that spans decades, where youthful lust matures into weary mutual support. Koe taps into the key elements of these women, from Wong’s somber intelligence to Dietrich’s complex mix of traits from maternal concern to vain self-absorption.

It’s an original, unexpected narrative expansion on a series of images that could inspire endless stories.

On Blu-ray: Action and Suspense in Operation Crossbow (1965) and The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959)


Operation Crossbow (1965)

This fast-paced, intense action thriller makes better use of its big cast than your typical all-star production. It plugs its characters into the story with smooth logic and always with an eye on moving the narrative forward with satisfying efficiency. The film is loosely based on a real World War II incident where a group of British officers worked to uncover a German plot to manufacture an extremely deadly kind of rocket. The appealing ensemble includes a quartet of great English actors, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Tom Courtenay, and Richard Johnson, stars George Peppard as a highly-educated undercover agent, and features Sophia Loren in a small part (much smaller than the cover/poster art would have you believe) as the wife of the deceased lieutenant he is impersonating.

It’s a rousing action flick with plenty of suspense, though it may be a shade brutal for more sensitive classic film fans.

Special features include the vintage featurette A Look Back at Crossbow and a theatrical trailer.


The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)

Harry Belafonte is lively and charismatic as a Pennsylvania coal miner who is trapped underground by the nuclear holocaust. When he surfaces to a world without people, he makes his way to New York City, looking for signs of life and a sustainable way of living. Belafonte is appealing in his early scenes, where he sings, shouts, and pleads with the universe to find him just one living soul. He’s just short of having the chops to really make this solo performance shine, but he holds his own pretty well for a third of the film.

When Belafonte finds a survivor (Inger Stevens) in NYC, the unwritten rules of society emerge again as they form a bond, but keep to the norms of race and gender. Their closeness is imperiled by the appearance of another man, this one white (Mel Ferrer). It is assumed that he will be the one to help potentially the last remaining woman repopulate the earth, though even in those times it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing a man as unappealing as Ferrer over Belafonte.

The film is most fascinating when Belafonte is on his own, struggling against a stunning backdrop of isolated settings. While his friendly arrangement with Stevens is interesting to observe, there are diminishing returns each time a new person is added and life become increasingly more conventional. Though the film didn’t have the big emotional effect on me that it seemed to be aiming for, I enjoyed it.

A trailer for the film is included on the disc as a special feature.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visitThe Warner Archive Collection.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: January Round-up



I spent a lot of my holiday break catching up on podcasts, including some great new-to-me shows which I continued to explore throughout January. All episode titles link to the show. If you know of a great podcast, even your own show, let me know in the comments!



Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!
Son of Frankenstein Actor Donnie Dunagan, Part 1
(Part 2 is here)
Episode 231
August 29, 2019

I’d long heard that Gilbert Gottfried was a big classic film fan, so I finally got around to searching his podcast archives to see if he’d done any interesting episodes on the subject. I loved this conversation with former child actor Donnie Dunagan, who is perhaps most famous for providing the voice of the titular deer in Bambi (1942). The cheerful Dunagan has an amazing memory; he recalls things as far back as when he was four years old. He’s clearly delighted to share his stories, which makes it all the more enjoyable to hear them. Among the gems: as a child he played checkers with Boris Karloff!



Criterion Channel Surfing
Family Matters
Episode 5

December 26, 2019

I can already tell this new podcast dedicated to the offerings on Criterion Streaming is going to be a useful tool for navigating the service. I’ve often found myself drawn to old favorites when I’m on Criterion and needed a show like this to push me into trying new titles. On this episode, host Josh Hornbeck discusses limited engagements on the channel with regular guest Michael Hutchins and The Complete podcast host Michael Gasteier shares tips for managing the enormous number of titles available to stream, many of which expire each month. The title information is mostly about movies that left the service at the end of December, but I highly recommend checking out future episodes for that kind of information as well.



The Full Price Podcast
House of Seven Gables (1940)
December 29, 2019

Episode 10

Beautifully produced, well-researched, and peppered with fascinating clips, I enjoyed this exploration of Vincent Price’s role in the underappreciated House of Seven Gables (1940). This is my first time listening to this podcast dedicated to the career of Price and I am looking forward to hearing more episodes.



Maltin on Movies
January 10, 2020

I shouldn’t be surprised that Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos is such a huge movie nerd, but I guess I always knew more about the business side of his skillset. He is a great businessman: intuitive, bold, and open to change, but in his conversation with Leonard and Jessie Maltin he reveals the films and personal tastes that molded and continue to influence his career as a streaming innovator.



The Movies That Made Me
January 7, 2020

Roger Corman has the most soothing voice. That’s reason enough to listen to this episode featuring the director/producer famous for starting many a Hollywood career and his wife and partner Julie Corman. They share a lot of interesting insights about the state of the movie business, their favorite films, and the many big personalities they have met over the course of their successful careers.


You Must Remember This/Make Me Over
Episode 1
January 20, 2020

I loved the first episode of Karina Longworth’s special 8 episode series, Make Me Over, in which several contributors present various takes on the intersection of beauty and Hollywood. In this episode, writer Megan Koester shares the history of Molly O’Day, an actress who in 1929 was the first star to endure highly-publicized weight loss surgery. It’s a fascinating show, though I suggest not eating while listening.

Twilight Time Round-up: A Trio of 20th Century Fox Films and Viewing Suggestions


Like many classic film fans, I’m becoming increasingly nervous about the status of physical media in our cultural landscape. A couple of years ago, I contemplated thinning my DVD/Blu-ray collection. Now I’ve decided to keep everything and save space by organizing everything into binders and making a list of my must-buy discs to start working my way through so I know I have access to my favorites.

The status of old 20th Century Fox films is of particular concern to me. Now that Disney owns the studio’s output, it has withdrawn many titles from repertoire screenings, a situation well explained in this Vulture piece. Late last year, thanks to a post by Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film in which she encouraged her readers to help keep the boutique label Twilight Time in business, I realized what a great selection of Fox titles the company offers.


Twilight Time produces their releases in limited runs of 3,000 discs, so it is wise to decide on your priorities and snap up your must haves from their collection. They have lots of sales, so it’s worth checking the site on a regular basis. I purchased TT Blu-ray releases of three 20th Century Fox productions and liked what I got. They have great picture and sound and some nice special features. My choices:




Dragonwyck (1946)

This unusual film stars Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, and Walter Huston. Based on the Gothic novel by Anya Seton, it is the story of a farm girl (Tierney) who is invited to tutor the daughter of her distant cousin (Price) a wealthy patroon who is dangerously oblivious to the changing times. Dreams of wealth and luxury turn bleak as the girl loses her innocence, but acquires valuable wisdom. This was Joseph Mankiewicz’ first directing gig and it is a solid effort, especially considering that he wasn’t too thrilled about the source material. Special features: isolated music track, audio commentary with film historian Steve Haberman and documentary filmmaker Constantine Nasr, A House of Secrets: Exploring Dragonwyck, Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait, Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain, Two Dragonwyck Vintage Radio Shows, original theatrical trailer.


The Best of Everything (1959) [Update: unfortunately this one is now sold out.]

I love this glossy, soapy story about a trio of women making their way in a man’s world. It goes for full glamour and melodrama and yet takes several sturdy feminist stances. Suzy Parker, Hope Lange, and all work for a successful New York publisher. They tolerate their lecherous boss played by Brian Aherne and begrudgingly admire his steely second-in-command (Joan Crawford). Special features: isolated score track, audio commentary with Rona Jaffe and Film Historian Sylvia Stoddard, Fox Movietone newsreel, and original theatrical trailer.


Bedazzled (1967)

This is the funniest pairing of British comic stars Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as the Devil and a hapless short order cook respectively. As Moore’s dream girl, Eleanor Bron is haughtily mod and briskly independent. Moore sells his soul to the devil in his quest to get her love, but in a series of increasingly bizarre vignettes he is continually thwarted by the wily Dark Lord. A brilliant score by Moore adds humor, hip factor, and a surprising vein of melancholy. Special features: isolated music and effects track, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on The Paul Ryan Show, A Bedazzled Conversation with Harold Ramis, original theatrical trailers.

There are so many other great films available from Twilight Time; it’s worth giving their site a long look. Here are some of the best of the Fox titles, including several that I plan to purchase for my own collection:

TT is a great source of classic Fox musicals including the delightfully trippy The Gang’s All Here (1943), the Alice Faye classic, Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943), and Betty Grable's Pin Up Girl (1944).


Some solid crime/film noir titles: The Detective (1968), Pretty Poison  (1968), Black Widow (1954), Inferno 3D (1953),Kiss of Death (1947), John Alton box set 


Classic dramas to check out: Two for the Road (1967), Whirlpool (1949),The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956), Cinderella Liberty (1973)


This is also a great place to snap up the light-hearted Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole caper How to Steal a Million (1966)


More TT titles from other studios that I highly recommend: Raw Deal (1948),  The Killer is Loose (1956), I Want to Live! (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), The Crimson Kimono (1959), My Sister Eileen (1955), Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), Model Shop (1969), Cutter’s Way (1981)


I hope Twilight Time sticks around for a long time. They have a great catalog and I’m very happy with the quality of their releases.






Quote: David Lynch Screens Lost Highway for Marlon Brando

Image Source


I showed Lost Highway to Brando after I finished it but before it was released. We rented this theater and told the owner Brando was going to come to see this film, and the theater owner was pretty pumped. So we get this thing all set up and Brando comes into the theater by himself and they have all these treats out for him. He's already got a burger and fries with him, but he fills his pockets with candy anyway and goes into the theater eating candy with his burger. He called me later and said, "It's a damn good film, but it won't make a nickel." It was good. He liked it. A lot of people thought Lost Highway wasn't a commercial choice, and that was true, but it did okay. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down, so I got the guy at October Films, Bingham Ray, to run a big ad that had an image of two thumbs down and text that said: "Two more great reasons to see Lost Highway."

-David Lynch


Source

Book Review: Giraffes on Horseback Salad, Envisioning the Marx Brothers/Salvador Dalí Collaboration that Never Was


Giraffes on Horseback Salad
Josh Frank, Tim Heidecker
Illustrated by Manuela Pertega
Quirk Books, 2019

Of the multiple abandoned Salvador Dalí /Hollywood collaborations haunting cinematic history, perhaps the saddest could-have-been is the artist’s unfulfilled project with the Marx Brothers. In 1937, Dalí wrote the screenplay for Giraffes on Horseback Salad, a story about a Spanish aristocrat and a mysterious so-called “Surrealist Woman” who lures him away from his humdrum life. Meant to be a marriage of one of surrealism’s biggest stars and the inherently surrealist brothers, the Marx’s studio MGM balked at the outrageous story and the project stalled.

In the interest of getting a flavor of what might have been, author Josh Frank tracked down two drafts of Dali’s screenplay and used them as a template for creating a giddily adventurous graphic novel, also entitled Giraffes on Horseback Salad, which envisions how that film might have turned out. The project was a team effort, with Tim Heidecker co-writing the adaptation and artist Manuela Pertega providing deliriously vibrant illustrations.

Rather than staying within the limitations of what could be practically filmed, Giraffes on Horseback Salad is explosively lavish and bold. It is the sort of extravagant vision Dali would likely have wanted, however impossible it would have been to fulfill in 1930s Hollywood.

The result is a happy marriage of reality and dreams. It is easy to picture how the script and songs could have been crafted into an exciting, even visionary film, despite studio limitations. However, it is the added thrill of imagining a production without creative or physical boundaries that makes the book so magical, because it taps into the mutually untamed spirits of both Dali and the Marx Brothers. As it is brightly proclaimed on the cover, it was the strangest movie never made.

This project has since expanded to include an album which crafts a soundtrack based on the lyrics Dalí composed for the film's songs. What a fascinating way to bring a long abandoned idea back to life.




On Blu-Ray: The Luscious, Vicious Hollywood of The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)


In telling the story of a charismatic cad, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) encapsulates all the glory, glamour, despair, and depravity of Hollywood. Director Vincente Minnelli’s portrait of the manipulative filmmaker Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) feels so real that you can’t help wondering who was the inspiration for this man and the cast of characters that surrounds him. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks great and has retained its devastating power.

The story plays mostly in flashback, with a framing device in which producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tries to convince actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), and director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) to speak with Shields about a new production. The filmmaker is down-and-out, but this trio has taken plenty of professional and personal grief from Shields and they are understandably wary of him. Pebbel tries the risky tactic of asking them to reminisce about their times together, in the hopes they will find something good that makes them want to work with him again.

This vibrantly-told tale was based on George Bradshaw’s 1949 story Of Good and Evil, which was later released in an expanded version as Memorial to a Bad Man. It was originally set in the New York theater world, but producer John Houseman found it more interesting and novel to focus on Hollywood. He certainly had plenty of material to work with; it is rumored that Shields was crafted out of the personalities of Val Lewton, Orson Welles, and David O. Selznick.

The film made a profit, and won many accolades, including five Academy Awards out of six nominations. Douglas was nominated, and Gloria Grahame won supporting actress for barely over nine minutes of screen time, a record for shortest nominated appearance at the time.

While any acting nomination for The Bad and the Beautiful would be well deserved, it is always Lana Turner who gets to me the most. She so effectively communicates the hurt and yearning beneath her perfect blonde beauty. You could see just about anyone in this film bouncing back from disappointment, even Shields, but Turner’s take on Lorrison gives you the impression that she will always be a bit haunted and that feeling, coupled with the genetic burden of alcoholism, seems constantly ready to claim her.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is that while it is so much about the dark side of Hollywood, it is also a perfectly pleasing Tinsel Town product: lushly glamorous, passionate, and vibrant with the charisma of its astonishing cast.

Special features on the Blu-ray include the TCM-produced documentary Lana Turner…A Daughter’s Memoir (2001), scoring session music cues, and theatrical trailers.


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