Monday, August 1, 2016

THE REAL JAMES DEAN, new from the Chicago Review Press

61 years ago this September 30, newly-minted movie star James Dean, with an ace Porsche racing mechanic riding in the passenger seat, wrecked his brand-new Porsche Spyder on a remote northern California highway, bringing to an end his own turbulent 24-year-old life. The gone-too-soon Hollywood rebel instantly became a cult phenomenon and, over the six decades since, his story has become and remained legend and been the subject of countless books. Today the Chicago Review Press will release the latest, The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best.

James Dean, Hollywood, 1955, photo by Phil Stern
Edited by Peter L. Winkler, author of a bio on Dennis Hopper, an actor who knew and idolized Dean, The Real James Dean is a compilation of previously published material gleaned from magazines, newspapers and autobiographies, all mostly long out of print. Though the collection includes a few publicity-office-generated pieces from fan magazines like Modern Screen and Photoplay, there are many compelling accounts from personal friends, lovers, stage and film actors and the directors of his three major films: Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray and George Stevens.
  • Raymond Massey, who portrayed Dean's father in his break-out film, East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan), recounts his frustration and losing his temper on the set while working with the young "Method" actor.
  • Shelley Winters recalls driving through Hollywood one night with her friend, Marilyn Monroe, as Dean, on his Triumph TR5 Trophy motorcycle, recklessly circled her car at high speed, terrifying both women.
  • Jim Backus, who played Dean's father in Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray), describes Dean preparing for a dramatic early scene by "sitting in his darkened dressing room with a record player blasting out the Ride of the Valkyries, and drinking a quart of cheap red wine."
The memories collected in The Real James Dean reflect the views of those who found him a beautiful, talented and kind fellow as well as those who thought him eccentric and "impossible." The general impression that emerges from these recollections is of a volatile, sensitive young man deeply committed to becoming artistically and materially successful recognized through his craft. But one cannot escape the belief that he was emotionally ill-equipped to handle the immensity of the fame that loomed ahead.

On Saturday, August 6, at 2pm PDT, a random drawing for a copy of The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best will be held. Entrants must live or have a shipping address in the U.S. or Canada and should enter by email to Please include your name, mailing address and contact information. The winner will be notified - and the book shipped - immediately.

Congratulations to Christina of Ontario, Canada, the winner in our random drawing for a copy of The Real James Dean! And thanks to all who participated.


My thanks to the Chicago Review Press for a review copy of this book.

Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean during the filming of Giant (1956, George Stevens)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Celebrating National Classic Movie Day: "5 Movies on an Island"

If by some bizarre quirk of fate I end up stranded on a deserted island that happens to have a reliable food source, lots of sunshine and balmy tropical breezes, I just might be blissed-out enough not to crave watching classic films. But probably not. A fundamental given for today's 5 Movies on an Island blogathon celebrating National Classic Movie Day is that some form of gizmo or gizmos capable playback will be ready and waiting for me on my island and that I'll have chosen and brought five movies with me to watch until I'm rescued - hopefully, within a week or two.

The five films I've selected to take along aren't necessarily my favorite films, though some are, but they are all films I've watched many times over without losing interest or affection. These films are all certifiable classics, all but one are black and white, all but one are from the 1940s and all but one are Hollywood films (vive la France!).

Casablanca (1942), Michael Curtiz. I don't know how many times I've seen this WWII classic-of-classics, but I've never tired of it and never will. It's the perfect Hollywood film: a bewitching storyline with a nice little twist at the end, impeccably cast stars (Bogart and Bergman!), a surfeit of solid supporting players (Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson and others), a brilliant script by the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch, Max Steiner's stirring score, not to mention unforgettable renditions of "As Time Goes By" and "Le Marseillaise." Casablanca was well recognized in its day, winning three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing/Screenplay), and nominated for four more: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Bogart), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Rains), Best B&W Cinematography (Arthur Edeson) and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Max Steiner). Nearly 75 years on, Casablanca has only become richer and richer with age.

The Letter
The Letter (1940), William Wyler. In the course of their long and fabled careers, Bette Davis and William Wyler made three films together. The Letter was their second and the high point of their collaborations; it also contains Davis's finest screen performance. The story, adapted by Howard Koch, was taken from a Somerset Maugham play that the author had adapted from his own short story and was based on a true story of British colonial "white mischief" in Kuala Lumpur in the early years of the 20th century. The film opens, literally, with a bang as Bette Davis, smoking gun in hand, fires repeatedly at a man who falls dead at the foot of her porch. We are instantly swept into a moody tale of intrigue and scandal. Davis's turn as the repressed, fiercely calculating wife of a rubber plantation overseer is the centerpiece of this intensely atmospheric  masterpiece. Not to be overlooked, though, is James Stephenson, an actor whose life and career were far too brief, as her morally torn defense attorney. The Letter deserved every one of its seven Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Stephenson), Best Cinematography, B&W (Tony Gaudio), Best Film Editing (Warren Low), Best Music, Original Score (one of Max Steiner's greatest). Only a final scene, added at the insistence of the censors, detracts...but I always hit the "Stop" button and avoid it. I'm sure William Wyler would approve.

Out of the Past
Out of the Past (1947), Jacques Tourneur. The archetypal, and in my view ultimate film noir, Out of the Past has everything: a former tough-guy detective (Robert Mitchum at his laconic best) making a doomed attempt to live the straight life, an irresistibly doe-eyed beauty (Jane Greer) far deadlier than her sweet face and manner suggest, an ice-cold mobster (Kirk Douglas) out for revenge, and all the bleak atmosphere any noir lover could ask for. Nicholas Musuraca, the RKO cinematographer nicknamed the "painter with light," was responsible for the film's stunning Expressionistic camera work. Also adding style to Out of the Past's beguiling character are locations and sets depicting Lake Tahoe and Acapulco. My favorite film noir of all time.

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast (1946), Jean Cocteau. This is cinematic poetry that can be watched strictly for the experience of its gorgeous images. Unbelievable as it may seem, Cocteau created this elegant and dream-like fairytale in the midst of the leanest years of post-Occupation France. Production design (Christian Berard and Lucien Carre), set decoration (Lucien Carre and Rene Moulaert) and costume design (Antonio Castillo, Marcel Escoffier and Christian Berard) are all exquisite. Also superb are Georges Auric's spare and haunting score, Josette Day as Belle and especially Jean Marais as The Beast. Marais's Beast is magnificent, so appealing that his transformation at the end of the film disappointed some. Marlene Dietrich, who watched the film's first Paris screening with Cocteau, was one who was let down when the beast transformed into a prince, famously crying out at the screen, "Where is my beautiful beast?" I felt the same way the first time I watched this film. In French with subtitles, Beauty and the Beast requires no knowledge of French or even that subtitles be turned on, everything one needs to know is on the screen in Cocteau's incredible imagery.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Blake Edwards. When feminist icon Gloria Steinem selected this film to present during her stint as a guest programmer on TCM last month, I was very surprised, mostly because I've always seen Breakfast at Tiffany's primarily as an archetypal '60s chick flick. But when she explained her deep affection for the film and her admiration for its central character, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), a young woman who dares to lead a free life, I totally got it. This film has been a favorite of mine since adolescence when I fell under the spell of Audrey's effervescent Holly, a free-spirited, so-called "party girl" who lives spontaneously and sometimes dangerously in Manhattan during its mid-century heyday. I wanted to grow up to have the glamorous/adventurous life Holly led, I wanted the soignee wardrobe (Givenchy), the hustle and bustle of the big city, the sophisticated men. And the freedom. As Steinem noted, "it was one of the first movies in which a woman was sexually free and not punished for it."  True and most admirable. But it also provided the defining role of Audrey Hepburn's career and is without a doubt one of the great romcoms of the early '60s.

Click here for more on the "5 Movies on an Island" blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Real and Unreal Old Hollywood: "Hail, Caesar!" (2016)

Hail, Caesar!, the latest comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?) offers a tongue-in-cheek bow to Hollywood circa 1951 through a series of escapades that take place during a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, production head and unofficial "fixer" for a major studio. It should surprise no one that the Coens have conjured a wildly stylized and madly screwball satire of this scenario.

Those familiar with Hollywood history know that there once really was an Eddie Mannix and that he was a studio exec/"fixer" at MGM (not the Coen's "Capitol Pictures"), the most powerful of all studios, for several decades. As General Manager and head of production, he was a right hand to studio chief, Louis B. Mayer, and it wasn't until 1958, after Mayer's ouster and death, that Mannix left MGM; he'd been in the picture business for 42 years by then.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

SF Symphony 2015 -2016 Film Series Nears End; 2016 - 2017 Series Announced


The San Francisco Symphony's third annual Film Series will come to an end later this month with screenings of Steven Spielberg's 1981 classic, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, from March 23 through 26. The symphony will accompany, performing John Williams's Grammy winning score live. For more information, click here.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Reminiscing: "Now, Voyager"

Summer of '42 (1971)

A soft-focus nostalgia piece set during the early days of World War II, Summer of '42 was released in April 1971 and went on to become one of the surprise hits of that year. The story followed a 16-year-old boy's coming of age during a family vacation on Nantucket Island where he roamed the small village, sand dunes and shoreline, horsing around with his buddies, dating a girl his own age, and crushing on the lovely bride of a soldier just gone to war.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Local Night Life: Noir City at the Castro and the San Francisco Symphony's Film Series

The 2016 film noir season was officially launched with San Francisco's Noir City XIV, January 22 - 31, at the city's Castro Theatre. The 10-day festival, presented by the Film Noir Foundation, is traditionally the first in a series of Noir City events to follow in Hollywood, Austin, Portland (Oregon), Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In Remembrance: Leatrice Joy Gilbert Fountain, 1924 - 2015

Leatrice as a baby, left, and in her later years

One night in January 2010 Turner Classic Movies aired Rediscovering John Gilbert, a 45-minute documentary about the great star of the late silent era. I was aware of Gilbert and recalled that he had failed the transition to talkies because, it was said, his voice was too high and too thin. In the course of watching the documentary, which prominently featured the actor's daughter and biographer, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, I learned that the causes of Gilbert's demise and early death were more complex than that. By the time the short film ended my curiosity was aroused and I decided to get my hands on a copy of Fountain's biography, Dark Star, so jumped online and searched. I soon found and ordered one from Amazon, but I'd also noticed that the search had turned up information on the author; she was on Facebook. So I sent her a message...and she replied.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Frank Sinatra in 1965: It Was a Very Good Year

It was the age of "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Carnaby Street couture and "Bond, James Bond." The Beatles ruled the world of popular music, having launched the "British Invasion" with their performances on The Ed Sullivan Show early in 1964. A year later that takeover was in full force, and yet for Frank Sinatra, on the verge of turning 50, 1965 would be a very good year.