Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: Tinseltown by William J. Mann

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphin, and Madness At The Dawn Of Hollywood,  William J. Mann’s latest nonfiction work centers around the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, a popular director and president of the Motion Picture Directors Association. Taylor was murdered in his home on February 1, 1922. His murder has gone unsolved for more than 90 years, but Mann thinks he knows who did the deed and why.

Taylor was a popular player in the early days of the motion picture industry. He directed 59 silent films between 1914 and 1922. He also acted in 27 films between 1913 and 1915. He directed the legendary Mary Pickford as well as Mary Miles Minter, a serious rival to Pickford, in the silent version of Anne of Green Gables. Taylor was widely respected and beloved by many in the movie business, but he had his secrets. Did these secrets have something to do with his murder?

During the time of Taylor’s murder, the movie industry was under attack by reformers to clean up its act. Many believed that Hollywood was corrupting the youth of America and early movie moguls like Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew feared their empires were in danger. There was talk of censorship and government regulation which no one in the movie business wanted.

William Desmond Taylor
With the growing success of the movie business and its stars came a lot of press scrutiny—the public loved a good scandal—and Hollywood during the 1920s seemed more than happy to oblige. Top stars like Mabel Normand and Wallace Reid had drug problems. Normand was able to beat hers, but Reid, who was addicted to morphine after he suffered a work-related injury, wasn’t so lucky. Then there was the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal. Arbuckle a top star at the Famous Players studio, was accused of rape and murder. Although Arbuckle was acquitted with the jury saying that the actor suffered a great injustice, the reformers and church ladies organized boycotts of Arbuckle’s (they would eventually boycott Normand’s films as well) films. The public was willing to forgive Arbuckle—they loved his movies—but Zukor, head of Famous Players, decided to cut his loses and release Arbuckle from his contract.

Mabel Normand
Taylor was a great friend of Normand and the two were rumored to be an item, but their relationship was strictly platonic. Normand was the last person to see Taylor before he was murdered and was an early suspect. Other suspects, included Minter, Charlotte Shelby (Minter’s mother), Edward Sands, Taylor’s valet who was recently fired, and Henry Peavey, Taylor’s new valet and the one who discovered the body.

Mary Miles Minter was
in love with Taylor.
The murder negatively affected the careers of Normand and Minter, both major stars during the silent era. Minter’s career basically came to an end after the murder. Zukor afraid of outrage and boycotts from the reformers didn’t renew Minter’s contract. She never worked in films again. Normand survived, but she never enjoyed the success she had before Taylor’s murder. Before Normand died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-seven, she supposedly said “I do hate to go without knowing what happened to poor Billy Taylor.”

Mann’s book has been compared to The Devil In The White City because of its similar narrative style, reading more like a novel than a work of nonfiction. Mann weaves a fascinating tale of early Hollywood and the scandals that almost destroyed the movie business. It’s to Mann’s credit that he doesn’t wallow in the details of the various scandals, but instead focuses on the possible motivations of the individuals involved. I came away feeling that I knew Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, Adolph Zukor, Marcus Lowe, and William Desmond Taylor, so good were Mann’s descriptions of the major players.

Tinseltown is a great read and a must for movie buffs and film historians.

Tinseltown’s publication date is October 14, 2014, but can be pre-ordered at Amazon.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” to screen September 9, 2014 at Daystar Center

When: Tuesday, September 9, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller stars Priscilla Lane and Robert Cummings. Cummings plays Barry Kane, a Los Angeles aircraft factory worker who suspects the plant has been bombed by a foreign agent. Kane’s best friend is killed in the conflagration and is wrongly accused of sabotage. Along the way, Kane meets a model Patricia (Pat) Martin (Priscilla Lane). The two begin a cross-country journey in an attempt to prove Kane’s innocence and to stop more bombings planned throughout the United States.

All-American cast
Hitchcock chose an all-American cast to move the narrative along at breakneck speed. The film features some amazing set pieces, as well as some great on-location filming at Boulder Dam, New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and the Statue of Liberty. The climatic scene atop the Statue of Liberty is one of the most iconic in all of cinema.

No looking back
New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther said in his May 8, 1942 review that “Saboteur is a swift, high-tension film which throws itself forward so rapidly that it permits slight opportunity for looking back.”

Behind the scenes at the Sutton mansion

Have some Joe and Enjoy the Show!
Before the movie, grab a cup of coffee from Overflow Coffee Bar, located within the Daystar Center. You can bring food and beverages into the auditorium; we even have small tables set up next to some of the seats.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here. To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” to screen August 12, 2014 at Daystar Center

When: Tuesday, August 12, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

Suspicion (1941) was Alfred Hitchcock’s fourth American film. It’s legendary for several reasons. It’s the first time the director worked with Cary Grant—they would go on to work together on four films—and the second time he worked with actress Joan Fontaine (Rebecca).

The plot
Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, a shy young woman who meets playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) on a train. Lina is intrigued by Johnnie and finds herself falling in love  with him, much to her parents chagrin. Lina and Johnnie eventually get married and set up housekeeping in a beautiful home purchased with borrowed money. Lina discovers, after her honeymoon, that her husband is flat broke. When Johnnie asks Lina about her inheritance from her father’s estate, Lina begins to suspect that her husband may be planning to kill her. Did Johnnie marry Lina for her money?

And the Oscar goes to
As already mentioned, this was Grant’s first collaboration with Hitchcock. Hitchcock, like no other director, managed to bring out the darker side of Grant, giving the actor a dimension not seen before. Fontaine who had her breakout performance in Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first American film, once again plays a quiet and reserved young woman forced to face some unpleasant situations. For her efforts, Fontaine was rewarded with an Academy Award for the Best Actress of 1942. She is the only actor to win an Oscar in a Hitchcock film.

Probably the most famous glass of milk
in movie history
Great characters
Suspicion is populated with some of the best character actors in the business: Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, and Leo G. Carroll.

After the success of Suspicion, Hitchcock’s name began to appear above the title of each of his films, starting with Saboteur (1942).

Have some Joe and Enjoy the Show!
Before the movie, grab a cup of coffee from Overflow Coffee Bar, located within the Daystar Center. You can bring food and beverages into the auditorium; we even have small tables set up next to some of the seats.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here. To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith to screen July 8, 2014 at Daystar Center

When: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

Yes, a Hitchcock Screwball Comedy
In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock’s third American film, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, was a screwball comedy. Yes, that’s right a screwball comedy. And it starred Carole Lombard, who had recently been proclaimed the “Screwball Girl” in a Life magazine profile. Few classic movie fans are familiar with this Hitchcock comedy, even though it was a critical and commercial hit, making its debut at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

Typically screwball
The plot is typical for a screwball comedy. Ann (Lombard) and David (Robert Montgomery) Smith, discover that through a technicality their marriage isn’t legal. After David admits to his wife that if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t get married, Ann decides that she doesn’t want to be married either. What follows is a series of events in which each spouse tries to make the other jealous. Ann starts dating David’s law partner Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond) and David takes a room at his club and starts to hang out with a philandering Chuck Bensen (Jack Carson), which leads to some of the film’s funniest moments.

Carole Lombard and Alfred Hitchcock look at the script
His kind of actress
Alfred Hitchcock loved Carole Lombard. She was his type of actress: beautiful, smart, earthy, and blonde. The Hitchcock family rented Lombard’s house after she and Clark Gable were married in 1939. The Hitchcock’s and the Gable’s became fast friends and it was inevitable that the director and actress would work together. Unfortunately, Lombard would make one movie after Mr. and Mrs. Smith, dying tragically in a plane crash the next year, after a successful war bond drive during World War II.


Award-winning script writer
The script written by Oscar winner, Norman Krasna (Hands Across the Table, Bachelor Mother, It Started with Eve, Princess O’Rourke) is quite good and Lombard and Montgomery have great on-screen chemistry and deliver good performances. Raymond is perfect as Montgomery’s strait-laced college chum and partner. The film is peppered with some great character actors like Carson, Lucile Watson, Charles Halton, Esther Dale, and Betty Compson.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith proved that Hitchcock, the master of suspense, could be successful in any genre he put his mind to.

Have some Joe and Enjoy the Show!
Before the movie, grab a cup of coffee from Overflow Coffee Bar, located within the Daystar Center. You can bring food and beverages into the auditorium; we even have small tables set up next to some of the seats.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here. To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.

Lombard and Anne Shirley in Vigil in the Night

Backstory: Mr. and Mrs. Smith opened on February 20, 1941 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Hitchcock and Lombard had hoped to get Cary Grant to costar, but he was not available. Some Hitchcock critics say that Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a critical and financial flop. This is not true. Audiences were delighted to see Lombard in a comedy after starring in two heavy dramas (Vigil in Night and They Knew What They Wanted). Hitchcock’s first three American films were all solid commercial successes.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” to screen June 10, 2014

When: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

Foreign Correspondent was Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. On loan-out to producer Walter Wanger, Hitchcock enjoyed a level of freedom that he hadn’t experienced on the set of Rebecca with David O. Selznick. Although the director didn’t get the stars he wanted, he had almost unlimited resources to create a first-class suspense classic.

Personal History
Wanger owned a property called Personal History, the memoir of a journalist named Vincent Sheean. He had owned the rights to the memoir since 1935, but was unable to turn it into a workable property. When Wanger learned that Hitchcock was available on loan-out from Selznick, he jumped at the chance to hire him. Hitchcock and his team worked over the memoir, in effect rewriting it so that it would appeal to contemporary audiences.

Laraine Day played nurse
Nancy Lamont in the Dr. Kildare series
Starstruck
The producer was hoping that along with Hitchcock he could borrow Joan Fontaine and Brian Aherne, who were recently married as his stars. Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Cooper turned him down, saying he didn’t want to star in a thriller and Stanwyck was unavailable. In the end, the director had to settle on Joel McCrea and Laraine Day. Although not as big a star as Cooper, McCrea was a star in his own right. Day was a contract player at MGM who starred in the popular Dr. Kildare series with Lew Ayers. In spite of the director’s disappointment with the casting, he got terrific performances out of his leads. McCrea and Day had genuine chemistry that is both charming and believable.





Europe on the brink
Joel McCrae, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston
in publicity photo from Union Pacific
The plot revolves around Johnny Jones, (McCrea) christened “Huntley Haverstock” by his newspaper’s editor (Harry Davenport) as a newly minted American foreign correspondent. On assignment in Europe, he is tasked to find out if the continent is on the brink of a World War. In Holland, Haverstock meets Carol Fisher (Day), daughter of Stephen Fisher, (Herbert Marshall) head of the Universal Peace Party. When a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer, (Albert Basserman) is assassinated, the plot really takes off. Who killed Van Meer and why? And is the head of the Universal Peace Party really working for peace in Europe?

Foreign Correspondent set the template for future Hitchcock films, including Saboteur and North By Northwest. With its amazing set pieces and complicated action sequences, it is a master class in film making. We’ll discuss the film, it’s reception and influence. Join us!

Who is that man reading the paper?
Excellent Support
Besides the other cast members already mentioned, the outstanding supporting players also includes George Sanders (playing a good guy this time), Edmund Gwen, and Robert Benchley, who supposedly wrote his own dialogue.

Have some Joe and Enjoy the Show!
Before the movie, grab a cup of coffee from Overflow Coffee Bar, located within the Daystar Center. You can bring food and beverages into the auditorium; we even have small tables set up next to some of the seats.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here. To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.

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