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Tag Archive: Barbara Stanwyck


Review by C.J. Bunce

This month, a new book examining what makes a great character also takes an in-depth look at Hollywood and film from the silent picture era to today.  It’s Turner Classic Movies/TCM′s latest book on film, Dynamic Dames: 50 Leading Ladies Who Made History I previously reviewed film historian Sloan De Forest′s Must-See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies That Are Out of This World here at borg, a fun read and a fun list that is more a celebration of pop culture than film school companion.  De Forest seems to have far more passion for her next subject, selecting a masterful list of 50 women worth reading about–and worth seeing their films.  She also connects the dots between actors, their characters, and their personal lives in a way you’ve probably not seen before.  In one word, Dynamic Dames is brilliant.

Everyone reading anyone else’s list of 50 people of any pursuit will have quibbles along the way, but De Forest shows an impressive knowledge of film and delivers.  Not only a selection of 50 worthy actors–she doesn’t select the roles most movie critics flock to and rave about–she also finds those finer, more nuanced performances where these Dynamic Dames probably should have scored their Oscars.  She also divides the book into eight sections and finds perfect examples that exemplify each section, from Pre-Code Bad Girls, to Big Bad Mamas, Women of Mystery, and Strong Survivors.  A category not possible until more recently, Superheroines, rounds out the list, and although the performances have not had much of a chance to steep from a historical standpoint, De Forest provides solid rationale for them all.

Authors of a book like this typically will reserve a small percentage of the list for modern readers to have something to be attracted to, but that’s not the case here.  De Forest actually embraces recent films, pulling in more than 20 percent of her list from characters appearing in 21st century films.  Most of her rationale for each of these more recent actors and corresponding characters justifies their inclusion, comparable in performance, significance, and influence, to the film greats any movie buff would expect to find on this list.  She also ties in some of cinema’s–and literature’s–best women writers; it should be no surprise that many of these outstanding characters in film over the course of 92 years resulted from great women writers of the 19th and 20th century, including Charlotte Brontë, Agatha Christie, and J.K Rowling.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

A leg thrown over the arm of a chair.  A monster tossing a girl into the river.  A gangster with a Tommy Gun shooting a room full of people.  A woman is expecting a baby.  A man bites a woman to drink her blood.  Actresses backstage get ready for a show.  Dancers on stage kick their legs.  “Kept” women.  Physical violence.

Rural audiences and even film goers in big cities like Chicago would label all this as “smut” or “disgraceful” back in the day.  In the realm of what is appropriate and what is not, the cinema has approached each new boundary with baby steps.  But in the Depression-era early 1930s, many previously unaccepted concepts soared onto film.  A new book takes a look at this era, now referred to by film historians as the “Pre-Code Era”–1930 to 1934–a time when the self-regulating movie industry pushed the bounds of its own rules, only to hit a wall when the public pushed back.  Turner Classic Movies′ Forbidden Hollywood takes an educational, film school-level walk through an industry fighting within itself to both make money and please an audience it would find varied widely by geography, down to the community level.  The handling of decency by the industry would have ramifications that would have an impact on generations of film creators and audiences.  The chaos and in-fights would last until July 1934, when religious groups combined to take a stand, prompting the industry to bow to their demands with the formation of the League of Decency.  That group would govern movie standards for nearly 35 years–until the ratings system would arrive in 1968.  Even real-world gangster Al Capone thought the new, 1930s era of movies was bad for kids, saying “These gang pictures–that’s terrible kid stuff.  They’re doing nothing but harm to the younger element of the country.”

Film historian Mark A. Vieira provides a scholarly examination of the studios, the directors, producers, and writers, including excerpts of decisions made and processes followed (and not followed), resulting in the promotion of the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest names: Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Marlena Dietrich, Clara Bow, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Ward Bond, Bela Legosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney.  Looking at elements incorporated into–or scissor cut from–dozens of films, including The Divorcee, Dishonored, Grand Hotel, Dracula, A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Riptide, Red-Headed Woman, She Done Him Wrong, Call Her Savage, Convention City, and Frankenstein, Vieira takes an objective look at the factors that influenced all sides in determining what would be appropriate in the movies and what role movies would take in society.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If Turner Classic Movies says that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, then the discussion is over finally, right?

It’s that time of year again and Turner Classic Movies is back showing some of the best Christmas movies from across the decades.  This year host Ben Mankiewicz is interviewing author Jeremy Arnold before and after the screening of movies Arnold has selected to feature in his new book, TCM: Christmas in the Movies–30 Classics to Celebrate the Season.  And yes, Arnold’s list includes Die Hard.  So as the British say, “end of.”  Most readers and movie fans will likely agree with at least twenty of the selections discussed in the book, and the rest are there ready for some good discussions with friends over some egg nog this holiday season.

It’s also likely this bucket list of movies has several films that even avid movie watchers may have missed.  I set up my DVR to pick up a few in the book I hadn’t seen yet and was surprised at how superb a selection Holiday Affair is.  It stars Janet Leigh, Robert Mitchum, Wendell Corey, Henry Morgan, plus young Gordon Gebert in what must be the best-ever performance by a child actor in a Christmas movie.  This is exactly the kind of value you get with a book like Christmas in the Movies–this movie will now be added to my own favorite Christmas movie list.  For each entry Arnold discusses the actors, plot, audience reception and the impact of the film, and why it’s a good Christmas season film for audiences today.

Along with Die Hard, which is smartly defended by Arnold, you’ll find the usual suspects like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, and Elf, plus some lesser known gems, like Remember the Night, the first of four films that would pair Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, plus Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten in I’ll Be Seeing You, and Humphrey Bogart in We’re No AngelsArnold picks up genre films Gremlins and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and even a few Westerns, including 3 Godfathers starring John Wayne.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Readers will expect plenty from the author of such notable noir novels as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce.  James M. Cain wrote several works after these classics, both in and outside the genre.  But his last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, was never published–Cain instead found himself re-writing it and never giving the final handoff to the agent and publisher in a form he was happy with.  That is, until Hard Case Crime tracked it down, and writer/editor Charles Ardai took all the sometimes competing bits and pieces and edited into a final novel, first published in 2012.

The fun of The Cocktail Waitress is Cain’s writing choices, and the unknown quantity is wondering how much was truly Cain’s preferred words and sections, and how close Ardai’s edit is to Cain’s original vision.  Cain, who many consider one of the greats of the crime genre along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (who co-scripted the screenplay to the film adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity), presents a slow-simmering story of a femme fatale told from the first-person perspective of that femme fatale.  Unfortunately the story never quite catches fire until the final four chapters, and really sets ablaze in a bombshell in the final paragraph of the final page.  The cocktail waitress of the title is Joan Medford, a 21-year-old housewife we meet upon learning of her husband’s death.  Her husband was an alcoholic and abusive to her and her son, and he died in a car wreck after storming out of the house drunk.  Or was he?  Police repeatedly return to question her.  Cain’s struggling heroine is easy to empathize with, but the circumstances in which she finds herself prompt the reader to question whether she is lying to us, lying to herself, or maybe she is just one of Cain’s hapless victims of the multiple blows that life deals out.

     

Joan leaves her son with a relative and lands a job as a cocktail waitress.  Her goal is to be able to afford to take care of her son again.  She befriends two men who are customers at work, a wealthy older man named Mr. White, and a young, attractive bad boy named Tom who is reckless and doesn’t understand his own stupidity.  As she describes herself and her actions, Joan does not seem the architect of her own trajectory, but she also is conscious of not letting any man determine her fate.  The men seem to pursue paths with her that she seemingly is also considering, and she goes along, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Her character lacks some consistency, which may be a fault more of the nature of a final, pieced together novel.  She seems sensible and wise, as most people tell themselves about their own actions.  Yet she physically attacks a man at work for acting inappropriately, with little preparation for the reader.  She makes a business deal that risks her nest egg.  She takes actions that risk her job.  So there is an impulsive side to her, but is she the kind of person that would murder someone, and not just one husband, but other men, too?  What will she do, and how far will she go, for her son?  Can we trust her?  Can we trust Cain?

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