Category Archives: Daily Notes

High Flyers and the Journey to Integration

The United States Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education prohibited segregation in public schools, correcting a century of unfair treatment and unequal education experienced by generations of many African Americans.  In Kentucky, school board administrators were given the responsibility in determining the best route to desegregation that suited local whims, politics, and inclinations.  In the few years following the Brown decision, a dozen of the Kentucky High School Athletic League (KHSAL) schools closed as half of the state’s local boards moved quickly to comply.  Many of the black schools that remained open were allowed to apply for membership in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA), which was founded in 1917 to govern the athletic activities of the segregated white schools.  This left thirty-nine African American high schools under a cloud of uncertainty, not knowing when their school boards would reach a decision that could mean in their immediate closure.

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The agriculture students in Lincoln Institute’s first class pose for a class photo in 1912. Courtesy of the Center of Excellence for the Study of Kentucky African-Americans, Kentucky State University.

Every black school that closed released its students into the white schools, in many cases over the protests of their own parents.  Many African Americans were willing to accept the stereotype and were reluctant to send their children to schools where they would come in contact with racial slurs, ridicule, or protests from white parents and students.  To many black parents, each integration plan meant the end of a school that had provided some sense of hope, service, and an alternative to no education at all.

 

The Lincoln Institute in Shelby County, Kentucky was one of these schools.  Founded in 1912 after the state legislature passed a law that prohibited white and black students from attending the same school, the Lincoln Institute was led by a charismatic academic and theologian, Whitney M. Young.  Over the course of three decades, Young overcame prejudice, funding issues, and politics to create a safe haven, full of excellence and respect coming from the black community.  This was only the beginning to a long road to equality in the Kentucky educational system.

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Whitney M. Young and Governor Louie B. Nunn flank President Richard Nixon at this meeting in the White House in May, 1971. Nixon pledged $1 million in federal funds to help Lincoln Institute re-open as a vocational center. Courtesy of the Center of Excellence for the Study of Kentucky African-Americans, Kentucky State University.

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Frankfort High School was integrated by the 1959-60 season, which allowed African-American players to play with white players. Here, George Calhoun (54) tries to block a shot by Lexington Lafayette’s Jeff Mullins while teammates Jim Brown (12) and Louis Tandy (44) look on. Courtesy Lexington Herald-Leader, University of Kentucky Special Collections.

In his book, Integrated, James W. Miller illustrates the struggle Lincoln Institute faced while on the road to integration.  Miller weaves through curious and skeptical attitudes concerning the Lincoln Institute and manages to offer some insight on the educational and athletic aspects of the integration period.  Through the later part of the 1950s, the civil rights movement began to pick up speed with leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. at the forefront.  In his book, Miller proposes that while black basketball teams could now play white teams, their players still could not eat in most restaurants, shop freely in stores, or even try on shoes in white-owned shoe stores.  Integrated is a tribute to and a tale about those African American schools, players, coaches, and teachers who overcame societal obstacles in the pursuit of equal educational opportunity during one of the most difficult racial transitions in our nation’s history.  

For more information on Integrated, please click here.

Interview with Author and Cave Guide, Colleen O’Connor Olson

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Where in the world can you find the bones of ancient mastodons, eyeless fish, and an ingredient for the original Twinkie all in one place? Look no further than Mammoth Cave National Park. In her newest book, Mammoth Cave Curiosities: A Guide to Rockphobia, Dating, Saber-Toothed Cats, and Other Subterranean Marvels , author and cave guide Colleen O’Connor Olson guides readers through the strange and beautiful world of Mammoth Cave. Along the way, she makes some surprising connections and brings to light some of the lesser known creatures and lesser known stories of the world’s longest cave system.

To celebrate the release of her book, we teamed up with Colleen O’Connor Olson to learn more about how the book came to be and to get an inside look at what it’s like to be a cave guide in the strange and wonderful world of Mammoth Cave National Park.


How did you become a cave guide at Mammoth Cave?

In college I saw a notice on campus looking for summer concessions employees at Mount Rushmore. Working at a national monument sounded more fun than working in my hometown. I worked in Rushomore’s gift shop and fast food. Selling souvenirs and scooping ice cream was OK, but on my days off, the Black Hills of South Dakota became my back yard, it was great!. I decided I wanted to work in the national parks when I graduated, but as a park ranger so I could enjoy the outdoors and help others understand and enjoy it every day. After working seasonally for other concessionaires and the National Park Service at Grand Canyon, Klondike National Historic Park, and Gulf Islands National Seashore, I applied for a seasonal job at Mammoth Cave – working underground sounded novel and exciting. I planned to stay just a few seasons, but I’ve been here 25 years! There is so much to learn, I’m still picking it up!

You mention that “Mammoth Cave Curiosities” started out as a series of papers for the National Park Service staff. What inspired you to turn it into a book? What was that process like?

Over my years at Mammoth Cave I wrote a lot of informational papers for the staff. I chose some topics because the scientific papers available were difficult to understand if you didn’t have a background in science – like cosmogenic isotope dating. Other topics were oral history, like cave guides’ expediences with celebrities visiting the park. Visitors enjoyed it when guides shared the information, so I decided to rewrite the papers and arrange them as a book for the general public. I had already done the research and primary writing, so to make the papers into a book I polished my writing style and made sure the language was understandable to non-cave people.

What is one interesting thing about Mammoth Cave that visitors never think to ask about?

In addition to topics that people associate with caves, like geology, Mammoth Cave has a lot of interesting connections to things usually not cave related, like being mentioned in the novel Moby Dick, and that Jane Wyatt’s (an actress in Father Knows Best and Spock’s mother in Star Trek) family owned Mammoth Cave before it was a national park. Who would think to ask about that?

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What is the strangest thing that has ever happened on a tour?

A summer seasonal guide who also taught school brought her class on a field trip to the cave. Two of the teen age girls were scared of the cave, so when the lead ranger took the class down a side passage, the seasonal guide/teacher stayed in a cave chamber with the girls to try to calm their fear. She said, “You’re brave to face your fear of caves, what other fears do you have?” The girls both said, “Clowns.” At that moment the lead guide returned with the group and two of the boys had clown masks on! They didn’t know their classmates were afraid of clowns, they were trying to be funny. The cave / clown combination terrified the two girls. Very few visitors are scared in the cave, and that has been our only clown encounter, so if you have clownphobia, don’t let that stop you from visiting!

Most visitors to the Park hear about Stephen Bishop, but are there any “cave guide legends” that most people don’t know about?

The same era that Stephen Bishop worked in the cave, mid 1800s, the Bransford family also guided tours. Mat Bransford was brought to the cave as a slave and his descendants guided cave tours for 100 years, until the 1930s. A modern descendant, Jerry Bransford, guides tours today.

Which of the Mammoth Cave animals (alive or extinct) is your favorite and why?

There are so many weird, wonderful cave animals, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Today I’m leaning toward the eyeless cave fish. It never leaves the cave its entire life and uses its lateral line system to feel waves to navigate in the dark. Regular fish have lateral line systems, too, that’s why they don’t swim into aquarium glass, but the cave fish’s system is even more sensitive.

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What is your favorite cave joke?

A woman who had bad experiences with men made her daughter promise she would never marry any man on the face of the Earth. She fell in love and became engaged to her sweetheart, but kept her promise to her mother by marrying him in Mammoth Cave, under the face of the Earth! This joke goes back to the 1870s. 

Are there any lesser-known tours or places at Mammoth Cave National Park that visitors often pass over, but shouldn’t?

The park has 70 miles of trails for hiking and biking above ground, so you can enjoy a hike in the sun as well as a hike underground.

You have been a cave guide for over twenty years. Is there anything about Mammoth Cave that still amazes you?

I am still amazed there is so much to discover. In recent years cave explorers have found two previously unknown underground streams and two entrances. In addition to new cave, we learn new things about cave life. Almost all life depends on photosynthesis, but the cave has chemoautotrophs (a type of bacteria) that survive by consuming hydrogen sulfide rather than organic matter from plants. The chemoautotrophs may be part of the reason Mammoth is so biologically diverse.


Colleen O’Connor Olson has been guiding tours at Mammoth Cave National Park for over twenty years. She is the author of Scary Stories of Mammoth Cave, Nine Miles to Mammoth Cave: The Story of the Mammoth Cave Railroad, Mammoth Cave by Lantern Light, and Prehistoric Cavers of Mammoth Cave.

Purchase book here.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

Today would have been the 113th birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known by the name of Dr. Seuss. Author of beloved stories such as The Cat in the Hat and Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss inspired generations of readers and dreamers with his whimsical drawings and his stories which, while silly and humorous, are often inspiring. Today, we celebrate his life through Read Across America, a national celebration of reading that takes place in schools and libraries all across the US.

To celebrate this day of reading and rhymes, we’re sharing some Appalachian nursery rhymes from Mommy Goose: Rhymes from the Mountains. This collection by author Mike Norris honors the language and traditional nursery rhymes of Appalachia alongside art-quality photographs of more than one hundred new hand-carved and -painted works by renowned folk artist Minnie Adkins. This charming book engages young children with a series of simple and often humorous verses that gradually become more challenging as the book progresses.


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Mommy Goose is an Appalachian bird.

Like cows love corn, she loves words.

She says,

“Corn can be yellow, blue, or white,

And words change colors in different light.

To talk like your flock is no disgrace.

Just use the right word in the right place.”

 

 

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Level Cows

Granpaw’s farm is hilly land,

With no smooth place

for the cows to stand;

But they stay level

as a croquet court,

Two legs long, and

two legs short.

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Little Johnny Hicks

Little Johnny Hicks

was mighty sick.

The doctor thought him dead.

But Granmaw’s cooking

did the trick:

Soup beans and corn bread.

 

 

 

Mike Norris was the director of communications at Centre College for sixteen years before he retired. He is the author of Sonny the Monkey and Bright Blue Rooster: Down on the Farm and has recorded several collections of original music.

Minnie Adkins is a folk artist with permanent collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, the American Folk Art Museum, the Huntington Museum of Art, and the Kentucky Folk Art Center. She won the the Kentucky Arts Council’s Artist Award honoring lifetime achievement in the arts and holds an honorary doctorate from Morehead State University. She has contributed essays to numerous collections on folk art and crafts.

Purchase book here.

 

Women’s History Month

Photograph taken from Stuntwomen: the Untold Hollywood Story by Mollie Gregory. Helen Holmes ready to roll in episode 9, “A Leap for Life,” The Railroad Raiders (1917). (Courtesy of the Robert S. Birchard Collection)

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re sharing some of our favorite books by and about women!


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Blackberries, Blackberries by Crystal Wilkinson is a collection of stories that explores the sweet and bitter sides of life in a small Kentucky town: Two misfit teenagers seek stolen moments of love and acceptance in the cloak of night (“Hushed”); a woman spends every waking hour obsessed with dying yet ironically watching her loved ones pass away before her (“Waiting on the Reaper”); a wife confronts her husband’s mistress in a diner over potato skins and cornbread (“Need”); and a pious young woman’s torment erupt in a violent and unsuspecting resolution (“No Ugly Ways”).

Crystal Wilkinson is author of The Birds of Opulence, winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and Water Street, which was a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. The winner of the 2008 Denny Plattner Award in Poetry from Appalachian Heritage magazine and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, she serves as Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College and teaches in the Spalding University low residency MFA in Creative Writing Program.

Purchase book here.

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In The Price of Scarlet, Brianna Noll explores the paradoxes of experience as she interweaves themes of creation, art, and nature. Drawing on Japanese culture and language, Noll blurs the line between the literal and the figurative to offer her audience ways of considering the world beyond their own everyday experiences.

Brianna Noll is a postdoctoral fellow in teaching and mentoring in the Honors College at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2013, she helped found the literary magazine, The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought, for which she serves as poetry editor. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including the Georgia Review, 32 Poems, the Kenyon Review Online, Passages North, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

Purchase book here.

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Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel by Maryjean Wall explores the life of Belle Brezing, a woman whose rise to wealth and fame began when she stepped off the streets of Lexington, Kentucky, and into Jennie Hill’s bawdy house—an upscale brothel run out of a former residence of Mary Todd Lincoln. Following Brezing from her birth amid the ruins of the Civil War to the height of her scarlet fame and beyond, Wall uses her story to explore a wider world of sex, business, politics, and power in the Gilded Age South.

Maryjean Wall served as the turf writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader for twenty-five years. The author of How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders, she holds a doctorate and is an instructor in the Department of History at the University of Kentucky.

Purchase book here.

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Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story by Mollie Gregory presents the first history of stuntwomen in the film industry from the silent era to the twenty-first century. For decades, stuntwomen have faced institutional discrimination, unequal pay, and sexual harassment even as they jumped from speeding trains and raced horse-drawn carriages away from burning buildings. Featuring sixty-five interviews, Stuntwomen showcases the stories and courage of women who make their living planning and performing action-packed sequences that keep viewers’ hearts racing.

Mollie Gregory is the author of Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood, 1973–2000.

Purchase book here.

 

Happy 85th Birthday to Elizabeth Taylor

It’s hard to talk about classic Hollywood actresses without talking about Elizabeth Taylor. She was widely regarded both for her beauty and for her roles in films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? as well as the infamous Cleopatra. In addition to all of this, she is also remembered as an outspoken activist in the fight against AIDS, a passion which continues to change lives in the form of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Though she passed away in 2011, her memory lives on as we continue to celebrate her legacy.

9780813168746In the following excerpt from My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, Gianni Bozzacchi describes his early experiences with photographing Elizabeth, to whom he would later become both a personal photographer and a friend.


 

I’d enjoyed freedoms that a twenty-two-year-old rarely has on the set of a movie featuring two of the biggest stars in the world. Not being the official photographer was a blessing. He or she is obliged to stay close to the camera and take photos that correspond to individual scenes, with no freedom to choose any other angle than whatever the director wants. Actors know they are being photographed while they work and inevitably pose, even if unconsciously. Which is why any “spontaneous” photo of a star at work isn’t spontaneous at all. Those were the kinds of photos that Elizabeth had expected to see.

When I was on set, my technique had been to not be seen. If you don’t see me, you don’t think that someone is photographing you. You feel freer, more relaxed. A lot of people are intimidated by a camera. They block, consciously or unconsciously, concerned about how they look. But in my case, since no one cared what I did and didn’t realize that I was taking professional photos, I didn’t have that problem. I was able to photograph Elizabeth and Richard being natural without worrying about their poses.

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An unauthorized photo of Elizabeth Taylor (center) and Richard Burton (right) on the set of The Comedians, taken by Gianni Bozzacchi and signed by Richard Burton.

 

My long experience with printing had taught me the best system for photographing a woman. I learned from observing how light bounces off a subject through the lens and is then imprinted on film. The negative. The aperture of the stop is inversely proportionate to the contrast obtained in the final photo. Thus, at the retouching stage, you realize that some of the defects could have been avoided with a different stop aperture. Skin and color tonality are merely a question of light, and thus of contrast. In Africa, the light was very strong, so I knew I had to close down the stop and use film with a low ASA. To get better photos, I exposed a small quantity of light (stop closed) over a longer time lapse (shutter).

All these considerations contributed to me getting unique photos. But I don’t believe that that was what made them special, nor why Elizabeth appreciated them so much. Stops and exposure times mean nothing when you’re dealing with a woman as beautiful as that. If you took a Polaroid shot of her neck she’d still have looked like a star. She was the most famous and photographed woman in the world. The world had literally watched her grow up through movies and photographs. Ever since she shot to stardom in Clarence Brown’s 1944 classic National Velvet at just eleven, Elizabeth had been shot from every conceivable angle and in every imaginable circumstances, often alongside crowned heads and superstars. How can you take an interesting photo of a woman like her? What more can a photographer come up with?

In the end, while shooting dozens of photos of her in Africa, I realized where the real challenge lay in photographing Elizabeth: how to make people looking at my photos feel as I’d felt, as if they were seeing Elizabeth—the world’s most photographed and famous woman—for the very first time. I’d spend the next twelve years trying to solve that problem. My photos were not of a movie star but of a woman and her husband behaving normally, unaware of my lens. And those were the kind of photos I’d keep trying to take throughout my career.

Gianni Bozzacchi is an Italian writer, producer, and director made famous by his photographs of Elizabeth Taylor. He has collaborated on films with Sergio Leone and Michelangelo Antonioni among others.

Purchase book here.

New Releases In Film History

In recognition of the 89th Academy Awards, we’re featuring our favorite new releases in the fields of film history. Which ones will you read?


UKY05 Showman of the Screen Selected.inddShowman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolution In Film Promotion

Short, immaculately dressed, and shockingly foul-mouthed, Joseph E. Levine (1905–1987) was larger than life. He rose from poverty in Boston’s West End to become one of postwar Hollywood’s most prolific independent promoters, distributors, and producers. Alternately respected and reviled, this master of movie promotion was responsible for bringing films as varied as Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956), Hercules (1958), The Graduate (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and A Bridge Too Far (1977) to American audiences.

In Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolution In Film Promotion, the first biography of this controversial pioneer, A. T. McKenna traces Levine’s rise as an influential packager of popular culture. Despite his significant accomplishments and prominent role in shaping film distribution and promotion in the post-studio era, Levine is largely overlooked today. McKenna’s in-depth biography corrects misunderstandings and misinformation about this colorful figure, and offers a sober assessment of his contributions to world cinema. It also illuminates Levine’s peculiar talent for movie- and self-promotion, as well as his extraordinary career in the motion picture business.

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Hollywood Divided

On October 22, 1950, the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) gathered for a meeting at the opulent Beverly Hills Hotel. Among the group’s leaders were some of the most powerful men in Hollywood—John Ford, Cecil B. DeMille, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler, and Rouben Mamoulian—and the issue on the table was nothing less than a vote to dismiss Mankiewicz as the guild’s president after he opposed an anticommunist loyalty oath that could have expanded the blacklist. The dramatic events of that evening have become mythic, and the legend has overshadowed the more complex realities of this crucial moment in Hollywood history.brianton_cover

In Hollywood Divided, Kevin Brianton explores the myths associated with the famous meeting and the real events that they often obscure. He analyzes the lead-up to that fateful summit, examining the pressure exerted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Brianton reveals the internal politics of the SDG, its initial hostile response to the HUAC investigations, the conservative reprisal, and the influence of the oath on the guild and the film industry as a whole. Hollywood Divided also assesses the impact of the historical coverage of the meeting on the reputation of the three key players in the drama.

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Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story

They’ve traded punches in knockdown brawls, crashed biplanes through barns, and raced to the rescue in fast cars. They add suspense and drama to the story, portraying the swimmer stalked by the menacing shark, the heroine dangling twenty feet below a soaring hot air balloon, or the woman leaping nine feet over a wall to escape a dog attack. Only an expert can make such feats of daring look easy, and stuntwomen with the skills to perform—and survive—great moments of action in movies have been hitting their mark in Hollywood since the beginning of film.

Here, Mollie Gregory presents the first history of stuntwomen in the film industry from the silent era to the twenty-first century. For decades, stuntwomen have faced institutional discrimination, unequal pay, and sexual harassment even as they jumped from speeding trains and raced horse-drawn carriages away from burning buildings. Featuring sixty-five interviews, Stuntwomen showcases the absorbing stories and uncommon courage of women who make their living planning and performing action-packed sequences that keep viewers’ hearts racing.

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Harry Langdon: King Of Silent Comedy

Among silent film comedians, three names stand out—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd—but Harry Langdon indisputably deserves to sit among them as the fourth “king.” In films such as The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Langdon parlayed his pantomime talents, expressive eyes, and childlike innocence into silent-era stardom. This in-depth biography, which features behind-the-scenes accounts and personal recollections compiled by Langdon’s late wife, provides a full and thoughtful picture of this multifaceted entertainer and his meteoric rise and fall.Harry Langdon.final.indd

In Harry Langdon: King Of Silent Comedy, authors Gabriella Oldham and Mabel Langdon explore how the actor developed and honed his comedic skills in amateur shows, medicine shows, and vaudeville. Together they survey his early work on the stage at the turn of the twentieth century as well as his iconic routines and characters. They also evaluate his failures from the early sound period, including his decision to part ways with director Frank Capra. Despite his dwindling popularity following the introduction of talkies, Langdon persevered and continued to perform in theater, radio, and film—literally until his dying day—leaving behind a unique and brilliant body of work.

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UKY06 He's Got Rhythm Selected.inddHe’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly

He sang and danced in the rain, proclaimed New York to be a wonderful town, and convinced a group of Parisian children that they had rhythm. One of the most influential and respected entertainers of Hollywood’s golden age, Gene Kelly revolutionized film musicals with his innovative and timeless choreography. A would-be baseball player and one-time law student, Kelly captured the nation’s imagination in films such as Anchors Aweigh (1945), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris(1951), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

In He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kellythe first comprehensive biography written since the legendary star’s death, authors Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson disclose new details of Kelly’s complex life. Not only do they examine his contributions to the world of entertainment in depth, but they also consider his political activities—including his opposition to the Hollywood blacklist. The authors even confront Kelly’s darker side and explore his notorious competitive streak, his tendency to be a taskmaster on set, and his multiple marriages. Drawing on previously untapped articles and interviews with Kelly’s wives, friends, and colleagues, Brideson and Brideson illuminate new and unexpected aspects of the actor’s life and work. He’s Got Rhythm is a balanced and compelling view of one of the screen’s enduring legends.

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My Life in Focus

When Gianni Bozzacchi accepted an assignment as a photographer on the set of The Comedians (1967), he didn’t know that his life was about to change forever. His ability to capture the beauty of candid moments drew the attention of the film’s star, Elizabeth Taylor, and prompted her to hire him as her personal photographer. Not only did he go on to enjoy a jet-set life as her friend and confidant—preserving unguarded moments between the violet-eyed beauty and Richard Burton as they traveled the world—but Bozzacchi also became an internationally renowned photographer and shot some of the biggest celebrities of the 1960s and 1970s.9780813168746

In My Life in Focus, Bozzacchi traces his journey from humble beginnings to the sphere of the rich and famous. Beautifully illustrated with many of the photographer’s most iconic images, this lively memoir reveals private moments in the Taylor-Burton love story and provides an invaluable behind-the-scenes look at the business of filmmaking and the perils of celebrity.

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Musicals at the Academy Awards

It came as little surprise to moviegoers when it was announced on January 24th, 2017, that La La Land had been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, tying the record for most nominations received by a single film (with Titanic and All About Eve). A critical and commercial success, La La Land is both a film made for modern audiences and a loving throwback to the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical. Time will tell whether La La Land will sweep the Oscars (although predictions skew in that direction), but its role is not without historical precedent.

To date, only ten musicals have won the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture. An American in Paris (1951) was the fourth to achieve this honor. In the following excerpt from He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly, authors Cynthia and Sara Brideson discuss the 24th Academy Awards, at which American and Kelly were to achieve special recognition:


If Gene believed that Hollywood and America as a whole did not grant him the recognition he deserved, he was soon to be proven wrong. The honor Hollywood lavished upon Gene after he left for Europe confirmed that his artistry was far from overlooked in his native country. Never in the history of film had a musical ever received as many Oscar nominations as Gene’s An American in Paris. The picture received nods in eight categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, Best Color Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing.

Most significant, Gene was announced as the recipient of the annual Honorary Oscar. The category, created in 1948, acknowledged cinematic achievements not covered by existing Academy Awards. Gene was only the second dancer to receive such recognition (Fred Astaire received one at the 1950 awards ceremony). Though pleased with the award, Gene still voiced regret that he had not been nominated as Best Actor. “The idea that musical [actors] are less worthy of Academy consideration than drama[tic ones] is a form of snobbishness.”

In truth, the honorary Oscar did pay tribute to Gene’s acting ability as well as his dancing talent. On March 20, 1952, the night of the awards ceremony, the president of the Academy, Charles Brackett, stated that Gene had earned his statuette through his “extreme versatility as an actor-singer, director, and dancer . . . and because of his specific and brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” From Europe, Gene requested that Stanley Donen accept the Oscar for him. Vincente Minnelli admitted that Gene’s decision hurt his feelings, particularly because Donen had had no part in the production of An American in Paris.

Gene was not the only one to receive an honorary Oscar that night. Arthur Freed took home the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, given to a different producer each year. The Freed Unit was sweeping the Oscars; before Best Picture was announced, An American in Paris had already won two honorary awards plus Best Costume Design, Best Color Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, and Best Screenplay (not to be confused with Best Adapted Screenplay, which went to A Place in the Sun). However, in the Best Picture category, An American in Paris faced heady competition. In a year that sported such prestigious titles as A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen, and A Place in the Sun, a musical picture with a thin story line seemed the least likely to win the award. Presenter Jesse Lasky could not conceal his surprise when he opened the envelope. “Oh my!” he exclaimed. “The winner for Best Picture is An American in Paris.” The audience was silent except for a few gasps of shock. But slowly, hearty applause erupted, which only became more vigorous when Freed trotted up to the stage, clearly moved. As he cradled the statuette with the honorary one he had already received, he quipped, “It’s a double header!” He continued on a more serious note: “Thank you. And thank you from my brilliant associates who made this possible: Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and a great studio with real courage and leadership who supported me. Thank you.”


For those interested in learning more about the life of Gene Kelly, the Brideson’s new and comprehensive biography is available for pre-order here. Or visit our Twitter for details on how to win an advance copy of the book.