Tag Archives: Film History

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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Behind the Screen

Film has become an integral part of American life.brianton_cover
Though the face of the film industry continues to change, it is undeniable that films and television continue to impact lives and culture. With the approach of the 69th Annual DGA awards, it is a time to celebrate some of the best among this year’s productions and, more importantly, the directors behind them. This year’s list of directors includes many first-time nominees, making it clear that the stage has been set for the recognition of new talent.

In addition to celebrating directorial achievements, the DGA (Directors Guild of America) helps to protect the rights of directors and to promote diversity within the film industry. However, in the earlier days of Hollywood, the film industry wasn’t always so welcoming.

One of the most famous (or, more appropriately, infamous) incidents in American film history is the Hollywood blacklist. In this time of directing giants, the looming reality of the Cold War led to an era of paranoia and tension within the film industry as actors and directors alike faced accusations about their connections to communism and communist sympathies. Countless actors and directors lost their careers due to the blacklist, but within the American tradition, there is one incident that stands out among the rest: the 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting.

In Hollywood Divided: the 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist, Kevin Brianton dives into the facts and myths surrounding that famous meeting which would go on to obtain something of a mythic status in the American memory. A large part of its fame, unfortunately, comes from the misinformation surrounding it, but how exactly did this information come to be? And what is the truth of this historical moment which would prove to have a lasting impact on the film industry? Part of this uncertainty can be attributed to ways in which time often obscures memory, but it might also be connected to Mankiewicz’s directing career, which was beginning to decline. As Brianton mentions in his book, in reference to a speech that Mankiewicz gave recounting the events of the SDG meeting, “When Mankiewicz had finished, the Master of Ceremonies, Carl Reiner, joked that Mankiewicz’s speech had the same problem as Cleopatra–it went on for too long. Makiewicz would be sure to enliven his future accounts of the meeting.”

In the following excerpt, Brianton draws on SDG minute records to provide an inside look at one of the many tense (and true) moments of the 1950 meeting:


Daves began, “I did not sign the petition. I wish I had. I am a Republican too, Mr DeMille … I resent beyond belief the things that you said as you summarized the twenty-five men.” Daves said he agreed with Wellman about the basic unfairness of the campaign. When he had received a phone call about recalling Mankiewicz, he told the caller he wanted to hear Mankiewicz’s side of the story. Looking up at the board members sitting on the dais, Daves said,

“All of us here look before us and see seated at this Board of Directors table dear friends, and the men who signed this telegram are some of my very dearest friends in this town. Mabel [Walker Willebrandt] is a very dear friend of mine. I can go right down the list … their kids play with my kids. We are as close as people can be, and I love a lot of people sitting at the table. This has nothing to do with personal acrimony at all, nor toward the men who signed the recall. It merely has to do with the faction and the attack that was made … [in] what I consider a completely undemocratic manner, and one which was so secretive by nature that I was shocked.” Daves said, “The next thing I knew I received a ballot, and it said, ‘This is a ballot to recall Joe Mankiewicz. Sign here – yes.’ There was nothing more. It was not yes and no. I was more deeply shocked.”

Perhaps drawing on his distant legal training at Standford, where he graduated as a lawyer but never had the opportunity to use the degree, Daves then presented damning evidence against DeMille. He said the recall committee deliberately misled the membership by pretending to be acting on behalf of the entire SDG board rather than a committee attempting to recall Mankiewicz. He said, “[Mankiewicz] is not a personal friend of mine. I am fighting for him here, because I feel our rights and our freedom have been violently hit by what has happened.” He discussed the telegram that appeared to be mailed from the board of directors in support of the recall: “It said twelve times, ‘The Board of Directors this,’ and ‘The Board of Directors that.’” Daves called the exercise “an abuse of privilege.”

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  Before the storm, Cecil B. DeMille, Gloria Swanson, and Billy Wilder enjoyed working together on Sunset Boulevard (1950), which was released just before the October 22 SDG meeting. Wilder would become a strident opponent of DeMille over his treatment of Mankiewicz. (Photofest)

Mankiewicz was passed a note saying that some directors were leaving the room to provide updates to the journalists milling around outside the room. Mankiewicz was furious: “Now, good God, gentlemen, can’t we act like adult men? When you go home … tomorrow, remember that America is created on the system of sitting around an old stove in the grocery store and talking things over, and then going in a booth and voting the way you feel. Now we are here to talk. Let’s talk and let’s mind our own business.” Mankiewicz then called on another one of the anti-recall signatories H. C. Potter to speak. Henry Codman Potter was known for films such as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), Second Chorus (1940) and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). He had studied drama at Yale University, before carving out his career in the cinema. Describing himself as an SDG member older than Mr DeMille and also “an American, as good as Mr DeMille,” Potter demanded an inquiry into the “shameful thing of the recall.” It was another short speech, but it was the first such demand for an investigation of the recall faction, which would grow louder as the meeting progressed.

Photographer To The Stars

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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Photo by Gianni Bozzacchi, author of My Life in Focus.

Once again we find ourselves in the heart of awards season, and while much attention is given to the flood of images coming from the red carpet, little thought is given to the men and women who dedicate themselves to capturing the glitz and glamor of Hollywood’s budding starlets and leading men.

In My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, Gianni Bozzacchi gives his firsthand account of life gazing at some of Hollywood’s biggest stars through the lens of a camera. This honest and lively memoir also reveals private moments in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor—to whom Bozzacchi was personal photographer, friend, and confidant—and features dozens of photographs capturing unguarded moments between the two.9780813168746

Bozzacchi gives a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, with all of its seductive charms and quirks. He tells of racing sports cars with Steve McQueen on the set of Le Mans, of fielding marriage proposals from Coco Chanel, and of photographing a shy young actor by the name of Al Pacino. His unique ability to put his subjects at ease, and his commitment to photographing celebrities as individuals allowed Bozzacchi to capture stunning images of some of the biggest stars of the twentieth century, including Audrey Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, and the royal family of Monaco.

In the the following excerpt from My Life in Focus, Bozzacchi discusses the artistry behind one of his most iconic images, which he shot with the intention to dispel rumors that Elizabeth Taylor was losing her famously beautiful looks:


Of all the photos I’d taken, how many revealed the artist in me? I was always photographing for reasons dictated to me by others. The artist always came last, if he even came into the picture at all. Above all, you had to satisfy the objectives of the photo shoot—whether it was publicity, a poster, or a piece of clothing that needed selling. Generally, the subject was a star or someone important. Then there was the context. Was it for a magazine? Or a poster? In which case, the subject had to be to one side of the  image, because there’d be words on the other. As the photographer, you came last. If you did manage to infuse a little artistry into the photo, great. But my experience had taught me that nourishing such hopes was invariably in conflict with the aim of the image.

A true artist is free to express him- or herself completely, with no conflicts or compromises. Many of my photos were not like that. I enjoyed more freedom than a set photographer, but I had limits all the same. On set, for example, I couldn’t control the lights because that was up to the director of photography. My only choice was what angle I chose to shoot from. The clothes were chosen by the director in collaboration with the costume designer. The makeup artist decided the hairstyle and makeup of whatever star I was photographing. Sure, there were a few occasions when I was able to make my own decisions and express myself. But most of the time, I had to repress myself.

But there was one shot that really did express the artist in me. I was still burned up by the fact that someone had destroyed Elizabeth’s image. As her personal photographer, it was up to me to fix the damage. The idea that Elizabeth had suddenly become fat and ugly was absurd. Just look at that photo of her running out of her dressing room […] No one could say I’d touched anything up. That photo was as true as it gets. And technically, it was almost impossible. Just before taking it, I’d seen Elizabeth go from the set to her dressing room. Once the set floodlights had been switched off, the light was very different, very soft, beautiful. I liked the way it bathed Elizabeth’s figure and wanted to be able to photograph her in that light before they put the floods back on. Using a flash was out of the question because it can destroy any atmosphere. I measured the relative aperture. The stop was on 2, so the focus would be very tight. The speed was one-fifteenth of a second, which, technically, means it should be impossible to freeze a subject in motion. But I was convinced I could pull it off.

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Bozzacchi’s iconic photo, signed by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth came out of the dressing room running, which made everything even harder. With no time to plan, I shot without thinking. As she ran toward me, I dropped to my knees and leaned backward at the same speed that she was advancing, snapping off three shots. My movement compensated hers, creating a sense of immobility, even though Elizabeth was actually still running. There was no pose, no tricks, and the way her top wrapped around her body highlighted how well proportioned she was. And how beautiful.

Many great photographers have photographed Elizabeth during her career. Why, then, does talk always turn back to me? Why not Richard Avedon or Lord Snowdon? Maybe because I never photographed only the woman, the wife, the actress or star—I also managed to photograph her as a fully authentic individual. I brought her to life. I never immortalized an immobile and inexpressive star. And I never lurked in the bushes with a zoom lens like Galella. A photographer has to be in touch with his feelings, which I believe is what made the difference between that photo and all the others. Richard [Burton] liked it so much that he wrote a prose poem to go with it:

She is like the tide, she comes and she goes, she runs to me as in this stupendous photographic image. In my poor and tormented youth, I had always dreamed of this woman. And now, when this dream occasionally returns, I extend my arm, and she is here . . . by my side. If you have not met or known her, you have lost much in life.

Happy 100th Birthday to Kirk Douglas!

One of the original leading men, Kirk Douglas came along in the final days of the major studio system, and he was one of the first box office stars to take charge of his own destiny by  becoming involved in the production and marketing of the films in which he appeared.

He was a vital force in such classics as Out of the Past (1947), Champion (1949), Detective Story (1951), Ace in the Hole (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Lust for Life (1956). He formed his own company, Bryna, and made such major films as Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964).

Along the way, he distinguished himself in a number of westerns, including The Big Sky (1952), Man without a Star (1955), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and The War Wagon (1967), while also tackling several action roles in historical period pictures like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Ulysses (1955), and The Vikings (1958).

conversations_with_classic_film_stars_coverRenowned for his support of liberal causes, Douglas is often credited with helping break down the dreaded Hollywood anti-Communist “blacklist” by hiring blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (who also celebrates a birthday today!) to write the screenplay for Spartacus.
In a conversation with Douglas in conjunction with Draw!, a 1984 HBO TV western, Ronald Miller asked the iconic actor about his work with other leading actors and actresses, antiheroes, and working within the studio system. You can find a full transcript of their conversation in Conversations with Classic Film Stars—a perfect gift for the film buff this holiday season.

In the excerpt below, Miller and Douglas discuss the unique art of filmmaking, and its pitfalls, as well as Douglas’s involvement in the Oscar-winning, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Excerpted from Conversations with Classic Film Stars:

Miller: You’ve worked with every kind of movie director and you don’t have a reputation for getting into disputes with them, but you are known for demanding a collaborative atmosphere on the set. Explain that.

Douglas: I’ve worked with [Joseph] Mankiewicz, [Howard] Hawks, [Elia] Kazan, [William] Wyler, [Billy] Wilder. I’ve been very fortunate. All of them work differently. I’ve even directed a couple of pictures, so I have respect for the work. But no matter what anyone says, it’s a collaborative art form. No matter how much one person is a binding force, it’s still a collaboration.

I think the problem today is that we’ve been contaminated by the European concept of the auteur system. I’ve had movies where I bought the book, developed the script, and cast the whole picture, but then the director walks in and says, “It must be a John Smith film!” I think sometimes we emphasize that too much.

Miller: Though you’ve avoided big hassles with your directors, you’ve had a few disputes with studio managements, haven’t you?

Douglas: Let me give you an example of that: Lonely Are the Brave. You need the proper selling of a picture like that. I thought Universal just threw it away. They didn’t give it a chance. They took it out of circulation. Then there were all those great reviews and people said, “Where’s the picture?” Their ego prevented them from making a different campaign for the picture. The longer I’m in this business, the more amazed I am that a movie can be made, good or bad.

Miller: You’ve taken lots of chances in your career, but I imagine one of your greatest frustrations was not being able to play McMurphy on the big screen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after acquiring the rights to the book from Ken Kesey and playing the part on the stage in New York.

douglas-kirk_03Douglas: It was way ahead of its time. When I took it to Broadway, the critics didn’t know what to make of it. The audience loved it, but it didn’t do very well. I tried for nearly twelve years to make it as a movie. I took it to every studio. But they wouldn’t do it, even with a limited budget. Finally, I went into partnership with my son, Michael, and we were able to find somebody outside of the industry to put up the money and we made a little picture that I never predicted would be a hit. So it did over $200 million! Nobody knows what will really be successful.

Miller: What do you think of Michael as a producer?

Douglas: I told him, “Michael, you’re the kind of producer I’d like to work with because you give everything to the other person even when you’re in the movie.” He did that in Romancing the Stone [1984]. He focused all the attention on the girl [Kathleen Turner]. I haven’t been that generous. I’ve been a producer, but I find a product like Spartacus or The Vikings or Seven Days in May or Paths of Glory and somehow there always seems to be a good part for me.

A Conversation with Robert S. Birchard (1950–2016)

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via Cinecon.org

We were saddened to learn that historian, preservationist, writer, and film/television editor Robert S. Birchard passed away this past weekend in Burbank, California. Many remember Birchard as the president of Cinecon and editor of the American Film Institute’s Feature Film Catalog, as well as for his work as a film editor in the 1980s and 90s, where he edited animated television shows like  Ducktales and Rainbow Brite, and movies such as The Return of Jafar. We remember him as the author of the seminal history, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. In honor of his life and work, we’d like to share a conversation with Birchard prior to the publication of Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood:9780813123240

“Far and away the best film book published so far this year.”—National Board of Review, 2004

Q: To What do you attribute Cecil B. DeMille’s enduring popularity, both among film enthusiasts and the general public?

A: Cecil B. DeMille produced a number of films that have had enduring audience appeal: The Ten Commandments (1956), The King of Kings (1927), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Cleopatra (1934), and Samson and Delilah (1949). These films were major box office hits on their original release and they remain popular through repeated screenings on TV, and availability in home video formats. But, in many ways, Cecil B. DeMille’s personality has proven to be his most enduring creation. The strutting director in Jodhpurs and leather puttees, commanding great armies of extras and demanding perfection, was a creation just as much as any of his films. He worked at creating and sustaining that image throughout his career. The persona made DeMille a well-known figure, but it many ways it obscured his real accomplishments as a director. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood is an effort to go beyond anecdote and reminiscence to create a portrait of DeMille the filmmaker. It is based in large part on original documents that erase the blur of nostalgia and preserve the immediacy of a time when Cecil B. DeMille helped create the art of motion pictures.

Q: You discuss your first encounters with DeMille’s body of work in the introduction. After writing program notes for a retrospective Of DeMille’s films, what inspired you to continue your engagement with DeMille and his art?

A: DeMille never threw anything away. Letters, telegrams, contracts, memos—even requests from actors looking for work—he kept it all, from the beginning of his career to the end. Although several biographers had gone through the DeMille archives, no one had really made a comprehensive effort to document the making of DeMille’s films and his relationship with the rest of the motion picture industry. DeMille’s story, I felt, would answer many questions about how and why Hollywood developed the way it did and offer a vivid look at how movies were really made in Hollywood’s golden age.

Q: How do you see DeMille fitting into the film industry in today’s Hollywood? If the DeMille that you have studied were a young filmmaker in 2004, would you speculate that he would have more or less difficulty reaching the heights that he achieved?

A:. DeMille brought great energy, enthusiasm, and determination to his work as a filmmaker—but, contrary to his popular image, he also had a realistic sense of the studio system and was willing to blend his vision with the demands of the marketplace. He was an independent producer working within the studio system long before this became common, and in this sense he would feel right at home in the Hollywood of today.

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via rsbirchard.com

Q: What are DeMille’s lasting legacies, either from creative or from business/industry standpoints?

A: To a large extent it was Cecil B. DeMille who set the working model for Hollywood movie making, and that legacy survives to this day. Early filmmakers often went out and shot “off the cuff” with the barest of outlines. DeMille always worked from a detailed script with meticulous pre-planning, and he pioneered the use of production sketches and story boards to determine the look of his films.

Q: Can you elaborate on DeMille’s strengths as a man and/or as a filmmaker? His weaknesses?

The most surprising thing is that for all of DeMile’s reputation as a stern, demanding director on the set, he had a real love for the people who helped bring his vision to the screen, and he went out of his way to offer work to many actors who were having trouble finding work in their later years.

If he had a weakness it was in his adherence tothe Victorian idea that art must be instructive and uplifting—a notion that is out of favor today, and in some ways this makes his work “old fashioned.” But he also had a bold sense of movie storytelling,creating compelling images that remain in one’s memory long after the light of the projector has faded from the screen—and for this reason his films retain their power to entertain.