Gentleman: The William Powell Story

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William Powell in a publicity photo from My Man Godfrey

Few of the legendary movies stars of the first half of this century were personally capable of equaling the glittering images they projected with the help of studio publicists and the roles they played on the silver screen. William Powell was a notable exception to that rule.

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William Powell was a private man.  He was a public figure and yet a complex, private man.  Therefore the task before biographer Charles Francisco was a challenging one.  Certainly there were plenty of stories in popular Hollywood magazines of the era, tabloid features and interviews, but views into his private life were limited.  He married three times and fathered one child, a son, who tragically committed suicide in 1968.  Aside from his third wife, these significant figures had long departed and there is no indication that wife Diana Lewis chose to reveal the private man. His closest friends, who included Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman, had long departed; he outlived almost all of them but Myrna Loy.  In fact Powell himself died during Francisco’s research.  Yet the author has done a remarkable job in giving us a solid sense of William Powell, the essence of the man and of his life; it was one filled with satisfying successes, occasional frustrations and sometimes all too public tragedies.

 

 

 

 

Famously, Powell married and divorced Carole Lombard, then became engaged to Jean Harlow, remaining so until her death at age twenty-six.  He grieved openly at her funeral, flanked by his mother and a studio attaché for support.  Her death ushered in a period of struggle for Powell.  Shortly after this profoundly difficult loss he was faced with another crisis, rectal cancer.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer softened the blow for the public, citing his long absence from the screen as due to colon cancer, relating few details; the actor was one of the first patients to undergo treatment with implanted radium.  This combination of blows – the death of Harlow, two surgeries and a lengthy recovery – perhaps deprived us of additional films that might have added to his legacy.  His absence took him into middle-age and some unfortunate type-casting.

 

 

 

Powell became a comedic success with The Thin Man, the role for which he is perhaps best remembered.  Its popularity led to further Thin Man films, six in total, and while he certainly enjoyed the role, and was surely grateful for its gifts, he knew he was capable of much more.  Happily he was later able to show his range in several highly successful and still memorable films, namely Life with Father, How to Marry a Millionaire and finally Mister Roberts.  Portraying the wise and weary ‘Doc’ in the latter put Powell among a new generation of actors and before new audiences.  Yet the on-location shoot tired him and he chose to bow out, departing from the screen at the age of 62.  He eventually left this world for good thirty years later. In doing so he left behind a sweeping body of work that starts in the silent era, polishes many pre-Codes and ultimately enchants in some of the most enduring romantic comedies of the thirties and forties.

 

 

If you are a fan of Powell’s, as I am, this book is one to search out and find. The tone is warm and measured, never salacious or engaging in sordid speculation, despite Powell’s romancing and co-starring with some of the most beautiful and sought after women of the early days of Hollywood. Francisco treats his subject, and the numerous Hollywood luminaries and fellow players he encounters, with respect and admiration, pulling from available files, newspaper and magazine articles, archives and Powell’s own writings. In doing so he constructs a portrait of a man who was far from perfect but generally well-intended and truly the gentleman that he hoped to be.  Known as a movie star, he was first an actor and an absolute master of his craft.

I was sad to reach this book’s end for to do so was to leave behind a life well-lived.  Powell is painted as a man who didn’t always have the answers but who sure as hell tried to find them.  This was a lovely, satisfying and moving book. I highly recommend it.

Gentleman: The William Powell Story includes a filmography and two sections of black and white photographs. It is book-ended by a prologue and epilogue, with the first and last paragraphs shared here, suitably opening and closing this review.

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Perhaps Myrna Loy, who co-starred with most of the movie legends, described Bill Powell best.  She said, “There’s just nobody like him, and there’s never been anybody quite like him.”  Unfortunately, in the course of contemporary film, we may never see his like again.

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This post is the third in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer! This book is available through Amazon and other used and vintage booksellers.

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Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies

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In retrospect Ava Gardner can be a mysterious and contradictory figure, awash in allure and breathtaking beauty. Considered to be one of the world’s most stunning women, she was contracted to a studio that seemed to be at a loss with how to manage her; she did some of her best work on loan or independently.  She had a stated desire for domesticity, children and marriage but her most significant decisions expressed an overwhelming hunger for experience and adventure. Despite insecurity regarding her own talent, she boldly entered varying shooting locations with unfamiliar faces, unknown actors and half-written scripts, doing so with courage and aplomb, only losing outward signs of professionalism as her private life unraveled and the hurts exacted a toll. Too often she bolstered her confidence with liberal amounts of alcohol, resulting in distilled bravado. Not surprisingly she did her best work with sympathetic supportive directors who could tap into her raw sensuality and vulnerability while respecting her fearless beauty and artistic integrity.

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Functioning as both coffee table book and detailed biography, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies knowingly embraces these contradictions and chooses to move along at a fast, luxurious clip. The pace matches the mercurial, hectic and audacious life of one of the last of Hollywood’s true movie stars, a magnetic screen presence as earthy as the North Carolina soil from which she came. Eminently readable and meticulously researched, the book includes a multitude of photographs, behind the scene candid shots, movie stills and promotional images, beautifully interspersed to illustrate pivotal points in this actor’s life. Yet these are still secondary to the text, which treats its subject to a respectful yet honest look at her life and career. As such it lends itself to being a gorgeous reference book, not only a picturesque gallery for each of her films but a source for understanding the heartaches and frustrations that Gardner faced in filming, in loving, and in living.

Gardner’s adventurous spirit and joie de vivre was apparent from her first trips to New York, heady experiences for a young woman from a simple background. As a child, her enthusiastic embrace of life expressed itself as a tomboy’s love for fun and simple pranks. Ava’s early years of poverty and frequent moves, grounded in her love for her father and the devotion of her mother, are given sufficient exploration here, laying the foundation for an understanding of the unchanging aspects of her inherent nature; Her values are clear at the outset. Yet Gardner’s beauty was not easily ignored and despite her naivete, a life-changing photo shoot while visiting her sister in the big city ultimately led to a screen test with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Later Gardner’s passion for new experiences transported her to homes, location shoots and lovers in Hollywood, Madrid, Rome, Mexico and London. Her restlessness led to both good and bad choices, world-wide fame and crushing heartbreak. Gardner was a woman ahead of her time, independent in spirit and frequently in conflict with her studio and her inner desire for respect as an actor, despite her many protestations that she was merely seeking the lucrative pay. In the mid-fifties, following filming that repeatedly took her to Spain, Gardner finally settled there, leaving America for good. As such she developed the lifestyle of many ex-pats of the era, a decision that suited the filming schedules and on location shoots that became arguably de rigueur as the major studios struggled to face the challenges of television. Through it all she wrestled with her own fears that audiences and those in the industry would discover she was merely ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Animal’ as she was so famously labelled, a moniker now glaringly dated in its sexism.

One wonders if Gardner might have had different inclinations regarding her talent if her romantic life had transpired differently. Gardner’s husbands pursued her unrelentingly. Her three marriages were combustible; her third to Frank Sinatra was a union marred by immeasurable passion and unending conflict.  Yet the first two were traumatic as well and potentially emotionally damaging. First husband Mickey Rooney, the perpetual boy in a man’s body, was unprepared for marriage to a beautiful naïve daughter of the south.  Indeed, once the MGM marvel bedded his virginal bride, leading to a sexual awakening for Gardner, he had difficulty fulfilling the role of devoted husband, remaining a gregarious, roaming Lothario. Second husband Artie Shaw inflicted a different kind of wound. Determined to act as Professor Higgins to Gardner’s Eliza, he was mercilessly critical of her lack of intellectualism and cultural sophistication. In a period reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s own attempts to overcome feelings of inadequacy stemming from a simple background, Gardner worked to keep up with him.  She met his unrelenting criticism and demands by taking classes, reading literature, pursuing her interests in jazz and classical music.  But as she did so he grew bored and the marriage folded. Her deep disappointment at the failure of these two marriages left her vulnerable and open to a third with a volatile, charismatic Frank Sinatra. A fiercely determined talent and temperamental womanizer, Sinatra met his match in Gardner, a woman possessed of the same impetuosity and high spirits. He was so enamored of the raven-haired green-eyed rising star that he left his wife of twelve years. Yet such was the warmth of Gardner that his famous offspring remember her fondly as a natural beauty, glamorous even without make-up, accepting of their presence, both fascinating and giving.

Sinatra and Gardner’s affair was a public relations nightmare that instigated a barrage of criticism. Gossip columnists and film fans perceived the actress as a home wrecker and the crooner as a fallen Catholic. Both careers suffered temporary blows. Following a tempestuous marriage, the two eventually settled on a lifelong simmering friendship once the flames cooled, with Gardner wistfully reminiscing on what might have been with the second sight of maturity. Sinatra carried his own contradictions; he became a steady rescuer for her on numerous occasions as their lives progressed.

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The dynamics of these relationships and others are well-elucidated by authors Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski, who provide specifics without indulging in salaciousness.  Personal details of Gardner’s private life are neatly juxtaposed with accounts of her experiences in making movies, each grounded in chronological time and place. While some of her films may have at times lacked substance or even popular appeal, in others her smoldering persona captured the sensual yearnings of audiences. From her breakout role in The Killers to Mogambo, Bhowani Junction and On The Beach, Gardner was unrelentingly riveting.

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In hindsight John Huston’s rendering of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana stands as perhaps her greatest film; it was her last significant screen role.  As the wise, weary Maxine Faulk she ultimately reaches the epitome of her talent, delving within for a rich, worldly vulnerability that in many ways echoes the woman she had become.  If Gardner was ever to have been awarded an Academy Award it would’ve been for Iguana yet that recognition was never bestowed.  The authors pay loving attention to this significant film, rightfully and rewardingly so.

As with any actor she passed on some good roles and was overlooked for others. Yet she worked with many of the most significant directors and writers of her time, establishing enduring relationships along the way.  Her warm friendships with John Huston, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and many other significant figures are a remarkable testament to the fascination this woman held for those who appreciated her unique brand of Southern charm and sensuality. The lifelong presence of other friends, such as Grace Kelly and Gregory Peck speaks to her generosity of spirit. Film fans familiar with these larger than life personalities of the twentieth century will find exploration of these relationships a satisfying aspect of this biography.  Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, beautifully presented in a format sure to resonate with fans of classic film.  As such it is a treatment that Ava Gardner ultimately and finally richly deserves.

ava 5.jpgMany thanks to Running Press for providing this lovely book for this review. It is appreciated. Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is available through Amazon and other booksellers.

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This post is the second in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!

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Book Review – “The Amateur Cracksman” by E. W. Hornung

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The figure of the gentleman thief has become so much a part of our psyche in the western world that it’s easy to take such a character for granted.  Generally dashing, good looking, sly, stealthy and charming with the ladies, such figures are sympathetic despite their capers or perhaps even because of them.   We admire their cunning and ability to swindle those we don’t particularly like anyway, the idle rich. In E. W. (Ernest William) Hornung’s The Amateur Cracksman, we have such a gentleman swindler in A. J. Raffles.

Raffles has seen numerous incarnations in film and several on television.  There were two silent versions, one starring John Barrymore and two other better known representations in the thirties.  Breathtakingly, Ronald Colman played him in a 1930 early talking version opposite the luminous and striking Kay Francis.  Between her slinking and his lurking the screen was awash in luxurious charm.  A later version in 1939 suffers some from the long arm of the Production Code, sanitizing the interplay between the two principals, yet it has its considerable charms, the elegance of David Niven and Olivia de Havilland being primary.  Both versions appear to be based upon a 1903 stage play crafted by Hornung after he had achieved considerable success with his books featuring the devious scoundrel.

The first story to feature Raffles was published in a magazine in 1898 and introduces the present compilation.  Consisting of a series of short stories, tied together by its engaging central character embarking upon underhanded capers, this book was so popular that the author continued to write tales featuring the cunning bandit, with even further excursions into burglaries, mistaken identities, forgeries and other rarefied crimes.  Raffles shares a bit of Robin Hoods’ spirit.  The victims of his crimes are usually more than due their misfortune, yet there is one primary difference:  While the latter brings justice and spoils to those suffering oppression, the former luxuriates in the gains that provide him with the outwardly decent, respectable lifestyle of a true gentleman.  By some measures, he has an enviable life indeed.

Interestingly, Hornung was the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and wrote these short stories of an anti-hero as almost an homage and this first book is indeed dedicated to the Sherlock Holmes creator.  Certainly the central relationship of a mastermind supported by a willing admiring assistant is replicated here.  Yet as the popularity of Hornung’s creation grew, Conan Doyle expressed misgivings regarding the impact of such a warm and generous portrayal of one essentially trolling about in the underworld.  Foreshadowing the feelings of those who later instituted the Code, he expressed concern that Hornung had perhaps made “the criminal a hero”.  Yet it was too late.  The gentleman thief had already been born.  We would later see him appear time and again in cinematic history.

Raffles reluctant accomplice in his escapades is his former school chum Bunny who, as he does in the films, presents as a young man desperately in need of money.  That curse of the upper-crust, gambling debts, has brought him to the point of self-destructive despair.  The similarity ends there as Bunny on the page slowly becomes a greater accomplice to these recurring escapades, a status he never achieves in the films, especially the 1939 vehicle which of course requires Raffles pay for his crimes.

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Bunny is an interesting narrator.  He admires Raffles cunning and ingenuity with appalling awe.  Bunny is seemingly seduced, beyond the initial episode, by the cracksman’s charisma and charms. (And I have to say that for me Raffles charm was only enhanced by hearing his words in the voice of the melodiously gifted Colman). This collection is filled with deliciously detailed descriptions of Raffles mannerisms, facial expressions and moods.  We are treated to a recounting by a man wholly captivated by his seductor to the sinister, in a Victorian age. This lingering accounting lends an immediacy to the proceedings.  We see Raffles through the eyes of this disconcerted admirer as Bunny is reluctantly drawn into the world of sophisticated, yet amateur criminal behavior. The money and easy living seduce him even further.  Bunny’s moral misgivings and subsequent slide into a seamy acceptance of devious deeds, with their secretive glamor, becomes our own as we too are charmed by this gentlemen thief.

Having been raised on varying portrayals of these upper crust scoundrels, I fully expected there to be a significant love interest.  I turned page after page awaiting an alluring feminine presence infused with the spirit of Kay Francis, Grace Kelly or Olivia de Havilland.  But no such woman appeared.  In fact there are very few women at all in these stories which are in fact somewhat sexy precursors to what first started as road trips, morphed into buddy movies and then became simply bromances.  The admiration, seduction and conspiratorial nature of the relationship between Bunny and our hero has a definite homoerotic air.  In fact the willing accomplice becomes quite petulant in the final story when Raffles (finally!) becomes seemingly smitten with a young female shipboard passenger.  At last, I thought, a woman!  But we barely get a real glimpse of her before our protagonist makes a necessary hasty get away.  I almost got the sense that she was thrown in, just at the very end, to dispel any notions that might be occurring on the part of the reader.

In order to enjoy these stories, it’s necessary to enter into this world within its context. The Amateur Cracksman as both character and book expresses the sense of entitlement that fueled the rise and fall of the British Empire.  The stories take place during its unraveling yet there is none of that here.  These are quickly told tales designed to amuse in an afternoon or evenings read, suffused with the English ambiance, language and sentiments of the time.

I’d say that this was a fairly satisfying read however I’ve a fondness for British literature of the period.  The short stories do require a certain setting aside of the accepted norms of the era, an understanding that as presented and in context, this is indeed a white male centered universe, where the spoils go to those most able to navigate its niceties and sometimes not so nice underbelly.  And while there are hints of the basis for the films in here you won’t find the actual plot or alas even Lady Gwendolyn.  But you will find the beginnings of a crafty sort of enigma who persisted as a film specimen on through the Sixties.  He continues to show his suave self and dazzle us from time to time today.

This post is a part of the 2017 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge Blogathon hosted by the lovely Raquel Stecher.  She can be found reading and blogging at Out of the Past.  Check her blog for periodic updates from other blogging readers that will run from June 1 – September 15th.  The goal is to read six classic film related books; we’ll see if I make it through six.  I hope to discover some good books in the meantime. Thanks Raquel for hosting 🙂

Summer Reading Challenge 2017

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Notes and Extras

  • This book is now in the public domain and is available for Kindle due to a community of volunteers.  I would like to thank those patient people for allowing me to snuggle up with this one.
  • It was first published in 1899.
  • For my review of Raffles (1930) the movie,  please see here. It’s one I would highly recommend due to its charm.  I think it’s a pretty successful early talking film.

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