Roman Holiday: The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome

 

Drawing from the biographies of some of Hollywood’s most glamorous women of the screen, author Caroline Young has done a fascinating thing:  she has woven a history of cinematic Rome at its pinnacle, infusing it with a heavy dose of sultry Mediterranean sun-drenched days and nights steeped in wine, torrid passions, and an ever-present paparazzi.

Following the end of World War II, a new lust for life rose from horror and deprivation, sparking a refreshing cinematic renaissance, centered in Rome. The stars and their entanglements were larger than life and so were the movies. Roman Holiday: The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome, beautifully depicts this era, covering the fifties, sixties and into the early seventies, as the glamour aged into a seedy bohemian spirit.

 

The fledgling Roman cinema, centered upon Cinecitta, began by tentatively exploring the sense of desperation that typified the war years.  As recovery took hold this shifted to a technicolor joyousness, celebrating the resilience of the human spirit in its many cinematic forms but never leaving behind an inherent romanticism that captured the imagination of a weary world.  Indeed, this seemed to be the balm for its soul, providing not only film treasures but rich soil for fans never-ending taste for the salacious.  Actors, famous and infamous, were fiercely pursued by photographers, the latter typified by their aggressive tactics.  Dubbed paparazzi, these snapshot artists, hungry from years of hardship, were an unrelenting presence as they sought their share of the money that flowed so freely from Hollywood profits prohibited from traveling overseas.  If the money couldn’t come to America, then its stars and their entourages would go to Rome.

The spirit of these heady times is captured in some of the most memorable films of the era: Quo Vadis, Three Coins in the Fountain, The Barefoot Contessa, La Dolce Vita, Cleopatra, and of course Roman Holiday, from which this book takes its title.  Arranged in a loosely chronological fashion, each chapter focuses on a particular leading lady (with Richard Burton being the sole exception), sometimes returning as each actor’s story resumes several years later.  For those who have previously perused the biographies of Audrey, Ava, Elizabeth, Ingrid and more, some of this may be a review but the clever way that Young weaves together ambiance, friends and lovers, and film-making history makes this a fun and snappy read.

 

There are times when it all seems to come together:  the zeitgeist, the talent and the easy money. Roman Holiday captures it all with detailed descriptions of the places, streets, restaurants and movie sets.  If you’ve ever wished that you were there, amidst a steamy Roman adventure when the city was known as “Hollywood on the Tiber”, you’ll find the next best thing in Young’s juicy, richly interwoven accounts of the private and professional affairs of some of Hollywood and Europe’s most luminous stars.

Recommended.

Peck and Hepburn unscripted

Thank you to Trafalgar Square Publishing, the author and NetGalley for providing me with an eReader copy of this book.  Roman Holiday: The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome by Caroline Young (The History Press 2018) is available in Hardcover and eBook from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or your favorite bookseller.

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THE GIRL: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Inch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist

 

That Marilyn Moroe was a dazzling presence, that she achieved legendary status is without question.  That she is a feminist icon however is a question that has rarely been pursued.  The reasons for this are debatable but author Michelle Morgan has undertaken this very issue in THE GIRL:  Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist.

Marilyn Monroe Prince and the Showgirl
Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl, A Marilyn Monroe Production

Credit must be given for a valiant attempt.  Certainly there are indicators of an independent, indomitable spirit. During the period in question, generally the summer of 1954 to the summer of 1956, although Morgan makes forays into years both preceding and following, Monroe loosens the grip of her studio contract, starts her own production company and immerses herself in the influential Actors Studio.  She makes herself a bit of a New Yorker, eschews the role of ’50’s housewife by divorcing Joe DiMaggio and develops friendships and acquaintances among the artistic and literary, ultimately marrying playwright Arthur Miller. But sadly, as is the case when delving into Monroe’s life, her emotional instability, at times debilitating insecurity and wavering identity are unavoidable aspects of the actor.  Morgan tries to shift focus to her accomplishments, intellectual pursuits and artistic interests, those she impressed and those who attempted to unsuccessfully oppress, even providing expository cultural context, yet the book suffers by the nature of its subject.  Monroe’s life rarely followed a straight line and as she winds along her path of halting self-discovery, frustratingly unfocused during the few years she was free (and alive!) to truly pursue her luminous talent, the book follows in a similar meandering fashion.  The actor, so innately gifted, does as much to hurt as help her career during this two year period; the book ultimately culminates in the filming of The Misfits and the end of her crumbling marriage to Miller. Yet Morgan has provided exhaustive detail for this brief two year period leaving this mini-biography well-positioned to be fascinating to fans of Monroe.

Due to the focus upon Monroe as potential feminist icon and smart and savvy professional, short shrift is naturally given to rich back stories, particularly on set, that are familiar to many fans of this most charismatic of stars.  In that way too the book frustrates as it struggles to makes its points.  Along the way we do learn of the many ways in which Monroe attempted to advance herself, culturally and artistically, yet at the end of it all, I was only wishing she’d left us with more movies and a little bit more of her time.

Warmly recommended for die-hard Marilyn Monroe fans.

Marilyn Monroe by George S. Zimbel
Marilyn Monroe, during filming of The Seven Year Itch.

Thank you to Running Press for providing me with an Advance Reader copy of this book.  THE GIRL: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist by Michelle Morgan (Running Press 2018) will be available  for purchase May 8th in Hardcover, eBook and Audio CD from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or your favorite bookseller.  It is currently available for pre-order.

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Turner Classic Movies: Must See Movie Musicals: 50 Show-Stopping Movies We Can’t Forget

42nd Street - Ruby Keeler
Ruby Keeler, 42nd Street (1933)

While you might be tempted to lightly peruse and selectively reference Turner Classic Movies: Must See Musicals: 50 Show-Stopping Movies We Can’t Forget, don’t.  If you don’t read this one cover to cover, you’ll miss out on the lovely pleasure of discovering the evolution of the movie musical and all that the genre has meant to cinema and classic movie fans everywhere.  Mirroring their times and technology, musicals are unique in their ability to transport, uplift and move.  They are so frequently the panacea for their moment.

Must-See Musicals

Starting with The Broadway Melody (1929) and moving on through to La La Land (2016), author Richard Barrios has put forth a love letter, highlighting some of the most iconic musical moments in movies.  Might your favorite film be missed?  Perhaps.  But each selection and their accompanying chapters not only details why that film has its place in history but also gives hints for several others who share its space. You’ll likely find your personal preference somewhere in these pages.

 

 

 

The book opens with a foreword by Michael Feinstein and a heart-stopping full-page shimmering black and white image of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; it only gets better from there.  A dive into the chapters finds a nice structure.  Each carefully selected musical is given an overview that includes its special place, appeal and most iconic moments as well as a few luscious behind the scenes tidbits.  Barrios’ moves on to ‘What’s More’, generally more fun background and ‘Musically Speaking’, a bit about the songs and numbers themselves.   A movie poster, cast and credits, and four or more photos, some from in-production, completes each section.

 

 

Classic movies can be like comfort food and a musical perhaps more than any other genre really hits that sweet spot.  While many are timeless confections, others move in the realm of resonant relatability. From the soaring strains of Streisand belting a heart-breaking ‘My Man’, the defiant, gritty synchronicity of the Jets in West Side Story, a luminous Judy Garland’s aching rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, and the bright, technicolor joyousness of An American in Paris, musicals stir a place inside rarely touched by other films. It’s no wonder we welcome them into our homes time and time again. And you’ll do the same with this guide.  In handy paperback, it’s a quick way to not only catch up on some easy information but also a neat way to relive a few memorable movie moments.

While I’m a big fan of movie musicals I confess to having given a few a cursory or partial viewing.  Some perhaps seemed dated, others a little too frothy. I found that even for those films I may not prefer or have yet to discover, I have now been given enough background information to appreciate their place in cinema history and what might make a particular picture shine for a particular fan.  Many of these films have continued to move audiences’ hearts and spirits for decades and there’s always a good reason why.  Barrios finds that reason.

 

 

Printed in luscious heavy stock, the book is worth the price of admission for the photos alone; many are full page. I found myself stopping just to appreciate their glamour and artistry.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved this book.  I was moved to tears both by the joyful eloquence of its author and by a genre that sometimes gets overlooked in our ‘oh so serious’ times; I’ve added many new films to my ever-growing list of ‘Must See’.

This book is sooo highly recommended. Not only would it make a perfect holiday gift but it’s also just the escape from the madness that we all need right now. Here’s to 2018!!!

La La Land - Gosling and Stone
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, “Planetarium,” La La Land (2016)

Thank you to Running Press/Turner Classic Movies for providing me with an advance review copy of this lovely book.  Turner Classic Movies: Must-See Musicals: 50 Show-Stopping Movies We Can’t Forget (Running Press 2017) is available in sturdy paperback or eBook from SHOPTCM.com and Amazon.com.

West Side Story - Wood and Beymer

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Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

Carole Lombard 1

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were the darlings of Hollywood when the US entered WWII as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.  Lombard, being patriotic and decisive, determined that she and Clark should involve themselves in the war effort.  While her famous husband served as president of the Hollywood Victory Committee, Lombard was engaged to sell bonds in the heartland. On January 12, 1942, she set off for her home state of Indiana and as a true star and rousing presence, she sold two million dollars worth of bonds. Flush with success and anxious to get home to her handsome, and frequently roving husband, she deviated from plan and instead of taking the train insisted upon flying despite the misgivings of traveling companions, mother Elizabeth Peters, and MGM press agent Otto Winkler, a personal friend of Gable’s who had been assigned to accompany her. The fierce persistence and determination that had built her career and led to marriage to two of Hollywood’s most eligible and bankable leading men, ultimately contributed to her death when the plane crashed into the side of Mt. Potosi following take-off in Las Vegas on the last leg of their trip home.  The crash led to national headlines and a dangerous search for survivors, then bodies.  The story of this tragedy, the events leading up to it and its horrific aftermath are related in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.

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Author Robert Matzen is an engaging writer and Fireball has an interesting structure. Two threads alternate chapters until they merge midway creating one story that brings significant players to a set point in time, that of the crash itself. Changing tone as it moves between the Hollywood hills and the sturdy landscape of pilots, military servicemen, airline personnel, and the everyday folks with whom they intersect, these two worlds each have their own voice.  This latter thread, grounded in All-American wholesomeness, is by far the strongest of the two in this examination of the crash that took the life of not only Lombard but the other twenty-one people aboard the plane.

Matzen brings experience as a Hollywood historian and author, NASA communications specialist, and documentary filmmaker to this effort; he is uniquely qualified for such an enterprise.  The book starts strong as he relates his account of scaling the mountain and viewing the scattered remnants of the crash that still remain on Mt. Potosi. He accessed TWA’s confidential files, examined the results of two federal investigations and conducted numerous interviews with those personally connected to these ill-fated passengers. His own prior knowledge lends authenticity to aspects of this story, particularly those involving the flight, aeronautics, and the relevant history of air travel.

When residing in the Hollywood realm, Matzen indulges in a bit of salaciousness with these swiftly moving chapters taking on a tabloid tone. At times dated and sexist language is used to presumably set the story within its era.  This is unfortunate as it is unnecessary. The story of Gable and Lombard, her career and their love affair is dynamic and arresting in and of itself; her dramatic sudden death makes it even more so.  There’s also some critical inferences around Hollywood stars.  It is intimidated that Lombard’s first husband William Powell’s self-absorption and emotional withdrawal blinded him to fiancé Jean Harlow’s sinking physical health.  Similarly, it is related that Gable and Lombard resented having to attend the subsequent funeral for MGM’s platinum-coifed ‘baby’, as Harlow was then known, being forced to attend by studio brass. These types of characterizations may not play well with many fans of  the silver screen’s most beloved stars.

One gets the sense too that Matzen doesn’t care much for Gable.  He refers to him repeatedly as the king, as Clark Gable was once named the King of Hollywood in coast-to-coast polling, a moniker that almost seems to take on a mocking tone as the actor goes through the most challenging and heartrending period of his life.  The assessment that he is a self-absorbed narcissist, “doing a lot of taking and little giving”, much like Powell, doesn’t seem to fit with other accounts but certainly a star of that magnitude might have that aspect to his character.  However, it is seems strikingly odd to drive that point home in a chronicle of his greatest heartbreak.  Given that Lombard was at the height of her success, having found  her comedic timing and a marriage to MGM’s top draw, the nation mourned her loss for its own sake but also for Gable’s; many of his contemporaries have related that he was never the same after the tragedy.  He lost a woman he appreciated infinitely after her death, as is human nature, and the nation lost not only a glamorous comedienne but a potential bond-raising powerhouse for the war effort and a patriotic American. Her death was tragic in many respects and underscored the losses already occurring in families across an anxious country.

Fireball consists of much that was already known but succeeds in weaving it into a compelling story.  People on the ground and in the air, those who lost their lives and those who remained behind are each in turn spotlighted.  There’s a richness to this approach.  As readers we are taken back to January 1942, a place, a time, a tragedy.  But there is also a drawback and it is significant: the author has created a novelization of actual events.  While many details, exhaustively researched, are absolutely fact or surely true, other aspects are a bit speculative. Missing information is filled in to facilitate narrative flow. Thoughts of those who die in the crash are shared, despite the fact that they never had an opportunity to relate these inner musings. Gable’s own private thoughts are revealed, personal recollections only he could have known.  As such it is clear there is some speculation involved, informed and educated surely, but nevertheless speculation. This aspect at times made me cautious and as the book progressed  I read with an increasingly skeptical eye. While it is clear that the author has done extensive admirable research, I was uncomfortable with his putting thoughts into the minds of actual people; this is not a historical novel yet frequently reads like one.  While much of this revealing of inner life and shared moments comes from interviews that were published at the time, it remains difficult to know what is based on research as opposed to what might be based  upon “extensive study of the subject”, as the author characterizes his approach to Gable.  Personally, I would’ve preferred an entirely fact-based accounting.

Initially there is some suggestion that this in-depth examination will reveal the true cause for the crash; this is not the case.  However this does not detract from the book as the analysis that examines multiple potential causes is extensive; there were many and as is frequently true, sometimes it’s a congruence of unfortunate circumstances and events that contribute to tragedy.

Despite these misgivings,  I  found Fireball a compelling read, yet was relieved when I finished this one. Those relatively new to the story of Gable and Lombard will find a mini-bio of Carole and a very in-depth look at the crash and its surrounding events.  While I knew a fair amount going in, there was still enough to keep my interest, mostly surrounding the other passengers, personnel and the aftermath at the scene.  Much of that was riveting (at times grisly – be forewarned), and worthwhile.  The book certainly highlights the loss to the screen, her loved ones and the country that occurred with the death of Carole Lombard, the first Hollywood casualty of WWII.

Note: This review is for the Expanded 2017 Edition, published by Goodknight Books

This post is the sixth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews by fellow bloggers,  please check with her throughout the summer!! I’ve really enjoyed participating and am definitely convinced that these book reviews can be a lot of fun.  Here’s to cool Autumn nights curled up with a good book 🙂

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Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes

Blondell 1

Rose Joan Blondell learned many things growing up as a child of vaudeville.  She learned to make friends easily, to fit in, and to adapt to ever changing surroundings and circumstances. She learned how to tend to a crew, learn her lines and enhance the performances of others. She learned to smile on cue and to place the act before everything else.  Most importantly she learned discipline, hard work and perseverance.  The one thing she wasn’t taught was how to value herself, her gifts, and her own feelings.  And that is a lesson lost that cost her much personal happiness.

joan-blondell-a-life-between-takes-book

Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes gives us a chronological accounting of the actor’s life.  Beautifully researched, it benefits tremendously from the full cooperation of her surviving relatives, including her children.  It was her son who suggested that such a book be considered.  He approached author Matthew Kennedy as the two were working on another project.  It is a gift that he did so.

As expected the most compelling section is the first third when Blondell is working frantically and furiously at Warner Brothers.  Her swift climb towards being an invaluable player in the studio’s talented stable make for heady reading.  She arrives in Hollywood almost simultaneously with the advent of talking pictures with a young Jimmy Cagney, both fresh off a Broadway play that lands on the screen with the racy title of Sinner’s Holiday.  While compelling in their debuts, Cagney’s magnetism is undeniable.  The studio recognizes their hot property for what he is and quickly places him in starring vehicles with compensation to match.  Cagney achieves this with some savvy and negotiation.  Blondell’s compensation doesn’t achieve his, nor is she given those starring roles; her negotiation skill and representation is weaker and she is frequently used to bolster others’ work or enliven sagging pictures. Nevertheless, her presence in tight, rapid-fire pre-Code films is almost unmatched.  It is only those women that truly reached the upper tier, such as Barbara Stanwyck, a friend of Blondell’s, that have greater presence.  Some of the most memorable films of the era such as Night Nurse, Three on a Match, Blonde Crazy and the Busby Berkley musicals Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933 would be unrecognizable without Blondell’s presence.  The latter’s finale number, Remember My Forgotten Man, with Blondell as its centerpiece, is arguably the most significant musical sequence of the Great Depression.  The actress herself was taken aback by the critical and public response to its social significance.  She was working so fast its impact had eluded her.

In a life filled with contradictions, Blondell frequently referred to herself as a workhorse, many times denigrating her own accomplishments while struggling for the recognition and roles she rightfully deserved.  Toddling onto the stage at fourteen months, she entered vaudeville as a regular in her parent’s act at the age of three.  The Blondell’s travelled the globe, rarely stopping to establish roots, a pattern Blondell found difficult to break. She longed for a house and home yet this was sometimes as elusive as the roles she sought.  When Blondell found personal stability, she used this security to bolster her career, seeking and taking risks that then undermined her domestic happiness. This strategy of zig-zagging from coast to coast, seeking substantial roles, was ill-tolerated by the men in her life who married a people-pleasing petite blonde and somehow ended up with a real woman with needs.  Husbands George Barnes, Dick Powell and Mike Todd ranged from distant and controlling to financially irresponsible and emotionally and physically abusive.  Blondell only achieved marital bliss intermittently and fleetingly.  Professional success similarly had its rich yet transient moments.  Her finances followed her marriages and her performances, rising and falling with their shifting fates.

Blondell A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.jpg
As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Peggy Ann Garner

Blondell was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Veil, however one of her most memorable performances of her post-Warner years was that of Aunt Sissy in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the best-selling novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  It was her favorite role. Yet some of her best moments were left on the cutting room floor due to their adult nature and the restrictions of the Production Code, an editorial necessity she found upsetting.  If she is remembered by some as the matronly former star who cameos in Grease it may be because she is only one of a handful of women whose career lasted her entire adult life; she worked almost continually. And while she tended to scoff and discount her own artistic needs, her drive to pursue roles appears to have been motivated by more than money.  Blondell trusted her talents to provide for her but ached for more; she craved fulfillment on a personal and professional level.  She ultimately gave up dating but continued to work, even while seriously ill, until the age of 73, when she succumbed to leukemia.

Blondell and Dick Powell
Joan Blondell with husband Dick Powell

This well-researched biography covers all phases of this actor’s busy and tumultuous life, almost so much so that the larger arcs are elusive.  Her marriage to Dick Powell lasts eight years but the ups and downs and moves are so frequent, and the intermingling of professional and personal so complex, that the longevity is almost lost.  This is the most significant intimate relationship in Blondell’s life.  Powell is the father of her two children, with her eldest being adopted by him in the early happy years.  Yet this aspect of the book is a minor quibble and perhaps unavoidable given its sweep. It is enriched by numerous interviews, archival research, family memories and haunting recollections.

Blondell’s story spans much of the twentieth century and carries within it the tremendously complex changes occurring in the entertainment industry. Blondell adapts and sashays these changes with skill and sacrifice, working in not only vaudeville and movies, but theater, radio, summer stock and television. Consequently, she is sometimes missing from home for months at a time yet is a devoted mother; many times her children travel with her. More often, her struggles and heartaches, both professional and personal, are due to male attitudes than her own choices; as a woman I ached for her.  When she died I cried.  Through it all she retained the generosity of spirit that made her an audience favorite.

I knew Joan Blondell was something special when I was a small child.  Sitting on the floor staring up at the television screen, watching Here Come the Brides, I took notice when she was introduced in the opening credits with her own solo title card, “and Joan Blondell as Lottie”.  She was charming and warm, still beautiful but comfortingly maternal.  She was the proverbial heart of gold in that series but she was more.  She radiated something unmistakable, the charisma of a movie star, a Hollywood survivor.  When Blondell appeared, she owned the screen.  I tuned in week after week not just for teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman but for her.  Her warmth was something I sorely needed in my life and I adored her for it.  Imbued with the same spirit, this rendering of Blondell’s life is highly recommended.

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This post is the fifth 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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