Thursday, February 4, 2016

Helen Twelvetrees - A New Biography by Cliff Aliperti


HelenTwelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films by Cliff Aliperti, is a new book on the career of an actress whose reputation after death slipped into a puzzling state of a punch line.  She deserves better, and Mr. Aliperti has championed the cause of Miss Twelvetrees’ career—remembered, and for the right reasons.

This post is part 2 of 12 of my monthly series this year on the current state of the classic film fan.  (Part 1, "A Classic Film Manifesto" is here.)  With self-publishing and with small publishers like Bear Manor Books and others, there seems to be a new trend in writing film star biographies: one, exploring the lives and careers of lesser-known actors rather than the mega-stars; and two, writing about them in a scholarly and less sensationalist manner than what is usually published by large commercial publishing houses.  We’ll discuss that issue more in later posts, but Cliff’s book is a prime example of a classic film fan taking the reins to produce a scholarly study of a neglected figure from the Golden Age of classic films in a way that I feel is refreshing, infinitely helpful to fans and students of old movies.  It fills a void left by large commercial publishing companies that seem more interested in books of a topical or salacious or controversial nature.

In an interview for this post, Cliff remarks:

I like it—I’d like to be part of it. Some of the major Golden Age stars could still use a modern biography because previous efforts have been in that sensationalist manner you mentioned, but many of them have been done to death. Maybe I’m selling myself short, but I’ve always operated under the assumption that no one really needs me to write about Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, or stars of their ilk, the legends. That said, I’ve covered aspects of these stars—my post about Gable and the undershirt still draws traffic—and I do cover some of their movies, though I’m more attracted by the obscurities. I’ve even considered doing a book about Gable’s movies from the thirties, but cutting it off just before GWTW. Still, there was no Helen Twelvetrees biography, and it took quite an effort to piece together enough information to create one. Even then, only half of the book is straight biography; the other half takes a look at each of her 32 films, the wide majority of which nobody has bothered with either. Does everybody deserve a book? Well, no, there’s a line to be drawn, but the ease and cost of getting something to market today means that a much wider net can be cast.


To be sure, there were elements in Helen Twelvetrees’ life that could be viewed as sensational and could fit the bill for someone wanting to treat the subject salaciously, but Cliff demonstrates laudable restraint and respect for Helen.  He examines both her life and career with an intellectual curiosity and a sensitivity that this actress needs to be really understood.

Twelvetrees, that unusual moniker, was her first husband’s surname, which she kept after their divorce. Jurgens was her own surname. Cliff explains in his book:

 To revert to Helen Jurgens could only cause confusion. Plus the Twelvetrees name has a strong resonance that makes it stick once you hear it. It’s memorable and all at once a bit exotic while still sounding familiar. Even today, people who aren’t classic film fans often recognize the name. They just have no idea who it belonged to.

I had never thought about that before, but I immediately recalled what I think was my introduction to her: a gag line by announcer Gary Owens on the old Laugh-In TV show when I was a child.  I didn’t know who she was, but I assumed (and I can’t tell you why) that she was an old movie star.  I must have been in first grade at the time, but I knew enough to surmise this.  I don’t know how many times he made the reference in a joke, but it evidently made a strong impression on me.  Years later as an adult, I came across a novelty LP of Laugh-In audio episode clips, and wouldn’t you know, a Helen Twelvetrees remark was on it.

Cast regular Joanne Worley sang a brief takeoff on “Havah Nagilah,” and Gary Owens chimed in from the “radio studio” set:  “That, of course, was the delightful Helen Twelvetrees, and turning another musical page in our album of memories, here is the delightful Lamont Cranston.”

It only took me a few more years, probably by the age of ten or twelve, to discover who Lamont Cranston was.

The biography is thoughtful, detailed, and Cliff shows here, as he does regularly in his blog, Immoral Ephemera, his familiarity with lesser-known stars, character actors, and the studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  He utilizes many reviews and newspaper articles of the day to form the foundation of his perspective on Helen Twelvetrees’ career. In the book, Cliff describes Helen’s film persona:

It didn’t matter what studio Helen was working for, or who was her boss, during her peak years she was almost exclusively cast in films calling for her heart to be broken. But there’s always a touch of Brooklyn tinging her voice that makes her seem not quite as fragile as first suspected…The little helpless girl usually managed to roar loudly before her films ended, finding peace, redemption, or sometimes just settling on the right man.

Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue is divided into two parts: a biography of her life and career, and second, a synopses of her thirty-two films, some of which are “lost” or otherwise not available for viewing.

Helen was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1929, in the impressive company of Jean Arthur and Loretta Young, among others. The peak of her film career was Millie (1931), which Cliff describes:

Millie provides Helen Twelvetrees with a showcase the likes of which she never enjoyed before or since. Variety drew attention to her surprising versatility stating, “she takes in all angles of a part that calls for a dozen different moods and situations during the 15 years or so this picture passes through.” Beyond Madame X and all the mother-love, despite the decorum demanded, even by a looser set of censors, Millie somehow emerges as the biography of a woman’s sex life, from maidenhood through numerous disappointing partners, who never manage to tame her. Millie isn’t unique, but it isn’t easy, and Helen handled every bit of nuance required through Millie’s turbulent years.


Helen’s real-life party-girl image when first arriving in Hollywood, her being bounced from the Fox studio to Pathe, then on to RKO, where a few prime roles were lost to other actresses, such as the young Katharine Hepburn and Constance Bennett reveals a not untypical story of poor timing or bad luck. The inevitable slide to obscurity began with a supporting role to ZaSu Pitts, who had once played her maid in an earlier film. 

Helen moved on to vaudeville and summer stock.  Her only Broadway appearance in 1941 was a flop, but she went back to touring in stock, toured with the USO during the war, and interestingly, touched something in her own soul, certainly touched her audience, with a stint as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Her rendering of the fey character was considered deeply moving.

Helen Twelvetrees died in 1958 at fifty years old of suicide, having endured more disappointment than success in her career, several marriages, and alcoholism.

Then came, oddly, the jokes.  Cliff writes:

Before the 1950s were out, columnist Earl Wilson asked Groucho Marx who would play him if his recently published biography, Groucho and Me, were ever adapted to film: “Duke Wayne, of course—or Helen Twelvetrees,” Groucho quipped. Maybe he hadn’t heard, Helen was dead. Her name continued as a punch line, often associated with Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and even generic Fidos and Rovers, who no doubt sought relief in pastures dotted by a dozen trees. Nobody talked about her films.

Cliff does a great job disseminating the trail of this curiosity, and his empathy for Helen Twelvetrees is very gratifyingly apparent.

But now, a new interest in Helen seems to be growing for this lovely actress.   This book is a welcome addition to that second look at the unknown actress with the well-known name. 

One of my favorite passages:

The individual and her work are often positioned in the most fascinating time and place. She was in Brooklyn just ahead of Ebbets Field, and around New York City while the twenties roared. She came to Hollywood with sound, and peaked while the studios shuffled in response to the Great Depression. She made her first television appearance before many even owned a set to watch, and chipped in the World War II effort through benefit appearances and USO performances. Whether it was theater, vaudeville, radio, or TV, she kept busy long after everybody thought she was done. She conquered Hollywood before it slapped back, and still had the drive to reach Broadway more than a decade after she had abandoned the theater for movie fame…

I’d like to thank Cliff especially for participating in an interview with me for this post.  Here is more of our discussion:

JTL:  I was surprised at the rediscovery of Helen Twelvetrees in the plays, scripts that have been written in recent years.  Were you surprised by that?  What do you make of that?

CA:  It’s a strange rediscovery in that, with exceptions, it lacks substance insofar as telling us about Helen Twelvetrees. She’s usually mentioned not so much for who she was or what she did, but as something distant or forgotten except for the pretty label. The Twelvetrees name has an exotic resonance that naturally attracts people to her once it gets into their ear. She married the name, a blessing and a curse, but no doubt far more effective than Helen Jurgens, the name she was born with, when it comes to being remembered in any light. The name worked its magic on me too, but was reinforced by what I saw on the screen, a distinctive beauty possessed with unexpected levels of talent.

JTL:  I sense in this book, and always in your blog, a love of research, for the gumshoe detective work of a non-fiction writer, the puzzle that comes together only a bit at a time.  Can you describe your research for this book, the trails that you had to follow, the challenges you encountered?

CA:  Research included far more genealogy than I anticipated, a lot of old newspapers and magazines, including several paid sources: my credit cards are nowhere near as fond of Helen as I still am! Piles and piles of books, which were largely disappointing for either a complete lack of or totally superficial information. That’s part of what kept me digging. She began to feel like a taboo subject. Sometimes it felt like she was deliberately being scrubbed from film history. I mean, I know she’s not considered a major star, but she was a star. And a top shelf one for a few years that happen to coincide with my favorite film era.

The biggest challenges wound up split between dead ends and, believe it or not, the obvious. Figuring out when her mother died drove me crazy and the information was under my nose the entire time. My mistake came in brushing off one record, the key one it turned out, that placed her in a city I hadn’t bumped into before and had her living into her late nineties. I found it too early, and so I ignored the obvious. I eventually had a “Eureka” moment after I (finally!) decided to look into Helen’s brother. That’s when that unfamiliar city rang a bell and I shot back to Helen’s mother and tied it all together. All of that for a date I mention once towards the end of the biographical portion of the book—but I needed that date!

One bit of new information I never could completely resolve was discovery of a fourth husband (Helen’s third). I never could find a marriage record, and that bugs me. What I did find was the pair living together on the 1940 census with Helen using this man’s last name and, one of my favorite items, a letter Helen wrote to columnist Dorothy Kilgallen that Kilgallen published in her column in full. In the letter, which is a lot of fun because it drips with sarcasm, Helen outright says that she’s married—not that she was ever hiding the fact. The other gossip columnists dropped several references to her and this uncharted husband, but later histories missed it, and so Helen’s established biographies only list her other three husbands.

JTL:  What factors went into your decision to choose Helen as a subject for a book?

CA:  It began on my site. I had posted a few reviews of her movies on the site and included just a brief bit of biography in one of those. Then along came CMBA’s Forgotten Stars blogathon. I’d been wanting to expand upon the short bio in my Panama Flo review since I’d first posted it early in 2013. So for the Forgotten Stars blogathon I had planned slightly longer, but by no means exhaustive, biographical post, but, again, those movies sucked me in. I wound up covering 15 or so of her films in capsule review before I even got to her biography in a second post. The research for each of those posts got me started and kept me going: I finally posted what I had on the site, but there were too many open ends for me to stop. Plus, Helen had gotten under my skin: I liked her, and I wanted to know more.

JTL:  What did you most enjoy writing about or gave you the most satisfaction in discovering?

CA:  This goes for almost anybody I write about, but I really love piecing together as much as I can about a star before they became big. In the case of Helen Twelvetrees, even her youth provided me with some fun because she grew up in Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle has a great online archive. It’s not as though little Helen Jurgens was mentioned in there all that much, but the paper allowed me to get a grasp on life in Brooklyn at a very different time.

This is contradictory to how I began my answer, but I also enjoyed the few later published interviews I found with her. In general such later newspaper pieces are much more honest than the fan magazine fluff from when someone was at their peak. You can usually hear the difference in their voices when comparing such pieces and in Helen’s case I got a big kick out of how she presented herself after Hollywood. I found a few goodies featuring Helen from the 1940s and ‘50s that were a big help in piecing together who she was-or at least how I perceived her-and what she was up to. It was satisfying to discover her career didn’t just end after Hollywood.

Finally, for personal reasons, I got a big kick out an obituary (boy, does that sound morbid!) that I found for her father. Helen was already gone, but her parents eventually moved one town away from where I live, something I had no idea about until I was researching for the book. Helen’s father died in the local hospital, the same hospital where I was born, putting an unexpected local twist on what I was doing.

JTL:  What is the relationship between your collectibles business and your classic film writing?  Does it provide you with inspiration, or research materials?  Where, for you, does the merchandise end and the historical artifact begin?

CA:  Mostly illustrative at this point. Some items that pass through here are used in posts on my site. I like to think they add a little extra flavor. There was a time when I was more knowledgeable about the collectibles than the old movies though and some of my earliest blog postings developed simply because I wanted to know more behind the faces pictured on old trading cards and photos. I wouldn’t have predicted it, but at this point, despite how I’ve tried, the collectibles and the writing are practically two independent activities.

JTL:  What would you like to add or express here about your book, or about Helen?

CA:  I know Helen Twelvetrees is considered an obscure topic, so for anyone undecided, but tempted, by the book I recommend watching Millie.

Millie is Helen’s most versatile performance, made during her absolute peak, and has lots of other familiar faces in it to distract you along the way (Just don’t let Joan Blondell distract you too much!). Best of all, it’s easy to find. Millie is public domain, so you can view it online free of charge in several places (Youtube, Internet Archive) and it’s also one of the better DVDs I’ve seen in terms of quality from Alpha Video, who price it around six or seven dollars. I stress Millie because most of Helen’s movies are hard to find and you’re probably not going to think too much of her if you start with The Painted Desert ! (A tempting lure because of co-star Clark Gable. Don’t do it.) After Millie, make your way to State’s Attorney, where she turns in a fine leading lady performance opposite John Barrymore. It gets trickier from there, but the web will help you out and my book will point you to the titles worth searching for.

At this point two of my favorite Helen Twelvetrees movies, both very hard to find, are One Hour Late and Unmarried: I like One Hour Late because Helen shows a flare for comedy, a rarity for her in Hollywood, who preferred to give her something to cry about, but what she spent most of her time performing on stage in the 1940s and so presumably what she enjoyed most. Unmarried is her last film, and that’s a shame because she gives one of her best performances in it. It really leaves you wondering what she could have done if her movie career had continued.

 ****

Cliff Aliperti’s excellent book, Helen Twelvetrees: Perfect Ingenue is available here in eBook and print through Amazon.

You can watch Millie here on YouTube.  

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Next month, part 3 of 12 of this year-long series on the current state of the classic film fan will feature a visit with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.  Kay’s image consulting business and expertise in fashion dovetail with her blog and her appreciation of classic films.  She also introduces classic films at the Dryden Theater of Rochester, New York—making her presentations dressed meticulously in outfits suggestive of the film.  I’m looking forward to Kay’s input on how her love of classic films fits in with so many areas of her professional and private life, and her take on the current state of the classic film fan.  Join us Thursday, March 3rd for that post.

Next week, a special look ahead to Valentine's Day with the unique marriage of Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens.  See you  next Thursday.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948)

 
Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948) are two of the series of five “anthology” animated features produced by Walt Disney in the 1940s. Most of the animation crew of the Disney studio were away serving in the military, and a reduced staff were left juggling some orphan story ideas. These cartoon collections were like a casserole made of leftovers, but quite delightful.

I have a particular fondness for these Disney anthology features, which also include Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944),  and Fun and Fancy Free (1947), which we covered in this previous post.  Tied loosely by a general theme of music and folklore, the cartoons in each anthology are tune-filled, vibrant, and nostalgic.  There are also restful. 

That’s kind of a funny thing to say about a cartoon, but I find them soothing.  They are like half-remembered lullabies from childhood that still calm and entertain.

Make Mine Music and Melody Time are both popular music cousins to the more distinguished Fantasia (1940), which sought to evoke animated stream-of-conscious visions to classical music.  They also drift into the realm of folk tales.  Both feature popular singers of the day, which is especially enjoyable.

The roster for Make Mine Music includes a segment called “Blue Bayou” with, literally, a blue bayou featuring trees, mirrored images on the water, and a pair of white herons to a sleepy tune by the Ken Darby Chorus. 

Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, gives us “All the Cats Join In,” with striking minimalist animated style such as we would normally find at the innovative UPA studio of the era.  We follow teens going to the malt shop in a peppy jive that’s really cool.

The minimalist cartoon style is continued in “A Ballad in Blue” with Andy Russell singing “Without You.”  Moonlight on the water, moody, impressionistic, rain-washed.

Folk tales and “poetry corner,” as Bullwinkle and Rocky would say, with a rendition of the classic, “Casey at the Bat.”  It’s a more or less musical recitation by the larger-than-life Jerry Colonna.

Dinah Shore sings “Two Silhouettes” in a Fantasia-like scene, and Sterling Holloway narrates “Peter and the Wolf.”  The Goodman Quintet jams on “After You’ve Gone” in another Fantasia clone with images suggestive of Salvador Dali in the expression of sounds and the image of shifting sands.

The cute and unexpectedly poignant “Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” follow the romantic adventures of a man’s hat and a lady’s hat, courtesy of The Andrews Sisters.  If I can have my heart broken by a couple of cartoon hats that get separated because one of them gets bought, then I suppose it doesn’t take much to destroy me.

My favorite piece of Make Mine Music is the grand finale, the “Opera Pathetique” starring the resounding voice of Nelson Eddy, who portrays Willie the Whale, “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.”  Mr. Eddy narrates and sings the arias of the operatic hopeful whale.  I love the image of the giant whale standing on his tail in a Pagliacci costume on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  Most impressive is Nelson’s singing all three male voices in the Sextet segment of Lucia di Lammermoor.  There is a sad ending to this tale, but as Bugs Bunny says of grand opera, “What did you expect, a happy ending?”

The Pied Pipers, the Kings Men, popular choral groups of the day also lend a hand, with the Kings Men doing a raucous takeoff on “The Martins and the Coys” hillbilly feud.

There is a fad now about adult coloring books.  Most of the ones I’ve seen feature pages with evocative patterns of an almost psychedelic design.  Coloring them in is supposed to be relaxing for us stressed adults.  The fluid animated imaginings of these cartoons is likewise therapeutic.
 

Melody Time was released two years after Make Mine Music, and is quite similar in style. Freddy Martin and a frenetic cartoon bee take off in “Bumble Boogie” in the “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” The Andrews Sisters give us “Little Toot,” the tale of a junior tug boat who, despite his rascally ways, makes good in the clinch. 
Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians are the background to the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, as dawn cascades over an impressionistic landscape, and diamonds of mist dot airy cobwebs.

Ethel Smith and the Dinning Sisters give us “Blame it on the Samba”.  Making a guest appearance are two of the “three caballeros” – Donald Duck and Joe Carioca in a surreal and comical conga drum nightmare.  I love Donald Duck in anything.

The grand finale to this collection is Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers telling us the tale of Pecos Bill.  “Uncle Roy” spins the yarn for two young-uns played by Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten, who also appeared in Disney’s Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948).

I think my favorite segment of Melody Time, however, is the tale of Johnny Appleseed told and sung by the wonderful Dennis Day.  He narrates, including doing different voices.  Old Time Radio aficionados will know that Mr. Day was a terrific mimic, doing a variety of voices on The Jack Benny Show and other shows, and his crystal-clear tenor voice could soar, charm, and enchant.  The cartoon character of Johnny Appleseed even looks like him.

The whimsical storytelling of these animated anthologies is perhaps less prestigious than the Disney full-length features, those projects where Disney swung for the fences, but there are small and significant gems here.  They do not require as much an emotional investment from us, but they warm the heart.  Nostalgic, certainly, and for some of us they literally recall our childhoods.  I remember them not only from television, but from the projector in a grammar school assembly that was a Christmastime treat.  They were gentle in tone, and none of them featured a wicked witch, which was a relief.  Life is stressful enough sometimes, whether you’re seven or seventy-seven. 

Take a look at several snippets of these cartoons on YouTube.  It’ll take you back.  
 
 
Also: just a note to draw your attention to the "free preview" box in the upper right corner for my book on Ann Blyth.  Click on the cover and you get to read the first few chapters.  Enjoy.
 
COMING ATTRACTIONS:  Next week is part 2 in our year-long series on the state of the classic film fan.  I'll post my interview with blogger and author Cliff Aliperti of Immortal Ephemera and a review of his new book: Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue. 
 
 
 *****************************************
"Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood



Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 

by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.



The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.


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My new syndicated column SILVER SCREEN, GOLDEN YEARS, on classic film is up at Go60  or check with your local paper.



 
 

 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Let Them Eat Cake

Hollywood in the studio era has left us a few thousand bushels of images of its stars, both on and off the set.  One of the most recurring images, which always amuses me, is of stars eating cake.  Usually on set.  Often on somebody's birthday.  Above, Charles Boyer, Ann Blyth, and Jessica Tandy take a break from A Woman's Vengeance (1948 - discussed in this previous post) and in my book, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.  The occasion is Ann's nineteenth birthday.

 
Both Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell shared an April 1st birthday.  I wouldn't guess they always spent it together, but on this day it saved MGM from having to buy two cakes.

 
Clark Gable, Greer Garson, Joan Blondell, Lina Romay and director Victor Fleming on the set of Adventure (1946 -"Gable's Back and Garson's Got Him!" - you knew that was coming, didn't you?)  It appears to be Joan's birthday on this one, and she's actually got two cakes there, unlike the unfortunate Debbie and Jane, who had to share one.
Joan Crawford wields a sense of humor and an ax on a cake wishing her luck on her latest film Strait-Jacket (1964).  Back in the day, they had cake to celebrate the start of filming, the end of filming, and probably the middle of filming.   
 

Katharine Hepburn, as skinny as she was, clearly made cake a staple of her diet. Here she is riveted on director Vincente Minnelli's birthday cake, wishing he would hurry up and cut it. Robert Taylor lines up for his piece.  This is the set of Undercurrent (1946).  Something about birthday cake sort of unravels the mystique of Film Noir, doesn't it?
Myrna Loy with an enormous cake.  Beats the heck out of me what the occasion was, but it's clear all these people ever did was eat cake.  They did not work very much at all.  They just showed up to the studio every day for cake.

"I'm ready for my close-up"? -- No-o-o.  It was, "I want the piece with the flower on it."

 
Barbara Stanwyck, Eric Blore, Herbert Marshall, probably on the set of Breakfast for Two (1937).  Another hard day at the salt mine.  Pass the dessert plates.
 
"Quiet on the set!" they'd yell, "We're trying to eat our cake!"

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cover reveal - Whitewash in the Berkshires

This is to preview the cover and announce my latest book, the fourth novel in my Double V Mysteries series:  Whitewash in the Berkshires.  The cover art was done by your friend and mine, Casey Koester, who also writes the blog: Noir Girl - Adventures of a '40s Girl in a Modern World.

Casey has done the first three covers in this series for me in a unique style that is whimsical, playful, and I think somewhat haunting.  I'm a great admirer of her work.  Here's the cover:




Elmer and Juliet's fourth adventure in this cozy mystery series takes place in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Berkshires of western Massachusetts in the bleak midwinter of 1951.  An incident from Juliet's past puts her on a blacklist.  A priceless work of art brings her to a secret bunker.  A kidnapping and a threat to her life result in a desperate chase.  How does all this fit in with the unidentified corpse?  Elmer has no idea, but he's right behind her.  The partnership of the wealthy heiress and the ex-con continues in this fourth book in the Double V Mysteries series.

Whitewash in the Berkshires will be published in February.  I'll keep you posted.

Back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Classic Film Manifesto




There is a moment in the movie Watch on the Rhine where the lead character, Paul Lukas, explains to his baffled American in-laws in the safety of their American home why he became an underground fighter against fascism in Europe in the years leading up to World War II. He states, “I can no longer just look on.  My time has come to do more.  And I say with the great Luther, I must make my stand.  I can do nothing else.  God help me, Amen.”

Following his example and from the safety of my own American home I would like to contribute my own manifesto as a guide to living in these turbulent times. This post is going to be an editorial—really something of a rant—and not a review of a classic film, though classic film is at the heart of this piece.

Like Mr. Lukas’ character who found he must address the evils of fascism rather than ignore them, so I come to a point in this blog where I must address the current campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

This is actually the first of a 12-part series about the world of the classic film fan that will continue throughout the year, one post at the beginning of each month.  I’ll be discussing blogs and bloggers, books by bloggers, and the interesting evolution of the classic film buff from the 1950s “revival houses” to the 1970s nostalgia boom, to the present day where I think we stand at a crossroads.  We may well have reached our peak.  There will be fewer of us in future.  More on that later.

Long post ahead.  I promise, future entries in this series will be shorter and without the irritable tone you will find herein.

Today, we address the juxtaposition of classic films on the turbulent world in which we live today.  Are they merely an escape from a louder, cruder world?  Or, do they provide us with mental and emotional sustenance to cope with our modern, angry society?  Probably both, but that depends on the classic film fan.

Back, regrettably, to Donald Trump.

I confess that for many weeks I have tried assiduously to avoid looking at or listening to Trump whenever he appears on TV either in an interview or as one of the noxious sound bites that are an excuse for reportage in these days of immature and shallow, sensationalist media.

When I see Trump, I cannot help but think of Burt Lancaster’s line in his character as a corrupt judge during the Nazi era in Germany in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961)  when he acknowledges and mourns that he had turned his life to “excrement.”

For millions of Americans, my conjecture that Donald Trump is a dumb-ass pig and a rapacious con man is not going to come as news. Indeed, we live in a land and in an era where everything that is uttered is carried instantly across social media, a record forever of our mistakes even more than our triumphs.  Nothing remains hidden anymore, and the worst gets more press than the best.  Trump knows this.  He’s quite canny about surfing the grime, knowing that it gets him the spotlight, what he most craves.

But I do not believe for a moment that he will be elected president.

My concern is that others in the future, perhaps in the next presidential race or the one after that, will observe the template he is laying down and be so impressed by the success he is making at receiving easy publicity that they will try to follow his lead and duplicate his campaign – but by then they will have perfected the art in an America so worn down by nonsense that they might actually win by default.

Precedent is a very important concept in our free society. Judges make rulings largely based on precedent. What has been done before is a bedrock, a foundation to what will come after. I would like to suggest that this is a good time for those of us who are familiar with classic films to take our love of them out of our living rooms, out of our film festivals, out of our treasured collections and go public.

“I am an antifascist,” Lukas announces to his stunned American in-laws.  His wife, Bette Davis, tries to educate her mother, Lucille Watson: “The world has changed, Mama, and some of the people are dangerous.  It’s time you knew that.”

We know full well today the world, even our own neighborhoods, are dangerous.  What we need to realize is that we are empowered to change that.  We fight evil predominantly with knowledge—that’s the first line of defense—and fans of classic films know that evil is nothing new and can be faced with courage, and humor, and remarkable resiliency.

I wish we could spread our knowledge and share our appreciation and understanding of classic films not as a clique, not as the term (which I find condescending) of “old movie weirdoes.” I wish we would stop regarding classic film as a hobby that marks us as nerds and start regarding it as an educational tool and social primer to bring substance back to our society.

That sounds idealistic and naïve, but I’m serious.

We are living in an era where we have massive amounts of information at our fingertips, but we have no intelligence or in-depth analysis of it. We have a generation of young people who are so bombarded by media by sound bites, by flashing images that they see on television or the cinemas, that are constantly bleeding from cheap ear buds into their ears wherever they go, wherever they are and it is all shallow and temporary.  It is all noise and nothingness.

When a candidate such as the vile Donald Trump plays to the worst impulses of the stupidest and meanest segment of our society, chest thumping and becoming the frontrunner of a respected political party whose great heritage has been completely plowed under, we must face the fact that our society is suffering from everything that could possibly kill it.

Some newcomers to classic film, perhaps even some long-time lovers of classic film, will watch an old movie from, philosophically, a safe distance. We see the movie soundstage Nazis and we think (as we scarf our snacks) how awful they were, how wonderful it is that Humphrey Bogart saved the day. Or we watch films about the Depression and instead of thinking in depth and feeling in depth about the horrors of poverty and 25 percent unemployment, we only chuckle at the prices on the window: 5 cents for a hamburger, we guffaw.

Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941) pegged the filthy American-style fascists seeking political control represented by Edward Arnold:  “Your type’s as old as history.  If you can’t lay your dirty fingers on a decent idea and twist it and squeeze it and stuff it into your own pocket, you slap it down.  Like dogs, if you can’t eat something, you bury it!”

The films were so innocent and unrealistic then, some condescendingly think.  Yet they knew so much more than we do and they expressed it so simply.

Serious classic film lovers know that old movies are fun, from the raucous comedies to melodramas to war movies to the 1950s sci-fi movies—they’re all a lot of fun. But we also know that they are an education.  They show us a window into a world that is gone, and we take lessons from it. And sometimes we take comfort from it. There are those of us who, out of work and looking for a job will find comfort watching some of those old Depression movies, how they coped: Jean Arthur smashing her piggy bank and the fur coat that landed on her head; Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda on Route 66 in the Grapes of Wrath; even the lessons learned from William Powell, a wealthy man’s son who pretends to be a butler because he is been taken for a “forgotten man” by the ditzy Carole Lombard.

I have spoken with people in their thirties – who should be old enough to know better – who found The Grapes of Wrath to be a lousy movie because it is so “unrealistic”.  A moronic assessment, to be sure, but at least they’d seen it.  Most younger people will never see a classic film because they will never stumble onto one by flicking channels.  Unless they have TCM, or a “retro” station on their cable service, they may never see a classic film.  According to statistics, that is becoming less and less likely.

A recent report, found here, about cable TV “cord cutters” includes this interesting set of statistics:

… younger-skewing crowd known as "cord-nevers" — represents about 9% of American adults. They have never subscribed to TV channels offered by a cable, satellite or telecommunications provider. The Pew study found that young adults, those ages 18 to 29, are the least likely to pay for cable or satellite TV.

Much of modern day film entertains through sensory stimulation – heart-pounding special effects and fast action.  We feel what it is like for the superhero to fly.  We are taken on an amusement park ride.

But the commonplace folks of everyday life are not represented.  They are less interesting to filmmakers, perhaps.  Would we see The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Margie (1946), or the Maisie series made today?  Too tame.  Too slow.  The characters are too ordinary. 

The main thing that classic films give us, because of the way the scripts were written and because the way they were filmed, is a feeling of empathy and ability to feel for others. Despite our distance from the Golden Age of film, we can still understand and feel for the characters.  So many decades later, we watch these characters and identify with them.  We don’t need to go through it ourselves—indeed, we cannot.

Unfortunately, I fear that today’s audiences, especially among younger people, are lacking in empathy and also in imagination. Films today, because of technological advances, do not need to rely on our imaginations.  They are meant not to make us empathize with characters, but to put us in a situation where through computer-generated graphics we are the ones having the virtual experience.  Quiet, thought-provoking films have taken a back seat to blockbusters that dispense thrills.

It is as if filmmakers today think that people could not possibly understand the characters’ fears and motivations unless we are the ones taken on the thrill ride, we are the ones being scared and horrified, we are the ones being titillated, we are the ones who are forced to experience what the characters suffer. It becomes always, nauseatingly, about us and not about others.  The perspective of our film experiences today, as with social media, has become disgustingly narcissistic.

I would love for classic films to be taught at the high school level. I believe that such a course should be taught by instructors who understand and appreciate classic films, who are able to interpret them to young people—for they will need to be interpreted. We cannot simply plug a kid down in front of an old movie and say, “Watch this,” and expect them to get lessons from it or even enjoy it.  Just because we like the character actors and noir and the musicals and the old pie in the face doesn’t mean they will be at all charmed.  Just exposing this art form to a generation that has less and less a chance of ever seeing it will be a positive step. 

Nor is this about turning out a new crop of classic film lovers.  Students learn algebra and science as disciplines to master, tools for survival in a technological world, and possibly enriching their lives.  Familiarity with previous eras of pop culture should be just another aspect of a well-rounded education.  Social studies, history, geography—using classic films as a classroom teaching tool is about helping them to connect with the past through an examination of pop culture through its most effective form. 

Most younger people will need help, explanations for what is happening, just like reading footnotes at the bottom of the page of a play by Shakespeare.  For kids who smirk at the sight of a wall phone in their grandma’s kitchen, or who have never seen a typewriter, then the meaning of 1930s slang, or the significance of the terror of an approaching telegram delivery boy is going to go right over their heads.

They may even need to learn empathy—or tolerance at least, for characters whose motivations and emotions are expressed differently, for people who look and dress and speak differently from them, and for a world that no longer exists.  There were different rules of behavior once.  In a world where there are few now, that alone will be baffling.  Some things they see in that old movie world will be offensive.  I doubt more offensive than Donald Trump, so they should be able to bear up.

At the very least, they will need to learn patience with a slower pace of entertainment.

So much talking went on—usually in full grammatical sentences.

I recall that in 1980, Alistair Cooke, host of Masterpiece Theatre, in his introduction of a five-part series on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice starring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie, ruminated that most younger readers found Jane Austen remote and unappealing, largely, he felt, because the world of her quiet families coping with Regency period mores was long dead. 

It was a good series, very well done.  However, the 1995 version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle set fire to the small screen and helped to generate an enormous resurgence of all things Jane Austen.  Suddenly, out of the proverbial hedgerows, came millions of new fans, the re-release of her novels, more movie and television adaptations, fan fiction and costume balls.  Jane Austen has become an industry.

Because her remote world was brought to life again.  Viewers empathized, understood, “got it.” 

It should be a lot easier for us to touch the world of the 1930s because of the films that decade produced—an advantage the Regency period did not have.  Even if that world is viewed in black and white.

I like to think such a renewed appreciation for classic films among the general public and a younger demographic is possible.  But whether or not that occurs, at the very least, newcomers to classic films will learn that history is an endless repetitive cycle of challenges.  We need not fear them.  We are up to the test.

Going back to Donald Trump.  Among his many odious suggestions, is to ban Muslims from entering the country, to confine the ones here already in prisons.  He throws these stink bombs like a bratty junior high student trying to get attention.

When I was young—I think I was in high school, I read an English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. I read it because I had read a great deal of World War II history by that time, indeed, my parents were a product of that generation so I grew up being more exposed to it probably a lot more than kids do now, and I wanted to see for myself what this so-called evil mastermind had written. I sat down with the book with some trepidation, preparing myself emotionally for what I thought would be an unpleasant and perhaps even horrific experience, kind of like the way you steel yourself to watch a scary scene in a horror movie. You want to see it, but you don’t want to see, so you kind of have to nerve yourself.

What I read shocked me, but not because it was scary—but because it was so mind numbingly stupid. This was the enormous lesson I learned, that opened my eyes. Hitler was a jerk and a moron. Like a loudmouth at a bar.  He was no mastermind.

The book was very poorly written.  It rambled and it was full of self-congratulatory chest thumping, like the sound bite of a modern day politician who regurgitates empty slogans that are not answers.  I thought to myself, if Hitler was this stupid that he could not even convince someone my age (high school or so), then how could he possibly get so many followers to do such terrible things?

But the films made by his propaganda machine, including Triumph of the Will (1935), show us the theatricality of his mass seduction.  One can see how a Pied Piper can lead the simple minded, the evil masterminds, the greedy parasites, and the angry common man together in a “Mephisto Waltz.”  It has happened so many times through history.

There are so many stupid, gullible people out there.  Oh, yeah.  We know who they are, they show up in our Facebook and Twitter feeds.   Unfortunately, they don’t know who and what they are. 

They are usually not well read (which I think is even more important than formal higher education), they have no moral compass and the best way, as the Nazis proved, to achieve power is to tell people that they are victims and that they need to take revenge. Hate is a high to them.  Most of them don’t even realize they’re being used by the ones at the top—whether it’s German citizens in the 1930s, or the zealous owners of automatic weapons in 2016 United States being whipped up by the NRA—that traitorous sect of fascists, with congressmen in their pockets, a danger to our liberty and freedom. 

Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine has another sentiment that he expresses when he tells about escaping the Nazis after an act of sabotage.  He says, “I do not tell you this story to prove that we are remarkable, but to prove that they are not.”

Hitler was not a superman; he was a dumb-ass jerk who appealed to a lot of dumb-ass jerks because he was like them. To be sure, he had many evil masterminds on his staff; Goebbels for instance, and people who knew how to write better than he did, how to enforce, and how to manipulate the public through propaganda.  The same tactics are used today, through websites and social media.  His gang’s only refuge when they were faced with their inevitable loss was suicide.

Like the suicide bombers and gunmen of today. They are just as ineffectual in the long term.  They will never win, but they will try to do as much damage as they possibly can for their own warped sense of temporary glory and revenge. 

That is the common denominator between fanatics of all stripes, foreign and domestic: they are stupid, they are frustrated by their impotence, and warped by their resentment. 

Trump, conversely, has no beliefs to incur fanaticism of any kind; he is a user of others.  He hopes to springboard himself off the oafs he pretends to defend but for whom he has undisguised contempt, all those morons who have nurtured and churned up such evil in their hearts that they want to justify that evil by backing a man who they think will legitimize it. If someone like Trump gets to be president, then all the sick feelings they are feeling, all the evil things they’re saying and doing will, to them, be justified.

Frank Capra produced his Why We Fight series during World War II to educate men entering military service to give them a background, the foundation of why they were fighting. He talked about ideals being “lighthouses in a foggy world”, from men like Washington and Garibaldi, and there were quotations from the Bible and from Confucius and from the Koran about how men should live in peace.

We are told repeatedly in school and in the media that if we do not learn from the past, then we are doomed to repeat it.  That has become a hollow platitude.  We can’t learn from the past if we don’t actively study it.  Youngsters cannot be expected to learn from a past they cannot remember. 

Classic films show us as the best educational tool possible that we’ve been here before. Populist campaigns of Trump’s type are nothing new. Hard times are nothing new.  War is nothing new.  Bigotry is nothing new.  Fanaticism and fascism are nothing new.  And for those who are disinclined to read history, a classic film is a wonderful way and a simple way to teach people first about history, second about empathy—something we are sorely missing today, and third, perhaps the most important ingredient, idealism.

Undoubtedly as a backwash of the political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s the changes in our society, the assassinations, the corruption, we have become an extremely cynical nation. We did not start out that way. We could not have separated from the British in a terrible war if we were not idealistic. We could not have founded this nation on the beliefs expressed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights if we were not an idealistic nation.  We could not have fought a horrific Civil War if we were not an idealistic nation, and we could not have gotten through the horrors of the Depression or World War II if we were not idealistic. Idealism is what made us great. Idealism is what made this country the most amazing democratic experiment the world has ever known, and the hope and the salvation of millions.

We have lost our idealism. It’s fashionable to be cynical and sarcastic. Our sarcasm is everywhere, it’s choking us. Snark has replaced wit.  Check any sitcom you want on TV, it’s usually three or four people sitting on a couch making digs at each other for 22 minutes. Check the music videos, check the rap and rock music, check the foulmouthed comics—everything is a stab, there is no idealism left in us. And that is what is killing us.  That is what makes someone like Trump come out of the woodwork like a cockroach and get more media attention than a fool like him deserves.  In our new warped sense of values, he represents ratings.  Idealism is no longer palatable to the American public.  It is mistrusted.  It is cornball.

My suggestion to teach classic film in the high schools is will be considered a lightweight solution to a big problem.  Maybe even a joke, but I’m not kidding.  Provided we have knowledgeable teachers able to interpret the history of the eras the films were made to them, I think this is a good start to teaching younger people the most important lesson they may ever learn: your world is not the world.

I’ve been very impressed reading the blogs of many classic film bloggers and they seem to display a passion and a knowledge of the social background of these films and a desire to learn more. So many bloggers do such great research on the backgrounds of their films because they know that the era is just as important as the flickering image.  Many of them are young.  I would hate for their intelligence and empathy and imagination to be dismissed as a hobby, labeled as a clique of supposed nerds, self-branding as “old movie weirdoes.” 

Classic films give us depth, a sense of context. They give us an anchor to our heritage. We learn from our parents and we learn from our grandparents and we don’t have to stop learning from them after they’re dead. Their generations still speak to us and we can learn from them, all their faults, all their problems, everything they did wrong and everything they did right.  We need to see where they messed up, and where they nailed it.  We’re lucky to have the entire twentieth century covered, at our fingertips.  If there’s one thing that classic movies teach us is that as a society, we’ve been here before.

How can we lose our way when we’ve been here before?

Lionel Barrymore remarks in You Can’t Take it With You (1938): “Lincoln said, 'With malice toward none, with charity to all.' Nowadays they say, 'Think the way I do or I'll bomb the daylights outta you.”

We’ve been here before.  We can handle this. In times of trouble, that’s a great comfort. 

Let’s use that wealth of knowledge, that wealth of understanding and empathy that classic films give us to enrich our lives.  Here are the voices of our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents. Listen.  We don’t need to lose our grip on our senses, on our nerves, or on our democracy, not if we remember who we are, and where we’ve been.  Where we are going will depend a good deal on that.

As Gary Cooper says in Meet John Doe, urging his radio listeners that to become idealistic is the best way to ward off fascism—“Let’s not wait until the game is called on account of darkness.”

I am not an old movie weirdo.  I like classic movies in much the same way I enjoy classical music.  There are only a couple public radio stations in my area that play classical music.  It is represented on public television only occasionally.  Just because modern American society doesn’t make it easy for me to have access to this music, doesn’t mean that Bach is irrelevant.

And nor does liking it make me a “weirdo”.   Some schools, either on the junior high or high school level, either in the form of band class or a visiting chamber music quartet will attempt to introduce students to classical music, even if only for a single class in a single semester.  Some schools do much more.  Is that weird?

No.  It’s considered culture.  Then it should not be weird to show them The Crowd (1928), or Fury (1936), or The Oxbow Incident (1943).

Trump?  This too shall pass.  We know that phrase.  But pass unto what if we allow his type of candidate to become the norm?

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Next month in part 2 of this series: come back for a review of film blogger Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees: Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films and how today’s classic film bloggers, with all the resources available to them, are equal to the best film historians and critics.

Next week—back to the movies.
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"Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood



Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.


The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.


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My new syndicated column SILVER SCREEN, GOLDEN YEARS, on classic film is up at Go60  or check with your local paper.