Thursday, June 30, 2016

Olivia de Havilland - 100th Birthday

Olivia de Havilland did not want to be Scarlett O'Hara.

So many actresses, from veterans to newcomers, yearned for that role, fought for it tooth and nail. But Olivia de Havilland wanted to play Melanie.

The mug shot and her surname misspelled on the placard may reflect the assembly line nature of The Golden Age of Hollywood, but they do not detract from the elegance, the power of the woman who knew who she was, and who knew who Melanie was.

We take a moment today to marvel at the 100th birthday tomorrow of this glorious actress, and to recall at least one quality that made her different.  As regards her role as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), Olivia responded in an interview for the Academy of Achievement.

Jack [Warner], for example, said, "Oh, you don't want to play Melanie. You want to play Scarlett." I said, "I don't want to play Scarlett. I want Melanie." It's because I was so young. I had for four years been earning my own living, going through all the problems of a career woman, self-supporting and even contributing to the support of others, which is what Scarlett did. That's what Scarlett did. So, I knew about being Scarlett in a sense, but Melanie was someone different. She had very, deeply feminine qualities. Scarlett was a self-absorbed person. She had to be. Career women have to be, that's all there is to it. But, Melanie was "other people-oriented," and she had these feminine qualities that I felt were very endangered at that time, and they are from generation to generation, and that somehow they should be kept alive, and one way I could contribute to their being kept alive was to play Melanie, and that's why I wanted to interpret her role. 

Happy Birthday, Olivia de Havilland. There is much to celebrate in your career.  Thank you.


The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and shortly will be on Amazon and iTunes.  Here's the sales page where you can purchase a copy.

Or, if you'd like to review the book on Amazon for a free copy, let me know because I still have a few promotional codes available.  Email me with REVIEW in the header.

Don't forget to email me to enter the raffle for a FREE AUDIO DOWNLOAD.  Just write GIMME THE AUDIO BOOK in the header.  I'll be picking the winner next week.

Five lucky winners will also be drawn from readers who subscribe to my mailing list here.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


Who wants a free audio book?

ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR., narrated by Toni Lewis (see last week's interview here) will soon be available at Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.  I will pick one reader from this blog to receive a FREE download.  The audio book will be for sale shortly.

I will also give a free audio book download to the first eight people who agree to review the book on it's Amazon page here.

If you want to put your name in for the raffle for a free audio download, send me an email with the subject line: GIMME THE FREE AUDIO BOOK to:

If you want to review the book in exchange for a free copy, send me an email to the same address, but the subject line should be REVIEW BOOK.

It was just about this time last year that I published my book on Ann Blyth's career (June 18th, actually), and I don't think any writing project I've ever done has meant more to me.  Thanks for being part of the journey.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

AUDIO BOOK UPDATE - Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.

This is to remind you of my upcoming AUDIO book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.  I expect it to be available for purchase very soon. Later this month I'll hold a random drawing for a free copy of the audio book.  I will also offer a free copy to the first eight people who agree to review the book on Amazon in exchange for a copy.

Los Angeles area actress Toni Lewis is doing the narration, and her work is brilliant.  She kindly participated in an interview with me, and here’s what we discussed:


JTL:  I was struck by your adopting different “voices” and adding personality to the many quotes in the book.  I had never heard that done in an audio book before, and I marvel at what an acting challenge that must be—to find the element, the key in a passage to give you a hook to the character of that voice.   I like the lower, dryer tone of speech for Madge Tucker, as if illustrating this is a kindly, genteel, but harried woman dealing with children on live radio, with a touch of New York businesswoman inflection. There is playfulness in your characterizations, including the funny “Bert Lahr” voice for the mountie he played in Rose Marie, and so many occasions where your reading of a quote stands out from the narrative and gives splashes of color to this rather long book.  Speeding up the speech of the old Hollywood critics and gossip columnists, to emulate the staccato radio news delivery of the day, I thought was pretty neat.  Some line readings brought me to tears, or shocked me.  You mentioned to me about the script that you “treated it like a piece of music with shading and tempo,” which is delightful.

The voice you use for Ann is chosen very wisely, I think.  The tone is quiet, demure, but not an attempt at an exact imitation of her voice—which I think is appropriate.  And practical—because I don’t think it’s really possible to imitate her. She displayed such a keen ability to change her voice from film to film that she never had any vocal “tics” that one could caricature.  Katharine Hepburn, or Humphrey Bogart come to mind as films stars who were always easily imitated by comics who exaggerated the peculiar speech habits of these actors.  Your “Ann” in the audio has a clean sound, is a lovely example of sensitive and judicious narration.  Was her voice a particular concern or challenge to you?

TL:  For the most part (except for Ann Blyth), I didn't go out of my way to listen and study the real person's voice, because it was more fun to create the voice myself.   After being introduced to Ann through the book, I sought out a few interviews online to get the feel of her personality.  I was able to find some excerpts of Mildred Pierce and watched Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in its entirety (but she didn't speak!).  Her softness was balanced by her faith and confidence (both powerful and firm), which gave her the strength to navigate the rough waters of Hollywood.  A person gets a sense from the book that acting was her destiny.  I wanted to convey all of that in the voice I gave her.  She was and still seems to be a calm and steady force.

JTL:  You mentioned in an email to me that you were sorry to come to the last chapter because you had fallen in love with Ann Blyth, and were  a new convert to Turner Classic Movies.  That really touched me, and I hope you enjoy many years of discovery of old movies.  I would not be surprised if you knew very little about her career before you started narrating the book, because since her last movie was made decades ago, she has fallen off the radar in pop culture—though in the late 1940s and 1950s she was as famous as anyone could be in Hollywood.  You are an actress yourself, you’ve played roles on television.  I think that gives you an insight, an appreciation of the challenges of her career that I don’t have, that many of our listeners/readers won’t have.  You’ve gone on auditions, performed, rehearsed, and worked with directors, technical crew, dealt all the business aspects to the career.   Do you agree that your familiarity with the acting profession may give you empathy in your approach to your narration on the career of this actress that a non-actor might not have?

TL: You're right.  I knew nothing about Ann Blyth before this book came along.  As an actress, I could totally relate to her career and the challenges she faced as a woman in this business.  She faced it all with grace and I admire her for it.  At times I saw myself in her shoes.  I'm a singer as well, so her musical theatre experience is something I relate to strongly.  While reading, I could visualize the environment because of my experience on stage and in front of the camera.  I recognize the desire to keep your private life just that…private.  Her approach to the craft and her work ethic is an example of how hard work pays off and I'm struck by how successful she was, while not allowing the Hollywood machine to change the essence of who she was.  As with many projects in the course of a career like this, you grow attached to your subject matter.  It was bittersweet to see my time with Ann draw to a close.  I got choked-up.  I had spent so much time walking in shoes that resembled mine it felt more personal.   A career is what you make it.  She made a wonderful career and was one of the lucky few to do that.  It's great to see a woman have it all or at least as much as she wants.

JTL:  Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is a big book.  I’m so impressed by how you navigated some of the ridiculously long sentences (listening to you has really made me see my faults as a writer).  I have a tendency to begin very long compound sentences, plunking in a semicolon, and then go have a cup of tea or bring in the mail, or have the oil changed in my car—and then I come back to finish the sentence.  No, really.  That’s why they ramble on like that.  Is fiction different for you as a narrator than non-fiction, does it require a different approach or a different set of muscles, so to speak?

TL: Yes, a different set of muscles is right.  I find that non-fiction books require more of a smile in the voice and a little higher register in order to hold the attention of the listener.  This produces a more pleasant experience, especially for long-form books. Because fiction is often suspenseful, a lower register is used to draw the listener in.  I just finished a novel by Warren Adler called CULT.  It was like night to the daylight of Ann Blyth.  Both amazing projects but performed from opposite ends of the spectrum.

JTL:  How did you get into audio book narration, and what are some of the challenges and pleasures of doing this kind of work?  Can you describe what it’s like to narrate a book?  Do you use a local studio, or do you have a home studio with the technical wizardry to record and edit tracks?

TL:  Like Ann Blyth, I am no longer twenty-something and I wanted to continue to perform and create, so after years of pounding the pavement, I thought I would combine my love of reading with my love of acting.  I set up a sound booth in my home and started auditioning in my pajamas.  It's been so wonderful.  The freedom of performing and producing books gives me such joy!  I usually record in the evening because of daily environmental noise.  I do the recording myself in sessions that usually last five to six hours each.  Before recording, I read the book, make notes, breakdown the characters and try out different vocal registers for each.  Sometimes a voice will just come to me.  Others, I have to play around with to make sure they have their own sound/accent. The hard part is keeping the voices consistently vivid.  Some days the environment affects the voice, so I have to do a longer warm-up and keep the vocal tea flowing.  I use a wonderful editor who is a wizard at making me sound great. My life is happier and I have a calm I've never felt before.  This work just fits my lifestyle.  I'm happy and my family is happy.

JTL:  Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to share, either as an actress or narrator?

TL: I mentioned Warren Adler's book CULT.  It should be coming out soon on Amazon as well.  That was a fun project with a lot of voices (mostly men).

JTL:  Please feel free to any anything you’d like to discuss that I may not have touched upon.

TL:  I could tell that Ann Blyth was a labor of love for you and after four months, I love her story as well.   My hope is that I was able to bring another dimension to the work and help listeners of the book feel uplifted and more knowledgeable about that time in Hollywood's history.  Who better to give us that perspective than someone like Ann Blyth who came out on the other side happy and prosperous?
My deepest gratitude to Toni Lewis for her marvelous performance as narrator on Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., and for sharing her sensitive and articulate comments here.  I feel extremely lucky to have been able to work with her on this audio project, and I am in awe of her talent.


Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is, of course, already available in eBook and in paperback from Amazon and CreateSpace.

A star of films, stage (including Broadway), television, radio, nightclubs and concerts, Ann Blyth is a stellar example of talent and professionalism, and her journey through the entertainment industry of the twentieth century is colorful and fascinating.

The most interesting aspect about her acting is that unlike most stars of the day she was not content to play the same kind of roles over and over again. She swam against the powerful and unrelenting current of studio typecasting. It was usual for studios at that time, which controlled the kinds of movies that their actors played in, to promote an actor in a particular kind of role and to assign them similar roles thereafter.  An actor was marketed to the public as a heavy or the hero, or weepy heroine, or a stumbling foolish comic. Usually they played the same character over and over again.

Today we have someone like Meryl Streep, who is very versatile and we expect that of her.  When we go to see a Meryl Streep movie, we expect her to sound different and look different.  She’s working in an environment today where she is free to adopt that kind of versatility.  Indeed, it’s become her calling card, her trademark, but back in the day when Ann Blyth was one of the most famous stars of her era, her versatility was certainly admired and appreciated, but I don’t think it was used to its best advantage by the studios.  A confounding set of circumstances has made Blyth’s unique career largely unfamiliar among younger classic film fans

To appreciate how ironic that is we need to note that back in the late 1940s and 1950s she was one of the most famous stars of her day, featured on countless magazine covers, pursued by columnists, receiving thousands of fan letters every week.

Ann Blyth remains a mystery to newcomers to classic film who know little about her, perhaps for two reasons: she made 32 movies in her career but most of them are not on DVD and most of them are not being shown on Turner Classic Movies.  This is because most of the movies you see on Turner are Warner Bros., or MGM movies, or Columbia -- many different studios, but a lot of Ann Blyth’s movies were made for Universal and Turner does not show a lot of Universal movies or a lot of Paramount movies.  Today, Turner Classic Movies is pretty much the main channel that we would go to watch a classic film.  We have hundreds of channels on our cable television, but very few show old movies these days.

My hope is Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will help newcomers to classic film discover the work of this marvelous actress, and to remind those of us more familiar with the classics not to overlook this quiet, lovely champion.

The AUDIO book will be soon available through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.  It runs some 18 hours long (it’s a hefty book), but is delightful and entertaining thanks to actress/narrator Toni Lewis. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Lessons in the Dark by John Greco

Lessons in the Dark by John Greco is a thoughtful, contemplative collection of short essays on film.  Classic films are the focus, but two interesting devices are used to make the old favorites sharp and relevant to today’s social ills: first, using simple themes of War, Discrimination, Social Injustice, and the Media (the unit heading alone deliciously inferring that the media is, or can be, another social ill).  Second, comparing a classic film to a newer or modern film of the same subject.  I would suggest that comparing a classic film to a similar modern film may probably be a better way to introduce younger people, who are not classic film fans, to old movies.  It becomes not so much a contest as to which is better, but rather it serves as a bridge to understanding.

This is part six in our year-long monthly series on the current state of the classic film fan.

Author John Greco is known to many of us classic film bloggers for his excellent blog, Twenty-Four Frames. Here are a few of his interesting observations:

On I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang:

“An interesting point is the modernity of James Allen’s thinking after getting out of the Army. His mother and Reverend Brother want him to go back to his factory job, however, James doesn’t want to be tied down to a boring job he has no interest in. His brother calls him ungrateful for not accepting his former bosses offer to get his job back, but James wants something more exciting and wants to find himself. His mother actually uses these words after she comes around to his way of thinking. Finding oneself is such a modern notion, I was somewhat surprised to hear it spoken in a 1932 film.”

On High Noon:

“Ironically, over the years, people and even countries from both sides of the political spectrum have come to find their own personal values in this film. The former Soviet Union accused the film of being “a glorification of the individual.” Pro-McCarthyites saw the film as communist propaganda and anti-American. Yet, President Ronald Reagan loved the film for its lead character’s “strong sense of and dedication to duty and law.” Both Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton loved the movie. Clinton ran the film no less than 17 times while in office! He even recommended it to then incoming President Bush. So the question becomes, how can one film be interpreted and be satisfying to both sides of the political fence?”

John discusses the Pre-Codes, the Depression, M*A*S*H, and Lenny, and ties them together.  There’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Black Legion.  (My thanks to John for referring to my book on Ann Blyth in his essay on Brute Force, which is part of his Films of Social Injustice chapter.)  I was especially taken with his filmography of Orangey, a cat who most of us know from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, playing “Cat,” but who actually had a few other films under his belt.  Er, collar.

John and I discussed the notion that we are on the threshold of a new era of film criticism in classic film:

JTL:  I wondered, first, what you think about the idea that film criticism and film history are now in the hands of so-called (and I use this possibly disparaging word intentionally) amateurs -- because of blogs and the rise of self-publishing?  There was a time, and may still be among professional critics and academics, that film, theatre, drama critique was a rarified world.  It has now become gloriously egalitarian.  But there are pitfalls to that as well as a huge boon to compiling the chronicle of our pop culture.  What are your thoughts on that?

JG: I think it’s been both liberating and problematic. Self-publishing has opened up doors for many writers. Overall, I think it's a great opportunity for writers to get their work out there. If they go that route they should be professional and responsible for and with their work. Of course, like in so many other endeavors there is the good and the bad. Film history like all history can be distorted if not reported correctly. As you know yourself, being an historian, writing about film history like any subject requires a lot of research, and fact checking that research to see how accurate it is. You see a lot of misinformation out there. You got to do the investigative work. I’ve seen it even in books. You read one book and it states one fact. Another book says something completely different on that same subject. How do you incorporate this sometimes contradicting information into your own work?  For me, when I am writing an article with historical background I want to make sure I get the facts correct and check as many resources as possible. I hope all writers do this.  

Film criticism today runs rampant. You’ve heard the term everyone’s a critic and today that’s true more than ever before. Film criticism came into its own in the 1960’s with people like Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and others. They took film seriously as an art form. They analyzed it and told you why it was a good film or not. Film criticism became legit, on the same level, with other arts. Today with the internet, the “everyone’s a critic” thing has become a reality and most of the time it’s things like “this film sucks” or “it’s awesome!” Maybe not in those words but what is said is no deeper than that. You see it all the time on IMDB or Letterboxd. To be a serious film critic or film historian one must have a good knowledge of the subject. One should read and study the reviews of critics like Kael, Ebert, Sarris and others. You can learn what to look for just by reading their work. Studying the technical aspects of filmmaking is important: editing, photography, lighting, etc. Film historians do their research, film critics need to do the same. You can’t just write about what you like saying how awesome it is. There’s got to be more.

JTL:  I was very intrigued with your taking a handful of topics - war, racism, etc., that are timeless and can be used on an equal footing to compare classic films with newer films.  It's a great template and I think could be used to introduce younger people to classic films more successfully than just saying, "Here's an old movie I love.  You should watch it too."  By comparing older and newer films on the same subject, you've hit upon a very useful model.  I'd love to hear more about your views on that.  You have one foot in the world of the newer or modern films, and I do not, so that is a great advantage and I admire that.

JG:  Thank you. When I first began to think about this book it was going in a completely different direction. Then, like I mention in my introduction, a few years back, I was writing a column for a now defunct pop culture on-line magazine. One of the publishers saw my blog, liked it, and asked if I would be interested in writing a column on classic films. His only caveat was I had to relate the films I wrote about to our world today in hopes of connecting with its target audience, today's youth market.  After thinking about I realized how life repeats itself and there were plenty of old films where we can learn modern day lessons. One of the first films I wrote about was Ace in the Hole. At the time, there were a couple of scandals going on about news reporters falsifying or creating stories presented as facts. It was perfect. The more I looked into this the more I found how so many classic films still talk to us today. You just have to listen. The absurdity of war is brought to the front in both Duck Soup and M*A*S*H.  More recently, a powerful film like “Spotlight” shows you investigative journalism at its best. Just like it did in All the President’s Men. These two films can be compared to more devious newspaper films like Blessed Event and Five Star Final which shows journalism in a much darker light. All art is timeless. People just have to be open to it. I recently watched Brian DePalma's Casualties of War and came away from it seeing it as not just another war film about Vietnam, but as a morality tale and the cost of war on the human spirit. Every soldier comes home from war damaged.  It's a price we are still paying for today.


John Greco’s Lessons in the Dark is available in eBook from Amazon.  My thanks to John for allowing me to review his book here in exchange for a reviewer’s copy.  You can read his blog Twenty-Four Frames here.

Part 1 of the year-long series on the current state of the classic film buff is here: A Classic Film Manifesto. 

Part 2 is here: Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees. 

Part 3 is here: An interview with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.

Part 4 is here: Evolution of the Classic Film Fan.

Part 5 is here: Gathering of the Clan at Classic Film Festivals.

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