I’m not sure I have sufficient superlatives to express my feelings about James Curtis’ latest biography, which consumed six years of his life (and about a month of mine—time well spent in both cases). It represents a high-water mark in this field: a scrupulously researched life story that is also well-written and completely absorbing, through 878 pages of text and the endnotes that follow.
Curtis has chosen not only to chronicle one of the 20th century’s finest actors, but to tell the interrelated story of his wife Louise, a talented actress who was his biggest booster. She gave up her career to have children and doggedly remained Mrs. Spencer Tracy even after he stopped living in the same house, long before Katharine Hepburn entered his life. Her saga, and her determination to give her deaf son Johnny the best possible life he could have is as compelling as her husband’s. (The history of the John Tracy Clinic, which she conceived and developed from scratch, is quite amazing and involves the Tracy’s family friend Walt Disney at several junctures.)
Moreover, Curtis has chosen to incorporate a mini-history of each
I wouldn’t have thought there was a market for Grace Kelly dolls, but I’m wrong. She’s been Barbie-ized, and the latest in Mattel’s series of collector dolls features her in a famous Edith Head high-fashion outfit from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window!
Two pieces of feedback on yesterday’s piece about spook shows are too good not to share. First, Bob Burns was kind enough to send along a newspaper ad for a 1948 show at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles that promised lucky kids a chance to see both Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) onstage. As Bob says, “What a thrill to see Bela and Glenn in person!” The ad was given to him by Strange, a lifelong friend of Bob’s who played the monster in a number of the 1940s Universal features—including the one on this bill, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Once upon a time, local movie theaters staged “spook shows” for Halloween. These usually consisted of vintage horror movies like the original Frankenstein and Dracula along with a live stage presentation or at the very least staff members dressed up in ghoulish outfits. My friend Gary Meyer recently sent me some images from an Oakland, California magic journal of the 1940s and 50s that I’m pleased to share with you, in the hope that they may stoke some happy memories. If you want to see more of these—even on t-shirts—click HERE. (Long ago, at a Halloween Saturday matinee in Paramus, New Jersey, the theater manager announced that anyone in a costume would be admitted for free. I happened to be wearing my Cub Scout uniform that day and he waved me in! I can’t tie a knot or start a fire with sticks, but I’ve never forgotten this life-altering incident.) My regular attendance at Saturday kiddie shows brought me into contact with the schlockiest horror, fantasy and science-fiction films—mostly leftover prints of 1950s and early-1960s releases—but I enjoyed every minute.
There aren’t many behind-the-scenes Hollywood figures worthy of a one-person show, but Edith Head wasn’t just anyone. She was synonymous with costume design for the movies, with eight Oscars, 35 nominations, and over a thousand films to her credit. She became a TV personality and author who was recognized by the public, famous for her work with everyone from Clara Bow to Grace Kelly. (She even inspired a character named Edna Mode in the Pixar animated film The Incredibles.) Now actress Susan Classen is bringing her to life onstage in a play called A Conversation with Edith Head, which opens at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles this Friday, October 28, and runs through November 13. Glancing at the actress in character it’s hard to believe it isn’t Edith Head herself.
Classen co-authored the play with Paddy Calistro, a former fashion journalist who interviewed Head for the—
While watching the new Criterion DVD release of the exquisitely creepy Island of Lost Souls (1932), some of the black & white images photographed by Karl Struss took my breath away. There are scenes with Charles Laughton in almost complete darkness, where all we see is a tiny glint in his eye, or his face is illuminated by a cigarette match. The film is full of incredible moments like this. Talk about chiaroscuro…
Today, digital artists can paint any picture imaginable, as Robert Rodriguez did in his visualization of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Sin City, or Zach Snyder did in last year’s—
The archeologists who extracted artifacts from King Tut’s Tomb couldn’t have been any more excited than the movie lovers who witnessed the rebirth of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh Tuesday night at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, on the exact date of the movie palace’s 89th anniversary. Piecing this 1922 silent film epic back together has been a formidable project for German film preservationist Thomas Bakels of Alpha-Omega, who told me it was even more difficult than restoring Metropolis! It took five years to complete the digital reconstruction and clean-up, even after the Munich Filmmuseum had gone through the laborious process of combining elements of prints from around the globe.
All I can say is, it was worth the wait. Incomplete prints have existed for years, with key differences depending on where it was first released: the American version had a happy ending, the Italian interpretation focused on the love story while the Russian release all but eliminated it. I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t possible to fully appreciate the movie’s imposing beauty, scope or dramatic impact until now. Not only is it an impressive production, with crowd scenes and desert battles to rival C.B. DeMille; it also excels at—
Norman Corwin was one of my heroes; I never dreamed that one day I would also be able to call him a friend. When you’ve accomplished as much as he did, still have all your marbles as you turn 100 and live to be 101, it’s difficult to complain…but I’m still saddened by his death yesterday. Norman had a healthy ego and told Cris, his wonderful caregiver, that he hoped he would die on an unimportant day so people would take notice. I think he would be pleased by the news coverage of his passing.
I expressed my feelings about Norman in a centenary piece that ran last spring; in case you missed it, I’m reprinting it today as my epitaph for a great man.
The L.A. Jazz Society held its 28th annual awards dinner Sunday night, which I was pleased to host…but chances are you didn’t read or hear about it, in spite of the presence of Quincy Jones, Arturo Sandoval, and other musical heavyweights, along with such music fans as Andy Garcia and Beau Bridges. It’s further evidence that jazz has been marginalized by the mainstream media; you won’t find it on the Grammy Awards telecast or in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, which no longer officially covers it.
That’s both sad and ironic, because jazz and Los Angeles’ home-town industry of moviemaking have had a long and rich relationship, which was very much in evidence at the Sunday soiree. In presenting the 2011 Jazz Vocalist award to Monica Mancini, Quincy Jones recalled how Monica’s father Henry went to bat for him when—
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