Dance marathons were phenomena that began in the 1920’s. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel is a dark tale of losers desperately attempting to hang on to impossible dreams. Just like in Nathaniel West better known novel, Day of the Locust the characters all have unreachable dreams of being in the movies. Continue reading “Depression Blues and the Dance Marathon”
One of my favorite crime writers is the late Donald E. Westlake. Westlake was awarded the title of Grand Master by The Mystery Writers of America, as well as a three time Edgar winner. He wrote over 100 novels and numerous short stories and screenplays.
Westlake was a prolific author, best known for two long running series, one featuring the dark anti-hero known only as Parker, written under one of his many pen names, Richard Stark, and the lighter comedic mysteries featuring John Dortmunder. By 1977, both characters had already made their way to the movie screen. In 1967, the first Parker novel, The Hunter, appeared under the title Point Blank (1) with Parker’s name changed, inexplicably, to Walker. The film featured Lee Marvin in the lead role. Five years later John Dortmunder hit the screen with Robert Redford in The Hot Rock.
Back in 1977, the author published a book called Enough. It consisted of two novellas, the longer of the two was called A Travesty, and the second, shorter story, was Orb. Enough may be one of the toughest of Westlake’s works to find a copy. I was fortunate enough a few years back to discover a copy at a local library. A Travesty is a dark, comic tale involving a sexually insatiable film critic, Corey Thorpe, who during a heated argument with one of his lovers accidentally kills her. Having seen too many movies, instead of calling the police, Thorpe decides to cover up his involvement in the transgression. Unfortunately, Thorpe’s lover was under surveillance by a blackmailing private investigator. Additionally, the investigating police detective takes a liking to our “‘hero,” and admires his amateur detective instincts. He’s also a frustrated screenwriter and would like Corey to take a look at what he wrote. Along the way, Corey is “forced” to commit a couple of more murders. Regrettably, for the film critic, his voracious appetite for sex does him in when he spurns the wrong woman.
Let’s fast forward more than 30 years to 1999 and the premiere on TNT of a film called A Slight Case of Murder. It’s not to be confused with the 1938 Edward G Robinson film with the same title, but a made for TV film starring William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, James Cromwell and Adam Atkin. The film is based on A Travesty and adapted for the screen by Macy and director Steven Schachter. The duo faithfully captures the humorous essence of Westlake’s novella. The film critic’s name was changed in the movie from Corey to Terry, but much of the tale stays close to Westlake’s original work. It’s smart with plenty of visual and verbal nods to the noir films it’s sending up including Terry talking at times directly to the camera (in place of a voice over). It’s filled with murders, sleazy characters and plenty of twists wrapped up in a funny script that film lovers, like myself, will especially love.
The performances by the four main actors are all of high quality, though William H. Macy gets a special nod in a role that some may find reminiscent of his Jerry Lundgaard role in Fargo. Also noteworthy is Julia Campbell’s work as Arkin’s amorous wife, whose affair with Macy leads to his downfall.
I am a big fan of two of the author’s stand-alone books, The Ax and The Hook, both wonderful satires. In The Ax, the main character is Burke Devore, a quiet company man who after twenty-five years of service becomes a victim of corporate downsizing. After two years of unemployment, his life falling apart, Burke comes up with what he considers the ideal solution, eliminate his competition by killing them off.
The Hook is a devious tale about author Bryce Proctor, a mediocre but best-selling author. Then there is author Wayne Prentice, a more accomplished writer than Procter, but his books no longer hit the best sellers list. Bryce has been going through a rough stretch including a divorce which has led to a bad case of writer’s block. To make it worst he has a deadline quickly approaching on his next book. Wayne comes up with a plan that would help them both. He’ll write the book, give it to Bryce to publish under his name, and they split the royalties 50/50. Bryce is all for it except he has one caveat, Wayne needs to kill Bryce’s wife.
Many of Westlake’s books have made it to the screen, unfortunately not always in a good way. The previously mentioned Point Blank, The Hot Rock, and A Slight Case of Murder are on the plus side. However, more often than not, there were mediocre films like Cops and Robbers, The Twin, The Split, The Bank Shot, and the awful and misguided Jimmy the Kid which was turned into a vehicle for Gary Coleman. Interesting enough, a few of Westlake’s books have been made into films by foreign filmmakers including Costa-Gavras whose 2005 film, Le Couperet, is based on The Ax. In 1966, Jean Luc Godard loosely adapted Westlake’s The Juggler (a Parker novel) turning it into Made in the U.S.A. (2) No one connected with the Goddard film, including Goddard, at the time, bothered acquiring the film rights. Westlake eventually sued and won.
As a screenwriter, Westlake was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1990). He also wrote the screenplay for the original The Stepfather film which was adapted from a short story he wrote with co-writers, Brian Garfield and Carolyn Lefcourt. For a full list of Westlake’s film credit’s check here.
If you like reading crime fiction and have not read Donald Westlake, get down to your local independent book store or anywhere books are sold and start catching up. If you like hard boiled fiction, the Parker books written under the name of Richard Stark are must reads. On the lighter side are his John Dortmunder books. Dortmunder is a cool, criminal mastermind, brilliant at planning heist. Unfortunately, his luck is not as good as his talent. Inevitably something always goes wrong.
(1) In 1999, Point Blank (The Hunter) was remade as Payback with Mel Gibson in the lead role. Once again Parker’s name was changed again, this time to Porter.
(2) Wikipedia Donald E. Westlake.
The new FX TV series Feud: Bette and Joan is a delightful and darkly funny look back at the notable and long lasting hostility between Hollywood Queens, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. How accurate the show is and who was at fault is all beside the point. The show is wonderfully acted, bitchy, and overall entertaining. Susan Sarandon, as Davis, and Jessica Lange as Crawford lead the cast, but the supporting cast of Alfred Molina (director Robert Aldrich) , Judy Davis (Hedda Hopper), Stanley Tucci (Jack Warner), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Olivia de Havilland) and Kathy Bates (Joan Blondell) are all superbly played.
There is a strong irony in the casting of two older actresses, Sarandon (70) playing Davis then 54, and Lange (66) playing Crawford then 56. Joe Baltake of The Passionate Moviegoer, takes an interesting look at the sexism that existed, and yes still does, in Hollywood back then that proclaimed women in their fifties were too old and no longer relevant. Click on The Passionate Moviegoer to read.
I originally wrote about Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? back in 2010 on my Twenty Four Frames Blog. With the show in the middle of its run, I thought I would reprint the original here with just a few minor modifications.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a dark tragedy examining the underbelly of Hollywood in the tradition of films like Sunset Blvd or Day of the Locust wrapped up in a psychopathic thriller/horror film which it is generally lumped in with so often. Here are the outcasts, the losers, the has-beens and never was still clinging on to the hope that a chance of a comeback is in the making. It is also a story of sibling rivalry, jealousy, resentment and love all rolled up into a gothic nightmare that unravels into insanity and death.
The film brings together two icons of the Golden Age of Film, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the queens of MGM and Warner Brothers respectively, in their only big screen appearance together. Like the film itself, how the pairing of these two legends coming together is filled with drama, rivalry, and jealousy.
How the two stars and the director came together is a demonstration of egos, vanity and maybe time playing tricks with the truth. Director Robert Aldrich claims he first had the idea of bringing these two stars together after reading the Henry Farrell novel while in Italy filming “Sodom and Gomorrah.” He soon after acquired the rights to the book. Crawford’s version goes that she told Aldrich she wanted to work with him again (They previously did Autumn Leaves) and also wanted to work with Bette Davis. She went to see Davis, who was appearing on Broadway in Tennessee Williams The Night of the Iguana, and after the show went backstage to offer congratulations, also telling Bette about the idea of the two of them working together. Davis, on the other hand, originally stated she read the novel a few years earlier and wanted Hitchcock to direct, but he was already committed to other projects. She later recanted this statement, finally claiming Joan’s version was closer to the truth. Then there is the version told by Bill Frye, producer of the TV show Thriller who states he discovered the novel while doing research for the show. Realizing it was too intricate for a half hour show he gave copies to Davis and Olivia DeHavilland with a mention that Ida Lupino would direct. The project was turned down by Universal head Lew Wasserman who did not want to work with Davis. Where and how the actual order of events happened is anyone’s guess, however, after looking at multiple biographies of the two actresses and interviews with Aldrich, it seems reasonable that the truth is buried somewhere between the Crawford and Aldrich versions (on the DVD it is said Aldrich initiated the project). The result was these two volatile stars whose professional and personal lives clashed agreed to make this film.
The story begins in 1917 and Baby Jane Hudson is a big vaudeville stage star, singing her crowd-pleasing song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy Whose Address is Heaven Above.” Offstage sweet Jane is an obnoxious spoiled brat who wants things her way because she is the one bringing in the money! When shortly after, Sister Blanche gets yelled at by their father, though she did nothing wrong, mother tells Blanche that someday she will be a big star and she wants her to be kinder to Baby Jane and father than they have been to her. Grimacing, Blanche swears she won’t forget!
As the years go by Blanche becomes a major 1930’s movie star supporting Jane’s fading career by having a stipulation in her studio contract that for every film she makes Jane gets to make a film too. A mysterious car accident involving the two sisters leaves Blanche wheelchair bound.
It is now the present time (1962), and the two sisters live together in a gothic mansion on the outskirts of Hollywood with crazy Janie taking care of her invalid sister. When Blanche decides she wants a fuller life she elects to sell the house and plans to commit Jane to a home. Learning of her plans, Jane seeks revenge by terrorizing Blanche; cutting her off from the outside world. Jane also makes a feeble attempt to revive her own career by hiring obese out of work mama’s boy Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), a composer, to help her musically with her comeback.
Bette Davis gives an appropriately over the top vicious performance as the mentality deteriorating Jane. Alcoholic, prone to fits of raging jealousy, dressing as if she were still ten years old, applying too much makeup, a deliriously hideous caricature of her former child star self. Davis would continue to apply more and more makeup to her face making herself more repulsive as the film progressed.
Davis who loved to give high energy performances takes full advantage of her role here. Crawford, on the other hand, gives a subtle low key controlled performance of a self-sacrificing woman, a role type she knew so well (Mildred Pierce), held helplessly hostage, in dire need of rescue from her out of control sister.
The casting of Davis and Crawford brought their real life conflict to the screen. Sure other older actresses could have played the two roles, but none would have supplied the natural tension that existed between these two women; Davis the high wired actress and Crawford the ultimate movie star. Nor would they deliver the personas that these two legends cultivated over the years. On the set, each in their own way antagonized and criticized one another. They were malicious and derogatory toward each other; both looking to collect allies and find devious ways to anger the other.
On the set, Aldrich had to contend with Crawford the MOVIE STAR and Davis the ACTRESS. Davis would get into her part of a raging maniacal out of control bitch, while Crawford ever thinking of her image would attempt to slow the pace down. In 1988, author Shaun Considine interviewed Baby Jane screenwriter Lukas Heller who said, “Crawford never reacted to anything, she sat in her wheelchair or bed waiting for her close-ups. As the camera got closer, she would widen those enormous eyes of hers. She considered that acting.” It was not all vanity for Crawford, she actually lost weight during the production to give herself a more gaunt look, though various sources have recorded how her breasts size actually changed all the time including the beach scene where she dies at the end.
Still, Aldrich states in an interview with Charles Higham in The Celluloid Muse that both ladies were profession during the shoot. He says, “The two stars didn’t fight at all on Baby Jane. I think it is proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.” They may have, but according to various biographies, there were many snide remarks and some questionable actions by both. When Crawford wasn’t feeling well one day, she asked if they could take a break and Davis replied, “after all these years I thought we’d all be troupers.” Davis also accused Joan to others of spiking her Pepsi. As for Crawford, one story has it that in one of the final scenes Davis had to lift Crawford out of bed and carry her across the room. Davis had back problems and asked Joan not to make herself dead weight. After the one long scene, Davis screamed out in pain while Joan, looking a bit heavier nonchalantly walked off the set to her dressing room. It is said Crawford added weights under her costume. Crawford refutes this story. Both actresses knew that the publicity of a feud between them was, if nothing else, good for the film. Before working together, the two were probably professional rivals and not really personally feuding. By the end of the film, the two really hated each other.
Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the obvious, showy role of Jane while Crawford did not get a nod for her more restrained but equally effective role as Blanche. Far be it from me to make excuses for the Academy, but the Best Actress category for 1962 was a jammed pack group filled with superb performances. Along with Davis, there were Lee Remick for The Day of Wine and Roses, Katherine Hepburn for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Geraldine Page for Sweet Bird of Youth and Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker. Still, Crawford’s performance was extremely effective and deserved some recognition, and she was not about to let her lack of a nomination stop her from outshining Davis on the night of the ceremony.
Bette Davis was positive she was going to win, adding a third statue to the two she already had. Crawford meanwhile had called all the other nominees mentioning to them that she would be available, on the chance they could not attend the gala, to accept the Oscar on their behalf. As it turned out, Anne Bancroft was unable to attend. When it was time to announce the Best Actress award, Davis was about to receive not one but two shocks. Anne Bancroft was announced the winner and accepting the award for her would be Joan Crawford! Crawford slid by Davis mumbling excuse me and walked up to receive the award basking in the limelight and attention. In Witney Stine’s book I’d Love to Kiss You…Conversations with Bette Davis, Davis says, “She pushed me aside backstage, and the triumphant look she gave me as she pranced around out on the stage, I’ll never forget…” She then adds, “She carted that Oscar around for a long time on her Pepsi tour, before she finally gave it to Bancroft.” Charlotte Chandler in her Joan Crawford biography, Not The Girl Next Door plays down the Oscar event calling Joan’s arranging to receive Bancroft’s Oscar, “a constructive approach.”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a surprisingly violent and gruesome film for two Golden Age stars to have appeared in back in those days. Many people were upset watching Davis as Jane serve Crawford a rat on a plate (from what I have read Crawford was not aware the rodent would be on the plate), and seeing her kick Crawford in the stomach while she lies helplessly on the floor. In another scene, she drags poor Joan across the floor, and then just before Bette plunges a hammer into Elvira (Maidie Norman) the maid’s head, we find Joan gagged, and her hands bound hanging in bed. This wasn’t some teenage slasher flick starring unknown kids; this was Davis and Crawford, Hollywood royalty.
There are two notable supporting characters in the film, Edwin Flagg, played wonderfully by Victor Buono, in his film debut. Aldrich saw Buono in an episode of the TV series The Untouchables which impressed him greatly and signed him on. Buono received an Oscar nomination for his role. As Elvira the maid, Maidie Norman is a sympathetic soul who would not put up with Jane’s crap and became a victim of a violent death for her concern.
The film was the biggest financial shocker to come out since Psycho, just two years earlier, quickly earning back it approximate $1M budget. Speaking of the Hitchcock masterpiece, coincidently enough, the Hudson sisters’ next door neighbor is named Mrs. Bates. This Mrs. Bates though did not have a son named Norman, she had a daughter who was played by B.D. Merrill, Bette Davis’ real life daughter who would years later write her own tell-all book about mom. While the film is a classy thriller, Aldrich missed some opportunities to make this film more intense than it already is. For example, when Jane leaves the house and Blanche makes her way down stairs to reach a working telephone, the cross editing lacks any build up failing to register as much tension as a more effective editing style would have accomplished. On the other hand, there is some nice editing work in the sequence where Jane is kicking and stomping on poor Blanche. You can feel the pain of the swift kicks though you never really see any of the kicks make contact. Like the shower sequence in “Psycho” where you never see the knife enter the body but swear you do.
Davis went on a personal appearance tour when the film opened nationally in November. Apparently, Crawford was supposed to have joined in but backed out just before the tour was scheduled to begin. At one theater a fan yelled out, “where’s your sister?” Davis responded, ‘She’s dead on the beach” getting a big laugh.
Davis, Crawford, and Aldrich reteamed again for Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte however, deep filtered conflict, hatred, jealousy and illness pushed the production into turmoil. After weeks of production, Crawford was out and replaced by Olivia De Havilland. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was the beginning of a subgenre in horror films starring older actresses of the Golden Age, reviving their careers, at least temporarily, by appearing in these thrillers. In addition to Bette Davis (The Nanny, The Anniversary, Dead Ringer, Burnt Offerings) and Joan Crawford (Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did, Berserk, Trog) there was Olivia DeHavilland again in Lady in a Cage, Barbara Stanwyck in The Night Walker and a late entry, What’s The Matter With Helen? starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters.
Bette and Joan – Shaun Considine
The Celluloid Muse – Charles Higham
Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr – David Brett
This ‘n’ That – Bette Davis
More Than A Woman – James Spada
Dark Victory – Ed Sikov
Conversations With Bette Davis – Witney Stine
Not The Girl Next Door – Charlotte Chandler
Two films featured in my book, Lessons in the Dark, will be coming soon to TCM. Tonight at 10:15PM (Eastern) the superb Great Depression era musical Gold Diggers on 1933. The film stars Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell along with an excellent supporting cast that includes Aline McMahon, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee and Billy Barty.
On Friday (Feb. 10th) at 8PM (Eastern) don’t miss John Ford’s masterful production of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad. The cast includes Academy Award winner Jane Darwell and John Carradine. Look for a very young Darryl Hickman (Dobie Gillis) in a small role.
You can read more about both of these films plus others in Lessons in the Dark. Below I have reprinted the Introduction to the book.
Introduction – Lessons in the Dark
Why these films, why this book and why this collection you ask? It’s simple enough to answer. A few years ago I did a series of articles for Halo-17, a now defunct Australian music and arts website. One of the editors discovered my blog, I assume liked it, and asked if I would be interested in writing a column about classic films. The only caveat was that I had to make the films I wrote about connect to what was happening in today’s world. I needed to show readers how these old black and white films were still relevant. Illustrate how history repeats itself and there are lessons to be learned even from a film that is seventy years old.
Well, the requirement set forth by the folks at Halo-17 turned out to be simpler than I thought. As I began to look at films from this perspective I realized many films whether twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years old or more remain relevant. They had something to say about us today as well as years ago. Life and art repeat themselves. As the poet, novelist and philosopher, George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Classic films help us remember the past, both the good and the bad. Sometimes they even predict the future as it did in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), both which forecast the reality TV and political circus we are forced to endure today. A film like Black Legion (1937) teaches us about hating someone who’s different, how people get sucked into hatred or blaming immigrants for taking jobs from “real Americans.” Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of Will (1935) presented Adolph Hitler as Germany’s savior, a leader who would bring glory back to Germany by once again making it a great power! This Nazi rhetoric, the fear mongering, is awfully familiar to what we hear today from plastic gods with simplistic solutions promising to make America great again as they feed on the hate.
This collection of essays is divided into various sections focusing on specific themes. Each contains essays on films. Though “old” they speak about or reflect on the times we are living in today. Every one of these films remains pertinent to our current lives. Not all are great cinematically, yet there are lessons or messages to be learned. Some films are more direct in their ideas, others are more understated. There are even a few films that put forth a message or point of view for most of the film and then reverse course in the final moments. Why? Censorship sometimes exposes its ugly head or maybe the filmmakers or the studios got cold feet. Whatever the reason, it’s all part of what makes these films fascinating and worth watching and discussing.
Part One looks at films from or about the Great Depression of the 1930’s. As we continue to come out of our recent Great Recession that has been hanging over us since 2008, one can read into many of these films the similarities, the hard times and uncertainty we have all recently endured. In Part Two there are films exploring the absurdities of war and its effects on the men and women on the front line and back at home. Part Three contains a couple of films that reveal the influences of the news media on our lives. Part Four takes a look at social injustice. In Part Five we look at films about discrimination. In Part Six we see how the pre-code era gave us a look at tough, strong, independent and progressive women. Finally, in Part Seven, a section that is a catch all. It contains a variety of topics that we still deal with and affect our lives today.
“Old” films are not just nostalgic. They entertain, or at least attempt to, however, they are also avenues for learning and a passageway to take a look at ourselves as we were then and are now. Movies hold up a mirror to both our past, our lives today and our future. We can see how far we have come; the mistakes that we made, the choices we made, both the good and the bad. Hopefully we are able to learn, realize the bad and not repeat them.
The majority of these essays first appeared on my blog, Twenty Four Frames. I began the blog almost eight years ago, like many others, as a place to share my love of movies. The blog has evolved over time as I believe I have myself. During a lifetime of watching movies I have discovered new roads to travel and lessons learned. I hope you, the reader, will too.
Burt Lancaster stars in the brutally powerful prison drama, Brute Force, showing on TCM tonight at 10:15PM (Eastern time). The Jules Dassin directed film is a strong indictment of the prison system for its corruptness and failures to rehabilitate.
Along with Lancaster, the cast includes Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Sam Levene, Ann Blyth, Howard Duff and Yvonne DeCarlo. Set your DVR, you won’t be disappointed.
Read about Brute Force and other films including, The Grapes of Wrath, I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang, Ace in the Hole, The Americanization of Emily, A Face in the Crowd, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and more in my e-book, LESSONS IN THE DARK. Available on Amazon. Just click on the link below.
Hopper’s The Balcony
Edward Hopper loved the movies and he reflected that love in many of his works. When Hopper was not in the mood to paint, he would frequently binge on going to the movies where he would sometimes find inspiration. However, unlike most people, for Hopper, movie going was not a communal experience. Instead, as his work bares out, he found isolation and solitude in theaters like he did in his most famous cinema theater painting, New York Movie (permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art), which shows an usherette standing alone under a light in a side hall just off the main auditorium.
Hopper’s New York Movie
Phillip French writes in his article, From Nighthawks to the Shadows of Film Noir how Hopper influenced film and the other way around. French writes how, “German expressionism impinged on Hopper early on, during his sojourn in Paris. His 1921 etching Night Shadows looks like a storyboard sketch for a high-angle shot in a Fritz Lang movie.” I myself see Lang’s silent classic, M.
Hopper’s expressionistic like Night Shadows
Many of Hopper’s works are voyeuristic; private moments in people’s lives (A Woman in the Sun, New York Interior, Office in a Small City). Hopper’s influence on Alfred Hitchcock can be seen in Rear Widow (1953) where James Stewart’s photographer, stuck in a wheelchair with a broken leg, sits by his bay window looking out the courtyard watching all the lonely people going about their lives in their apartments. You can see Hopper’s influence again during the opening credits of Psycho (1960) as Hitchcock’s camera moves from a wide view of the city and slowly zooms in on one window where we discover Janet Leigh and John Gavin in an afternoon tryst.
Hopper’s Night Windows
Hitchcock’s Rear Window
In his most famous work, Nighthawks, Hopper was inspired after reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story, The Killers (1946), where two hitman comes to a small town diner looking to kill Burt Lancaster’s The Swede, a down and out boxer. When Universal Pictures and director Robert Siodmak turned the Hemingway story into a film, Siodmak certainly kept Hopper’s diner image in mind. Another sign of Hopper’s influence is seen in Force of Evil (1948). Screenwriter/director Abraham Polonsky, while on location in New York for his first film, took his cinematographer, George Barnes, to an exhibition of Hopper paintings and told him, that’s the way he wants the film to look.
Robert Siodmak’s The Killers
Nighthawks would continue to influence filmmakers and other artists for years to come. Director Herbert Ross used it as inspiration in his 1983 musical, Pennies from Heaven as did Todd Hayes in Far from Heaven (2002). Tom Waits third album, and his first live album, Nighthawks at the Diner, with a cover design by Cal Schenkel, was influenced by Hopper. In 1984, artist Gottfried Helnwein did a pop version of Nighthawks called Boulevard of Broken Dreams replacing the everyday patrons in Hopper’s painting with pop icons James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart. The guy behind the counter is Elvis. Later Green Day used Helnwein’s title and created one of their best known songs.
Edward Hopper was not a sociable man. He seems to have had little interest in communicating with or meeting people. Much of his art can be seen as the work of a man who lives within himself.
One of the most iconic images of James Dean shows the actor walking right down the middle of the Times Square crossroads. It’s raining. He’s wearing an overcoat, his collar is turned up, he’s hunched over and a cigarette is dangling from his mouth. The photograph was taken by Dennis Stock in 1955. At the time, both Dean and Stock were still relatively unknown in the respective careers. Dean would soon explode onto the screen in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. As quickly as he became a star, it would be extinguished after his fatal car crash in September 1955. The star died, but an iconic legend was born.
I accidently found this film while browsing through a local library earlier this week. I was unfamiliar with it, in truth, I never heard of it before. What caught my eye was the DVD’s cover image that loosely reflects the famous shot of James Dean walking down the middle of Times Square. Only in this version there is another guy with him with a 35mm camera around his neck, and unlike the more casually dressed Dean, wears a conservative white shirt and tie. Life, (the title as you will learn has a double meaning) it turned out was the story of the unusual short friendship between James Dean and photographer Dennis Stock. I had to watch this!
For a short period in 1954-55, Dennis Stock would photograph James Dean in Hollywood, New York and in Dean’s hometown in Indiana. In Life, directed by Anton Corbijn, we follow this short lived friendship between a still unknown actor and a ambitious photographer, still looking for his own big break. Stock works for the Magnum Agency and convinces his boss that this young nobody of an actor is going to be the next big thing as soon as his first film, East of Eden, is released. Stock wants his bosses to convince Life magazine to do the story.
Corbijn is definitely suitable for the subject matter considering his previous life as a rock photographer. Dean is played nicely by Dane DeHann who more through mannerisms and speech than through physical looks captures Dean’s essence. Stock is played by Robert Pattinson. He’s a bit quirky and his personal life is a mess. Married young, he’s divorced with a young boy who he hardly sees. When he does see the boy, it’s uncomfortable. While Stock works for Magnum, his career is not going in the direction he wants. He wants to be an artist and have an exhibit instead of photographing the latest movie premiere.
Each in their own way are fish out of water. They meet at a party in Hollywood given by director Nicholas Ray who is considering Dean for his new film Rebel Without a Cause. Stock is there on one of his routine assignments. They begin an uneasy friendship. Stock comes to see Dean as someone special and on the rise. He convinces his bosses at Magnum, Dean would make a great subject for a photo essay for Life magazine. The assignment is approved, but Dean turns out to be a relentlessly elusive subject to tie down for a shoot. During the course of their short friendship, Stock followed Dean from Hollywood to New York and even back to his hometown farm in Indiana. In the course of this short time, Dennis Stock creates a series of portraits of the artist as a young rebel. Many of the photos shot during this period turned out to be some of most intimate moments of Dean we ever get to see, especially the images of his life back in Indiana.
Like James Dean, Corbijn’s film is all about mood and not action. To some it may seem like it meanders, but I felt that it fits the zigzagging mood of the two lead characters. Dean wants to be a star yet he fights the Hollywood system. Stock wants to be a photographic artist, but seems tied down by money worries and opportunity. The two men eventually go their own ways when Dean heads back to Hollywood to begin filming Rebel Without a Cause and later Giant, both released posthumously and kicking off Dean’s legendary status.
Ben Kingsley plays a thug like Jack Warner and almost steals the film from its two lead actors. In one scene, Warner, after Dean ridiculed a Warner Brothers film during an interview, warns the young actor he better stay in line or he will be quickly dumped.
After Dean went back to Hollywood, Dennis Stock remained in New York and focused his work on the city’s Jazz Scene. Over the next few years, he photographed artists like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa and Miles Davis among others. Most were not performance photos, but more personal and atmospheric moments that he captured. Stock liked to stay quietly in the background capturing those private moments when his subjects were unguarded. The best of his Jazz work were compiled into a book called, Jazz Street, published in 1962. Over the course of his long career, Dennis Stock turned his camera on many subjects including the youth revolution of the late 60’s including hippie communes in New Mexico and California. Later in life he did a lot of nature and landscape photography. One thing that always remained consistent was that Dennis Stock always photographed what he wanted. At the University of Texas where he once addressed a roomful of photojournalism students Stock said, “I’ve never taken an assignment, I’ve always photographed what I wanted to be photographing, and then worried about selling the pictures or doing something with them afterwards. I’ve always shot for myself, and when you’re shooting what you’re interested in shooting, you’re always going to be happy.”
Dennis Stock was born in 1928. A native New Yorker, he was raised in The Bronx and grew up during the Great Depression. At the age of 17, he left home and joined the Navy. After his discharge, Stock apprenticed under photographer Gjon Mili between the years 1947 and 1951. He also worked closely with W. Eugene Smith. Stock first gained recognition after he was one of ten winners in a Life magazine photography contest. Some of his fellow winners at the time included Ruth Orkin, Robert Frank and Elliot Erwitt. Heady company. This was soon followed by a position with Magnum. During his early Hollywood days, Stock photographed stars like Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and many others. Like his photos of James Dean, the photos were generally intimate, behind the scenes and unguarded moments. In 1955, his James Dean photo essay was published in Life just a short period before the actor’s death.
Over the years, there were more books published, exhibits, lectures and photographs. Always photographs. Dennis Stock died in 2010 at the age of 81. As the film, Life, suggest, Stock’s personal life was messy. He was married several times; his last wife was author Susan Richards. At the time of his death, he had three children, a grandson and five great grandchildren.
A posthumously released documentary on Stock called, Beyond Iconic: Photographer Dennis Stock made the film festival circuit in 2011. In was directed by Hanna Sawka Hamaguchi and narrated by Stock prior to his death. The film seems to be sadly only available to academic institutions and resources at exorbitant prices.
Sharpio, T. Rees, Dennis Stock, 81; Magnum Photographer Shot Iconic Moments, Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2010
Dunlap, David W. Dennis Stock, Photographer of Intimate Portraits, Dies at 81, New York Times, Jan, 15, 2010
A Small Sampling of Photographs by Dennis Stock
Jacqueline Lynch, author Ann Blyth: Actress, Singer, Star and many other books, as well an ace blogger at Another Old Movie Blog reviewed my book, Lessons in the Dark. There is also a short interview. Check it out at the link below.
Check out Jacqueline’s books at Amazon at the link below
And you can read my interview with Jacqueline right below.
Robert Ryan is TCM’s Star of the Month. On Friday, May 6th beginning at 11am (ET) TCM will be showing 13 films of Ryan’s darkest works including The Racket, Act of Violence, On Dangerous Ground, The Set-Up and Beware, My Lovely.
I am happy to announce I am one of eleven contributors to CMBA’s new e-book, Words, Words, Words: Essays on Writers and Writing in Classic Film. The book is only .99 cents with all proceeds going to the National Film Preservation Fund. The book has been published in conjunction with the CMBA’s Words, Words, Words! Blogathon which is currently running through April 15th. You can purchase the book at the link below.