Bright Lights Film Journal

Book reviews: Jacques Tourneur, George Cukor, John Ford, White Zombie, Warner Sisters, and More

Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, by Chris Fujiwara. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Trade paper, $18.95, 328pp, ISBN 0-8018-6561-1.

Jacques Tourneur has long been a favorite of horror fans, French critics, and a few sensible American observers like Manny Farber as a creator of some of cinema’s most subtly potent effects, particularly in his trio of B-horror films for Val Lewton at RKO in the early 1940s and his Lewtonesque Curse of the Demon in 1958. His most famous film noir, Out of the Past, is also widely considered one of the genre’s greatest. Fans who have wished to better understand Tourneur have had to cobble together a biography, production histories, and analysis from widely scattered sources — obscure academic journals like Film and Psychoanalysis, zines like Film Fax and Photon, French-language studies for those who can read them, and one of the several books devoted to Val Lewton. The Edinburgh Film Festival issued an anthology of essays in English devoted entirely to Tourneur, but that book was aimed squarely at academics. It’s Chris Fujiwara’s book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall,which straddles the academic and popular, that will likely be the standard reference in English for the foreseeable future.

Fujiwara begins by persuasively rescuing Tourneur from one of Sarris’ gulags: the dreaded third ranking in American Cinema. Sarris’ backhanded praise in phrases like “subdued, pastel-colored sensibility” and “a certain French gentility” has been seconded by many critics, who attributed the virtues of the Lewton-produced films to Lewton and the brilliance of Out of the Past and Night of the Demon to Tourneur’s “intelligent” manipulation of prosaic generic elements. Fujiwara argues that the things that distinguish Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and Leopard Man —narrative ambiguity, lyrical mise-en-scene, understated dramatics — are also present in such unjustly forgotten thrillers, westerns, and historical dramas as Experiment Perilous, Stars in My Crown, Way of a Gaucho, and others. By examining Tourneur’s early French features and many MGM shorts, he shows decisively that the director’s stylistic maturity occurred before his first widely acclaimed feature,Cat People, and only grew from there.

Fujiwara devotes meaty individual chapters to each of the features, with a close reading and critical analysis leavened with production data and contextualizing commentary. True to the author’s missionary zeal, some of the best material is the most polemical, as when he effectively articulates the minority view that Leopard Man is not the mess that many (including Tourneur) have claimed, but a major work of “precise and inexhaustible poetry” that presaged the anti-narrative cinema that would be de rigeur in Hollywood two decades later. Fujiwara is also strong on the visual beauty of Stars in My Crown, the sense of personal conviction in Night of the Demon, and the connection between the underrated Experiment Perilous and the Lewton films. Overall, a worthy, well-written and -researched tribute to an auteur who deserves a higher ranking than Sarris, and too many other critics, has given him. Included are a detailed bibliography and filmography, along with photos.

Member of the Crew, by Winfrid Kay Thackrey. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000. Hardcover, $45.00, 272pp, ISBN 0-8108-3940-7.

Scarecrow Press continues to amaze and enthrall with its Filmmakers series. Entry #82 is, at first glance, one of the most obscure of this frequently obscure series. Member of the Crew, by Winfrid Kay Thackrey, is a memoir of the author’s days as a studio stenographer and crew member in golden-age Hollywood. Thackrey is an engaging enough presence from that era, and much of the book is taken up with her vivid recollections of Hollywood from the silent era to wartime and her rise, such as it was. But the book’s real interest to some readers will be the author’s memories of working with and getting to know Gregory La Cava. La Cava is one of the great casualties of the lack of historical memory in American culture, and Thackrey was an integral player in most of his major productions: Gabriel Over the White House, Bed of Roses, Affairs of Cellini, Stage Door, Fifth Avenue Girl, Primrose Path,and Unfinished Business. There is so little written material available on La Cava that this book is especially welcome not only for its ostensible purpose as a look at the life of a working-class woman in Hollywood’s golden era but as a kind of oblique biography of this neglected auteur.

Thackrey is exceptionally astute on her boss: “He was a master of the wisecrack that so often defends and disguises a troubled insecurity and vulnerability.” She offers a wonderfully close-up view of his unique improvisatory shooting methods, his incessant rewriting, his refusal to accept studio demands for a six-day week, as well as his personal quirks, frequent black moods, and alcoholic binges. His importance to the author, both personally and professionally, is evident in the fact that many of the chapters are titled with the names of La Cava’s films. Those who don’t know or care about La Cava will nonetheless find Member of the Crew a well-written and highly detailed tour of a talented woman working in the hothouse of the Hollywood studio system in its heyday.

John Ford Interviews, edited by Gerald Peary. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Trade paper, $18.00, 166pp, ISBN 1-57806-398-1.

George Cukor Interviews, edited by Robert Emmet Long. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Trade paper, $18.00, 191pp, ISBN 1-57806-387-6.

John Ford was one of the most elusive of men, as creative in inventing his life and thwarting efforts to know it as he was in making films. For the Ford entry in the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversations with Filmmakers series, editor Gerald Peary has collected a slew of interviews, from a 1920 profile in the Cleveland News to a 1973 postmortem by Walter Wagner. Peary’s introduction sets the stage for what’s to come in an anecdote, all too typical, about a 1970 attempt by Joseph McBride to talk to a director he idolized and would later profile in several books. “Ford, almost immediately testy, pushed his interviewer off-stride by a seating at his deaf ear, forcing McBride to sacrifice momentum repeating questions.” Ford’s responses to queries about specific films were perverse and dismissive: Seven Women was “just a job of work”; The Searchers “a good picture.” As for the interviews themselves, they’re mostly dodgy efforts, battles-of-wills that Ford could easily win by pretending deafness, repeating a rehearsed anecdote, or simply ending the interview early. The poetry in Ford’s nature came out in his work, not in his life, if these interviews are any indication. Even in the 1920 article, he discusses mostly the production circumstances of his recent film Marked Man. It may be more than simply because of the Cleveland News’ word-count policy that this article runs a scant two pages, despite the author’s daylong visit with Ford. Later interviews further this strange portrait of a man who insisted on calling himself, both ironically and as protective camouflage, a “peasant.” Ford is most comfortable recounting anecdotes about the films and actors. While it’s useful to have all these interviews in one place, Ford’s evasiveness may frustrate the casual reader.

George Cukor is another Hollywood director with a reputation for claiming the status of craftsman, not artist, for himself, but he’s far more forthcoming than Ford in the George Cukor Interviews book, edited by Robert Emmet Long. If Ford’s pose was curmudgeonly and ultimately bitter, Cukor’s is witty, self-deprecating, and pragmatic. Told of Cahiers du Cinema’s analyses of his films, he says “I’m very amused reading these very nice articles about my work.” Asked about his firing from Gone with the Wind, he replies, “I have never wasted time regretting setbacks of this kind; I am too much a fatalist, or perhaps just too conceited for that. I have always felt that if I couldn’t make one picture I would just make another.” Cukor proves himself an incisive judge of other people’s work. He sardonically laments Lawrence of Arabia’s narrative slackness: “I didn’t know what their point was. It was lost in all those surging masses.” Generally he’s as respectful of actors in his comments as he is in his films, though he bristled at being called a “woman’s director.” “That one stuck with me regardless of my other attributes. And I, supine fool that I was, said ‘Yes, yes, I am.’ Now that I’m older, I say ‘What the hell do you mean?’” Asked what drives him, he replies, “the irrepressible urge to tell people what to do.” The interviews here span 1964 to 1982, and modesty should — but doesn’t — preclude us from mentioning that Jeff Wise and Robert Smith’s 1974 interview from Bright Lights, which shows Cukor at his most enchantingly bitchy, is among them. Included in both the Ford and Cukor volumes are a chronology, a filmography, an index, and a photo gallery.

The Moving Image, edited by Jan-Christopher Horak. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Fall 2001. Trade paper, $30.00 per year (subscription, two issues), 198pp, ISSN 1532-3978.

We don’t normally review journals but had to make an exception in this case. The Moving Image is an excellent collection of articles on the preservation and restoration of film, television, video, and digital moving images. This seems especially important at a time when large numbers of films continue to disappear and digital technologies threaten to overtake celluloid as the moving-image medium of choice.

Some of the material here is more for the academic specialist than the casual fan, but the latter will still find much of interest. Charles “Buckey” Grimm’s “A History of Early Nitrate Testing and Storage: 1910-1945” tells the fascinating story of how the studios, scientists, and various government agencies dealt with the highly dangerous, limited-life material of film over a 35-year period. Included are such tantalizing details as the fact that during World War I the Army Signal Corps shot over 1.8 million feet of film of historic events. In “Digital Preservation of Moving Image Material,” Howard Besser admirably explicates this complicated issue with straightforward explanations of the technologies involved and the efforts made to date in the area of digital preservation. Other articles explore the presentation and preservation of home movies, the evolution of preservation from 1967 to 1977, and the “racial body” in early silent cinema. Also of interest are in-depth reviews of Disney’s anniversary rerelease of Fantasia, Disney archivist Scott MacQueen’s look at Image’s DVD Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films, and two reviews of Ken Burns’ Jazz (by Stephen J. Casmier and David Klowden) that beautifully skewer this reactionary series and the tired aesthetic behind it. Well illustrated.

The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies, by Daniel Bubbeo. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001. Trade paper, $35.00, 272pp. ISBN 0-7864-1137-6.

It’s hard to take too seriously a book of this title that includes Nancy Coleman but not the actress whose early ’30s work for Warners (Three on a Match, Strange Love of Molly Louvain, etc.) is among that studio’s best, Ann Dvorak. Clearly an effort by the author to remind us of the existence of these talented, spirited stars at a time when cultural memory threatens to forget them, The Women of Warner Brotherscovers the 1930s and ’40s and includes such well-known stars as Olivia de Havilland and Ann Sheridan, along with lesser lights such as Glenda Farrell and Andrea King.

The writing is workmanlike, if sometimes too casual in the manner of movie zines (starting a sentence with “Oh yeah” may not endear the author to all of his readers). There’s nothing particularly new here, but the book is useful as a one-stop source for longer profiles of its subjects and their films than can be found elsewhere (excluding stars like Bette Davis whose careers have been written up in exhaustive detail). And the lack of Dvorak is at least partially compensated for by the inclusion of such vanishing worthies as Joan Leslie, Andrea King, Eleanor Parker, and Alexis Smith. Fans of these actresses will find this a diverting read.

White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film, by Gary D. Rhodes. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001. Illustrated case binding, $65.00, 360pp. ISBN 0-7864-0988-6.

In the cinephile’s ideal world, every film would get the deluxe treatment McFarland has given to White Zombie in Gary Rhodes’ book. It’s hard to imagine why this 1932 horror film, a primitive but atmospheric Gothic directed by Victor Halperin, was chosen, but we’re not complaining. Rhodes is aware of the film’s dubious rep (“Many lovers of classic movies agree with what many critics said in the beginning, that this is a silly, badly played example of penny-dreadful filmmaking”), but is determined to rehabilitate it by examining it from every possible angle from the historical to the sociological to the analytical. Rhodes is persuasive in outlining the film’s attractions. There’s the contribution of the inestimable Bela Lugosi (“leaner and more wolfish than in any of his other pictures”); the fantastic mishmash of sets (from The Cat and the Canary, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and others) that together make for a compelling otherworldly atmosphere; the chiaroscuro cinematography; the film’s foreshadowing of the mood-drenched Val Lewton B films ten years later; and the film’s standing, in the author’s words, as “an important work of 1930s cinema, of independent filmmaking, and of the horror film genre.”

Rhodes thoroughly investigates the evolution of White Zombie from a myrid of sources classical (Faust), popular (Trilby), and exploitative (the 1929 nonfiction voodoo book The Magic Island), through preproduction, postproduction, and finished film to its purportedly wide influence on “subsequent voodoo and zombie related books, articles, films, and plays.” Rhodes deserves kudos for seeking out a wide range of original sources, including the director’s widow who supplied him with biographical information on Halperin missing from all other accounts. A series of detailed appendices cover everything from reviews of the film to box-office grosses to pressbook reproductions. If the author’s (freely admitted) obsession with White Zombie sometimes carries him over the edge — the “Victor Halperin Family Scrapbook Photographs” is nice but is it necessary? — it’s easy to forgive him considering the breadth and depth of this obvious labor of love. Included in the feast are 244 images and photographs.

Movie Poster Price Almanac: 2002 Review, edited by John Kisch. Hyde Park, NY: Separate Cinema Publications. Cloth, $49.95, 800pp, ISBN: 0-9661482-4-X.

Price guides have always been one of the more controversial items in the collectibles field. Movie poster aficionados have traditionally had to rely on the whims of self-styled experts deciding on the value of a particular poster — a value that might be based as much on the expert’s desire to sell the item (the author-dealer phenomenon is much too common for comfort) as on an objective, research-based analysis of market value. John Kisch’s Movie Poster Price Almanacs have effectively killed the need for other guides through one simple stroke: basing values on actual recorded sales.

Kisch’s mammoth guides have been around for several years now, and they cull auction and sales results from 264 dealers (e.g., L.A.’s La Belle Epoque, Canada’s Memory Lane) and auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s). Ebay, of course, is here, providing an enormous amount of information since it puts thousands of poster auctions a week within reach of the collector.

The entries, over 86,000 by my reckoning, are arranged in a simple format: title, date, stars, country (if not U.S.), size, price condition (including whether it’s linenbacked), origin (Internet, auction, ad, or catalog), date of sale, and dealer’s name. One of the intriguing things about these results is the wide range of prices realized on the same poster from different venues. It’s quite common to see a 20 to 50 percent difference in desirable posters like the one-sheet of Attack of the 50-Woot Woman. A near-mint linenbacked copy went for $4,050 from dealer Deke Richards in October 2001; a month later Christie’s auctioned a very fine linenbacked copy for $6,463. The spread shown on Ulmer’s seminal Detour one-sheet is from $1,675 to $3,000 from April 1999 to October 2001. (Kisch: “Because many rarer posters are seen so infrequently, we include several auction results from the past 3 years” — useful in tracking a poster’s increasing or sometimes plummeting popularity.) The rarity of some items can be gauged by their lack of representation here: you’d be hard pressed to find a single Mizoguchi, for example. (There are plenty of Kurosawas on the other hand.) This annual guide is a must-have for any collector of movie memorabilia.