Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die

cornellopenerResearching, re-viewing, and re-visiting film noir this summer through TCM’s Summer of Darkness has led me beyond the trio of hard-boiled novelists/screenwriters generally discussed as the genre’s literary architects: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Daniel Mainwaring, author of Build My Gallows High on which Out of the Past was based, and I was delighted to discover the extent of his contributions to postwar Hollywood. Several readers suggested I also look into Cornell Woolrich, best known for penning the story that served as the basis for Rear Window. While every movie lover can connect his name to Rear Window, few know much beyond that—including myself. Not only is he the least familiar contributor to mystery fiction and film noir, but, in a genre created by a number of self-destructive, anxiety-ridden, and depressed writers, Woolrich was arguably the most troubled.

When the reclusive, alcoholic, diabetic died in 1968, he left behind several unfinished stories, including one titled “First You Dream, Then You Die.” The title seems a suitable epitaph for his wretched life—so suitable, in fact, that writer Francis M. Nevins, Jr., used it for his definitive, 600-page biography of Woolrich.

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Classic Hollywood Actors Discuss Women, Beauty & Femininity with Arlene Dahl

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You can catch Arlene Dahl in a number of films airing on TCM in July:
• SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949) JULY 03
• NO QUESTIONS ASKED (1951) JULY 17
• LIFE WITH FATHER (1947) JULY 29

Arlene Dahl was a stunning redhead and a capable actress who I’ve enjoyed watching in a number of films including REIGN OF TERROR (1949), SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949), WOMAN’S WORLD (1954) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). However, her most successful career was in the multibillion-dollar beauty industry where she started as a syndicated columnist offering advice on dieting, plastic surgery, make-up, fashion and the latest hairstyling trends. By 1954 she was managing her own line of lingerie and cosmetics under the Arlene Dahl Enterprises banner and in 1965 she published her first of many books titled Always Ask a Man: The Key to Femininity. Dahl’s book capitalized on her Hollywood credentials and dished out beauty tips along with suggestions on how women could best attract and keep their men.

With the women’s movement on the rise and the sexual revolution bubbling loudly under the surface of polite society, the mid-sixties was a challenging time. Especially for women like Arlene Dahl who had accepted her place, no matter how begrudgingly, in a society that often treated her like a second-class citizen. And although she had admirably managed to create a successful business for herself at a time when American women still weren’t allowed to get an Ivy League education, Dahl makes it clear in Always Ask a Man that she was no bra burning radical. Her antiquated ideas about womanhood are supported, and in some cases weakened, by a surprising number of male actors who are quoted throughout her book. These beloved film figures, including Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Bob Hope, Richard Burton and Burt Lancaster, freely offered their thoughts on femininity and beauty to Arlene Dahl, which she undoubtedly hoped would help sell her book and boost her arguments. 50-years-later, many of the actor’s casual comments are cringe-inducing reminders of a bygone era while others are more thoughtful and enduring. As history, particularly Hollywood history, their observations on women in 1965 makes for fascinating reading so I decided to collect some of the more provocative quotes and share them here.

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The Hollywood Style

hollywoodsbookRegular readers might remember a blog post I wrote last year about Hollywood portrait photographer Eliot Elisofon. I’m a huge admirer of his work so I decided to track down used copies of some of the books he wrote and one of my most interesting recent purchases was a lavish coffee table photo collection titled The Hollywood Style originally published in 1969 and co-authored by film historian Arthur Knight. The book provides an intimate look at the luxurious homes of various classic film actors and directors while combining three of my personal passions, history, photography and pre-80s interior design, into an impressive triumvirate that revels in Hollywood extravagance.

If you’ve ever pondered the design of Cecil B. DeMille’s home office or wondered what Jennifer Jones’ bedroom might look like you should find the following photos as curious and captivating as I did.

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‘Flickering Empire’ Reveals Chicago’s Role in Film History

flickopenerCan you guess where the first film version of The Wizard of Oz was produced? Hollywood, 1939? What about the first newsreel? New York, maybe? Or, the initial screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol? Would London be a reasonable guess? What about the first movie to chronicle the story of Jesse James? The original film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Or, the first biopic of Lincoln? The answer to all of these questions is not Hollywood, or New York, or London—all represented in the history books as places where film pioneers established a new medium. The answer is Chicago—the so-called Second City—which barely rates a mention in most of those books.

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry (Wallflower Press, 2015) by Michael Smith and Adam Selzer offers a well-researched, in-depth chronicle of the Windy City’s role in cinema history. From the early 1890s to World War I, the city was a major player in the motion picture business, giving the likes of Carl Laemmle, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Charlie Chaplin, and Francis X. Bushman a leg up in their careers.

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Summer Reading Suggestions

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Like many people, I tend to do a lot of reading when the weather warms up and with summer officially about to start on June 21st I thought it would be a good time to share some of the books I’ve been enjoying with my fellow film buffs. My own tastes tend to be somewhat eclectic but I hope readers of all types and stripes will find something that piques their interest when pursuing my list of Summer Reading Suggestions.

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The Last Picture Show

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“I thought you might want to go to the picture show. Miss Mosey is having to close it. Tonight’s the last night.” – Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms)

How is it that nobody has done a modern version of The Last Picture Show? I realize that Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, is about much more than Miss Mosey having to close down the movie theater due to dwindling business and the rise of television, but let’s face it: the death of the Royal Theater in a small town, circa 1952, serves as a larger emblem of the many chapters in life that open and close for the characters of Anarene, Texas. It does so in ways that are understandable for anyone going through adolescence, their mid-life, and even death. Still: so much is implied by the four simple words of the title that it’s no surprise the book caught the eye of someone like Bogdanovich.

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Page to Screen with Soylent Green

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Harry Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room! in 1965. It was published a year later and in 1973 was turned into the feature film Soylent Green by Richard Fleischer, starring Charlton Heston. Harrison was clearly influenced by Malthusian theory, a stance that might be summed up by the 18th-century British cleric and scholar in one concise sentence: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Over the years, critics of Thomas Robert Malthus have found plenty of fodder with which to reject his dire premise, mainly because the models used by Malthus didn’t account for the many ways in which human ingenuity would make many resources more readily available, and at lower prices, to the growing number of people inhabiting the planet. Malthusian critics might also point to the divide between Harrison’s scenario, which envisioned life in the Big Apple circa 1999 as being multiplied by a factor of five, going from seven million people in the sixties to 35 million by 1999. That didn’t happen, not in NYC at least (Tokyo, on the other hand, has now surpassed that number). Today, the population of of NYC hovers under the nine million mark, perhaps held in check by the exorbitant price of a martini, not to mention the going rate for monthly rent. Fleischer, working in the 70s, decided to hedge his bets by extending the date for Soylent Green out to the year 2022. He also contributed powerful imagery not found in the book of people being scooped up by garbage trucks, which also made for a very compelling poster. [...MORE]

On How ‘The Foxes of Harrow’ Is Definitely Not Like ‘Gone With the Wind’

foxesposterTo cap this year’s Summer Under the Stars series, TCM devotes the last day of August to British actor Rex Harrison, best remembered as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Harrison’s extensive career was more diverse and interesting than his signature role suggests, which is true of most actors whose life-long work has been reduced to one famous role.

During the 1940s, Harrison was under contract to 20th Century Fox, where he was cast in a variety of films, including Anna and the King of Siam, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Unfaithfully Yours. Supposedly, Harrison was unhappy at Fox because he felt the studio did not appreciate his talents for sophisticated romantic comedy. He was granted a release from his contract, though I suspect Fox’s decision to let him go had more to do with the scandal resulting from Harrison’s role in the suicide of Carole Landis. Frankly, this is the only phase of Harrison’s career that I find interesting. There is something unlikable about his movie-star image, which began as an arrogant, supercilious cad in the 1940s and evolved into a stuffy patriarch by the 1960s. The publicity surrounding his unsuccessful marriages and dalliances only furthered this aspect of his persona. At least his roles for Fox either used this persona to its best advantage or softened it.

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GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980

gunswordbookI first became familiar with Chris D.’s (Dejardins) writing in the early 90s thanks to his work for a small-press magazine (or zine) called Asian Trash Cinema. At the time I was utterly obsessed with Japanese pop culture and history and for a 10 year period roughly between 1991-2001 I spent many of my weekends in San Francisco’s Japantown where I’d rent movies and anime (often without any subtitles), buy manga and books I couldn’t read and eat lots of good meals that I couldn’t pronounce properly. I was also writing and publishing my own zines at the time. Zine culture peaked in the ‘90s before the internet changed the way we all communicate but for a brief time the only place where you could really find good information about cult cinema, B-movies, forgotten gems and unusual art-house films was between the pages of self-published zines and small-press magazines like Psychotronic, Video Watchdog, Shock Cinema and Asian Trash Cinema. These are the kinds of publications that helped shape my own film interests and writing. While many film journalists may have found popular mainstream critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert inspirational, they held little interest for me because they weren’t talking (or writing) about movies that appealed to my own eccentric tastes and if they were, they weren’t particularly kind. But folks like Chris D. were and one of Chris’ early essays from Asian Trash Cinema (Issue #3, 1992) titled YAKUZA EIGA: Losers on Parade is one of my favorite pieces of writing on Japanese cinema. When Chris D. composed that love letter to gangster (aka yakuza) films that I was just discovering and beginning to appreciate, he was one of a handful of writers trying to thoughtfully grapple with a genre that had been ignored and maligned by critics and scholars for decades. Chris helped me see the often tenuous connection between Japanese cinema and the country’s complex cultural fabric that seemed to confuse and perplex many western writers. I mention all this because I’m not exactly an unbiased reviewer. In fact, Chris and I have exchanged numerous notes over the last few years and I was honored to be asked to write a blurb that appears on his latest book GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980. I wanted to share his new book with Movie Morlocks’ readers but to be fair I thought I should let you know these facts first. What follows is my honest review of Chris’ latest book but read on at your own discretion.

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The Pulp Adventures of Lee Marvin

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Illustration by Robert Foster

“Lee Marvin in a room is the best storyteller I know. Lee Marvin brings me to tears laughing when he starts talking about fishing tournaments he’s been in and this, that and the other thing. He talks in sound effects all the time. I just think Lee Marvin is one of the most engaging people I know.”
– Director John Frankenheimer (from John Frankenheimer: Interviews, Essays and Profiles edited by Stephen B. Armstrong)

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