I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. This is the second book I’ve read by MacNabb (I read and reviewed A Secret History of Brands: The Dark and Twisted Beginnings of the Brand Names We Know and Love a while back and enjoyed it, and I looked forward to this book, as it’s on a topic I’ve always been interested in.
I found this book well suited to the circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment (I’m writing this review in the middle of our confinement due to COVID-19, in case somebody comes across it at some point in the future and wonders what I was talking about). It’s written in an straightforward and easy-to-reads style; it deals with a topic that a lot of people find interesting (not only the lives of film stars and directors in general but their scandals, in particular); it contains an introduction and thirteen distinct chapters, each one dedicated to a different star, so it does not require sustained attention, and it can be dipped into according to the interest or the mood of the reader. The book also includes beautiful black and white pictures (some that I’d never seen before) and a bibliography (with books, websites, articles, and even documentaries). Although many of the stars won’t be familiar to the younger generation (there is a heavy focus on actors, actresses, and directors from early Hollywood), I don’t think that will make the book less attractive. The author manages to bring to life an era in the history of cinema that many people know more through the movies and documentaries than through the actual films of the period, but I am sure many readers will be inspired to do more research and try to find more information about the protagonists and the time.
Personally, I had heard about quite a few of the people mentioned, and in some cases I had read or watched documentaries that contained more detailed information than that available in this volume, but others were new to me. As for others, I knew the people involved (Errol Flynn was one of my father’s favourite actors, and I’ve watched and enjoyed many of his movies in glorious technicolour), but I didn’t know much about the scandals they became entangled in. I don’t think this is a book I’d recommend to experts in Hollywood (especially old Hollywood) personalities, as they are bound to know everything contained in it and more, but it’s a good entry book for people interested in the topic but not very knowledgeable, or for somebody looking for a good read and happy to find out more about a historical period and a period in the history of cinema that helped create the cult of stars, and also about the role of the press in building them up or destroying them that we’re so familiar with to this day.
The chapters, that don’t follow a strict chronological order, are dedicated to: Evelyn Nesbitt, Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Errol Flynn, Lana Turner, William Desmond Taylor, Joan Crawford, Barbara LaMarr, Mabel Normand, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and Clara Bow. Some are more familiar than others, but overall, they provide an interesting array and sample of some of the events and scandals that have plagued Hollywood from the beginning. It’s impossible not to notice that many of the subjects of the book (not all, but a significant proportion) had suffered pretty traumatic childhoods, being brought up in pretty desperate circumstances, and sometimes subject to terrible abuse. It’s sad to think that after all their efforts to make a better living for themselves, some ended up either the perpetrators (alleged in most cases) or victims of violence, abuse, or crime in later life, and very few managed to lead a happy life. Although the book does not delve into the gore or the extremely salacious details, it does include enough information to make it not suitable for young children.
This is a book I’d recommend to people who enjoy reading about Old Hollywood, scandals, and stars, but haven’t read extensively on it, and also to people looking for a source of information about the era that is easy to read and entertaining, but offers an interesting insight into what life was like for the big stars of the era (and what falling from grace was like). An engaging and easy read and a good entry level for people looking for an introduction to the beginning of film star culture.
"[T]he pressures were tremendous. Yet she never wavered. Her optimism, delicious humour and selfless nature were always on parade. It was if she'd been hired not just to act, sing and carry the entire film, but to keep everyone's spirits up as well. She did. She held us together and made us a team. Julie was quite transparent. There was no way she could conceal the simple truth that she cared profoundly for her work and for everyone else around her. I think that beneath my partly assumed sarcasm and indifference she saw that I cared too. As two people who barely came to know each other throughout those long months of filming, we had somehow bonded." (In Spite of Myself, p. 396).
So wrote Christopher Plummer about Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music".
In her own always-generous if always-measured way, Julie Andrews returns the compliment in this volume (p. 55):
"I didn't see much of Chris Plummer beyond the workday, as he spent most of his spare time at the Bristol. Word spread that he was becoming renowned for his late-night performances at the piano in the hotel bar. In his youth, he had trained to be a concert pianist, and he was very good indeed. He apparently spent his evenings at the bar getting quite smashed and playing Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky until the wee hours. That said, Chris was the glue that held us all together; the one who always kept us from going too deep into the saccharine side of the story. He was so disciplined in his acting, so knowledgeable, that he was appropriately imposing as the Captain. Yet he was very gentle, and constructive too. He'd make suggestions as to how we would play a certain scene..."
In that last sentence is reflected one of the pervading themes of this volume of Andrews' memoir: her relative insecurity as an actor (she took no acting lessons prior to making these blockbuster movies), which is the more striking in comparison to her complete confidence in her musical side.
Just as her singing features impeccable diction and razor-sharp intonation, Andrews' prose here is correct and well-crafted (and has gone through careful editing, obviously, by her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton). Though it's idiomatic and not over-formal, you will search in vain for exclamation marks or exaggerations in her prose. The net effect, especially if you are not reading carefully, is rather emotionless. It is only if you look carefully at exactly which well-chosen words she has actually chosen that you can read the emotion, barely beneath the surface. This is particularly true, of course, when she writes about her family - her divorce from her first husband, Tony Walton; and her long marriage to director Blake Edwards, and creation of a blended family (Emma, two of Edwards' children acquired through marriage, and two adopted orphans from Vietnam).
The detailed portion of the book, true to its title, is largely focused on Andrews' Hollywood films - the three huge musical hits (Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Victor/Victoria) as well as the somewhat lesser-known films, some hits and some misses (The Americanization of Emily, Hawaii, Star!, Thoroughly Modern Millie, S.O.B., 10 - and several others I've missed out, I'm sure). Since it's a chronological account, we also get stories about the Julie and Carol television specials, as well as her own TV series. In addition she chronicles the beginning of her side-hustle as a children's book writer. Since there's no mention of her late-life work (the Princess Diaries movies, for instance), I think it's possible that a volume 3 is in contemplation.
Oh yes, did that bond from "The Sound of Music" last? If you can believe the joint interview of Plummer and Andrews (2005) that I pulled up on youtube the other night, it most certainly did. The affection and respect between them didn't look at all acted to me.
If you're at all interested in Julie Andrews' work, or in Hollywood history, I heartily recommend this one.
This collection of Margaret Mitchell's correspondence succeeds largely on the strength of Mitchell's own wit and charm as a writer. It's also properly presented with lots of contextual information and historical lacunae filled in by a loving editor (I believe the introduction says he was her godson).
The actual subject matter of the letters - the making of, release, and aftermath of the movie Gone With The Wind - is actually slightly less interesting than one might suppose. That's because Mitchell took a strong stand, which I think was also a wise one, not to take any active role relating to the movie once the rights were sold. So a very great deal of the correspondence consists of her explaining, over and over again, that it's Mr. Selznick's movie not hers, and no, she cannot arrange auditions for aspirants to the role of Scarlett, etc. etc. She also had occasion to rebuke both the studio and various publications assuming she would automatically take an active role in the marketing of the movie.
That said, it was clearly not her intention to be actively obstructive, and she also had a vested interest in the movie's historical accuracy, since she had apparently put very substantial effort into that aspect of her book. So, despite herself, we see her being drawn into controversies over which way round a Mammy would wear her head kerchief, or whether Tara would have white pillars. In the end, she used her connections to supply the studio with local Atlanta experts, which seems to have worked well. This does not prevent, however, her complaints of the constant barrage of demands on her attention. In fact, she wrote no other novel, and one gets the sense that she blamed it largely on the decade-long fuss that attended the making, release, and subsequent re-release (in post-war Europe) of the movie. And then, of course, she died tragically early in a motor vehicle accident.
Mitchell is very much a woman of her time and place when it comes to racial matters, though of course even then there was a spectrum of behaviour, and she was on the more human end of it. She apparently liked Hattie McDaniel, and made an effort to have her invited to the post-premiere party in Atlanta, even though McDaniel was, shockingly, excluded from the Atlantic movie theatre (as all Black people were) for the premiere itself. Her conservatism and racism (mixed together) mostly make themselves felt in occasional remarks about the early Black rights leaders, whom she felt, presumably along with most white people of her class, to be a threat.
I would recommend this as a fairly interesting and on occasions quite amusing read to anyone interested in Hollywood history.
Is this really "the definitive biography"? It's certainly the best in a very disappointing field since O'Toole's death. Notably absent amongst the people interviewed as original sources: any of O'Toole's surviving family, including ex-wife Sian Phillilps (mother of his two daughters) or ex-partner Karen Brown (mother of his late-life son). So this is definitely not the "authorized" biography, which can be a good or a bad thing. In this case, I think it has been detrimental to any real understanding of O'Toole's family life (Sian Phillips' autobiography is a useful corrective for the years when they were married).
I was dubious when I saw Robert Sellers to be the author, because he has also written books with such unpromising titles as "Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed" and "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World". In other words, he gives every appearance of being one of those bloke-ish biographers who delight in chronicling promiscuity and drunkenness, as if they were something necessarily associated with great talent and in some way admirable. Mind you, to be fair, if you're going to write about Peter O'Toole, you're going to have to address both of those major factors in his life and career. But I was pleasantly surprised at the relative absence of celebratory adjectives about the alcoholism that most certainly contributed to O'Toole's dreadful health in the second part of the career (not to mention his very poor reputation amongst landlords and other property owners).
The sources for this book are chiefly gossipy minor players in the entertainment world, most of whom doubtless have dined out on their O'Toole stories for some time, so we must take into account the natural human tendencies to embellish and generalize. The other people involved in the best anecdotes are by and large gone from us, and can't issue any refutations (if indeed they would wish to). But in addition to O'Toole's mischief, drinking, and occasional completely thoughtless cruelty, I found that there was also a ring of truth - through repetition from different sources - in the accounts of his deep thoughtfulness about his craft, his extensive and intelligent reading, and a generosity that could be as extravagant as his narcissism. As I think I remarked in my review of "Hellraisers", O'Toole still comes off, like Burton, as someone you could see wanting to associate with, as opposed to some of the nastier drunks in his circle of contemporaries. (And lest anyone wonder, it does seem that he dabbled in drugs as well.)
Sellers puts to rest the old controversy of where O'Toole was born, Ireland or England, by digging up the actual birth certificate from Leeds. But he does also acknowledge throughout that O'Toole became Irish, almost by dint of wishing so very much to be Irish (he always claimed himself that he did not actually know one way or the other).
The book has a decent apparatus (index, bibliography, list of film and theatre credits), and there are citations at the end for most paragraphs, though since most of said citations are to "author's interview with X", there's really not much verification that can be done. Sellers also took the time to view the historical record in the form of TV talk show utterances (now much more available to us through youtube), and he relies relatively little on previous biographical work as far as I can see, although Sian Phillips is of course fairly heavily cited.
"Better than expected" doesn't seem like particularly high praise, but in fact I'm quite pleased to give this book a place on my shelves. Since O'Toole will unfortunately never continue his slim, whimsical, fascinating autobiographical efforts into the most riveting years of his career, we must rely on the more prosaic expressions (and perhaps more reliable memories?) of the people around him who may not have been his nearest and dearest, but for that very reason may have been reliable observers.
Recommended to fans of O'Toole and people who enjoy anecdotal biography about London and Hollywood in the mid to late 20th century.