Me Elsewhere: Scotch, Guarded

 Cocktails, Me Elsewhere, Scotch  Comments Off on Me Elsewhere: Scotch, Guarded
Apr 112015

A justly neglected musical about a highland rogue. Rudolph Valentino. Stan Laurel. The Three Stooges. And a one-time toast of Broadway whose name proved one letter too difficult. What do these have in common? They all factor into the history of one of the trio of Scotch cocktails spotlighted in my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films.

 Posted by at 12:24 am

Me Elsewhere: Brandy, You’re A Fine Drink

 Apricot Brandy, Cocktails, Me Elsewhere  Comments Off on Me Elsewhere: Brandy, You’re A Fine Drink
Mar 172015

Another month brings another Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films. I focus on apricot brandy, a staple ingredient in vintage cocktails undergoing a resurrection thanks in part to a quality product now available at a good price. With three drink recipes so you can play along at home! (As it happens, Punch magazine takes up the same subject this week, spotlighting the same brand. Great minds again thinking alike.)

As usual the entire issue of EDF is worth reading, especially filmmaker Philip Kaufman’s reminiscence of working with the late Leonard Nimoy.

 Posted by at 7:57 pm

Me Elsewhere: At Home And On The Road

 Edith Head, Me Elsewhere, noir, Noir City, Shameless Self-Promotion  Comments Off on Me Elsewhere: At Home And On The Road
Mar 102015

A whole lot’s going on, and I do my bit to keep you updated …

First, the Noir City 2014 Annual is now for sale at Amazon. There’s a finite number of these beauties in circulation, so score a copy while they’re hot. This is the finest book the Film Noir Foundation has released to date, boasting a veritable all-star roster including Christa Faust, Jake Hinkson, Eddie Muller, Imogen Sara Smith, Wallace Stroby, and Duane Swierczynski. I’m in there, too, somewhere in the back. The proceeds go to the FNF, so what are you waiting for?

And in other Noir City news, the line-up for the Los Angeles festival has been announced.

Left Coast Crime is in Portland this year, and Rosemarie and I will not only be attending but making our panel debut as Renee Patrick. We’ll be appearing on the panel “That Was My Idea: Collaborating with a Co-Author,” on Friday, March 13th from 10:15 – 11:00 a.m. along with Charlotte Elkins, Sarah Lovett, and moderator Lee Goldberg. Design for Dying is still a year away from publication, but we will have business cards. Collect them all! (NOTE: Only one type of business card is currently available. No substitutions.)

 Posted by at 7:21 pm

Me Elsewhere: Lowdown on a Dustup

 Cocktails, Me Elsewhere, Murray Stenson  Comments Off on Me Elsewhere: Lowdown on a Dustup
Feb 132015

Last month, spirits writer Eric Felten raised an intriguing question – with all the inventiveness of the modern cocktail renaissance, how come there are no new classics? – ruffling a few feathers in the process. In my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, I offer a kinda-sorta rebuttal, taking issue with elements of Mr. Felten’s argument and suggesting what I think are a trio of worthy nominees for the pantheon. Check it out, and while you’re there read the rest of this week’s issue, brimming over with Valentine’s Day goodness.

 Posted by at 10:40 pm

Miscellaneous: California? Sweet!

 Edith Head, Movies, noir, Noir City, research, travel  Comments Off on Miscellaneous: California? Sweet!
Jan 232015

Rosemarie and I are already hard at work on the second book in the classic Hollywood mystery series featuring Edith Head we’re writing under the name Renee Patrick. (Design for Dying, book number one, comes out from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. People are camping out already! Not for our book. They’re just, you know, camping out.) The time had come, we’d decided, for some field research. Say a trip to Los Angeles, followed by a jaunt up the coast for the opening weekend of the thirteenth Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco.

It’s a time-honored Hollywood tradition: if your journey begins with the sighting of a star, then fortune will smile upon you. We sit down for our first breakfast and who should be at the next table but Commander Adama himself, Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos. (Who am I kidding? He’ll always be Lieutenant Castillo to me.) Already we were in clover.

Our initial post-Olmos stop was a key reason for making the trip now: we wanted to see the mammoth Hollywood Costume exhibit before it closes. Presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, it’s a stunning show, with dramatic staging of over 150 movie costumes; Marlene Dietrich in Morocco lights a cigarette for Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct) as L.A. Confidential’s Lynn Bracken looks on. Our heroine Edith Head is well represented, with her iconic green suit worn by Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on display. The immersive section on costume design as collaboration features a dazzling “conversation” among Edie, Hitch and Tippi Hedren about the clothes in The Birds. The craft of the costume designer is explored in detail in this decades-spanning exhibit. (Later we were fortunate to spend time with its curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the acclaimed costume designer of Raiders of the Lost Ark – and even more impressively, the person responsible for the wardrobe in longtime Chez K favorite ¡Three Amigos! Given those credentials I’m amazed I was able to ask any questions, but somehow I managed.)

Hollywood Costume runs through March 2, which roughly coincides with the closing date of Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950 at the Skirball Cultural Center. This exhibition focuses on the role of filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany in the production of the glittering comedies and dark dramas of the Golden Age of Hollywood. More costumes are included in this show, which also merits a visit.

The primary purpose for our expedition was to set foot on Edith’s old domain: Paramount Pictures, the studio where she spent the majority of her career. To our delight, Paramount’s archivists welcomed us with open arms – “Edith would have loved being in a mystery novel,” we were told – and gave us a full tour. The high point was undoubtedly the costume archive, 80% of which consisted of Edith Head originals. To be in the same room as, say, Barbara Stanwyck’s beaded bolero jacket from The Lady Eve and inspect it in detail was enough to induce lightheadedness.

Paramount’s Bronson Gate

Edith willed her estate to the Academy, so our final destination was the Margaret Herrick Library to look at her papers. It’s impossible to convey the thrill of holding a letter on Alfred Hitchcock’s personal stationery – signed ‘Hitch,’ naturally – in your hands. I’d heard that furniture from Edith’s house had been placed in the Herrick’s Special Collections reading room, so before leaving I asked which pieces were hers. “That table you’ve been sitting at all day, for one,” the librarian said. Truly the power of Olmos was strong.

Some time at Noir City San Francisco was mandatory, given the Seattle iteration of the festival is on hiatus pending a move to the Cinerama. This year’s theme is marriage, with your humble correspondent penning the companion article in the latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine. Rosemarie and I christened the opening weekend at Trick Dog, recently named one of the fifty best bars in the world – love that Chinese menu; try the #2 – then strolled to the Castro for the premiere of a new 35mm restoration of an old favorite. In 1950’s Woman on the Run, Ann Sheridan’s estranged husband witnesses a mob killing and goes on the lam. When slick newspaperman Dennis O’Keefe encourages her to track her wayward spouse down, Ann discovers new facets to her old man and falls for him all over again. Shot in San Francisco, the movie played like gangbusters to a capacity crowd, with master of ceremonies Eddie Muller cagily adding a then-and-now featurette spotlighting the locations.

This is the the jacket we saw. Up close.

Up next, the first in a mini-tribute to actress Joan Fontaine. Born to be Bad (1950) casts several actors against type. Usual cad Zachary Scott is a decent if obscenely wealthy man, Robert Ryan shines as a cocky writer (“Seen the view? It’s better with me in it”), and Mel Ferrer does his best George Sanders as a cynical social climbing painter. They all flutter around Christabel Caine, and alas our Joan was a bit long in the tooth to play a scheming ingénue, leaving a void at the film’s center. Still, director Nicholas Ray keeps the melodrama at a steady boil and it was fun to see the original ending deemed too scandalous for release.

The experience left me wanting Fontaine at her best, and one of my rules is never pass up Hitchcock on the big screen, so that meant a Saturday matinee of her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion (1941). We skipped Joan in the sturdy 1953 issue film The Bigamist – a boy’s gotta eat – and returned to the Castro for a signing of the Noir City 2014 Annual, featuring work by yours truly, FNF honcho Muller, our Los Angeles sightseeing companion Christa Faust, Duane Swierczynski, Wallace Stroby, Jake Hinkson and plenty more. Look for it at Amazon soon. Joanie was back and at her bitchy best in the find of the festival: 1947’s Ivy, an Edwardian chiller with Fontaine as a fortune hunter with a husband, a lover, and her eyes on an even bigger prize. She’s in her element here, Ivy’s discreet villainy perfectly tailored to her sensibilities. More Edwardian noir followed with Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944), an elegant and heartbreaking gloss on the infamous Dr. Crippen case boasting a magnificent Charles Laughton performance.

Christa Faust, ace designer Michael Kronenberg, yours truly, and Edwardian gent Eddie Muller at the Castro book signing

Sunday’s double-bill spotlighted suspense from that maker of sudsers supreme, Douglas Sirk. The script for Shockproof (1949) was watered down considerably from writer Samuel Fuller’s original version; no doubt two-fisted Sam’s take on the story of parole officer Cornel Wilde falling for one of his charges (Patricia Knight) and into a heap of trouble would have been considerably meaner. A minor film, but on this viewing I was able to appreciate how Sirk’s supple direction preserved the remaining Fuller touches. Sleep, My Love (1948) is gossamer in the Gaslight mode, with Claudette Colbert being manipulated by husband Don Ameche into thinking she’s down to her last few marbles so he can run off with Hazel Brooks, as gorgeous as she is surly. Claudette’s only hope is the relentless charm offensive mounted by Robert Cummings. Oh for the days when a movie’s main characters could be an imperiled socialite and a globe-trotting adventurer. Sleep is Sirk at his best, a film that’s all surface pleasures and no less an achievement because of them. It was the perfect ending to our California swing.

Noir City runs through this Sunday at the Castro. May the blessings of Edward James Olmos be with you all.

 Posted by at 6:39 pm

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

 Me Elsewhere, noir, Noir City  Comments Off on Extra, Extra!: Noir City
Jan 152015

The winter 2015 issue of Noir City, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, is out now. Let me warn you in advance: I am all over this bad boy.

Firstly, I’m responsible for the cover story, a long-overdue reappraisal of the films of Alan Rudolph. That striking image is drawn from Rudolph’s Remember My Name, a reimagining of the classic “women’s films” of the 1940s that is one of the most neglected movies of the 1970s. It’s now in the nascent stages of a renaissance thanks to a recent screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Geraldine Chaplin’s performance receiving the accolades it deserves. Rudolph’s signature contribution to noir is the one-of-a-kind riff on the form Trouble in Mind, filmed in Seattle and celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015. But noir is a thread that runs through much of Rudolph’s filmography:

Rudolph relentlessly toys with the form, combining its component parts to tell idiosyncratically fanciful, open-hearted stories. “Fanciful” and “open-hearted” aren’t words customarily associated with noir, and therein lies Rudolph’s singular talent. The French, as they so often do, have a word for it: gleaning, the practice of picking over a field that has been harvested and finding enough viable material to survive. Alan Rudolph is an unparalleled gleaner of film noir, digging into terrain often dismissed as played out and discovering fertile pockets, appropriating images, techniques and moods for his own purposes.

Accompanying the survey of Alan Rudolph’s films is a wide-ranging interview with the man himself. Rumors abound that this interview was arranged when a Noir City correspondent gatecrashed an academic conference while wearing a lanyard from an unrelated event so he could brace Mr. Rudolph; I will not dignify those scurrilous tales with a response. The interview was conducted via email, Rudolph using my questions as a jumping-off point to construct something off-kilter, insightful and uniquely his own –

When people say a certain movie is real they mean it’s told as if real. It’s still a representation, a dream. I see no singular defined reality in the entire film experience. On either side of the screen. Film is its own reality, a living thing. Whether you’re the director or in the audience of a dark palace, your personal experience is the reality of that film. A film doesn’t exist if no one is there to see it. Ask the tree in the forest about that.

I’m enormously happy with how this piece came out.

Also in this issue: ‘Til Death Do Us Part, my overview of marriage in film noir. It’s intended as something of a companion piece to the 13th Noir City Film Festival, which focuses on the darker side of the matrimonial bond. Several of the movies unspooling at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre from January 16-25 are referenced, but the subject is so broad I could have gone on forever. NOTE: On Saturday, January 17, I’ll be at the Castro along with ace designer Michael Kronenberg, the one and only Christa Faust, and a host of other contributors to sign copies of the Noir City Annual.

But wait! There’s more! Like my usual cocktails-and-crime column, as well as a review of the new book Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History, an illustrated tour of Tinseltown tippling.

I assure you, though, it’s not just me in this issue. Behold this stellar line-up:

– Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block (A Walk Among the Tombstones) lists his five favorite noir films

– Crime novelist Terrill Lee Lankford on the neo-noir classic Cutter’s Way

– Usual Noir City suspect Jake Hinkson on Wicked Woman and the off-screen union of star Beverly Michaels and director/co-writer Russell Rouse

– Imogen Sara Smith considers Gone Girl in the context of bad marriage noir

– FNF honcho Eddie Muller on the rescue of 1950’s Woman on the Run, the restoration of the film premiering at this year’s Noir City

And still there’s more! I’m telling you, people, it’s a bonanza.

How do you lay claim to this bounty? Go to the Film Noir Foundation, make your contribution to preserving America’s noir heritage, and the boodle gets dumped in your in-box no questions asked. What are you waiting for?

 Posted by at 3:44 pm

Me Elsewhere: A is for Apple

 Applejack, Cocktails, Me Elsewhere  Comments Off on Me Elsewhere: A is for Apple
Jan 102015

My latest Down the Hatch column is up now at Eat Drink Films. This month the focus is on that all-American “cyder spirit” applejack. I write about three cocktails suitable for the winter months, admitting that the standard-bearer for applejack drinks is not among my favorites and nominating two overlooked ones for this season’s imbibing. Be sure to read the entire issue, packed as usual with goodness. As a bonus, here’s the first time I heard about applejack, from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

 Posted by at 8:37 pm

Book: Ready When You Are, C.B. (Charles Brackett)

 Books, Hollywood  Comments Off on Book: Ready When You Are, C.B. (Charles Brackett)
Jan 062015

You know the old Hollywood joke, the one about the actress so dumb she slept with the writer. Here’s how famous the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were: when the two of them were just writers, producing some of the wittiest scripts of the Studio Era (Midnight, Ninotchka) before Wilder transitioned to the director’s chair and amassed one of the great résumés in film history, sleeping with one of them likely would have done an actress’ career some good.

And it probably would have been Wilder, if Brackett’s diaries are any indication. Charles Brackett kept meticulous track of his daily minutia, chronicling one of the most storied partnerships in movies. Film historian Anthony Slide has done an extraordinary job of excerpting those journals in the new Columbia University Press book It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (2014). Slide suggests that Brackett will become known as “America’s foremost, if not only, Hollywood diarist.” I’d give Brackett the title by knockout. This view from deep inside the studio system at its height is one of the best books ever about Hollywood, as well one of the finest on writing in years.

Brackett was on his second bid for screenwriting success when, in August 1936, he was paired with “jaunty young foreigner” Wilder to work on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife for director Ernst Lubitsch. Brackett describes their first work session: “Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating.” Three weeks into the partnership, Brackett calls Wilder “a hard, conscientious worker, without a very sensitive ear for dialogue, but a beautiful constructionist. He has the passion for the official joke of a second-rate dialogist.” By November, Wilder is laying out his psychologically opportunistic approach to seducing women during their story sessions.

Like many a great twosome they made an odd couple. Wilder was earthy, European and liberal while the urbane, East Coast Brackett was a peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table and maybe the only Alf Landon voter in Hollywood. In private Brackett comes across as a spectacularly dyspeptic figure, apparently not liking anyone (“Chaplin seems to me as repellent a human being as I’ve ever been in the same room with”) or anything (The Palm Beach Story is “the latest Preston Sturges opus and one of the weakest – disagreeable people, unappetizing situations, exaggerations”).

But reading his diaries – the entries here span the years 1932-1949 – provides a keen sense of the grind of working in the dream factory. The awareness of every perceived slight, the primacy of money as a way of gauging status, the near-hysterical faith in preview cards, and above all the constant nagging sensation that his work is subpar and anyway, he’s just wasting his time. The book contains a lot about the inner machinations of Hollywood organizations – Brackett served as president of both the Screen Writers Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – and surprisingly little about his wife Elizabeth, who battled alcoholism and depression and spent many years in institutions.

Writing for himself, Brackett holds nothing back, his entries often hilariously bitchy. On a dinner at Joan Crawford’s house: “A grim evening – all four adopted children as hors d’oeuvres.” Alfred Hitchcock is a “monstrous egotist.” Brackett visits the set of Wilder’s directorial debut The Major and the Minor to find co-star Ray Milland giving “a dry, wooden performance (his usual performance to speak the truth).” A few years later, Milland would win an Oscar for his harrowing work in Brackett-and-Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. The casual anti-Semitism of the era occasionally rears its head, and some of Brackett’s judgments seem unduly harsh –

On thinking about Billy’s attitude and that of all the Mittel Europeans I know towards their American citizenship, it seems to me this: they’ve come into a department store, been crazy about its stock, and put themselves down for a charge account. No more involvement than that.

Wilder remains the locus here, Brackett readily acknowledging he feels like a planet orbiting his partner’s star. When one of Brackett’s children runs off to get married in 1942, the story makes the newspapers. “I was surprised. Expected them to read: Billy Wilder disturbed because of elopement of daughter of collaborator.” By 1939 he’s prepared to end their relationship, fed up with Wilder’s manners. He later wrote: “I came to bed and found myself fretting at the prospect of becoming Billy’s stooge producer – a prospect I detest.” Brackett would prove no stooge as a producer, putting his stamp on films like Niagara, Titanic and The King and I after his break-up with Wilder.

Insights into their process and their quarrels – with each other and with directors and producers – are manifold. Both Brackett and Wilder lobbied to have Lucille Ball star in their script Ball of Fire, a truly tantalizing proposition. But Howard Hawks deemed her a second lead at best and insisted on Barbara Stanwyck, whom Brackett pronounces “a pleasant, heavy-faced girl, very wrong for Sugarpuss.” For decades the legend has held that Brackett didn’t want to pitch in with Wilder on Double Indemnity because he found James M. Cain’s story odious. Here, Brackett makes it plain that Wilder “was having a touch of claustrophobia at being tied down working with me” and welcomed the respite. He would consult with Wilder and his grudging new confederate Raymond Chandler on their adaptation and ultimately finds the film good, not great: “The direction is uneven and some of the writing extremely poor, and my black heart sang like a bird.”

The book and the Wilder/Brackett collaboration come to a close with Sunset Blvd. (1950). Even as their decade-plus-long partnership is torn asunder, Brackett can’t help marveling at Wilder’s inventiveness. The material has the pace of a thriller, frissons arising as ideas that will become part of film history bubble up half-formed, the two men setting aside their differences to express their joint frustration with their original choice of leading man, Montgomery Clift, who walked away from the film fearing it too closely mirrored aspects of his own life. “God help people who have to deal with the young Mr. C in a couple of years, maybe a shorter time than that.” Brackett was an unhappy but hugely productive man who’d already left behind a considerable body of work. This warts-and-all account of that working life may be his greatest legacy.

 Posted by at 8:43 pm

Book: Hope, by Richard Zoglin (2014)

 Books, Edith Head  Comments Off on Book: Hope, by Richard Zoglin (2014)
Dec 302014

If ever a performer needed reappraisal, it’s Bob Hope. His star has faded badly, the bulk of his work done on radio and television and thus not now in regular circulation. Worse, he committed the unpardonable sin of staying too long at the party. As a kid, I never missed a Hope special. Not because I found them funny; I’d watch any special that came on TV because I was obsessed with show business. Hope’s extravaganzas were a puzzlement to me, presided over by a stiff, barely ambulatory figure – Hope was in hailing distance of his 80s when I started watching – barking out lame one-liners at each member of the All-America football team and ogling the latest blonde starlet. I had no inkling of how Hope had become famous, but at least I knew who he was. Few of my friends did, and an entire subsequent generation has no sense of him at all.

Time’s Richard Zoglin aims to change that. His massive, richly entertaining biography underscores what I’ve learned in recent years – Bob Hope, at his best, was brilliantly funny. Zoglin also persuasively argues that Hope was a trailblazer fully deserving of the book’s subtitle, Entertainer of the Century. By triumphing in every medium and cannily tending a brand built largely on his role as clown jester for American troops overseas, Hope essentially invented modern stardom.

Full disclosure: Bob “I-Didn’t-Sign-Up-For-This” Hope appears as a character in Design for Dying, the classic Hollywood mystery Rosemarie and I wrote as Renee Patrick coming from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. One day Rosemarie asked how revisions went and I was able to answer, “Not bad. I wrote some new jokes for Bob Hope.”

Zoglin sets himself a tall order chronicling Hope’s career. The man was a cipher, an impersonal presence in life and in art. For all Hope’s comic prowess, Zoglin notes “his jokes never hit hard, cut deep, or betrayed any political viewpoint.” However superficial their targets, they were delivered in peerless style. Exemplifying the age-old definition of a comedian, Hope had a way of saying things funny, even when he wasn’t saying much.

A Broadway star with vaudeville training, Hope arrived in Hollywood with a pedigree uniquely suited to melding high and low. His breakthrough came in the utterly unhinged comedy The Big Broadcast of 1938, dueting with Shirley Ross on what would become his theme song “Thanks for the Memory.” (It’s astonishing how big a role music played in Hope’s career. The standards he introduced on stage or screen include “I Can’t Get Started,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Two Sleepy People” and “Silver Bells.”) If you’ve never seen the original, with Hope and Ross as a divorced couple recalling the good times in their marriage, take a moment to appreciate what Zoglin rightly calls “one of the most beautifully written and performed musical numbers in all of movies.”

Seeing the skill with which Hope puts across the song, it’s easy to agree with Zoglin’s disappointment at Hope’s callous treatment of it for the next sixty years, Leo Robin’s “delicately ironic lyrics … replaced time and again by greeting-card sentiments, syrupy tributes, and outright plugs.”

Onscreen Hope incarnated a particularly American sensibility, “brash, irreverent, upbeat,” that reached its fullest expression with his signature character: a lustful, vainglorious coward the audience could root for. Watch the films that made his name, 1939’s The Cat and the Canary and the following year’s far better The Ghost Breakers, and Hope’s breezy rhythms still have the feel of something fresh and new. His pairing with Bing Crosby in the long-running Road series not only solidified his drawing power but etched the bromance template slavishly followed in Hollywood by everyone from Martin & Lewis to Rogen & Franco: two footloose dudes more in love with each other than any of the women present. The best of the Road films are casually anarchic and self-aware, breaking the fourth wall with a brio modern movies wouldn’t attempt. (Der Bingle doesn’t come off well here. Zoglin recounts how Hope, always diligent about his fan mail, tosses letters into a hotel pillowcase while on the road so his staff can answer them. Crosby then demonstrates how he handles his fan mail: he feels envelopes until he finds a quarter included to cover return postage for a requested photograph, pockets the change, and tosses the letter into the trash unread. It’s worth catching up with the recent American Masters documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered, which files a similar brief on the Old Groaner’s behalf for his significance in popular culture – and not just for the few weeks around Christmastime.)

While Zoglin works to restore Hope’s reputation, he doesn’t shy away from his subject’s failings. Hope was the rare box office attraction who never worked with a top director; Crosby would win an Oscar with Leo McCarey and appear in a Billy Wilder film, while Hope was content to toil with the same journeymen. Zoglin declares 1960’s The Facts of Life the last good film Hope would ever make. I caught up with the movie recently and agree. Its Oscar-nominated script by Hope mainstays Melvin Frank and Norman Panama is a tender, surprisingly realistic story of two married people (Hope and Lucille Ball) who fumble toward an affair as an escape from their middle-aged doldrums. (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the movie also features Academy Award winning costumes co-designed by our book’s detective, Edith Head.) Hope was the first comedian to openly acknowledge his use of writers and he treated them shabbily, forcing them to pen his golf course patter with generals and gags for Spiro Agnew. Writers in Hope’s employ in the 1980s, when Zoglin nails his robotic delivery as “Mt. Rushmore with cufflinks,” had to imagine they were crafting jokes for Dave Thomas’ dead-eyed SCTV parody – which Hope naturally loved. And the book is rife with tales of Hope’s womanizing during his 69-year marriage to wife Dolores.

Hope’s impact as a cultural force must be viewed through the prism of his storied USO performances for the troops during World War II and on nearly-annual tours thereafter. Zoglin describes the military’s growing resentment over the expense of Hope’s logistically complex appearances, which tapped the meager resources set aside for entertainment. Hope came to crave the rabid response of audiences desperate for diversion. But there’s no denying the sacrifices he made to travel to far-flung bases, facing not only chronic hardships but genuine danger. Ultimately, Hope’s treasured status as jokester-in-chief of the armed forces contributed to his waning influence; he was so immersed in the role by the Vietnam era that he accepted and parroted the Nixon administration’s line without question, putting him out of step with prevailing attitudes. It’s perversely fascinating to watch a man so nimble stumble over his own feet. Zoglin, at least, captures this painful period with grace.

Hope does such a thorough job explaining the almost-unparalleled scale of its subject’s fame – he altered the shape of everything from studio contracts to the role of Academy Awards host, a gig he held a record nineteen times – that it’s disappointing when Zoglin misses a beat on Hope’s more contemporary appearances. He seems unaware that Hope’s cameo in 1985’s Spies Like Us is an explicit nod to the DNA of the Road movies, which Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase hoped to carry forward. And there’s surprisingly no mention of Hope’s truly funny turn in the Little Miss Springfield episode of The Simpsons, recorded when Hope was approaching age 90, which teased his longtime practice of having advance men provide him with local references for his act and his indefatigable work ethic (“Set me down at that boat show.”) Conan O’Brien talks about Hope’s Simpsons appearance here.

During last month’s Bouchercon in Long Beach, Rosemarie and I spent a morning visiting the Queen Mary. The ship is currently hosting the exhibit Bob Hope: An American Treasure. Only fitting, considering Hope gave an impromptu performance onboard 75 years ago as it steamed back from Europe after war had been declared. It was thrilling to see Hope’s handwritten additions to some of his Oscar scripts (one namechecking Long Beach), and there’s a collection of his novelty golf clubs. But there are way too many alternate versions of “Thanks for the Memory” on display.

 Posted by at 8:20 pm

Books: Recent Reading Roundup

 Books  Comments Off on Books: Recent Reading Roundup
Dec 192014

December is winding to a close, and I’m all too conscious of how infrequently I’ve updated the blog this year. 2014 has been hectic if fantastic, what with the sale of the mystery novel Rosemarie and I wrote, and my becoming co-managing editor of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine Noir City, and a host of other assignments, not to mention my thriving mail-order decorative soap business. Order by today if you want your Christmas orders fulfilled!

ASIDE: The annual Noir City Xmas show was last night, at which the program for the 13th annual film festival was revealed. The theme is marriage and I have something of a proprietary interest in it, considering the idea was hatched by Eddie Muller and me at a late-night dinner in Seattle several years ago. You’ve gotta love that poster. Here’s its sordid backstory. You’ll also notice on the Noir City page a sneak peek of the cover of the next issue of the magazine. Trust me when I tell you it’s a doozy. Support the Film Noir Foundation to have it delivered to your inbox come January.

But as the days dwindle down, I realize that I miss posting. In 2015, I’m going to strive to update the blog on a semi-regular basis. No better time to get started than now, with a whip round of new crime fiction I commend to your attention.

Land of Shadows, by Rachel Howzell Hall. Rosemarie and I had the pleasure of meeting our Tor/Forge labelmate at Bouchercon in Long Beach. Rachel’s novel is a taut L.A. crime story with a tremendous sense of place. Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton’s latest case lands her in all-too-familiar territory. A young woman is found dead on a condo construction site abutting the Jungle, the neighborhood where Lou grew up. More to the point, the site is being developed by the local businessman who might have murdered Lou’s sister decades earlier. As if those old wounds reopening weren’t enough for Lou to handle, her marriage is collapsing, too, and this time a “‘Sorry, baby’ Porsche” won’t cover the damage. You want a strong female character, in the authentic and not buzzword sense? Spend some time in Lou’s company.

The Big Ugly, by Jake Hinkson. Brother Hinkson is a familiar name to Noir City subscribers, one of our constant and most valued contributors. He also writes take-no-prisoners noir novels with a Deep South flavor and a taste of that old-time religion. In his latest, Ellie Bennett walks out at the end of her sentence at Eastgate Penitentiary after years of walking in as a guard. She’s still trying to get her head on straight when a job falls into her lap: find a fellow ex-con who disappeared – and who has ties to both sides in a hotly contested election. A rabbit punch of a book, doing its dirty work in short order.

The Great Pretender, by Craig McDonald. I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s sprawling, wildly ambitious series about Hector Lassiter, the two-fisted novelist who trucks with twentieth century luminaries, from the outset. Pretender finds Hector in pursuit of the Spear of Destiny, last seen in Hellboy and Constantine, and tangling with Nazis, witches and, most contentious of all, Orson Welles. McDonald cagily splits up the action, with Welles in full enfant terrible mode in the first half of the book – much of the story unfolds on the night of the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 – while the second takes place in the late 1940s as the filmmaker’s star is already burning out. Another entire Lassiter novel, Roll the Credits, slots in between, and I’ll be tackling that one soon enough.

Angels of the North, by Ray Banks. The publication date says 2014, but yours truly was lucky enough to clap eyes on this book last year. Damn thing left marks that haven’t faded. Now you have the chance to partake of its majesty. A big, bruising tale of Thatcher’s England, about street-level politics and petty power. You know, the kind that matters. Ray weaves three stories together effortlessly, as always finding sympathy for the devil and humor in the darkest of corners. It’s the best thing Ray’s written, which is saying something, and one of the finest novels of the year. Even if I read it in 2013.

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