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John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

Dorothy Arzner Gets A Retrospective

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dorothy Arzner, left, on the set of her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), with star Merle Oberon.

As John Hopewell reports from Madrid for Variety, “Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and still one of – if not the – most prolific of woman helmers in Hollywood –will be honored with a career retrospective at September’s 62nd San Sebastian Festival in Spain. Though not the world’s first woman director – that honor [goes] to France’s Alice Guy – Arzner was the first to carve out a career in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood’s studios, first as an editor, where she is credited with working on 52 movies, including 1922’s Rudolph Valentino-starrer Blood and Sand, on which she also directed second unit shots of its bullfights. Her [directorial] debut, for Paramount, was 1927’s Fashion For Women.

The first woman in Hollywood to direct a sound film, 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail, Arzner is said to have invented the boom mike when, on Clara Bow’s first talkie, box office hit The Wild Party, she had technicians hang a mike onto a fishing rod to give it more mobility. From Party, she shot a string of movies, comedies or melodramas – Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), The Bride Wore Red (1937) – which often championed strong femme characters, helped consolidate the early careers of Katharine Hepburn – with whom she quarreled -  and Lucille Ball, and sometimes suggested – think 1933’s Christopher Strong – lesbian sub-texts.

The retrospective will be accompanied by the publication of a book that, it is hoped, will clarify why Arzner’s directorial career abruptly ended with 1943’s First Comes Courage. During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught directing and screenwriting at UCLA, her students including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, she was honored with a DGA Tribute, which, in an anecdote collected by IMDB, included a telegram from Katharine Hepburn: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ The text admits multiple readings. The 62nd San Sebastian Festival runs Sept. 17-26.”

The Hepburn telegram really stings; was this dig really necessary? Arzner deserves a box set of her work, and I’d love to read the book that accompanies the festival. Much of Arzner’s work simply isn’t on DVD, though more and more is coming out every day, but I have to wonder – how long is it going to take for Hollywood historians to put Arzner in the rightful place in the directorial pantheon, and how long is it going to take before she does get that box set of DVDs, complete with a history of her work? Not that it was ever easy; as she said of working within the Hollywood system, “when I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

Ida Lupino – who started directing in 1949 with Not Wanted – also deserves the same treatment; a comprehensive set of her films, properly mastered, so future generations can see the importance of their work.  Hopewell doesn’t mention it above, but in addition to the work he lists, Arzner also directed a stack of television commercials for Pepsi Cola, at the suggestion of Pepsi board member Joan Crawford, who worked with Arzner in the 1930s, and also directed training films for the WACs during World War II.

Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn forced Arzner out of the director’s chair on First Comes Courage, a feminist tale of a Norwegian resistance fighter, Nikki, played by Merle Oberon. When Arzner became ill during filming, rather than waiting for her to recover, Cohn pressed Columbia contract director Charles Vidor into service to finish the film as quickly as possible; when she recovered, Arzner discovered that Columbia no longer required her services. Nevertheless, the film is still a standout, and one can readily see where Arzner left off and Vidor began; the film is entirely hers, and a fitting last project for her career. If only, however, she could have done more.

Dorothy Arzner – another figure who deserves more attention than she gets.

UNL Breaking News Panel – Moderated by Steve Smith – 2/26/14

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s news of a recent panel on breaking news, moderated by Steve Smith of UNL Communications.

Breaking News! was a panel discussion about UNL’s news “voice” and how it’s an important part of the university’s story. What makes a good news story? How can you identify stories, experts and elements within your college or unit and get them placed in the local, regional or national media? UNL News Director Steve Smith moderated a panel about the different aspects of news at UNL and the many ways to push UNL’s message and voice far and wide. The panel was very well attended, and a video it is up on the web, continuing to get a significant number of hits – more than 4,000 so far.

The panelists were:
  • Molly Brummond, assistant Dean of Student & alumni relations and annual giving for the NU College of Law
  • Mekita Rivas, communications associate with the School of Natural Resources
  • Vicki Miller, director of research communications in the Office of Research and Economic Development
  • Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at UNL

You can check out the entire session by clicking here, on the image above; fascinating viewing.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Review: Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture by Rebecca Prime

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

I have a review of Rebecca Prime’s excellent new book, Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture, in the latest issue of Film International.

As I note, “Let’s just start by saying that this is an excellent book. I get stacks of new titles every day from publishers, and it takes a lot for a book to really jump out of the pile and interest me, particularly on a topic that has been researched as thoroughly as the Hollywood Blacklist. But Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture (2013) is exceptional, and part of an equally exceptional series of books from Rutgers University Press, “New Directions in International Studies,” ably edited by Patrice Petro.

The Hollywood Blacklist is always an important topic, but there’s been so much written about it that one would think that all possible avenues of inquiry have been pursued. But that’s not the case: Prime’s book is fresh, original, written in a direct and accessible manner, and adds a great deal of new material to the existing literature on the era. This is a book, in short, that demands one’s attention.

What distinguishes Prime’s book above all else is the sense of urgency she brings to her examination of the key figures affected by the blacklist; Joseph Losey, Ben Barzman, Jules Dassin, and other well known Hollywood figures who decided it was better to leave America, then in the grip of madness, rather than battle it out with the openly hostile ‘authority’ of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

This is a familiar tale, but what Prime makes clear in her study is just how difficult it was for these talent writers, directors and producers to survive in England, which wasn’t as welcoming as is generally assumed in hindsight. The FBI and the HUAC still shadowed these exiles, with the help of the British authorities, and so they were never really free of surveillance.”

You can read the rest of the review here; a fascinating and compelling book.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Film International — One of The Best Film Journals on The Web

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Film International is one of the best film journals on the web.

Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

As the journal’s mission statement notes, in part, “Film International covers film culture as part of the broader culture, history and economy of society. We address topics of contemporary relevance from historically informed perspectives. We wish to bridge the gap between the academy and the outside world, and encourage the participation of scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as journalists, freelance writers, activists and film-makers.

We refuse the facile dichotomies of ‘high’ and ‘low’, Hollywood and independent, art and commercial cinema. We discuss Hollywood films seriously, and ‘art’ movies critically. We aim at becoming a truly international journal, recognising local specificities, but also the ultimate interconnectedness of an increasingly globalised world.”

FI covers international film, Hollywood film, independent cinema, and everything else in between. It features reviews, interviews, and festival reports on a regular basis, and has an egalitarian spirit which allows all critical voices to be heard, without forcing any of the writers to adhere to a particular philosophical, political, or artistic school of thought.

Commercial cinema, radical cinema, the past, present and future of the medium all meet in the pages of FI, which is absolutely free for online use with just the click of a button. I regularly contribute to FI, but I also savor the contents provided by all of the other writers for the journal, and I constantly find that FI discusses those films that other journals simply pass over, giving a well rounded perspective on the current cinema scene.

Ably edited by Daniel Lindvall, Film International is one of most indispensable film journals on the web today.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

Colin Wilson

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Colin Wilson drinking tea in his London flat, 1957.

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Colin Wilson, a brilliant if erratic writer who wrote at least one excellent book, The Outsider, and a raft of other volumes, numbering nearly 100 in all, with the best among them being The Mind Parasites, the first edition of Poetry and Mysticism (the revised version ruined the book), The Space Vampires, and numerous other works. Much of what he wrote was junk, and he often seemed to keep writing until he could figure out what he really wanted to say, filling up the pages in a seemingly unending stream while striving to get at some almost indefinable conclusion.

But ultimately, if he was an outsider, Wilson was essentially an optimist, which is refreshing in itself. As he told one interviewer, “in The Outsider my starting point was all those 19th century writers and artists who came to a sad end, and who ended by saying (in the words of a friend of mine) ‘the answer to life is no.’ My reaction was like that of an accountant who is reacting to the statement ‘We had better declare bankruptcy.’  [My response was] ‘No, no, no.  You’ve plenty of better alternatives.’”

One of his books, The Space Vampires, was made into a truly terrible film by Tobe Hooper, and his outrageous ego – “I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in 2006. “In 500 years’ time, they’ll say, ‘Wilson was a genius,’ because I’m a turning point in intellectual history” - assured his critical marginalization. But despite his faults, his best work does offer an early clue to a new direction, and for that, I will miss Colin Wilson and his work.

New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

We Like You So Much and Want To Know You Better

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Dave Eggers’ brilliant new novel The Circle explores the culture of forced consensus and hypersurveillance.

Dave Eggers is a brilliant novelist, and his previous works have certainly captured my imagination, but with his newest book, The Circle, to be published October 8th, he hits a note that particularly resonates in our “everywhere-at-once” culture. The protagonist, Mae, goes to work for a large social networking colossus, and while she is initially impressed by the splendor and grandeur of her corporate surroundings, she soon finds herself being seduced into a culture of continual updates, shared personal information, and an endless chain of “social connections” and roving video cameras that render humanity virtually obsolete.

As with George Orwell’s 1984, which The Circle is often compared to, but also Joseph Heller’s brilliant 1974 novel Something Happened, which has somehow disappeared from the canon of 20th century fiction, and is perhaps the most unsparing exposé of corporate culture the literary world has ever produced, The Circle unsparingly documents the false bonhomie, the lies, the surface “friendliness” that lies at thedark heart of corporate culture, where people are almost instantly disposable unless they go along with the group, as in 1984.

The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy excerpt from the book this past Sunday, and thankfully, it’s online, so I can link to it both here, and on the image above. It’s supposed to be fiction, of course, but it’s all too close to the truth in the way that contemporary corporations treat their employees, as endless extensions of their culture, while denying them a life of their own. The excerpt begins with these words:

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven. The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands. On land that had once been a shipyard, then a drive-in movie theater, then a flea market, then blight, there were now soft green hills and a Calatrava fountain. And a picnic area, with tables arranged in concentric circles. And tennis courts, clay and grass. And a volleyball court, where tiny children from the company’s day care center were running, squealing, weaving like water. Amid all this was a workplace, too, 400 acres of brushed steel and glass on the headquarters of the most influential company in the world. The sky above was spotless and blue.

Mae was making her way through all of this, walking from the parking lot to the main hall, trying to look as if she belonged. The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees, and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. ‘Dream,’ one said, the word laser-cut into the stone. ‘Participate,’ said another. There were dozens: ‘Find Community.’ ‘Innovate.’ ‘Imagine.’ She just missed stepping on the hand of a young man in a gray jumpsuit; he was installing a new stone that said, ‘Breathe.’

On a sunny Monday in June, Mae stopped in front of the main door, standing below the logo etched into the glass above. Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo — a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center — were already among the best known in the world. There were more than 10,000 employees on this, the main campus, but the Circle had offices all over the globe and was hiring hundreds of gifted young minds every week. It had been voted the world’s most admired company four years running.”

Of course, many of the reviewers thus far have remarked on the implicit irony of reading a book about social networking, and then immediately going on to Twitter or Facebook to “share” the news with others. But since I have no Facebook account, and don’t Tweet, I’ll confine my comments to this blog, which is more than enough. I’m more a fan of history than fiction, but this is fiction that is also the present truth, if only we take a closer look at it.

You can read the rest of the excerpt by clicking here; better yet, buy the book and zoom through the whole thing. It’s a frightening, prophetic page turner, and you literally won’t be able to put The Circle down; it’s essential reading.

‘In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema’ by Gabriele Pedullà

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I have a review of Gabriele Pedullà’s book In Broad Daylight in the new issue of Film International.

As I write, “This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.

Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,

‘The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.’

All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for ‘television’s growing cultural prestige,’ I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the ‘old guard,’ Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that ‘on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,’ and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that ‘you can discover a film only at the movie theater.’

To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.

As Baker told me, ‘I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.’ Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. ‘You see’ Baker said, ‘on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.’ That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.”

You can read the entire review by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/