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Posts Tagged ‘Marlene Dietrich’

Amazon’s Version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Amazon’s series has little to do with Fitzgerald’s novel, but it’s still compelling television.

I’ve always been a Fitzgerald fan – much more so than Hemingway, and this interesting take on Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel is several notches above the usual television fare, if only because it tries to do so many things at once – even as it strays almost completely from the original narrative of Fitzgerald’s work.

Monroe Stahr, fashioned after real life MGM boy wonder Irving Thalberg, runs a Hollywood studio in the 1930s with smooth charm and a velvet-gloved fist, while his fellow moguls try to take him down at every opportunity. Kelsey Grammer plays Monroe’s jealous and possessive boss – in real life, Louis B. Mayer at MGM – and is sure that Stahr is going to bolt for a different studio at this first opportunity.

Other than a famous story that Stahr tells a struggling screenwriter about a mysterious woman, a pair of black gloves, and two dimes and a nickel, as well as a house Stahr is building far from the studio as part of a love affair, that’s about all that’s taken from Fitzgerald’s book. It’s also interesting that in the Amazon series, the real Thalberg pops up, working for Louis B. Mayer (a superb Saul Rubinek) as Stahr’s competition, when nothing at all happens like that in the novel.

Add in a raft of new subplots, including the real-life incursion of Nazi censorship in Hollywood in the 1930s in the figure of Georg Gyssling (Michael Siberry), as well as the usual round of studio backstabbing, overnight stardom, insecure directors (the fictional Red Ridingwood [Brian Howe] from the novel, is referenced here, but in the novel he’s a failing hack; here, he’s the equivalent of Michael Curtiz) and refugees from Nazi Germany who find at home at Stahr’s studio.

Kelsey Grammer could have walked through the role of studio boss Pat Brady in his sleep, but instead offers a firm, assured performance – by the end of the series he’s become a real monster – while Matt Bomer as Stahr is definitely less successful, especially in the romantic sequences, and is most effective when he’s wheedling and cajoling his employees through a typical work day.

Real life figures like Fritz Lang (Iddo Goldberg) flit in and out at the edges of the series, while Jennifer Beals offers an exceptionally strong turn as fictional “passing” African-American film star Margo Taft, who is subjected to blackmail by L.B. Mayer when her secret is discovered. Even Marlene Dietrich (Stefanie von Pfetten) stops by for a quick cameo, and the studio itself (the series was shot in Canada) is littered with authentic period equipment.

The show first dropped the pilot in 2016, and offered it as one possible series of many different choices – and the pilot is perhaps the best episode in the entire series, with a great deal of energy and compact exposition – a strong inducement to watch the entire first season. In now-standard fashion, Amazon has dropped the entire first season on Friday July 28th, and by Saturday night, I had watched the complete set of 10 episodes – it’s that effective.

Though it bears little resemblance to Fitzgerald’s work, somehow, in the end, that didn’t really bother me. This is more of a tale of Hollywood intrigue and double dealing in the 1930s, handsomely mounted and efficiently directed by a disparate group of women and men, which more often than not offers real satisfaction and insight – despite Bomer’s stiff performance in the leading role. The show starts off lightly, but that’s just to lure you in.

As the series draws to a close, the show gathers real power – episodes 6-8 are more or less filler – but in the final two hours, The Last Tycoon takes many an unexpected turn, and reveals just how rotten Hollywood really was in the Golden Era, in which people were bought and sold as commodities, blackmail was rampant, and even murders were covered up in the name of “studio business.”

Fitzgerald’s name is tacked on for marquee value, but even though the plot is often far-fetched, the performances at times melodramatic, and the writing uneven, the show offers definite value for money, and the best part of all is that if you are an Amazon Prime member, you can stream the whole series for free. When you add up all the bad and the good, it definitely comes out on the positive side of the ledger.

Check it out – from the pilot to the finish – it’s addictive television.

Shanghai Express (1932)

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see some clips from Shanghai Express.

I’ve just published an essay on one of my favorite films, Josef Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) in Senses of Cinema; it begins by noting that “of all the delirious exoticisms created by Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg during their white-hot period in the 1930s at Paramount, Shanghai Express (1932) remains my favourite for many reasons. It’s a riotous exercise in excess in every area; the visuals are overpowering and sumptuous; the costumes ornate and extravagant; the sets a riot of fabrics, light and space; and all of it captured in the most delectable black-and-white cinematography that one can find anywhere, more than enough to convince even the most superficial viewer that when black-and-white ceased to be a commercially viable production medium, the world lost a true art form, which colour film – as Sternberg’s quote above suggests – can never hope to replace. There are some films that can exist only in black-and-white, and Shanghai Express is one of them; a world in which the unreal is real, the intangible tantalisingly within our reach, and where luxury and violence are inextricably linked in a narrative that is both preposterous and ineluctably real.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

About the Author

Headshot of 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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