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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking forward to 2018 in Film

So here we are, the end of another year!  It was a busy one for me as I made a major career change by going into consulting.  This means my time is more flexible, but I have a lot of irons in the fire...which is good, because I get to do more cool things, but also tends to mean I don't have as much time to devote to any one thing.  I also have to be a bit more finance-conscious.  For a variety of reasons, distractions, etc., I didn't watch as many new-to-me films as in previous years.  Here's the tally since I started reporting out:

2015: 178
2016:  162
2017:  85

(I use to record my viewings.  Anyone else who uses this service, add me as a 'friend' - jcdohio)

What am I looking forward to in 2018?

Renowned Belgian film director Agnès Varda is coming to the Harvard Film Archive!  Varda, who is known for her influential creative style, especially during the French new wave, will be entering her 90th year (!), and she is still producing films. On Friday, Feb 22, she will attend the screening of her 2017 documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages), and on Saturday Feb 23 she'll be present for Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) from 1985.  I expect she'll make some comments and take audience questions.  I haven't yet had the opportunity to see any of this 'trailblazing woman's' films, but this is my opportunity, and to get to hear her insights live is certainly a great privelege.  The HFA is also screening a number of her other films during the month of February.

The 2018 TCM Film Festival (of COURSE!) in Hollywood, April 26-29.  This year, the theme is Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen, promising film adaptations of novels, short stories, memoirs, poetry, or any other written medium.  A few films have already been announced, and the entire program won't be available until shortly before the festival starts.  This may be my chance to finally see the Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet!  Catching up with film friends will be a highlight, as well, and making some new friends.  I may also take time away from Tinseltown to catch a Dodgers game before the festival starts.  My sources tell me the reigning National League champs are in town!  Check out the 1-min promo clip below:

The Coolidge Corner Theatre hasn't yet announced their 2018 collaboration with the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, but in past years a world premiere of a new score, played live by this great local ensemble, would happen in May, so I keep checking their website.  Last year, their score for Harold Lloyd's The Freshman was incomparable.  I hope to see this score released on DVD soon!  Their recent scores for Variete and The Last Laugh are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Kino Lorber label.

McFarland Books will releases Derek Sculthorpe's latest biography, this time of film noir queen Claire Trevor. I look forward to reading about this underrated actress whose film career lasted over 50 years. You may know her best as John Wayne's love interest in Stagecoach (1939) or as the sultry singer from Key Largo (1948).
Claire Trevor (
This is just a sampling of what I know will be another great year of film-watching and blogging.  I hope to continue to join blogathons and get involved in more such events to learn about films and film history, and to 'give back' to do my little part to keep classic film alive!

Happy New Year everyone!  Gotta get ready to party!
William Powell and Myrna Loy celebrate New Years'
as Nick and Nora Charles in After the Thin Man (1936)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Brian Donlevy, the "Good Bad Guy" - Book Review & Author Interview

Who doesn't love a charismatic villain? The best villains are those who not only steal all the scenes they are in, but make you root for them by exposing their humanity, vulnerability, or sheer likeability.  In one of my favorite examples, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had a tremendous turn as devilish, dashing  'Rupert of Hentzau' in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).  (By the way, this movie is terrific beyond just Fairbanks, Jr., so check it out if you haven't already seen it.)

Brian Donlevy, publicity photo from
Destry Rides Again.  (
I'd seen character actor Brian Donlevy (1901-1972) in a few films from the 1940s before he really registered on my radar, but that all changed when I watched Destry Rides Again (1939).  I wrote about this western, starring James Stewart, here, and had commented on how Donlevy really killed it.  It turns out that playing deeply flawed characters, protagonists or antagonists, was Donlevy's specialty.  Some were straight out villains that were unlikeable but still charismatic (Beau Geste, 1939), villains that were just unlikeable and not particularly charismatic (The Virginian, 1946), misguided tough guys with hearts of gold (McGinty in The Great McGinty1940), or corrupt politicians with a sense of humor (The Glass Key1942).  But his career also saw him assaying strong upstanding guys--two that I enjoyed were: in Two Years Before the Mast (1946), he supported leading man Alan Ladd as the real-life writer who ultimately exposes the poor working conditions aboard sailing vessels in early 19th century; in Kiss of Death (1947) he plays the straight and sympathetic D.A. to Victor Mature's reforming ex-con.  If nothing else, his range was wide and he was reliable, and sometimes breathtaking. 

Late last year, his first full-length biography, titled Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy, was published by McFarland Books, and does justice to this often overlooked actor's life and career.  The author, Derek Sculthorpe, who also wrote the recent bio of Van Heflin that I reviewed here, answered some of my questions about his work, and I intersperse them throughout this post.

Sculthorpe's objective in writing about Donlevy was to "provide a comprehensive and human assessment of his life and career."  As with the Heflin book, it's thoroughly researched.  The primary focus is on the detailed output of Donlevy's career, and because Sculthorpe watched every available film and television show, he is able to draw detailed insights about his work.  It really is a great reference for those interested in film history, as Sculthorpe provides the background of each film's production, a short description, an analysis, and citations from press of the time.

Despite this heavy film focus, Sculthorpe intersperses chronologically those specifics of Donlevy's personal life that he uncovered during his research so that we get a sense of who this man was.  For example, with his study of military records, Sculthorpe was able to debunk some of the more colorful stories of Donlevy's service before and during WWI which were fed to the press during Donlevy's early acting career, and which are still part of the lead bio on
Donlevy with starlet Rita Cansino, soon to become
mega-star Rita Hayworth, in Human Cargo (1936)
(Photo from: Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy,
McFarland Books 2016)

Q.  How long did it take you to research and write your book on Donlevy?

Sculthorpe:  "It took several months to research. It’s an incredibly time-consuming process. The thing is that once you start writing you begin to find more things. Obviously by the end you have so much.  It took about eight months to write. This is so much less than it took for Heflin of course which was about two years or so in total. I learnt so much writing the first one which meant that I knew what to expect this time."

We learn that, in many ways, Donlevy had a career typical of many Hollywood actors of his generation, working until just a couple of years before he succumbed to cancer in 1972 at the age of 71.  While he had no real formal acting training, he scored successes in film, the Broadway stage, radio and television. He had a private life that wasn't without its bumps and bruises, and battled alcoholism.  He struggled with being typecast as a 'heavy', but often made the best of those roles, and relished those in which he played against type. 

Q.  What film of Donlevy's that is less well-known would you recommend people watch because of Donlevy's presence?
Brian Donlevy and Susan Hayward on
the set of Canyon Passage (

Sculthorpe:  "It’s hard to name just one. I would say Canyon Passage, which was an interesting role. Among the less well-known ones I especially liked 36 Hours to Kill (1936) in which he showed a lightness of touch; he was romantic and jaunty. The Remarkable Andrew (1942) (where Donlevy played the ghost of President Andrew Jackson) because he worked well with (William) Holden and it was something different.  Incidentally, in one of his early shorts, Ireno (1932) he had a tiny uncredited role as a drunk which was well-observed I thought. It is very short but is now available on YouTube:"

Donlevy first gained star status with his Oscar-nominated turn as the villain in Beau Geste.  But his career reached its apex in the 1940s, where he was under contract with Paramount, and where he made most of the hit films I cited as those catching my attention.  Later, as his career ebbed, he worked for various other studios, such as Republic, and ventured into television.  His hit show Dangerous Assignment in the 1950s was based on the radio show of the same name, that Donlevy himself conceived and wrote.  In it, he's a debonair but tough U.S. special agent dealing with all kinds of cases of intrigue and adventure.  Interestingly to me, he married the widow of Bela Lugosi late in life, after having divorced two wives, and Sculthorpe was in touch with stepson Bela Lugosi Jr., for insights about Donlevy.  One gets the sense that Donlevy had a restless energy all his life that propelled him to success, but also perhaps never allowed him contentment with his choices.  He dabbled in writing poetry and fiction, and investments in mining concerns.

Q.  In reading the book, it struck me that Donlevy’s life and career had parallels to those of Van Heflin, the subject of your earlier book (e.g. talents underused, character actor vs. lead, challenges in personal life such as difficult relationships with children, drinking, etc).  Any thoughts about what made them similar, and perhaps more importantly, what was different about the two? 

Donlevy with Gloria Stuart in 36 Hours to Kill (
Sculthorpe: "I think Heflin was a far more intense actor; for him acting was a real craft and he put a great deal into his roles, especially on stage. Those parts were physically and emotionally draining. For Donlevy, it was more of a job I would say, a means to an end. Both were a similar generation, both loners and, as you say, had a drinking problem. As to drinking, it is a common theme, and others such as William Holden and Robert Ryan were comparable. I think that generation were encouraged to keep emotion inside. Conversely, I think this made them better actors. Both sought adventure in their early lives, but the crucial difference was that Donlevy wanted to be part of something (the army), whereas Heflin just wanted to escape and do his own thing. Overall, I would say Heflin turned down a great many more roles than Donlevy. Their attitude to television was revealing; Heflin saw it as diminishing the art of acting in some way. Donlevy was practical and enjoyed one of his greatest successes with a TV series."

Q.  If you could play casting director…is there any film role that Donlevy would have been absolutely the best choice for (past or present) that may have showcased his talents better?  

Sculthorpe:  "I would like to have seen him as Frank Elgin in The Country Girl, (1954) which he only ever did on stage in his “straw hat” days. I know Bing Crosby did it well but Donlevy was said to be unexpectedly good in that role so that would have been interesting."

Q. What is your next project?

Sculthorpe:  "My next book is about Claire Trevor, it should be out at the beginning of next year." 
The subjects I have chosen have not been the most obvious ones, or the easiest to write about. I just feel that the big stars - Marilyn, Cary Grant, Bette Davis et al. have been written about a lot. What more can be said about them? A vast number never made it to their level, but nonetheless have a story to tell. It is heartening to see that there have recently been books about Lloyd Nolan, Richard Jaeckel, Dan Duryea and other less feted people for instance."

Sculthorpe added that he would be interested to know which subjects my blog readers would like to see books written about -- feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

This post is my entry in the 2017 "What a Character" Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club.  Check out all the posts to satisfy your curiosity about actors you've probably seen but may not know their names.  All these actors deserve to have their stories told for what they gave us on the silver screen.