Archive for October, 2011

This book is a gossipy, lurid, but always readable account of the rise and fall of the Rat Pack – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.  It charts how they came together in the first place (the name Rat Pack was given to them by Lauren Bacall, the wife of Humphrey Bogart, who Sinatra regarded as a hero), talks about their glory years when they seemed to rule the entertainment world from Las Vegas, and then the inevitable fall into, variously, drug abuse, alcoholism, bankruptcy and depression, leaving behind them a trail of broken marriages, broken hearts and more.

The book is not a biography of any of the Rat Pack members – their childhoods and very early careers are barely touched upon – and shouldn’t be read as such.  Instead, it covers the most successful and most volatile parts of their various careers, including such things as Sinatra’s involvement with the Mob, and the Kennedys (and both together at some stages).  Sinatra is the main focus of the book, with the others seeming to orbit around him – with the exception of Dean Martin, who, it seems fairly apparent, would kowtow to nobody.

Actually, despite the author’s obvious and understandable love for Sinatra’s singing, Frank does not come out of this account very well.  He is shown to be domineering and paranoid, unpredicatable – apt to change his mood in a moment – and a womaniser, who had little respect for anybody other than those he feared.  Dean Martin came out of it a little better – at least he was his own man.  Sammy Davis Jr was probably the most interesting of all of the Rat Pack members, for me anyhow.  The racism and abuse he had to deal with was shocking – while hotel and casino managers were happy to have him perform and entertain a crowd, they certainly were not about to let him mingle with that same crowd.  The section about the eventual desegregation in Vegas was illuminating and very interesting.  Sammy also seemed to be out of his depth in the Rat Pack – detested by white people because of the colour of his skin, and detested by black people for being friends with white men like Sinatra and Martin, he was caught between a rock and a hard place.  Peter Lawford came across as a sad character – born to looks, charm and charisma, Frank spat him out after he believed that Peter had double crossed him, and it’s sad to see how such a beautiful man as Lawford ended up sinking into a haze of drugs and alcohol, which cost him his life.  Joey Bishop was possibly the most enigmatic of the group – seemingly able to rib Frank without fear of reprisals, and remaining his own man as far as possible within the confines of such a group.

The Kennedys feature in the book – Frank was an ardent admirer of the family, and an overt campaigner for JFK when Kennedy was running for the democratic presidential nomination, and then the president.  The family as a whole do not come over well(!)  Also covered extensively was Frank’s connection with various gangsters – who were happy to use him, but clearly had little respect for him.

It was nice to read about a time when Las Vegas was a genuinely cool, sexy and glamorous place to be, unlike the commercial money making machine which it is these days; what a place it would have been to visit at the time!

The slang used in the book emulates the period covered, with mention of broads, dames and swells routinely peppered throughout the book.  This may annoy some viewers, but I actually enjoyed it a lot.  Overall I very much enjoyed the book, and it has whetted my apetite to find out more about the various Rat Pack members.

(Autor’s website can be found here.)

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In this 1960 musical, Shirley MacLaine plays Simone Pistache, the owner of a small cafe in Paris in the late 1890s.  She allows the saucy but illegall Can-Can dance to be performed in her establishment (and indeed, is one of the dancers), and winds up in court.  Frank Sinatra plays her lawyer and caddish boyfriend Francois (yes, Sinatra plays a French lawyer – albeit with an American accent!), who doesn’t like it when the new Judge Philip Forrestier (played by Louis Jourdan) falls for her.  Complications ensue…but who will Simone choose…..?

I loved this film – except for one thing…the ending.  I would have given it 10 out of 10, but the ending stopped me from doing so.  I won’t reveal what happens, but after reading a few reviews of the film, it appears that several other viewers felt the same way.

However, on the plus side – Louis Jourdan looked amazing and played a great part; Shirley MacLaine defied all my expectations as Simone – she looked stunning, danced beautifully and gave a really very funny turn indeed, and in fact was the best thing about a very enjoyable movie.  Sinatra on the other hand, seemed to be walking through his lines; he had some lovely songs, and of course he has that voice, but his acting skills really weren’t up to much (he could certainly turn in a good performance when he felt like it, such as in The Manchurian Candidate and From Here To Eternity), although it didn’t detract from the film overall.

I loved the dancing – the Can-Can itself hardly actually features in the film, but when we do see it, it’s a great dance.  Also excellent was a ballet about the story of Adam and Eve, which features towards the end of the film, and which really is a visual treat.  There were also plenty of genuinely funny moments, and a soundtrack which was chock-full of great music.  Cole Porter wrote much of the music, and while it may not have been his best or most memorable stuff, it is still a joy to listen to.

Overall then, definitely worth watching (and a pleasant surprise), but oh, that ending; the only weak spot in an otherwise lovely film.

Year of release: 1960

Director: Walter Lang

Writers: Dorothy Kingsley, Charles Lederer, Abe Burrows

Main cast: Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier

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This 1946 movie was a remake of Libeled Lady, from ten years earlier.  Esther Williams (looking stunning) is Connie Allenbury, daughter of a successful tycoon, who wants to sue the newspaper that Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn) works for, when they print a libellous story about her lifestyle.  The newspaper will go under if Connie wins her case, so they send Bill Chandler (Van Johnson) to try and seduce Connie, so that the story will then be true and she won’t be able to sue them!  Lucille Ball steals all of her scenes as Gladys, Warren’s long-suffering fiancee, who gets entangled in the scheme.

In many ways, this was an enjoyable film – Lucille Ball, as mentioned above, was absolutely terrific, and was definitely the stand-out actor (her role was played by Carole Lombard in Libelled Lady and Ball’s performance has been compared unfavourably with that of Lombard.  I would like to see the earlier film to compare).  Esther Williams was beautiful and great as the cool and shrewd Connie, and Keenan Wynn and Cecil Kellaway both gave good comic turns as Warren and J.B. Allenbury (Conie’s father) respectively.  The weak link in the cast unfortunately was Van Johnson.  Chandler was supposed to be irresistible to women, with the ability to charm the proverbial birds out of the trees; I just didn’t get that.  He seemed to lack the charisma to play such a part.

However, the plot was amusing and clever (if slightly predictable, but that is probably to be expected when starting the movie) and some slightly ludicrous plot developments added to the laughs.

Overall, worth seeing for Ball’s excellent role, and an enjoyable film, but ultimately forgettable.

Year of release: 1946

Director: Edward Buzzell, Buster Keaton, Edward Sedgwick

Writers: Dorothy Kingsley, George Oppenheimer, Howard Emmett Rogers, Maurine Dallas Watkins, Buster Keaton

Main cast: Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Lucille Ball, Keenan Wynn, Cecil Kellaway

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James Stewart is terrific in this 1948 documentary-style drama.  He plays journalist Jim McNeal, who is sent to cover a story of a man who has been in prison for eleven years, for murdering a policeman found guilty – on the testimony of just one eyewitness (despite two other witnesses saying that he was not the killer).  The film is based on the the true story of Joseph Majczek, although here his name is changed to Frank Wiecek.

Initially, McNeal is sceptical and thinks that Wiecek is probably guilty, and covers the story purely because his editor )Lee J. Cobb) wants him to.  However, as he uncovers more about what happened, McNeal starts to believe that the man is innocent and becomes determined to try and prove it.

The documentary-style really works, with a voiceover – which isn’t overused and therefore isn’t intrusive – giving salient facts to the viewer, and showing the action through McNeal’s eyes.

This is the sort of role that James Stewart was perfect for – a crusader for truth – and he is just wonderful.  He always has an immense likability, which means that it doesn’t matter if occasionally his character is irascible…and we like him for his tenacity.

The supporting cast are great too – especially Lee J. Cobb as McNeals boss Brian Kelly, and Kasia Orzazewski as Weicek’s mother.

I kind of guessed how things would turn out, despite not knowing the outcome of the real story at the time – and I was right – but nonetheless I found myself silently cheering McNeal and hoping that he would find the much needed proof of innocence.

Definitely an enjoyable film – exciting not because of action – but because of the viewer’s desire to see justice done.  It’s not one of James Stewart’s most popular films, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

Year of release: 1948

Director: Henry Hathaway

Writers: Jerome Cady, Jay Dratler, Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds, James P. McGuire (articles), Jack McPhaul (articles)

Main cast: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Betty Garde

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This book tells the story of two women, separated by centuries.  In Tuscany in 1347, 13 year old Mia hasn’t spoken a word since her mother died, and now lives with her loving aunt in a villa where they take in pilgrims and travellers.  One night a young couple come to them seeking refuge, and soon become friends.  The woman, Signora Toscana believes that she can help Mia find her voice again, but is hiding a secret of her own.  Rumours surround her, and Mia and her aunt have to try and help their new friend to a safe future.

In San Francisco in 2007, Madeleine Moretti is grieving after the death of her fiancé.  She throws herself into her work at a human rights lawyers firm, defending people who have developed illness through their unsafe workplace.  However, her own grief threatens to overwhelm her, and her grandmother sends her to stay with a friend in Tuscany.  There, Maddie grows to love the life and the people, and becomes entranced by the mystery of an old ruined villa which was destroyed centuries earlier.

Centuries apart, Mia and Madeleine will both have to find their way through their pain, to find a future for themselves…

There were so many good things to like about this book.  The writing itself flowed well, and was at many times really gorgeous (even if it occasionally trod the fine line between eloquent and too-flowery, with lines like “her eyes shone him an answer” or “she looked into her eyes and into her soul.”).

I also really liked both of the main characters – Madeleine (Maddie) sometimes seemed almost too good a person to be true; seemingly a character without the flaws that can make characters so interesting – but she was the kind of person that I knew I would like in real life.  Her grief for her fiancé was portrayed beautifully and believably and almost moved me to tears at times.

Mia’s story contained so much detail about life in Tuscany in the time period described, and I really enjoyed those parts of the story.  I also very much liked her Aunt Jacquetta – a modern woman in a world where women were supposed to be subservient and only have the opinions of the men of the time.

The separate but parallel storyline technique worked well; overall I probably enjoyed the historical narrative slightly more.

My only wish for this book would have been for the story to move along quicker.  At times it seemed so slow that it almost seemed to stop, and sometimes events happened which seemed to serve little or no purpose in the book.  I felt that it would have been a better ‘read’ if it had been tightened up – the same story told in fewer pages.

The writing was lovely however, and although this is the first book I have read by Titania Hardie, I would certainly look out for more work by this author.

(I would like to thank the publishers for sending me this book to review. For more information about Titania Hardie’s first book, The Rose Labyrinth, please click here.)

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Gregory Peck heads up the cast of this terrific Western (‘terrific’ and ‘Western’ being two words I rarely use in the same sentence).  He plays Jim Douglas, a man who comes to the sleepy town of Rio Arriba, to witness the hanging of the four men who he believes raped and murdered his wife.  However, the night before the hanging, the four men escape and the townsmen ask Jim for his help in getting them back.

I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but I am a big fan of Gregory Peck, which is the reason I watched this movie – and I’m so glad that I did.  It has everything, a suspenseful storyline, a great main character, and a fabulous actor playing him.  This is really Peck’s movie – despite the star billing of Joan Collins (playing Josefa, an old flame of Jim’s), the rest of the cast are really supporting actors.  And Peck plays the brooding, obsessed man to perfection.  He really does have (as one of the criminals notes) the eyes of a hunter, and it’s clear that his desire to see these men dead has completely overwhelmed him.

There’s also an underlying debate in the storyline – when people use the excuse of justice to justify revenge, are they not lowering themselves to the level of those they judge?  For the most part though, this is simply a riveting storyline, with a great actor in the  main role.

Year of release: 1958

Director: Henry King

Writers: Frank O’Rourke (book), Philip Yordan

Main cast: Gregory Peck, Joan Collins

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On 30th December 2003, Joan Didon’s husband John sat down to dinner, had a massive heart attack and died.  This book is Didon’s account of the year that followed – which she dubbed the year of magical thinking, because she spent the year thinking that John might return; for example, she refused to throw away his shoes, because she thought he would need them if he came back.

Just five days before her husband died – in fact on Christmas Day – John and Joan’s daughter Quintana was admitted to hospital severely ill with pneumonia, and it was not known whether she would live or die (in fact, she spent much of the following year in hospital).

Didion talks about her process of grieving, from the initial stage of denial, through stages of anger, and finally to a stage where she accepts that he is dead and will not be coming back.  She talks about how she avoids going to places where she went with John, as she tries to run away from happy memories which now make her sad, but how certain things will often and unexpectedly remind her of something John said to her, or somewhere they went, and she feels herself being pulled down into the vortex again.

I thought the writing was very eloquent, and although there are a number of technical medical terms which I did not necessarily understand – when she discusses the causes of John’s heart problems, which were known about before his heart attack, and also when she talks about their daughter’s condition – this did not mar the flow of the words.  some of the lines Didion uses are beautiful, and she certainly managed to put across how she was feeling.

However, as talented a writer as the author clearly is, I never really felt able to connect with her feelings on any level.  I sometimes felt that I just didn’t want to pick the book up, but that wasn’t because I felt empathetic towards the author, but rather because I knew that such sad subject matter might reflect upon my own mood.  (After finishing it, I longed for something light hearted or escapist to read.) 

Overall though I’m glad I read this book, and probably would, cautiously, recommend it.


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