Tuesday, September 24, 2019

books to film: pal joey and BUtterfield 8

After recently reading Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, I decided that I not only wanted to continue with my book-to-film theme, but keep it centered in New York City, too. That led me to John O'Hara's  Pal Joey and BUtterfield 8.

John O'Hara - Four Novels of the 1930s

I had heard for years that the 1957 film version of Pal Joey was nothing like the 1940 Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical - Gene Kelly apparently portrayed him as a genuine no-good crumb (as Joey would say). In the film Frank Sinatra isn't exactly an angel, but he has enough of the proverbial heart of gold to win the love of sweet Kim Novak. Not only does the original O'Hara text outline Joey's not-so-nice persona, but it is an epistolary novel, including a series of Joey Evans' missives to his "dear pal Ted." Down on his luck nightclub MC and singer Joey Evans is always trying to get his more successful friend Ted to help him get a job in New York, where Ted seems to be doing very well in his own musical career, but clearly Ted isn't biting. The novel started as a story that O'Hara submitted to The New Yorker, first published in 1938. It was so popular he wrote more and more, until they were compiled published as a novel in 1940. To the delight of the reader, your pal Joey writes like he talks, which, a la Derek Zoolander, is not too good:
Dear Friend Ted
That is if I can call you friend after the last two weeks for it is a hard thing to do considering. I do not know if you realize what has happen to me oweing to your lack of consideration. Maybe it is not lack of consideration. Maybe it is on purpose. Well if it is on purpose all I have to say is maybe you are the one that will be the loser and not me as I was going to do certan things for you but now it does not look like I will be able to do them.
From the 1957 film, Frank Sinatra as your pal Joey with mice Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth

Pal Joey is a mostly funny read. Joey is grasping, but mostly clueless. He does seem to have a pretty good talent for the music and jazz of the time, but his human relations skills are less than zero, especially with the "mice" (Joey's slang for girls) that he encounters along the way. Joey doesn't seem to be doing much better with his career by the end of the novel than he did when it started, which adds to the realism, and even humor of the piece. Joey may have been a heel, but his persona has lived on entertainingly in print, stage, and screen.

1935's BUtterfield 8 was made into a successful film in 1960, starring Elizabeth Taylor (who won the Oscar for Best Actress) and then-husband Eddie Fisher, right before she went on to make the blockbuster Cleopatra. The story centers on Gloria Wandrous, a young woman who lives her life freely - sleeping with men that she likes, while searching for a meaningful life. Gloria is a complicated person. It is revealed, midway through the novel, that she was a victim of child sexual abuse. She is quite frank and flirtatious with her closest friend, commercial artist Eddie, who seems to be her only true friend. Gloria is getting tired of her itinerant life and believes that she has fallen in love with her latest lover, married man Weston Liggett. But will she be able to get past her malaise and open herself to love and a life with Liggett?

From the 1960 film, Elizabeth Taylor in her Oscar-winning turn as Gloria Wandrous in BUtterfield 8
“On this Sunday morning in May, this girl who later was to be the cause of a sensation in New York, awoke much too early for her night before. One minute she was asleep, the next she was completely awake and dumped into despair. It was the kind of despair that she had known perhaps two thousand times before, there being 365 mornings in a calendar year.”
The book, although interesting to read and progressive for its time, has problems. Gloria is racist and abusive to her mother's black maid as a matter of course. She is the recipient of sexist behavior, which is not surprising, considering the time the story takes place, but that same sexism is also ultimately worked into the plot. Why is Gloria made to "pay" for her choices and behavior while her partner, Liggett, seems to get off scot free? That can happen frequently in life, but did the reader in 1935 accept her fate as unjust or inevitable? Events in the 1960 film may have been depicted as tragic, but seemed equally clichĂ©. BUtterfield 8 seems a precursor, almost a companion story to Breakfast at Tiffany's. The authors each presented interesting, free-spirited women as their protagonists, but in the end, don't seem to know what to do with them.

This post also appears on Cannonball Read 11

Monday, September 23, 2019

free spirit holly golightly, forever a cipher

Breakfast at Tiffany's the book shares a lot of the same traits as Breakfast at Tiffany's the film: charming in places, predictable in others, with some questionable and unnecessary ethnic and racist slurs. Truman Capote wrote it in 1958, but the story is set in 1943 as a young, unnamed writer (Capote's stand-in) moves into a brownstone on the upper east side of Manhattan. He soon encounters his 19 year-old enigmatic neighbor, Holly Golightly. She proceeds to charm and repel him at intervals, while remaining oblivious to his roller coaster-like reactions to her.

Holly (Audrey Hepburn) and Paul (George Peppard) spend a day in Manhattan in Breakfast At Tiffany's

Holly is definitely the most interesting character in the story, although she ultimately remains a cipher. What makes the book truly delightful is Capote's way with words. His descriptions of Holly and her antics are a joy to read, even if his humble narrator doesn't seem to ever really grasp her true character or what motivates her.
She was still hugging the cat. "Poor slob," she said, tickling his head, "Poor slob without a name. It's a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven't any right to give him one: he'll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don't belong to each other: he's an independent, and so am I. I don't want to own anything until I know I've found the place where me and things belong together. I'm not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it's like." She smiled, and let the cat drop to the floor. "It's like Tiffany's . . . nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name.”
Breakfast At Tiffany's, by Truman Capote

As fun and quick a read as it is, Breakfast at Tiffany's shows a dark side of New York, whether that was Capote's intention or not. Holly has been around - since a very young age. She may be mature beyond her years, but she is still a teenager who is being fawned over by a series of much older men, the narrator included. All these men want something from Holly - to love her, sleep with her, tame her. But she manages to evade their grasp. A young woman living independently, on her own terms, in 1940s New York was an anomaly. Holly as a character makes for interesting reading, but in the end Capote has her leave New York, leave the country, with no explanation, no resolution. Maybe he just didn't know how to deal with such a free spirit. She eluded him, too.

This post also appears on Cannonball Read 11

i loved laura, except for . . .

Another book from my personal challenge of reading the source material for favorite classic movies: Laura, by Vera Caspary. This book is a detective noir, as hard-boiled and cynical as any of the genre, but written by a woman. It was originally published, a la Dickens, as a serial, "Ring Twice for Laura," in Colliers Magazine in 1942/43. The  classic film noir, starring Gene Tierney as Laura and Dana Andrews as a detective who finds himself falling in love with a dead woman as he investigates her murder, came out a year later—so Hollywood was right on this as the perfect tale for a hit movie.

Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) contemplates a portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney)

The story is told from the viewpoint of several main characters, including Detective Mark MacPherson, esthete and friend of the deceased Waldo Lydecker, and Laura's unfaithful fiancĂ© Shelby Carpenter. It is up to the reader to piece together the stories about this fascinating woman and race along with Mark to solve the crime. The murder is actually a quite brutal one—ostensibly Laura went to answer her doorbell and was killed with a shotgun blast to the face. The method of the crime is in stark contrast to the glamorous New York City apartments and surroundings of Laura's life as an advertising executive, an impressive job for a young woman in 1942. We learn quite a bit about Mark, Waldo, and Shelby, too. Laura, a romantic thriller, is a great book with great characters, and I loved it - with one major caveat. Spoiler alert—read no further if you haven't seen the movie . . .

Laura, by Vera Caspary


It is discovered more than halfway through the book that the body of the murdered woman in Laura's apartment was not Laura, so the reader finally gets to meet her and see if other's descriptions of her square with the genuine article. And at first, she does, beautifully. She is honest, earnest and even shows some interest in Mark, so things seem to be going quite smoothly to a romantic finish—as long as Laura isn't the murderer. But the real problem for me is that Caspary has Laura casually drop the "N" word in conversation and it completely soured my interest in her character. I understand that such casual racism was probably quite common in the 1940s, but . . . yuk.

I did a little research on the author, who led a quite interesting life, but found no clues as to her thoughts about race. She dabbled in Socialism and Communism, even going so far as visiting Russia to see if the country lived up to her expectations. She lived openly with her married British lover for years before finally marrying in 1948. She led an unusual life, like her protagonist, for a woman of the time.

Apparently the publisher of this reprint series, actually subtitled Femmes Fatales, and published by The Feminist Press at CUNY, didn't see any reason to add an editor's note about Laura's outburst. It's a single, strange event that happens and never occurs again in the text, by her or any other character.
Sigh. It's best to be honest about our past to go forward into the future. This is not the only instance of racist language that I have encountered in my recent book-to-film adventures. So far the 40s and 50s American popular literature is proving quite problematic.

This post also appears on Cannonball Read 11

Sunday, September 22, 2019

the uninvited: ghosts like us

I love old black and white movies, especially mysteries and horror movies. I was watching one of my all-time favorites, The Uninvited, a ghost story starring Ray Milland recently (it's a really superior film - I highly recommend it if you've never seen it) and I started to wonder where the idea for the movie had come from. Was it an original screenplay? A short story? A novel? A quick internet search revealed that the film, directed by English director Lewis Allen was based on a 1941 novel written by Irish author Dorothy Macardle. If I had these idle thoughts a few years ago I would have been out of luck, as the book had long been out of print. But luckily The Uninvited, or as it was originally titled in Britain, Uneasy Freehold, is now available in a reprint paperback, and even luckier, it is also a great ghost story in print.

Siblings Pamela and Roddy Fitzgerald (Ruth Hussey and Ray Milland) suspect they might not be alone in their new home

Brother and sister Roderick (Roddy, played by Ray Milland in the film) and Pamela Fitzgerald (played by Rich Hussey in the film) are on their way back to London from Devon (Cornwall in the film) when they are drawn to an old, abandoned house on the side of a cliff. The house is in great condition and unbelievably inexpensive. The pair decide to buy it and leave the city for the country. They soon discover the reason why it's a bargain. The house, called "Cliff's End," has a reputation for strange sounds and occurrences. The siblings try to unravel the history of the house and soon discover it may be centered around their lovely neighbor, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell in the film).

Trying to contact their uninvited guest

The film version definitely streamlined some of the characters (most notably, Dr. Scott), but it is as subtle and full of dread as its source. What struck me the most was how people talked to one another. People were just so much more polite and refined in their language. There is nothing stuffy about how these characters speak, they come across as very real people, they're just . . . more willing to listen to one another? The book is good at presenting how the average person might deal with a supernatural experience, and what it might really mean when you've sunk all your savings into a haunted house.
The Uninvitedhas compassion for its protagonists and even its ghosts. A great read.

This post also appears on Cannonball Read 11