Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hitchcock's Partner in Suspense Book Review

Hitchcock's Partner in Suspense
On May 2, a new book will be available from University Press of Kentucky. The 280 page tome is titled Hitchcock's Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett. The book was edited by his son, John Charles Bennett. If the name doesn't ring a bell, his works do. Bennett worked with such legends as Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock; the latter formed a partnership with an adaptation of Bennett's play, Blackmail (1929), considered the first British sound film. Hitchcock and Bennett collaborated together for six additional motion pictures: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937) and Foreign Correspondent (1940). Bennett's unpublished autobiography, along with comments and interviews, form the meat and potatoes of this book -- a feast for any Hitchcock scholar.

The "wrong man accused" device, the origin of the MacGuffin, and comments about the young child that was blown to pieces in the bomb blast in the film that movie audiences felt was too graphic -- even though the characters were motived by the devastating effects in Hitchcock's Sabotage. You also get an idea of Alfred Hitchcock as a person behind the camera, as Bennett recalled many moments in their life when the director played pranks, got jealous or upset at another person, and so on.

The book features a number of exclusives including an excerpt from Bennett's The Secret of the Loch, an excerpt from the play, Blackmail, his World War II service record, his work with Errol Flynn, his television work (including his contributions for Irwin Allen), and a reprint of the original climax for Night of the Demon (1958) is included. In short, anyone hoping to deeply explore Bennett's writing career can turn to this book and find a little of something. Looking for information about the 1942 classic, Reap the Wild Wind? Check. The obscure They Dare Not Love (1941)? Check. Hitchcock's television series? His contribution to Casino Royale (the 1954 Barry Nelson telecast)? Check. Well... Bennett made a brief mention why he never contributed, even though there were three separate attempts to be involved. 

Photographs are confined to the very back of the book. I suspect this growing trend is due to the faulty technology of converting the printed page to ebooks, which cannot format books with photos among the text without making some sort of error. There is an index which helps ease finding whatever you are looking for.

Unless you are a big Hitchcock scholar looking to explore the director's works deeper than 100 other books exploring Hitchcock's works (partial or whole), or have every book about Alfred Hitchcock ever published and want to add another to the growing library, this book might not be for everyone. But it certainly fills a gap that was sorely needed. And we can thank John Charles Bennett for that.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Recent Auction Sales

Singin' in the Rain suit
The grey wool suit that Gene Kelly wore in the 1952 classic, Singin' in the Rain, was kept in a closet (hopefully with mothballs) for more than 40 years by a retired U.S. Post Office employee, with a hobby of collecting Hollywood memorabilia. Gerald Sola in California was at the famed MGM Studio auction in 1970 and recalled paying five dollars for a catalog listing all the items up for auction. During the auction, thousands of costumes were sold in the range of $200 to $400, many purchased by Debbie Reynolds (she herself has been auctioning off her collectibles recently). According to Sola, the company responsible for running the auction decided to liquidate the inventory with a good old fashioned rack sale. It was during this end-period of the event that Sola, digging through those racks, came across a single-breasted suit of grey wool with multi-colored flecks, with a four-button front closure and a self-belt with a two-button closure. Inside, the label read: “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Gene Kelly/No. 1546-8565.”

“I took it off the rack and looked at it,” said Sola. “I noticed right away that there were water stains in the jacket. I knew right away what it was from so I bought it.”

The price? Ten dollars.

Sola is wise enough to know that you cannot take anything with you when you pass away. Collecting for the sake of collecting, bragging rights or displaying in the home has been a bug most people cannot shake off. But there comes a time to let go and Sola realized this was the time. At age 72, he knows that an auction will not only generate a large sum when the gavel comes down, but anyone paying that kind of price will no doubt give the suite a good home. 

The violin that played on the Titanic.
The Violin from the Titanic
More artifacts from the Titanic continue to be sold on public auction. Most notably of recent was a violin that survived the April 1912 sinking. The price was $1.7 million. Not sure if there was a buyer's premium, but that is a large chunk of money and a world record for the most money paid for an item that was once on board the Titanic. Wallace Hartley was the bandmaster on the vessel, and the German made musical instrument was probably used during the rendition of "Nearer My God, to Thee" while the ship was slowly sinking and passengers needed something in the background to remain calm. The instrument is not playable was was supposedly found strapped to Hartley's body after the disaster. The names of the previous owner and the new owner are both kept anonymous from the public. The violin was subjected to numerous tests before it was declared authentic.

The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks
In 1969, after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins returned to Earth after the legendary moon walk, President Nixon gave the astronauts tiny specimens from their exploration. Four small moon rocks no bigger than specks, embedded in an acrylic button and mounted to a desktop wooden podium -- to each of the fifty states, as well as the nation's territories and 135 foreign nations. A grand gesture that now provides a mystery: nearly 100 of the displays are unaccounted for. Space enthusiasts have been conducting an ongoing search for the past decade. NASA has no responsibility or need to track them down. Do you know where they might be?

BATMAN Number One
The highest graded Batman #1 comic book ever certified (9.2, by CGC) sold for $567,625 at a Comic and Comic Art Auction held by Heritage Auctions. As a friend of mine once said, if you have any first issues of vintage comics, have them certified and graded. It may just add value to your comic.

H.G. Wells book
H.G. Wells First Edition
True story. I once had a first edition of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, signed by Bradbury himself with the date and inscription of the first day the book was ever published. Last year I picked it up while cleaning the loft and the cover fell right off. There went the value. And I cannot recall how I acquired it. Emotional tears flowing...  A first edition copy of H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon recently sold for $26,400 at a sale of 19th and 20th Century Literature by Swann Auction Galleries in New York City. A first edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World sold at the same auction for $22,800. A first edition of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon reached $26,400. These auctions also included a 20 percent buyer's premium. Amazing what books you might find at antique shows and flea markets that just might have some value.

The stuff that dreams are made of.
The Maltese Falcon
Speaking of the Dashiell Hammett novel... considered one of the most iconic and valuable Hollywood merchandise sought by film buffs (which includes the Ruby Red Slippers from The Wizard of Oz and the Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane) is the Maltese Falcon from the 1941 Humphrey Bogart picture. Supposedly this one went up for auction, classified as "prop #6" which means there were at least five other statues made. A replica goes for about $40 if you want one in your living room. This one, an original, weighing 45 pounds and standing 12 inches tall, went for a little more than $4 million! Madison Avenue auction house Bohnams was responsible for the sale. If another bird goes up for auction in the future, it may surpass the $4 million mark. This one was the one damaged by actress Lee Patrick -- she dropped it on the set and damaged the tail feathers. And in case you are curious, the statue was made of lead.

The Sound of Music
The fascination of The Sound of Music (1964) has grown over the past years. It is considered by 20th Century Fox as one of their great cash cows and has been reissued on the home video market perhaps more than any other movie in the Fox library. A recent "live" television production with Miss Underwood generated huge ratings on NBC, reviving interest with families who haven't seen the movie in years. A group of costumes from the classic movie, including the drapery outfits worn by the Von Trapp family and the brown dress worn by Julie Andrews during the "Do-Re-Mi" sequence, sold for $1.56 million at an auction by the Profiles in History auction house in Calabasas, California. The same auction sold the cane from the Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times, brought $420,000 and one of Judy Garland's dresses from The Wizard of Oz raised $360,000. These prices include the buyer's premium.

Babe Ruth's Jersey
A baseball jersey worn by Babe Ruth around 1920 changed hands twice. Recently purchased by the New York Yankees by the Boston Red Sox for $100,000, the Yankees auctioned off the jersey for a total of $4.4 million at SCP Auctions, based in California. This holds the world record for the most money paid for sports memorabilia. The jersey was on display for years at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore, where the big guy was born.

Screen capture of the auction described below.
Queen Elizabeth's underwear
Don't ask me how this happened but a pair of royal underwear supposedly owned and worn by Queen Elizabeth was sold on eBay for $18,000. According to the item description on eBay, the undergarment had the letter "E" embroidered on it, along with four small pearl-like buttons and a monogram of the Royal crown, along with flowers on a stem with leaves. (My underwear has "Fruit of the Loom" printed on the inside of the elastic strap, and that did not cost extra.) There were a total of 18 bids on the auction and the buyer has not been made public. The underwear has an interesting story behind it: The pair of panties came in to the possession of a famous Miami playboy named "Baron" Joseph de Bicske Dobronyi -- or Sepy, as he was known. As the story goes, Sepy got them from a friend after they were left on a private plane when the Queen visited Chile in 1968. This just goes to show that you really can find anything on eBay.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie review

There is only one new movie being released to theaters this weekend and it is the film comic book fans have been waiting for. Whereas The Avengers brought us snappy little one-liners and lots of humor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier ventures into the real world of true grit. Suspenseful and politically astute, the Marvel franchise advances the story while respecting the mythos of the comics.
Captain America and Nick Fury
Captain America and Nick Fury
Before I delve into The Winter Soldier, I would like to present a brief recap about Captain America, who made his comic book debut nine months before the U.S. entry into World War II, in March of 1931. A patriotic soldier created for war propaganda, the character evolved into something of a pop culture icon over the years. It is not the combat fisticuffs that we enjoy reading in the comic panels... it is what Captain America represents that appeals to many. For The Winter Soldier, the script writers established what Captain America stands for and, by extension, what America stands for too. Nothing is more red, white and blue than political scandal. Captain America goes up against this with a little help from his friends.... while combatting an old friend from his past.
The character made the transition to the silver screen in 1944 as a Republic Pictures cliffhanger serial. (If you never watched the serial, make an effort to do so only as an example of how the studio made use of the costume and character name; nothing else resembled the comic version.) Two live 1979 made-for-TV movies were produced with Reb Brown in the lead. Serving as television pilots, the movies went about a contemporary approach to the character that was more faithfully adapted as an animated cartoon series in 1966. In 1990, another motion-picture was made with Matt Salinger, sporting a 1940s hair style in a modern-day world where The Red Skull has since undergone plastic surgery and no longer has a red skull. (Yeah, I didn't like that either.) Then in 2011, Marvel independently produced their own version and succeeded where the four prior attempts failed. Fan boys rejoiced, critics raved and the box office receipts were large. The 2011 motion-picture was originally planned back in 2005, when Marvel Studios received a loan from Merrill Lynch, and planned to finance and release it through Paramount PicturesAfter inclusion with The Avengers in 2012, fans wanted more. And this weekend fan boys can flock to the theaters to enjoy another round of ol' Cap.
Captain America and The Falcon
Captain America and The Falcon
It is tough to call this a sequel because there are no gruff army colonels, big band music, propaganda posters and violent Nazis; The Winter Soldier is virtually a reboot of the franchise. And perhaps one of the most important in the Marvel movie universe. This is the film that will catapult future Captain America sequels and give us a glimpse of what to expect if and when Captain America 3 is theatrically released. If you have seen all the prior Marvel movies, you probably noticed how the studio wants to do something different with each picture. No cookie cutter format with any given series. But some pessimists of the world doubted whether a new Captain America movie could muster the same strength of The Avengers, citing the latter as a fluke due to public interest of a superhero team-up concept. Iron Man 3 was an overall disappointment with fans (they wrote out The Mandarin? What's with that?) and Thor 2 was appreciated by those who disliked the first film. But could Marvel accomplish great stories and raise the bar again? Motion-pictures today are geared toward a younger audience (hey, it's about demographics) and the focus on the silver screen has changed over the decades. Storytelling is often tossed aside for more action scenes and explosions. For The Winter Soldier, the studio rose the bar and offered a plot that proves the franchise is deeply rooted in Marvel's bank account which can only grow larger with each installment. But don't compare this movie with The Avengers. Seriously, it's a Captain America movie... not an Avengers movie.
It is an espionage thriller,  a spy movie, a top-notch action-adventure, and superhero cinema that reflects important social/political questions of our time. Marvel has yet to make a horrible comic book movie. Fanboys will be pleased to know that iron-jawed Steve Rogers still knows how to throw a shield, bust people in the jaw and lay his life on the line for something he believes in. My wife and I had privilege to watch the movie before it got released nation wide on Friday and we both agreed that the insurrection scene between S.H.I.E.L.D. agents before the thrilling climax was about as tense as cinema blockbusters get... and proof that what the world needs is a little guidance from a man out of time but has taken the effort to adjust to his new surroundings.
Captain America and Black Widow display their mean streak against Agent Jasper.
Captain America and Black Widow display their mean streak against Agent Jasper.
Along the way you'll meet Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon, who was also Captain America's sidekick in the comics. Black Widow's past is explored in more detail. Robert Redford was perfectly cast as Alexander Pierce, in a role that reminds me of the political thriller, All the President's Men. Redford gets the best lines and delivers them with equal brilliance. As for Captain America, hunted by both S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and the enemy (that's as far as I will go in revealing anything about the plot), he is able to out maneuver the villains without the need of satellites, computers and advanced gadgetry. Alfred Hitchcock once established the "double chase" with The 39 Steps (1935), later culminating with North By Northwest (1959) -- an innocent man who is hunted down by both the villains and the police. The Captain America sequel rightfully proves that the formula works even in today's movie market. To give away anything about the plot or the best the movie has to provide would mean offering spoilers. Any plot summary will give away spoilers. The entire script is loaded with twists and surprises that you have to go see the movie before other people unscrupulously spoil the fun for you. For those of you who prefer the old World War II setting, you'll be pleased to know there are many WWII elements here in the movie to satisfy your thirst.
If you plan to see the movie, there are three things to know before you go. One, the new Avengers tower can be glimpsed in the background of one scene. Keep both eyes open or you'll miss it. My wife saw it; I missed it. There is a reference to the up-coming Doctor Strange movie during the film. Consider it an Easter Egg but I'll provide a hint: Stephen Strange's name is on the "hit list." Keep an eye out for that one. Lastly, stay all the way through the closing credits. All the way to the very end... not just half way through the closing credits. I mean to the very end...
What makes this film all the more interesting is whether or not Marvel can pull off another great sequel with Captain America 3. We will have to wait till May 6, 2016 for the answer to that one.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Shadow: Secret Society Bulletin

Now here's an oddity that I was never aware of until a friend of mine, Alex Daoundakis, brought it to my attention. In fact, he recently bought one and handed it to me to check out. It seems in the late seventies, a fan club for The Shadow generated a newsletter that members received for free. These were the days when the internet did not exist so fan clubs like these rarely reached the 1,000 figure. According to most estimates, many of these clubs rarely reached the 100 figure. The newsletters are not easy to come by and when they are offered for sale, the prices are sometimes astronomical. A friend of mine who does research on pulp art said newsletters and fanzines from the 1970s and 1980s often provide information you cannot find elsewhere. 

Case in point: this issue reveals conventions Walter Gibson was featured as a celebrity guest, collector edition posters for sale (I saw one of these once and wondered who made it and when they were made), the Steranko paintings and the cover art for new paperback reprints, and a tease for the up-coming Shadow Scrapbook authored by Walter Gibson. Here's a scan of issue number 3 (courtesy of Alex) for your amusement. Click on each page to enlarge.