Harry Harrison, The Technicolor Time Machine (London: New English Library, 1970)

At first sight The Technicolor Time Machine might seem an odd choice for a classic film reading. After all, author Harry Harrison (1925-2012) was a doyen of the science-fiction community, beginning his career as an illustrator for the EC Comics titles Weird Fantasy and Weird Science before going on to write and edit numerous science-fiction stories, novels and anthologies. This book first appeared as a three-part serialised story in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (March–May 1967 issues) as ‘The Time Machined Saga’.

The original magazines in which the story first appeared, along with artwork by John Schoenherr

While there’s no denying its credentials as a piece of science-fiction, The Technicolor Time Machine can also be read as a satire of the film industry during Hollywood’s Golden Era, and indeed it was those elements of the book that I found most enjoyable.

At this point a quick recap of the plot would probably be in order. The story begins at the offices of Climactic Studios, where hack director Barney Hendrickson and corrupt studio owner L. M. Greenspan are facing financial ruin within a matter of days.

Only a miracle can save the studio, and this miracle comes in the person of eccentric scientist Professor Hewett, who claims to have built a time machine – the vremeatron – that would enable Hendrickson to go back in time and make a historical movie without the need to pay for any set construction or extras. This is the essential ‘gimmick’ of the novel, but as the story progresses, the notion of time travel is exploited more and more as a strategy for smoothing out difficulties in the film’s production.

In the first instance of this, to buy them some time, the Chinese-American scriptwriter Charley Chang is sent back to the Precambrian Era where he works away on a remote island in solitude for a month, returning to the present day with a script entitled Viking Columbus about the founding of the Viking settlement of Vinland in North America. Having obtained a script, cast and crew travel back to the Orkney Islands ca.1003 AD where they hire a real-life Viking – and larger than life character – named Ottar to be their guide and Norse interpreter. Ottar eventually takes over the leading role when Hendrickson’s vain star actor, Ruf Hawk, injures himself during filming – a replacement that has unexpected consequences for the leading lady, the voluptuous Slithey Tove.

Slithey Tove as imagined by artist Bruce Pennington on the front cover of my copy of the novel

As befits a story originally published in a science-fiction magazine, there are some serious efforts to get to grips with the complex mechanisms of time travel, but these are not pursued for their own sake – rather, they form an important part of the plot as Hendrickson struggles to meet the deadlines and needs to find ever-more desperate ways to save time.

Issues about the saving, passing and good use of time are at the heart of the story, which gives the author ample scope to lampoon Hollywood’s attitude toward the past. Jokes are made not only about Hollywood’s disregard for historical accuracy, but also the general illiteracy in matters of history and culture: ‘Eric the Red? You want us to get blacklisted with a commie picture’? Filmmakers are portrayed as mercenary individuals, churning out films with titles such as The Creature’s Son Marries the Thing’s Daughter, The Pfc. from Brooklyn and Teen-age Beatniks’ Hophead Rumble, which lie just on the borderline between absurdity and near-credibility. Despite the strongly satirical tone there are some nice little touches that make the cinematic setting of the story almost believable. The camera man Gino Cappo uses an 8mm Bolex camera to try out some angles, and later expresses his concerns about light exposure – ‘I should have loaded this up with Tri-X. It’s five in the afternoon’ – before offering his thoughts on the future of the movies. ‘You haven’t heard the last of Cinecitta yet, Mr Hendrickson, not by a long shot. The new realism came out of Italy after the war, then the kitchen-sink film that the British picked up. But you’ll see, Rome ain’t dead yet..’

As events in Vinland take a turn for the worse, death – in a very real sense –  threatens not only the Vikings but also the 1960s film crew. By the end of the book it becomes clear that – even if they succeed in eluding arrows, axes, spears or drowning – there will be serious consequences from their reckless time travel. As Professor Hewett explains, with the help of a handy diagram (in which A1-Z1 is the world time line, with A1 the past and Z1 the future, and A-Z is the timeline navigated by the film crew):

The film-makers must go back in time at B, arrive at C, stay till D and then return to E:  the graph must always read ‘B-E’, never ‘E-B’, otherwise K – ‘the interchange of energy point, where the scales of time are balanced’ – would not exist. Readers who are reminded of the prohibition in Ghostbusters  – ‘never cross the streams’ – will probably also recall the dire warnings in Back to the Future about what might happen if one meddles with the past. There will no spoilers here, and anyone wishing to find out what happens to Barney, Slithey and co. will have to read The Technicolor Time Machine to find out. Hollywood has been the setting for countless novels and the subject of many a satire, but combining these with a well-crafted science fiction tale provides a rare treat, even if the tone may at times be too whimsical for certain tastes. A BBC radio adaptation was broadcast in 1981 as part of the Saturday Night Theatre series, and there were rumours some twenty years ago that Mel Gibson had bought the film rights – although whether he is the best person to be at the helm of such a project is open to question. In the meantime, the clever concept of The Technicolor Time Machine has inspired a great number of book illustrators and the cover art for the myriad paperback editions are well worth exploring.

 

This post was written as part of the 2018 #classicfilmreading challenge.

 

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The true heart of Holly. Truman Capote, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964)

It is not unusual for classic film adaptations to eclipse their literary sources in popular culture, but even in the case of the most passionate book lovers, I doubt very much if anyone can hear the title Breakfast at Tiffany’s and NOT immediately think of Audrey Hepburn. So closely has the actress become associated with the character of Holly Golightly that it’s rather unsettling to realise that the author of the original short story, Truman Capote (1924-84), was not at all happy with the casting choice and thought she was altogether wrong for the role. Having seen the film many times, it seemed like a good idea this summer to pick up the book and read Capote’s short story again, doing my utmost to push Hepburn’s performance out my mind.  A vain attempt, I should add, and one that was certainly not helped by the fact that my paperback copy has an image of Hepburn on the cover.

Although originally intended for publication in Harper’s Bazaar, Truman’s 50,000-word novella first appeared in the November 1958 issue of Esquire magazine. It was first published by Penguin in 1961, the year that the film was released, and my copy is from a reprint in 1964.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator some years after Holly’s departure from the New York brownstone apartment block where they were neighbours during the 1940s. Her current whereabouts are unknown, and the catalyst for the story is the discovery in 1956 of a photograph of an African wood carving that bears a striking resemblance to Holly – a strange element of the tale that made me for a moment think about Heart of Darkness, as I imagined Holly Golightly being idolised by some remote tribe in the middle of the jungle. The photograph was taken by one of their old neighbours, Mr Yunioshi, whose portrayal in the film by Mickey Rooney is unforgettable, for all the wrong reasons.) Idol worship aside, although Holly often appears to delight in being the centre of attention, she is not the shallow, gold-digging socialite that this might suggest, and one of the fascinating traits of the novella is how it plays with the reader’s presumptions about how characters should behave. Yes, she is self-centred and infuriating in her lack of consideration for others, but we gradually learn more of the hardship of her early life in Texas, and there are glimpses of real emotional depth in her powerful reactions to the death of her brother.  She may be a party girl, but there is a great deal of pain in her life, most of it not of her own making. As the story unfolds, the reader learns more about how Lulamae Barnes of Tulip, Texas, became Holly Golightly, Travelling, of New York (and elsewhere) – a process that invites reflection upon the relationship between the past and the present: how much of Holly’s personality is an evolution of her experience as Lulamae and how much is a reaction against it?

This is the only book cover I’ve ever seen that depicts Holly as someone other than Audrey Hepburn. It is well known that Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part and actively campaigned for this.

There is a melancholy air to the novella, which is heightened by the sense of bittersweet nostalgia that comes from looking back on the events after thirteen years have passed. The happy ending that closes the film is entirely absent here, as are the clear-cut, clean-cut delineations of sexual identity and social convention. Holly makes it clear that such distinctions matter little to her, as she tells the narrator: ‘A person ought to be able to marry men or women or – listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it.’ The opening of the story suggests that all the men who gather to discuss Holly are still in love with her, each in their own way.

The precise nature of these loves is left undefined, with neither Capote nor his characters showing much inclination to pin their personalities and relationships down with hard-and-fast definitions or judgments. A great deal of their lives is messy and irresponsible, romances and trysts are multiple or overlapping, and their grasp on who they are, wish to be or pretend to be, remains elusive to themselves and the reader. It rings remarkably true as a reflection of what life is like (I feel) for most people, if they are truly honest.

There is much in the book to think about regarding truth and artifice, surface appearance and inner reality, so it is unsurprising to find many references to the film industry and to learn that Holly was at one point drawn to Hollywood: after running away from Texas she was picked up by movie agent O.J. Berman (the name surely recalls that of Pandro S. Berman of R.K.O.) who had her made over to be a film star, teaching her French to eliminate her Texan accent, and coaching her for an audition with Cecil B. DeMille before she ran away again, this time to New York. Like all the other men in Holly’s life, of course, he retains his affection for her and turns up at her parties. Among the many characters who weave in and out of her life, there is an aura of unreality created by their colourful names – Rusty Trawler, Sally Tomato, Sapphia Spanella – providing another reminder of names can act as a smokescreen behind which to conceal one’s true identity.

It is worth remembering that the film’s emphasis on Givenchy gowns, tortoiseshell Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses and Edith Head-designed outfits draws attention away from Holly and towards her external appearance, whereas the novella does the opposite: ‘there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and greys and lack of lustre that made her, herself, shine so.’ Many books have been written presenting Holly/Hepburn as a style icon, as if that was the real essence of the character, the lesson of the tale – but reading Capote’s story in fact reveals that if anything could be considered sacred to Holly herself, it is personal integrity – even if misplaced and contradictory: ‘Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.’ Readers might find few moral certitudes in Holly’s perspective on the world, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s offers much to reflect upon about how individuals are perceived and presented, and how much we can really know about a person (even ourselves). The lesson offered here chimes with an observation often made about the finest American prose, of which Capote is a prime example – that sometimes, less is more.

This is the second in a series of blogposts written as part of the #classicfilmreading challenge for 2018

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Caroline Young, Classic Hollywood Style (Francis Lincoln Limited Publishers, 2012)

I picked this up in a Soho bookshop some years ago after catching Faye Dunaway’s eye from the other side of the room. The cover photo, showing Dunaway in the 1967 movie – wearing ‘a tight mustard cable-knit sweater, a patterned silk neckerchief and beret – the classic Bonnie look’ – is just one of dozens of eye-catching and beautifully-reproduced pictures in this book. Classic Hollywood Style is not, however, just a coffee-table book of sumptuous images, for the accompanying text is as rich and fascinating as the illustrations themselves. Writer and journalist Caroline Young has an excellent grasp of both costume design and cinema history, and the way she weaves the two together makes this book especially valuable.

Arranged chronologically from Camille (Smallwood, 1921) through to The Thomas Crown Affair (Jewison, 1968), the author discusses costume designs from 34 films, including Greta Garbo’s ‘chic androgynous look’ in A Woman of Affairs (Brown, 1928), Morocco (Sternberg, 1930), Gilda (Vidor, 1946), The Killers (Siodmak, 1946), and A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951), The Philadelphia Story (Cukor,1940) and its musical remake High Society (Walters,1956). Her analysis is backed up by a wide range of illustrations including costume design sketches, film stills, studio press releases, candid photos, movie posters, censorship records, behind-the-scenes production notes and contemporary magazine articles. Examination of the costumes is integrated with discussion of the movies themselves and the personal lives of the stars – such as how Ava Gardner’s skin complexion influenced the lighting in The Killers and the rise of ‘beret fever’ after Bonnie and Clyde. This approach allows Young to explore not only the impact made by the movies on the fashion industry and popular culture, but also the reciprocal relationship between film stars and their favoured designers, and what distinguishes a movie star from a fashion icon. Designers discussed here include Travis Banton (who created outfits for Mae West and Marlene Dietrich), Academy Award winner Edith Head and Adrian, who designed the red slippers for The Wizard of Oz (1939) – copies of which were on display at the V&A’s  “Hollywood Costume” exhibition in 2012.

THE KILLERS, Ava Gardner, 1946

As with almost any book devoted to fashion, there is a strong bias towards women’s costumes and their impact upon female film-going audiences and consumers. Although I cannot claim to feel passionate about male sartorial issues, it would occasionally be interesting to read more about the significance and detail of costumes worn by male actors in relation to wider culture. With that in mind, Young’s discussion of the costumes in Rebel without a Cause (Ray, 1955) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) were particularly welcome. In my paper on Anton Walbrook as Prince Albert, I looked in depth at how film-makers deal with portraying historical events, and Young makes some well-observed comparisons between the approaches to historical accuracy taken by different costume designers (p.61).

All in all, Classic Hollywood Style is an engaging read, highly-informative and lavishly-illustrated. It would make a good companion volume to Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume (London: Harper Design, 2007) and the massive exhibition catalogue for the V&A’s Hollywood Costume. Caroline Young has gone on to write some other film-related books such as Hitchcock’s Heroines, (San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2018) and Roman Holiday:  The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome (Stroud: The History Press, 2018). Her website continues to discuss costumes in movies and is well worth a visit https://classichollywoodstylebook.wordpress.com/

Here’s a full list of the contents:

  1. Camille (1921) Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova in Art Deco style
  2. Our Dancing Daughters (1928) Joan Crawford and flapper style
  3. A Woman of Affairs (1928) Garbo in a trenchcoat
  4. Morocco (1930) Dietrich in a tuxedo
  5. Queen Christina (1933) Garbo triggers bishop sleeve sensation
  6. Flying Down to Rio (1933) Fred and Ginger’s first billing
  7. The Dancing Lady (1933) Joan Crawford – rags to riches
  8. Cleopatra (1934) Claudette Colbert in Art Deco style
  9. Jezebel (1938) Bette Davis in Civil War period costume
  10. Gone with the Wind (1939) Vivien Leigh in Civil War costume
  11. The Philadelphia Story (1940) Katharine Hepburn in slacks and elegant gowns
  12. Kitty Foyle (1940) Ginger Rogers as modern working woman
  13. Casablanca (1942) Bogart in fedora, trenchcoat, white tuxedo
  14. Cover Girl (1944) Rita Hayworth as all-American girl-next-door
  15. To Have and Have Not (1944) Bacall’s wave hairdo
  16. Mildred Pierce (1945) Joan Crawford and shoulder pads
  17. Gilda (1946) Rita Hayworth’s black strapless gown
  18. The Killers (1946) Ava Gardner as the classic femme fatale
  19. All About Eve (1950) Bette Davis’s off-the-shoulder New Look dress
  20. A Place in the Sun (1951) Monty Cliff as a rebel in biker’s leathers, Elizabeth Taylor’s white prom dress
  21. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Brando’s t-shirt
  22. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Monroe in burlesque pink
  23. From Here to Eternity (1953) Deborah Kerr’s halter neck bathing suit
  24. To Catch a Thief (1954) Grace Kelly the Grecian, glacial blonde
  25. Sabrina (1954) Hepburn’s first Givenchy film, clean and simple style, boat neck dress
  26. The Seven Year Itch (1955) Monroe’s white halter neck dress blowing up
  27. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Dean in a red windbreaker – teen style
  28. High Society (1956) Grace Kelly and cocktail dresses
  29. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) Elizabeth Taylor in the white chiffon ‘cat dress’
  30. Imitation of Life (1959) Lana Turner in expensive gowns and jewels
  31. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Hepburn’s little black dress (and gloves)
  32. My Fair Lady (1964) Cecil Beaton’s Edwardian Ascot
  33. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Berets, midiskirts, pinstripe and neckties
  34. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Faye Dunaway’s miniskirts, McQueen’s Ivy Style

This is the first in a series of blogposts written as part of the #classicfilmreading written for 2018.

 

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New Meat on Old Bones – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

This weekend I went along to see Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, the sequel to Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015) and the fifth in the franchise that began with Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) and continued with The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001). Although the film has Derek Connolly and Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow both returning as screenwriters, with Trevorrow and Steven Spielberg acting as executive producers, the introduction of Spanish film-maker J.A. Bayona as director gives this movie a welcome dash of Gothic horror that anyone who has seen his darkly atmospheric The Orphanage (2007) will appreciate. While in many ways the film retreads the familiar, audience-pleasing scenarios of the previous films, Bayona’s background brings some enjoyable Gothic frissons to the franchise and some elements that will please fans of classic British horror films of old. He directed a couple of episodes of Penny Dreadful too, including the frightening and surprisingly poignant ‘Séance’ episode, which surely should have earned Eva Green an Emmy.

There will be no spoilers here, or at least nothing that isn’t apparent from the trailers

The events of this film take place a few years after the first Jurassic World movie, as dino-trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and the former park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) return to Isla Nubar, a deserted ruin since the rampaging chaos of the first film. Claire’s career has changed tack somewhat, in that she is now leading a dinosaur-rights activist group, and the duo’s goal in returning to the island is to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from an imminent volcanic eruption and transfer them to safety. Their expedition is funded by the wealthy Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who – it is explained – was involved in the original dinosaur DNA experiments with John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough.) His granddaughter Maisie Lockwood (engagingly-played by newcomer Isabella Sermon) spends most of her time bounding around the huge mansion learning about palaentology, but despite her youth, there are hints of mysterious connections between her past and that of the dinosaurs amongst whose skeletons she plays.

Supervising Lockwood’s rescue project is Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), an old friend of Claire’s. Now Spall will always be for me the frighteningly unstable Jay Wratten from the 2011 BBC series The Shadow Line and it’s no surprise to find him a villain here, following in the footsteps of Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) from the first film. He is just one of a great supporting cast of British actors, including Geraldine Chaplin and the ubiquitous but always-watchable Toby Jones.

While previous films have been pretty-much island-bound (part of the terror trap), Fallen Kingdom sees the dinosaurs moved off the island to their new home at the Lockwood Estate, a vast Gothic mansion with the inevitable basement in which unspeakable things go on. Much of Jurassic World was filmed in Pinewood Studios, but the exterior of Lockwood Manor is actually just a façade, constructed on Hawley Common, an army training ground near the Hampshire village of Minley. Bayona draws on his experience filming The Orphanage, as well as much older films and visual representations to explore the terror potential of dinosaurs loose in an old dark house.

The moral message of the film is not subtle – contrasting Blue Planet’s ethos of preserving natural environments and endangered species with the unregulated self-seeking excesses of capitalist greed, private militias and the mad science that has been condemned from Frankenstein through Westworld to the previous Jurassic movies. Genetic engineering has rarely been portrayed in a positive light on the big screen, and neither the Indominus Rex of the last movie nor the Indoraptor of this one do anything to change the impressions made by watching Deep Blue Sea (Harlin, 1999) Black Sheep (King, 2006) Splice (2009) or any other Promethean fable. While there are a number of deliberate and rather obvious references to scenes from earlier films in the Jurassic franchise, viewers might also enjoy spotting gentle nods towards much older dinosaur films such as One Million Years BC (1966) and Valley of Gwangi (1969), about which I’ve written previously [see here] While watching, I was also reminded of the comic-strip story ‘Flesh’ which appeared in 2000 AD during the late 1970s.

Despite healthy box office returns the film has received mixed reviews from critics, some of whom appear oddly confused about the aims of the creators of the Jurassic franchise; while one party carps about Fallen Kingdom sticking too closely to the storyline of earlier movies, another group grouches about the folly of taking the franchise in a different direction. I think it’s fair to say that the film aims at – and achieves – a balance between nostalgia and novelty. Feverishly debating how silly it may or may not be is as pointless as the endless controversy about the correct walking speed of zombies. As some of the pics above illustrate, the film has some superb visual effects with Bayona knowing how to play with panoramic sweeps as well as atmospheric shadows and reflections. Audiences can feast their eyes while the dinosaurs feast on the baddies. Isn’t that what the franchise is all about?

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Mad Dogs and Englishmen….

On 7 May the BBC finally released a DVD of The Mad Death, some 25 years after the miniseries was originally broadcast in the summer of 1983. The programme imagined what might happen if rabies was introduced into Scotland, and over the course of three episodes follows the spread of the disease, its effect on victims, and the authorities’ attempts to control the outbreak. Filmed on location around central Scotland – including a memorable chase sequence in which a landrover pursues a rabid dog through the old Plaza shopping centre at East Kilbride – and containing some horrific scenes of rabies symptoms, including nightmarish hallucinations – the programme attracted a great deal of attention at the time, especially as the threat of rabies reaching the UK was a real fear then, and the subject of widespread media campaigns.

In retrospect, one wonders if we worried too much, and over the years my memories of watching the original broadcast have been tempered by further reflection about the other fears and anxieties that perhaps lay beneath all the lurid imagery and ‘protect our borders’ propaganda.

The BBC’s timing of their DVD release was rather serendipitous as it coincided with the publication of my illustrated article, ‘”Mad Dogs and Englishmen”: Hydrophobia, Europhobia and National Identity in “The Mad Death” (BBC Scotland, 1983)’ in the online periodical, The International Journal of Scottish Theatre and Screen. This was written for a special issue on ‘TV in Scotland: Past, Present and Future’, and some idea of the contents can be gleaned from the abstract:

BBC Scotland’s three-part series The Mad Death (1983) presented a fictional account of a rabies outbreak on Scottish soil. Although the story was based on a lurid unpublished novel and made use of classic horror tropes, including animal attacks, imprisonment in a baronial manor and terrifying hallucinations, it also reflected the sober tone of public information films and contemporary rabies safety campaigns. Filmed in Scotland and making effective use of Highland locations and actors such as Jimmy Logan, the ‘Scottishness’ of the production was nonetheless undermined by the vague presentation of the physical landscape, uncertainty over the parameters of the Scottish and English authorities, and an uneven depiction of social classes and dialects. A more detailed study of this content reveals the cultural anxieties that underpinned the narrative and characterisation, which remain acutely relevant as the 35thanniversary of the original broadcast approaches. Drawing on original production materials and personal discussions with screenwriter Sean Hignett, this article places The Mad Death in its social, cultural and political context, exploring how the series engaged with questions of national heritage and social identity while at the same time repackaging familiar tropes from the traditions of the horror genre. Particular attention is applied to the ways in which the spread of rabies is used to reflect anxieties about the dangers of European integration, employing language and attitudes that are all too familiar from the ongoing ‘Brexit’ debate in Britain. Through a close analysis of these issues it is possible to provide detailed insights into the production of The Mad Death, the adaptation process and the workings of the Scottish television industry during a time of social and political upheaval. The essay aims at providing a case study from which lessons can be learned that could help guide policy for future Scottish programming.

and also from a little ‘word cloud’ image that I generated:

For those who wish to read my article, it can be accessed (free-of-charge) here

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