From Screen To Page
We are a community with an unusually large pool of talent in the arts.
Recently I received in the mail, a book which was written by an author from our neck of the woods, and I’d like to share it with you, so if the long nights and icy blasts are driving you to spend more time exploring through reading, rather than doing, you have another choice to consider.
Since it won’t require the entire column to discuss that book, I have some selections from my growing stack of ”read but not reviewed” books, to share with you, as well. I hope you enjoy hearing about them.
50 CLASSIC MOTION PICTURES
We have written several times about David Zinman, in these pages. He spends the warmer months of the year living in Mayville. Zinman has taken to writing plays, which he gets performed during the final week of the Chautauqua season, and he has written a number of books about Hollywood films and an analytic history of the assassination of Louisiana politician Huey Long. For many years, he has attended a showing of one or more classic films, during the Chautauqua season, and has conducted a discussion with the audiences.
Zinman has published a number of books in which he has chosen 50 films from a particular era, and in which he shares his insights with his readers. ”50 Classic Motion Pictures: The Stuff that Dreams Are Made of” was his first of the film-related publications, first printed in 1970. In 2013, he has revised that book, bringing up to date such issues as events in the lives and careers of his actors, directors, and other professionals, as they have developed in the past 43 years.
The book has exactly the same number of pages as it originally had, and his selection of 50 films are the same, but now we can know that the lovely heroine of one film went on to marry a studio head and the rough-and-ready hero of another spent his last 25 years of life running a small dinner theater in Minnesota. Since the quality of printing has largely improved, over the past 40 years, the many photos which deck the pages tend to be sharper, as well.
In his introduction, Zinman lays out the scope of his writings. He denies being a cinema expert, historian or whatever. Instead, he claims that he loves motion pictures, and he enjoys reading about them and sharing what he knows with an interested audience.
He has divided the book into 10 chapters, in each of which he writes about a number of films, although he feels free to go into much deeper focus on one of the principal actors, in one film, and in the history of the plot, for another. The chapters are these: Grand Dames, Heroes and He-Men, Adventure, Funny Men, Life Styles, Monsters, We the People, Directors, The Love Game, and Intrigue. The chapters aren’t all the same length, with Adventure meriting seven films, for example, and Monsters limited to King Kong, Dracula, and Frankenstein.
Zinman writes with a rich vocabulary. He never rambles, but organizes and analyzes carefully. On the other hand, his narration is pleasant to read, and easy to follow. If you want to relax for a minute before tackling the snow shoveling or you want to fix a cup of coffee or tea and warm up in your easy chair, when you come back in from the cold, you can read one or two of his film analyses and then leave the rest, to be enjoyed later.
He never claims that these are the best films ever made, nor that they are organized from the most effective to the least effective films. He just talks about the films and chances are you’ll learn something about each of them.
If you love films from the 1920s through the 1940s, chances are you haven’t watched each of these masterpieces regularly, so it can re-awaken your interest in them. If you weren’t able to watch films, when you were young, or if you’re now too young to remember these films, it can open a whole new world to your understanding.
”50 Classic Motion Pictures” has 303 pages of text in paperbound edition, of which approximately half are photos from the films. The most recent edition of the book was published by Limelight Editions, dated 2013. It’s marked for sale at $29.99. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-87910-162-6.
Some actors are able to disappear inside the characters they portray. Audiences would never guess, for example, that fearsome horror star Boris Karloff was actually an affable, cultured, and famously kind Englishman whose real name was William Henry Pratt.
Scottish-born Sean Connery, on the other hand showed audiences what his characters would have done if they had been he. In many ways, he became a caricature of himself, always playing outspoken, bluff men and never considered for a role which differed much from ”the sexiest man alive,” as proclaimed by People Magazine.
Best-known for portraying James Bond in six of the films which were made based upon characters from the writings of Ian Fleming, Connery made 66 films, between 1954’s ”Lilacs in the Spring,” and 2003’s ”The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” He hasn’t made a live-action film since that, but has done some voice-over roles for animated films, and even for video games.
Biographer Christopher Bray has written an examination of Connery’s life, which is suitably titled ”Sean Connery: A Biography.” It isn’t analytic, but it gives a fairly good idea of the life and character of the successful film star. Those whose view of Connery is based upon Darrell Hammond’s cranky imitations of Connery from the Saturday Night Live comedy program, as an outspoken and downright mean tormentor of game show hosts, probably understand the image of the man, but not the reality.
Connery was born in a working class neighborhood of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1930. He was baptized Thomas Sean Connery, but he had a childhood friend named Seamus, and the two were called Sean and Seamus by everyone, including their families. On finishing school, he worked a wide variety of low-paying jobs, including janitor, coffin polisher, artist’s model, and eventually sailor in Her Majesty’s Navy.
He started his performing career as a chorus member in a production of the musical ”South Pacific,” and played important roles in ”The Bacchae,” and ”Anna Christie,” at the Royal Oxford Theatre, to name just a few. He was known to read frequently in classic and challenging literature. Being cast as James Bond turned Connery’s career in a totally different direction.
The Bond films meant that he was offered action films, instead of the previous dramas, but they paid enough that he no longer needed to accept roles he didn’t like, solely to pay his bills, and gave him enough fame that he could wait for meaty, quality roles such as Jim Malone in ”The Untouchables,” or the lead in ”The Russia House,” although he found he enjoyed buying a villa in Greece, adjacent to the vacation home of the King of the Netherlands, so he took his share of ”for the money” parts, including playing the father of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, despite being only 10 years older than Ford.
Bray’s writing is easy to read, and he seeks out areas of his subject’s life which would be of interest to the general reader. He occasionally becomes uncomfortably focused on areas such as Connery’s physical appearance, which seems to impress him greatly, but those passages are not predominant. His annotation is impressive.
”Sean Connery: A Biography” was published in 2011 by Pegasus Books. It has 306 pages of text, in paperbound edition, and is priced at $15.95. Find it with ISBN number 978-1-60598-345-5.
THE ROYAL STUARTS
From cinema to history, we turn to a family biography. From 1371 to 1714, the Scottish-originated Stuart family sat on the throne of Scotland, with a few interruptions, and on England’s throne as well, from 1603 to 1714.
Naturally, because our culture insists upon naming children for their fathers, the family’s period in power ended with the childless death of Queen Anne, but in fact, the blood of the Stuarts flows in the veins of Queen Elizabeth II and her descendants, to the present day.
Respected historian Allan Massie has written a family biography, spending only a few pages on each member of the Stuart clan. The book bears the title ”The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family that Shaped Britain.” I suspect that many would argue that other families have had greater influence than the Stuarts, but certainly they have led colorful lives which have shaped many lives. Indeed, 12 of the original 13 English colonies were planted in America with charters signed by Stuart kings.
The idea of kingship and royalty have been around on our planet for thousands of years. Although we tend to think of it as a concept which is no longer relevant, a quick computer check names 35 contemporary countries which have a king, a queen, an emperor, a grand duke, or whatever their own name is, for the office.
Reading this book doesn’t give us an in-depth understanding of individual historical leaders and the circumstances in which they lived, such as we might get from an individual biography, but it gives an excellent, over-all examination of the histories of England and Scotland, and the neighboring countries whose realities were shaped by the policies and actions of England and Scotland.
In the 14th Century, royalty in Scotland was more a situation of military leadership, than civil government. A king was first among equals. Kings had become so powerful that they wanted to know their accomplishments would be continued by their successors, and not unraveled for the glory of someone else, so gradually they pushed toward an inherited monarchy. Their barons had learned that if each time a king died, everyone who thought he had a chance at taking over, began bashing everyone else who had a claim, they often all killed each other, or at best, left the country undefended against powerful neighbors, who invaded without a hint of guilt, so they also, with noteworthy exceptions, began to favor inherited kingship.
The Stuarts may have originated in Brittany, in Northwestern France, but they achieved fame in Scotland. Their name was originally spelled ”Stewart,” and may suggest that they served as stewards or household servants to the royal family. Mary Stuart, commonly called Mary, Queen of Scots, married the heir to the throne of France, and found that her family name was almost impossible for her new subjects to pronounce, so she changed the spelling to ”Stuart,” which suited French tongues much better, although it is pronounced the same.
In 1316, Marjorie Bruce, daughter of famed King Robert the Bruce, married a baron named Walter Stewart, during the period when English King Edward I was invading Scotland and trying to annex it, and William Wallace was leading the Scots in rebellion against him. She died, at the age of 20, while giving birth to her only son, and he eventually inherited the crown of Scotland, making him Robert II, the first king from his family.
King James V of Scots was said to say on his deathbed that his family’s glory had begun with a lass, and it would end with a lass, and indeed, centuries later, Queen Anne had birth after birth, but her children died young, with the longest-surviving, dying at the age of about 10. Because the male members of her family had clung stubbornly to the Catholic faith, while both England and Scotland had set their minds firmly against it, the parliaments of both countries offered the crown to a distant cousin, a descendant of Anne’s great grandfather, on his mother’s side, and he became King George I. His family name would be ”of Hanover,” but he was descended equally from the Stuarts as from the Hanoverians. The current royal family are his direct descendants.
Some people love history. Some don’t. For me, it is always exciting to have complex relationships sorted out and explained, and the reasons for the present reality demonstrated by someone who has taken the time to do it. If you share that feeling, this is a great read. If you don’t care, it won’t provide thrills and chills.
”The Royal Stuarts” was published St. Martin’s Press, in 2010. It has 327 pages, in hard bound edition, and is marked for sale at $26.99. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-312-58175-6.