The second part of the first Reel Ink round-up of recent books on film includes the biography of a sometime Hollywood rebel, the history of a now forgotten British studio, a look at a film that remains one of the most controversial ever made in the UK, and a hugely compelling history of cinema by the great David Thomson.
Time was against me so I haven’t been able to get through all the reading goodness I’ve acquired in the past eight weeks or so, but I’ll catch up in January. Happy New Year!
It’s official: Dennis Hopper was an unrepentant douchebag off screen as well as on. The predominant impression that Peter L. Winkler’s Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of A Hollywood Rebel (The Robson Press) leaves one with is that Hopper was a deluded, misogynistic gasbag, a moderate talent who likely suffered from some form of mental illness and who squandered whatever promise he might have had in a blizzard of drugs and alcohol.
Hopper grew up in rural Kansas and San Diego, California, and worked in theatre in La Jolla, CA before moving to LA and landing a guest spot on a television series called Medic, impressing enough a contract with Warner Bros. followed. He became a friend and disciple of James Dean, with whom he worked on Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), and while he was besotted with the Holy Trinity of Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando he was no match for the talent and electrifying presence of those screen titans; his reckless, arrogant behaviour resulted in him being effectively blackballed by Hollywood for decades.
Apart from the highpoint of 1968’s Easy Rider (his directorial debut, an opportunity which came about thanks to his friendship with Peter Fonda), the ‘60s and ‘70s were largely lost decades for Hopper, awash as he was in sex and intoxicants, while he was creatively sustained by an unswerving belief in his own status and abilities as an artist, turning his hand first to painting (derivatively) and then somewhat more successfully to still photography.
Hopper did eventually get sober, and staged a late-life acting comeback in the ‘80s thanks to his unforgettable turn as the monstrous Frank Booth (‘Baby wants to f*ck!!’) in David Lynch’s sublime Blue Velvet. For the remainder of his life he played endless villainous variations on Booth in mostly unremarkable films, while occasionally being given a chance to direct (the only decent result being his languid 1990 noir The Hot Spot), while continually campaigning to have his art recognised by the fine arts communities of LA and elsewhere, in which he played an active part as a serious collector of modern works.
Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of A Hollywood Rebel is not a portrait of a man to be admired. Throughout the book, his ex-wives, friends and business associates attest to his violent, unpleasant nature and herculean acts of self-destruction, and even while terminally ill with prostate cancer, he was embroiled in an ugly dispute about his estate with his last wife and his children from previous relationships which made headlines around the world.
It’s hard to get a sense of whether the author was attracted to the bad boy mystique of his subject initially (the book’s title certainly sticks with that saleable image of Hopper), only to have his regard for Hopper quickly eroded once he began his research in earnest. Winkler certainly gives the impression that whatever his perceptions of Hopper were when he began, he ended with the realisation of what a completely unlikeable, often reprehensible, man he was.
Most who are interested in the history of UK film studios are aware of great British institutions such as Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree and Ealing, but there is a lot of significant British production history that is unknown even to those who are keenly interested in it. In Britain’s Forgotten Film Factory: The Story of Isleworth Studios (Amberley), Ed Harris seeks to redress a significant gap in UK film production history by restoring the little known Isleworth Studios to its rightful place as an important production centre from the silent era to the early 1950s.
In March 1914 the Worton Hall Estate in Isleworth was put up for sale, and was acquired by film pioneer G.B. ‘Bertie’ Samuelson in May of that year. He immediately went about converting the property into a fully functioning film production facility, and for the next 40 years a veritable who’s who of British film talent passed through it, including Dame Edith Evans, Robert Donat, Jack Cardiff, Richard Burton, Carol Reed, Jack Hawkins, John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, Ralph Richardson, and Sid James. The studio also hosted many American greats on its stages, including Joseph Cotton, Cary Grant, Buster Keaton, John Huston, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
Britain’s greatest mogul Alexander Korda leased Isleworth when at the peak` of his success, with solid financing and American distribution in place through United Artists, as well as the security of a quota system for British productions. He proceeded to significantly expand the Isleworth studio space, and was then promptly convinced by his subordinates that he needed a bigger site to realise his and London Films’ ambitions (a rash move which saw their ambitions outstripping the reality of the industry’s requirements).
Harris attributes Isleworth’s neglect to the fact that, despite the multitude of renowned film personalities that worked there, the studio never had a really identifiable personality of its own, functioning for most of its history as a facility for hire to all comers and thus lacking the glamour or mystique of a Shepperton or an Ealing. While his prose is often painfully dry, in the formal manner of an earlier generation rather than the pedantic or scholarly (the author was formerly an entertainment executive, or ‘suit’ as the press release refers to him), Harris clearly cares very much for his subject, and his sincerity and enthusiasm are always evident in this enlightening if sometimes plodding read.
The Devils remains one of the most controversial films ever made in Britain, which still has not been seen in a complete, uncut version despite the passage of over 40 years since its original release. Toronto critic and author Richard Crouse’s Raising Hell: Ken Russell And The Unmaking Of The Devils (ECW Press) details the making, torturous post production history and censorship of the film, a story which is largely told through interviews from the time of the film’s production and release and contemporary interviews conducted by Crouse with surviving participants.
Based in part on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 book The Devils of Loudon and the 1960 play The Devils by John Whiting, The Devils is a lurid dramatisation of the events that lead to 17th century priest Urban Grandier’s execution for witchcraft following a number of incidents of supposed demonic possession in Loudon, France. Director Ken Russell, no stranger to controversy by the dawn of the ‘70s, had to know he was stepping into a world of trouble when he took on such a subject; what’s more incredible is that Warner Brothers backed this perverse dramatic stew of sex and religion. It’s always dumbfounding when conservative studios back controversial directors and projects at script stage, only to back-peddle furiously when they see the finished product, demanding substantial changes or refusing to release a film.
In the case of Russell’s film, the studio was horrified to actually look upon scenes of masturbating nuns and an orgy centred around a crucified Christ, so major cuts were made by the studio before the film was submitted to the UK’s BBFC, and further trimming of graphic detail was also demanded in the U.S. in order to first receive an X rating and then later an R rating after still further cuts. After polarising critics upon its initial release, the film was quietly removed from distribution and was unavailable in much of the world. Decades later, the efforts of directors and critics including Alex Cox and Mark Kermode (who successfully lobbied WB to restore much of the important footage that had been excised, only to have them get cold feet again and shelve the restored version) brought the film out of the shadows, but the battle continues to have the full version of what many consider Russell’s masterpiece seen by an appreciative audience.
Crouse does a solid job of compiling the history of the film from his sources, and provides a lot of fascinating detail about the real story that is the source, but this isn’t a critical assessment of the film’s merits. Crouse is clearly a fan of Russell and the film, which he establishes immediately, and this is a fan’s recounting of a tale which clearly enthralls him. Apart from some glaring factual errors (Russell did not direct Vanessa Redgrave in the theatrical biopic Isadora*) and a few questionable turns of phrase when levity is attempted, Raising Hell is an informative read and should increase the size of the lobby for the release of the suppressed version of the film.
If you’re seeking an idiosyncratic, single-volume contemplation of the entire history of the moving image, look no further than David Thomson’s latest offering, The Big Screen: The Story Of The Movies and What They Did To Us (Allen Lane). As Thomson writes, “This book is a love letter to a lost love, I suppose. It has the semblance of being a history, but it might be some kind of novel, called The Moviegoer.” Thomson’s writing is often as much about Thomson as about the films he’s writing about, which is particularly fitting for a book in which the focus is on how, as the title implies, the act of viewing the moving image has affected us, and how major changes in the act of viewing have in turn changed how the images themselves affect us.
As is usually the case with Thomson, his intention isn’t to provide something as straightforward as an exercise in ticking every major historical box from Edweard Muybridge to digital moving image capture and exhibition (although they are both present). The book is an elegy for the death of film, both as a physical object and as a medium to be watched collectively, characterised by Thomson’s always incisive opinions and witty, surprising anecdotes (I had no inkling that Karl Freund, the illustrious German cinematographer of the classics Metropolis and The Last Laugh, went on to film Lucille Ball’s sitcom I Love Lucy!)
Thomson writes in a personable style that I have always envied, and despite his enormous erudition, his writing is accessible to readers on many levels. The Big Screen will be much more rewarding for those seeking broad exposure than many drier and more linear historical overviews.
*Mr Crouse has told us that this has been corrected in the second edition.