Friday, May 11, 2012

Movie Books I Love: People Will Talk by John Kobal

This is an occasional series featuring my favorite movie books. Before TCM and the internet, the only way to satisfy my passion to know more about Classic Hollywood was through books, books and more books. I've cleared away the clutter over the years, but many remain permanent residents in my home. You'd never throw out an old friend, now, would you?

May we take a pause for moment a thanks to those precious movie-loving guides who shepherd us through our (hopefully) never-ending journey of classic film education and appreciation? You know who I mean – folks like Joe Franklin, Robert Osborne and the late, great John Kobal.

Besides being an important historian, collector and writer, Kobal was – above all – a fan. His enthusiasm was that of a star-struck fan. It is an enthusiasm with which I easily identify and admire. One of the great treasures on my library is Kobal’s 1985 collection of interviews called “People Will Talk” (Alfred A. Knopf publisher). It is worn, torn and mighty dilapidated, but I will only part with it when it turns to dust.

It all started with Marlene Dietrich

In 1960, when Dietrich was touring with Burt Bacharach, Kobal snagged an interview with her and ended up sleeping in her living room suite. After meeting her, he was seized by the passion of meeting and interviewing his favorite stars. None of them disappointed and many of them overwhelmed him with their kindness and patience for his boundless enthusiasm.

During the 1960s and 1970s Kobal conducted a series of interviews with the great and often forgotten stars, directors, choreographers and photographers of the silent and classic film era. Interviews with many of the obvious choices (Bette Davis, for example) were excluded in favor of more obscure or forgotten stars (June Duprez, Evelyn Brent). It is interesting to read how some remember exactly how things were and do not sugar coat things (Louise Brooks, Joan Blondell, Loretta Young), some “misremember” things to their own advantage (Miriam Hopkins, Howard Hawks), while others lived in a hazy fog of even hazier memories.

Here’s the complete treasure chest of interviews:
Gloria Swanson       Colleen Moore    Dorothy Gish    Olga Baclanova
Dagmar Godowsky   Louise Brooks    Evelyn Brent     Camilla Horn
Lewis Milestone      Anna Sten         Mae West         Anita Loos
Joan Blondell         Eleanor Powell   Arletty             George Hurrell
Joan Crawford        Joel McCrea       Irene Dunne     Katharine Hepburn
Bob Coburn           Miriam Hopkins   Lazlo Willinger  Loretta Young
Ann Sheridan        Joan Fontaine     Jean Louis        Ingrid Bergman
Howard Hawks      John Engstead    Ida Lupino       Barbara Stanwyck
Vincent Sherman   June Duprez       Jack Cole         Henry Hathaway
Hermes Pan          Arthur Freed      Kim Stanley     Tallulah Bankhead
Melba Marshall/Lois Lindsay/Madison Lacy

Each interview is prefaced by a beautiful photo of the subject at the height of their career and a summary of their contribution to that magic state of mind called Hollywood.

Some of My Favorites
Gloria Swanson, sharp as a tack, and full of stories about her great fame as a silent star and her role as Norma Desmond, ending the interview by saying "I just get a little tired of talking about myself." So cute. An authentic star of the highest order, she played the role of "movie star" to the hilt. But Gloria never forgot who she was and she viewed her job with flinty realism. Her recollections are mainly spot on, but if she errs, Kobal never corrects during an interview. With her and many others, he merely footnotes the correction. What a gentleman.

Louise Brooks, granting 2 in-person interviews and several phone interviews to Kobal, reveals herself as the grand observer of the silent era and films in general. Her great spirit and incredible intelligence shine through in each and ever statement. For all of her problems (she was alcoholic, suffering form emphysema and suffering from arthritis), she is like a happy child when talking about movies. She quotes Proust to Kobal: "The only paradise is paradise lost." As she pours over decades of great stars and directors with Kobal, we can only agree.

George Hurrell, a total gossip! He describes Rita Hayworth as instinctively sexy "not too mentally alert," tattles on the massive retouching required by Rosalind Russell, and giggles over the chance shot photographer Frank Powolny got of Carmen Miranda in mid twirl with her skirt flying high in the air and no panties. He as kind words for Harlow, Crawford and Lombard and proclaims Garbo the sexiest of them all without even trying.

Ann Sheridan comes across as the warm-hearted person we all knew she was. At the time of the interview, Sheridan had been diagnosed with cancer and was not looking her best. But she is jolly in her recollections of her days at Warner Brothers as the "Oomph Girl," and working with giants like James Cagney, Cary Grant and Bette Davis. A few weeks after their interview Kobal met Sheridan for lunch and, seeing her as he walked into the restaurant caused him to stop dead in his tracks. There, the center of attention, sat the Ann Sheridan he remembered. She was made up like a movie star and she was signing napkins, checkbooks and any and all odd slips of paper put before her for an autograph. Said Kobal: "She looked sensational. Then, before we said goodbye, she added, 'you know, darlin', I did this for you." What a gal, that Annie.

June Duprez, the beautiful princess of Korda's 1940 "Thief of Baghdad", tells a sad story. Poised for stardom, she was effectively blackballed by Korda's then-wife, Merle Oberon. Thanks to Merle, June was not even invited to the film's Hollywood premier. A gentle soul, she was ill used and advised by many more powerful than she, so much so that she was literally unable to find work. Hollywood was not a place for gentle souls like June Duprez.

Other Favorites
Vincent Sherman has a lot of great tales to tell as his days as a director (mainly for Warner Brothers), but nothing beats his tales of working with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins on "Old Acquaintance."

Loretta Young, Irene Dunne and Joan Blondell all give very realistic accounts of the unglamorous part of being a movie star.

Dorothy Gish, Mae West and Miriam Hopkins are not always in our reality. Evelyn Brent, a big star who fell into obscurity, is incredibly modest. Joan Crawford is so gracious and, despite her fame, her insecurity shows.

Each and every interview is carefully constructed. Kobal has the trust of his subjects and puts them at ease. Part of being a fan of Classic Hollywood is a consuming interest all of the behind the screen details. Like any good fan, Kobal knows exactly what we like. Good thing he knew how to get people to talk!

"People Will Talk" is available for a range of prices from a variety of sellers on line, including Amazon.

Click here to view the Kobal Collection.


DorianTB said...

FlickChick, your review of PEOPLE WILL TALK was fascinating, and you have me eager to read it for myself! I was especially touched by what Kobal had to saw about Ann Sheridan and June Duprez; I find myself wishing I had a time machine so I could help Duprez work up the courage to give Merle Oberon what-for! Great post, as always!

Samantha said...

Your blog made me want to read more about some of these people that I love so much but know nothing about. Thanks again Flick're the best!

Robin@DecoratingTennisGirl said...

Sounds like a great book. My bookshelves are filled with movie books. In the old days, that is all we had to read about our stars of the past.

Dawn said...

Sounds like a very interesting book.. I'm on a huge Joan Blondell, kick right now and would love to read more about her.

The Lady Eve said...

I know I can't go wrong if I follow your book recommendations, FlickChick. I purchased another John Kobal book you recommended, "The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers," last year and it is a prized possession. This one sounds equally fascinating.

FlickChick said...

@ Dorian- I know - Merle was so hateful to June (and Korda didn't seem to care. I guess he was bewitched by Merle's charms). Ann Sheridan was such a dear - and didn't you just know she would be?

FlickChick said...

Samantha - this is such a great book - so much information straight from the horse's mouth.

FlickChick said...

@ Robin - you are so right - before the internet and TCM, these previous books were all that we had. I knew more about most of the great stars from books and photos before ever seeing them act.

FlickChick said...

Hey, Dawn - I have downloaded the Joan Blondell bio "A Life Between Takes" and hope to get to it during an upcoming vacation. One of the most under-rated stars, Joan Blondell was my Dad's favorite actress and also is one of mine.

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve - this book really is a treasure. Kobal was so lucky to get these interviews before these people passed on. He was extremely persistent and it surely paid off. I hope I don't steer you wrong!

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

What a shock to read that Miriam Hopkins didn't live in reality. HA! Vincent Sherman's interview is no doubt full of great dirt on both Davis and Hopkins.

FlickChick said...

Kim- Vincent Sherman told a lot - but he sure didn't tell EVERYTHING!

Caftan Woman said...

A fascinating look at the people behind the names. Kobal gave us a treasure. Thanks for passing it on.

FlickChick said...

CW - he sure did - and we are so grateful, as the chance to speak to these people is now gone forever (unless you are a medium).

Martin Turnbull (the Garden of Allah novels) said...

Oh boy, another movie book to add to the collection. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Thanks for the heads up - this one looks like a keeper!

FlickChick said...

Martin, I promise you will not be disappointed.

Kevin Deany said...

One of my favorites as well. A great, great book. I remember enjoying the interview with the Busby Berkeley chorus girls. I need to pull this one off the shelf.

callmemadam said...

Once I read your post, I knew I had to have this book! I've just managed to get a copy on e-bay.
There was an exhibition of photos from the Kobal Collection last year at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which was amazing - you would have loved it!

FlickChick said...

Kevin: I loved that chapter with Madison Lacey and the 2 Busby Berkeley ladies. You can't put a price on interviews like these.

FlickChick said...

callmemadam -oh, I do so hope you love it! And, boy, would I have loved to see the Kobal collection. He was a true fan and an amazing collector.

Diana. said...

ONe of the treasures in my library too. I´m re-reading it now, and for sure it won´t be the last time.