NON-FICTION

THE FILM BIOGRAPHIES

1 ½ BOOKS ON W.C. FIELDS:
IT’S A GIFT & MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE

IT’S A GIFT

British Film Institute Film Classics, 75 pages, London 1994

Review by G.D. Rawnsley in Historical Journal of Film Radio & television, March 1985:

W. C. Fields has been a somewhat neglected member of comedy’s pantheon of film Beats. Yet as Simon Louvish reminds us in this most recent addition to the British Film Institute’s ‘Film Classics’ series, Fields’s career was as illustrious and as productive as most of his contemporaries. While many stars of the silent screen found the transition to sound difficult and often imposing, It’s a Gift was Fields’ sixteenth talkie and his fifth in 1934 alone! In addition he worked with a number of directors who were also prominent in shaping the film careers of other masters of comedy – Leo McCarey, for example, who will be best remembered for his long association with Laurel and Hardy, directed Fields in his most famous pool-room routine in ‘Six of the Best’. His director on It’s a Gift, Norman McCleod, worked with the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope; and of course one cannot forget the films which Fields made for silent supremo Mack Sennett.

In addition to providing a personal assessment of Fields, this book is a vivid description of the comedian’s art, and an account of the painstaking creative and mechanical process of making genuinely funny films-certainly not an easy task during the 1930s when Americans were experiencing the depths of Depression, but certainly a vital one; Fields took his responsibility for making America laugh seriously, and devoted all his energy and talent to this end. The affection and enthusiasm felt by Simon Louvish for Fields-the man and his work-radiates from every page. He discusses the myriad of personalities inside his hero, and although we never learn for sure which was the true Fields, Louvish at least allows us to come a little closer to knowing him. The film It’s a Gift may have been savaged by the critics at the time of its release, but, as this slim but most welcome volume confirms, it is central to our understanding of one of the most endearing and enduring figures of screen comedy.


MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE,

WC FieldsTHE LIFE AND TIMES OF W.C. FIELDS

Faber & Faber, London 1997; paperback 1998
W.W. Norton, New York, 1997, paperback 1999

Newsweek, October 13, 1997:

Fields’s Genius Made an Art Form Out of Lying
New biography deconstructs a legend
By Malcolm Jones Jr.

Godfrey Daniel! Mother of pearl! Simon Louvish wants to set the record straight on the life of W. C. Fields… Following Fields from burlesque to vaudeville, from juggling to comedy and finally into radio and film, Louvish chronicles not only a life but a concise history of early-20th-century entertainment. But while this novelist and film scholar is erudite, he is never pedantic, and he knows when to shut up. “It is no part of this book,” he wisely admits, “to explain why W. C. Fields, or any other great comic, is funny.” This is a particularly wise tactic in Fields’s case, because so much of what he did that makes people laugh ought not to be funny at all. When Fields, as Egbert Souse in “The Bank Dick,” says, “My uncle, a balloon ascensionist …” it’s not funny, strictly speaking, but you laugh anyway, and then laugh a little harder because you don’t know exactly what it is you’re laughing at.

Deconstructing the myths that barnacle Fields’s history, Louvish reveals a man much more mysterious than the famously bibulous clown. He was a great drinker, yes, but he was also a great gardener, a fact that he took pains to hide (although his gardening habits were quite in keeping with the Fields we love: he wrote notes to recalcitrant roses: “Bloom, damn you, bloom!”).

In the end, though, the myths may crumble, but he remains our favorite knight-errant, shambling, incoherent, defeated yet unbowed as he tilts against everything proper and overstuffed. When Fields as Wilkins Micawber comes home in “David Copperfield” and announces to his wife, “I have thwarted the malevolent machinations of our scurrilous enemies-in short, I have arrived!” we laugh and cheer. Once again he has not just made us laugh; he has lifted our hearts in the same moment. As Fields himself would say, “It baffles science!”

David Thomson in The Mail on Sunday, May 18, 1997:

There is a point in this rapturous, giddy and irrepressible book when the author comes clean: `I have developed, in writing this book, a clinical approach to watching Fields movies… anxious not to miss the nuances and shades. But I still find it impossible to view The Fatal Glass of Beer [a short film made in 1933] without collapsing in insane laughter.’

We might argue over that `insane’ – indeed, I venture to suggest that the several grim measures we could employ to stop or discipline such mirth are closer to insanity than surrender. My own father, seldom an approachable or comfortable man, allowed some secret entranceway into his besieged soul when he took me, a child, to see a Fields picture, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and let me hear in his laughter a release – a terrible joy, even – that I had never caught before… Simon Louvish is having such a terrific time throughout this long book, and so itching to expose us to yet more of Fields’ grave, lugubrious and ecstatic self-laceration, that the volume may end up shaking in your lap. It has a life of its own that ‘ transcends the rather pinched design and illustration scheme that Faber imposes on its film list.

Let us be clear: this is a delight, a marvel of research (especially on the distant days and exuberant moods of vaudeville), and a superb argument for the case that William Claude Dukenfield (1880-1946) was, and is, the greatest comic the movies have given us.
He has also been dead now for more than 50 years – he contrived to pass on, or accept the guiding hand of `the man in the bright nightgown’, on Christmas Day, 1946. This apparent blow against normal sentiment and fellowship became a vital part of the Fields legend – that he was unloved and maybe unlovable; that he quit an unfriendly home as a child; that he was much battered by life’s vicissitudes; that he was a stranger to family comforts and a devout loather of children; that he rejoiced in strange names and the drawled elegance of pretentious language; and that he kept hundreds of bank accounts across the land the way a dog pees. That he drank.

Louvish takes his stance as a biographer who has discovered how far the record is at odds with this legend. He shows that Fields was never an outcast from his own home. Further, even as a young man, as a juggler in vaudeville, he was an immense success, very well paid and invited to play in London and Paris (the real centre of vaudeville, or variety). And if Fields were alienated from his wife and his son so much of the time, that was by his own design, and a way of accommodating his several mistresses…

He did not perforate the banking system with secret accounts. He was fond of children and yearned for a daughter. Finally, it is a cruel injustice to say simply that he drank. He drank passionately, organically, like a fish, as a way of drowning. He was pickled. This shows in his swollen face, the explosion called his nose, and in that sing-song speech, with its beautiful hesitations, that seems to know the magic and absurdity of all language in every plummy word. Louvish’s resolve to set the record straight does not really dispel the legend – and it should not, for the wacky, evasive myth was something of Fields’ own creation. It was the atmosphere of his films, the self-mockery of his own promotion. A careful reading of this book suggests that chronic artifice was also a way of fending off intimacy or self-examination. Louvish has done a splendid job but Fields stays a touch elusive, because that was the distance and the solitude he required as an artist and received as a man…

Was Fields a rebel, then? No, deeper than that, I think. He was a great, noble, tragic disaster, like Falstaff or Micawber (another of his best moments). If we don’t laugh, we’ll have to cry, or go crazy.

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MONKEY BUSINESS, THE LIVES AND LEGENDS OF THE MARX BROTHERS.

Faber & Faber, London, 1999; St Martins Press, New York, 2000, paperback 2001.

The Observer 21 November 1999:
Philip French:

If you want to write the funniest book of the year you produce a biography of the Marx Brothers beginning each chapter with a quote from Groucho or Chico and punctuating the text with lengthy extracts from their stage and movie routines. Despite Simon Louvish’s claim that ‘reading a script of a Marx Brothers show is like making love through an industrial-strength condom’ (an example of his wine-bar vulgarity at its worst), their act leaps off the page to delight us in a way that the most sensitive descriptions of Chaplin or Keaton fail to do.

Louvish’s book is a detailed, carefully researched account of a journey taken by the sons of the German-Jewish immigrant tailor Sam ‘Frenchie’ Marx and his ambitious wife, Minnie, that has three stages – a long apprenticeship, a period on the high plateau, and a painful dispersal. The story begins with the birth of Leo (Chico), Arthur (Harpo) and Julius (Groucho) in the late 1880s, to be followed by Milton (Gummo) and, in 1901, (Herbert) Zeppo. For all their colourful claims, Louvish demonstrates that they were never ghetto poor. Also that showbiz was in the family, most especially in the shape of a maternal uncle, vaudevillian AI Shean of Gallagher and Shean fame…

From their teens the brothers travelled the vaudeville circuit, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Toronto to the Rio Grande, singing, dancing, performing sketches, first severally, then together as the Four Nightingales and the Six Mascots, polishing the act and perfecting their timing. Gradually they took on a complementary identity as they developed their stage personae – the silent puckish Harpo with his angelic harp; the woman-chasing Chico playing havoc with the language and the piano; Groucho the loping shyster with the wisecracks and twitching eyebrows; Zeppo the straight man…

The Marxes got out of vaudeville as it was going into decline, but brought its rambunctious ethnic fun, irreverence and ruthlessness to Broadway. In this they were assisted by other ex-vaudevillians, among them W.C. Fields, who back in 1915 had pretended to be ill and thrown in the towel in Columbus, Ohio because the Brothers, performing lower down the bill, were stealing his thunder. After three successful New York shows that made them celebrities, they got off the stage and into the movies just as the Depression was beginning to dim the lights along Broadway. Their first two films, made in New York, were versions of their stage shows and rather stiff. The next three – Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup (the first two co-scripted by S.J. Perelman) – were produced at Paramount’s Hollywood studio, and are among the most anarchic, inventive and funniest ever made.

Duck Soup was the peak, and after it Zeppo dropped out, inspiring Groucho’s quip that ‘the Marx Brothers without Zeppo are worth twice as much’. The move to make more polished, expensive pictures at MGM made them rich but tamed them, turning them into endearing zanies…

After the Second World War the semi-retired Harpo and Chico made occasional guest appearances on TV, the former living a quiet family life with his adopted children, the latter living a fast life and losing his fortune gambling. Zeppo was continually in trouble with bad debts, a tax scam that nearly put him in jail, brawls, and a conviction for beating a woman. Groucho, however, through his weekly programme You Bet Your Life, became a TV star and one of the great wits of his age, the Oscar Wilde of the wisecrack. Yet at the end he was the saddest of all… His last words, like Stan Laurel’s, were a joke to a nurse, but the sharpest line of his final days was a birthday greeting to a friend: ‘if you keep having birthdays you’ll eventually die. Love Groucho.’

Empire, February 2000, Kim Newman:

The cliche goes that biographies of comedians are deeply tragic, exploring the acute offstage pain that feeds into onstage hilarity. The novelist Simon Louvish has been down this road in a fine book on W. C. Fields and there are elements in this biography of the five (actually, six) Marx brothers of that oft told tale, with stories of early poverty and later marital troubles, not to mention mixups with crime (you knew about Chico’s gambling, but Louvish reveals that Zeppo nearly became an armed robber). However, this is a more complex family saga of an act that began in Alsace with a travelling hypnotist, whose daughter, Minnie, became the mother of the Marxes and the guiding force behind their careers on the stage and in other media. Grouchy and Harpo left memoirs which mix fact and fiction and the brothers even supported a Broadway musical, Minnie’s Boys, that embroidered the legend of their early years (and sometimes lied outright), but Louvish does a remarkable job of sorting out facts from nonsense, even while dealing with subjects who recognised that in the end, nonsense was more important…

Like the state room scene of A Night At The Opera (1935), it sometimes feels like too many people are clambering into this book for comfort, but Louvish gives a biography not of a single person but of an act that became an institution, of three or more disparate and perhaps irreconcilable styles of comedies that nevertheless meshed into something unique and irreplacable…

A real achievement of this book is that it does as good a job as anyone possibly could in conveying impressions of what Marx acts must have been like live. It rarely strays into the risky ground of what all this horn-honking, eyebrow-wiggling anarchy might mean, though Louvish is sharp about the specific prompts of Marxist humour (from anti-Semitism to the Depression) and the way their work was picked up, and probably misunderstood, by intellectuals and artists (Salvador Dali tried to write a screenplay for them). This is the real Living Marxism.

Time Out, December 1-8 1999, Brian Case:

‘Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?’ said Chico Marx to Margaret Dumont, nee Daisy, who, on joining the brothers, had been advised to ‘wear your tin drawers and have a good time.’ Chico’s is a good question since the Marx Brothers lied so variously over the decades about everything that Simon Louvish’s job must’ve been a nightmare. Said Groucho, ‘Give or take a few years, I was born around the turn of the century. I won’t say which century. Everyone is allowed one guess.’… Louvish prints lots of drafts of the routines -‘of course, reading the script of a Marx Brothers show is like making love through an industrial-strength condom’, he concedes. You’ll find everybody’s favourite ad-lib from Napoleon here: ‘It’s the Mayonnaise! The army must be dressing!’ A treasure trove of hilarity.

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STAN AND OLLIE: THE ROOTS OF COMEDY;
THE DOUBLE LIFE OF LAUREL AND HARDY.

Stan and OllieFaber & Faber, London 2001; paperback 2002
St Martins Press, New York, 2002

The Independent, 25 October 2001, by D.J. Taylor:
Another fine biography we’ve got into.

To READ the opening chapters of Simon Louvish’s exhaustive joint biography is to be plunged into a bizarre but oddly recognisable world, crammed with megalomaniacal film directors, picturebook female leads and beetle-browed heavies, at once turned in on itself and infinitely expansive – the world of fledgling Hollywood. Take away certain points of bitter realism- the lost millions and blown careers – and what remains is the atmosphere of P. G. Wodehouse’s 1920s American stories. Farce and limitless possibility come neatly combined, wanting only the presence of the freshfaced English idiot to give it substance.

Or perhaps the English idiot was already there. Stan and Ollie – Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Oliver Norvel Hardy, to give them their baptismal names – arrived in this world, if not by accident, then via an extremely circuitous route. Hardy (born 1892) came from Georgia, where his father had worked as a plantation overseer in the ante-bellum days; Laurel (born 1890) from Ulverston, Cumbria. The ancestral roots were all Stan’s. Jefferson senior was a theatre owner and impresario, and Louvish’s account of his son’s early life provides a kind of gazetteer of turn-of-the-century English music hall.
In an era of split-second celebrity, the boys’ ascent was painfully slow. As Louvish points out, possibly a bit too exhaustively for the non-cineaste, their eventual coming together in The Second Hundred Years (1927) followed a couple of decades of solitary apprentice work. Stan had crossed the Atlantic as early as 1910 with the legendary Fred Karno comedy troupe and spent years on the vaudeville circuit. Shoehorned into “heavy” roles by dint of his physique (later his weight went up to 300 1b), Hardy made hundreds of silent shorts before the two turned up on the Hal Roach lot to await a casting director’s inspiration.

The real proof of their talent – apart from the sheer visual oomph of the early reels – lay in their ability to survive translation to the talkies. Having started as universal comic archetypes, they soon found themselves dubbing dozens of foreign-language versions of the same feature. Whatever the topicality of the subject, though – in Below Zero, for instance, their 1930 Depression feature – the initial impetus remained. Fundamentally, Laurel and Hardy were a slapstick variety act transferred to film. Stan, the pair’s “creative” half, was quite capable of reworking material devised by his father for the Lancashire audiences of the 1890s…

What made Stan and Ollie funny? As well as arriving onscreen fully formed, so that their characters needed no further development, they also contrived constantly to subvert the accepted formats of lead-man and stooge, each capable of turning the tables. But, in the end, a combination of creative exhaustion and changing styles brought them down. By the time of Atoll K (1951), their curious final feature about a refugee community on a desert island, they were physically past their best: Stan a diabetic, Ollie showing the heart condition that would kill him six years later.
A huge posthumous cult survives. In the manner of cinematic labours of love, Louvish’s study occasionally descends into whimsy and is rather too fond of plot recapitulation. But, unlike many another book about professional comedians, it has the singular advantage of never forgetting that its subjects were funny.

The Times, 24 October 2001, by Iain Finlayson:

This double life of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy does what every terrific biography should – send the reader running to check out the original works. That takes some doing -for me, anyhow: Louvish is funnier and wittier and more intelligent on the page about Stan and Ollie than I ever found them to be on film. But he cherishes the two clowns so dearly, is so moved by the hard times of their beginnings, Is so thrilled by the success that came to them not by luck, but by hard work and devotion to their comedy craft, that you gotta love them as Louvish does. This is as close as it comes to a definitive biography and filmography of Laurel and Hardy, and as good as writing about Hollywood comedy gets. Louvish cuts through the theatrical scrim to get to the real lives that informed the comedy, and tears at the heart as he did in his previous biographies of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers.

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KEYSTONE – THE LIFE AND CLOWNS OF MACK SENNETT:

Keystone CopsFaber & Faber, London 2001; paperback 2002
Faber U.S., New York, 2002

The Sunday Times, 9 November 2003
By Christopher Sylvester: NEVER A DULL MOMENT:

This is a story of cultural transition. Although theatre was always considered subversive of social norms, early cinema “introduced a particular element: the disruption and disordered rearrangements of the apparent solidities of `normal’ life.” Keystone, of course, is inevitably associated with the pell-mell antics of the Keystone Kops. “Marionettes of some malign force of anarchy,” says Simon Louvish, “the Kops would leap into their car only to fall behind and be dragged along in a meandering daisy chain.” Mack Sennett, the man behind these and many of the other clowns of the silent era, had an unquenchable “lust for gags and jokes.”
Of Irish origin, Sennett was born Mike Sinnott in Quebcois Canada. His family moved to America, settling in Connecticut, and Sennett became first a touring burlesque player, then a chorus singer in New York, before joining the Biograph Picture Company as an extra and working for D W Griffith. Biograph made every kind of movie, but Sennett was only interested in comedy and later founded Keystone, the first film-production company dedicated to that genre.

The story rattles along with all the dash, but not the disorder, of a Keystone Kops chase. Many of the silent films under discussion languish in archives and are only brought out for scholars or occasional festival screenings. Thankfully, Louvish is expert in vivid description and insightful interpretation, and he brings these movies to life on the printed page like no other film historian.

The title of this book is apt, since Sennett’s life was inextricably bound up with his clown progeny… And what clowns: Charlie Chaplin, for a while, dainty tomboy Mabel Normand, walrus-moustached Chester Conklin, goatee-bearded Ford Sterling (chief of the Kops); pantomime genius Fatty Arbuckle, cross-eyed Ben Turpin and moon-faced innocent Harry Langdon. Sennett would often complain that his stars “start with Sennett and get rich somewhere else!” The problem was not that they fell out with him or that he was too mean, but that “the fame of his new employees spread much faster than his own capacity to keep up with the game.” In concert with Griffith and Thomas Ince, Sennett attempted to create a monopoly of screen acting with the Triangle Film Corporation. It failed miserably and cost him dear, but, for all his hubris, his “business sense remained subordinate to his instinct for, and love of comedians.” By the early 1930’s, he was a busted flush. He lived until 1960, a shadow of his former self, constantly editing the story of his life in a whirlwind of reinvention, but at the same time never ceasing to plan a comeback as the king of comedy.

The anti-authoritarian absurdism of Sennett was not confounded by the new technology of sound. “It was not the form but the content of the movie dreams that defeated him,” declares Louvish, pointing out that both Sennett and Griffith belonged to “a pre-Freudian world,” and were incapable in their art of admitting “the hidden power of sex, the shadowy impulses of the soul and the spirit, moral ambivalence and self-destructiveness of desires.”

In the mid-1920’s, Sennett bought a 340-acre plot overlooking Hollywood. An architect drew up plans for a grandiose palace, but it was never built, because Sennett’s fortune evaporated. Nevertheless, he left a more imposing monument in those extraordinary clowns he bequeathed to us.

The Hollywood Reporter, February 26, 2004
By Gregory McNamee

Mack Sennett was born an anarchist, a disturber of the peace who captured working-class resentments and turned them into comic mayhem at the expense of authority of all kinds. “Nearly every one of us lives in the secret hope that someday before he dies, he will be able to swat a policeman’s hat down around his ears,” he once remarked. “Lacking the courage and the opportunity, we like to see it done in the movies.”

Had Attorney General John Ashcroft’s minions been at work a century ago, they would surely have noticed that the cop-twitting Sennett was a foreigner, a farm-born Canadian who, having endured the terrors of an evangelical boarding school, had good reason to rebel. They would have made a note on his dossier that Sennett, born Michael Sinnott, had changed his name, and they would have wanted to know why. But would they have noticed that the Keystone Kops, Sennett’s comedic hallmark, owed their origins to yet another foreign culture — namely, the French?

British film scholar Simon Louvish makes the connection in “Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett,” a highly readable life of Sennett and his work. Along about 1907, Louvish posits, Sennett, who had hitherto aspired to a career as an opera singer, saw a Pathe short in which a dog steals a pork chop from a butcher’s shop and proceeds to outsmart a pursuing squadron of flics. “End shot: close-up of the dog, wearing a policeman’s kepi, happily gnawing the chop.”

That little French film was enough to change Sennett’s life. So, too, was a happy apprenticeship with D.W. Griffith, who taught Sennett the craft of filmmaking. “He was my day school, my adult education program, my university,” Sennett recalled of Griffith, and on the course of their daily walks from New York’s Biograph Studios to Griffith’s apartment uptown, he got a thorough schooling in every aspect of the business, including acting… Over the next two decades, now in California, he made hundreds of silent films under his Keystone rubric, launching the career of the legendary but ill-fated comic actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, discovering the great Mabel Normand and Ben Turpin and giving the fledgling Charlie Chaplin a needed lucky break. (Sennett’s 1914 film “Tango Tangles,” featuring Arbuckle and Chaplin, was, Louvish notes, “the only movie in which Chaplin appeared without appreciable makeup, sans mustache, large or small.”) He even gave Frank Capra his first shot at directing, along with a tongue-in-cheek list of rules for the job (“Thou shalt not be seen carrying a book. No gags in books, saith the Lord”).

It was the madcap Keystone Kops series that earned Sennett his greatest fame – and the admiration of the vast working-class audience that he sought and a considerable fortune that Sennett lost through lavish living and failure to foresee the rise of sound film. His decline and fall is surely one of the saddest in motion-picture history: In just a few years, Sennett went from Hollywood millionaire king to bankrupt has-been. When he died in 1958, he was living on a pension of $227 a month. Louvish brings Sennett’s era to life in these pages, and Keystone fans and novices alike will learn much from the great anarchist’s successes – and failures.

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MAE WEST – IT AIN’T NO SIN:

Mae West: It ain't no sinFaber & Faber,
Saint Martins Press, New York,

The Sunday Telegraph, 6 November 2005
Gerald Kaufman reviews Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin by Simon Louvish.

In her heyday, 1934, Mae West was America’s highest-paid performer, earning over twice as much as Marlene Dietrich, and ten times as much as Cary Grant, her co-star in She Done Him Wrong. Although Mae (actually, Mary Jane) West’s birth-date was August 17, 1893, she maintained for many years that she had been born in 1900. It was only when her former husband resurfaced years later and went to court to try to cash in on her new wealth and fame that she was forced to admit her real age. Otherwise she would have had to concede that she married at the age of 11.

These two fallacious vanities were, as Simon Louvish demonstrates in this thoroughly researched and hugely entertaining biography, uncharacteristic of Mae. In practically all other matters she was almost too up-front for her own good. A journalist on the show-business magazine Variety, which for much of her 67-year career was unremittingly hostile to her, labelled her “one of the frank persons of the vaudeville stage”, a categorisation which was, if anything, an understatement… The first play she wrote for the New York theatre was called Sex… denounced by Variety as “the nastiest thing ever disclosed on a New York stage”. Inevitably, it became a smash-hit, and was then raided by the police, which led to an indictment by an Acting Mayor who announced his determination to “wipe filth off Broadway”. This led to a trial whose outcome for Mae was a 10-day sentence in the workhouse… Undeterred by this experience, she next staged two plays about the then-taboo topic of male homosexuality, one of which was again raided, and indicted as “an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure drama”.

Despite – or maybe because of – her clashes with the law, Mae’s Broadway career was hugely successful… A critic on the New York Herald Tribune marvelled: “She is a large [though in fact she was only 5ft 6in tall], soft, flabby and billowing superblonde who talks through her nostrils and whose laborious ambulations suggest she has sore feet… She is so different from anything you have seen outside a zoo that you decide her impersonation is deliberately outlandish.”

The cinema beckoned, and in 1932 she arrived in Hollywood, which she proceeded to conquer. Her very first line in her first film, Night after Night, was immortalised by the following exchange: Hat Check Girl: “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” Maudie [Mae]: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie!”… In Night after Night’s credits she was billed fourth. After that, until the very twilight of her Hollywood career half a century later, she was always the undisputed star… She met her match only with W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee. Surprisingly, they got on well, even though the Hollywood veteran Eddie Clyne, “When asked if he was the director of the West-Fields picture, replied: ‘No, I’m the referee.'”

When her screen career petered out, in part because of her insistence that she would never play any woman aged over 26, this was very far from the end of Mae. She wrote novels (one of which was banned for obscenity) and her autobiography, returned to the stage (including three months in London’s West End with Diamond Lil), starred in Las Vegas, was featured on television… and had a touring act in which she was escorted by musclemen, two of whom fought over her. At the time, she was 62. When, 15 years later, she appeared in what is now a cult movie, Myra Breckinridge, 10,000 fans lined the streets at the New York premiere.

At that time, Mae offered the summing-up: “I see myself as a classic.” Louvish says: “She was multi-faceted, presenting herself as entertainer, show-girl, singer, star, writer, performer, sex-educationist, feminist icon, role model, comedienne, metaphor, glamour object, spokeswoman for the marginalised of society, national symbol and ‘American institution'” (though it was British RAF officers who in the Second World War named their inflatable lifejackets “Mae Wests”). She will be remembered most of all for the extremely ambiguous lines she penned and uttered. Louvish’s book is a treasury of them: “A hard man is good to find”; “It ain’t the men in my life, it’s the life in my men that counts”; “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before”; “Beulah, peel me a grape.” Curiously, it was only in her last film, Sextette, made when she was 83, that she uttered on-screen the line for which she is most famous: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” Characteristically, Mae West went out with a bang.

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CECIL B. DE MILLE AND THE GOLDEN CALF

Faber & Faber, 2007, St Martins Press, New York, 2007, as

CECIL B. DE MILLE, A LIFE IN ART.

Cecil de deMilleFrom The Guardian, 1. 12. 2007
by Simon Callow: Mad about the Beast

In a fascinating aside in his wonderfully entertaining biography, Simon Louvish notes that the French film theorists of the New Wave ignored Cecil B DeMille in favour of what he provocatively, but not inaccurately, calls “the journeymen of the studio factories”: Walsh, Ford and Hawks. But DeMille was much more of an auteur than any of them, controlling his own films – all 70 of them – to the last detail. Louvish’s book is a major act of reclamation of an overlooked oeuvre, as well as a 3D, Cinemascope portrait of one of the most prodigious figures ever to call “Action!”.

DeMilIe was in fact the prototype of the director as superman. Attired in riding boots, puttees and corduroy pants, shirt open at the neck and slouch hat, he raged and stormed and galvanised his troops; striding around the set, master of all he surveyed, he would sit whenever he felt like it, confident that someone would place a chair beneath him.

His private life was on a Babylonian scale. In addition to the two houses in which he dwelt with his wife and children, he had an extensive hideaway, Paradise Ranch in Santa Monica, where he threw lavish but highly controlled parties. Here, neither his dominating mother nor his supportive wife ever set foot; his three mistresses – his secretary, his scenarist and his editor – were welcome, as well as assorted ambitious lovelies. CB liked to dress up and expected his guests to follow suit; they were provided with costumes on arrival. He was surprisingly frank in public about the degree of sexual freedom he enjoyed, telling one interviewer that on his honeymoon his wife had told him not to scratch the furniture, so he got up on the table, jumped on it, and on all the chairs. “The word ‘don’t’ has never been said to me again in 18 years of happy married life.” He had never, he added, been home for a single Saturday night in all those rB years and never said what he was doing, or with whom. “Think of the moral stamina it takes for a wife never to ask that ‘where have you been?”‘

This man, you cannot help feeling, is barking. But his psychopathology is fascinating: there is no neurosis, no self-doubt… Out of the 52 films he made before the coming of sound, it is not his allegories of modern life that have suvived in the public consciousness, but the Biblical epics: the original Ten Commandments and King of Kings, a film which in its day was as controversial as The Passion of The Christ…

In an unforgettable image of the director as demiurge, summoning worlds into existence then razing them back into oblivion, Louvish describes how, once shooting was over, CB personally supervised the destruction of the sets, smashing up the temples, the statues and the sphinxes, and burying them in the sand… His last silent film was Godless Girl, an indictment of the Reformatory schools… For Louvish the best was over – a dangerous thing to say when you’re only two-thirds of the way through your book, but he justifies it, proving that it’s possible to write as absorbingly about a bad film as a good. The Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra decidedly fall into the latter category; after them, DeMille publicly committed himself to making only epics, among which was a sequence of films (The Plainsman, The Buccaneer, Union Pacific) sharply described by one of their writers, Jesse L Lasky, as “charismatic fairy tales” designed to answer the mood of post-Depression America…

His second world war films are best passed over (“a nacreous foam of lies,” said James Agee of Dr Wassell); meanwhile he was becoming ever more anti-union and anti- communist, earning the warm approval of the American Legion and the FBI. His attempts to bully the Screen Directors Guild of America into imposing a non-
communistic oath on all members is a particularly ugly chapter in his life; he was finally stopped by the far-from-left-leaning John Ford, but continued film-making on the grandest scale, culminating in the remake of The Ten Commandments. DeMille introduces the film in person, and the Voice of God is an electronic amalgam of his voice and Charlton Heston’s. Every frame, every second, of the film has its creator’s mark on it, and though it is theologically simplistic, dramatically conventional and visually literate, there is no mistaking the grandeur of its conception.

His legacy is hard to pinpoint. But Louvish brilliantly reveals a very different, unexpected CB DeMille – complex, contradictory, innovative, voluptuous – from the one with which we are familiar: a seriously great director on an epic scale.

From The New York Times,
By Andrew Sarris:

Simon Louvish’s elegantly exhaustive study of Cecil Blount DeMille (1881-1959) carries the respectful if not necessarily reverent title “Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art.” It examines that life largely though not entirely through his 70 movies, completed
during a 42-year career, from “The Squaw Man” in 1914 to “The Ten Commandments” in 1956, itself a remake of his own 1923 “Ten Commandments.” “The Squaw Man” was also remade as an early talkie in t93r, during a period in which all of Hollywood, and DeMilIe especially, was struggling, often pathetically and disastrously, to make sense and cinema out of the new fangled dimension of talk…

To his credit, Louvish does not gloss over DeMille’s deficiencies and excesses; rather, he very scrupulously records them as crucial clues in a genuinely complex story rich in contradictions and paradoxes… Louvish acknowledges a debt to DeMille for his subject’s prodigious research into his own family roots, specifically his father’s Dutch ancestry. He spent much less time on his mother’s British Jewish side of the family, even though his ever resourceful, business-building mother supported the family after her husband died, when Cecil was 11.

Louvish does not explicitly draw the logical inference that DeMille’s contrasting attitudes toward the two branches of his family reveal his bigotry. But the author does conscientiously lay out all the evidence, so we can draw the inference for ourselves. Nonetheless, in the early chapters of his book, Louvish deals with the liberal influence on Cecil and his brother, William, exerted by the writings of Charles Kingsley, a “Protestant controversialist” who was “a clergyman and a champion of England’s poor and working people.” Oddly, as Louvish pointedly notes, “part of his religious creed was fiercely anti-Catholic, and his ideas were also part of a philosophical trend in Victorian England promoting a ‘muscular Christianity’ that combined godliness and manliness by going back to the ‘Teutonic’ roots of English history.” Shades of the Nazis’ master race. It is as if Louvish were preparing to describe for us the muscular Christianity, with its flashes of cruelty and sadism, in DeMille’s very popular religious and historical spectacles…

As Louvish makes abundantly clear, DeMille may have been too easily dismissed by the mostly liberal and left-wing film establishment because of his right-wing anti-union and anti-Communist activities during the cold war, particularly during the McCarthy and Holywood-blacklist years. On one occasion, John Ford and George Stevens decisively intervened to thwart DeMille’s attempted purge of Joseph Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Directors Guild.

In addition to fully documenting this incident, Louvish makes his own position crystal clear in his eloquent summation: “One does not have to agree with the political views of any artist to evaluate and appreciate the art. Much depends on how narrow your choice is of who you are willing to learn from. For myself, I am certainly an opponent of the ideas DeMille propagated in his ‘Crusade for Freedom’ in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I find much of his behavior in this period loathsome and offensive. His was one of many prominent but reckless voices that laid the ground for the assault by Senator Joseph McCarthy on the rights of employment and free speech of so many American citizens and so many of DeMille’s fellow workers in film, television and radio. And yet the films of his own great golden age have been an unexpected joy to discover, an undervalued treasure-trove of totally achieved, totally controlled movies that defined his own peculiar America in his own peculiar way – before he’found the truth.’And once he had found his ‘truth,’ he began the long decline, which nevertheless was punctuated with majestic flourishes that will, with their own distinctive skill and manner, stand a more rigorous and long-sighted test of time.”

Thus, for all its length and copious detail, Louvish’s biography is a great read and, incidentally, a fascinating history of a life lived to the hilt through a long, turbulent segment of our time.

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CHAPLIN, THE TRAMP’S ODYSSEY.

Cover ChaplinFaber & Faber, 2008.

Saint Martins Press, New York, 2008.

The Observer, March 1 2009
In pursuit of what lies beneath

An intimate portrait of silent screen star Charlie Chaplin reveals something far more profound than a mere lovable vagabond, writes Peter Conrad

Tragedy is about the distress and self-destruction of egomaniacs who place themselves at the centre of the universe. Comedy, wiser and more democratically compassionate, deals with humbler figures, whose humdrum miseries remind us of our shared human vulnerability. But as Simon Louvish says, the muddling routines of a comic character like Chaplin’s tramp also rehearse a “cosmic battle”. The subjective self grapples with a world of obtuse objects when Charlie slips on a malevolent rug in One A.M., and man collides with machine when he is fed into a hungry industrial gullet in Modern Times. Survival and extinction butt heads in The Gold Rush, where the snowbound, starving prospector dines on a boiled boot, picking out the nails as daintily as if they were the bones of a Dover sole.

The tramp’s mishaps are metaphysical. The cabin in which he shelters in The Gold Rush is dislodged by an avalanche and hovers on the edge of an abyss, as Charlie, with desperate elegance, struggles to stay upright. In The Circus, he walks a tightrope like an existential hero, simultaneously fighting off a horde of escaped monkeys. Far below is our prostrate, beleaguered earth, which Chaplin once wonderfully described as “the underworld of the gods”.

Because he performed these antics silently, Chaplin has always needed eloquent interpreters who, like Louvish, are anxious to explain the political or philosophical import of his pratfalls, dust-ups and manic rampages. As Louvish notes, writers early on volunteered “to fill the gaps between the public imagination and the enigma on the screen”. In 1920, the dadaist poet Ivan Goll wrote a tribute called The Chapliniade, in which the impertinent tramp challenges the prim bourgeoisie and announces “the communism of the soul”. Goll associated Chaplin with The Iliad, emphasising the epic violence of his films and turning the tramp into a warrior as infuriated as Achilles.
As his subtitle indicates, Louvish chooses instead to tell Chaplin’s story as a reprise of The Odyssey, a digressive global journey that takes him, like the wandering Odysseus, from the drab slums of Lambeth to hyper-kinetic New York and nubile Hollywood, finally leaving him at rest in a private estate beside Lake Geneva, with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona as his devoted Penelope.

Though Chaplin was peripatetic enough, sailing back from Europe to California by way of Asia in 1932, the character he created proved to be even more intrepid. A true Everyman, the tramp turned up everywhere. He delighted what a colonist in 1925 called the “savages” and “black mammies” of Accra and his familiar natty silhouette invaded Indonesian shadow-puppet plays. In China, he became “the comic king of the Celestials”, while in Bolshevik Russia he was honoured as a tireless Stakhanovite toiler in a “factory of laughter”. The city fathers in Bologna fraudulently claimed him as a native son, pretending that his ancestors were the Caplinettis, poor immigrants to America. Everyone wanted a part of him. On a European tour, Chaplin was virtually carved up or dismembered by his fans; a woman used scissors to cut a souvenir from the seat of his pants, while another admirer tugged at his tie and almost strangled him in the process.

If the world succumbed to an epidemic known as Chaplinitis, the man himself was agitated by an ailment of his own, which should probably be called Chaplinoia. Odysseus dallied with nymphs like Calypso during his long journey home; Chaplin possessed a reckless fondness for underage nymphets and was eventually denounced as a moral menace by the US government…

This is a biography of the mask, not of the man behind it. The cover design for Louvish’s book rounds up Charlie’s appurtenances – the bowler hat; the almost elastically nimble cane; the inky smudge of his moustache, mimicked by Hitler…

Louvish suspects that the mask concealed another mask, closer to the truth of his private character. Although the persona of the tramp prevailed, the young Chaplin had an alternative character in his repertory: a spiv or swell who was up for aggro rather than sweetly accepting his lot, less lovable than the man in the baggy pants and dented bowler. Chaplin’s double role in The Great Dictator acted out this dispute between his two selves. The tramp is the eternally optimistic Jewish barber, who believes that the invention of the aeroplane guarantees goodwill between men; the narcissistic spiv becomes the preening, posturing Hynkel, a caricature of Hitler. But the film’s plot requires the barber to impersonate the crazed dictator: ego and id can’t easily be kept apart.

Chaplin’s role as the serenely guiltless serial killer in Monsieur Verdoux was even more troubling for those who first warmed to him as a downtrodden, gallantly resilient victim. In 1923, cubist painter Fernand Léger described the tramp as “a kind of living object”, an emblem of life in the dehumanised modern city. Verdoux, who views the murder of his wives and his own execution with the same chilly equanimity, takes that description literally; he is, as Louvish says, a “machine-human”, the kind of automaton that lethally threatens Charlie in Modern Times. After this alarming self-revelation, Limelight was a final act of expiation. Here, Chaplin plays the dying clown Calvero, who removes his make-up as the camera tracks in for a brutally truthful close-up of his abject face.

The fellow-feeling between Louvish and Chaplin is so intimate that the biographer, when discussing Limelight, writes a confessional monologue for his subject. He imagines Chaplin saying: “I was content to present the mask, but now I will strip it off and be revealed in the fallibility of my humiliation”… Comedy can be more heartbreaking than tragedy and Chaplin is the man of sorrows whose sufferings, like Calvero’s Calvary, have the power to heal a hard-hearted, mirthless world.

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