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Essential Reading…In Print And Online

Be honest: how often do you read the booklets that accompany deluxe DVDs? I always mean to, but too often I procrastinate and other things get in the way. If you’ve already been smart enough to pick up the Criterion Collection’s new two-disc release of Sweet Smell of Success, you’ll think even more of that whip-smart movie if you spend time with the supplementary reading material, which comes in a cleverly designed package meant to simulate a series of newspaper columns. First, there is an incisive—and expansive—essay about the picture by Gary Giddins, who not only explores the 1957 release in the context of well-worn genres (newspaper movies, Broadway movies, press agent movies, and nightclub movies, et al) but finds fascinating connections to The Great Gatsby. An essay by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who originated the story, talks about the unusual production process that began with—

—him as the film’s writer-director and wound up with Alexander Mackendrick directing and playwright Clifford Odets reworking his script. There is also a candid essay by Mackendrick, who in later years became a much-admired film teacher at CalArts, about his approach to the picture. Best of all, Criterion has reprinted the two magazine short stories in which Lehman introduced the indelible characters of newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker and press agent Sidney Falco.

All of this supplements the DVD’s generous bonus features, including an interview with Neal Gabler, author of the definitive biography of Walter Winchell, the ultimate Broadway columnist, and a fascinating piece in which contemporary filmmaker James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) talks about Mackendrick as an unforgettable teacher.

The essays in the Criterion booklet reaffirm the fact that movies are the result of collaboration, and as such it’s risky to assign too much credit to any one individual in that process. Mackendrick’s essay discusses how thoroughly Odets revamped Lehman’s original screenplay, giving it deeper, richer dramatic layers. Taking this at face value, one might be tempted to downplay Lehman’s contribution to the finished product…until one reads his short stories, which set up the main characters, their relationship, and their milieu so brilliantly.

J.J. Hunsecker is anything but a role model. On the other hand, one can derive real inspiration from an unusual book called Drawings from the Left, or Parkinsons Pictures by James Tim Walker. Tim has spent most of his life working in animation, and is currently employed by Warner Bros. Three years ago he was diagnosed with A few years ago, Walker was diagnosed with Lateral Parkinsons Disease on his right side. This forced him to retrain himself to draw with his left hand, and his book is a collection of his sketches since then. They are full of life, wonderfully cartoony and entertaining. You can purchase the book HERE from Amazon, or if you live in Los Angeles you can meet Tim this coming Friday, March 18th at Decor Art Galleries, 12149 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA. By the way, Tim has always found inspiration in the golden age of animated cartoons and has amassed quite a collection of original drawings, which you can survey HERE. Tim’s own website is jamestimwalker.com.

Every day seems to bring an e-mail or two with links to interesting articles, covering a wide range of topics, that I would otherwise miss. I thought I’d pass some of these pieces along to you.

If you sometimes get the feeling that the digital revolution isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you’re not alone. An eloquent—and well-informed—Francis Fukuyama sings the praises of analog in this Wall Street Journal piece.

And if you’re wondering why Hollywood is making so many big, dopey movies these days, you simply have to Think Global, as this cogent story from The Economist illustrates.

Are you a Gene Autry fan? The folks who run his self-named company are inviting you to help them prioritize which of his many films not yet available on DVD should be first in line. Check in at www.autry.com.

When I was a kid just starting to collect movie stills, I wandered into a storefront on 6th Avenue in the where I met an unforgettable New York character named Henry Kier. Phil Posner wrote a reminiscence of Kier’s for Classic Images in 1994, and now he’s updated it online. For a trip down memory lane, check out www.philposner.com.

And for an in-depth look at the very latest in movie projection—circa 1931—take a look at this terrific, well-illustrated article from Modern Mechanics about my favorite local movie palace, the Los Angeles Theater. There’s even a sidebar about the new Natural Vision widescreen process.

After all that reading, you might want to relax with some music from the same era as the Modern Mechanics article. My old friend, piano wizard Alex Hassan, has teamed up with vocalist Doug Bowles to create a CD filled with long-forgotten songs of the Depression era called New Deal Rhythm. If you’d ike to purchase the disc, write to Doug at duggtenr@yahoo.com or dbowles@singcomusic.com. In the meantime, you can watch and listen to a lively medley on YouTube.

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