Saturday, June 07, 2008

JOAN BLONDELL: THE FIZZ ON THE SODA—The Evening Class Interview With Matthew Kennedy, Part One

Matthew Kennedy is a writer, film historian, and anthropologist living in San Francisco. He is the author of three biographies of classic Hollywood: Marie Dressler: A Biography (McFarland, 1999, paperback 2006), Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), and Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, 2007). He has also contributed to three anthologies: Strategies in Teaching Anthropology (Pearson Prentice Hall, first and fourth editions, 2000 and 2006) and The Queer Encyclopedia of Film and Television (Cleis, 2005). He is film critic for the respected Bright Lights Film Journal, and his articles have appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Performing Arts, and the San Francisco Chronicle. A former modern dancer, arts administrator, and concert producer, he teaches anthropology at the City College of San Francisco and film history at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has been a guest speaker at a number of venues, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco, and on radio, podcasts, and television. Recipient of a Fulbright Research Fellowship and a San Francisco Cable Car Media/Journalism Award, he is a member of The Authors Guild and the The Authors League of America. He is represented by Stuart Bernstein Representation for Artists in New York.

In his capacity as author of the biography of Joan Blondell and in conjunction with the upcoming Pacific Film Archive ("PFA") retrospective Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda running June 13-29, 2008, I invited Matthew over for flapjacks and spent a most enjoyable morning getting to know him. Our conversation is divided into two parts. The first focuses on his volumes on Marie Dressler and Edmund Goulding and the second focuses on Joan Blondell and the PFA series.

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Michael Guillén: Matthew, how did you become involved in writing film history?

Matthew Kennedy: Well, I can't say I went to school to study film because that wouldn't be true; but, I always loved film as a kid. My Mom loved film and she was a great fan of '30s movies and whatnot, so—if something showed up on TV—I would watch it with her and she would explain, "Now, that's Humphrey Bogart. He was this person and he married that person." Through osmosis—by my Mom being a fan—I became one. I never thought about writing about film until much later. I majored in theater at UCLA and the film department was literally right next door but, for some reason, I never took any classes there or acquainted myself with film.

Guillén: I've long felt someone should write a film essay praising the influence of mothers on young cinephiles. The same thing happened with me: midday matinee TV movies with Mom training me to identify actors. Actors were the first group of people I associated with movies—long before I was won over to the directorial auteurship of filmmaking—precisely because Mother was interested in actors. I suppose that at that time movies were pure escapism for housewives and this body of experience was like a syllabus a mother could hand down to her children.

Kennedy: So well said, Michael. Your observation about mothers and their cinephilic children rings true. My mother was like your mother in at least one way—she talked more about the stars than the specific films. She was a teenager in the '30s; she grew up in the studio era. My grandmother would not let her see "bad" or "naughty" Kay Francis, but she could see Irene Dunne because she was "a lady." My mother laughed in retrospect about her brief crush on Nelson Eddy, but made no apologies for adoring Leslie Howard. I realize now that these personal stories formed the basis of my own exploration into classic films.

On Marie Dressler
Guillén: My understanding is that your film writing kickstarted by watching Marie Dressler as Carlotta Vance in George Cukor's Dinner At Eight (1933), prompting your McFarland biography of her. What was it about her particular performance in that film that motivated you?

Kennedy: It was Dinner At Eight's non-stop wit. I first saw it at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento. I love Marie Dressler and I love that time. I loved the depiction of the Depression as it was happening. The fashions. The argot. The wit of the script. The fantastic priority that films gave back then to great characters; Dressler being one of the all-time greatest.

Guillén: Without any official training, what did that feel like for you to write a book?

Kennedy: It was thrilling actually. To see a book take shape. I don't know if this will sound strange; but, writing is an act of self-realization. It's an act of realizing, "I'm somebody that can write a book." I suppose I put a lot of import into that before I actually did it. I invested this huge amount of meaning into anyone who could actually author a book and now I was one of those people!

Guillén: That's lovely. I, too, believe in dreaming in detail. I find it interesting and honest that you qualify your statement by calling it "strange" because I think most people don't know how to manifest or actualize or self-realize. It's learning how to do that as a writer that is uniquely satisfying.

Kennedy: It was thrilling beyond words and, ironically, it was all about words. Not only was it the idea that I could write a book, but that I enjoyed it so much. The act of research, combing through archives and finding this one-of-a-kind stuff that exists in a special collection in Philadelphia or in Cleveland or in New York—which was the route I took with the Dressler book—was, for me, as fun and exciting and revealing as the writing itself. As soon as this archival material presented itself, the writer in me said, "I cannot wait to put this on the page! I can't wait to render these discrete pieces of information into something coherent." I just love doing that!

Guillén: Your passion clearly comes across in your books. Their thoroughness is nearly sensual. They're meticulously researched; but, the research is offered up in accessible language. Which leads me to ask about your research methodology: as someone who hadn't studied film and who really hadn't written before, how did you know to go about it?

Kennedy: Well, I wish I could say it was carefully thought out; but, that wouldn't be the case. [Laughs.] Again, I hope this doesn't come off as dull in terms of what one actually does; but, with all of them, I start out with basic research sources. I go to film encyclopedias. I start with a capsule biography of Marie Dressler that's half a page long, which lists her credits. The Dressler book was done before I was using the Internet. There was no IMdb that I could use at that time 10-12 years ago. I would start with a skeleton: "What are the easy dates that I can plug in that are high points or low points in this person's life that form a skeleton of chronology?" Because I start with the idea that I'm going to be writing—structurally—a standard cradle-to-grave biography where the toeholds are dates. This is the date that movie was made. This is the date she divorced so-and-so. This is the date she died. This is the date he first went off to war. I mean, any number of things. Then I overlay those with actual moments in history within their lifetime that impacted their life and might also be of interest to the reader.

In the case of all three that I've written about so far—Marie Dressler, Edmund Goulding, Joan Blondell—they all saw the Depression. So 1929 always figures into, "Okay, what was going on with this person and how did they cope with that social reversal?"

Guillén: What is it about the "social reversal" of the Depression that captivates you?

Kennedy: I wonder! It does seem to be a place I keep coming back to. I'm fascinated by the change in social habits. The onset of the Code, certainly, as a representation of film audiences being more and more vocal, perhaps, about film content; that films had to get "cleaner" while America plunged into a Depression could not have been a coincidence. How stars were made and broken by their studios. That genres were being defined and refined—musicals, westerns, mysteries, romantic comedies, documentaries were all actually young once. That some of those movies, those stars, have burned into our collective consciousness, while others have not. And, again, it may have something to do with imagining my parents growing up. All of that simply fascinates me.

Once the skeleton is set, then I start watching the movies. I had a great deal of fun creating my own film festival around finding as many of the movies of these people that I could, some of which are quite rare. From there I search for anybody alive who I might be able to interview. I had mixed success there. I sent out a lot of letters and a lot of them didn't get answered; but, occasionally, someone would say, "I'd love to talk about so-and-so. Please call me." From there it turns into, "Oh, you should also talk to so-and-so…." or "Have you been to this library? I think she left some of her stuff there." A lot of it is just word of mouth where you're simply following leads. That's where the disorganization comes in. For example, with the Dressler book, I did not know that writing that book would take me to Philadelphia. I had no idea at the onset that I'd be going to Washington, D.C.

Guillén: They house archives of her papers?

Kennedy: Dressler had a long career in vaudeville, and there are theater collections in Cleveland and Philadelphia that were invaluable. Philadelphia also has a collection of early Mack Sennett material related to Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) and some of her very early silent films in different collections. It's so much fun because that stuff only exists in one place and in one form so you have to travel. It's not accessible online. It's not reproduced in any books. That's when you really feel you're striking the research mother lode.

Guillén: It's not difficult to access these archives?

Kennedy: No, it isn't actually because they're in various public and private institutions that are available for researchers. It's great fun. So you're dealing with different dates and you're trying to write so that the narrative reads as seamless and complete. Let's see, which metaphors work here? Skeleton and flesh, bricks and mortar? Then it goes through multiple edits, shuffling, whittling. Then it enters the world, and you hope that someone besides your family and friends is reading it. And I am always very happy to see one of my books in someone else's bibliography.

Guillén: It's the weave.

Kennedy: Exactly! It's the weave. It's the connections. It's the building of a literature and a body of knowledge.
On Edmund Goulding
Guillén: Speaking of a body of knowledge, one thing I admire about film historians is when they use biography to embody film history. From Dressler you turned your attention to Edmund Goulding and wrote Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy. How did that book happen? Dinner At Eight captured your imagination about Dressler? What provided the aesthetic arrest with Goulding?

Kennedy: I like that term "aesthetic arrest"! I finished the Dressler book and I didn't know what I was going to do next. I don't feel that I'm a very good idea person. I wish I had all these great plans for books but it's kind of a struggle. I was speaking to a friend of mine who is also a film historian and I said, "I don't know what to do next. Do you have any ideas?" and he said, "Edmund Goulding." I said, "I know he's a director. I've seen his name." He said, "Just do a little bit of research. I think you'll find him very interesting."

Guillén: Edmund Goulding is beyond interesting.

Kennedy: Indeed! That was an understatement, wasn't it? Even the very fleeting information I found about him in the beginning indicated that he got into some trouble with the studio bosses that had to do with his private life.

Guillén: That caught your attention right away.

Kennedy: [Laughter.] It certainly did; I'll tell you! When I first saw his complete career resume, I was very impressed. Many of the films I recognized but hadn't attached his name to. "He did that one! And that one! Oh my God, those are wonderful movies!" It got more and more interesting, in part because his career easily divides into threes. He had time at MGM. He had time at Warner Brothers. He had time at Fox. In that order. Each phase offers an inside-out approach to understanding the mechanics of those studios and the bosses that he was dealing with—Mayer, Warner and Zanuck—and why he burned his bridges at all three of them eventually. But why also he was such a gifted filmmaker that they kept giving him projects to do, even though he was problematic. One could say that his private life was nobody's business; but, he did get in trouble with the law over certain careless behavior and some very ugly behavior I think around—not exactly sexual assault—but certainly … what would you call it?

Guillén: A lapse in judgment?

Kennedy: A lapse in judgment! Thank you. A lapse in judgment. And he had some serious drinking problems and he was probably doing other drugs as well. None of that's going to sit well in an era of '30s and '40s Hollywood in terms of—should he be found out—he's going to be in big trouble. But he was fascinating.

Guillén: A contemporary parallel might be the career of Robert Downey, Jr. where an artist can be in the thrall of dark vices but the darkness—if surmounted or worked through—becomes a fulcrum for a creative expression that is uniquely your own, precisely for what you've gone through. I'm less judgmental of the dark side in people and am—to a certain extent—appreciative of the value of such dark phases.

What fascinated me when I was reading your book on Goulding was precisely how important and influential he was in Hollywood. Like yourself, I was surprised to discover he had directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, Of Human Bondage, etc., etc., but I was also amazed to discover his role in introducing sound technologies to Hollywood movies and in helping silent stars like Gloria Swanson shift into the talkies. I didn't know he had been instrumental in launching the careers of Joan Crawford and David Niven or that he had trysted with a young Tahlulah Bankhead or concealed an on-set crush for Gary Cooper. His contributions are so major that it baffles me that he is relatively unknown. Were it not for your book….

Kennedy: Part of the problem was that he became something of a pariah because of his private life, which occasionally leaked to the press and caused a lot of problems and complaints and so forth. That resulted in people giving him the cold shoulder in his lifetime, but then there's been very little attention paid to him since then. He just sort of fell into obscurity.

Guillén: He'd be a great subject for a movie.

Kennedy: I think so too!

Guillén: Who do you think could play him?

Kennedy: Maybe Robert Downey, Jr.? What's interesting about Goulding too is that his private life seems so at odds with the content and the styles of his films. His films are very lush and romantic. They're about affairs of the heart.

Guillén: And surprisingly moral!

Kennedy: Great moral lessons about love, sacrifice, and honesty. We Are Not Alone is nearly a primer on how to live a life that insures some degree of suffering, but remains noble and true.

Guillén: Who else would know better about these issues than someone who was struggling with them?

Kennedy: But there isn't a direct relationship. It's not like you can see one of his films and go, "Aha! That relates to this event in his life." He was much more subtle than that. And, of course, he'd been given these different projects by the studio heads and so how much of his personal life he could interject, or would want to, is questionable anyway.

Guillén: Also, moviemaking at that time—as we were mentioning earlier with regard to how our mothers used movies to form our moral character—movies were in the service of nation building at that time; they were in the service of establishing our nation's moral character and any film director at the time in tune with the zeitgeist would know what was required; they would know which icons to use to trigger the feelings to deliver the message requisite for filmmaking at that time.

Kennedy: That is definitely the case with Goulding. Especially the women that he directed. He directed Davis and Crawford and Garbo and others so shrewdly and with such keen insight on exactly what you're talking about that their images on the screen turned into and could be cultivated into iconographic, indelible fantasies.

Guillén: He knew how to elicit or manufacture their individual styles of radiance.

Kennedy: Absolutely.

Guillén: When I was reading your book, especially in your descriptions of his interaction with Garbo, I could see her cold glow so clearly. With the studio system's star making apparatus of that time, radiance was everything. The glow of the star was everything. A filmmaker had to know how to do this with these women to make them larger than life and Goulding certainly did. It's something I find largely absent in filmmaking today. There's a tendency in contemporary film to bring everybody down to street level and to make actors egalitarian with their audiences.

Kennedy: Or less attention paid on that kind of fantasy. There are other fantasies going on today with computer generated imagery for over-the-top emotions; but, not the transporting fantasy that you get with black and white, a soft lens, beautiful lighting, where it really does appear—especially, let's say, in Garbo's movies—as if she's lit from within. It's not a reflection of light that's coming at her; it's coming out of her almost.
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I strongly recommend Matthew Kennedy's conversations with Andre Soares at Alternative Film Guide, a fantastic blog full of profiles and interviews, including further discussions on both Marie Dressler and Edmund Goulding.

Continue to Part Two of this conversation.

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