Hot Fun in the Summertime: The 2018 Summer Classic Film Book Challenge

Outdoor concerts. Noir City Chicago. Cold lemonade on the back porch.

And the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge!

I am delighted to share that I’ve been participating in this awesome event, the brainchild of Raquel over at Out of the Past, for six straight years now! And I’m here to tell you, this has been the best year yet. First off, because I’m now taking the bus to work instead of driving, I was able to finish all my books in record time (meaning that I didn’t spend the night before the deadline reading like I was cramming for a psych exam). Secondly, I think I enjoyed reading this year’s selections more than any other – four of the six were first-rate books that were made into pre-Code or film noir features, and the other two focused on a wide variety of films that not only fed my love for trivia, but exposed me to some pictures that I’ve never seen before. All in all, it was a winning summer, book-wise – and here’s why!

So Big (1924) by Edna Ferber

I’ll admit it. I’m not all that wild about the 1932 Barbara Stanwyck film that was based on this book. I mean, it’ll do in a pinch, but it’s just not one of my favorites. I was pleasantly surprised, then, at how much I enjoyed the book. It tells the story of Selina Peake DeJong, who is raised during the late 1800s by her beloved single-parent father in a number of cities throughout the U.S., but primarily in Chicago. A professional gambler, Simeon Peake gave his child a life that was sometimes overflowing with abundance and sometimes on the lean side, but never dull. It all comes to a tragic and abrupt end when Simeon is shot in a gambling house and 19-year-old Selina gets a job as a teacher in High Prairie, a Dutch farming community located about 10 miles from Chicago. We accompany Selina through the next several decades of her life – her friendship with Roelf, the talented young son of the family with whom she lives; her marriage to struggling farmer Pervus DeJong and the birth of their son, Dirk, whom Selina affectionately calls “So Big”; Pervus’s unexpected death from pneumonia; and Selina’s taking over of the farm, eventually turning it into a thriving enterprise.

From the start, Ferber gives us a main character that we warm to; Selina is not only kind and attractive, but she’s also intelligent, humble, courageous and industrious. After her father’s death and, later, after the loss of her husband, Selina demonstrates a sense of resilience – an I-will-survive-spirit, if you will – that is greatly admirable. After Pervus’s death, especially, we want to cheer as Selina takes on the task of raising her son as a single mother, assuming the duties performed in that era only by men, and implementing a variety of new and innovative farming techniques (that had been pooh-poohed by Pervus, incidentally), that helped ensure the farm’s success. Ferber also, interestingly, gives us a character in Dirk “So Big” DeJong that is almost the diametric opposite of his mother: he’s self-absorbed, shallow and weak-willed. A perfect example of his character (or lack, thereof) comes during his college years, when he befriends an amiable but unattractive female classmate, only to callously reject her when he’s chided by the member of the fraternity he strives to join.

All in all, I found So Big to be the biggest surprise of all of the books I read this summer.

Behind the Scenes (1982) by Rudy Behlmer

Noted film historian Rudy Behlmer has written a fascinating book that gives the reader a glimpse inside the making of some of Hollywood’s most popular films. I’ve had this book in my collection for many (many!) years, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. I’d assumed I would be interested in learning about films that I love, like A Streetcar Named Desire, Laura, and All About Eve, but the book also managed to grab and hold my attention about pictures that were of less interest, like Tarzan and His Mate and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, while reading the first chapter, on Frankenstein, I predicted that I would abandon the book before reading much further, but the next write-up, on The Lost Horizon, piqued my curiosity and I never looked back. As a result, I learned a variety of intriguing tidbits about the backstories of all 16 of the features discussed. Here’s just a sampling:

The Adventures of Robin Hood was originally intended as a vehicle for James Cagney, but in 1935, Cagney walked out in a contractual dispute with Warner Bros. and didn’t return for two years. Errol Flynn wound up with the starring role.

Actress Dorris Bowden, who played the role of Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath, was married to Nunnally Johnson, the film’s screenwriter.

For her role in The Maltese Falcon of the duplicitous, murderous Brigid O’Shaghnessy, Mary Astor would purposely hyperventilate before her scenes, in order to “emphasize the unstable quality” of her character.

Eddie Fisher had a role in All About Eve as a stage manager. His part ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

The line, “Me, Tarzan – you, Jane,” was never spoken in Tarzan and His Mate.

Colin Clive, who played Victor Frankenstein, died of alcoholism in 1937 at the age of 27.

Hal Wallis, the producer of Casablanca, had considered changing the character of Sam, the piano player in Rick’s, to a black woman so that the role could be played by popular singer Hazel Scott. Thought was also given to casting actor Clarence Muse, and to dubbing the singing voice of Dooley Wilson, who ultimately played the part. Ultimately, the voice heard singing “As Time Goes By” was Wilson’s own.

Several filmed scenes were cut from Laura, including one filmed at Ebbetts Field, where Dana Andrews questioned Vincent Price during a baseball game, and other one that showed Laura’s funeral.

Bette Davis and Gary Merrill met on the set of All About Eve and married a month and a half after shooting completed. Their marriage lasted for 10 years.

A Kiss Before Dying (1953) by Ira Levin

I found a copy of this book in an antique mall in Aurora, Illinois, where I used to have a booth – it was a bargain at $3.50, and the fact that the cover had a big chunk missing from it didn’t in the least diminish the pleasure I got from reading it. A Kiss Before Dying was the first novel written by Ira Levin, who went on to pen a number of bestsellers that were turned into movies: Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, and The Stepford Wives. He wrote A Kiss Before Dying when he was just 22 years old.

Winner of the Edgar Allen Poe award for the best mystery of the year, A Kiss Before Dying focuses on Bud Corliss, a social climbing, money-grubbing sociopath – and murderer. Levin masterfully tells his story, dividing the book in three parts, titled after the three daughters in the wealthy Kingship family on whom Bud focuses his nefarious attentions: Dorothy, Ellen, and Marion. When the book opens, Dorothy, Bud’s college classmate and undercover girlfriend, has just learned that she is pregnant. She’s understandably upset, but Bud is more than that – he’s practically crushed by the threat to his plans for his future, which certainly included Dorothy, but not a disowned Dorothy with a baby on the way. (“What will I do?” he asks Dorothy. “Another guy with two years’ college and no degree. What will be? A clerk? Or an oiler in some textile mill or something?”) After a failed attempt to get rid of the child, Bud comes up with the perfect solution: get rid of Dorothy. And he does, skillfully making her death look like a suicide.

Not one to give up on his dreams, Bud next manages to worm himself into the heart of Dorothy’s sister, Ellen – but Ellen is convinced that her sister was murdered and when she gets too close to unearthing the truth, Bud does away with her as well. He even goes so far as to woo the third sister in the family, Marion, and almost makes it to the altar before his carefully crafted schemes finally blow up in his face.

There’s a major difference between Levin’s book and the film version – the movie completely eliminates the third sister from the story, which is really a shame. The murder of the second sister in the book is a complete shock, and Bud’s determined and scarily calculated campaign to pursue the third sibling is a fascinating study. I’m not sure why the powers that be at United Artists thought it best to butcher the story this way. In any event, the book was dynamite.

Week-End Marriage (1931) by Faith Baldwin

Faith Baldwin was a prolific writer of women’s romance novels – during her career, she wrote more than 80 books, many of which were made into films, including The Office Wife, Skyscraper (filmed as Skyscraper Souls), The Moon’s Our Home, and Wife vs. Secretary. I bought Week-End Marriage several years ago, but the first time I tried to read it, it just didn’t hold my attention. I was determined to finish it as part of this summer’s challenge, though, and I’m glad I did.

This novel tells the story of Lola Davis and Ken Hayes. They’re young, blissfully in love, and decide to get married. So what’s the problem? Lola insists on keeping her job as a secretary – “It’s the only sensible thing to do,” she tells Ken when he objects. “It won’t be for long.” But Lola and Ken soon discover that married life, with both parties working full time, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Despite their two incomes, the two still struggle to pay a mountain of bills. Lola is usually too exhausted to carry out the domestic duties that Ken expects, and she resents the lack of help she gets from him around the house. And things get worse when Lola gets a raise at the same time that Ken gets a reduction in his pay, meaning that she’s making more than her husband. Baldwin presents a realistic look at marriage of the time (which, interestingly, include some beliefs and behaviors that are still current today) – Lola is idealistic yet practical, Ken is prideful and stubborn, and neither is willing to give in.

In addition to Lola and Ken, Baldwin’s novel features a number of well-drawn characters, including Lola’s girlfriend, Connie, who’s forced into marriage by her bullying big brother but easily adapts to her new domestic life; Lola’s sister, Millie, who moves to Hollywood and becomes a movie star; and Peter Acton, a wealthy businessman who sets his cap for Lola and becomes another wedge in her marriage to Ken.

Week-End Marriage is the first book I’ve read by Faith Baldwin – but it won’t be the last.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain

I honestly thought that I’d read this book several years ago, but I recently discovered that I never had. So I dived in with both feet, eager to read the story that was the basis of one of my favorite noirs. Like James Cain’s novel Double Indemnity, this book was inspired by the real-life 1927 case of Ruth Snyder who, with the help of her corset salesman lover, murdered her husband. I found the book to be an unusually quick read, and an absolute page turner.

The Postman Always Rings Twice centers on Cora, who runs a diner and filling station along with her Greek husband, Nick, and Frank Chambers, a drifter who happens by the diner and is hired to work pumping gas and fixing flat tires. Before long (literally 15 pages in), Cora and Frank become lovers, coming together in a savage kind of lust that has Cora instructing Frank to bite her, and Frank obeying: “I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.” (Goodness!)

Told from Frank’s perspective, the story follows his relationship with Cora, their decision to get rid of Nick, their botched first attempt, and the aftermath of the successful deed. I was surprised to discover how closely the film followed the book; even many of the lines in the movie came directly from the pages – like one of my favorite lines: “Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.”

The book did differ from the book in three major areas, though. First off, in the film, Cora and Frank decide to try again to kill Nick, after failing the first time, because Nick plans to sell the diner and move to Canada, where Cora would be expected to care for Nick’s invalid sister. In the book, the act that pushed the couple to murder was Nick’s insistence that Cora have his child. Also, the book’s Cora and Frank did not get married shortly after they beat the rap for murdering Nick, as they did in the film; instead, they didn’t marry until just before Cora’s death. (I figure that, due to the Production Code, a couple couldn’t be shown living together without the benefit of marriage, so the screenwriter had to come up with a rationale for the legalized union – even if it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.) The final difference concerns Madge, the woman with whom Frank has a brief fling while Cora is out of town attending her mother’s funeral. In the film version, Madge worked in a hamburger joint, but in the book, Madge was a lion tamer. You read that right – a LION TAMER. And the way Cora finds out about Frank’s dalliance is that Madge stops by the diner to give Frank a baby puma “to remember her by.” (I don’t know about you, but I think Madge’s film vocation made a whole lot more sense.)

I so enjoyed reading The Postman Always Rings Twice that, after I finished my final book for the reading challenge, I went on to read James M. Cain’s lost final novel, The Cocktail Waitress – which was SO good. But that’s a story for another post.

Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film (2014) by Kenneth Turan

I bought this book during the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, from Larry Edmunds Bookstore in Hollywood. As the title suggests, it covers 54 movies that are recommended by the author, the film critic for the Los Angeles Times. The book included many pictures that I’ve already seen, like Casablanca, Random Harvest, and The Lady Eve, and I greatly enjoyed reading Turan’s take on these. More importantly, though, I was introduced me to a number of features that I’d never even heard of. After reading Turan’s write-ups on two silent pictures — Sherlock Jr. and Pass the Gravy – I was able to find them on YouTube and was simply delighted. I’ve also started watching another recommended movie from the book: Children of Paradise (1945), a French film that Turan most often cites as his all-time personal favorite movie.

Here are some tidbits I gleaned about the films discussed in the book:

Turan called the cast of The Asphalt Jungle “perhaps the premier ensemble in film noir history.”

Gloria Swanson was 52 when she filmed Sunset Boulevard.

The house used in Sunset Boulevard was owned at the time of filming by J. Paul Getty’s ex-wife, and was later used in Rebel Without a Cause. It was torn down in 1957.

Simone Signoret broke her leg during filming of Casque D’Or and did all her dancing scenes wearing a long skirt that covered her cast.

The Important of Being Earnest is based on an 1895 play by Oscar Wilde. The picture was directed by Anthony Asquith, whose father was politician and Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who signed the order to arrest Oscar Wilde for homosexuality.

The series of westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown, and starring Randolph Scott are known as the Ranown films.

So that’s my review of the six excellent books that it was my pleasure to read this summer – I hope you’ll be inspired to check some of them out!

You only owe it to yourself.

~ by shadowsandsatin on September 16, 2018.

9 Responses to “Hot Fun in the Summertime: The 2018 Summer Classic Film Book Challenge”

  1. The deleted scenes from Laura sound fascinating. I guess they didn’t save those for the dvd back in the day!

  2. Holy moly that kissing scene between Cora and Frank in The Postman Always Rings Twice sounds absolutely … DELICIOUS! Can you imagine if they had included that scene in the film?! Haha! It’s almost as if you were reading Dracula instead of Cain’s novel.

  3. Thank you for always being such a consistent participant in my summer reading challenge. I look forward to your big wrap-up every year! And that’s the one positive thing about public transportation, more time for reading! I loved the tidbits you shared from the Behind the Scenes and Not to be Missed books. I read The Postman Always Rings Twice when I wrote for you last year and WOW. That book. SO much more intense than the movie.

    • I look forward to your challenge all year, Raquel! Thanks so much for coming up with such an AWESOME idea. Usually, right after the challenge, I jump right back into my “regular” reading, but I haven’t been able to tear myself away this time. I just finished another James M. Cain book (his “lost” novel) and now I’m reading another Faith Baldwin book that was made into a movie, The Office Wife. I am completely obsessed. LOL

  4. A terrific summer of reading, Karen! I was interested in your take on the Edna Ferber novel – I’ve read ABOUT Ferber, but have never read any of her novels. I might look for this one. Thanks!

    And congrats for making this six challenges in a row, AND for finishing early. Woohoo!

  5. […] All 6 reviews can be found here […]

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