Thursday, March 6, 2014
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris (Penguin Group, 2014, 528 pages, $29.95) tells the story of the wartime experiences of five of Hollywood's most awarded and successful directors' experiences as they volunteered for service during WW II, forsaking their careers to produce and direct propaganda, training, and documentary films for the Army, Navy, and Army Air Corps. Focusing on the experiences of John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra, Harris details in unsparing yet admiring prose the backgrounds, motives, skills, experiences, productions, and personal costs experienced by these five men as they moved from successful and lucrative careers at the top of the film industry to the demanding conditions of producing film for the military. He also takes a clear-eyed look at the effects of their military experiences upon the kinds of films these men made in the aftermath of the war as well as the political climate affecting the film industry and the nation during this period. It's a fascinating and detailed exploration which sheds light on today's complex social and media environment as well as expanding the reader's film literacy as the internal workings of these film pioneers is examined. Harris has taken on an ambitious agenda and succeeds at the highest level.
George Stevens in Europe
Throughout the1930's the film industry had remained as apolitical as it possibly could, while individuals increasingly spoke out against the rise of Hitler in non-studio settings. The studio executives, most of whom were Jewish immigrants, were cautious in the face of the pervasive sentiments of Antisemitism in the country and the growing suspicion of Communist influence in an industry dominated by “foreigners,” many of whom had immigrated from eastern Europe. The Hollywood elite sought to avoid controversy, serving up feel-good movies and doing it's best to avoid compromising foreign markets by denying Hitler's danger. The Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 changed American attitudes towards both the Japanese and Hitler in one startling attack. Frank Capra, whose success had been built upon light hearted, touching comedies, realized immediately that the war was real, and that the film industry had much to contribute.
John Ford joined the Navy even before Pearl Harbor, while the others chose to join various services shortly after the attack. (An interesting sidelight is the picture of John Wayne who became a star in the John Ford western epic Stagecoach, never served but became an icon at least partly as a result of his military roles and well-articulated hyper-Americanism.) Ford developed Field Photo as a publicity and recruiting device for the Navy. The chronological structure of Five Came Back cuts from director to director within the gradual movement away from isolationism toward war, emphasizing the differing viewpoints, ambitions, and capabilities of the five directors. Each learns to cope with the military bureaucracy as he develops ways to portray the goals of the war (Capra), battle scenes (Wyler and Stephens), and progress in their skill at both educating and supporting the war effort. As the war continues, this country becomes less enthusiastic about war propaganda and more hungry for greater realism. Stephens, in his meticulous and detailed fashion captures the epic Battle of the Bulge and is the first major film maker to experience and film the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, changing his life and approach to film making forever. Similarly, Capra found himself unable to make the same quality of films after the war he had made before, while Wyler and Huston learned a new realism they were able to translate into their later, greater films.
Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution. He formerly edited Entertainment Weekly and has written about pop culture for many other outlets. He graduated from Yale University and is married to playwright Tony Kushner.
Five Came Back is a swell book in the parlance of the times. It took this reader back to his earliest childhood memories as well as those developed from TV and films watched through the eventful 1950's and sixties during the Cold War. It was especially chilling and compelling considering the present situations in Russia and the Middle East. While many of the films are mere shadows of memory, others provoke vivid memories of my childhood and youth, recalling an age thought past, but which, in many ways, predicts and presages our current difficulties. Toward the end of the book, two film makers emerge with particular poignancy. William Wyler's return to his boyhood hometown of Mulhause in France, destroyed by bombing, where he is told not to search for any of his Jewish relatives because “they are not to be found” is heartbreaking. Even more difficult is the portrait of George Stevens almost mechanically detailing the horrors of Dachau while understanding that he is creating a record for later use in the post-war war crimes trials to be held in Nuremberg. Harris takes the time to make clear the difficulty of readjusting the peacetime Hollywood and the effects on each film maker of his war experiences. Today we recognize this syndrome as PTSD.
with the Crew of Memphis Belle - 4th from right
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywoodand the Second World War by Mark Harris (Penguin Group, 2014, 528 pages, $29.95) explores the role of film during the second world war with thoughtfulness, insight, and a clear eye for detail and nuance. The difficulties of making the kinds of film the government wanted and the interruption of flourishing commercial careers are explored through the examination of five directors who went to war and came home changed forever, as was their country and their industry. It's timely, important, and readable. I received the book as an electronic galley from the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.
Monday, March 3, 2014
We drove into Dixieland RV Park last Monday in a pouring rain after a short drive west from Palatka, Florida. By the time we had parked and set up on the newly renovated site, with a broad concrete patio and new gravel added, we were drenched through our rain gear. Promoter Ernie Evans told us people were cancelling after having been pulled out of the mud at Palatka by the boys ranch's fine staff, saying they just couldn't face another week of bad weather. Too bad, because they missed a fine week filled with lots of activity and good music at the Roscoe Canady Memorial Bluegrass Festival in Dixieland RV Park in Waldo, FL one of the state's most notorious speed traps.
Monday Night Barbecue
...and Square Dancing
Promoter Ernie Evans has re-conceived the bluegrass festival along the lines of a cruise ship. People coming to the event can look forward to finding plenty of activity each day to keep the busy and interested, or can choose to use the time for their own purposes. There's lots of jamming throughout the campground, but not so much that a person can't get plenty of quiet. The activities include bingo, a Facebook2Face activity in which people who know each other on Facebook can become better acquainted, a fishing tournament, and evening activities provided by group meals including a barbecue fully provided by the campground, a covered dish supper with meat provided, and a corn bread and beans supper. Each night there's a music activity after supper with either jamming or open stage performances.
Quiet Jamming by the Lake
Corn Bread and Beans
Evening Jam Led by Ernie Evans
The Fishing Tournament
Martha Sheperd Came for Half an Hour...
and Stayed for Two
The Big Winner
The Awards Ceremony....
Covered Dish Supper
Darlene and Ron Gilliam
Friday Morning Workshop
The Palmetto Ramblers
The Palmetto Ramblers opened the festival on Friday afternoon with a set of traditional bluegrass covers performed with good fun and earnest concentration.
Donnie Lott, Jay Padgett, Charlie Hoskins
Hard Road Trio
The Hard Road Trio, from New Mexico, offers a very pleasing mix of folk, Americana, and bluegrass featuring strong harmonies and solid singing, particularly of their own singer/songwriter material. The band provides a wonderful change-of-pace at a bluegrass festival. Steve Smith on mandolin, also plays with Alan Munde and Country Gazette, is both energetic and skillful, a fine mandolin player. Chris Sanders, on rhythm guitar, has a very pleasing voice and personality. I'd like to hear a little more from Anne Luna whose bass work and harmony singing added to the mix.
Julia Gardner, Rosalie Canaday & McRoy Gardner
Marty Raybon & Full Circle
There's a grin constantly tugging at the corners of Marty Raybon's mouth that wasn't always there, but it sure is now. And he deserves to smile. His show is filled with energy, and he has a very good, young band providing terrific support, filled with energy and commitment. We had seen Marty Raybon last week at Palatka performing for a large crowd. On Friday, he came to the stage with about two or three hundred people in the audience and gave them a rousing performance without a trace of difference in attitude or showmanship between his presentations at the two vastly different locations. Marty Raybon is a thoroughgoing professional who delivers each song with style and energy.
Zach Rambo & Jayd Rains
Emcee Jo Odum
Saturday was sunny and warm. The crowd swelled in anticipation of a strong and varied lineup headlined by Blue Highway, making one of its rare Florida appearances. The campground had continued to drain and dry out while the music and enthusiasm rose to new heights. The four bands presented on Saturday represented four distinctly different and equally pleasing musical styles, highlighted by Blue Highway, which manages to sound ancient and contemporary at the same time. It was a wonderful day.
Swinging Bridge has established itself as one of the very best local bands in Florida. They've been together nearly twenty years, selling themselves both by the quality of their musicianship and the energy of their performance.
Fishing Tournament Winner
Newtown Bluegrass Band
New mother Kati Penn-Williams and her vastly improved band is still recovering from a personnel change, and has added new energy to its already strong Kentucky brand of bluegrass. Originating in the Louisville area of Kentucky, the band, as you might expect, is fiddle-centric, but balanced. Junior Williams shares emcee chores with his wife Kati. C.J. Cain is a hot guitar picker with plenty of chops. Clint Hurd plays solid mandolin and contributes good vocal harmonies.
The Music Shed Behind the Lake
Emcee Jo Odum
Travers Chandler & Avery County
There's a new maturity of both voice and behavior in a Travers Chandler performance that lifts him and his band to new levels. The band retains it raw energy reflecting the Baltimore barroom style of Charlie Moore, a performer Chandler deeply admires and seeks to emulate, while exhibiting a degree of nuance and vocal subtlety it has not heretofore shown. Travers' voice has deepened in tone while increasing in range, eliminating the shrillness and extending its power. They provide a refreshing change of pace while remaining in the pocket of traditional bluegrass.
Blue Highway has been together for twenty years and, in that time, has refined and continued to develop as a band and as individual performers. Boasting three fine song writers and a fifteen time Dobro Player of the Year, they are at once a top instrumental band offering contemporary bluegrass within a context of a deep musical tradition. Wayne Taylor's song Lonesome Pine is often mistaken for a classic bluegrass standard. It astounds me that this powerhouse band has won so few IBMA awards through the years. While once chosen as vocal group of the year (well deserved) they should also have been in regular contention for instrumental group of the year. Intensity, musicality, singing, and songwriting, this band has it all. People came to Waldo on Saturday from as far away as Miami (a five hour drive) just to see Blue Highway.
The Gospel Quartet
Ernie Evans has had some reverses during the last several years. He has come through them by re-imagining his role as a promoter, performer, and musical entrepreneur, developing his Evans Media Source carefully, and with an eye to the future, as a multidimensional entertainment complex. His enthusiasm has never flagged. Along with his wife Deb, who quietly keeps their work on course as a solid administrator, Ernie Evans is compiling an admirable record as a comprehensive bluegrass entrepreneur. The result is an emerging series of imaginative festivals both at Dixieland Music Park and, starting this year, at a renewed Sertoma Youth Ranch. They're building slowly and with care not to exceed resources while offering terrific bands and good value for bluegrass fans. Ernie has re-energizing what has looked like a flagging bluegrass scene in Florida and has earned respect while deserving strong support. Look for the Claire Lynch Band, Nothin' Fancy, and Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out at the April 13-18 event at Dixieland Music Park. Bluegrass fans seeking a good value can't go wrong by attending events there.