Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star by Dick Moore

Introduction

This is my latest post (fourth overall) for the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge hosted by Out of the Past. This book fits in a few categories as biographical/filmographic account of Dickie Moore’s work but also counts as an interview book as he spoke to many of his contemporaries later on and compared experiences.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car) by Dick Moore

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (1984, Harper & Row)

When I was growing up I was a kid who loved movies, movies of all kinds. When there were young characters, of course, I identified with them. Still recalling what it’s like to be of that age, I still do to the extent I can. As I grew, and started to learn a bit more a bout how films are made, separating the fantasy from reality and liking them both; things were really changed for me with one film and one name: Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin.

As a kid who sought all different kinds of artistic expression it was mind-blowing that a kid could have that kind of success, and at that age I believed a great deal of talent. Following his trajectory there was quite a class of young actors in the early ‘90s I followed: the star of his next film Anna Chlumsky, another talent he teamed with that had more depth and range, and still does, Elijah Wood. It was quite a group of actors in the early years of the soon-to-be-called Millennials.

As I continued to follow film, and created my personal film awards, I wanted to recognize and reward young talents that were often overlooked. Similarly, as I started to watch older films I started find favorites from different eras. One of those is Dickie Moore, who I’ve seen in a number of studio and Poverty Row titles alike.

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

Perhaps the strongest group of young actors came to the fore in the infancy of synchronized sound and the dawn of the Depression. As is astutely covered in Dick Moore’s account the conditions in Hollywood and society as a whole were perfect for this boom crop.

Typically, when I’ve read about film I’ve been most concerned about the material at hand. The film, analysis of it, the construction and creation of it. Having a staunch belief in separating art from artist as much as possible has limited my interest in biographical accounts to an extent. One thing I do like is setting the record straight, which is much of the larger goal of Cliff Aliperti’s great bio on Freddie Bartholomew, which I just read.

However, seeking a firsthand account lead me to this book, and what’s better is that it constructs itself based on the collected experience of many actors from the era. Yes, there is hindsight involved, but the honesty and self-examination and multi-faceted nature of the investigation of their careers, their lives, and how one affected the other is fascinating to read.

The Devil is a Sissy (1936, MGM)

Those Moore talks to are a veritable all-star cast:

Cora Sue Collins, Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper, Edith Fellows, Peggy Ann Garner, Lillian Gish, Bonita Granville, Darryl Hickman, Sybil Jason, Gloria Jean, Marcia Mae Jones, Roddy McDowall, Spanky McFarland, Sidney Miller, Kathleen Nolan, Margaret O’Brien, Donald O’Connor, Diana Cary (a.k.a. Baby Peggy), Jane Powell, Juanita Quigley, Gene Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Ann Rutherford, Dean Stockwell, Matthew Beard (a.k.a Stymie), Shirley Temple Black, Bobs Watson, Delmar Watson, Jane Withers, and Natalie Wood.

The chapters are typically focused on one topic at a time yet linked chronologically so you get versions of:

Life before the movies; stories of parents on set in; how the studio system pressured kids to keep in front of rolling cameras; an insightful look inside the studio school bubble; how these kids related to the adults they work with and around, important as they had few contemporaries; a chronicle of successes, nerves, and stresses; tales of financial woe in the days before regulation and the loophole in the first law to protect minors’ earnings; tales of further imposed awkwardness and arrested development in adolescence; struggling with what happens after the phone stops ringing; and leaving home and/or show business.

Conclusion

In Love with Life (1934, Invincible)

I could go on and citing quotes ad nauseum as I did quite a bit of underlining in this one, but for those interested I’d rather not ruin the surprises herein. There is certainly plenty of food for thought, differing and insights. It’s not an easy book to get anymore, I believe mine was secondhand, unless it really sat around Strand for years and years but if you look around the Internet you should be able to find it, and if interested in any of the subjects you should give it a read.

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Thankful for World Cinema- The Annunciation

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Annunciation

Péter Bocsor and Júlia Mérö in The Annunciation (Hungarofilm)

If you’re ready for a mind-bending account that is likely to be one of the most bizarre film-watching experiences you’ve ever had then The Annunciation is for you. One thing that shows you almost off the bat that this is a challenging film is that as the story changes location the subtitles include location cards, which are not dictated by the film itself.

However, owing that the shift in locations and time period are due to the fact that it is a dream should make it an easier watch. This existential tale of Adam and Eve is still ripe with multiple meanings and answers that can be gleaned from the text of it.

Another thing that should be noted that all the characters, save for circus performers near the end, are played by children. If you have a problem with child actors I feel sorry for you but I also then do not recommend this film to you because they are dealing with very real material, extraordinarily challenging material that they dive headlong into and perform spectacularly.

The things that can be observed as Lucifer sends Adam and Eve through time in similarly dystopian plots are truly fascinating. However, though the film may seem like it’s hellbent on nihilism it ends on a wondrous of hope and sardonic comedy.

It’s a classic of absurdism and dreamlike cinema, cinema in general, which deserves a wider audience.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween- Top Evil Kids in the Children of the Corn Series

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Top Evil Kids in the Children of the Corn Series

Below you will find a ranking of the featured evil children in the Franchise to date. Apologies to Robbie Kiger and AnneMarie McEoy and the other actors portraying the good kids of Gatlin and the surrounding communities throughout the series but this is the bread and butter of it after all.

12. Adam Wylie in Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror

Adam Wylie in Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (Dimension)

As I indicated in the review of Fields of Terror this ranking isn’t a reflection of Wylie’s abilities as a performer so much as they are a function of his being miscast for this role. Despite his conviction and acumen in delivery he is rarely believable and never intimidating.

11. Dusty Burwell in Children of the Corn: Genesis

Dusty Burwell in Children of the Corn: Genesis (Dimension)

OK, confession time: Burwell does kind of get a pass based on his age and the fact that the script demanded very little of him. He’s constrained by a small amount of activity he’s asked to do and no dialogue. Due to most of the faults being that of the film and not the actor I can bump him up slightly, however, his character was the least involved of all the evil children in this series thus far.

10. Daniel Newman in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn

Daniel Newman in Stephen King's Children of the Corn (SyFy)

Newman is given the unenviable task of reprising the role of Malachai which was made iconic by Courtney Gains in the original film. Granted the character in the story and this script is much less involved and demanding, however, nary does Newman really engender fear based on a look or a line. The tension of the film is purely situational.

9. Preston Bailey in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn

Having recently seen him in Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer I can say he has become a stronger actor. Which is not to say that he’s weak in this film. He does admirably with his dialogue and is always as imposing as he can be he may just have been a bit young for the part, however, he does have his moments.

8. Brandon Kleyla in Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering

Brandon Kleyla in Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (Dimension)

Many of the actors in this part of the list are in similar boats: they were in roles that were larger in significance than size. Kleyla is one of the more under-involved having said that he doesn’t capitalize much on it and is somewhat forgettable aside from some good kills and nasty appearance.

7. Ryan Bollman in Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice

Ryan Bollman in Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (Dimension Films)

At least Bollman is in a cast where the cabal is large so he has support. He is good for an occasional evil stare that is effective but not as strong with dialogue. If they were on even par he might be higher up.

6. Sean Smith in Children of the Corn: Revelation

Sean Smith in Children of the Corn: Revelation (Dimension)

Sean Smith sadly can’t claim top billing amongst the evil kids in his own film, however, a lot of that is due to the design of it where minion ghosts bear more of the brunt than the boy preacher does. In his limited time he is rather formidable both as a personage and as an actor. He has chilling glares from cold eyes and puts quite the assault on the protagonist.

5. Jeff Ballard & Taylor Hobbs in Children of the Corn: Revelation

Jeff Ballard and Taylor Hobbs in Children of the Corn: Revelation (Dimension)

Here’s a rare case where the effectiveness of the kids and the quality of the film don’t quite match up. The film in terms of premise and execution is sad. This pair also don’t talk much but overcome that because they fit the parts so well and are committed to their actions with demented glee.

4. Robert Gerdisch in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn

Robert Gerdisch in Stephen King's Children of the Corn (SyFy)

This is the standout of the King remake both in terms of writing and performance by a juvenile. As I’ve stated before a great teaser scene can be a good thin or a bad thing. Here it’s a great thing. Gerdisch’s preaching is a chilling tone-setter that is wonderfully delivered and one of the highlights of the film.

3. Daniel Cerny in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest

Daniel Cerny in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (Dimension)

Here’s a prime example of how heavy involvement by the preacher kid in this film can be a boon to it. Cerny shoulders more of a load in this film than any other young actor in the series and has some of the better material and moments. For the most part all are used to his advantage and he also has the intangible that just is scary.

2. John Franklin in Children of the Corn

John Franklin in Children of the Corn (New World Pictures)

I think appropriate that I state that the top two could easily be reversed. The top two are, as one might expect, in the first film. Franklin’s casting, in the original, is inspired. He was playing a character younger than he was at the time and was easily convincing and also quite unnerving. No preacher had more verve and downright zealotry. His return in the original is perhaps the pinnacle of the film. It’s truly difficult to separate this team. Their strengths are enhanced by the fact that they share the same film.

1. Courtney Gains in Children of the Corn

Courney Gains in Children of the Corn (New World Pictures)

Why does Gains get top spot? First, there’s a question of his character. He is the wildcard enforcer and in a moment revealed as the more feared amongst the children. He makes simple lines emphatic and shocking. He has an intimidating glare and makes his onscreen time count, every second of it.

The Importance of Being Joel Courtney

Joel Courtney (Photo: Mark Brennan)

The way Variety tells it Joel Courtney headed to Los Angeles seeking to take some acting lessons and maybe land some commercial work if he was lucky. However, he not only landed a lead in a major motion picture but has also parlayed it into three more jobs within a month of his screen debut’s release.

Things worked out much better for him than he could’ve expected as he got into the Super 8 after an extended, elaborate and at times secretive casting process. One in which Spielberg and Abrams gambled on a few newcomers (and won big time) likely in spite of studio pressure to err on the side of experience.

The casting process started with an open call.
and what can be learned on both sides of the camera in this portion of the story is that open calls can lead to something good.

Courtney’s case is one of a natural talent being discovered and it benefited not only the film but, as recent stories have shown, Courtney as well.

While some were getting tired of the glut of Taylor Lautner news a while back, as he seemed to be signing deals at a record pace, I saw it as expected and good for him. It’s always been my contention that an actor has to strike while the iron is hot especially if he/she is being offered work they want to do. Fear of over-exposure ought not be a deterrent as it is a high class problem to have. Talent will win out over perception in most cases especially when an actor fits a part perfectly.

Courtney had already shot a two-episode stint on R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour, a series on The Hub Network, when it was announced that he was attached not only to a new Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn film but also to an indie horror/sci-fi tale called The Healer. The films’ principal photography will occur in consecutive months (August & September) and shoot in Bulgaria and North Carolina respectively.

From being a cinematic debutant to suddenly in demand has taken about a month. Of course, as with most overnight successes, it hasn’t truly been that fast. There was a long audition process, principal photography and the worldwide press junkets and after all that one might expect Joel and the kids of Super 8 to be wary of taking on new commitments, however, many of them seem to think as I do and are seeking to keep working while there’s demand. Gabriel Basso is still a regular on The Big C and Zach Mills has signed on to be a regular on The Hub Network’s new series Clue.

In closing, I just want to address the fact that Joel is a child actor, which is for the most part virtually irrelevant. The bottom line is he’s a working actor who’s taking advantage of opportunities earned and should serve as a template for future actors who knock it out of the park upon getting their big break and that’s the importance of being Joel Courtney: not being content with or being disoriented by newfound stature but immediately seizing other great opportunities as they come along.

Review- Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

In seeing Toast a very fundamental question occurred to me because this film gave me the answer more purely than most do. The question being: “Why do we go to the movies?” The answer: “For the unexpected.” I never expected from Toast one of the most surpassingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while.

This is just one of the many surprises this film has in store. Granted I knew next to nothing about this film going in but even taking that into account there are some wonderful surprises in store. This film is about the upbringing of famed British chef/personality Nigel Slater. What you get, however, is something more intimate and vibrant than appearances would have you believe.

Aside from a scene of surpassing beauty which is one of the great instant tear-jerkers ever, which features a wonderful selection of source music there is also within this film a great montage and a creative display of the passage of time. Throughout there are some wonderfully lit shots and creative camera angles which are used to great effect.

To not give too much away I will not describe the above scene in too much detail to keep the surprise fresh. It is the kind of scene, however, that many can make effective but few can make that effective. Moreover, it is followed up by a scene rendered emotional that few can make work. This film manages to make the simple act of eating toast an emotional experience.

Of course, a lot of this should not be considered a surprise when you note it’s Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot (stage and screen), who brought Nigel Slater’s story from memoir to script. Not only do you have in Hall a man who can depict children truthfully (or their perspective on things) but also one who has rendered dramas in this socio-economic milieu before and can weave a character discovering one’s sexuality into a plot without making it the film’s sole focus.

While being tremendously moving at times this film also balances itself with a good dose of comedy. Comedy is also inherent to a narrative wherein a protagonist develops a love for food and cooking despite frequently having an abnormal relationship with it, whether eating bad canned food or using it to seek attention or affection. Yet even the comedy is always met with high stakes. As funny as it can be at times you realize things are serious because of who his competition is.

This film is made even stronger by having a small but incredibly able cast. First and foremost is Oliver Kennedy who plays Young Nigel and carries the film for two acts before being aged. He was found through a long and slightly unorthodox search, which tested personality and instinct more than honed acting chops and it truly paid off. A natural, diamond in the rough was found. Typically when you have a character portrayed at two different ages you see him younger for less screen time. That is not the case here, however, Freddie Highmore’s section, where Nigel is 16 and has been in his current living situation for some time is no less compelling. Furthermore, it’s where he gets to follow through on his lifelong interest. Highmore was, of course, one of the biggest child actors of his time and is yet another one making a wonderful transition to more adult roles.

If you’ve not yet gotten an indication of how good this film is take this as a hint: I am only now mentioning Helena Bonham Carter’s involvement as Mrs. Potter, the cleaning woman who sidles into the home. She is both funny and dastardly and at times a sympathetic figure but always a bit immature and misguided, even while being so complex she manages to be an effective antagonist. Then you have the curmudgeonly father Ken Stott who is equal parts hilarious and infuriating.

This film was presented at my local theatre through the From Britain With Love series which is showcasing six British independent films in art houses across the US. This particular screening was accompanied by a post-screening Q & A where director S.J. Clarkson took questions not only from audience-members at Lincoln Center in New York but had some relayed to her from the web. My question, whether by relay or repetition, did make it through to her. It was this: Did Freddie Highmore and Oliver Kennedy compare notes on playing the same character at different ages? The answer was a similar one to Tom Hanks’ approach to playing Forrest Gump in as much as Highmore merely imitated Kennedy’s accent.

Amongst many other things this film made me rethink my aversion, in certain instances, to lens-spiking. Towards the end of each section the actor playing Nigel knowingly spikes the lens. However, on further thought considering it’s narrated by a disembodied older version of Nigel, it’s his perception and he knows he’s talking to us, it doesn’t bother me as much. We as an audience through the voice-over acknowledge that the story is being told to us in hindsight and that there’s some filtering and artifice involved.

Toast is a moving film in every sense of the word and one that I’d gladly see again. I’ve said it a lot recently but it’s not less true here, that it’s one the best films I’ve seen this year thus far and I can see it standing tall at the end of the year.

10/10