Film Review: Hell's Angels (1930)

Hell's Angels (1930)
directed by Howard Hughes, dialog directed by James Whale
©1930 Caddo Company, Renewed 1958 Hughes Tool Co.
Restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive
Frames in this review are taken from the Universal DVD ©2004 Universal Studios.

There's no trailer on the Universal DVD for Hell's Angels, but it doesn’t matter. No trailer could possibly sell the film as well as Martin Scorsese's biopic The Aviatoralt. Some of the most spectacular scenes in this film are excerpted in The Aviator, most notably, the Zeppelin bursting into flame in a lengthy hand-colorized shot, as well as the dizzying climatic dogfight, featuring perfectly choreographed aerobatics and a surprisingly believable head-on collision of two planes.


All in all, Hell's Angels is a rather enjoyable example of the type of film spectacle that was extraordinarily expensive then and would be prohibitively costly today. Were it not for the flying, the film could've been shot in a couple of weeks for far less money. It's far superior to most early-sound films, and with some allowance for the melodramatic story, remains quite watchable today.



Book review: 1421

1421: The Year China Discovered America
by Gavin Menzies
Hardcover, US edition: New York: Morrow, 2003. ISBN 0-06-053763-9
Trade paperback, US edition, revised: New York: Perennial, 2004. ISBN 0-06-054094-X


Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine captain, claims that four separate Chinese fleets under the overall aegis of the great eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed on great voyages of discovery about the year 1421.  During these voyages, they discovered the Americas, Antarctica, Oceania, various Pacific islands, and longitude — basically, every continent except Europe.  The Zhu Di emperor's death, however, put an end to the great voyages of discovery.  China turned her energies inwards, and records of the Zheng He voyages were destroyed.  Within a century, though, Europeans picked up the mantle of discovery. These great explorers thus bravely set forth into the (not-quite) unknown, ultimately handing Europe the mantle of world dominance on the back of Chinese maps.


Book Review: Brothel

Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women
by Alexa Albert
New York: Random House, 2001. ISBN 0-375-50331-5

Nevada is the only state in the Union in which prostitution is legal, and as Alexa Albert makes clear in this book, the business of prostitution is just as complicated as any other legal enterprise.  It's a business with many rules and regulations.  Nevada state law allows local areas to regulate prostitution, county laws place restrictions on it, individual brothels have rules for customers and prostitutes, and each prostitute also sets her own rules.  Prostitutes in Nevada’s legal brothels pay taxes like any other employee; one of them hired an accountant who mulled the proper response for "Occupation" on her tax return.  Licenses can be procured at the local police station, and the brothel industry association spokesman is George Flint, a retired minister who also owns a wedding chapel business.

Albert first encountered the Nevada brothel industry when she was studying public health in college, when she wrote a research paper [...]

Book Review: I'd Rather be Right

I'd Rather Be Right
A Musical Revue
by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Hardcover: New York: Random House, 1937. 4 plates.
Well printed on acid-free paper, so should remain in good shape if properly stored. Music composed and written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, separately published.

I first discovered this musical after watching James Cagney perform the showstopper "Off the Record" song-and-dance routine in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  That biopic of songwriter and performer George M. Cohan is a fabulous film, using Hollywood’s best showmanship to string a bunch of songs together into a rousingly patriotic plot that was just the ticket in 1942.


Film Review: Pillow Talk (1959)

Pillow Talk (1959)
directed by Michael Gordon
starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, and Thelma Ritter

Whenever a remake comes out, you can count on the original film being placed on the DVD release schedule.  And even though the deliberately retro Down with Love isn't a direct remake of Pillow Talk, there are so many recycled elements that it might as well be.  After all, we’re not really watching for the plot, but for the 1960s atmosphere.  In 2004 Universal quickly replaced the laserdisc-port 1999 DVD with a fresh edition.  Pillow Talk in widescreen is almost a poster child for letterboxing, with its expansive sets, the rear-projection scenes of the main characters sitting in cars, and of course, the his-and-her split screens of phone conversations (sometimes split three ways).

Those phone conversations launch the plot, as the premise for the comedy is that songwriter and playboy Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) shares a party line with interior decorator Jan Morrow (Doris Day).  He's constantly hogging the line, crooning the same old love song to different women in English and French.  Doris Day kept playing pure virginal characters, and romance isn’t on her character’s mind this time either.  She’s happily single and resisting advances from her clients, but she is quite annoyed that she never gets to use the phone line.  When the two parties get on the line simultaneously, Allen attributes her party-crashing phone interruptions to her "bedroom problems."   She then happily redecorates her bedroom.


Book Review: The Perfect Store

The Perfect Store: Inside eBay
by Adam Cohen
Hardcover: Boston: Little Brown, 2002. ISBN 0-316-15048-7

"When the early history of the Web is contemplated centuries hence, Adam Cohen's detailed and thorough account of the founding and development of eBay will be among the books that people will turn to to truly understand one of the Internet's most important companies."
— Kara Swisher, Wall Street Journal columnist, as quoted on the back cover

Adam Cohen has written a very thorough company account, one that takes into account many diverse viewpoints.  Cohen is on the editorial board of The New York Times, and each section in the book seems to follows the inverted pyramid style of journalism.  There’s an eye-catching lead to pique the reader's interest, some background, quotes from sources, and finally, an analysis of  the topic’s significance.  One could imagine this book having been compiled from several articles in the Times.


Film Review: Woman in the Moon (1929)

Frau im Mond (1929)
(Woman in the Moon)

directed by Fritz Lang
Frames in this review are taken from the Kino DVD which is © 1929 Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, renewed by Notice of Intent to enforce a Copyright 1996 under the Uruguay Round Agreement Act by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung successor of UFA, English Translation © 2004 Kino International Corp, Licensed from Transit Films GMBH on behalf of the F. W. Murnau Foundation, Wiesbaden

To catch misspellings in web searches: Frau im Monde


Watching Woman in the Moon will send shivers up the spine of the space enthusiast.  The science depicted in the film has an impressive pedigree — the technical sections are attributed to Dr. Hermann Oberth, the father of German rocketry and mentor of Dr. Werner von Braun, creator of the V-2 ballistic missile and later head of the Saturn rocket program.


Book Review: Spycatcher

Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer
by Peter Wright, Former Assistant Director of MI5, with Paul Greengrass
Hardcover: New York, Viking Penguin, 1987. ISBN 0-670-82055-5

From the jacket:

“Uncensored, remarkably candid, and enormously revealing about the real spy business that most of us know principally from fiction ... as Britain's principal liaison with American intelligence officials ... Wright's insights about the CIA and the FBI ... is riveting stuff ...American interest ought to be especially aroused by Peter Wright's charge that there was a conspiracy within MI5 to overthrow then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the mid-1970s, and that it was instigated from within the CIA ... But the most important aspect of this book is that it offers a rare inside glimpse of the real day-by-day goings-on within the intelligence world over a long period of time from a very high-level, authoritative voice.”


The heart of the book is on Wright's work in counterintelligence. As operations kept going wrong, and pieces of the puzzle began to fit together, Wright focuses on Roger Hollins as a suspected Soviet agent. He would be the Fifth Man, the only man remaining at-large from a busted five-person Soviet spy ring that had placed men at high levels of British government. But since Hollis was the Director of MI5, Wright was never able to prove his allegation. The identity of the Fifth Man remains unknown today. In the world of double-agents and barium meals (disinformation), colleagues turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be friends (most notably in the CIA), and the truth only becomes murkier once the subject goes to the grave.


Book Review: Sailing through China

Sailing Through China
by Paul Theroux
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984

Paul Theroux has authored dozens of travelogues, many of which have made The New York Times bestseller list.  He has traveled extensively by rail on all continents, including lines in Africa and South America that have long since fallen victim to civil wars or economic downturns.  These are journeys that you can now experience only through travelogues from decades past.


From the Stacks: Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men

The article below appeared in the February 1924 issue of The American Magazine, a mass-circulation magazine that transmitted the popular culture of the day to the households of America. The magazine boasted on its cover “More than 2,000,000 Circulation,” — quite impressive for a nation whose population numbered 106 million, as of the 1920 census. Although it is attributed to an anonymous author, “Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men” was the cover story for that issue. In the practice of the day, however, the cover illustration was completely unrelated to the cover article. (The New Yorker, one of the few surviving magazines from that era, still carries on this tradition).

The article explains all the faults that the author found endemic among brilliant men.  They start well but never finish, they get excited over revolutionary developments but grow weary of repetitive small tasks.  This was so exasperating to the author that, after experiencing several such brilliant men in his business, he decides that he’s better off not hiring them.  Full of pithy quotes and life lessons learned from individual experiences, the article reads almost like a modern-day issue of Reader's Digest, with its prescriptions of hard work and [...]


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