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Review: Movie fans will roar, growl over ’50 MGM Films’ book

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“The 50 MGM Films that Transformed Hollywood: Triumphs, Blockbusters, and Fiascos,” by Steven Bingen (Lyons Press)

The title of film historian Steven Bingen’s new book is reminiscent of B-movie trailers of the 1950s that breathlessly hype “The Most Important Picture of the Year!” But like many of those overripe flicks, “The 50 MGM Films that Transformed Hollywood” can be entertaining, too.

The qualifications for getting on the list are surprisingly squishy. Bingen doesn’t limit himself to the “real” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer productions created by or inside the legendary Culver City studio ruled by moguls like Louis B. Mayer. He writes as if any milestone in MGM’s journey — success or failure, trendsetter or swan song — is transformative given MGM’s starring role in Hollywood history.

He also counts “films” as theatrical releases, television productions, cartoons and documentaries financed, distributed or later acquired by MGM throughout its corporate history. That means MGM stalwarts like “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “Forbidden Planet” (1956) sit side by side with “Dr. No” (1962), first of the James Bond films released by United Artists but acquired years later by MGM. Stepfathers don’t get credit for raising children if they’re already out of the house.

Such dings aside, Bingen’s book offers thoughtful essays sprinkled with fun trivia:

— The first “official” MGM production was the bizarre silent feature “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924) in which Lon Chaney plays a disturbed clown whose entire act is… getting slapped.

— “White Shadows in the South Seas” (1928), filmed in Tahiti, was a forerunner of expensive location shoots and featured the first audible roar from MGM’s Leo the Lion.

— Despite being the first big-budget feature with an all-Black cast, “Hallelujah” (1929) succumbs to many of the stereotypes of its day. However, leading lady Nina Mae McKinney’s star-turn landed her the first five-year contract for any Black actor.

— “Freaks” (1932) was a proto-cult film, so unsettling with its cast of real-life human oddities that it cratered financially. At the other end of the box office spectrum that year, the hit “Grand Hotel” (1932) popularized the “all-star cast.”

— The highly profitable Andy Hardy series of 15 films over 10 years starring Mickey Rooney was a grandfather of the TV sitcom. The fourth, “Love Finds Andy Hardy” (1938), may have been the best.

— The stars of “Puss Gets the Boot” (1940), a cat-and-mouse animated short designed to compete with Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, were eventually refined and renamed Tom and Jerry.

Bingen’s best analyses come when he sidesteps the chronology to juxtapose related films to achieve greater salience for both, such as examining the divergence between the World War II standard “Battleground” (1949) and the more elegiac “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951). Listed separately are the pro-British “Mrs. Miniver” (1942) and the pro-Soviet “Song of Russia” (1944). Both naked propaganda, the former landed its writers an Oscar while the latter helped land its writers on the blacklist.

“50 MGM Films” can descend into flabby writing and occasional errors. For instance, the Frank Sinatra fans who bedeviled production of “On the Town” (1949) were “bobby-soxers,” not “teenyboppers.” The Robert Taylor film “Quo Vadis” (1951) was not a “gladiator epic.” And by no means was HAL 9000 a “robot” in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

Hardcore aficionados and budding cinephiles alike can enjoy Bingen’s informed take on titles that often show up on the cable channel TCM. “50 MGM Films” proves that strands of the studio’s corporate and creative DNA continue to influence today’s entertainment.


Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky)


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Book Review: Explosive debut novel ‘Fireworks Every Night’ is a bittersweet celebration of survival

“Fireworks Every Night” by Beth Raymer (Random House)

C.C.’s isn’t your typical rags-to-riches story. She remembers growing up in a single-wide with her older sister, stay-at-home mom and car-salesman dad. But she also remembers when they moved to Florida after everything in the car lot burned down — including their home — launching them into a comfortable middle-class life and a fresh start in a state her dad proudly brags has fireworks every night.

“Fireworks Every Night” is Beth Raymer’s debut novel, but not her first book. Following her 2010 memoir “Lay the Favorite,” she borrows from her life to create a deeply personal story of a dysfunctional family.

Having grown up in West Palm Beach, Raymer puts her local knowledge to use as her protagonist — a resident of Loxahatchee, Florida — rattles off the schools she plays basketball against, and how worn down or rich they are. She’s familiar with the Baker Act and who’s been institutionalized through its use. She knows all the neighborhoods and has eaten at Benny’s on the Beach.

If the gorgeous cover designed by Elizabeth A. D. Eno isn’t enough to draw you in, let the heartbreakingly determined main character and the promise of an earnest look at the skeletons in her closet convince you.

In adulthood, C.C. is engaged to a well-educated and absurdly wealthy man — a far cry from the childhood in which she learns what it means to fight for survival. Hopping between the two timelines in stark juxtaposition, the full picture of C.C.’s life emerges.

As kid-C.C.’s home life comes completely unraveled, the story morphs from tragicomedy to horror, revealing how her family fell apart and left her sister struggling with addiction, her mother chronically absent and her father homeless. All the while, adult-C.C. is juggling a host of modern stresses: the viability of having children, climate change, living in a world that makes it far too easy to compare yourself with the 8 billion others who inhabit it, and reconciling your self-worth with the balance in your bank account.

Raymer launches addiction, homelessness, neglect and poverty shamelessly into the lexicon, treating C.C. and her family with nothing less than respect.

A nature motif runs throughout the story, blurring the line between animal and human and calling into question what is “natural” in a world so unnaturally shaped by people. Animals play a quiet but pivotal role throughout “Fireworks Every Night,” shaping Raymer’s engrossing novel into a bittersweet celebration of the scrappy Americans who are finding a way to survive even as the elite push humans and animals alike out of their habitats.

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Book Review: ‘White House by the Sea’ tells storied Kennedy tale through family’s compound

“White House By the Sea: A Century of the Kennedys at Hyannis Port” by Kate Storey (Scribner)

The history of the Kennedy family is so well-chronicled — from the modern Camelot legend surrounding John F. Kennedy’s presidency to the series of tragedies that marked the family throughout the 20tb century — that it’s hard to imagine new ways to tell their story.

But Kate Storey does just that in “White House By the Sea: A Century of the Kennedys at Hyannis Port” — revisiting the family’s history through their time at the famed Kennedy compound on Cape Cod.

Storey, the senior features editor at Rolling Stone magazine, weaves a fascinating narrative about the Kennedy family using Hyannis Port as the backdrop. The book traces the family’s ties to the compound back to the 1920s, when Joseph Kennedy bought Malcolm Cottage, what became known as the Big House.

Many of the stories feel so familiar, from Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s death during World War II to John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal plane crash in 1999. The compound was also the setting for much happier occasions, including John F. Kennedy’s presidential acceptance speech and the wedding of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.

Storey gives them a fresh look with new details and well-sourced reporting that opens up a traditionally private community — “what’s left of Camelot,” she writes.

Storey’s research gives the book a more intimate feel than many other histories of the Kennedy family, introducing figures that aren’t as well-known but played a key role in the family and its compound. Fittingly, it’s written in an accessible way that makes the book a welcome beach read.

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Fox News unveils primetime lineup with Jesse Watters in Tucker Carlson’s former time slot

Jesse Watters will fill the Fox News Channel time slot left vacant by the firing of Tucker Carlson, part of a dramatic revamp of the network’s evening lineup announced on Monday.

Greg Gutfeld’s late-night show that combines news and comedy will move up an hour to start at 10 p.m. Eastern, displacing Laura Ingraham. She’ll shift to 7 p.m., the hour that Watters has occupied. Sean Hannity will stay in his 9 p.m. time slot, Fox said. The new lineup debuts on July 17.

The announcement comes roughly two months after Fox News fired Carlson shortly after settling a defamation lawsuit with the voting machine maker Dominion Voting Systems on the eve of trial. The case, which centered on the network’s airing of false claims following the 2020 presidential election, exposed a trove of private messages sent between Fox hosts, including Hannity and Carlson, in which they criticized peers at the network.

Carlson has since begun doing occasional monologues for Twitter, although Fox is attempting to get him to stop the broadcasts.

Fox has seen its ratings tumble since Carlson exited. Carlson averaged 3.25 million viewers at 8 p.m. in the first three months of the year, and the string of guest hosts who replaced him the past two months usually reached under 2 million, making the network’s command more tenuous.

The lineup change signals that Fox is doubling down on its opinionated evening programming strategy, with three sharp-tongued men filling the prime-time hours. It’s something of a triumphant return for Watters, who got his start at the 8 p.m. hour, doing man-in-the-street interviews and other features for Bill O’Reilly before O’Reilly’s firing in 2017.

It also means double duty for Gutfeld and Watters, who are both panelists on “The Five” and will continue there. The late-afternoon political talk show has become Fox’s most popular program.

Keeping that show’s chemistry intact appeared to be a priority for Fox. Gutfeld said in a Wall Street Journal interview last week that he would no longer appear on “The Five” or do his late-night show if he were to get Carlson’s old time slot.

Trace Gallagher, who has worked at Fox since the network began in 1996, will host a news show at 11 p.m., filling the hour that Gutfeld is leaving vacant.

“The unique perspectives of Laura Ingraham, Jesse Watters, Sean Hannity, and Greg Gutfeld will ensure our viewers have access to unrivaled coverage from our best-in-class team for years to come,” Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott said in a statement.

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