Book Reviews

LET US NOW REDISCOVER FAMOUS MEN: AGEE, BRANDO THE NOVELIST AND DEAN

By • Oct 1st, 2005 •

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It is probably fair to say that James Agee, one of the more influential critics and writers of his day, has fallen out of fashion for quite awhile now. He occupies the same realm as writers like John Dos Pasos and Thomas Wolfe, writers who were well-read, well-reviewed and important cultural figures during their time; their names may still be recognizable, but their prose goes largely unread.

Agee, however, is ripe for a comeback, indeed no less than three major works have been released regarding this one time giant. The Library of America has released two volumes of his collected writings: James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism and James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family and Shorter Fiction. The Library of America edition regarding Agee’s film writings is especially eye opening. Agee was the great American critic (there weren’t that many contenders) in the 40’s with his witty, insightful columns for Time magazine. LOA has included the 1962 compilation of his works, Agee on Film in this volume. His work as a film critic really helped pave the way for popular filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, Val Lewton and John Huston to get recognition as major American artists. This is the contribution of Agee the film critic, his elevating of what had been a pop art form into something more significant. His approach helped influence such major film critics as Pauline Kael (who is probably the most influential critic at present), Andrew Sarris and David Denby, as well as many of the New Wave critics/directors. Included in this collection are less well-known works on Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Ingrid Bergman and the Marx Bros.

Even more interesting for the student of film is the inclusion of his great turn as a screenwriter with Night of the Hunter. Agee is typically better known for his collaboration with John Huston on the Oscar nominated screenplay for The African Queen. Interestingly enough, Agee’s work on this film has helped him retain a certain amount of cult status as Night of the Hunter has grown in stature and influence as a work of cinema and has a following equal to many other quotable cult films such as Taxi Driver the Silence of the Lambs.

Agee has also been the subject of yet another work, Chaplin and Agee, The Untold Story of the Tramp, The Writer and The Lost Screenplay by John Wranovics (Palgrave MacMillan) This work is an interesting footnote in the history of artistic collaboration in Hollywood as it outlines the story of the 1949 script written for Chaplin to feature his ‘Little Tramp’ character. The screenplay, officially untitled, had to do with Chaplin’s Little Tramp character’s life in a post-nuclear world. In actuality, the screenplay was little more than an outline or treatment, but it did reflect the timely atomic age fears, and promised to be a strong cinematic response to the early Eisenhower era. Oddly enough, the screenplay had little to do with the strong bond that developed between Agee and Chaplin. Agee’s championing of Chaplin had much to do with the critical appreciation of Chaplin’s work (especially some of his less popular works). The screenplay, included in the last part of the book, is unimpressive and will likely not be of interest to any but the hardcore film aficionado. Nonetheless, this work helps give Agee some overdue recognition as a major figure in post-war Hollywood. Unfortunately, the overall effect does not deliver the promise of the dramatic title.

Yet another dream project that again went unrealized has resurfaced as a posthumous novel by Donald Cammell (director of Performance) and Marlon Brando (!). Fan Tan (Knopf), is a leading contender for most gonzo book of the year, and in many ways, it is a fascinating (but maybe not fitting) footnote to end the artistic career of arguably the greatest American actor since WWII. The origin of Fan Tan began in 1979 with the idea pitched to screenwriter and director Donald Cammell of a South China Sea pirate film called “Fan Tan.” Strangely enough, the hero of the work is a physically imposing, charismatic hero, Antole Doultry who bears a striking resemblance to another physically imposing, charismatic actor in his fifties… The result of this collaboration was to be a novel that would garner the interest of potential investors, however, at the last moment, the project was abandoned, apparently because of the usual limited attention span of the great Brando.

Years pass, Brando and Cammell pass away, and, in an unusual set of circumstances, Cammell’s widow passes the semblance of the story to esteemed author and critic, David Thomson for editing and perhaps a final polish. The result is an enjoyably trashy read where the transparent Brando character (Doultry) manages to impress us with his ruminations on philosophy (Wittgenstein is a favorite) his skill at the piano and his heroic build and spectacular penis (an impressive act of urination figures in the story). In case you haven’t guessed the plot is pure pulp fiction and the book has clearly been marketed as such (check out the retro cover). As much as anything, it might be interesting to think of who might be the audience for such a book: Pirate groupies?, Brando fans?, junk novel fans?, cult movie aficionados? Thomson attempts to put the origin of the story and the relationship between Brando and the now largely forgotten Cammell into perspective in a thoughtful and informative afterword.

A chronicling of the process of making the Warner Bros. classic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE is the basis for , Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause (Touchstone) co-written by Lawrence Farscella and Al Weisel. The lives of James Dean, Natalie Wood, Nick Ray as well as aspects of this film have been chronicled many times over, so, it remains surprising that ‘Live Fast’ manages to uncover some of the really interesting, but largely unknown aspects of the production and lore of this legendary melodrama. Most notably, the authors explore interesting aspects of script development (the idea of a film about troubled middle class teens was at the time a new and almost radical notion to base a film on). Much of the book concerns Dean, including details about the significance of his wardrobe and the predictable difficulties he had relating to some of the more established actors on set. Despite the allure of Dean’s mythology (and the authors are not immune to it by any means), the book manages to also take note of the other players involved as well. Of special interest are details of the affair Ray had with Wood. Obviously, this is an indispensable work for the Dean fan, but it is also a great read for those interested in the machinations of a film’s origin.

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