Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: In the Company of Legends

The brand-new book IN THE COMPANY OF LEGENDS, by Joan Kramer and David Heeley, chronicles the creation of several highly regarded documentaries on icons of classic film.

IN THE COMPANY OF LEGENDS was just released last week, on April 16th. Classic film fans may have seen Kramer and Heeley discussing the book with Robert Osborne while recently cohosting an evening of their documentaries on Turner Classic Movies.

The documentaries shown and discussed on TCM, which are discussed at length in the book, were THE SPENCER TRACY LEGACY: A TRIBUTE BY KATHARINE HEPBURN (1986), JAMES STEWART: A WONDERFUL LIFE (1987), BACALL ON BOGART (1988), FONDA ON FONDA (1992), and KATHARINE HEPBURN: ALL ABOUT ME (1993).

The team started out with a pair of programs on Fred Astaire in 1980, PUTTIN' ON HIS TOP HAT and CHANGE PARTNERS AND DANCE. Their tenacity in producing the documentaries, including finally persuading Astaire to allow clips from his RKO films to be used, gave them the credibility to make several more documentaries over the course of the next quarter-century, ending with THE ADVENTURES OF ERROL FLYNN in 2005.

The book chronicles Kramer and Heeley's memories of interacting with a variety of interesting stars while filming the specials. The book is presented in a very readable and fast-paced style, going back and forth between the authors as they, in essence, "talk" to the reader, sharing stories about working with legends.

Having very recently seen Stephen Bogart interviewed, in which he joked about his mother's "forthrightness," I especially enjoyed the chapter on working with the prickly and demanding Lauren Bacall while making BACALL ON BOGART. She could be very difficult, but producer Heeley told her flat-out he didn't appreciate the way she spoke to him, which seemed to serve as a wake-up call for her; she apologized and she and the producers then established a cordial relationship.

In fact, it was rather interesting that when Katharine Hepburn was similarly confronted with a demand which was a bridge too far, she owned up to it and things moved on productively. It almost seems as though a couple of the stars Kramer and Heeley worked with needed to be reminded of how they were affecting others, but then they did have the ability to "own" their behavior and seemed to respect being politely called on it.

My favorite section of the book was on the making of the wonderful documentary on Jimmy Stewart. It's filled with great anecdotes, including the helpful intervention of Stewart's wife Gloria on more than one occasion; Johnny Carson attempting to replace himself as the host with Cary Grant (who sadly died while Carson was in the midst of trying to arrange it); and a visit to the White House to interview the Reagans.

Best of all is the story about how Stewart transformed from a frail, elderly man, who caused concern he might not be able to handle a lengthy interview, to James Stewart, Movie Star, when it came time to film. Put him anywhere near a camera and that man was a pro!

IN THE COMPANY OF LEGENDS is an engaging book filled with fun anecdotes and insights about some of our greatest classic stars during their twilight years. (I haven't even mentioned their stories of working with Olivia de Havilland on the Flynn documentary or Audrey Hepburn when she narrated THE FRED ASTAIRE SONGBOOK...) It presents a unique slice of film history which I'm glad has been preserved. I enjoyed the book very much, and I believe other classic film fans will enjoy it as well. A recommended read.

The book is a hardcover which runs just over 400 pages, including the index. It is amply illustrated with photographs printed directly on the pages.

For more information regarding IN THE COMPANY OF LEGENDS, please visit the book's Facebook page.

Thanks to Beaufort Books and Jonas Public Relations for providing an advance review copy of this book.


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