My next book, the first full-length biography of groundbreaking political satirist Mort Sahl, will be published in April, 2017 by University Press of Mississippi. The book’s release will be timed to coincide with Mort’s 90th birthday.
When Mort Sahl made his debut at San Francisco’s hungry i in December, 1953, the public’s idea of stand up comedy was limited to Borscht Belt comedians like Henny Youngman and Morey Amsterdam. Nightclub comics steered clear of hard news, and Bob Hope’s occasional political jibes often came off as friendly. Working in an improvisational, jazz-influenced style, Sahl attacked Senator Joseph McCarthy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and, particularly, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who was to remain a favorite target for decades.
Mort recorded the first modern comedy album in 1955, and appeared on the cover of Time in 1960. (The magazine famously described him as “Will Rogers with fangs.”) In breaking the mold of what a stand up comedian should look or sound like, he opened the door for an entire generation of “smart” comics that included Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, and Dick Gregory.
Mort's career, which extended to TV and movies, has spanned 11 presidencies. Appearing on stage in a pullover sweater and open collar, he worked alone, writing all his own material, using a rolled copy of the day’s newspaper as his only prop. In the mid-1960s he put his career on the line when he went to work as a volunteer for New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was investigating a conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Mort became such a fervent believer in Garrison’s crusade that it took nearly a decade for him to get his career back on track. Now completing his 63rd year as a professional comedian, he appears every Thursday night at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco.
Written with Mort’s full cooperation, "Last Man Standing" incorporates interviews with his friends and colleagues, including Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, Shelley Berman, and the late Yvonne Craig. “It wasn’t a very puritanical life,” he comments, “but it was a whole lot of fun.”
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As the Father of Production Design, William Cameron Menzies showed Hollywood how to pre-visualize a film compositionally, recasting actors as graphic elements and teasing out the dramatic values of tone and texture. He brought the illustrator’s eye to the camera and graphic validity to an art form that was all too often more theatrical than cinematic. Menzies burst upon the scene in 1923 with his startling designs for the original "Thief of Bagdad." Trained as an illustrator rather than an architect, he created a fantasy world that was integral to the action and not merely a backdrop. For his staging of "The Dove" (1927) and "Tempest" (1928) he won the first Academy Award ever given for Art Direction.
Over a career that spanned nearly forty years, Menzies designed, co-directed, produced, and occasionally directed such movies as "The Bat" (1926), "Bulldog Drummond" (1929), "Chandu the Magician" (1933), "Alice in Wonderland" (1933), "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), "Address Unknown" (1944), "It’s a Wonderful Life" (1947), and "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956). His Oscar-winning design of "Gone With the Wind" (1939) revolutionized the dramatic use of color on the screen, while his work on Alexander Korda’s "Thief of Bagdad" (1940) set a new standard in special effects. With director Sam Wood, Menzies composed a remarkable string of films that included "Our Town" (1940), "The Devil and Miss Jones" (1941), "Kings Row" (1941), "Pride of the Yankees" (1943), and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943). He also directed two influential classics of science fiction, "Things to Come" (1936) and "Invaders from Mars" (1953).
Drawing from Menzies’ personal papers, artwork retained by archival sources and his own family, and interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, "William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come" details the extraordinary influence of one of the cinema’s most unique and celebrated talents.
416 pages with 143 black-and-white and color images throughout
Also available as an eBook
“For anyone seriously interested in filmmaking, this is a book you’ve been waiting for, whether you know it or not. William Cameron Menzies, the man who more or less invented the idea of production design in movies, casts a very long shadow. The man behind 'Gone with the Wind,' 'Kings Row,' 'Our Town,' 'Things to Come,' 'Invaders from Mars,' 'Reign of Terror,' both versions of 'The Thief of Bagdad' and many, many other films was a genius, pure and simple, and his influence was incalculable. James Curtis’s informative and beautifully written book does a thorough job of bringing Menzies to life.”
-- Martin Scorsese
“James Curtis's magnificent biography of William Cameron Menzies, an authentic genius in an industry that boasted so many fake ones, is at once the history of the invention of the modern movie business, from the transition of silents to sound and on to the full-blown megapictures like 'Around the World in 80 Days' and to the TV business, and at the same time a brilliant, detailed and touching biography of a man who should be much better known than he is. He flickers in and out of the Korda family’s films, and I remember him well. He has found in James Curtis just the biographer he would have wanted, flinty, accurate and at the same time sympathetic. This is a book that goes far beyond the film buff, it is an important life wonderfully told."
-- Michael Korda, author of “Charmed Lives” and “Queenie”
"How fortunate for us that James Curtis took on the job of chronicling Menzies' life and work. His books on Spencer Tracy, James Whale, W. C. Fields, and other towering figures have proven his mettle. This one presented a different challenge, as the focal point is Menzies' prodigious and powerful work rather than his private life. Yet Curtis offers a solid narrative that should captivate any true film buff... 'William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come' is an essential addition to any film library and a great read. Bravo!"
-- Leonard Maltin
"At long last: A celebration of one of film's most potent visualists!"
-- Guillermo del Toro
"James Curtis has provided a great service to anyone interested in the American cinema: he has written a wonderful book about visionary production designer William Cameron Menzies, an unsung hero if there ever was one and yet an artist of almost unparalleled influence. The book is scrupulously researched, detailed, all-encompassing and its many delights include lavish, beautiful illustrations of Menzies' sketches as well as photographs of actual films. A whole new world about production design and American movies will open up for those who read this excellent book."
-- Andre Bishop, Producing Artistic Director, Lincoln Center Theater
"Curtis admirably rises to the challenges of chronicling Menzies' career; crisp pacing and tight chronology keep the ever-shifting cast of producers, directors, and actors from becoming overwhelming, and he makes the impact of the designer's innovations accessible to the layperson through well-chosen visuals rather than technical explanations. Readers will come away with a new understanding of the work that goes into moviemaking before the camera begins to roll. VERDICT: An important and informative biography that, like its subject, breaks new ground in its field."
-- Library Journal (starred review)
"James Curtis' "William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come" is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it's prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics. It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies' work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative... "The Shape of Films to Come" gets my highest possible recommendation--this is literally a flawless book."
-- Wheeler Winston Dixon, Frame by Frame, Univeristy of Nebraska-Lincoln
"Curtis details just about every aspect of director and film production designer William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957). The author's writing style allows readers to actually feel the methods Menzies used as he fractured perspective and created specific moods with angles and shadows. Undoubtedly, Menzies was the first and greatest master of film staging, art direction, and what is now known as production design. From his first great triumph in 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) to 'Around the World in 80 Days' (1956), he spent nearly every waking hour designing settings and sketching out every camera angle for every shot... Curtis provides wonderful sections about his subject's groundbreaking work on 'Our Town' (1940) and an extended chapter devoted to 'Gone with the Wind' (1939)... Menzies was a significant part of the history of filmmaking, from silent films to sound pictures, the advents of color, 3D, and Cinerama... this is an illuminating, long-overdue book about the man who taught the world how to make a good film."
-- Kirkus Reviews
"With a level of detail Menzies would have appreciated, the book demonstrates the huge impact he had even on a great director like Anthony Mann... Menzies' final 10 years included the blockbuster 'Around the World in 80 Days,' but they also were marked by long job-free stretches, a heart attack, and cancer. He died in 1957 at age 60, and Curtis says, 'It's possible Bill Menzies went to his grave convinced he had been forgotten.' There is no danger of that for those who have read this splendid book."
-- Farran Smith Nehme, Film Comment
"There is much fascinating detail on the exact role of the art director and production designer in the making of some key films, on production politics and on Menzies' favourite motifs, such as sloping picket fences and open umbrellas... Curtis has made thorough use of the Menzies family collection of papers, paintings, drawings and shot sequences."
-- Sir Christopher Frayling, Sight & Sound (UK)
"Superb and illuminating."
-- Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice
"Here is behind-scenes insight we've not had before, and from perspective of a man to whom recognition is long overdue. Curtis shows how Menzies steered 'Gone With the Wind,' 'Kings Row,' so many others, to greatness. If, during his lifetime, he was too often overlooked, here at last Menzies gets full due. Whatever knowledge you have of Classic Era films, Curtis' book will redouble."
-- John McElwee, Greenbriar Picture Shows
"In a comprehensive volume richly illustrated with storyboards and full of entertaining oral histories, Curtis explores the largely unknown story of the artist who defined the aesthetics of Hollywood in more than 120 productions throughout four decades."
"Fascinating and beautifully produced"
-- John Wilson, First Things
"Relying on original artwork, personal correspondence, and extensive interviews with family members, Curtis assembles a strong case for Menzies' lasting impact on popular cinema through his innovative work on more than 120 films, most famously 'Gone With the Wind.' The author leaves no stone unturned while delving into Menzies' private and professional lives, emphasizing his collaborations with many of golden age Hollywood's greatest names... a vigorous and detailed portrait of a trailblazing talent."
-- Publishers Weekly
"With a retrospective of Menzies' work currently at New York's Film Forum, the visionary artist/art director/production designer/filmmaker is getting his due, and Curtis' biography confirms his genius."
-- Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Curtis follows Menzies' path through the film industry with energetic writing and meticulous research."
-- Bob Duggan, The Big Think
"James Curtis was given access to thousands of the drawings and paintings that Menzies made in preparation for his more than 120 films. Some of these wonderful drawings, along with a selection of Menzies family photographs, adorn the pages of this handsome, meticulously researched and long-overdue biography."
-- Emily Leider, The Wall Street Journal
-- Kevin Brownlow