Review by Annabel
North by Northwest isn’t about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit. The suit has the adventures, a gorgeous New York suit threading its way through America.
The above quote emblazons the cover of Todd McEwen’s entrancing mix of memoir and film critique essays. It’s such a perfect observation, discussed at length in the last chapter of this book, which was first published in Granta magazine. It made me want to find the film somewhere online just to watch that suit!
McEwen is a Californian, who arrived in Scotland in 1980 where he still lives. He was new to me as an author, but he has written a handful of widely acclaimed satirical comic novels and many essays. A sense of satire and fun is evident in this ‘filmic memoir’; I’d love to read more by him now.
Following a chronological path, McEwen begins with two short chapters describing a fairly idyllic childhood in the 1950s, playing ‘Cowboys, Baseball or War’, even if:
In the middle of Bambi, I started to scream and wouldn’t stop. I had to be removed and then hosed down. Is this any way to begin one’s movie-going life?
I’m grateful never to have seen Bambi as a kid, as I’m sure I’d have had a similar reaction – after all, aged 4, I cried during my first cinema visit to Mary Poppins, as I was sure the chimney sweeps would fall from the rooftops during their ‘Step in Time’ ballet! But I digress.
We get into our first movie proper in the next section, where we meet Laurel and Hardy in Blotto (1930), in which Stan is trying to have a night out with Olly without his wife. McEwen talks about his love as a child for the pair, especially Stan’s ‘on-the-verge-of-tears’ look and how the cuckoo music and picture of two Derby hats hanging on a hat-rack in the titles gave him an ecstatic sense of anticipation that never happened with Charlie Chaplin. The chapter finishes with McEwen’s definitions of ‘What is and is not funny’. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were funny and the Road Runner cartoons elevated comic timings to new levels, but:
The tantrums of Donald Duck can be funny, though not as effectively as the neuroses of Daffy. Disney cartoons aren’t funny. At Disney they wasted all their time and money on capitalistic winsomeness.
The next section looks at Technicolor, a ‘forced synesthesia’ which ‘saturated us’, taking in cinema décor at the various LA cinemas he visited in those days, and the movies they showed. He recalls The Wizard of Oz, on television every year, the kids all gathering to re-enact it for fun afterwards. It’s very evocative and sweet, but still witty.
There’s an hilarious passage in the next chapter, which is based around the Disney film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), in which he takes Ian Fleming, and James Bond’s adolescence and baddies with their control panels for world domination to task, trashing another of our literary icons in the process!
To have a CONTROL PANEL from which you can wreak havoc on every body that annoys you in seventh grade – that is what James Bond is about. Can you imagine what an insipid leering old drunk Ian Fleming must have been? What a namby-pamby? I keep him on the same detestable shelf in my mind as Tolkien, the shelf of really fouled-up English people who unleashed torrents of bullshit on the world from which we will never recover.
He doesn’t mind being controversial, but he’s funny at the same time, which makes for entertaining reading even when you don’t agree with his personal views.
We pass through discussions of other classics like Casablanca, The 39 Steps and 50s horror movies, plus an interesting take on White Christmas before reaching the title essay, but along the way we stop off at Chinatown (1974), which McEwen has watched over 60 times, and counting, the first time with his friend Isidor, twice in a row – but unusually he can’t remember which movie theater it was at. He waxes lyrical about this ‘uniquely meticulous movie’, how it’s taken him fifty years to realise that Faye Dunaway is right for the film whereas she’d grated before, and not forgetting the notorious nose-cutting scene. I couldn’t resist renting the film to watch it again myself – for the third time – I have a lot of catching up to do.
I enjoyed reading his personal reflections on the films he picks, how they made and make him feel, and the memories they invoke. His love for cinemas too comes through, including the shared experience of watching a film en masse on the big screen and the audience’s shrieks at shared moments of terror such as in Jaws.
Notting Hill Editions continue to give us wonderful little hardbacks championing short-form non-fiction in essay form. I’m particularly enamoured with those that blend memoir into their subject matter. Todd McEwen’s book is knowledgeable, witty and personal and reminded me of some great movies I need to watch again.
Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny.
Todd McEwen, Cary Grant’s Suit (Notting Hill, 2023). 978-1912559404, 168pp., hardback.
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