Author Archives: Jessie

About Jessie

I work in the Chester County Library System in Pennsylvania.

Riot in Cell Block 11: When Character Actors Star

With a sterling resume as an independent Hollywood producer (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Queen Christina, Algiers, Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent, Canyon Passage, and in 1963, Cleopatra), Walter Wanger opted to use his talents to expose prison injustice in the 1954 film Riot in Cell Block 11.  The immediate prompt was his 1952 incarceration at the Wayside Honor Farm for putting a slug into the groin of agent Jennings Lang, believed to be having an affair with Wanger’s wife, actress Joan Bennett. 

The resulting spare film (80 minutes) is an attack on a society—wardens, guards, politicians and the public at large—that could care less about rehabilitation or the tendency to dump psychopaths into the general prison population.  Aptly, the director was Don Siegel, cutting his teeth on B-movies generally more interesting and in retrospect more important than most big-budget studio films.  Soon Siegel would helm Wanger’s seminal science fiction movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and later achieve greater fame directing Clint Eastwood in such films as Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled and Dirty HarryRiot bears his occasional semi-documentary approach, beginning with newsreel film of actual U.S. prison riots.

Filmed at Folsom State Prison in California, Riot in Cell Block 11 is unique in that all of the stars  are character actors:  the riot’s fomenter Dunn (highly decorated WW II soldier Neville Brand in a sympathetic role), his brutish enforcer (Leo “The Scariest Guy in Hollywood” Gordon), the frustrated warden (Emile Meyer, fresh off his role as cattle baron Ryker in Shane), the by-the-book commissioner (Frank Faylen, an It’s a Wonderful Life alumnus soon to play Dwayne Hickman’s dad on TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), Snader (Whit Bissell, once disparaged as an American everyman, here a despicable guard whereas in 1947’s Brute Force he’d been a con—and in 1957 would play mad scientists in I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein), “The Colonel” (Robert Osterloh, veteran then and later of innumerable TV and film roles) here playing an intelligent war vet incarcerated for a lapse in judgment that led to a manslaughter conviction), hepped-up Mickey (William Phipps, a nuclear holocaust survivor in Five as the most unhinged of the prisoners), victimized guard Monroe (Paul Frees, the ubiquitous narrator and voice actor, e.g., Boris Badenov on TV’s Rocky and His Friends), news reporter (William Schallert, the father on The Patty Duke Show in the 1960s), the con who initiates the riot (Dabbs Greer, veteran by the end of his life of over 300 roles), “Gator” (Alvy Moore of the future TV series Green Acres in a long-billed cap that must be seen to be believed).  Pay attention or you’ll miss James Anderson, who will be playing Scout’s brutish nemesis in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and a chain gang captain in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969).

In summary, Riot in Cell Block 11 may be the only major Hollywood film whose performers were all members of the unsung but necessary and often compelling caste:  the character actor.

By Kim

 

References

Holston, Kim.  Susan Hayward:  Her Films and Life.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co., 2002.  Trace producer Wanger’s trial and incarceration in at least 12 New York Times 1952 articles.

Kaminsky, Stuart M.  Don Siegel, Director.  New York:  Curtis Books, 1974.  See “Chapter VI:  700 Prisoners and a Handful of Actors.”  Siegel said San Quentin ex-con, now actor, Leo Gordon, was not originally welcomed by the warden, who made him enter a separate gate and searched.  Siegel and producer Wanger knew Gordon’s worth.  “Had he not been in the picture it would surely have suffered,” said the director.

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Peyton Place: Return to Innocence

Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place was the scandalous and best-selling novel of 1956-57.  The title has become synonymous with small-town America, especially its hidden, often odious human substratum.  Here, in a story set immediately before and during World War II, patriotic parades, picnics, and proms mask hypocritical, sexually repressed, judgmental, mean-spirited, alcoholic, catty, and even murderous citizens.

In 1957 Peyton Place was made into a big-budget and highly successful film that may be the ultimate quality Hollywood soap opera.  (It became a hit primetime TV soap in 1964.)  With a running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, Peyton Place allowed significant time for each of its multitude of characters to make an impression, and of its 9 Academy Award nominations five were for acting:   Best Actress (Lana Turner), Supporting Actor (Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn), Supporting Actress (Diane Varsi, Hope Lange).

The virtually unknown Varsi landed the key role of Allison MacKenzie, the high school senior who doesn’t want to attend college to learn how to write, she wants to write even if her apprenticeship is on the town’s newspaper.  It is Allison’s voice periodically narrating the story.  Another prominent inhabitant of the town is Dr. Swain, played by ubiquitous character/supporting actor Lloyd Nolan.  The climax turns on Swain’s decision to renege on a promise.  His voice of reason and compassion is raised to hold the community accountable.

Even now Peyton Place is a surprisingly affecting movie that can bring tears to the eyes.  Why?  Is it the tree-lined streets, the lake, the Labor Day celebration, the students and teachers holding hands and singing “Auld Lang Syne”?  It is perhaps a fantasy, a terrain that never existed, an environment we think or wish or maybe did inhabit as carefree children.  (Another example of this yearning is seen in “Walking Distance,” the 1959 Twilight Zone episode in which Gig Young interacts with his younger self and longs to remain in the town of his youth.).  One must not neglect another “character” that allows the film to successfully carry all this emotional weight:  Franz Waxman’s lovely theme and score.  Just before Waxman’s music wraps it up, Allison’s voice provides hope for the future:  “We’d finally discovered that season of love.  It is only found in someone else’s heart.  Right now someone you know is looking everywhere for it, and it’s in you.”

 

[Thank you, Mike Varano, for identifying potentially significant subtext:  characters are constantly opening and closing doors:  front, back, classroom, diner, restroom, office, closet, kitchen, pantry, car, bus, train carriage.]

By Kim

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Saddle the Wind  (1958)

In Western Films:  A Complete Guide (1982), Brian Garfield extols Royal Dano’s performance but otherwise comes down fairly hard on Saddle the Wind (1958).  He thought the actors had not received much direction, New York-born John Cassavetes was miscast, and the story familiar and clichéd.  Yet there is much to give pleasure in this film, especially for film aficionados who can put the whole shebang into context.  Familiarity with the entire corpus of film allows one to enjoy almost any movie.

The Colorado scenery is captivating, the gunplay choreography judicious, the music by future master of western scores Elmer Bernstein, and the character actors backing up Robert Taylor and Julie London rather stunning:  Dano as the fanatical, perhaps unhinged Union army veteran who shakes a deed to the verdant valley into the faces of Sinclair (Robert Taylor) and Deneen (Donald Crisp) and dares them to run off him and his small group of sodbusters, Jay Adler as a bedraggled saloon worker, gravely-voiced Charles McGraw as the extremely nasty Venables come to town to test himself against former gunman Sinclair, Douglas Spencer as the ranch hand incapable of chaperoning the increasingly violent Tony (Cassavetes), and Ray Teal as Deneen’s major domo.

The dialogue is also sparkling, and it’s easy to see why.  Rod Serling was the screenwriter.  He’d written Patterns (1955) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) for TV.  The year after Saddle the Wind he was narrating and writing his ground-breaking TV series, The Twilight Zone.

Some of the movie’s pithy monologues:

“Looking after your brother is like poking hot butter in a wildcat’s ear.  It just can’t be done.”  (Douglas Spencer as Hemp Scribner)

“Sonny, I got the guts and the know-how to puncture your belly six times before you can take a breath of air.”  (Charles McGraw as Venables)

“I’m no slut, Mr. Sinclair.  He didn’t buy me like he bought that gun.”  (Julie London as Joan Blake)

“Yes, but not to a man.  I’m telling it to a dirty, little, trigger-happy jackal without a heart in his body. I can’t say it much plainer that that, Tony.”  (Donald Crisp as Dennis Deneen)

Beyond the sociopathic behavior of Tony, larger issues emerge.  Like Shane (1953), in Saddle the Wind we observe characters embroiled in an imbroglio from which neither side can claim a fully satisfactory outcome.  Who should control the valley, the farmers or the cattlemen?  Both have solid arguments.  Human detritus from the Civil War is also in evidence, with the Union veteran (Dano) being taunted by “Dallas” (Richard Erdman).  Consider Cassavetes’ Tony the incarnation of Shane’s gun-for-hire Wilson (Jack Palance) who insults and blows away Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Reb.  Or maybe Charles McGraw’s Venables is the parallel, although we don’t learn anything of his backstory.

By Kim

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Everything, Everything Book to Movie Discussion CANCELLED

Unfortunately, the Book to Movie Discussion of Everything, Everything has been cancelled.

We hope to have a Book to Movie discussion of The Dark Tower in August.

 

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The Circle Book to Movie Event

Calling all book and movie lovers! Join us at the Movie Tavern at Main Street in Exton on Tuesday, May 2nd for the 6:50 showing of The Circle. We’ll have a discussion after the movie for anyone interested in discussing and comparing details from the book and movie.

Get popcorn and a drink for $7.50 by showing your library card!

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New Releases 4/25

Movies
La La Land
Underworld: Blood Wars
Agatha Christie’s The Witness for the Prosecution
Disturbing the Peace
Mean Dreams
The Levelling
The Daughter
Catfight
Right Now, Wrong Then
Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films Collection
Mifune: The Last Samurai

TV Series
Animal Kingdom season 1
The Affair season 3

Music
Love and War by Brad Paisley
Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. by Imelda May
Americana by Ray Davies

Audiobooks
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Golden Prey by John Sandford
The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger
No Easy Target by Iris Johansen

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The Noblest Romans (and Greek) of Them All

cleopatraIn Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony praised Brutus as the noblest Roman of them all.  One might have thought it would be Caesar himself who deserved that accolade, and he has been portrayed nobly on film, especially by Rex Harrison in Cleopatra (1963).  He was properly outraged when the head of his rival Pompey was brought to him when he landed in Egypt.  At the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great he waxed melancholic at the certainty that he was himself too old to accomplish what the Macedonian conqueror had during his brief life.  But was Caesar the noblest character in Cleopatra?  Was it not Flavius (George Cole)?  As Caesar’s dog’s-body, he soothed and protected his master during epileptic fits.  What of Mark Antony (Richard Burton)?  No, it was his factotum Rufio (Martin Landau), who was murdered  rather than desert his comrade in the desert as Octavian’s forces approached for battle.  What of the Queen of the Nile (Elizabeth Taylor) herself?  Once again, it was her Greek servant Appolodorus (Caesare Danova) who deserves our praise.  He facilitated her first, secret, meeting with Caesar and attended her until the end.

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Don Rickles (1926-2017)

The legendary comedian Don Rickles passed away on April 6, 2017.  Labeled “Mr. Warmth” by Johnny Carson and considered the king of insult comedy, Rickles also acted on film, notably as a submariner in Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), a nasty dancehall impresario in The Rat Race (1960), and one of Clint Eastwood’s ragtag band of G.I.s intent on stealing Nazi gold in Kelly’s Heroes (1970).  Little known or remembered is Rickles’ appearance on ABC’s The Joey Bishop Show in February, 1968.  The very popular and Academy Award-winning actress Susan Hayward, then on screen in Valley of the Dolls, was the prime guest.  Hayward hardly ever appeared on TV but agreed to come on in exchange for Bishop allowing her friend Jack Frost to play the organ.  Rickles was already ensconced on stage when she arrived.  Contrary to expectations that he would continue his penchant for needling and persecuting every celebrity and audience he encountered, Rickles was agog and complimented Hayward effusively.  He told her, “And I say this, like with great respect.  It is a great treat to see you, Miss Hayward.  And I say Susan if I may.  From the days of the Slate Brothers [nightclub] this woman came to see me when I really needed a fan.  And it is a delight to see you on the screen and may I say from the bottom of my heart, you are one of our greatest actresses and I adore you.”

By Kim

Reference

Holston, Kim.  Susan Hayward:  Her Films and Life.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co., 2002.

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The Oh-So-Few Hollywood Feminist Films of the 1960s

For a 2016 film display I was asked to identify feminist films made in the 1960s.  As I began my investigation I realized there were very few such items from the Hollywood studios, at least those with overt feminist leanings.  This seemed odd in light of what transpired on-screen and off during that decade of turmoil.  Societal protests were at their peak during the Vietnam war years.  Among the protesters were women seeking equal rights and peace.  However, their protests came late in the 60s and in the early 70s:  the Miss America Protest (September 1968), the New York Abortion Speakout (March 1969), the Ladies’ Home Journal Sit-In (March 1970), and the Women’s Strike for Peace and Equality (August 1970).

Likewise, the feminist-oriented movie did not gather steam until the 1970s, with such films as Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), Play It As It Lays (1972), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and An Unmarried Woman (1978).  In a backwards, anti-feminist or possibly satirical way, 1975’s The Stepford Wives might deserve inclusion.

Perhaps we can surmise that there were some 1960s films with a feminist subtext:   The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), The Ballad of Josie (1967), Rachel, Rachel (1968), The Happy Ending (1969), and Sweet Charity (1969).  Molly Brown might be ignored on the grounds that it appeared before the Vietnam conflict became a quagmire, with the resulting minority, student, and women’s protests.

The Ballad of Josie was on the cusp of the revolution.  In the guise of a western, this was Doris Day’s fourth from last film.  She played a woman who accidentally kills her husband and is put on trial.  Acquitted, she nevertheless fuels male anger by herding sheep, not cattle, and launching a women’s suffrage movement.

The following year, Rachel, Rachel starred Joanne Woodward as an increasingly dissatisfied small-town school teacher living with her belittling mother.  During the summer break, Rachel has a fling with a former classmate, attends a revival meeting, and rebuffs her friend Calla’s possibly amorous advances.  In the end she plans to leave Connecticut, with or without her mother, for a new life in Oregon.  Her husband Paul Newman directed Woodward to an Academy Award nomination, and the film received a Best Picture nomination as well.

The Happy Ending (1969) was the story of a marriage gone south.  Mary, a disillusioned and alcoholic wife of 16 years (Jean Simmons, who received an Academy Award nomination) flees her home and husband (John Forsythe) for the Bahamas.  On the way she meets her old friend Flo (Shirley Jones), who decides to chaperone her.  In Nassau Mary meets Franco, who believes she is rich and exits when he finds she is anything but.  Mary recalls her husband’s philandering, her overdose and hospital stay, and ensuing drinking binges.  Returning home, she moves out of the house and takes university night courses.  Husband Fred (John Forsythe) finds her and wonders what went wrong with their marriage.

At first glance, 1969’s Sweet Charity seems an unlikely candidate for prime feminist film of the decade.  It’s a big, splashy musical based on the stage play which was itself spawned by Italian director Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957).  Shirley MacLaine plays Charity Hope Valentine, a so-called dancehall hostess, code for prostitute, a term never used in the movie that tried to have it both ways:  musical for everybody, pseudo-cutting edge social commentary for others.  After the disappointing roadshow release, the newspaper ads for the general release promoted the salacious nature of the characters:  “When she’s good, she’s very very good…but when she’s bad…she’s great!” and “They dig the way they live!” and “Swingers All…Men Were Their Business.”

I saw Sweet Charity for the first time as a reserved seat engagement at the Stanley Theater in Philadelphia.  I was surrounded by middle-aged women with Wanamaker bags outraged by the ostensible sacrilegious nature of Sammy Davis, Jr.’s “Rhythm of Life,” sung in a parking garage to his hippie acolytes.  Maybe negative word of mouth from this audience segment was a another reason for the movie’s less than sterling grosses despite the glowing Variety review and immense hoopla of the televised premiere which many celebrities attended, including Gregory Peck and Ronald Reagan.  (The others were the huge production cost and an audience possibly weary of giant musicals despite the great success of the previous year’s Oliver!)

So how was Charity Hope Valentine, who wore a “Charlie” tattoo on her shoulder and kowtowed to men until the film’s finale, a feminist symbol?  A good but super straight Joe, Oscar (John McMartin), almost “saves” her but eventually can’t deal with her past and her floozy girlfriends.  She tries to assuage his fears, but he retorts that he’ll destroy her.  In a heartbreaking response, she says, “But that’s okay.  I’m not doing much now anyway.”  In the end she is where she was at the beginning:  in Central Park, alone.  Awakened on a bench by several “flower children” (including Bud Cort of the forthcoming Harold and Maude) who present her with a daisy and proclaim “Love,” she perks up.  She smiles at the new day, the pigeons overhead, and an aged couple on a bench.  Swinging her purse and shabby suitcase, she leaves the park to rejoin the human race, at peace with herself.  Scrawled across the screen:  AND SHE LIVED HOPEFULLY EVER AFTER.

By Kim

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The Male Star of the 1960s was…Sidney Poitier

Common wisdom marks Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin as the most iconic Hollywood male star of the 1960s.  Also to be considered is Paul Newman, who had an excellent decade, including his “H” movies:  The Hustler, Hud, Harper and Hombre.  However, a little investigation reveals that an actor rarely if ever considered emblematic of the period may have had the best record of quality films, was popular, won awards, and was instrumental in breaking down societal barriers via his persona:  slow to anger, honest, heroic, noble.  This star is Sidney Poitier.  David Shipman wrote, “Over the years the public grew to like and respect and trust him.  Like all the best screen actors he has presence and integrity.”

Poitier was born in Miami to visiting Bahamian parents in 1927.  After returning from the Bahamas to Miami when he was 15, he traveled to New York and joined the American Negro Theatre.  His first Hollywood film was the raw, racially-charged No Way Out (1950).  This was no stretch for 20th Century Fox’s production chief Darryl Zanuck, who’d never been afraid to green light projects other studios considered taboo.  Consider the light focused on downtrodden Okies in The Grapes of Wrath (1941), lynch mob mentality in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), American anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), mental patients in The Snake Pit (1948), and the African American woman passing for white in Pinky (1949).  In No Way Out, Poitier maintained his cool as a doctor treating the bigoted criminal played by Richard Widmark, at whose house he stayed during his early days in Hollywood.  (Contrary to his notable psychopathic gangster roles in the late 40s, Widmark was in reality a milk-drinker, compassionate liberal, and ultra-professional actor.)  When Poitier’s mother and father saw the film, their first, in Nassau, his mother rose to her feet and shouted at the screen when Widmark’s character was pummeling her son:  “Hit him back, Sidney!  Hit him back!  You never did nothing to him!”blackboard-jungle

Poitier’s next major step toward leading man status and stardom was as a high school delinquent in Blackboard Jungle (1955).  Unlike Vic Morrow’s switchblade-wielding creep, Poitier’s character was changed for the better by his teacher, Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford).  Shipman wrote, “Poitier looked young enough to play the student,…caught between decency and delinquency.  In that he really made his mark,….”

For 1957’s longshoremen saga, Edge of the City, with John Cassavetes, Poitier was nominated for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.  (He and Cassavetes would co-star again the following year in the British film Virgin Island.)  In 1958 he opposed Rock Hudson in the grim Robert Ruark tale of the Kenyan Mau-Mau uprising, Something of Value.  For The Defiant Ones (1958) with Tony Curtis, Poitier received a number of nominations and awards, winning the BAFTA and Germany’s Silver Bear.  In his second autobiography, The Measure of a Man, he convincingly deciphered the ending, which as often as not caused critics to question its validity.  After this success, who else had the standing to play the lead in the prestigious 1959 Samuel Goldwyn film version of the seminal American stage production, Porgy and Bess?

Thepressure-point 1960s started off with All the Young Men, with Poitier as a Korean war combat soldier.  (President Truman had begun the abolition of segregation in the military with an 1948 Executive Order, two years before the conflict began.)  This was followed by Poitier’s role as Walter Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), a role he’d originated and played on Broadway from 1959 to 1960.  Paris Blues (1961) featured Poitier as jazz musician opposite Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  In 1962’s Pressure Point he was a psychiatrist treating a sociopath played by Bobby Darin.

Poitier re-teamed with Widmark for the 1963 tongue-in-cheek Viking/Moorish saga, The Long Ships.  It was the next film that year that solidified his standing as a major star:  Lilies of the Field.  Poitier won a Best Actor Academy Award for his itinerant handyman helping immigrant nuns build a chapel.

Nineteen-sixty-five bedford incidentwas a banner year.  Poitier was back with Widmark as a correspondent on a U.S. Navy vessel in the 1965 Cold War thriller, The Bedford Incident.  In director George Stevens’ mammoth The Greatest Story Ever Told, he played Simon of Cyrene.  For A Patch of Blue, in which he displayed compassion toward the blind girl played by Elizabeth Hartman, he received various acting nominations.  In The Slender Thread he helped talk Anne Bancroft down from a planned suicide.  Times were changing, and nothing was made of Poitier playing former Buffalo Soldier turned horse breaker helping James Garner stave off an Indian attack in Duel at Diablo (1966).

Nineteen-sixty-seven was even better than 1965 for Poitier, who had three very big hits:  To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  To Sir putin-the-heat-of-the-night Poitier back in the classroom, but this time in Britain as a teacher, not one of the delinquents as he had been in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  Pop singer Lulu had a monster hit with the eponymous title song.  In the Heat of the Night was the Academy Award-winning Best Picture that year, and although Poitier was nominated for the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, and the Laurel Award, Rod Steiger’s portrayal of a tough Southern sheriff who comes to respect Poitier’s Detective Tibbs from Philly received the Academy Award.  (Steiger could easily have won for The Pawnbroker in 1965, but Lee Marvin’s double gunslinger duty in Cat Ballou netted him the statuette.)  Some argued that Poitier was just too perfect to be realistic in Guess, in which his physician character meets for the first time the Draytons (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), the upper middle class parents of his white girlfriend, Joanna (Katharine Houghton).  Others have rebutted this, insisting that Poitier had the gravitas and was the perfect black man to essay the role at the perfect time.  It would be more unrealistic for Joanna to bring home a janitor or cook.  There were stirring monologues, and perhaps the best was Poitier’s counter to his father at the end of a heated discussion:  “You think of yourself as a black man, I think of myself as a man.”  Fears that the film would be shunned in the South were unfounded and it made an astounding $70,000,000 on a $4,000,000 budget.  Poitier’s status was such that his name on the poster came between Tracy and Hepburn.  This triumvirate made Poitier #1 in the Quigley poll of film star popularity for 1968.

Poitier’s sixties closed out with a gentle love story from his own story, For Love of Ivy (1968), and a heist drama, The Lost Man (1969).  He married his co-star from the latter, Joanna Shimkus.

There would be a number of good films to come, but as with most stars, even superstars, there is one period when their films are uniformly excellent, their star shines brightly, and they represent an era.  The Sixties was that for Sidney Poitier.

By Kim

References

Holston, Kim.  Richard Widmark:  A Bio-Bibliography.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1990.

Poitier, Sidney.  The Measure of a Man:  A Spiritual Autobiography.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2000.

Shipman, David.  The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years.  Sydney:  Angus and Robertson, 1972.

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