Book Interview: Dutch Girl – Audrey Hepburn and World War II

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Publisher: GoodKnight Books

Release Date: April 15, 2019

A Conversation with Robert Matzen

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II is the culmination of years of painstaking research by Robert Matzen. He conducted new interviews with people who knew Audrey Hepburn in the Netherlands, unearthed secret diaries, gained access to previously classified archives, and combed through decades of her own infrequent but revealing reminiscences in interviews. The resulting text contains a wealth of substantive proof of holes, errors, and inventions in every previous Audrey Hepburn biography that’s touched on her life during the war years.

Hepburn’s younger son, Luca Dotti, has given the book his enthusiastic endorsement and even wrote the book’s forward:

“When my mother talked about herself and what life taught her, Hollywood was the missing guest. Instead of naming famed Beverly Hills locations, she gave us obscure and sometimes unpronounceable Dutch ones. Red carpet recollections were replaced by Second World War episodes that she was able to transform into children’s tales. We knew we were missing the complete story of her life in the war—until Robert Matzen wrote to me introducing himself and his book, Dutch Girl. I now understand why the words Good and Evil, and Love and Mercy were so fundamental in her own narrative. Why she was open about certain facts and why she kept so many others in a secluded area of her being. Thank you, Robert Matzen.” –Luca Dotti (Forward, Dutch Girl)

It is no wonder that he has granted the book his blessing as it paints the vivid picture of a shy but brave young ballerina who overcame loss and survived starvation even as wartime violence surrounded her and her family. Her active (if modest) role in the Dutch Resistance only adds to one’s admiration of the actress who seemed to radiate kindness and sophistication in equal measure.

Robert Matzen has graciously agreed to sit down to discuss his new book and the immense impact that the Second World War had on one of the most beloved film icons of all time.

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CL: Could you describe Dutch Girl for our readers and what your intentions were in writing such a book? It obviously has a radically different focus than other books about the actress’s life. What can readers expect?

RM: Great first question because it gives me a platform! When I started to get a sense of what Audrey had experienced in the war, I realized this would need to be a book about World War II, and about Audrey inside that global drama. It’s subtitled Audrey Hepburn and World War II for a reason. Readers can expect a war book as much as a biography because she was one small figure on a big stage. I guess in general I would advise any prospective reader to also be prepared for surprises in terms of narrative structure. I like to take some chances and keep readers on their toes, and I managed some of that in Dutch Girl.

CL: Dutch Girl is the third book in a trilogy of books that you have written about Hollywood legends during the Second World War. Was it always your intention to write three books, or did it simply happen to work out this way? How did you come upon the idea?

RM: Fireball, about Carole Lombard, started out as a one-off, and it was after Fireball’s release that a friend recommended that I write a book about Jimmy Stewart’s combat experiences in the war—something Stewart would never talk about. While researching what became Mission, I was in Arnhem in the Netherlands. I learned that Audrey had spent the war there and I thought that was interesting. I wanted to know what the war was like for her and tried to read up on it, but there was surprisingly little documentation about this angle anywhere, including in previous biographies. It seemed that if ever there was a topic for a book, this was it. And here we are. So no, I didn’t start out with a plan to create a “Hollywood in World War II” trilogy. It evolved.

CL: How was researching and writing Dutch Girl different from your experience developing Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe and Fireball: Carole Lombard & The Mystery of Flight 3?

RM: Fireball and Mission were largely the results of archival research—federal government files and other sets of files in the U.S. were supplemented by interviews and with boots-on-the-ground events like climbing a mountain or riding in WWII bombers. Dutch Girl involved a total effort in the Netherlands, primarily interviewing Audrey’s contemporaries in Arnhem and Velp—people who had survived the war with her as children or young people. Without the oral histories they provided, there would be no book. Another problem was that the documents I accessed in various archives were all written in Dutch so I took a crash course in the language and also hired a Dutch researcher named Maddie van Leenders. Why an enterprising Dutch writer didn’t tackle this topic 20 or 30 years ago I’ll never know. I feel crazy-lucky that I got to be the one. I should mention that I just learned of the passing of one of the people who helped with the book, Ben van Griethuysen, which saddens me deeply. Ben and the others provided oral histories of the war in Velp that would have been lost if they hadn’t been asked the right questions—the Dutch just don’t go around volunteering information. You have to almost pry it out of them.

CL: Are there any other challenges that you had to overcome in the process of writing the book? Could you discuss your process?

RM: Another big challenge beyond the location, language, and nature of the Dutch people was the fact that Audrey’s mother, Ella van Heemstra, had covered her tracks about pro-Nazi activities after the war, obscuring attempts to define her character. Because she was so central to Audrey’s life, that was a challenge that I had to overcome—and did, with the help of Luca Dotti, Audrey’s son.

Phase 1 involved tracking down everything Audrey said about the war, which gave me a framework of about 5,000 words. Phase 2 included many interviews with the Dutch and repeated visits to the city of Arnhem and village of Velp, walking in Audrey’s footsteps. I saw the places she lived, explored inside of the theater where she danced as Arnhem’s most famous ballerina, and walked the streets of Velp that were once her streets. Phase 3 was the writing, about ten months of it, and phase 4 was working with Audrey’s son Luca Dotti, who reviewed the rough manuscript and made corrections, provided total access to his family historical archives, and sat for interviews with me where he related stories his mother had told him about the war.

Finally the manuscript was vetted to a panel that included top historians and Dutch people I had interviewed. I feel the result is pretty water-tight in terms of accuracy.

CL: It was interesting (and surprising) to learn that Hepburn’s parents were both Nazi sympathizers before war broke out in Europe. How did this influence Hepburn, and what problems did this create for her?

RM: Her father Joseph Ruston was much more than a Nazi sympathizer—he was a full-fledged Nazi agent who spent the latter half of the 1930s gathering information and intelligence for the Germans in Western Europe and England. Audrey’s mother Ella was the true “sympathizer” and remained one for the first 18 months that Germany occupied the Netherlands. After the war when it came time for retribution against anything Nazi, Ella had a tough time during a long police investigation of her activities. Audrey never forgave her parents for their actions and it became a tremendous burden for her to keep her mother’s secrets about the war at a time when everyone wanted to know everything about Audrey Hepburn.

CL: Do you have a favorite Audrey Hepburn’s film?

RM: Full disclosure: I did not start out as an Audrey Hepburn fan, so I hadn’t seen many of her pictures. That said, Roman Holiday, no question. Audrey is so young and so fresh and natural, using those instincts she would always talk about because she hadn’t developed her acting career on the stage and learned classical style. She had survived the war by her wits and instincts and kept right on surviving in her Hollywood career. In Roman Holiday she’s just plain charming, with this innocence and goofy sense of humor she would always have. I could watch that sequence where she wakes up in Joe’s bed any time, and the conclusion where the princess has to give up the commoner of her dreams. It’s beautiful and heartfelt. I usually gravitate to upbeat pictures anyway, and Roman Holiday radiates pure charm and pure romance. My runner up would be her most important British picture from the pre-Hollywood days, Secret People. Her role is big and she also performs ballet. She looks so young in that picture, which was shot at the beginning of 1951, that it’s easy to imagine her on the stage in Arnhem during the war.

CL: The book discusses how the war left its mark on Hepburn. Do you feel like these experiences had any effect on her film performances?

RM: Wow, that’s another great question, and one I’ve been asked about Stewart but not about Hepburn. You look at the impact of the war on Jim and it directly translates to his rage-roles in It’s a Wonderful Life, Winchester 73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, and others. But Audrey didn’t channel energy the same way. I know she experienced deep sadness in the war and afterward but I believe she kept it locked away. I think her rawest performance was in the one closest to the war chronologically—Secret People, the one I just mentioned. It’s a tense, dark picture anyway and she’s excellent in it and it’s possible that she used her memories as motivation. I think some of the sadness can be seen in The Nun’s Story from 1959 and Robin and Marian, her comeback picture in 1976. But with Audrey, private was private and she refused to let anyone in to see what was locked away.

CL: Which of Hepburn’s unique qualities do you feel was the result of her experiences the war?

RM: Color-blind compassion. The war gave her a child’s-eye-view of things like suffering and hopelessness, and how to combat them. She saw refugees up close and the idea of a refugee didn’t harden her heart—it opened her heart. Up until the very end, that horrific Somalia trip, she felt there was nothing she couldn’t beat. She could find a silver lining in the blackest of clouds and rejoice in the smallest victories because she knew how important it was to maintain hope no matter how bad things were. That frail body kept moving forward until her dying day to combat the evils of war and its devastating impact on children.

CL: Dutch Girl discusses Hepburn’s deep personal reaction to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Is it a coincidence that the cover of Dutch Girl reminds me of some of the covers that I have seen of Anne Frank? They don’t physically resemble one another, but there is something undefinable that is quite similar.

RM: Actually, I could write a book about that cover design and what it took to arrive at it. What a soap opera! I was told early on as merely the author to stay the heck out of the design process and that was a good move. The final design still blows me away when I see it and it wasn’t until you brought up the similarity with Anne Frank photos and cover designs that I stopped and thought, boy, yeah, there are similarities in look and feel. Audrey and Anne really were two peas in a pod in some ways, which is why I maintain Audrey felt no small amount of survivor’s guilt where Anne was concerned. The Green Police captured both of them during the war, but Audrey managed to escape, so one died in horrendous conditions, and the other lived to raise two sons and experience a glamorous and luxury-filled life. But then I wonder if that survivor’s guilt Audrey felt is what drove her to a dozen impoverished countries and war zones in the last five years of her life.

CL: Is there any chance that you might make your Hollywood in World War II trilogy into a tetralogy? For example, Alfred Hitchcock left Hollywood during the war to produce a pair of French propaganda shorts for the British Ministry of Information and also had a hand in a documentary about the concentration camps. Frank Capra also made a series of celebrated propaganda documentaries. I’m sure that the possibilities are endless. Are there more of these books gestating in your mind? If so, could you tell us about them?

RM: I had to go look up “tetralogy.” I know there are other stories I could tell with a Hollywood war theme. Leslie Howard, Glenn Miller, Ty Power in the Pacific, or I could explore the flip side and talk about the ones who didn’t serve. I guess anything’s possible. I do have one idea for a next book that would be dynamite—so much so that it’d be an easy idea to steal so I better keep it quiet. And this one, if it comes to fruition, would have little to do with World War II.

Interview by: Devon Powell

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Book Review: The Best 80s Movies

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Publisher: Carlton Books

Release Date: October 2018

“…You’re bound to disagree with at least some of the movies I’ve chosen, especially because I’ve focused on mainstream American movies. I faced some difficult choices when trying to balance contemporary success at the time of the release, enduring influence, and importance to the genre. I rejected a few movies on the basis that they didn’t feel sufficiently 1980s. That meant saying goodbye to favorite period dramas such as The Untouchables and Amadeus (Chariots of Fire survives almost entirely on the basis of that Vangelis theme). But it also meant turning down movies at each end of the decade that felt more a part of the 1970s or 1990s. Raging Bull feels like a piece of Scorsese’s earlier work, while (at the other end of the decade) Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure feels quintessentially 1990s.” –Helen O’Hara (Introduction, The Best 80s Movies)

We can state without hesitation that Helen O’Hara was correct in assuming that people will disagree with the films that she has chosen to include in her gorgeous new book. One does hope to take the author’s intentions into account when reviewing any book like this one, but what does one do when their reasoning doesn’t seem terribly sound? The Best 80s Movies has been marketed as “the ultimate guide to all things retro, taking you on a nostalgic trip through the 80s.” If the aim is to review popular American films that have stood the test of time, this particular book feels rather anemic. Frankly, the films from this decade that stand the test of time are films that aren’t overwhelmed by the insane fashions and slang of the period (with a few notable exceptions). If one is purposely focused on films that are saturated with these things, they are inevitably choosing movies that haven’t quite stood the test of time and are far from timeless.

Also, it seems that any film considered a masterpiece should be included (even if it does feel more like the product of the previous or following decade). We have no problem with films like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure not being included, because this film isn’t a cinematic masterwork. However, to leave out films like Raging Bull for any reason whatsoever seems like an enormous error in judgment. There are many such omissions and each of them adds up so that it is impossible not to question the book’s credibility. It’s simply very difficult to take seriously any “Best of” book that includes movies like Tron but ignores great films like Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Kubrick’s The Shining. You could fill another book with undisputed classics and influential movies from the decade that were left out of this one, and it would be a more worthwhile reading experience.

Of course, this would be beside the point if O’Hara merely intended to take the reader on a nostalgic tour of the iconic mainstream films that heavily influenced the cultural climate of the decade. Unfortunately, it also overlooks a number of incredibly iconic cinematic creations, so it inevitably falls short in this arena as well. For example, it would have been impossible to live through the decade without running into images of the hockey-masked killer known by the name of Jason Voorhees. It’s true that the Friday the 13th films aren’t masterpieces, but they certainly made their impact on the culture. It seems that this book hovers somewhere in the middle, and it is simply difficult to imagine what value it has beyond being an extremely enjoyable diversion. The marketing materials promise a “definitive guide to the most fun, most lasting movies of one of the richest decades cinema has ever seen,” but the book simply doesn’t live up to this bold promise. The Best 80s Movies is great bedtime reading, but it probably isn’t going to add much to one’s reference library.

Book Interview: Little Book of Audrey Hepburn

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Publisher: Carlton Publishing Group

Release Date: April 01, 2019

A Conversation with Caroline Jones

Little Book of Audrey Hepburn” might be best described as a coffee table book in miniature. It would make a great end table book as it is perfect for casual browsing as it has plenty of attractive photos of the legend that is Audrey Hepburn. The text zeroes in on the iconic style of the actress and is a tribute to her timeless appeal.

Caroline Jones graciously agreed to sit down for an exclusive discussion about her book and Audrey Hepburn’s immortal appeal.

CL: Could you describe “The Little Book of Audrey Hepburn” for our readers? When and how did the idea for the book arise?

CJ: It’s really a style biography that takes you through the evolution of her unique look—from her early days as a ballet dancer to her iconic film roles. Although there have been many books on Audrey, I felt that no one had written about the way her life experiences and events had influenced her sartorial style in a chronological way.

CL: Were there any challenges in making it a reality?

CJ: Finding and getting permission to use some of the rarer pictures was sometimes a challenge.

CL: There are so many beautiful pictures of Hepburn throughout the pages of your book, but there were also thousands of photos available. How did you choose which photos should be included?

CJ: It was hard, as there are so many! But I tried to pick the ones that best told her style evolution—from chorus girl to leading lady.

CL: How did you first become interested in Audrey Hepburn?

CJ: When I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time at age 13. I was transfixed. She was the most stylish women I’d ever seen and I immediately wanted to be like her.

CL: What made her different from other legendary actresses of the era, and why do you feel that it is so timeless?

CJ: Today the Audrey ‘look’ is so sewn into the fabric of our consciousness that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it was when she starred in 1953’s Roman Holiday. Audrey arrived with her elfin features, willowy frame, and preppy clothes at a time when being a star meant having exaggerated womanly curves—the sort of shapely figure belonging to the pin-ups Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Audrey’s signature look was boyish yet feminine, independent yet sexy, and modern yet somehow timeless. As a result it still looks fresh today.

To quote Billy Wilder (who directed the breakout star in Sabrina): “After so many drive-in waitresses becoming movie stars, there has been this real drought, when along comes class. She may be a wispy, thin little thing, but when you see that girl, you know you’re really in the presence of something. It’s a rare quality, but boy do you know when you’ve found it.

CL: The book discusses Hepburn’s legendary association with Hubert de Givenchy. What was it about his designs that made this such a fruitful collaboration?

CJ: Givenchy instinctively understood Audrey’s body shape and what suited her willowy frame—the measurements of which he often stated stayed the same throughout her life: 32-20-35. Givenchy’s structured gowns and coats perfectly showed off these tiny proportions, directing your eyes to her narrow waist and slim upper torso. But it was a symbiotic relationship, and he understood the unique quality she could add to his designs while elevating the good to the fabulous. Givenchy described this thus: “She gave a life to the clothes—she had a way of installing herself in them that I have seen in no one else since… Something magic happened. Suddenly she felt good. You could feel her excitement, her joy.”

CL: Which of her films best captures her fashion sensibilities?

CJ: Breakfast at Tiffanys, My Fair Lady, and Charade are my three favorite movies when it comes to the outfits. Each is very different in feel and style, but all demonstrate a key phase of her fashion life—and her ability to evolve.

CL: Are these films your favorites or do you prefer one of the others? Which film stands as your personal favorite, and why does this film win out over the others?

CJ: Sabrina is actually my favorite, as it was one of the first times I saw her wear ballet flat with capri pants. Such a classic look that people still want to copy now.

CL: I subscribe to a number of fashion magazines, and it is difficult to distinguish one cover from the next. The photography simply doesn’t seem nearly as iconic as those which graced the pages of periodicals in Hepburn’s heyday. It seems to me that a truly iconic cover is extremely rare. What do you think changed? Why are images of the stars of yesteryear more expressive and memorable than those today?

CJ: Fashion was a slower and more thoughtful process in those days. Dresses and outfits were more carefully planned and created. Things move so quickly in today’s ‘fast fashion’ society. Fabrics are cheap, throw away, and not intended to last as long as they were back then. Although Audrey’s style evolved, it didn’t change fundamentally. She had her own unique look that didn’t take into account the current fashions of the day. That’s what made her an icon.

As her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer said: “If there was timelessness, it was because she believed in quality. And if she is still an icon of style today, it’s because once she found her look, she stayed with it throughout her life.

Interview by: Devon Powell

Book Review: The Coen Brothers – This Book Really Ties the Films Together

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Publisher: Abrams Books

Release Date: September 11, 2018

Adam Nayman’s epic new career spanning examination of the filmography of the Coen Brothers is every bit as analytical and informative as Ian Nathan’s excellent book on the same subject. It offers fans and scholars a rewarding experience as it should add enormously to the reader’s appreciation of the films that inhabit the Coen canon. Actually, the book’s marketing description does an admirable job at describing its contents without unnecessary hyperbolic phrases:

“In The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together, film critic Adam Nayman carefully sifts through their complex cinematic universe in an effort to plot, as he puts it, “some Grand Unified Theory of Coen-ness” and combines critical text—biography, close film analysis, and enlightening interviews with key Coen collaborators—with a visual aesthetic that honors the Coens’ singular mix of darkness and levity. Featuring film stills, beautiful and evocative illustrations, punchy infographics, and hard insight, this book will be the definitive exploration of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre.”

Nayman is a film critic for The Globe and Mail and The Grid, is a contributing editor to Cinema Scope, and has written on film for the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Film Comment, Cineaste, Montage, POV, Reverse Shot, The Walrus, Saturday Night, Little White Lies, and The Dissolve. This background served him well here as his insights are always interesting and illuminating (even if one doesn’t always agree with his interpretation of certain Coen moments). The book’s primary weakness it is that it comes at a time when the Coen’s career is far from over (the last film covered in the book is Hail, Caesar!) Everything about the book earns our enthusiastic approval and recommendation.

Book Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times

 

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Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

Release Date: May 21, 2019

In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times, Joseph Lanza turns his attentions to the production, reception, social climate, and impact of this controversial movie that rattled the American psyche. The title of Lanza’s upcoming page turner may suggest what the reader can expect, but there will inevitably be those who scratch their heads at the lengthy digressions that cover such topics as Watergate, the Edmund Kemper murders, the Zodiac killer, the Candy Man murders, the Zebra killings, the Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and even Alice Cooper. This isn’t a criticism at all. In fact, it is nice to finally have a definitive text about the sociopolitical influences upon the film and the implications suggested by the film. After all, no film is made in a vacuum.

The book focuses more on the “tumultuous era of the 1970s defined by political upheaval, cultural disillusionment, and the perceived decay of the nuclear family in the wake of Watergate, the onslaught of serial killers in the US, as well as mounting racial and sexual tensions” than on the film’s troubled production and tries to set “the themes of the film against the backdrop of the political and social American climate to understand why the brutal slasher flick connected with so many viewers.” This approach makes the book a must read for scholars and fans alike and sets itself apart from other books about this classic film. Those who wish to learn about the film’s troubled production can easily purchase a copy of Gunnar Hansen’s Chainsaw Confidential and Stefan Jaworzyn’s The ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Companion.

Book Review: Film Directing, Shot For Shot & Cinematic Motion

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Publisher: Michael Wiese Productions

Release Date: August 14, 1991

There aren’t very many books about film directing that can be described as “absolutely essential.” Steven D. Katz has written two such books, and Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen is one of them. You would be hard pressed to find a film student or even a film director who isn’t familiar with the text. It’s the book that future filmmakers must read as a foundation to build upon.

Katz blends textual knowledge about shot composition, staging sequences, pre-visualization, depth of frame, and camera techniques with visual illustrations to make the concepts that he teaches clear and easy to understand. The result is a book that one might wish to read before each and every production in order to clear the cobwebs. One might even wish to use it a quick reference while visualizing your film and planning its shots during pre-production.

Over 750 storyboards and illustrations can be found throughout the book—including never before published storyboards from Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (although some or all of these have been published in other books since this book originally hit the shelves). This book would be a very good place for burgeoning filmmaker’s to begin their education, but it belongs on every filmmaker’s shelf no matter how deep their well of knowledge.

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Publisher: Michael Wiese Productions

Release Date: May 15, 2004

This follow-up to Shot for Shot concentrates on various methods that directors use to create sequence shots and how to compose and choreograph scenes for the moving camera. Katz uses numerous diagrams and storyboard illustrations to communicate the various concepts that the book discusses. It’s a more focused book than Shot for Shot (which is more of an overview of the visualization process), and future filmmakers hoping to further develop their craft will certainly want to add this to their libraries.

Book Review: Bohemian Rhapsody: The Inside Story

 

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Publisher: Weldon Owen

Release Date: November 6, 2018

Queen alums lend this lavishly illustrated book a certain amount of legitimacy by providing a forward, but the fact is that the textual information provided here is little more than the sort of content expected from a well-produced press book. The marketing for “Bohemian Rhapsody: The Inside Story” claims that it will examine “all aspects of the making of the Queen biopic and the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen.” While this statement is technically true, it is certainly stretching a point. Readers are promised “full access to key cast and crew members who recount how Freddie Mercury (and Queen’s) story was brought to life,” but there is so much pertinent material pertaining to the actual production that is never mentioned. For example, it is public knowledge that Dexter Fletcher replaced Brian Singer as the film’s director for the final two weeks of production when Singer was fired. If Singer or Fletcher is even mentioned in these pages, it was an incredibly brief mention and probably presented in a fleeting comment about something else. The book does offer quite a bit of information as to what went into the production, some brief biographical information about the cast and about Queen, and a wealth of production photos. Actually, it is a massive understatement to say that the book is filled with a wealth of production photos, because more than two thirds of its 160 pages taken up with photography.

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One feels that the book does have something to offer die-hard fans of the film who are not expecting any kind of comprehensive production history. There is certainly information to be gleaned from the text, and the photos will please those looking for a light bedtime distraction. However, this is a book that is unlikely to satisfy casual readers. This one has been produced for the completest.

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