Interview Series
  Interview with Karen Burroughs Hannsberry   October 30th 2003    
  Author of:

'BAD BOYS  The Actors of Film Noir' 

790pp., 0-7864-1484-7


'FEMME NOIR: Bad Girls of Film' 

643pp., 0-7864-0429-9

Published by McFarland & Company Publishers

The October 30th Session with Karen Burroughs Hannsberry came soon after the release of 'Bad Boys, The Actors of Film Noir. 

Alan K. Rode - Moderator

  ALAN:  It is my pleasure to welcome one of The Blackboard's favorite contributors and a superb writer about dark film, Karen Burroughs Hannsberry. Karen is visiting us tonight to discuss her terrific new book, Bad Boys, The Actors of Film Noir and any associated dark film subjects. Karen's other writing credits include Femme Noir, Bad Girls of Film and is a regular contributor to Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age.

An African-American who hails from the windy city of Chicago, Karen is the proud Mom of two girls, ages 8 and 5. In addition to her writing, she works full time as editor/writer for the Chicago Public School system.

Karen, it is truly terrific to have you as our guest tonight.

For the initial icebreaker question, where did your interest in Film Noir and in particular, the actresses ('Femme Noir') and actors ('Bad Boys') originate from and what inspired you to write so extensively about them? 

KAREN: Hi, Alan!! It's a pleasure to be here, and I really appreciate the invitation!

I have always loved old movies, ever since I was a child. Iím very particular about my likes and dislikes, though. For instance, Iíve never been overly fond of war movies, westerns, or musicals. And I love period pieces, dramas, screwball comedies, and pre-Code films. But there was always something about Film Noir that stood out from them all. Way before I even knew what film noir was, I found myself drawn to this type of movie. It wasnít until I was an adult that I heard the term, learned its meaning, and realized that the movies that fell into this category were my favorites.

I was particularly fascinated by the female characters in Film Noir, especially the bad girls, like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Diane Tremayne in Angel Face, and Kathy Moffat in Out of the Past. I loved their ruthlessness, their conniving natures, their fearless determination, their unabashed greed. When I decided to write a book, my original idea was to write about these and other female characters who filled the Film Noir femme fatale role. After approaching one company and getting a form letter rejection, I submitted my proposal to McFarland. They appreciated my enthusiasm, but suggested that I write about the actresses, rather than the characters who played them. So thatís how I ended up with Femme Noir. As for Bad Boys, it seemed only natural that, since Iíd written about the actresses who frequently appeared in Noir, I should also cover the actors.

ALAN: It really seems that so many of us got hooked on Film Noir, before we knew what it was called!

Did Chicago have a late night or dialing for dollars movie show like L.A. and N.Y.C. that featured Film Noirs?

About Femme Noir and Bad Boys: both of your books are well-written and exhaustively researched. How did you accomplish and organize the detailed, extensive research on all of the Noir femmes and hommes?

KAREN: No, we never had a late night show that focused exclusively on Film Noir, at least, not that I can recall. We did have our share of various versions of "The Late, Late Show," though, and I'm sure they showed plenty of them.

Thank you so much for your kind words about the writing and research for the book. For both books, my first step was to identify all the actors and actresses that Iíd be writing about. I developed my own set of criteria and took it from there.

For the first book, I went to L.A. twice and conducted research at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (I love that place! I could cheerfully be locked in there for a week!). I also found material at the main library here in Chicago, and my brother did research for me in New York. For the second book, I was only able to make it to L.A. once, but during my trip there, I found a lady who I later hired to do research for me, and once again my brother did research for me in New York. By combining all three sources, I was able to get a good amount of material on almost all of the actors and actresses.

As for organizing the research, each person I wrote about had a separate folder, and as Iíd gather information on each actor or actress, I'd put it in their folder (if only the rest of my house were as organized as I kept those files!). I got as much information as I could get on each person, compiling the material I received from L.A. and New York, and what I was able to find from my end. In addition to the writing, I also watched and took notes on all the movies that I could get my hands on, which was all but two, I think.

ALAN: "All but two" !!!! Watching Film Noirs, writing, full-time job and a single Mom! Karen, I need to take time management lessons from you!!!

Any particular differences or challenges between the two books? How long did it take you to write Bad Boys and was it easier or more challenging than Femme Noir?

KAREN: Time management? What's that? :o ) 

When I started Femme Noir in 1993, I was married, I had no children, and I had a home-based editing and writing business. When it was released, five years later, I had one baby, I had another one on the way, and I was in the middle of a divorce. What a difference five years makes!

By the time I started on Bad Boys, I had two children and was working full-time outside of the home. Given these realities, plus the fact that Bad Boys was more than twice as long as Femme Noir, I think I can safely say that writing Bad Boys was a lot more challenging. However, I finished it in half the time (I stared in 2000 and finished the writing in 2002). One main reason that Femme Noir took so long from start to finish is because after Iíd written the first eight chapters that I was working on for the proposal to McFarland, my computer crashed and I lost everything. It took me nearly a year to recover every time Iíd sit down to write, Iíd think, I DID this already! and Iíd get too discouraged to go on. If it wasnít for my mother who figuratively put her foot in my rear Iíd probably never have finished.

The main difference, though, was with the first book, I was working from home, so I was able to put my business on the back burner and focus on writing. I could leisurely write all day long or not. It was my choice. With Bad Boys, I had to write whenever I had a free moment so that meant I was in front of the computer whenever my girls were with their father, and every night after Iíd put them to bed. In fact, I had to end up requesting three extensions on my contract because I had so much to do, so little time, and I kept misjudging the amount of time it would take me to finish.

Ironically, Iíd originally thought that Bad Boys would take me as long to write as the first book. Because I was writing about more than 100 actors as compared to 49 actresses Iíd planned to make each chapter a lot shorter, and not go into as much detail, neither about the actorsí lives nor about their Film Noir movies. Once I started writing, though, I realized that I wouldnít be satisfied with the end product unless I wrote it the way I really wanted, which was to include as much as I possibly could. 

It sounds like it was all very unpleasant and stressful, but it was really a joy. I loved learning and writing about the actors and actresses, some of whom Iíd never even heard of before I started the projects.

ALAN: Your refreshingly candid answer to the last question makes your writing accomplishments all the more admirable. Bravo! 

You appeared as a guest on the Mysteries and Scandals'episodes about Gail Russell and Gloria Grahame. How did you land such a nice gig and could you share a little "behind the scenes" stuff about the E Channel?

KAREN: Oh, Alan, you're too kind, far too kind.

Ah, Mysteries and Scandals truly one of the highlights of my life. One day after work, my phone rings and a woman identifies herself as a producer from Mysteries and Scandals. It took a few minutes for it to sink in, but it slowly began to dawn on me that she was telling me that they wanted to interview me about Gail Russell, and fly me out to L.A., to boot! All I could think was, This is really lovely so flattering what a nice compliment . . . there is no WAY Iím doing this! Iím the behind-the-scenes person. The one in the corner. The reserved, soft-spoken one. Me, fly to L.A.? To be on T.V?!? I think not.

I managed to tell the producer Lynn, her name was that Iíd give her my answer the next day, but I soon realized that no matter how petrified I was at the prospect of the whole thing, Iíd never forgive myself if I didnít do it. So I did.

I donít really have any juicy behind the scenes stuff to share about E. I didn't see a single star, not even A.J. Benza!  But I can tell you a little about my experience. Lynn met me at the airport and took me to lunch at Marie Callenderís (where I enjoyed a delicious chicken caesar salad, as I recall). While there, I listened open-mouthed as she regaled me with stories of other people sheíd interviewed for the show (the names of which I donít even remember now) and tried to ignore the knot of terror that was growing in my stomach at the prospect of being interviewed myself! On camera! Me!

After lunch we did the interview at E! It was in this huge, empty studio, with the lights and camera perched what seemed like inches from my face (despite my nervousness, I managed to be a bit miffed at the fact that they didnít have a makeup person on hand for me!). It seemed to take forever, but I got through it, and it was definitely an experience Iíll never forget.

The second time around for the Gloria Grahame episode I asked if I could be interviewed in my home. After all, I couldnít be jetting off to L.A. at the drop of a hat. Anyway, this time was much better. It was so much more relaxing being in my own living room! This interview was also a lot more lightweight Ė Gail Russellís life was so tragic and Gloriaís was a hoot! I remember being asked at one point why I thought Gloria Grahame had so many surgeries on her mouth and why sheíd married her former stepson. I just started laughing and said, I donít know she was just a trip! That didnít make it in the program.

ALAN: Well, I am sure that Gloria would have appreciated that answer!

Okay, Karen, it' s time for the "favorites" questions: 

Favorite Noir femme, homme, and films, and, of course, tell us why. 

Also, what will be your next book?

KAREN: That's a tough one. I have several favorite femmes Claire Trevor, Ida Lupino, Lizabeth Scott, and Marie Windsor come instantly to mind Ė but my absolute favorite has to be Barbara Stanwyck. She was just so talented, and so much of a presence on screen. In Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers especially, she dominated the screen every time she appeared you just couldnít take your eyes off of her.

Naming my favorite Noir actor is even harder. My favorites include Dick Powell, John Garfield, Dan Duryea, Richard Widmark, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, and Humphrey Bogart. I think Iím going to have to say my absolute favorite is Kirk Douglas, primarily because Detective Story, The Big Carnival (Ace in the Hole), and Out of the Past are among my favorite Noirs, and Champion is outstanding as well. I think that Kirk is such a powerful actor. Like Barbara Stanwyck, he seems to fairly leap off the screen.

As with the actors and actresses, I have numerous favorite Films Noirs, including Laura, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past, Mildred Pierce, Sunset Boulevard, and The Killing. Other faves are Born to Kill, New York Confidential, Nora Prentiss, Criss Cross, Sudden Fear, and The Set-Up. If forced to name a single favorite, though, Iíd have to pick Double Indemnity. This film holds a special place in my heart, because itís the first Noir I ever saw, and I think itís outstanding. It has everything: memorable dialogue, excellent characterizations, top-notch acting, superb cast, great story, and a perfect Noir ending.

ALAN: Thanks Karen, The Board is now open for general questions.

JOSEPH DAVENPORT: Karen, your appendix B, Last Words from the Bad Boys, is awesome. I keep a marker on page 725. Anyone who loves great quotes will love this section. My favorite: "I must say, for an intelligent girl, you've surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes." Dana Andrews These alone are worth getting this book.

KAREN: Thanks, Joseph! It was a joy compiling them. I have a lot of favorite quotes myself. One of my favorites is Elisha Cook's in "Born to Kill": "You can't just go around killin' people whenever the notion strikes you! It's not feasible."

JOSEPH: Karen, I had my boss reading your quotes, his favorite, "There's just one idea man in this outfit. Me. I do the thinking. I give the orders." Richard Widmark in The Street with No Name . . . and it fits him well! Continue your good work.

RICHARD TORREGROSSA: Could you describe your researching and writing technique? How long do you research before you actually do the writing? Or do you write drafts as you research?

KAREN: Hi, Richard! My researching and writing totally overlap. With my second book, I'd actually planned to spend six months doing research and the next six months writing, but it didn't work out at all. So I'd send a list of, say, 10 names to my research assistant in L.A. and to my brother, and do my own research here. Once I got enough material, then I'd do the chapter. Even the acquisition of the movies overlapped. Sometimes I'd have the research material on an actor, but not all the movies, so I'd write the chapter and when I'd come to the place where I was going to describe the movie, I'd just type "MORE HERE" and go back to it when I'd seen the movie.

RICHARD: I once read a treatise by Dr. Mark Galsworthy of the London Royal College about Film Noir in which he discussed the homoerotic not homosexual appeal of Film Noir tough guys, particularly Charles McGraw. It was something along the lines of their hyper-masculinity being an irresistible lure to the ordinary male viewer and that women were a sexy component, like the clothes, the car, the voluptuous sense of danger, but not love objects in the traditional sense. Any comments?

KAREN: I think that's certainly a valid theory, and one that can be applied to numerous Noir actors, most notably Dick Powell, Richard Conte, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan, Sterling Hayden, and Robert Mitchum. They each boast an undeniable, tougher-than-tough-guy image, but their appeal to women is palpable as well.

NOIRFILMFAN (ANITRIA): Hi Karen, it's good to see another African-American woman like yourself working in the Noir book area. I'm new here, so I hope to read your book as soon as I get time. Who was your favorite Noir bad boy that you have interviewed?

And who were some of the Noir actors and actresses you learned about while researching? You said that you had not heard of some of the Noir actors and actresses before you started your project.

KAREN: Hi, Anitria, and thank you for your kind words.

I didn't interview many actors only Farley Granger and Jeff Corey. Others I interviewed were the children of the actors Glenn Ford's son; George Macready's son; Sheldon Leonard's daughter; Gene Lockhart's daughter, June; and, via email, Ed Begley, Jr. Of the two actors I talked to, Jeff Corey was by far my favorite  not to say anything against Farley Granger (which was a huge thrill for me), but because Mr. Corey was just adorable. He was full of anecdotes and he was as sharp as a tack his memory was phenomenal. And even though he kept saying he didn't want to tell me this story or that because he was writing his own book, he'd go ahead and tell me anyway. And at the end of our conversation, he told me that I "sounded like a good looking woman." He was quite a character. I was really crushed when he passed.

As for actors I was introduced to while writing the book, these include Morris Carnovsky, Douglas Fowley, John Hoyt, Berry Kroeger, George Macready, Moroni Olsen, Regis Toomey, and Harold Vermilyea. A few of these John Hoyt and George Macready, for instance I'd seen before, but couldn't have told you their names to save my life.

With regard to actresses, before writing Femme Noir, I'd never heard of Dorothy Patrick, Dorothy Hart, Faye Emerson, Nina Foch, Signe Hasso, or Helen Walker.

ALAN: What is your next book, Film Noir or . . . ?

KAREN: Whoops! I forgot to answer that the first time! I'm torn between two ideas one is another Film Noir book that I've been wanting to write for years, focusing on the films I consider to be the best Noirs. These would include such well-known movies as Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, of course, but also many that most of today's moviegoers might not be familiar with, like Nora Prentiss, Shakedown, Tension, Narrow Margin, and Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.

My other plan is a biography of my great-uncle, Fletcher Henderson, who was a popular bandleader in the days of the big bands. He was largely responsible for the success of Benny Goodman, but few people know his name today. I'd like to change that.

NOIRFILMFAN (ANITRIA): I forgot that my neighbor said to say "Hi!" to you for her sister. She went to Spelman college in Georgia with you. Thanks again.

KAREN: Thanks, Anitria! Who is your neighbor's sister?

TRUDY: I am very much looking forward to reading both of Karen's books: Bad Girls as well as Bad Boys. They are virtual tomes and I know will make good reads. Karen's writing style is sophisticated and Proustian in its attention to detail and sheer volume.

KAREN: Wow, Trudy! What an amazing compliment! I humbly thank you. I am simply speechless . . . as speechless as one can be at a keyboard. :o )

ALAN: [regarding Fletcher Henderson] My brother is somewhat of authority on the Swing Era. He tells me that your great-uncle is indeed a seminal, yet forgotten figure of American Swing music. I would love to see you write a book about him.

KAREN: Bless your brother, Alan! It always makes my heart smile whenever anyone today has heard of Uncle Fletcher. I just have to make myself get going . . . at least get started with interviewing relatives like my mother, my grandmother (Fletcher's sister-in-law), and my great-aunt.

ALAN: Going back to your answer about Film Noir actors, "the bad boys," I was somewhat startled about your proclivity towards Kirk Douglas. He was perfect in Out of the Past, hit the marks in Champion, and I loved the cynicism of The Big Carnival, but I never really thought of Douglas in the same vein as Robert Ryan and, of course, Mitchum.

Was it his intensity that struck you as compelling or a weakness for cleft chins?

KAREN: Mmmm . . . cleft chins . . .

Where was I? Oh, Kirk Douglas! I think it was Kirk Douglas' performance in Detective Story which I know some don't consider Noir that first captured me. He was so intense in that film, not only with the force of his violence and power, but also with his tenderness and again with his inflexible sense of morality. He was also first-rate in Out of the Past. Despite Robert Mitchum's more extensive role, Douglas definitely made his mark. Similarly, he held his own in Martha Ivers and he was brilliant in Champion, managing to evoke both contempt and sympathy. I think I consider him to be one of my favorites because most of his Noir films are among my favorites, unlike Mitchum and Ryan. With Mitchum, OOTP and Crossfire are excellent, but several others, like Macao, Undercurrent, and His Kind of Woman, I could do without. I liked more of Ryan's Noirs Crossfire, The Set-Up, Clash by Night, Odds Against Tomorrow, and Act of Violence, but Berlin Express; Caught; Beware, My Lovely; and House of Bamboo definitely don't make my greatest hits list. Don't get me wrong, though Robert Mitchum is definitely one of my favorite Noir actors, and Ryan along with Charles McGraw IS Noir, to me.

ALAN: Glad you mentioned my ace, Charlie! Thanks, Karen!

KAREN: How could I not?!?!? ;o )

ALAN: Your interviews for both books included such renowned Noir players as Bruce Bennett (still around at 96!), Jeff Corey, Victor Mature, Jane Greer, Signe Hasso, and many others. Any notable memories after speaking with some of these stars?

KAREN: Well, unfortunately, Victor Mature died just a few months before I started working on the book, so I never got to interview him. I only corresponded with Jane Greer and Signe Hasso by mail, but I found Jane Greer, especially, to be a delight. She was always very responsive and helpful, as well as encouraging about my book. I did interview Coleen Gray, for both books, in fact, and she is a real gem. Not only did she give candid interviews (except when I asked her about Mickey Rooney!), but she was just a joy to talk to, funny and insightful and sweet.

I also never spoke with Bruce Bennett. I contacted him to request an interview, but he wrote back that his wife had recently passed (they were married for nearly 70 years), and he was obviously still grieving. I wrote back to apologize for the imposition. I'm glad he's still with us, though.

ALAN: Oops! Sorry for botching that question about your interviews. You know Bruce Bennett was appearing at the celebrity and autograph shows up in L.A. until a year ago. Hard to believe that he participated in the 1928 Olympics. BTW, The American Cinematheque is showing a retrospective of John Huston's films in November. The advertised guest for the screenings of The Asphalt Jungle and Key Largo is the seemingly indestructible Marc Lawrence. I will try to be at that screening.

I know you have to work tomorrow, so let us know when it's time to go.

KAREN: I just wanted to say that you didn't botch your question about the interviews at all. I'd totally forgotten that I included both Victor Mature and Bruce Bennett in my acknowledgements for Film Noir. I'd written to each of them to ask for their recollections of working with the various actresses I was writing about (Mature on Coleen Gray and Bennett on Joan Crawford, Rosemary DeCamp, and Faye Emerson). They both wrote me back, but I didn't talk to them.

Speaking of interviews and Marc Lawrence, you know that Marc Lawrence named Jeff Corey during the HUAC hearings. Well, during my interview with Mr. Corey, he had nothing good to say about Lawrence. I didn't quote him in the book, but he definitely had a few choice names for him. Even after all the years that had passed, Corey hadn't forgiven him.

You might also be interested, Alan, that Mr. Corey called Charles McGraw "very talented, but a chronic liar." Don't know what that was all about!

ALAN: Karen, I heard that Corey's distaste for Lawrence was so pronounced that Corey's wife told someone that Corey would not appear at the same event if Lawrence was present. The Blacklist still lives. From what I understand, Lawrence told HUAC that he went to CP meetings to "meet broads", but they finally squeezed a few names out of him. He fled to Europe and recently told film historian Anthony Slide that he regretted the HUAC stuff and thought about what he did every day of his life. I believe that Edward Dmytrik told Lee Server substantially the same thing. Tough to judge those times in 2003.

On McGraw: I think Corey is being accurate. Based on my conversation with McGraw's significant other, Charlie used to make up tall tales about himself because, "that's what they want to hear!"

What did Corey say about films like Brute Force and The Killers?

KAREN: I totally agree that it's impossible for us, in 2003, to imagine what the climate was during the "Red Scare" and what we would, or would not, have done.

As for Corey's comments on The Killers, he recalled that he had to test for the role, along with several others, and that for his test, he did the scene where his character, Blinky, was hallucinating on his death bed, which is his best scene in the movie, I think. As for Brute Force, he said that Burt Lancaster "wanted to take over and direct it himself." He added that he was "actually stunned and amazed how he wanted to be in control." And he felt that the movie itself was "marvelous . . . a wonderful movie to be in."

KAREN: Guess I'll sign off and hit the hay! It's been a real pleasure and such a thrill being asked to talk about my book in this forum. Thank you so much, Alan, and my thanks also to Marc, for all of your support. You guys are the best!

ALAN: Karen, you are aces! Thanks for staying so late and being such a fantastic guest!

  This interview was copied and archived by mac. Alan Rode led the interview before the board was opened to a question and answer session.  October 30th, 2003.   

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