Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Just your average Yasujirō Ozu / Norma McClain Stoop post

I have become an increasing fan of the films of Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu since watching Tokyo Story for the first time in November 2019. I followed that up over the past year and half with Good Morning, Late Spring, Floating Weeds and Early Summer — all brilliant and calming. Everything slows down when you watch an Ozu film, which is a blessing in this stressed-out world. (The movies of Kenji Mizoguchi, Agnès Varda and Víctor Erice work this magic, too.)

In seeking to learn more about Ozu's career, I picked up a used copy of The Major Works of Yasujiro Ozu, a slender, staplebound booklet (cover pictured above) that was published in 1974 by New Yorker Films and features excerpts from Donald Richie's biography Ozu, which was also published that year. There are also reprints of reviews of Ozu films by Roger Greenspun, Nora Sayre and Vincent Canby.

The booklet is nearly square: 8⅜ inches wide by 8⅞ inches tall. 

In addition to being a valuable cinematic resource, my copy also has some interesting provenance. A sticker on the inside back cover indicates that it was once part of the the Harvard Theatre Collection at The Houghton Library. 
Houghton describes itself as "home to Harvard’s rare books and manuscripts, literary and performing arts archives, and more." It has papers by Samuel Johnson, Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Louisa May Alcott, Theodore Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, a unit of African American soldiers, during the Civil War.

I have no idea when or why Houghton's overseers decided to deaccession this Ozu booklet from the performing arts collection. Or maybe it simply went missing, was never deaccessioned and they'll be getting in touch after reading this post. If Harvard wants it back, I won't say no.

The other provenance mark on this book, however, is even more interesting. It's a stamp that appears on Page 2:
And who is Norma McLain Stoop? She was a lover of movies, too. She loved them very, very much. So much so that her raves appeared in newspaper advertisements for movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s: 
  • "James Stewart ... it may be well be his best performance!" — Fools' Parade (1971)
  • "A wow of a film." — W.C. Fields and Me (1976) 
  • "Highly original, hard-hitting film and uniquely frightening. The climax is brutally astounding and demoniacally haunting." — The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976)
  • "Happiest, funniest movie event of the year. Peerlessly witty dialogue. ... Wonderful performances throughout. Bisset is comically endearing. This elegant film will be gobbled with glee by every imaginable kind of audience. A hilarious comedy thriller." — Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)
  • "It's so good that I'm sure it won't be forgotten when Academy Award time rolls around in 1988." — Beyond Therapy (1987)
I'm guessing you haven't heard of some of these films. (Don't worry, you didn't somehow miss Jimmy Stewart's best performance. It's still Vertigo.) Or, if you have, you do not known them as rave-worthy masterpieces. That's the point. Norma McLain Stoop was a film critic who boosted her own profile, and that of her publications, by providing euphoric quotations that were perfect fodder for newspaper advertisements. (Beyond Therapy, by the otherwise wonderful Robert Altman, was indeed forgotten at Academy Award time.)

Joe Meyers, who writes the "Joe's View" movie blog for Hearst Communications, wrote an insightful 2008 post titled "When Norma McLain Stoop walked the earth." Here's an excerpt:
"My mind flashed back to the wildly enthusiastic reviews a woman named Norma McLain Stoop used to write for 'After Dark.' Norma never saw a movie she didn’t like and she helped spread the name of her magazine by being a pioneer in the quote-whoring that now fills ads for new movies. Few people read Norma’s reviews ... but her quotes were everywhere in the early and mid-1970s. She would give distributors enthusiastic comments so far in advance that her name would appear in the trailers for art films that were distributed around the country. Norma was so hyperbolic — and so unknown outside New York — that audiences in arthouses around the country would crack up when her name (and her gush) appeared on the screen."

For a little more on her, Meyers also quotes what is now an utterly vanished corner of the internet, where a "nameless movie industry blogger on a site called 'Zoom in Online'" once wrote about Norma. Here's a secondhand excerpt, keeping this nameless individual's thoughts around for posterity:

"Her quotes were deposited at your door as reliably as the Sunday Times, and were ready for immediate placement in your ad! Somebody once said, ‘If Norma McLain Stoop didn’t exist, someone would have to invent her.’ Well you didn’t need to invent Norma because Norma invented herself and she did a damned good job. Norma was a kind of graying version of a Factory Girl. Rail-thin, she was proud and stately like the other legendary Norma, Norma Desmond (if Norma Desmond hung out at Studio 54). She was immersed in the gay-tinged world of the performing arts. She had New York attitude. She loved NY culture with all her heart and soul, and if people wanted to laugh at her because she was a bit too promiscuous with her affections, then so be it ... She was aware of how people perceived her and she didn’t care."

In retrospect, Norma McLain Stoop had to be a true movie fan to do what she did all those years. She raved about the lesser films and outright duds of her time in order to help promote her magazine and pay the bills. Perhaps, behind the scenes, all she really wanted to do was settle in with a quiet Ozu film.

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