One might think that by this time, every conceivable film-related topic has been covered in book form…but the newest releases prove that this isn’t so. Perhaps the most unusual, and exciting, addition to the library of movie books is M-G-M: HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST BACKLOT by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan, with a foreword by MGM veteran Debbie Reynolds (Santa Monica Press). As the authors explain in their Introduction, “Our purpose in producing this book is not to discuss the films that MGM produced. That particular road has been well traveled elsewhere. Our interest here is not in the product at all, but rather the factory responsible for that product. Our goal is to preserve, in print and in memory, if not in brock and mortar, the actual physical place that was once Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the first time.”
Once you start leafing through this beautifully-produced volume, you won’t be able to stop. The authors have traced the—
—history of the M-G-M lot with equal measures of thoroughness and panache. This is much more than a collection of behind-the-scenes photos: it is a guided tour inside the walls of a magical kingdom, building by building, street by street, peppered with quotes from people who worked there over the years. From scene storage to the fabled Little Red Schoolhouse, from the standing sets to the backlot jungle and lake, this is a closeup look at Hollywood’s most prestigious studio from its earliest days through the television era.
No star shone more brightly at MGM in the 1930s than the platinum blonde Jean Harlow. HARLOW IN HOLLYWOOD by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira (Angel City Press) celebrates the popular star in an exceptionally handsome, oversized book filled with rare, often candid photos. As the authors admit, the definitive biography of Harlow has already been written (by David Stenn), but their lively overview of her life and times is compulsively readable and filled with quotes from the star herself. It’s amazing to contemplate just how short a time she lived and worked in Hollywood, and how big an impact she made on fans and coworkers alike. Seeing so many well-chosen pictures of Harlow, in and out of character, at home, on the town, and through the eyes of her many portrait photographers, she becomes a tangible human being—not just a goddess of the silver screen.
ARTHUR PENN: AMERICAN DIRECTOR by Nat Segaloff (The University Press of Kentucky) is a first-rate biography of a man whose film output was relatively small but exceedingly choice. If he had done nothing other than direct the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde he would still be celebrated. Fortunately, this is a full-fledged biography, not merely a “films of…” volume, so we get a rounded portrait of the humanist and devoted family man who made his mark in several media. Better yet, Segaloff spends as much time discussing Penn’s pioneering television work and Broadway plays as he does the films that we remember (The Left Handed Gun, The Miracle Worker, Mickey One, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves). If anything, this book whetted my appetite to learn even more about Penn.
FILM AND TELEVISION MUSIC: A GUIDE TO BOOKS, ARTICLES, AND COMPOSER INTERVIEWS, Compiled and Edited by Warren M. Sherk (Scarecrow Press) is, as its title indicates, an exhaustive work running 667 oversized pages; the index alone takes up about 80 of those pages. It will undoubtedly become an indispensible reference tool for anyone who wants to study or write about film music. Where else can one find a fully indexed guide to film periodicals, books, and even academic dissertations dealing with composers and their scores? Silent-film buffs will take particular interest in an annotated list of music publishers’ folios and guide to film accompaniment, beginning with a 1909 publication titled Motion Picture Piano Music: Descriptive Music to Fit the Action, Character or Scene of Moving Pictures. As a longtime staff member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, and a musician himself, Sherk is the ideal person to have tackled this Herculean task.
A RESEARCH GUIDE TO FILM AND TELEVISION MUSIC IN THE UNITED STATES by Jeannie Gayle Pool and H. Stephen Wright (Scarecrow Press) is not a redundant title from the same publisher. Unlike Sherk’s book, this volume offers fundamental guidelines to film music research, covering everything from locating original scores to how to read a cue sheet. The authors explain the origins and development of silent-film accompaniment, and detail the many ways a written score may differ from the finished recording. A listing of primary sources is bound to be as useful to researchers as the warnings of pitfalls in “reading” an original score. I was happy to provide a short foreword to this useful volume, which is yet another example of why people who think one can find everything one could possibly need online are wrong.
IMAGES OF OLD TUSCON, written and published by Mike Bifulco, is an enjoyable picture-and-text tribute to one of the most famous movie location sites of all time. It was actually built, at considerable expense, for the 1940 Columbia Picture Arizona, directed by Wesley Ruggles and starring Jean Arthur and William Holden. The recreation of the mid-1800s Tucson Pueblo was so well thought-out and executed that it became a home to dozens of subsequent film and TV productions over the next 65 years. Bifulco has visited Old Tucson many times and taken pictures, which are spread throughout the book alongside stills, posters and behind-the-scenes shots of Winchester 73, Rio Bravo, The Last Outpost, Buchanan Rides Alone, McLintock!, Joe Kidd, Tombstone, and many other great and not-so-great Westerns. A devastating fire in 1995 brought an end to that history, but Bifulco has even found a few identifiable landmarks on recent trips to the remnants of the movie town. You can purchase this softcover book directly from the author for $24.95, postpaid, at email@example.com.
MM—PERSONAL: FROM THE PERSONAL ARCHIVES OF MARILYN MONROE by Lois Banner (Abrams) dives into the actress’ file cabinets and brings forth notes, letters, telegrams, snapshots, proof sheets, newspaper clippings, and professional photos. I didn’t think I’d find all of this terribly interesting, but I was wrong. Reading Monroe’s hand-written letters, or notations of which images she liked best from a photo session, is undeniably fascinating. Perusing messages and legal correspondence from her agent, manager, lawyer, and movie studio are revealing in a number of different ways. The ephemera ranges from canceled checks and invoices to short notes of appreciation from the likes of W. Somerset Maugham. What’s more, the presentation of this material is as appealing as the contents: photographer Mark Anderson frames some letters in garlands of flowers and creates compelling visual arrangements of passports and other documents. With each turn of the page comes a new surprise.You don’t have to be a MM fanatic to get lost in this book.
WAR EAGLES: THE UNMAKING OF AN EPIC, Edited by Philip J. Riley, Production Background by David Conover (Hollywood Publishing Archives/BearManor Media) describes itself as “a forensic investigation” into “the greatest motion picture NEVER made.” Devotees of King Kong and its primary creators, producer Merian C. Cooper and special effects wizard Willis O’Brien have read about this unrealized project, which was to have been made in Technicolor at MGM in the late 1930s. Riley and Conover have painstakingly assembled every shred of background material on this tantalizing film—including color and black & white frame enlargements from a test reel of footage. Using letters, inter-office memoranda, story outlines, concept drawings and paintings, interviews, and the existing shooting script, they have left no stone unturned in an effort to bring War Eagles to life on the printed page.
Finally, two books I’ve recommended before are now available in lower-priced paperback editions:
THE COMEDY OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN: ARTISTRY IN MOTION by Dan Kamin (Scarecrow Press) A well-known Chaplin aficionado and authority, Kamin is also—unlike almost everyone else who writes about him—a talented performer who has studied and absorbed the physicality of the Great Man. (You can see samples of him at work on YouTube.) He helped develop Johnny Depp’s pantomime routines for Benny & Joon, and even coached Robert Downey, Jr. on how to walk like Charlie for his performance in Chaplin. This profusely illustrated book expands upon and supersedes his earlier work, Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show, and attempts to analyze the nature, and genius, of Chaplin’s work. Yet Kamin writes clearly and sensibly: “Isolating scenes makes it easy to see how Chaplin uses the various elements of dance—or, more accurately, the laws of Newtonian physics along with some of the aesthetic principles of dance movement—to conjure comedy from the mundane actions of everyday life. Of course, viewers don’t have to recognize the sophisticated underpinnings of his physical comedy to appreciate it, which makes his achievement all the more impressive. Chaplin’s highly stylized movement comes to seem so natural that we stop noticing it is stylized. Instead, like a good movie soundtrack, it becomes unobtrusive. Yet dance—in this larger sense—is central to the meaning of Chaplin’s films, helping him to define his character and strongly affecting what subject matter he is drawn to. It intertwines with the films’ content.”
And last but by no means least:
YOU COULDN’T IGNORE ME IF YOU TRIED by Susannah Gora (Crown Publishers) I had quibbles and quarrels with John Hughes’ work, but there was never any question in my mind that his most heartfelt films about the pain and awkwardness of growing up (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink) spoke to teenagers everywhere. No one could have foreseen that those films and a handful of others (Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, and Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire, co-written by Carl Kurlander) would make a lasting impression and influence a generation of filmmakers and musicians—not to mention an ever-growing legion of admirers. With the passion of a fan and the inquisitiveness of a good journalist, author Gora has produced a book on the phenomenon of these 1980s movies that is as readable as it is informative. Based on her own observations and interviews with many of the people who made these films, among others, her lively book sets the films into the context of their time, explains why they stood out then—and why they continue to resonate today. Gora captures the emotional truths behind-the-scenes as well as the moments onscreen that made Hughes and company so successful. It’s hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since the first of these films appeared, but it’s true. That makes them part of movie—and pop culture—history, and they are well served by this excellent volume.