With the holiday movie season come movie tie-in books galore, from The Art of The Adventures of Tin-Tin to the truly impressive Harry Potter Stage to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey by Bob McCabe (both from Harper Design). I prefer to focus on books that may not have as high a profile but warrant your attention. I haven’t had time to read these through, so these aren’t reviews, but rather an overview of the current crop.
Chaplin scholar Lisa K. Stein has put years of research into the first-ever biography of SYD CHAPLIN (McFarland), Charlie’s half-brother who has been little more than a footnote in most accounts of his famous sibling. Born into the same dire poverty as Charlie, Syd worked hard to make something of himself and traveled much the same route as Charlie—through the Fred Karno music hall troupe across the ocean to Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in Los Angeles. But while Syd enjoyed several brief spurts of stardom, and helped negotiate some of Charlie’s most important and lucrative contracts, he had a self-destructive streak a mile wide. Darryl Zanuck, who co-wrote Syd’s hit Warner Bros. features of the 1920s, later said he was “better read and handsomer than his younger half brother,” and “if a shrewd director had only take him in hand, probed his real character, soothed his resentments, calmed his phobias, he might have developed a quality in him that could have changed his career.” Stein interviewed Chaplin family members, was given full access to the Chaplin archives, and lucked into a cache of persona letters that help paint a picture of this quixotic shadow-figure and his place in film history.
Douglass K. Daniel’s TOUGH AS NAILS: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF RICHARD BROOKS (University of Wisconsin Press) is another welcome biography. Brooks is too-often overlooked in surveys of American filmmakers, especially since he managed to sustain a long career writing and directing mainstream movies on his own terms—from Blackboard Jungle to In Cold Blood and beyond. Daniel was fortunate in gaining the cooperation of Brooks’ wife, the late Jean Simmons, and his daughter, as well as a number of associates and colleagues. He also had access to Brooks’ papers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This promises to be a significant addition to the cinema bookshelf, and a long-overdue tribute to a major talent. Scott Wilson, who played one of the leading roles in In Cold Blood, says “Douglass Daniel has nailed Richard Brooks.” That’s a ringing endorsement, if you ask me.
ROGER CORMAN INTERVIEWS, Edited by Constantine Nasr (University Press of Mississippi) is the latest entry in the publisher’s Conversations with Filmmakers series, supervised by Gerald Peary. Longtime Corman fans and followers already know that the man who made Teenage Caveman and Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent is in fact a bright, articulate Stanford graduate with a sharp memory, no pretensions, and well-defined opinions about moviemaking and the movie business. Nasr has compiled some of his best interviews, spanning a number of decades and conducted by an impressive array of journalists and admirers, including Bertrand Tavernier, Michel Ciment, Todd McCarthy, and Ed Naha, to name just a few. He also reprints Corman’s acceptance speech for his Governor’s Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences two years ago.
THE LUCKY SOUTHERN STAR: REFLECTIONS FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (Hollywood Adventures Publishing) is a charming memoir by longtime leading lady Julie Adams, written in collaboration with her son, Mitchell Danton. Here is the story of a girl from Arkansas who made her way to Hollywood and not only broke into the movie business but wound up working opposite James Stewart, Tyrone Power, Rock Hudson, and Elvis Presley, among others. Adams allows us to share her journey, and knows that fans are especially interested in knowing every possible detail about her most enduring movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon. She obliges with entertaining behind-the-scenes stories and photos. In fact, this handsomely-published paperbound volume is brimming with great pictures tracing Adams’ life and career. It is available only through her website: www.julieadams.biz.
RADIO IN THE MOVIES: A HISTORY AND FILMOGRAPHY by Laurence Etling (McFarland) is a scholarly survey of the parallel paths taken by these two influential media over the course of the 20th century and up to the present day. Etling covers a wide swath of popular culture reflected in these movies, ranging from The Big Broadcast (1932) through the rock ‘n’ roll era, to such notable films as Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987) and Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (1988). In fact, his book concludes with the first chronological filmography of radio-related movies I’ve ever seen. The first entry is The Radio Detective (1926) and the latest is The King’s Speech (2010).
SITTING PRETTY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CLIFTON WEBB by Clifton Webb with David L. Smith; foreword by Robert Wagner (University Press of Mississippi) is an unusual entry in the publisher’s Hollywood Legends series. The text is based on Webb’s unfinished autobiography, which Smith completed by examining extensive notes the actor left behind. It features a ringing endorsement by Richard D. Zanuck, Darryl F.’s son, who grew up knowing Webb as an extended member of his family, as well as two of the best biographers working today, David Stenn and Scott Eyman, who writes, “David Smith has performed a heroic feat of archaeology in rescuing and completing this delightful book about a delightful man.” Robert Wagner says the book reads as if it were written by Elliot Templeton, “the character he played so beautifully in The Razor’s Edge. Templeton was supposedly based by Somerset Maugham on an English social butterfly named ‘Chips’ Channon, but to me Elliott Templeton is Clifton Webb.”
AMERICA’S FILM LEGACY 2009-2010: A VIEWER’S GUIDE TO THE 50 LANDMARK MOVIES ADDED TO THE NATIONAL FILM REGISTRY IN 2009-2010 by Daniel Eagan (Continuum) is an addendum to Eagan’s ambitious volume chronicling every title voted onto the National Film Registry since its inception in 1989. This slender paperback covers the fifty newest films to join their ranks during the past two years, and like the overall roster, they truly run the gamut in terms of age, genre, and popularity. Eagan’s clear-eyed essays place each film into proper context within the larger picture of American cinema that the Registry seeks to represent, whether dealing with the 1906 actuality short A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, or Sally Cruikshank’s nutty animated cartoon Quasi at the Quackadero.
MARTY FELDMAN: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A COMEDY LEGEND by Robert Ross (Titan Books) explores the short but eventful life of a man who continues to inspire comedians today—and everyone who first encounters him as Igor in Young Frankenstein. The author is an acknowledged expert on British comedy whose other books include The Monty Python Encyclopedia, so he is well positioned to trace the life and times of this unique performer who admitted, “Once you’ve realised you’ve got the kind of face people laugh at, rather than swoon over, you concentrate on making people laugh.” (He also said, “I feel about Keaton the way an organist thinks of Bach,” which can only endear him to comedy aficionados everywhere.)
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE MOVIES: ELEVENTH ABRIDGED EDITION by Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin (Pearson) is the latest update of a standard work pioneered by the late Mast and carried on by Kawin since 1988. Decades ago, Mast’s book took the place of Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art as the go-to resource for teaching a broad-based course in film studies. Now, with Kawin’s additions dealing with everything from Avatar to the age of YouTube, the book reestablishes its relevance as a highly useful single-volume reference on world cinema, past and present. Putting Buster Keaton on the cover is a nice touch!
THE ACTOR WITHIN: INTIMATE CONVERSATIONS WITH GREAT ACTORS by Rose Eichenbaum (Wesleyan University Press) includes brief but telling interviews with Karl Malden, Ed Harris, Ruby Dee, William H. Macy, Marcia Gay Harden, Joe Mantegna, Ellen Burstyn, James Cromwell, CCH Pounder, Debra Winger, Stockard Channing, Bill Pullman, Amanda Plummer, Elliott Gould, and Piper Laurie, among others. Each conversation is accompanied by a striking photograph of the subject by the author. Eichenbaum’s disarmingly simple questions are clearly based on research about each actor’s work, and the results are not standard-issue interviews.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of my favorite books of the past year, Sam Irvin’s KAY THOMPSON: FROM ELOISE TO FUNNY FACE (Simon & Schuster) is now available in a paperback edition. You can read my original review HERE.
And my friend Max Allan Collins has revived his Nathan Heller character for the first time in a decade to tackle yet another true-life crime, the murder of Marilyn Monroe, in BYE BYE, BABY (Forge Books). As in his earlier books, the fictional private eye Heller becomes involved with real-life figures including Monroe, Peter Lawford, and both John and Robert Kennedy in this highly readable yarn. Collins’ main goal is telling a good story, but he backs up his wisecracking hero’s exploits with solid research into the real-life case, as he explains in his endnotes. I enjoyed every bit of it.