As usual, books keep piling up much faster than I can possibly read them, so rather than wait until I can compose full-length reviews I’m going to highlight a handful of recent arrivals I’ve only had a chance to skim. I will have more for you shortly, as there is still a healthy stack of volumes awaiting perusal on my shelf. Meanwhile, these publications seem eminently worthy of your attention.
LAUREL & HARDY’S ADVERTISING ANTICS by Antony & Joanne Mitchell-Waite
This self-published, labor-of-love paperback from England is a followup to the authors’ thorough, and very useful, Laurel & Hardy’s Animated Antics, which chronicles all of the duo’s appearances in cartoon form from the 1930s onward. (Both books can be purchased HERE and the newest one is also available in e-book form.) The new volume is more of a curio, as it includes hundreds of examples of latter-day advertising featuring Stan and Ollie references, imitations, and unlicensed eating and drinking establishments from all over the world. For me, the most interesting material remains the relatively limited number of ads in which the actual comedians participated during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, for such products as Old Gold Cigarettes, Van Houten Cocoa, Nestle’s Crunch Bar, Mobiloil, and London’s own Stak-a-Bye Chairs. Nevertheless, it’s amazing to see how many advertising agencies and individual merchants made use of the duo’s familiar names and faces over the years.
WRITING IN PICTURES: SCREENWRITING MADE (MOSTLY) PAINLESS by Joseph McBride (Vintage)
Joe McBride has written impressive biographies, reviews, essays, and documentaries over the years, as well as collaborating on the screenplay for the cult favorite Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Few people are as knowledgeable about filmmaking and film history. But when he started teaching screenwriting at San Francisco State University a decade ago, he was dissatisfied with the books he read about this unique craft. Too many of them offered formulaic “how-to” advice which, he suggests, has led to scores of formulaic screenplays. He emphasizes that passion, and knowledge of the medium, paired with a simple study of movie structure, will serve a budding writer much better than a fill-in-the-blanks routine. This book also makes for good reading, even if you have no intention of trying to write a screenplay.
PHILIP KAUFMAN by Annette Insdorf. Contemporary Film Directors series, edited by James Naremore. (University of Illinois Press)
At last, there is a thoughtful, scholarly study of one of America’s most underrated filmmakers. The man who made The Wanderers, The Right Stuff, and especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being has followed his own path from the 1970s onward, remaining in the San Francisco Bay Area and trying to avoid “typecasting” or succumbing to the lure of Hollywood. Insdorf, the director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, has been a Kaufman booster for years, and brings her insights to bear on his highly individual, and idiosyncratic, work. To quote the jacket copy, “Insdorf links [his films] by exploring the recurring and resonant themes of sensuality, artistic creation, codes of honor, and freedom from manipulation. While there is no overarching label of bold signature that can be applied to his oeuvre, she illustrates the consistency of themes, techniques, images and concerns that permeates all of Kaufman’s works.”
WILD WILD WESTERNERS: A ROUNDUP OF INTERVIEWS WITH WESTERN MOVIE AND TV VETERANS by Tom Weaver (BearManor Media)
No one has been more diligent in finding and interviewing, neglected and nearly-forgotten people from Hollywood history than Tom Weaver. What’s more, he knows the right questions to ask. His latest collection of mostly brief conversations is fun to read if, like me, you have an insatiable appetite for behind-the-scenes stories about Westerns, B movies, and filmed television in the 1950s and 60s. From Robert Clarke’s amazingly clear recollection of working in RKO Westerns of the 1940s to Robert Colbert’s memories of being shoehorned into the cast of TV’s Maverick in the early 60s, there’s never a dull moment. Other interviewees include actresses June Lockhart, Charlotte Austin, Ann Robinson, Jo Ann Sayers, and Lisa Davis, writer-producer Andrew J. Fenady, cinematographer Richard Kline, actors Paul Picerni, Bill Phipps, and (notably) Fess Parker, to name just a few. These aren’t in-depth career pieces and aren’t meant to be, but they are fun to read.
DARK SHADOWS: RETURN TO COLLINWOOD by Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jim Pierson; foreword by Jonathan Frid (Pomegranate Press)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than forty years since Kathryn Leigh Scott and her fellow cast mates starred in television’s daytime serial Dark Shadows, which predated the current trend of sexy vampires! Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michelle Pfeiffer are starring in Tim Burton’s new big-screen adaptation of the Dan Curtis series, which I’m happy to report includes cameo roles by Scott, David Selby, Jonathan Frid, and Lara Parker. This handsomely produced paperback volume, from Scott’s Pomegranate Press, offers a pictorial tribute to the original show and features a behind-the-scene look at its newest incarnation, with anecdotes galore. I’m certain fans will eat it up.
JACK DAVIS: DRAWING AMERICAN POP CULTURE, A CAREER RETROSPECTIVE (Fantagraphics)
Some people know Jack Davis’ distinctive cartoons and illustrations from his days with E.C. Comics and Mad magazine. Others may recall his profusion of advertisements, magazine covers, and record album artwork. Arguably his most enduring images were created for movie posters and ad campaigns, like the unforgettable crowd of caricatures he rendered for It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. This beautifully produced, oversized volume pays tribute to every aspect of Davis’ wide-ranging career, including his movie art, and should please anyone who’s ever admired his amazing work. Samples of sketches and rarely-seen original art sit side-by-side with finished pieces, as well as a biographical essay by Gary Groth and an overview by William Stout.
TALES FROM DEVELOPMENT HELL: The Greatest Movies Never Made? By David Hughes (Titan Books)
This update of Hughes’ 2003 book chronicles, in considerable detail, the twisted, tortured journeys of “hot” scripts that went cold, dream projects that turned into nightmares, and seemingly good ideas that never came to pass. The opening chapter recounts the saga of two fledgling screenwriters who penned an elaborate historical drama called Smoke and Mirrors, based on an outlandish real-life adventure involving the great stage magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. Overnight, it became the subject of a bidding war between two major studios. Sean Connery, and later Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, wanted to star…but one piece of bad luck after another plagued the project, which never got made, although many writers and producers worked on it over the years. Other what-if stories involve James Cameron’s attempt to remake Fantastic Voyage, John Boorman’s efforts to bring The Lord of the Rings to the screen, and Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky’s aborted collaboration onBatman: Year One, among many others. If you love industry gossip and backstage shenanigans, you will find this compelling (and cautionary) reading.