Issue No. 15 / January 2010
Most welcome is a new, second edition of Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide (Plume, $23.00), some five years after publication of the original which incorporated and added to entries in what is now the almost legendary Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. The format is the same as to be found in the latter, with films ranging from the silent era through 1965, both foreign and domestic. In all, I am told more than 10,000 films are to be found here, and, surprisingly, I agree with all of the opinions on films that I checked. I am particularly pleased that Leonard did not take it upon himself to denigrate D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, as I am sure many commentators would have done, and gives the film, quite rightly, four stars.
King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman by Lon and Debra Davis (BearManor Media, $24.95) will undoubtedly serve as the definitive record of the life of an actor on screen from 1911 through 1966 and best remembered, when one thinks about it, for only one film, Ben-Hur, released in 1926. Bushman's is an amazing career in terms of its longevity and how he basically threw it all away thanks to an argument with Louis B. Mayer after Ben-Hur. That film really plays a pivotal role in the actor's career, which, truth be told, was virtually over after 1918. Ben-Hur brought Bushman back to stardom with his role as Messala. And, quite frankly, self-importance in Bushman's casting as that character led to the showdown with M-G-M's studio chief.
Lon and Debra Davis do not try to hide Bushman's fault. At the start, they describe him as a "vainglorious man," who always had to be in control. The couple concentrates on the life and career, rather than any heavy analysis of the films, and, in so doing, they provide the reader with some amusing episodes. Particularly I liked the notion of Bushman's opening a drive-in sandwich, beer and hamburger stand near MGM in 1937. How had the mighty fallen! I spotted only one mistake and that was the failure to identify the 1927 short, The Flag, as being produced by Technicolor. It was one in a series, including the feature-length, The Viking, which Technicolor made to promote its color system, and about which you can read in detail in my book, Silent Topics.
My only complaint about the book is the interior design which seems rather dated and, at times, cluttered. Curlicues really do not belong in a volume published in the 21st Century. If Francis X. Bushman has any relevance in this century – and I am not totally convinced that he does – then a study of his life should have a modern "look."
Dear Stinkpot: Letters from Louise Brooks by Jan Wahl (BearManor Media, $21.95) gathers together a considerable number of egocentric letters from the much-praised actress, written to a young Jan Wahl before he became a successful author of books for children. I am one of apparently a small number of individuals who finds it difficult to comprehend why Louise Brooks is so wonderful. I just do not get it that a modern haircut necessarily equates with a modern school of acting. Louise Brooks suffers in fact from a problem of which Lillian Gish has been accused. She spends too much time on screen just looking without indication that she understands the motivation behind the performance that she is supposedly giving.
That having been said, I have some difficulty in understanding also why we want to read this at times ridiculous and often arrogant correspondence. It seems almost that Jan Wahl is as self-involved as his heroine. He includes a large number of portrait photographs of the young Jan Wahl, in which he displays much the same expression in each. Is this inability to show varied emotions on celluloid something that afflicts both the actress and her devotees? Jan Wahl also adopts an approach to the correspondence which is personal rather than sensible from an editorial standpoint. He does not footnote the letters with explanations as to individuals discussed, but, rather, explains (only up to a point) what each letter is about at its close. Sometimes he is positively vague; for example, not identifying George Pratt of George Eastman House simply as gay, but "of a certain kind of bent." Excuse me?
There is no index. There is also no explanation as to the title. Why does Louise Brooks call him "stinkpot," which she seems to do in only one letter, reproduced on page seventy-nine. First of all, I thought I must have missed the part of the book in which the nickname is discussed, but I actually went through the volume twice hoping to find an explanation. Surely the reason for the title should have been made clear at the start? Instead, the book opens with a foreword by Sigmund Humanski of Toledo, Ohio, of whom I have not heard and whose relevance remains unexplained. Is this a joke and is he really Jan Wahl?
On the plus side, there is a very nice nude photograph of Louise Brooks on page twenty-five, with her breasts shown to advantage. (To me, this is an unusual item, but I am advised that copies of the photograph are fairly routinely for sale these days at "paper shows" and film conventions.) On the negative side, it is quite inexcusable to write that George Eastman House curator James "Card amused himself by wearing a Nazi stormtrooper cap and drove a 1936 bullet-proof Mercedes owned by Josef Goebbels." There is nothing "amusing" about being an American Nazi as it is very clear James Card was. One might also argue that there is nothing remotely impressive about a married man's having an affair in old age with Louise Brooks simply because of who she was. One may excuse the ignorance of youth, but Jan Wahl is no longer young and needs to look back with more gravitas.
When I begin reading a work of non-fiction I am too easily distracted. I tend to look first at the acknowledgements page and then start worrying about what I don't find there. And so it was with Mark A. Vieira's Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince (University of California Press, $34.95). Quite rightly, he thanks Ned Comstock at the U.S.C. Cinema Library for access to the MGM Script Collection there. But why is there no reference of the far larger MGM Script Library at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? In fact, there is no acknowledgement at all to the latter. Did the author not even check out the Library's general biographical file on the producer. In the endnotes, there are references to the Production Code Administration files at the Academy, but does this information come second hand?
And so I am drawn away from what I should be doing – reading a first-rate biography. When I do start reading the book, my attention is given over to Norma Shearer's memoirs, unpublished and lost, except for one copy that made its way to the author. He does not or will not reveal the source, and so, again, I start worrying (like a dog with a bone) as to who had this one surviving copy. Was it an obscure family member? Was it perhaps MGM publicist Howard Strickling, who took far too many secrets with him to the grave, but whose estate is acknowledged here?
I must stop this fixation with what many might claim irrelevant, and praise an excellent biography, the second book on the producer by Mark A.Vieira. The first, Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-G-M, was published in 2008. And that title provides me with yet another distraction as I stop to praise the author for correctly abbreviating Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as M-G-M rather than MGM, as most publishers insist and as I have done here. As one reads the biography, one is immediately struck by the number of quotes, worrisome at first until one checks the endnotes and discovers valid sources for all. And how lucky that Mark A. Vieira had access to the interview notes that Bob Thomas made for his 1969 biography, Thalberg: life and Legend.
Running to over 500 pages, this is a good, solid, perhaps definitive biography, well referenced, carefully considered, and written with care and foresight. It even boasts a quite fantastic appendix in which all of Thalberg's MGM films are listed with directors, and, incredibly difficult to find, exact figures as to profit or loss. King Vidor's The Big Parade comes in top with a profit of $3,485,500.00. George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet comes in bottom, with a loss of $922,000.00.
What is described as a "classic study" of early German cinema is translated by Inga Pollman and published as The Uncanny Gaze: The Drama of Early German Cinema by Heide Schlupmann (University of Illinois Press, $85.00/$30.00). While I am dubious that any book dating originally from 1990 can be described as "classic," there is nothing wrong or unreadable about the volume in its present translation. It is praiseworthy in that it introduces unknown German films to a wider audience, or at least a wider readership. It is, however, a feminist examination of pre-World War One German cinema, and, as such, is open to question as to the author's interpretation. And talking of interpretation, why must we have to suffer a foreword by Miriam Hansen, who is incapable of writing anything that is not impenetrable.
Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century by Matthew Solomon (University of Illinois Press, $65.00/$22.00) is most welcome, documenting the relationship of professional magicians and early cinema, with an emphasis on George Méliès and Harry Houdini. It emerges from the shadow of Erik Barnouw's 1981 volume, The Magician and the Cinema, and like its predecessor, it is not a lengthy tome – under 200 pages – and most readable. Disappearing Tricks suffers somewhat from its author's insistence on identifying academics and the often clichéd phrases they supposedly originated. The quote from Christian Metz at the start of the introduction may be as scary, if not more so, than many a magician's trick, but, happily, Metz does not reappear to confuse an otherwise well-researched and well-considered text. Endnotes are impressive, as are the bibliography and the many illustrations.
There is another volume in the excellent "Contemporary Film Directors" series: Michael Haneke by Peter Brunette (University of Illinois Press, $65.00/$19.95). The format is the same as with other books in the series, with the present offering provides a readable text, two interviews translated from the French, a filmography, and bibliography. And how deserving is the subject, who came to our attention with the brilliant and irritating Caché and continues to hold us with The White Ribbon, which recently, and rightly, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller & Marilyn Monroe by Jeffrey Meyers (University of Illinois Press, $29.95) is a pretty straightforward and far from academic account of the relationship of the writer and the movie star with heavy emphasis on the making of The Misfits. What makes the book important is its basis on a quarter-century friendship between its author and Arthur Miller (the two are shown together in a photograph on the back cover). What is odd about the book is that the author sometimes seems to be aware of how uninteresting reality can be. Thus, for example, he comments briefly on an apparently rather dull meeting, between Edith Sitwell and Monroe as it actually happened and then devotes considerable space to Donald Spoto's description of the meeting which Meyers notes is dramatized and adds various elements that were not actually present. Odd.
Charles Stumpf has been responsible for quite a few basic texts and his final work – he died in 2009 – follows in that tradition. ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career (McFarland, $45.00) delivers exactly what its title promises – just the facts, with no analysis of the films or the acting talent. The first 108 pages are the biography, with what is nothing more than a detailed filmography (credits only, no synopses) taking up a further seventy-one pages. The book concludes with a record of ZaSu Pitts' radio, television and stage appearances and a somewhat brief bibliography. There are no endnotes. One cannot complain about what is here, but a little editing would have helped in disposing of superfluous commentary, such as a summation of Chic Sales' career, and over-reporting on the now cancelled annual ZaSu Pitts Film Festival in Parsons, Kansas. ZaSu Pitts was a talented, if somewhat one-dimensional actress, and this book will be welcomed by her fans who are probably not large enough in number to guarantee major sales.
The second edition of Robert Brent Toplin's History by Hollywood (University of Illinois Press) examines how Hollywood filmmakers treat history using the examples of Mississippi Burning, JFK, Sergeant York, Missing, Bonnie and Clyde, Patton, All the President's Men, and Norma Rae. How Sergeant York made it into a relatively modern group of titles I do not know. The book is adequate; not great but not quite as "smart" and "instructive" as a quoted review from Publishers Weekly might claim. I would perhaps have had nothing further to write had I not read the author's standard, politically correct criticism of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Of course, the author calls the film Birth of a Nation, omitting the crucial definitive article. And that got me thinking about how the author might perhaps have accomplished exactly the same treatment of history as does Hollywood. For example, he writes of Warner Brothers and not, correctly, of Warner Bros. How then does he deal with the issue of citing Rudy Behlmer's book, which is titled, as it should be, Inside Warner Bros. Well, he changes Rudy Belhmer's title to Inside Warner Brothers, making poor Rudy Behlmer appear ignorant of the corporate name of the studio about which he is writing.
Then, there is the issue of Robert Brent Toplin's biography. He claims to have been "principal creator" of a number of PBS and Disney Channel films. What does this credit mean – and what are the titles of these films? I have never, in all my years in Hollywood, come across the credit of "principal creator" – and nor has the IMDB, where Robert Brent Toplin has only one credit, that of associate producer on the 1992 production of Lincoln and the War Within. "The strengths and weaknesses of Hollywood's presentation of history" is matched only by that of certain members of the academic community.
Back in 1977, I published Early Women Directors and discussed the phenomenon of the large number of female directors at work at Universal in the 1910s. With Universal Women: Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood (University of Illinois Press), Mark Garrett Cooper has examined that role of women in detail, undertaking careful research through the pages of The Universal Weekly and other periodicals of the period. The result is a remarkably intelligent, sensible and well-considered study which might only have been bettered had its author perhaps read the transcripts of interviews from recent years with relevant individuals. For example, I was able to talk some years ago with Ida May Park's son and I was surprised at his negativity towards his mother. I was also intrigued that here was another female director who was a Christian Scientist. At some point, there has to be an academic study of the role that Christian Science played in formulating the ideas and working habits of its female members within the film industry.
I was surprised when this book appeared that its author had not approached me. I am equally surprised, and pleased, that he thanks me in the acknowledgments, while noting he did not have the opportunity to talk with me personally. Odd.
Ronald or Ron Holloway, who died on December 16, 2009 at the age of seventy-six, was primarily a film journalist working for various trade publications. He also co-published, with his wife Dorothea, the journal KINO German Film & International Reports. Born in Peoria, Illinois, Holloway and his wife moved in 1976 to Berlin, where they were heavily involved with the Berlin Film Festival. He authored four books: Z Is for Zagreb (London: Tantivy Press, 1972), Beyond the Image: Approaches to the Religious Dimensions in the Cinema (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches in cooperation with Interfilm, 1977), New German Cinema: A Retrospective (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1983), and Bulgarian Cinema (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986).
Bart Andrews, who made a career out of writing about I Love Lucy, has died in Hollywood on December 26, 2009, at the age of sixty-four. It began in 1976 with Lucy & Ricky & Fred & Ethel, followed in 1985 with a newly revises edition titled The "I Love Lucy" Book. Andrews authored a reported twenty-five books, most of them dealing with TV trivia, and including The "I Love Lucy" Quiz Books. His final work, published in 1994, was an unauthorized biography of Janet Jackson.
The Los Angeles Times generally ignores the death of any author of film-related volumes – not to mention many major names from Hollywood's past – but obviously television trivia is important to the newspaper which has reduced both its page size and number of pages, resulting in a substantial obituary for Bart Andrews, complete with photograph, in the December 21, 2010, edition.
The term "popular culture" in all probability owes its existence to Ray Browne who died in Bowling Green, Ohio, on October 22, 2009, at the age of eighty-seven. It was Ray Browne who first suggested that popular culture become an academic subject, when, in 1967, he created the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and founded the Journal of Popular Culture. He also founded the Popular Culture Association, the Journal of American Culture, and, in 1973, along with Michael Marsden and Jack Nachbar, he established the popular culture department at Bowling Green University.
In 1970, Ray Browne, along with his wife Pat, created the Bowling Green Popular Press, which published an incredible number of books on the subject, some very worthwhile and some pretty mediocre. If anything, the series was notable for the incredibly amateurish covers that the books all boasted, which seemed to have been drawn and designed by someone with no understanding of creative art. The backlist of the Popular Press was disposed of some years ago by the Bowling Green University management to the University of Wisconsin Press.
The Hollywood Novel
At 576 pages, Sunnyside by Glen David Gold (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95) is arguably the most impressive Hollywood novel of all time, a sweeping saga that embraces two continents and includes host of real and fictional Hollywood characters. This owes no debt to so many minor Hollywood novelists of the past, but rather it is in the tradition of Charles Dickens and Tolstoi. Among the Hollywood names in Sunnyside are Charlie Chaplin (the "star" of the novel), Mildred Harris, Frances Marion, Mary Pickford, Edna Purviance, Douglas Fairbanks, Elsie Janis and Elliott Dexter. The presence of the last tells us that author Gold is not just interested in familiar Hollywood figures, and perhaps for that reason he barely mentions D.W. Griffith. He does however include William McAdoo, whose fascination with Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks leads to his persuading them, at the book's close, to found United Artists. Also here is a handsome young man who begins the novel as Leland Wheeler and ends it as Lee Duncan, shortly after he has brought the dog who was to become Rin Tin Tin back to the United States from war-torn Europe.
It should, of course, be Chaplin as the leading player and after a film by whom the novel is named, but to a large degree it is Lee Duncan who is the most sympathetic and the most engrossing of characters here. He begins the novel on November 12, 1916, by telling his lighthouse keeper mother that there is a small boat out at sea that is in dire trouble and whose sole occupant is apparently Charlie Chaplin. This is the first of many sightings of the comedian across the United States at the same time – a phenomenon as much of mass celebrity worship as mass hysteria which included, according to the Boston Globe of sighting of Chaplin in some 800 hotels.
The lives of the various individuals introduced at the novel's opening come together and drift apart as America's entry into World War One affects them in various ways. Author Gold has done a large amount of research into Hollywood history, and it shows, but he also demonstrates a knowledge of and interest in little-known areas of World War One, most notably the activities of an American expeditionary force fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia.
One reviewer has suggested that the author could not bear to leave any of his research out of the novel, and there is certainly something of a desperate feel to the amount of space devoted to a wealthy young man from Detroit named Hugo Black and his "adventures" in the decidedly gloomy and icy Russian region of Archangel. Equally, I suppose it is unusual to find Harvard professor and film critic Hugo Munsterberg, besotted with Annette Kellerman, so prominent in the cast, but does he really add anything to this epic? A cast of thousands could be reduced to a few hundred. Gold is at his best with Lee Duncan and his dogs and with Chaplin's emotional and confused response to his mother Hannah's arrival in Hollywood.
Ultimately, one is left with little but praise for Glen David Gold and his accomplishment. He has done for the Hollywood novel when no other author has achieved. He has taken Hollywood and its cast of characters and used them as a springboard for a panoramic view of society in the year between 1916 and 1919. Sunnyside would be impossible to film in that it is bigger than any motion picture and, quite frankly, more gripping. It moves backwards and forwards from one character to another without losing our interest, almost making us desperate for a chapter that will return us to a favored individual or plot device. One is as much moved by the death of Lee Duncan's best-loved dog, Nanette, as one is by Chaplin's putting his mother on a trolley car that will take her to Long Beach and a ship back to England. Both may be secondary players, but once introduced we do not forget them.