From January 1989 through July 2001, I published a monthly column of film reviews in Classic Images under the title of "The Slide Area." Each month I would try and comment, in honest and independent fashion, on as many film-related books as possible. However, eventually, I decided to retire the column rather than acquiesce to censorial editorial requirements. I still read, or at least skim through, the majority of film books published, both from major and from specialist publishers, and I still receive the occasional suggestion from friends, colleagues and correspondents that I revive the column in some form. TheSlideArea.com is my response. It will be updated on a quarterly basis, and, hopefully, as time goes on, I will be able to cover a substantial number of new and worthwhile film books. As in the past, my reviews will be fair and honest, descriptive and evaluative, and, above all, independent, based on my knowledge and experience which includes publication of some seventy books on the history of popular entertainment and the editing of a further 140 works in the field.
When an anthology of the reviews was published in 1992 by Scarecrow Press, a reviewer in Library Journal commented, "These rollicking reviews are a welcome relief from the bland, pseudo-academic exegeses that have proliferated in recent years through media syndication…They brim with amusing digressions…, snide remarks…, and impetuous wisecracks." Hopefully, this column will continue in that tradition.
Publishers are encouraged to submit review copies of their latest film books to me at 4118 Rhodes Avenue, Studio City, Ca. 91604/818-769-4453.
Issue No. 6 / October 2006
James Robert Parish is as prolific as ever. Last year, he published Katharine Hepburn: The Untold Story (Advocate Books, $24.95) that posits the actress was bisexual and that her relationship with Spencer Tracy was platonic. (He is depicted as an abusive, alcoholic bisexual.) It is obviously all very speculative and Hepburn's life is open to other interpretations, but Parish writes entertainingly. The book is an easy read and is obviously well researched. Earlier this year, John Wiley & Sons published Parish's The Hollywood Book of Breakups ($16.95), in which he discusses some of the most famous divorces in show business history (Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, etc.) as well as some of the (at least to me) lesser known (Halle Berry and Eric Benét, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, etc.) In fact, most of the celebrities here are very well known; the earliest pairing is Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, who, of course, were not married and able to get divorced. There are biographies on all the participants, along with the breakup story and the aftermath. An entertaining mix of the informative and the lightweight.
Equally prolific it seems is Ball State University (Muncie, Indiana) professor Wes D. Gehring. He has published two books this fall, one fiction and one non-fiction. The Former is The Charlie Chaplin Murder Mystery (Ramble House), a comic novel involving a lost Chaplin film and the murder of a college professor who was an expert on silent films. The book is relatively short, but makes fun reading and features an introduction by me (which can only add to its appeal!).
Wes D. Gehring's Joe E. Brown: Film Comedian and Baseball Buffoon (McFarland, $35.00) is the first biography of the big-mouthed character comedian and nicely complements his 1956 autobiography, Laughter Is a Wonderful Thing. The current offering provides a detailed discussion of Brown's films and his love of baseball. It also emphasizes his progressive background, his pre-World War Two fight for the admission into the United States of Jewish children from Europe and his speaking out against the War's internment of Japanese Americans. I don't know that there is much interest any more in Joe E. Brown and, I suppose, if he is remembered today by the average moviegoer it is because of his appearance in Some Like It Hot and that classic curtain line, "Well, nobody's perfect." This biography is certainly worthwhile, but whether it will lead to a reawakening of interest in its subject remains to be seen.
Leonard Maltin and his Movie Guide need no introduction. The latest (2007) edition of this standard reference work was published in the summer of 2006 by Signet Books and contains more than 17,000 entries, including 300 or more new ones, as well as in excess of 8,000 DVD and 13,000 video listings. It's a book that I keep on my desk and use almost on a daily basis. As I have written before, the only addition that would make it better is the inclusion of the producer/distributor, but I realize this is virtually impossible in view of the additional space it would require. This year, there are two editions of the book: a regular size paperback at $8.99 and a larger size (and print) paperback version at $20.00.
In 1983, Sheridan Morley published a volume on the British in Hollywood titled Tales from the Hollywood Rajah. That same book has now been reprinted in paperback with a new introduction and last chapter under the title of The Brits in Hollywood: Tales from the Hollywood Raj (Robson Books/Trafalgar Square, $14.95). Sheridan Morley writes with style but he has little new or original to contribute to the topic under consideration. One cannot help but wonder if he should not have dug a little deeper into and not relied on a few published or personal sources. For example, he writes of the final speech in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terrror being "ultra-patriotic" with words supplied by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, the latter is correct, but the speech with its reference to an "east wind" was obviously selected by co-screenwriter John Bright whose Communist viewpoint led him to read into it the suggestion that the "east wind" was from Russia and the "stronger land" it was to herald was a Communist one. I suppose Sheridan Morley can be forgiven for ignoring the real implication of that speech, but what does one make of Chapter Six devoted to William Desmond Taylor, whose "name seems now to have disappeared from all but the most ancient movie reference works." So much for all the volumes on Taylor and his murder! If that was not bad enough, one might ask how Morley can describe Taylor, born in Carlow, Ireland, as "the first English director of note to work in Hollywood." Prior to the founding of the Irish Republic, it might be OK if not politically correct to describe Taylor as "British" – but English? No way!
Missing from the book is a bibliography because "a list of books consulted here would read like a complete catalogue of the British Film Institute's superlative library (both its chained and public sections). What a great excuse, and what a tribute to an institution about whom one hears little that is positive from other writers, researchers, scholars, and students – and none of whose "superlative" library, or so I am led to understand, is available in a public section.
Writing some years ago, I described the hardcover edition of Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference by John T. Soister with JoAnna Wioskowski as "an intelligent book." I see no reason to change my opinion now that a paperback edition has appeared from McFarland at $35.00. The book is basically a "Films of" volume, but with lengthy synopses, historical discussions and credits for each of the actor's films. There is also a good biography and detailed listings of Claude Rains' work in television, radio, theatre, concerts, and the recording field. I am also happy to report endnotes and a bibliography, both lacking from the previous title.
Good use is made of the Production Code Administration files at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, along with a close "reading" of the relevant films in The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931-1941: Madness in a Social Landscape by Reynold Humphries (Scarecrow Press, $35.00). The films under discussion range from Dracula in 1931 through The Devil Commands some ten years later, and the author takes positive delight in documenting abnormality, sadism, racism, sexual prejudice, and, of course, the indifference to others and lust for power evidenced in the "mad doctor" productions in particular. This is an academic text, but it is a readable one, and the author has sufficient a sense of humor to label chapters with headings such as "Can Heterosexuals Behave with Gay Abandon?" and "Just What the Mad Doctor Ordered."
I was somewhat dubious of the claim that Lester D. Friedman's Citizen Spielberg (University of Illinois Press, $75.00/$24.95) is the first comprehensive, academic study of Steven Spielberg's work. But, apparently this is true. There have been countless volumes on Spielberg and his films, but none that undertake an analysis by one writer alone. The volume stops before the release of Munich, but it does consider all other of Spielberg's productions in an academic style that is basically readable, quotes heavily from the writings of others, and is presumably intended for primary use as a textbook. Apropos of which, I find it quite extraordinary to read that the volume came into being after the author's students asked him to teach a course of Spielberg. Do university and college students now dictate what they are to be taught? If so, it is quite outrageous – and my opinion of the academic film community has sunk even lower. Surely, no academic should even consider a semester on Steven Spielberg before having devoted an equal length of time to D.W. Griffith, Jean Renoir, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and countless others.
Patrick J. McGrath's John Garfield: The Illustrated Career in Films and on Stage (McFarland, $39.95) is the third volume devoted to the actor and the first published in a number of years. It follows upon a "Films of" book and a biography, both published in 1975, and I might add that the current offering is not new, but simply a paperback reprint of a 1993 work. (Yes! A paperback book that costs $39.95!) Patrick J. McGrath's work is both a reference volume and a biography. It is not outstanding in either category, but there is nothing shoddy or poor here; the biographical section is detailed and intelligently written, and the listings of film and stage appearances provide the reader with all the pertinent information he or she needs. If nothing, the book reminds us of just how good an actor was John Garfield.
I don't know quite why the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys warrant a hardcover volume, but here it is: From Broadway to the Bowery: A History and Filmography of the Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys Films, with Cast Biographies by Leonard Getz (McFarland, $55.00). If you really care about these teenagers and their many reincarnations, you will not be disappointed. Every appearance is here, beginning the 1935 stage and 1937 feature film debuts. For each, the author provides full credits, a synopsis and what passes for critical/historical commentary. There are lots of photographs, and, as the subtitle tells us, biographies of each of them, including Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey and Bobby Jordan, some with remembrances from family members.
Finally, I would like to alert readers of this column to an upcoming book by Lon Davis. Silent Lives provides illustrated biographical sketches on 101 individuals from the silent film era, beginning with G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson and ending with Claire Windsor. There are many stars included, but also a surprising number of lesser names such as Eric Campbell, Vernon Dent, Marion Mack, and Billy West, along with a handful of directors and others (Billy Bitzer, Cecil B. DeMille, Paul Leni, Edwin S. Porter, William Desmond Taylor, Lois Weber, etc.), and (most surprising) the Model T Ford!
Copies of Silent Lives may be pre-ordered from BearManor Media, P.O. Box 71426, Albany, Ga. 31708. The email address is www.bearmanormedia.com.