Some of these books are new, while others were released under cover of pandemic darkness. In any case, this is my first opportunity to acknowledge and write about them.
Thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject and dogged research, Richard Koszarski has produced a definitive chronicle of New York film production in the mid-20th century. What’s more, he augments and corrects misinformation to be found in untold numbers of existing articles and books.
This book provides long-elusive details about the making (and financing) of Soundies, “race” pictures, and other niche films in the 1940s and 50s. The arrival of producer Louis de Rochemont and his semi-documentary features is well covered along with the promotional hooey that accompanied their creation. Even a film as well known as The Naked City couldn’t separate fact from fiction in its publicity. Behind the scenes, the arcane logistics of financing caused movies like Mr. Universe (with Jack Carson and Bert Lahr) and St. Benny the Dip (with Dick Haymes and Nina Foch) to wind up on TV early—and often.
From interviews and primary sources—like the notes kept by “script girls” like Faith Elliott (later known as Faith Hubley) and Dede Allen (later to become a celebrated film editor)—he has pieced together the story of how Elia Kazan came to make On the Waterfront and Stanley Kubrick readied his second feature, Killer’s Kiss, at roughly the same time, using some of the same resources. In the process, the author explodes many legends—both big and small—surrounding these notable films. How close did Frank Sinatra come to playing the Brando part in On the Waterfront? Why did the writer whose original treatment served as the basis for that film see his name disappear from the credits, along with the newspaper reporter whose muckraking columns about waterfront corruption earned him a Pulitzer Prize?
Koszarski also explores the schism that existed for decades between the unions that held jurisdiction over the East and West Coasts. Here is a plain-spoken history of corruption, elitism, featherbedding and other ills. (Even after winning the Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront, cinematographer Boris Kaufman couldn’t get a job in Hollywood because of turf wars.)
Low-budget producer-director Joseph Lerner offered his freelance prop man $10 over scale if he would split the kickbacks he was receiving from prop houses. “ ‘I can’t do that, Joe, ‘cause I’ve got to make a living.’ I’ll never forget it. Same thing with the gaffer (chief electrician). He says, ‘I’m going with Charlie Ross, we buy from Charlie Ross because their stuff is the best.’ I said, ‘OK, what’s your kickback?’ He says, “Fifteen percent. ‘I’ll give you ten dollars a week over scale and I want to split that with you.’ ‘No way, Joe!’ ”
This is an exceptional work of research and writing, years in the making. If the production of cheesy films with Pigmeat Markham doesn’t interest you, rest assured that the story grows more captivating as it goes along. Keep ‘em in the East is a knockout.
One of my favorite caricaturists and illustrators, Edward Sorel provides fans like me an overview of his life as a) a New Yorker, b) a lapsed Jew, and c) a freelance artist, not to mention devoted husband and father. (He often collaborated with his wife Nancy.) A self-described “old Lefty,” he was never afraid to express his political views, even when they weren’t popular. But his pen aligned with his wit to create unforgettable visual interpretations of everyone from New York’s Mayor Ed Koch to Ronald Reagan. Rumbling like a subway train throughout the book is Sorel’s lifelong affection for the movies of his youth. There are loving caricatures of many Hollywood greats, including his favorite, Edward G. Robinson. All I can say to Sorel is: please don’t stop!
William Fox was a pioneer in the picture business, perhaps the most churlish of the immigrants who built a movie company and a vast chain of theaters to exhibit his product. To no one’s regret, he ran aground in the early 1930s and lived to see his studio coopted by a young upstart: 20th Century Pictures, founded by United Artists’ Joseph Schenck and ex-Warner Bros. production chief Darryl F. Zanuck (a rare Gentile among studio heads)—and funded in part by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer! This fact-filled volume surveys the colorful history of the company that merged to become 20th Century-Fox and remained intact until media mogul Rupert Murdoch sold it to the Walt Disney Company. This is not a deep dive like author Scott Eyman’s definitive biographies, but a breezy collection of sharp observations and dishy anecdotes that tell the “life story” of an enterprise even non-film buffs know from its logo and fanfare.
GARBO by Robert Gottlieb (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Having read about Garbo for years, including Barry Paris’s seemingly definitive 1995 biography, I wondered what this book could possibly offer. I soon found out: it’s a witty, often cheeky survey of the actress’s life and career, written by a venerable author, editor and critic. Dive in anywhere and I dare you to put it down. Gottlieb’s years of experience have given him the license to voice sometimes-bold and acerbic opinions that add to the fun. There are 250 beautifully printed photos, and several entertaining appendices: mentions of Garbo in books and songs, accounts of Garbo sightings, and a detailed filmography that includes budget and revenue figures. This is a perfect volume to keep at your bedside or on a coffee table, to pick up and browse at leisure.
Here’s another book that overcame my skepticism. What didn’t I already know about Orson Welles and Citizen Kane? Quite a bit, it turns out—and high time for a refresher. This welcome update and expansion of a 1990 book in trade paperback form tells the whole story of Welles and his notorious debut film in a concise and straightforward manner. He settles the Herman Mankiewicz screenplay kerfuffle in short order, as the final shooting script lacks dialogue and entire scenes that Welles added or invented at the last minute.
I’d forgotten just how far William Randolph Hearst and his deputies went to keep Kane off American theater screens. Aside from a blackout of coverage or advertising in Hearst newspapers, Harry Warner personally pledged that it wouldn’t play in any of his Warner theaters, and Fox’s Spiros Skouras did the same—meaning that even people who wanted to see it may not have had access to a showing in their community. The only question left unanswered is who contradicted their own stories more often, Hearst or Welles? (Did W.R. ever screen Citizen Kane? Either yes or no, depending on which of numerous responses you choose to believe. Did Welles ever meet the formidable publisher? Yes he did or no he didn’t, depending on when the subject came up in his long anecdotage.)
One of Walt Disney’s gifts was recognizing talent and steering it in sometimes-unexpected directions. Like most of the original planners of Disneyland (who were later dubbed Imagineers), Claude Coats had made enormous contributions to the landmark Disney animated features. Then Walt tapped him to design three-dimensional attractions for his ambitious amusement park. Coats built a second career working on the original park as well as Disneyland Europe in France. This loving tribute includes recollections from colleagues and family, never-before-seen illustrations and much more. It’s a handsomely produced volume that Disneyland aficionados will treasure.
Kwapis may not be a household name but he’s directed a number of good movies (Sesame Street presents Follow That Bird, Dunston Checks In, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) and TV shows (The Larry Sanders Show, The Office, Space Force) and draws on that experience to pass along chips of wisdom about the art, craft, and job of directing. He’s smart enough to know how to keep his ego in check but still take command of a set… and he cites a wide range of great films as role models, from All Quiet on the Western Front and The Magnificent Ambersons to American Graffiti. His book makes for good reading even if you aren’t aiming to step behind the camera.