SPEAKING OF HARPO by Susan Marx with Robert S. Bader (Applause)
As someone who gobbled up every word in Harpo Marx’s memorable autobiography Harpo Speaks, I reveled in this posthumous publication by his widow Susan. Where else in the year 2022 could one read fresh observations of Harpo and such fabled cronies as Alexander Woollcott, Ben Hecht, and Oscar Levant? This is catnip to a Marx devotee like myself. Mrs. Marx is especially candid in her thoughts about her husband’s famous brothers. She was exasperated by Chico, had little use for Groucho’s mean-spirited humor, and had no use at all for Zeppo. Significantly, she was a dedicated aunt and sounding board for their offspring and in some cases their ex-wives as well. Susan’s memories of the films she appeared in (as Susan Fleming) are brief and not especially enlightening but her recollections of Harpo at work and play are all-encompassing and (I’m happy to say) entirely positive. I found the later chapters about her life as a widow less than compelling but that’s a small complaint considering the bounty of riches the rest of the book provides. Thanks to lifelong Marxian Robert Bader for working with Susan to plumb her memory and for piecing together this valuable book.
ERNEST LEHMAN: THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS by Jon Krampner (University Press of Kentucky)
This highly readable biography of one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters is as welcome as it is overdue. But the man it portrays is not always the hero of his own story. Lehman was an insomniac, a hypochondriac, and an often-antisocial fellow who would walk out of his wife’s dinner parties and retreat to a room where he chatted with fellow HAM radio operators. He had little to do with his two sons. He drove colleagues crazy with his mania for revisions and changes to his scripts, up to and including the eleventh hour.
Yet this is the man who wrote North by Northwest and Sweet Smell of Success (based on his own short stories). That alone would guarantee his entry to the screenwriting hall of fame. His contributions to The King and I, West Side Story and The Sound of Music are underrated to this day. He eliminated songs, resituated others in the continuity and crafted dialogue to lead into and out of them so seamlessly that his efforts were taken for granted. (A fellow writer congratulated him on his “typing.”) He produced and adapted Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, giving Mike Nichols his first directing job in Hollywood—which he soon regretted, leading to a decades-long feud.
Author Krampner is a bit of a character himself, taking two-thirds of a page to detail how he failed to secure an interview with actor Bruce Dern. Yet his book makes for good reading, eccentricities and all.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF SUSPENSE: THE BUILT WORLD IN THE FILMS OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK by Christine Madrid French; foreword by Alan Hess (University of Virginia Press)
Yet another book on Alfred Hitchcock? Yes, and a damn good one, too. If you saw the chapter excerpted in Vanity Fair you know that author French posits that having James Mason live in an ultramodern house near Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest changed mainstream movie villainy forever. (Think of the lavish lairs inhabited by James Bond villains, for example.) She provides ample context for each of her well-considered theories, going so far as to trace the history of the two structures that dominate Psycho: the Victorian mansion (in the second Empire Revival style) and the one-story motel. She also draws a direct line from the USC School of Architecture and Hollywood production design—although Henry Bumstead and Dorothea Holt Redmund graduated with BFA degrees. Like Hitchcock himself, who found fascination in the commonplace, French explores ideas that might seem evident to a Hitchcock aficionado but haven’t been expressed before, and certainly not so eloquently. With well-chosen illustrations, this is a book of genuine discovery.
CAPTAIN OF HER SOUL: THE LIFE OF MARION DAVIES by Lara Gabrielle (University of California Press)
Author Gabrielle has given us a gift: an honest biography of a woman whose life and career have long been misunderstood. Drawing on vintage interviews and other primary materials that haven’t been examined before, she paints a sympathetic portrait of a woman who enjoyed her life and endured more than her share of slings and arrows. As the longtime mistress of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, she lived in the shadows even while maintaining her status as the movie colony’s most celebrated party-giver. The resuscitation of her silent films in recent years also permits the author to evaluate Davies’ work in greater detail than any of her predecessors. In short, this is the book Marion Davies has always deserved.
THE ACADEMY AND THE AWARD by Bruce Davis (Brandeis University Press)
Having served as Executive Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for twenty years, the author is uniquely qualified to document its history. But this is not a personal memoir: Davis dug deep into the organization’s files and read through countless minutes of committee meetings in order to chronicle the organization’s founding and growth and bury some of its myths—including the serpentine story of how its world-famous award got its nickname. That this Hollywood institution survived its first tumultuous decade is a tale which Davis recounts with wit and discernment. His erudition is icing on the cake: what could have been dry and academic is instead a highly readable book that can lay claim to being definitive.