LETTERS FROM HOLLYWOOD: INSIDE THE PRIVATE WORLD OF CLASSIC AMERICAN MOVIEMAKING Compiled and Edited by Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall; foreword by Peter Bogdanovich (Abrams)
This is, quite simply, one of the finest books I’ve ever read about Hollywood. Editors Rocky Lang, a second-generation producer, and Barbara Hall, a longtime archivist and librarian, have gathered scores of personal notes, letters, and communiques from the era before e-mail, when civilized people still cherished the written word. They also provide important context for each selection. Because most of these letters were never intended to be read by anyone other than the recipient they are candid and revealing. They offer rare insights to the sender’s personality and, in many cases, their way of doing business. If you thought Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Audrey Hepburn were charming, you were right; the letters here prove that they didn’t need a script to exude that quality. Even the mode of typing and use of pen and ink is fascinating. (Each note is reproduced from the original, with a typeset copy alongside it for clarity.) John Barrymore hand-writes a brief letter to Edward G. Robinson expressing his admiration for a recent performance. Tallulah Bankhead tells producer David O. Selznick that she’s grown impatient with him stringing her along while he continues to search for the right actress to play Scarlett O’Hara.
Stars are not the only ones represented here. The editors sought out correspondence from, and to, movie industry insiders. Producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, costume and production designers, composers, publicists and studio chiefs are all represented, from the silent era through the 1970s. Elia Kazan lays out his plan to persuade the MPAA to allow him to depict a brothel in East of Eden. In a one-line fax, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli informs his producing partner that United Artists’ head of production has vetoed casting Sean Connery as James Bond.
It’s tempting to quote from many of these missives but one of the most forthright and witty is a letter from renowned stage actor Louis Calhern to his New York friends Leonard and Sylvia Lyons how he deals with working in Hollywood. It is typed on stationery from the fabled Garden of Allah apartments and says, in part, “I enjoy my work because I have reached a sensible attitude toward it. One starts out here wearing a necktie and refusing to buy sports coats and suede shoes and otherwise assuming lordly poses toward the industry. But the wise man conforms and learns his place and stays in it. Lordliness dwindles when you are told to tear your head from an untimely pillow at 5:30 and scoot through the clammy dawn to work and you obey. You ain’t nothing but an employee and happy is the man who knows it. Of course there are subtle little ways of preserving self-respect and clinging to individuality… Like a lot of other even greater men my joys are private and inner.”
I couldn’t help myself from reading some of the juicier correspondence aloud to my wife; you may find yourself doing the same. The contents are too good not to share. When I finished the book, I found myself wanting more. This is one Hollywood production that begs for a sequel.
THE HOLLYWOOD BOOK CLUB by Steven Rea (Chronicle Books)
As he did in Hollywood Rides a Bike, film critic Steven Rea invites us to enjoy a gallery of vintage publicity photos—in this case, showing movie stars reading books. It’s fun to flip through, with captions providing background info and cheeky remarks. Some selections are spot-on (Gregory Peck reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Steve McQueen and director John Sturges discussing The Great Escape) while others are unexpected treats (Alfred Hitchcock yawning while supposedly reading The World of Birds). Stars on hand include Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Errol Flynn, and Audrey Hepburn, to name just a few. If you love movie stills as I do you’ll enjoy this handsome, compact volume.
THE LAUREL & HARDY MOVIE SCRIPTS annotated by Randy Skretvedt (Bonaventure Press)
Laurel & Hardy expert Randy Skretvedt has compiled this collection of 20 original scripts for the duo’s short subjects from 1926 to 1934. The main point of interest is how tentative these supposed blueprints turned out to be. The comedy stars and their colleagues changed, added to, and sometimes scrapped the screenplays altogether during production. Frankly, I find reading through these written guidelines something of a chore, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book because of Skretvedt’s knowledgeable comments, accompanied by complete film credits and rare illustrations. I would readily recommend this paperback to any dedicated Laurel & Hardy aficionado.
CINEPHILE: A CARD GAME by Cory Everett, illustrated by Steve Isaacs (Clarkson Potter)
This isn’t a book but it has been “published” and seems to belong in this survey, as it doesn’t fit any other category. Cinephile comes in a well-designed box with 150 cards featuring whimsical renderings of well-known actors as they appeared in memorable movies. Using them you can play five different games: Filmography (in which you try to top your opponent by naming more titles of films featuring a given actor), Head On (a timed game in which player one holds up a card face out and tries to guess either the actor or the movie from clues given by the others), Movie Actor (which asks player one to pick a card and name other actors in the movie cited before challenging another player to chime in), and Take Six (a round-robin requiring each player to name an actor connected to his/her card using six degrees of separation). Cinephile also enables you to play by yourself if you choose. I haven’t yet tried playing with a group but this looks to be an enjoyable way to match your movie knowledge with like-minded friends.
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD: THE PRE-CODE ERA (1930-34), WHEN SIN RULED THE MOVIES by Mark A. Vieira (TCM/Running Press)
No one knows more about the tantalizing and provocative films of the early 1930s than Mark Vieira, and no one has access to better still photos. His 1999 volume Sin in Soft Focus covered this territory but as it is out of print, it’s to film buffs’ benefit that TCM has commissioned a new entry in its ongoing series of beautifully packaged books.
Vieira charts the events that led to the Motion Picture Association of America bearing down on Hollywood studios in 1934 and enforcing strict new guidelines that changed the face (and content) of American movies for decades to come. He devotes chapters to each major studio, identifying their house style and characteristics, as well as milestone films like Hell’s Angels, The Public Enemy, Dracula, Frankenstein, A Free Soul, Scarface, Red–Headed Woman, Call Her Savage, Island of Los Souls, The Sign of the Cross, She Done Him Wrong, and Baby Face, among others. With exquisitely showcased illustrations and informative text, this book meets the high standard one would expect from its author and publisher.