A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE MAKING OF FARGO by Todd Melby; foreword by William H. Macy (Minnesota Historical Society Press)
Despite the pedigree of its publisher, this book is not an academic treatise. The author is a Coen Brothers fanatic who has spent years examining every detail of their career and Fargo in particular. “In writing this book,” he explains, “I traveled to Los Angeles to read multiple drafts of the screenplay. I talked to actors who got their big breaks in Fargo, and a few who didn’t. I talked to a stuntwoman who bashed her head into a doorjamb while blinded by a shower curtain. I learned about the cassette tapes Ethan gave the film’s dialect coach, then I obsessively tracked down the man who recorded them. When a casting specialist told me she videotaped auditions, I nagged her for copies until she rifled through boxes in a barn to find them. When she finally mailed the unedited tapes to me, I opened them with the zeal of a child on Christmas morning. I also talked to dozens of cast and crew members and combed through ephemera, including behind-the-scenes photographs, daily call sheets, newspaper clippings and an obscure French film journal. All offered insight into Joel and Ethan Coen’s fierce work ethic and meticulous creative strivings.”
He adds, “For Minnesotans, the film shed light on our passive-aggressiveness, our smug sense of self-righteousness, and our bone-chilling winters, which must be confronted, scraper in hand, even when our father-in-law refuses to fund that well-researched business proposal.” In other words, this journalist and documentary producer is the perfect person to have documented the making of a great American film. I love this book.
SHE DAMN NEAR RAN THE STUDIO: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIVES OF IDA R. KOVERMAN by Jacqueline R. Braitman (University Press of Mississippi)
Anyone who is well-read on the golden age of Hollywood should recognize the name Ida Koverman. She was Louis B. Mayer’s right-hand woman, officially labeled an “executive secretary” but more like his gatekeeper and occasional scold. As well-entrenched as she was in the social fabric of Hollywood, she was also a woman of mystery. Usually referred to as a widow, she was no such thing. In fact, to separate herself from a scandal in Cincinnati she found a man who agreed to marry her, enabling her to adopt his last name even though they never lived together as husband and wife.
Eventually she moved to Southern California and became involved in Republican politics, where she became a mover and shaker of the highest order. The pinnacle of her career in this realm came when Herbert Hoover was elected President in 1928. No one worked harder to lay the foundation for his political career.
It was L.B. Mayer’s desire to become a power broker in this world that led to his introduction to Koverman, and her keen interest in music, especially classical music, that helped ease the transition to a new career when she joined
MGM in 1932.
Author Jacqueline R. Braitman has done prodigious research and was able to talk to some family members when she began work on this project in the early 2000s. But one never gets a complete sense of Ida or “Mrs. K,” as she was widely known on the MGM lot. Whatever her accomplishments as a historian, Braitman is not a movie buff, which accounts for simple errors and an untidy timeline. In building a case for Ida’s success as a talent scout she mostly cites young men and women who never made the grade, the notable exception being Judy Garland.
Still, this book is a valuable addition to any reference bookshelf and a significant story about women’s place in society during the early 20th century. Koverman was largely responsible for enabling women to participate in swimming competitions, before turning her efforts to politics during the decade that saw suffrage become a reality.
MA AND PA KETTLE ON FILM by Lon and Debra Davis; foreword by Brett Halsey (BearManor Media)
Everything you could possibly want to know about the Ma and Pa Kettle features is covered in this well-researched book. The authors delve into the origins (a best-selling semi-autobiographical novel by Betty MacDonald called The Egg and I) and chronicle the breakout success of the characters played so memorably by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. Universal Pictures (then known as Universal-International) knew that each cornpone comedy was tantamount to money in the bank. The formula never ran dry and was later reconstituted for the TV sitcom Green Acres. I saw most of the Kettle movies as a kid at Saturday matinees, where the broad slapstick and simple stories found a highly receptive audience. The Ma and Pa Kettle series was never destined to elicit rave reviews from critics or awards of any kind, but they were well-crafted by comedy veterans. The series finally gets its just rewards in this well-researched book.
SUMMER MOVIES: 30 SUN-DRENCHED CLASSICS by John Malahy; foreword by Leonard Maltin (TCM/Running Press)
When I was asked to write a foreword to this brightly packaged survey of summer movies I agreed because I liked everything about the book: the groovy layout and design, John Malahy’s informed and upbeat prose, and most of all his wide-ranging, unpredictable selection of movies. (You might say he had me at Moon Over Miami.) For every Jaws there’s a Smiles of a Summer Night, for every Gidget there’s a Moonrise Kingdom. The result is a trim volume that’s fun to browse. You can compare notes with the author, even disagree at times, but you’re almost certain to find good recommendations and learn the backstories of these seasonal favorites.
WE HAD A LITTLE REAL ESTATE PROBLEM: THE UNHERALDED STORY OF NATIVE AMERICANS & COMEDY by Kliph Nesteroff (Simon & Schuster)
Our leading anthropologist of comedy (whose book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy is essential reading) turns his attention to Native Americans and humor. His through-line is the career of Charlie Hill, the first Native American ever to appear on The Tonight Show in the 1970ss. He inspired the next generation of would-be comics who faced endless challenges, some of them geographic: many determined young performers traveled hundreds of miles just to perform at an open mic night. Nesteroff also tells the little-known story of Will Rogers, whose beneficent smile masked a volcanic anger at the treatment of his Cherokee family. I learned a great deal from this eye-opening book, which spotlights shameful aspects of American history that never found their way into my school textbooks.
FILM HISTORY THROUGH TRADE JOURNAL ART 1916-1920 BY Jeff Codori (McFarland)
Author Codori explains that the idea for this book springs from the existence of the Media Digital History Library. To call this resource invaluable is gilding the lily. As someone who spent far too much time squinting at poorly-rendered microfilm of vintage publications, I envy the budding film historian who has this bounty of information at his or her fingertips. The colorful advertising in early movie trade magazines inspired him to learn more about now-obscure production companies that thrived in the teens (right alongside the “majors” like Famous Players/Paramount and Universal), as well as their films. For anyone who cares about the silent-film era this is a treasure trove of material that begs the question, “Do any of these films survive?” While rooting around for answers I will be content to journey back in time with the author on a voyage of discovery. You can visit or consult the MDHL free of charge at https://mediahistoryproject.org.
NAKED SCREENWRITING by Lew Hunter with Meg Gifford (Rowman and Littlefield)
As chairman emeritus and Professor of Screenwriting at the UCLA Department of Film and Television, Hunter has a distinguished roster of graduates including Francis Ford Coppola and Alexander Payne, to name just two. The transcripts that make up this hefty 514-page book capture the atmosphere of a relaxed conversation in a setting that encourages students to participate and explore questions about writing—and problem-solving. Among the classroom guests are Billy Wilder, Eric Roth, Jean-Claude Carriere, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Frank Pierson, Robert Benton, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. This is the kind of book that’s dangerous to browse because it’s difficult to put down. I’ve sampled a number of its interviews and look forward to reading even more.
MIKE NICHOLS: A LIFE by Mark Harris (Penguin Press)
Harris’ first two books are imperatives for any movie bookshelf: Pictures at a Revolution, a look behind the scenes of the five Best Picture Oscar nominees in 1968, and Five Came Back, which tells how World War Two reshaped the lives and careers of Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Ford. (It was later the basis for an excellent three-part documentary.)
Now comes an epic, nearly 700-page biography of Mike Nichols, who (with his brilliant partner Elaine May) revolutionized American comedy, then took Broadway and Hollywood by storm as a ground-breaking director. A man who was widely admired and loved, known for his wit, turns out to have been a world-class neurotic who was beset by volcanic anger and bitterness. By telling his story with honesty and empathy Harris doesn’t diminish Nichols or his achievements. I came away fascinated that such a gifted man could harbor such demons in spite of his success.
Harris interviewed scores of people to assemble this illuminating portrait. It’s the kind of book that you don’t want to end because it’s so entertaining. Having grown up listening to Nichols and May and seen The Graduate when it was new, I had more than a passing interest in its subject; now that I know more about him I appreciate his work all the more.