As usual, film books pile up faster than I can read them, so with the exception of the first title below and the picture-book that follows, I cannot call these reviews. They are summaries based on skimming the pages of books that all look interesting and worthwhile. Another installment of this periodic column will follow soon.
SLOW FADE TO BLACK: THE DECLINE OF RKO RADIO PICTURES by Richard B. Jewell (University of California Press)
The eagerly-awaited follow-up toRKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born is now here, and I gobbled it up like a box of popcorn. Longtime USC professor Jewell gained access to RKO paperwork several decades ago, before it was locked away in storage. Because of this he is able to document in detail how RKO went from a year of record profits (1946) to a scramble for survival, followed by an even stormier period under the mercurial ownership of billionaire Howard Hughes. Jewell refers to his book as a “business history,” but he is all too aware of film history and how some box-office flops have stood the test of time. (I Remember Mama lost more than a million dollars in its initial release!) Jewell’s scholarship is impeccable and his text is plain-spoken and highly readable. Every studio deserves a similar examination; thank goodness the right man tackled this particular task.
HOLLYWOOD CAFÉ: COFFEE WITH THE STARS by Steven Rea (Schiffer Publishing)
I am a sucker for publicity photos from Hollywood’s golden age, so I had a great time going through this handsome hardcover book from the eminent critic who brought usHollywood Rides a Bike: Cycling with the Stars. What’s more, the cover photo of Dick Powell and Ellen Drew reminds me of one of my favorite lines of dialogue from their filmChristmas in July: “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee—it’s the bunk.” Thank you, Preston Sturges. Besides that wonderful cover shot there are scores of others featuring Rita Hayworth, Ray Milland, Ginger Rogers, William Powell, and others right through the 1960s and beyond like Elvis Presley. There’s even a shot of Bobby Clark (of Clark and McCullough) with Ella Logan in The Goldwyn Follies. This is a perfect book to leave on a coffee table—where else?—to amuse your guests.
This is not the last volume in actor-author Callow’s sprawling examination of Orson Welles; it covers the years 1947-64, so there is still more to come. This chunky text (466 pages) explores some of the great man’s most interesting years, spent largely away from New York and Hollywood. During that time he produced two films that many consider among his finest, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight, worked in radio and theater, and acted in other people’s movies (likeThe Third Man) in order to finance his own. He also mounted a legendary London stage production of Moby-Dick. He was something of a chameleon and certainly a contradictory figure in both private and public life, which Callow doesn’t shy away from. Other books on Welles continue to come out, each with its own raison d’être, but it is unlikely anyone will attempt a biography as detailed or intimate as this one in our lifetime.
Raymond De Felitta is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I can’t imagine any aspiring writer, director, or producer who wouldn’t benefit from the hard-earned wisdom he shares in this self-published volume. Indie filmmakers who want to put a personal stamp on their work need guidance, as well as luck, to realize their dreams. I hope they take a page from De Felitta’s playbook and pay attention to the characters and situations he develops so well in the screenplays for two of his finest movies.
With a background in law and long experience working for major studios, Geltzer brings important practical knowledge to the subject of movie censorship. Using prominent court cases and landmark decisions, he cites some of the most notorious examples of movies that tested the concept of freedom of speech in the United States, from Thomas Edison’s The Kiss to Ecstasy (with the future Hedy Lamarr), The Miracle, and Russ Meyer’s Vixen. He doesn’t devote much space to pre-Code movies and the impact of the Production Code crackdown in 1934 but moves on to examine films that bucked that system—like Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw—and the growth of pornography in the 1960s and beyond.