So many books, so little time! I haven’t had a chance to fully read each these books, which have piled up in recent months, but they are all worthy of your attention, which is why I’m happy to spread the word.
THE MAN WHO MADE THE MOVIES: THE METEORIC RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF WILLIAM FOX by Vanda Krefft (Harper)
Weighing in at 944 pages (including substantial source notes), this exhaustive biography of the least-known movie mogul is a valuable piece of scholarship. Krefft provides context for every phase of Fox’s life and tenacious climb to the top of the movie industry…as well as the financial finagling that led to his precipitous downfall. Driven in ways that distinguish him from his contemporaries, he could be alternately mean-spirited, selfish, benevolent and even far-sighted. (In 1916 he pledged money to build a museum dedicated to motion pictures, an idea that met with indifference and downright hostility. The New York Times called it “preposterous.”) It may be difficult to understand the manipulation of stocks and loans that form the climax of this saga but it is useful to have all the facts laid out. William Fox’s story is truly stranger than fiction.
WAYNE AND FORD: THE FILMS, THE FRIENDSHIP AND THE FORGING OF AN AMERICAN HERO by Nancy Schoenberger (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
A fine writer and biographer (with and without her partner Sam Kashner), Schoenberger takes on a familiar story but brings her own astute observations to the story of their relationship. A rare female to explore their careers, the author explains, “John Wayne particularly resonates with me. You might call it my ‘John Wayne problem.’ You see, I grew up with men like Ford and Wayne; not only did my father look like John Wane, but as a career military officer and a test pilot he lived the code of masculinity that John Ford and John Wayne created and embodied throughout the films, especially the Westerns, they made together. We all know that code, because, for good or for ill , it shaped America’s ideal of masculinity, what it means to ‘be a man’: to bear adversity in silence, to show courage in the face of fear, to bond with other men, to put honor and country before self—in three words, ‘stoicism,’ ‘courage,’ ‘duty.’ John Wayne came to embody these virtues on-screen, and men like my father embodied them in life.” Good writing on a great subject, seems to me.
BECOMING AFI: 50 YEARS INSIDE THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE by Jean Picker Firstenberg and James Hindman; Foreword by Dana Goia, Preface by Patty Jenkins, Afterword by David Lynch (Santa Monica Press)
This collection of essays recounts the often-rocky history of a cultural and educational institution brought to life by President Lyndon Johnson half-a-century ago. How AFI overcame a variety of hurdles, both personal and political, to emerge as an institution worthy of worldwide respect is at the heart of each chapter. Subjects include the establishment of a national film catalog, a school for filmmakers, and a groundbreaking workshop for female directors. That the American Film Institute can claim such diverse graduates as David Lynch and Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins is just one tribute to its success as a conservatory for filmmakers with both vision and determination.
MUST-SEE MUSICALS: 50 SHOW-STOPPING MOVIES WE CAN’T FORGET by Richard Barrios; foreword by Michael Feinstein (Running Press/TCM)
No one is better equipped to offer a compendium of essays about milestone musicals than Richard Barrios. If you haven’t read his earlier books (A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film and Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter) they are both exceptional—well written and extremely knowledgeable. Now comes a good-looking “list book” with great photos and sidebar tidbits as well as cogent essays about fifty memorable films, from The Broadway Melody to La La Land. There are some offbeat (but savvy) choices like Rene Clair’s Le Million and Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It along with the tried-and-true. Good for browsing or reading, this would make a great gift for a young person who’s just getting to know the musical genre.
THE ANIMATED MARX BROTHERS by Matthew Hahn; foreword by Joe Adamson (BearManor Media)
Talk about a specialized topic: Hahn provides an annotated guide to every animated cartoon that includes caricatures of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and even Zeppo, from Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1930s to Vlasek Pickle commercials right up to the creation of modern-day emojis. The well-chosen illustrations serve as a visual guide to the way these legendary comedians have been pictured over the years.
BEYOND COLUMBO: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PETER FALK by Rick Lertzman and William J. Birnes; introduction by Joe Mantegna (Prestige Cinema Books)
As colorful and eccentric as many of the characters he played, Peter Falk is an inviting subject for any biographer. From the dramatic (and life-saving) loss of an eye at the age of three to pop-culture immortality as detective Columbo, Falk lived a life worth retelling. The authors had no shortage of published material from which to draw, but they also talked to childhood friends, family members, costars and colleagues. They wound up with so many stories that they devote a postscript chapter to anecdotes from actor friends like Ed Begley, Jr., D.B. Sweeney, Wayne Rogers, Dan Laurial, and Kevin Pollak.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE ENCYCLOPEDIA by Steven Jay Rubin (Chicago Review Press)
Author of The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia and definitive articles on the making of many science-fiction/fantasy classics, Rubin offers a useful and entertaining guide to all aspects of Rod Serling’s landmark TV series. Arranged in A-Z fashion, this paperback volume allows the reader to look up specific episode titles (where you’ll find complete credits and behind-the-scenes tidbits), biographies of actors, writers and directors who worked on the show, and subjects ranging from “Ratings” to “Machines, Gadgets and Gizmos.” This book is equally suited to browsing just for fun or using for reference.
START TO FINISH: WOODY ALLEN AND THE ART OF FILMMAKING by Eric Lax (Knopf)
Having written a first-rate biography of Woody Allen and then published a collection of interviews with the comedian-turned-filmmaker, Eric Lax now shares the experience of observing Woody at work on his 2015 release Irrational Man, which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. From concept to filming to editing and polishing, this book offers a closeup look at the process of a true auteur, one of the rare American filmmakers who has complete control over his work.
IMPROVISING OUT LOUD: MY LIFE TEACHING HOLLYWOOD HOW TO ACT by Jeff Corey with Emily Corey; foreword by Leonard Nimoy, afterword by Janet Neipris (University Press of Kentucky)
Film buffs know Jeff Corey as a solid and prolific character actor; Hollywood veterans remember him as an inspiring acting teacher whose students ranged from ordinary people to such future stars as Jack Nicholson. This book brings both halves of the late Corey’s life together, including his experiences with the Federal Theater in the 1930s and his subsequent blacklisting in the 1950s. In one poignant passage he writes, “One evening I met George C. Scott at a party in Malibu. George pointed his finger directly at me and exclaimed, ‘Blinky Franklin’—referring to the part of the dope addict I had played in The Killers. Many actors whom I have met on the set for the first time invariably comment about having seen me in an ‘old’ film when they were growing up. They attached an alluring patina to the vintage medium. When I met the legendary superstar Richard Burton on the set of The Wild Geese, no introduction was necessary. He had seen so many of my old films, first as a youth in Wales and later on the ‘telly.’ He knew all about me and was nothing but gracious. When I met the wonderfully talented Peter O’Toole on the set of Creator, he regally bowed from the waist and said, ‘I am awed!’ I do not require this kind of tribute but confess I don’t mind it, particularly in light of the large hole left in my career by the blacklist.”
SOPHIA LOREN: MOVIE STAR ITALIAN STYLE by Cindy de la Hoz (Running Press/TCM)
This handsomely printed picture-and-text volume is something like the old Citadel Press “Films Of…” series, jazzed up and packed with color photos. It traces Loren’s fabled career film by film with relevant quotes from critics and colleagues. Writer/editor de la Hoz is an old hand at this kind of treatment by now (see her earlier books on Lucille Ball and Lana Turner) and brings her expertise to the project. And frankly, any book with hundreds of Sophia Loren photographs is an automatic winner.
THE FORREST J. ACKERMAN SCRAPBOOK : TREASURES FROM THE ACKERMANSION by Brian Anthony and Bill Walker (Walker and Anthony Publications)
If, like me, you grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and will need no introduction to FJA—Forrest J. Ackerman, who made the publication his playground and introduced the baby boom generation to Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and the other titans of horror and fantasy films. His home in Los Angeles became a mecca for fans who, in many cases, went on to create fantastic films and television shows of their own. This lavish collection of photos and memorabilia will be catnip to readers like me, who can’t get our fill of rare props, costumes, behind-the-scenes photos, and poster images—from the false teeth Lon Chaney’s used in London After Midnight to creatures devised by Willis O’Brien for use in classics like King Kong. And just like the magazine, this book is filled with photos of Forry himself, often posing with the stars he admired so much. Copies of this book can be purchased at www.walkeranthonybooks.com
FILM CENSORSHIP IN AMERICA: A STATE-BY-STATE HISTORY by Jeremy Geltzer (McFarland)
The result of formidable research, this book traces the way each state in the union dealt with censorship from the earliest days of silent films to the present day. A film that was exhibited without trouble in an open-minded state like South Dakota one state might be cut or even banned altogether in another. Pinky (1949), in which Jeanne Crain played a black girl passing for white, was struck down in Marshall, Texas and the case traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling. In tracking down these particulars, author Geltzer unearthed interesting details about regional film production around the country. Both aspects of this book should prove useful for future research.