As always, books show up on my doorstep at a pace I can’t keep up with. Therefore, the mini-essays below are based on skimming rather than careful reading, I readily concede…but I don’t think I’ve missed the mark in determining the significance of each volume.
ELEMENTARY ART: 100 YEARS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by William S. Major (Silver Screen Collectibles)
This large-format paperback volume is not brand new but I hadn’t encountered it, or its author, until I attended the Cinevent over Memorial Day Weekend in Columbus, Ohio. I’m so glad I acquired a copy of Elementary Art, as it is brimming with rare, eye-catching reproductions of posters from the U.S. and abroad dating back a century. You’ll find John Barrymore, Clive Brook, Arthur Wontner, Reginald Owen, Hans Alberts and of course Basil Rathbone represented in one-sheets and lobby cards. (Wait till you see the foreign release posters for the Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies.) There are also passing nods to almost anyone who wore a deerstalker hat onscreen, from The Three Stooges (Horses’ Collars) to Gracie Allen (The Gracie Allen Murder Case). The chronology comes up to Robert Downey, Jr., although Major has decided to stick to big-screen interpretations and leave television aside for now. The color reproductions are excellent as is the accompanying text. To purchase a copy go to www.silverscreencollectibles.com.
SHOW TRIAL: HOLLYWOOD, HUAC, AND THE BIRTH OF THE BLACKLIST by Thomas Doherty (Columbia University Press) by Thomas Doherty
Author Doherty is a social historian as well as a film professor. This volume joins others he has written which deal with significant incidents or eras—from McCarthyism to Hitler and Hollywood. Show Trial is a solid piece of reportage on a specific event that had shattering results: the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1947. The cast of characters couldn’t be more diverse, including everyone from Walt Disney to Dalton Trumbo, Jack L. Warner to Ronald Reagan. We’ve all read accounts of this fateful showdown between Washington and Hollywood, but never in such depth or with such well-informed commentary.
CINEMATIC OVERTURES: HOW TO READ OPENING SCENES by Annette Insdorf (Columbia University Press)
Noted film scholar and professor Insdorf has adapted a series of lectures about the relationship of opening scenes (and titles) to the body of the films that follow. These thoughtful, carefully considered essays offer fresh perspectives on Sunset Blvd., Psycho, Apocalypse Now, the Graduate, Touch of Evil, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and many more. She also pays tribute to the master of title sequences, Saul Bass, and explores how his work sets up the films they introduce. On a personal note, I’m happy that Insdorf includes some neglected favorites of mine including La Ciudad, The Shipping News, and Good Kill—all well worth seeing. Whether you digest one chapter at a time or swallow it whole, this scholarly paperback provides a great deal of food for thought.
THE COMPLETE LYRICS OF ALAN JAY LERNER Edited with annotations by Dominic McHugh and Amy Asch; foreword by Sheldon Harnick, introduction by Sir Cameron Mackintosh (Oxford University Press)
If he had done nothing but devise witty and appropriate songs for the musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion known as My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner would deserve a place of honor in the musical hall of fame. As it happens, he had a long and interesting career: he wrote several Broadway classics and won Academy Awards for the screenplays of two Oscar-winning musicals, An American in Paris andGigi. McHugh and Asch have done Herculean research and trace Lerner’s career from its collegiate beginnings to Broadway and Hollywood, incorporating years of enormous acclaim and unexpected failure. (I must confess, my wife and I attended a Broadway preview of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which he wrote with Leonard Bernstein in 1976, because we heard it was stunningly awful and wouldn’t last. Both statements proved to be true.) Lerner was an elegant wordsmith, in spite of occasional missteps, and examining his lyrics—especially with the context and footnotes provided by the authors—is genuinely rewarding. You’ll even learn about last-minute word changes in the memorable song introduced by Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, “How Can You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?”
SPACE ODYSSEY: STANLEY KUBRICK, ARTHUR C. CLARKE, AND THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE by Michael Benson (Simon & Schuster)
When a book about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey has endorsements from Tom Hanks, Martin Scorsese, and Scott Eyman, among others, it seems obvious that this is a major piece of cinema scholarship. The fiftieth anniversary of this milestone has sparked a number of screenings and events, none perhaps more permanent than this hefty volume. I looked up Douglas Rain in the index and learned that Stanley Kubrick initially wanted the voice of HAL to sound like Winston Hibler in the Walt Disney True-Life Adventures! With an eye for details like that as well as the Big Picture, Space Odyssey is bound to interest anyone curious to learn more about the Kubrick classic.
IMAGES OF AMERICA: LEGENDS OF HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY by E.J. Stephens and Kim Stephens (Arcadia)
Arcadia’s ever-growing series of quality paperbacks continues with this useful guide to the myriad of people buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, located right next to Paramount Pictures. Thousands of tourists visit this site every year to see the final resting place of Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mel Blanc (“That’s all, folks!”) but I’m sure many of them don’t know who Jean Havez or Edith Fellows are. Experienced tour guides E.J. Stephens and Kim Stephens provide brief but accurate summaries of their careers (Havez was one of Buster Keaton’s gag writers, Fellows was a popular child star in the 1930s). Each person is represented by a well-chosen still. This browsable book is the next-best thing to visiting the cemetery itself. (I did so many stories there for Entertainment Tonight at one point that I swore I heard a chorus of “hellos” every time I stopped by.)
GIANT: ELIZABETH TAYLOR, ROCK HUDSON, JAMES DEAN, EDNA FERBER AND THE MAKING OF A LEGENDARY AMERICAN FILM by Don Graham (St. Martin’s Press)
When most of a notable film’s cast and crew have gone to their greater reward, an author wanting to tell their story relies on primary sources (production reports, etc.) and interviews with the principals from years past. Texas author and journalist Graham has hit pay dirt through sheer diligence and the formidable archive of George Stevens’ papers that reside at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Anyone with even passing interest in this benchmark of the 1950s should consider Graham’s work a “must.”
BIG DEAL: BOB FOSSE AND DANCE IN THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Kevin Winkler (Oxford University Press)
Bob Fosse’s enormous influence is still felt by dancers and audiences alike. While Sam Wasson captured the essence of Fosse’s life in his fine 2014 biography, dancer-turned-librarian Winkler has focused on his evolution as a performer, choreographer, and director. He manages to describe dance routines in a way that even a layman like myself can understand. He has also done a deep dive into the Fosse-Gwen Verdon archives at the Library of Congress and spoken to significant colleagues and collaborators. Remarkably, Fosse remains the only director to win a Tony, an Emmy, and an Oscar the same year, 1973. Reading this book may remind you why.
WINSOR McCAY: HIS LIFE AND ART, REVISED AND EXPANDED EDITION by John Canemaker; foreword by Maurice Sendak (CRC/Focal Press)
If you’re lucky enough to own the original 1987 hardcover edition of this seminal book, you may be forced to make room on your shelf for the updated edition as well. An oversized tribute to the masterful artist who helped to popularize comic strips and animated cartoons in the early years of the 20th century, it can be described as “definitive” without fear of exaggeration or contradiction. Animator and historian Canemaker has given us a full-fledged biography as well as a rich visual summary of McCay’s career in all media. The cartoonist’s newspaper work must be seen in a large format to be fully appreciated, and this book complies. McCay was both a pioneer and a visionary, and Canemaker captures his importance while chronicling his successes and failures. I doubt that anyone will ever produce a tome to rival this one.