INK-STAINED HOLLYWOOD: THE TRIUMPH OF CINEMA’S TRADE PRESS by Eric Hoyt (University of California Press)
This vital new book is the result of Herculean research by the man who now supervises the Media History Digital Library, where one can search through thousands of film periodicals https://mediahistoryproject.org/. He has invested untold hours to produce this survey of the trade magazines that documented the film industry in its earliest days.
Were they to be cheerleaders for the studios and distributors or would they take the side of the independent theater owner? Would New York or Los Angeles give them the best vantage point to report on this brand-new industry? At what point would Variety value movies more than vaudeville? These are just a few of the topics Hoyt raises in his compelling text.
Ink-Stained Hollywood is refreshingly readable, although Hoyt refers the curious reader to other more detailed papers and books for further research. Graphs and charts provide quantitative analysis of the readership, advertising pages and other facets of the earliest trade publications like Moving Picture World, Motography, and Motion Picture News.
Of the many things I learned, two items stand out: Variety did not invent slanguage. The pioneering show business journal The New York Clipper did; when Variety bought out the Clipper it co-opted and expanded its use of word coinage.
The second item: the endlessly interesting column “What the Picture Did for Me,” which originated in Motography and later appeared in Exhibitors Herald and Motion Picture Herald, was written almost entirely by small-town exhibitors who were often the only movie theater in those communities. Talk about grass-roots reaction!
THE DISNEY REVOLT: THE GREAT LABOR WAR OF ANIMATION’S GOLDEN AGE by Jake S. Friedman (Chicago Review Press)
This deeply researched book tells the backstory of the notorious strike that occurred at the Walt Disney studio in 1941. It was a life-altering event for Walt and its aftereffects were still felt decades later. One of its many ironies is that it pitted Disney against the man he once regarded as his star animator, Art Babbitt. They would become blood enemies as a result of Babbitt’s passionate unionism—and his strident nature.
Students and followers of Disney know his side of the story by now, but may not recall that his father Elias was an active socialist. His upbringing wasn’t so very different from that of Arthur Babitsky, the son of Russian immigrants, who was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Fate brought these two gifted and strong-willed individuals together as Disney was envisioning new horizons for animation in the early 1930s.
Friedman has chosen to base his book on primary sources from the 1930s and 40s: published articles, minutes from meetings, even legal depositions. This plunges the reader into the turbulent world of union organizing in Hollywood during the 1930s, which isn’t always easy to follow. Disney, like other studios, tried forming a “company union” at first but then met with resistance from outside forces like the notorious Willie Bioff, George Browne, and Herb Sorrell.
Disney was a self-made man (with a little help from his big brother Roy) who took a paternalistic attitude toward his staff and rewarded good work with bonus payments. But when his staff swelled to 1200 people he lost touch with the worker-bees whose efforts made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs such a success. A schism grew between the Old Guard who had started with Walt in the early days and the more cerebral art-school graduates who drove the studio’s expansion into feature films.
Friedman provides an appendix listing all the artists who went out on strike in 1941. Many names are familiar as they were the left-leaning activists who wound up forming United Productions of America, or UPA. (I didn’t realize that Chuck Jones and a band of unionized animators working for Leon Schlesinger lent considerable support to the Disney picketers.)
I learned many things I didn’t know from this treatise, which allows the reader to make up his or her mind about the still-simmering divisions caused by the dispute. I almost feel sorry for Walt, who could be naïve and narrow-minded at times. He took poor advice from Lessing and allowed himself to be manipulated by the likes of Bioff, Browne and Sorrell. So much of what occurred was inflamed by perceived slights, insults and resentments on both sides. Friedman has given us a valuable record of a battle that had repercussions outside the narrow world of animation.
DANGER ON THE SILVER SCREEN: 50 FILMS CELEBRATING CINEMA’S GREATEST STUNTS by Scott McGee (Running Press)
The latest in TCM’s nicely-packaged quality paperbacks from Running Press is not run-of-the-mill in any way, shape or form. Scott McGee has done an impressive amount of homework in order to profile some of the most memorable stunts—and stunt-driven movies—from the silent era to the present. The seemingly impossible gags executed by Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are thoroughly examined along with car chases, airborne action, and physical phenomena committed to film by stuntmen (and women), second-unit directors and stunt coordinators in the era of James Bond, Indiana Jones, and even John Wick. Sidebars include mini-tributes to laudable films and unsung daredevils, including a list of Jackie Chan’s injuries! I know I’ll be consulting this book for many years to come.
THE MEMOIRS OF ALICE GUY BLACHÉ Edited by Anthony Slide and THE SILENT FEMINISTS: AMERICA’S FIRST WOMEN DIRECTORS by Anthony Slide (Rowman and Littlefield)
Long before it was fashionable to spotlight women in media Tony Slide was writing about and interviewing female film pioneers. Now, two of his early books have been revised and reprinted. Blaché’s autobiography is flawed and incomplete, but she makes it plain that men like Leon Gaumont deliberately erased her name from early historical records. Only in recent years has she received the recognition she has always deserved. Her recollections are supplemented by a charming and candid essay about her life written by her daughter Simone, a fascinating letter written to Slide by Madame Olga Petrova, and a handful of revealing articles from the teens describing this formidable woman at work.
The Silent Feminists has been reprinted more than once since it first appeared in 1977 but it remains an important resource—and a still-timely reminder of women’s vast contributions to the silent era. Separate chapters are devoted to Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Margery Wilson, Mrs. Wallace Reid, Frances Marion, and Dorothy Arzner, along with The Universal Women and Vitagraph’s Women Directors. In his new foreword, Slide acknowledges how much information—and how many films—have been uncovered in the years since he first wrote his text. This essay is worth the price of the new edition by itself. Slide is not shy about expressing his sometimes-acerbic opinions but he also provides a wealth of information about these often-forgotten females. Film historians everywhere should applaud the return of two such important books.