As always, books arrive on my doorstep at a faster pace than I can possibly read them, so with a few exceptions these are not reviews but a survey based on browsing. I look forward to spending more time with many of them.
HOLLYWOOD’S LOST BACK LOT: 40 ACRES OF GLAMOUR AND MYSTERY by Steven Bingen with Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives; Foreword by Ron Howard (Lyons Press)
Having chronicled the back lots of MGM, Warner Bros., and Paramount in a valuable series of books, Steve Bingen has now tackled one of the least celebrated but most colorful locations in Hollywood history: the studio and tract of land known as “40 Acres.” The studio portion was built by silent film pioneer Thomas Ince in 1915 in a new development called Culver City. It was later home to Cecil B. DeMille, Pathé, RKO, and Desilu. The attractive mansion frontage was appropriated by David O. Selznick as his company logo. It’s known today as The Culver Studios. In his foreword, Ron Howard writes, “40 Acres was a movie backlot, but for me it was a playground as well. I’d ride around the lot on those paved and unpaved roads that circled the property on my prop bicycle, the same one Opie drove on the show. My parents wouldn’t let me cross Ballona Creek, so I never knew that an artificial lake, and even Tarzan’s Jungle, stood over there. I sure would have liked to have seen them. But everything else, every place else on the lot was there seemingly just for to explore.” As usual, Bingen is admirably thorough in documenting the history and use of every facility and standing set at Culver, with long lists of movies and series that made use of it, from The King of Kings to Star Trek.
WILD AND CRAZY GUYS: HOW THE COMEDY MAVERICKS OF THE ’80S CHANGED HOLLYWOOD FOREVER by Nick de Semlyen (Crown Archetype)
Life isn’t history while it’s being lived, so I doubt anyone discussed in this terrifically entertaining book realized he or she was doing Something Important. But author Nick de Semlyen, an editor of the British magazine Empire, has been paying attention. He provides us with an authoritative look at how the creators of Saturday Night Live and the films that followed, featuring many of its overnight stars, changed the face of comedy. Drawing on interviews conducted over many years’ time, de Semlyen paints a vivid picture of the outlandish circumstances that led to hit movies and meteoric careers that in some cases burned out. The story is roughly bookended by the birth of SNL and National Lampoon’s Animal House in the 1970s and the brilliant Ground Hog Day in the early 1990s. In between are stories of outsized egos, box-office hits, unexpected flops, and premature deaths. I read this book cover to cover and couldn’t put it down; it gets my highest recommendation.
DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS: THE FOURTH MUSKETEER By Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks, edited by Kelly Smoot; Introduction by Dominick Fairbanks; foreword by Eileen Whitfield
This lavishly illustrated book is an extensive update of a biography first published in 1953 and coauthored by Douglas Fairbanks’ adoring niece Letitia. Kelly Smoot has augmented the original manuscript, drawing on family albums and previously unpublished photos that now reside at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even a cursory browse through this handsome book yields many happy discoveries, including a note in Fairbanks’ hand with story ideas for The Thief of Bagdad and excerpts from souvenir albums the great star commissioned for that silent classic as well as Robin Hood. This material is hard to resist.
THE MUSIC OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN by Jim Lochner (McFarland)
My library contains more books about Chaplin than any other individual, with the possible exception of Walt Disney. Yet music scholar Jim Lochner has written a biographical study of Charlie Chaplin that doesn’t duplicate anyone else’s work, to the best of my knowledge. Using primary materials from the Chaplin archives as well as interviews and other research, he traces the Great Man’s relationship to music from his earliest days of stardom to the end of his life. This includes his music publishing company, sheet music compositions, and the scores he supervised and in some cases helped to compose. Chaplin’s collaborators weren’t always happy with the experience and Lochner doesn’t duck the controversial topic of authorship….but his extensive citations (and excerpts from the scores themselves) speak to the thoroughness of this endeavor, which is long overdue.
DUTCH GIRL: AUDREY HEPBURN AND WORLD WAR II by Robert Matzen (GoodKnight Books)
There have been many books about the beloved actress but Robert Matzen did something most other authors have not: he traveled to the Netherlands to learn more about her family’s background and how five years of Nazi occupation changed their lives. Spending time in the villages where she grew up has given him a unique perspective on the actress’s formative years. He met people who knew her and her family and gained access to archival material no one has consulted before. Hepburn’s son, Luca Dotti, also provided quotes from her mother, who seldom spoke of her wartime experiences. “The war made my mother who she was,” he concludes. Readers will also learn why Hepburn identified so closely with Anne Frank in this groundbreaking book.
HITCHCOCK AND THE CENSORS by John Billheimer (University Press of Kentucky)
Here is a book that should have (and could have) been written years ago. Kudos, then, to John Billheimer for slogging through the paper trail of correspondence between the British Board of Film Censors and Motion Picture Production Code Office (better known as the Breen Office) and Alfred Hitchcock regarding the content of his many provocative films. Each movie has a history all its own, and while passing reference has been made to censorship in other studies of Hitchcock, this is the first comprehensive book on the subject. No more be said: this is by definition an important piece of work.
HOLLYWOOD BLACK: THE STARS, THE FILMS, THE FILMMAKERS by Donald Bogle; foreword by John Singleton (TCM/Running Press)
No one knows more (or has written more extensively) about the history of African-Americans’ contributions to cinema than Donald Bogle. This attractive volume, part of a series from TCM and Running Press, offers a review of that history and brings the story up to date. Heavily illustrated with photos and posters, Hollywood Black is a useful resource that serves as a 21st century companion piece to Bogle’s groundbreaking volume Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. It’s sad and sobering to see that the introduction was written by John Singleton not long before his untimely death this spring.
CLARENCE BROWN: HOLLYWOOD’S FORGOTTEN MASTER by Gwenda Young; foreword by Kevin Brownlow (University Press of Kentucky)
A biography of the unsung director Clarence Brown would be welcome under any circumstances. That it rates a ringing endorsement from Kevin Brownlow makes it required reading. Up to now the only way to learn about this prolific filmmaker was to read Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By and Scott Eyman’s oral history, conducted by the Directors Guild of America and now out of print. Young’s book is more than a career study, however; it is a full-fledged biography, extensively researched and annotated. The man who made Flesh and the Devil, Anna Karenina, The Human Comedy, National Velvet, The Yearling, and Intruder in the Dust (among many others) deserves no less.
THE COCHRANE BROTHERS AND THE MAKING OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES By Kurt Wahlner, Marc Wanamaker, and Piper Cochrane (The Ginger Press)
This elaborate, oversized volume brings to light the achievements of the five Cochrane brothers who helped to establish Universal Pictures, allowing their partner Carl Laemmle to be the public face of the company. They met in 1905 when Laemmle was managing a clothing store in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and the brothers were operating a successful advertising agency. One year later they became partners and opened their first storefront nickelodeon. It was the first step in a great American success story. As Sandy Climan puts it in his foreword, “Laemmle dominated the stage, but [the Cochranes] built it.” Later, Robert Cochrane blazed a trail by establishing branch offices for Universal in Asia as early as 1914. This book is part film history and part family album, tracing the enterprising Cochranes over many decades’ time with evocative photographs and ephemera. There are also beautiful full-color reproductions of posters from milestone Universal releases over the years.
INSIDE FAMILY GUY: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY by Frazier Moore; foreword by Seth MacFarlane (Dey St.)
If you’re a fan of this long-running animated series you’ll want to own this beautifully produced companion book. Author Moore gives us the “origin story” as well as a behind-the-scenes look at how the series—and notable episodes—were crafted. Storyboards, extracts from scripts, concept art, character designs and interviews with writers, directors, artists and voice actors provide everything a fan (or superfan) might want to know about this irreverently funny show, which has notched up 300 episodes to date.