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NEW AND NOTABLE FILM BOOKS  September 2020

 

HITCHCOCK’S CALIFORNIA: VISTA VISIONS FROM THE CAMERA EYE by Robert Jones, Dan Auiler, and Aimee Sinclair; introduction by Bruce Dern; afterword by Dorothy Herrmann (Middlebrow Books)

At first glance I thought this striking, oversized book was a series of re-creations of scenes from Hitchcock films. That’s not quite right. It is a book of images by two talented photographers who were inspired by The Master of Suspense. Some of them are replicas of shots from such famous films as Vertigo and Psycho, but many simply try to capture the mood those scenes evoke. Knowing that they were shot on film in a “widescreen” format makes them all the more effective. Jones explains his near-obsession with Hitchcock in an interesting conversation with Hitchcock scholar Auiler and compares photographic notes with friend and contributor Sinclair. This is truly a coffee-table book that invites you to pick it up, place it on your lap, and take in the pictures one by one. An amusing essay by Bruce Dern and a moving afterword by the daughter of Bernard Herrmann are icing on the cake.

 

 

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN SHORT FILMS 1926-1969 by Graham Webb (McFarland)

This massive undertaking offers detailed information on shorts of all kinds—comedies, musicals, travelogues, novelties, and documentaries—with more details than I was able to supply in The Great Movie Shorts (aka Selected Short Subjects) and, even better, an extensive index. For instance, entry 3969 is an Edgar Kennedy short called Giggle Water.

Giggle Water (Mr. Average Man) 27 June 1932; RKO; RCA Photophone System. 201/2 min. dir/story: Harry Sweet; sup prod: Lew Lipton; ed: Frank Macguire; ph: John W. Boyle, ed: L. John Myers; prod mgr: Raoul Pagel; Cast; Ed: Edger Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy: Florence Lake; mother-in-law: Dot Farley; Brother: William Eugene; Also: Eddie Boland. The family thinks Ed’s bottle of champagne is more suited to launch a boat, so they go to the shipyard and proceed to doll up a vessel for christening.

How many people want or need to know who the production manager was I cannot say, but now the facts are laid out. I’m happy to have a one-stop reference source for so many shorts. My chief complaint is that for important series like Screen Snapshots and Hollywood on Parade Webb has chosen to jam the details for every episode into one giant entry. This renders the information useless, as it’s impossible to tell which specific short in the series features Wheeler and Woolsey or Anna May Wong.

But my quibbles are minor considering the sheer mass of information this book provides. It’s a pricey volume at $150, but I’m glad there is still a place for a broad-ranging reference volume in the Internet era.

 

 

THE BEGINNING OR THE END: HOW HOLLYWOOD—AND AMERICA—LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB by Greg Mitchell (The New Press)

A letter to Donna Reed from a former schoolteacher led to MGM making the first film about the development of the atomic bomb. That’s the first nugget in this scrupulously researched tale of The Beginning or the End (1947), a film that tried to keep everyone from J. Robert Oppenheimer and President Harry S. Truman happy and wound up pleasing almost no one. Author Greg Mitchell appears shocked—shocked!—that Washington exerted such power over a movie studio, but threads his story with documentation that is beyond dispute. An experienced author and researcher (whose earlier book The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics is a longtime favorite of mine) he reveals his ignorance of old movies when he badly summarizes the career of Brian Donlevy—who was chosen to play General Leslie Groves in this film—but stays on solid ground when he details the endless negotiations that won the government’s approval of the finished picture. It’s an interesting saga that has particular relevance as we reevaluate the consequences of the bombs that dropped on Japan 75 years ago.

 

 

THEY DREW AS THEY PLEASED: THE HIDDEN ART OF DISNEY’S NEW GOLDEN AGE The 1990s to 2020 by Didier Ghez; Foreword by Burny Mattinson (Chronicle Books)

The final book in this valuable series spotlights the younger artists who got an opportunity to experiment as the Disney studio went through many changes. Many Disneyphiles now think of the 1990s and beyond as Ghez does, a new golden age…so it’s surprising to learn how much hard work went into projects that were unrealized. The author wisely opens this book with a profile of Joe Grant, who statistically was in his 90s but artistically remained a young man until the day he died in 2005. The proof is here, in his whimsical sketches for gags that were used in Pocahontas and Fantasia 2000. He in turn inspired Hans Bacher, Mike Gabriel, and Michael Giaimo, whose exceptional artwork—in a variety of media—make up the bulk of this volume. Seeing Bacher’s concept art for Beauty and the Beast, Gabriel’s evocative character drawings for Home on the Range, Mike Giaimo’s beautiful renderings for Pocahontas and Frozen.

 

 

THE ESSENTIALS VOL. 2, 52 MORE MOVIES AND WHY THEY MATTER BY Jeremy Arnold; foreword by Ben Mankiewicz (Running Press)

Devotees of Turner Classic Movies are familiar with their weekly series The Essentials, which spotlights genuine movie milestones and insights from guest programmers like Drew Barrymore, Brad Bird, Alec Baldwin, Ava DuVernay, Sydney Pollack, and Molly Haskell, along with longtime TCM host Robert Osborne and his successor, Ben Mankiewicz. As in the first collection of essays, Jeremy Arnold provides background information and perspective on each title, while the publisher frames all of this in a handsome package with carefully-chosen stills. A veteran film buff might know most of this material, but the book’s visual appeal makes it hard not to browse with interest. Titles include Sunrise, Freaks, Twentieth Century, Ball of Fire, Mildred Pierce, The Night of the Hunter, Ride the High Country, The Producers, Network, and Field of Dreams. You can’t go wrong revisiting any of those movies and you’ll enjoy rekindling thoughts and memories of them in this appealing and well-written survey.

 

 

STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT: THE LIFE & MUSIC OF NAT KING COLE by Will Friedwald (Oxford University Press)

No one is better qualified to chronicle the life and career of Nat Cole than Will Friedwald, who writes colorfully and authoritatively about 20th century popular music. This is a sterling achievement, not merely charting the trajectory of Cole’s career but evaluating his musical choices along the way. He emphasizes the artist’s canny decisions that elevated him from a free-swinging jazz pianist and jive vocalist to a hit-maker (with “Straighten Up and Fly Right”), then a balladeer (with the unique “Nature Boy”), then a peerless crooner (“Mona Lisa”). Movies were a footnote in his career but they helped solidify Nat Cole’s status as a Star with a capital “S.” I soared through this 633-page volume, eager to learn more about its subject at every new turn.

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