It’s been a while since I surveyed new film books, and while (as usual) I haven’t had time to read these cover-to-cover I’ve gleaned just enough from skimming to feel confident in recommending them to you.
WARNER BROS. HOLLYWOOD’S ULTIMATE BACKLOT by Steven Bingen with Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives; foreword by Doris Day (Taylor Trade Publishing)
In the wake of his eye-opening book about MGM (MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot), Steven Bingen has produced another wondrous look behind the scenes of a great movie studio. Whether you browse through the hundreds of unfamiliar photos detailing the famous Burbank facility or read the complete text, this book will take you on a magic carpet ride through decades of movie and television history. Here’s one sample paragraph: “A footbridge connecting two postproduction buildings looks familiar enough when pointed out, but it takes on a somewhat haunted demeanor when we discover it was crossed by Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, played a sanitarium visited by Paul Newman in The Helen Morgan Story (1947) and, when decorated with barbed wire and plaster bricks, portrayed a prison wall breached by both Spencer Tracy in20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) and Superman in a much later television show.” From its construction in 1926 through a fire in 1952 right up to the present day, the studio is an entertainment landmark, and this book does it justice.
THE MAKING OF GONE WITH THE WIND by Steve Wilson, foreword by Robert Osborne (Harry Ransom Center/University of Texas Press)
We’ve all read accounts of how this storied film came to be, but Wilson (curator of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, which houses the David O. Selznick archives) lays out the details in a comprehensive chronology, accompanying his highly readable text with letters, memos, telegrams, behind-the-scenes photos, production sketches and paintings, many of them never published before. This is one of those books that is dangerous to pick up because you might not be able to put it down again for quite some time. It is also an uncommonly handsome volume, beautifully produced on high-quality paper that shows off the photos and illustrations in fine fashion.
Seymour Stern was an aspiring filmmaker and thoughtful critic who spent the better part of his life obsessed with D.W. Griffith. He announced his intention to write a definitive book about the director in 1938—with the great man’s participation—but it never came to fruition. I clearly remember purchasing an issue of Film Culture that published the first part of his study of The Birth of a Nation back in the 1960s, but that was only Part One; part two never materialized. Now, film and TV historian Ira Gallen has taken it upon himself to published Stern’s work, adding his own layer of obsession with the star-crossed author (as well as Griffith himself). This is an important addition to film literature; my only complaint is that it doesn’t include an index.
DISNEY’S GRAND TOUR: WALT AND ROY’S EUROPEAN VACATION SUMMER 1935 by Didier Ghez, foreword by Diane Disney Miller (Theme Park Press)
Disney aficionados have good reason to be grateful to Didier Ghez, who has published many rare Disney manuscripts and interviews. His latest endeavor is the result of many years’ intensive research on two continents. While the volume itself is slender, the material it uncovers is invaluable to Disney scholars and buffs. Over several weeks’ time in 1935, Walt and Roy Disney traveled overseas with their wives for the first time, combining business and pleasure. During that trip they saw sights that would influence Walt’s thinking about filmmaking (and, eventually, theme parks) for the rest of his life, met celebrated figures ranging from Louis Lumière to Luigi Pirandello, and established important business relationships that influenced the future of their company. Ghez takes great trouble to establish that, contrary to published reports, Walt did not receive an award from the League of Nations in France, nor did he ever meet Mussolini while in Rome. Including rare photos, contemporary newspaper articles, and quotes from the travel diary of Roy’s wife Edna Disney, this lively manuscript pulls back the curtain on a significant but little-documented moment in Disney history.
A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Nick Bertozzi (Atheneum)
I don’t usually review novels, but this imaginative book for young readers is, among other things, an homage to the Master of Suspense, set in 1956. The hero is a boy named Jack Fair whose mother has committed suicide, which forces him to leave Los Angeles and live with his starchy, unkind aunt at the elegant Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. One day, Aunt Edith vanishes, and Jack tries to track her down, with a little help from Alfred Hitchcock himself. Author Averbeck tells me, “It’s aimed at middle grade readers (age 9 to 13 or so) but I am hearing from a lot of adults who are enjoying it too— mostly Hitchcock fans or people who remember his TV show with nostalgia. It is my sincere hope that it helps bring a new generation to an appreciation of the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It was written with the kind permission of the Hitchcock estate and a portion of the proceeds goes to the study of cystic fibrosis. Hitchcock’s granddaughter suffered from c.f.” In keeping with the inspiration for this fanciful novel, there is even a trailer online that’s well worth a look.
THE 101 BEST FILM NOIR POSTERS FROM THE 1940s-1950s by Mark Fertig; introduction by William Friedkin (Fantagraphics)
What a knockout collection! Here are beautiful, oversized reproductions of one-sheet posters for such notable films asMurder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, The Lady from Shanghai, and D.O.A., along with lesser lights like Armored Car Robbery and The Scar. Some of the images are stunning and need no hype, while others benefit from hard-sell copy, like The Narrow Margin (“A Fortune if They Seal her Lips! A Bullet if They Fail!”) and Caged (“She was part-good before—She’s all bad now!”). As usual, some great films like Detour have disappointing poster art, but that’s show biz. Fertig pays appropriate and articulate tribute to these films in his introduction and summarizes the appeal of each one in tightly-written tributes at the back of the book. This would make a great gift for any movie lover.
EARS & BUBBLES: DANCING MY WAY FROM THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB TO THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW by Bobby Burgess (Theme Park Press)
If you grew up watching The Mickey Mouse Club you need no introduction to Bobby Burgess, whose sunny personality and dancing talent landed him that job for Walt Disney and then extended his career for years afterward on The Lawrence Welk Show. It’s hard to picture Bobby without a smile, and his memoir reflects the positive outlook he has always embodied. He has a terrific memory dating back to his childhood in Long Beach, California and his earliest public appearances. Regarding his big break, he writes, “When we were kids we really didn’t appreciate what was going on around us…the success of the show, the ability to ride the attractions at Disneyland to our hearts content, and the privilege it was to work with Walt Disney himself. But today, all of us realize what a profound time it was.” This breezy and engaging autobiography is sure to please Bobby’s many fans—and I am one of them.