Last week Scott Feinberg at The Hollywood Reporter published the results of a survey to determine the 100 greatest film books of all time. I was delighted to find that I made it to the list at #19 for Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. My family and I pored over the list together, pleased that so many fine books written by friends and colleagues were also on the roster. When we were finished my daughter Jessie asked if all of the books I grew up loving had been included—which got me thinking.
The following made a lasting impression on me when I was just a kid, on the way to becoming a lifelong movie addict.
The first book I read, on loan from my local public library, was Mack Sennett’s 1956 autobiography King of Comedy. I later learned that Sennett and his ghost writer Cameron Shipp never let facts get in the way of a good story, but I still treasure the portrait they painted of Hollywood in its earliest days. When John McCabe’s Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy was published I read it over and over again, re-checking it out of the library for weeks on end while watching Stan and Ollie on local television every day. Over the course of time I bought my own copy and had it signed by McCabe and the artist who supplied the end-paper caricatures, the wonderful Al Kilgore. Needless to say, I cherish that hardcover copy.
When I was about 12 my parents gave me Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer’s oversized volume The Movies, which was akin to a magic carpet for a young novice like me. This heavily illustrated volume offered me “the big picture” of film history. I can’t count the number of times I leafed through it, lingering on images of milestone movies I could only hope to see one day. Griffith was then at the Museum of Modern Art Film Department, and he bequeathed his half-ownership of the book to his curator Eileen Bowser, who updated it in later years. I could never bring myself to revisit it, for fear of tarnishing my rose-colored memory.
The first film book I ever purchased with my own money was Theodore Huff’s Charlie Chaplin, which was going for ten cents at a used-book sale. That was just my speed, financially speaking, and Chaplin was one of my idols. The book gave me a solid introduction to the great man’s career and for that I will be eternally grateful. I then tackled Good Night, Sweet Prince, Gene Fowler’s loving biography of John Barrymore, who became another lifelong favorite.
I became, and remain, a voracious reader, and while many books gave me useful knowledge and sheer reading pleasure, there are two favorites that didn’t get mentioned in The Hollywood Reporter. Max Wilk’s The Wit and Wisdom of Hollywood, published in 1971, is a never-ending source of great stories, anecdotes and punchlines, mostly told by screenwriters who were interviewed by Wilk, no slouch himself when it came to wit. I was lucky enough to get to know him when I was in my teens. His book has been pilfered and plundered but remains a valuable resource worth adding to your library.
The other landmark book I want to tout is Bob Thomas’s King Cohn, published in 1967. (Super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer cited it in his personal list for The Hollywood Reporter.) It was the first of a handful of well-researched biographies Bob would write while holding down his long-term “day job” as the Hollywood correspondent for the Associated Press. I chanced to see him on The Today Show one morning as he was plugging King Cohn and called his publisher, who invited me to meet Bob at the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel later that same day. I don’t know what the publicist made of the 16-year-old kid who showed up, but I tried my best to act like a grown-up professional.
King Cohn was a breakthrough biography of Columbia Pictures’ founder Harry Cohn and drew on a vast number of interviews Bob Thomas conducted with people who knew and worked for him. The often-hilarious anecdotes that fill its pages were fresh and hadn’t been published before (albeit in sanitized versions, back when certain impolite words weren’t yet permissible in print). Bob used his contacts and his clout to great advantage and delivered a highly readable and reliable book. Countless authors and film scholars have made use of this material ever since, but Bob was the one who mined those gold nuggets first.
Bob Thomas was also exceedingly kind to me, but it’s not sentiment that impels me to make this recommendation. It’s the desire to spread the word, even at this late date, about a terrific book that’s actually fun to read.