Three New and Notable Film Books

Trying to keep
pace, as ever, with the continuum of film books, I have now had a chance to
read three recent titles that are worthy additions to any library—and just as
important, highly enjoyable to read. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to them sooner
but I’m happy to spread the word nonetheless. 

My First Time In Hollywood

by Cari Beauchamp (Asahina and Wallace)

Film historian
and biographer Beauchamp has deep feelings for the early days of Hollywood, as
is evidenced by this engaging anthology of “first impressions” by a wide
variety of actors and filmmakers from the silent era. Once you start reading
them, it’s awfully hard to stop, especially if you share my fascination with
this period.

         Lillian Gish
writes, “Mother took a small apartment for us only a block from the studio, so
that we could walk to and from work. There were two rooms and a kitchen;
Dorothy and I shared one room, and Mother used the other, which served as
dining and living room. The apartment had Murphy beds. There was a mirror on
the wall, and when it was pulled down a bed was visible behind it and behind
that cupboard for hanging clothes.

         “The Biograph
Studio on Pico Street was really nothing more than an open-air stage. Without
walls or roof, it consisted mostly of a large wooden floor build on the site of
an abandoned streetcar barn. The shed nearby was sectioned off into dressing
rooms, Mr. Griffith’s office, and a one-rack costume department. We had only
daylight to work in. When interiors were filmed, the set was unprotected from
the wind, and often while we were shooting scenes in the dining room the
curtains and tablecloth would billow gently. Audiences must have thought it a
drafty house. Because the whole process was so makeshift, Mr. Griffith’s results
seem all the more remarkable.”

         Harold Lloyd
recalls the challenge of getting his foot in the door (quite literally) at a
movie studio in order to obtain “extra” work. “Four companies were working on
the Universal lot. For extras there was a casting window and bull pen with
benches where you sat all day unless you could get through the gates and dog
the heels of an assistant director.

gatekeeper was a crabby old soul who let me understand that it would be a
pleasure to keep me out. As I lurked about I noticed that at noon a crowd of
actors and extras drifted out in make-up to eat at a lunch counter across the
way, passing the gatekeeper without question each way. The next morning I
brought a make-up box. At noon I dodged behind a billboard, made up, mingled
with the lunch-counter press and returned with them through the gate without
challenge. Once inside, I was assumed to be an extra on the job. I got no
work—hardly expected to get it—but did learn useful things about studio
routine, meet older heads among the extras, learn the names of directors and
assistant directors and after a time begin to register on their memories as a
regular. On the way out I made a point to speak to the gateman, and on future
entrances, if he looked the least suspicious I would say, carelessly, ‘With
Smalley’—Phillips Smalley being one of the directors.”

Beauchamp has
cast a wide net for these memories, far beyond famous stars like Lloyd and Gish
to include cinematographers, editors, screenwriters, script supervisors and journalists,
drawing upon oral histories, speeches, and letters as well as published
autobiographies. I am hoping Beauchamp will go back to the well for a second
volume that extends into the talkie era; this kind of first-hand material is
too precious to slip away. 

Behind the Scenes

by Lou Sabini, with photographs by Nicholas Scutti; forewords by Scott
Eyman and Karen Latham Everson (McFarland Publishing)

remarkable book is the happy result of serendipity: a chance “find” in a
Stamford, Connecticut library collection led film buff Sabini to a man who spent
30 days taking photos on the Miami location of John Ford’s They Were Expendable in 1945 for the U.S. Naval Training Center
Photographic Lab. Still alive, the photographer also shares his crystal-clear
memories and observations. Thus, we are transported back in time to experience
some of the feeling of a major movie shoot away from Hollywood: the periods of
tedium, the use of doubles and stand-ins, the lighthearted moments between
takes, the building of a convincing boat façade, and so much more…even a visit
from former silent film star Richard Barthelmess. If you’re a John Ford
enthusiast or a John Wayne fan all of this is even more significant, from
Ford’s body language to Wayne’s affability posing for pictures with crew
members and visitors. Sabini’s thoughtful text and appendices provide context
about the film and its place in Ford’s canon. The same is true for the
knowledgeable introductions by Eyman and Everson. How exciting to discover so
much about an important film seventy years after its creation. 

Company of Legends

IN THE COMPANY OF LEGENDS by Joan Kramer and David Heeley;
foreword by Richard Dreyfuss (Beaufort Books)

Over the past
three decades, Kramer and Heeley have consistently produced exceptional
documentaries and profiles of movie legends, beginning with Fred Astaire in
1980. Now they pull back the curtain and reveal the details of how they forged
relationships with often-elusive stars and filmmakers, navigated the turbulent
waters of film clearances and distribution, and built a reputation as people
who were worthy of trust. Earning the confidence of people like Katharine
Hepburn, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Frank Sinatra, and Elizabeth Taylor,
they kept their word, aimed for excellence at all times, and achieved it. This
highly enjoyable, conversational book follows every step of their journey.


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June 2024