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.
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.
“The 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 OF ‘THEY WERE EXPENDABLE’: A PICTORIAL HISTORY by Lou Sabini, with photographs by Nicholas Scutti; forewords by Scott Eyman and Karen Latham Everson (McFarland Publishing)
This 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.
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.