Year End Film Book Survey – 2009

I love reading film books but I simply can't keep up with all the new titles that come over the transom…so, with holiday gift-giving in mind, I have compiled this annotated listing based on my first impressions of these recent releases, including a few that haven't gotten the attention they deserve. I haven't bothered to list anything that doesn't seem worthwhile. If you click on the book covers or titles, you'll be taken directly to their purchase page at

SOUTH OF THE BORDER WITH DISNEY by J.B. Kaufman; foreword by Diane Disney Miller (Disney Editions/Walt Disney Family Foundation) — Timed to coincide with the release of Ted Thomas and Kuniko Okubo’s documentary, Walt & El Grupo, this important work of Disney scholarship chronicles Walt’s journey to South America as part of America’s Good Neighbor Program in the 1940s. With full access to the studio archives, Kaufman (who has collaborated with Russell Merritt on two previous—and definitive—volumes on Disney’s silent animation and the Silly Symphonies) has unearthed a wealth of new and…fascinating material about this interesting phase of Disney’s life and career. He not only provides a diary of the Disney staff’s experiences but examines every film that resulted—not just the well-known features like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, but a variety of educational short-subjects. The handsomely designed book is packed with illustrations, ranging from snapshots and news photos to original sketches, conceptual art, animation drawings and backgrounds—including a generous number of striking watercolors and paintings by the gifted Mary Blair.

EARLY UNIVERSAL CITY (Images of America) by Robert S. Birchard (Arcadia Publishing) — Silent film historian Birchard has gathered an impressive collection of rarely-seen photos which—along with his informative text—trace the history of Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures and the property he bought to house his growing company. Although most sources cite 1915 as the opening date of the facility, Birchard writes, “In August 1912, Universal leased the Oak Crest Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. In addition to stages and outdoor sets, the company built housing to accommodate 65 families that were permanent residents. An Indian Village was also located on the lot. The first official opening of the Universal Oak crest Ranch occurred on December 3, 1912. Studio grounds were opened to the public, and invitations were sent to state and local politicians sand ‘photoplayers’ at other studios. The second official opening took place on July 10, 1913, when the Universal Oak Crest ranch was formally named Universal City. The Universal City tour had its first incarnation in September 1913, when bus excursion from downtown Los Angels were initiated.” In addition to historical photos of the site and its development over the years there are many fascinating production photos of notable Universal productions from the silent era through 1936, when Carl Laemmle was forced to sell his interests in the company he founded.

MY LIFE DANCING WITH THE STARS by Miriam Nelson; Forward by Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews (Bear Manor Media) — Miriam Nelson has indeed been dancing, choreographing, and coaching stars—and would-be stars—for many years, and she has many interesting stories to tell. Disney buffs may know that she originally staged the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland, participated in the now-famous opening day telecast, and worked on many other Disney projects over the years. They may not be aware that she was married to dancer Gene Nelson, appeared in countless films and TV shows, and then worked behind the scenes with everyone from Lucille Ball to Ingrid Bergman. Miriam is a delightful person who recently performed a one-woman show—at the age of 90. Her book is highly anecdotal (with, I’m happy to say, an index) and is liberally illustrated.

THE COMEDY OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN: ARTISTRY IN MOTION by Dan Kamin (Scarecrow Press) — I am remiss in not having acknowledged this 2008 book much sooner. A well-known Chaplin aficionado and authority, Kamin is also—unlike almost everyone else who writes about him—a talented performer who has studied and absorbed the physicality of the Great Man. (You can see samples of him at work on YouTube.) He helped develop Johnny Depp’s pantomime routines for Benny & Joon, and even coached Robert Downey, Jr. on how to walk like Charlie for his performance in Chaplin. This profusely illustrated book expands upon and supersedes his earlier work, Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show, and attempts to analyze the nature, and genius, of Chaplin’s work. Yet Kamin writes clearly and sensibly: “Isolating scenes makes it easy to see how Chaplin uses the various elements of dance—or, more accurately, the laws of Newtonian physics along with some of the aesthetic principles of dance movement—to conjure comedy from the mundane actions of everyday life. Of course, viewers don’t have to recognize the sophisticated underpinnings of his physical comedy to appreciate it, which makes his achievement all the more impressive. Chaplin’s highly stylized movement comes to seem so natural that we stop noticing it is stylized. Instead, like a good movie soundtrack, it becomes unobtrusive. Yet dance—in this larger sense—is central to the meaning of Chaplin’s films, helping him to define his character and strongly affecting what subject matter he is drawn to. It intertwines with the films’ content.”

ROBERT ALTMAN: THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY by Mitchell Zuckoff (Knopf) — Robert Altman was an original: a bright talent, an innovative filmmaker who gave us some of the finest American films of the 1970s (and beyond). He was also a contradictory man who lived for the moment and burned bridges almost as often as he lit reefers—which is to say, often. Journalist Zuckoff was working with the director on his memoirs when cancer took his life; fortunately, he had accumulated many hours of interviews, so rather than leave that work unfinished he decided to flesh it out in the voices of Altman’s friends, foes, and collaborators. “The cast,” he writes, “was huge and varied, from A-list stars to complete unknowns, many from the world of film but some purely from the world of Altman”—almost 200, in fact. What a perfect way to characterize a filmmaker who specialized in making mosaic-style stories—like his masterpiece, Nashville.

KING OF THE MOVIES: FRANCIS X. BUSHMAN by Lon and Debra Davis (Bear Manor Media) — One of movies’ first matinee idols, Francis X. Bushman is remembered today—if at all—as the star of the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, although he continued to act well into the television era. In the early 1980s, Iva Bushman, who was married to silent-era star Francis X. Bushman for the last ten years of his life, entrusted his memorabilia—including notes and tape recordings for never-realized autobiographies—to youthful film enthusiasts Lon and Debra Davis. They supplemented this material with exhaustive research, including interviews with the star’s first wife and costar, Beverly Bayne. Bushman’s widow lived to the age of 94 and got to read their manuscript, but it has taken many more years to reach publication. The Davises write, “Iva had wanted us to title our biography ‘Profile of a Hero.,’ but bushman was no hero; he was a vainglorious man who helped to bring about his own downfall not just once, but repeatedly. It was through his foibles, in fact, that was found the true man. Despite his braggadocio and tendency to overact, we always found Bushman to be a fascinating and ultimately human subject.”

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS MONSTERS: A LEGACY OF HORROR by Michael Mallory (Universe) — Film buffs are certainly familiar with Universal Pictures’ history of making emblematic horror films. But if one were to desire a handsome coffee-table-style book on the subject, one couldn’t ask for a better guide than Michael Mallory, an experienced writer and bona fide film buff. Thanks to him this survey not only covers Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi et al, but has chapters on makeup genius Jack P. Pierce, composer Hans Salter, special effects wizard John Fulton, writer Curt Siodmak, character actress Una O’Connor (insert shriek here), the unforgettable Dwight Frye, and even mini-bios of the “scream sirens” who populated Universal’s horror films of the 1940s (Anne Gwynne, Acquanetta, Evelyn Ankers, et al.) Printed in China on heavy coated paper stock, the book’s black & white photos glisten and color posters jump off the page.

BETTE DAVIS: LARGER THAN LIFE by Richard Schickel and George Perry (Running Press) — The latest in Running Press’ exceedingly handsome series of coffee-table books about stars (Lucille Ball, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe) offers the usual complement of stunning photos, in black & white and color, a film-by-film breakdown of her work, an overview by Richard Schickel, and essays by George Perry about the various phases of her career: A Star is Born (1908-30), Hollywood Ingenue (1931-36), Sweeping to the Top (1937-45), Free at Last (1946-51), and Beyond the Peak (1952-89).

JOAN CRAWFORD: THE ENDURING STAR by Peter Cowie; foreword by Mick LaSalle, afterword by George Cukor (Rizzoli) — George Cukor’s eulogy for Joan Crawford, spoken on June 24, 1977 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is printed as an Afterword in this book, and it’s an excellent summary of her qualities by someone who knew her well. “She was the perfect image of a movie star,” said Cukor, “and as such largely the creation of her own indomitable will. She had, of course, very remarkable material to work with: a quick native intelligence, tremendous animal vitality, a lovely figure, and above all her face, that extraordinary sculptural construction of lines and planes, finely chiseled like the mask of some classical divinity from fifth-century Greece. It caught the light superbly. You could photograph her from any angle, and the face moved beautifully. But she was serious with it: serious about improving herself as an actress, serious about her total dedication to onscreen stardom.” Peter Cowie provides a fuller survey of Crawford’s life and career in this lavishly illustrated volume, which also features an eloquent foreword by film critic Mick LaSalle.

THE COMPLETE LYRICS OF JOHNNY MERCER Edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger, and Eric Davis (Knopf) — Johnny Mercer is finally coming into his own, recognized as one of America’s most treasured lyricists. Even though he enjoyed great commercial success for many years he often felt like a second-class citizen because he didn’t have great luck on Broadway. But he certainly thrived in Hollywood, and this beautiful, majestic book provides not only a journal of his work for the studios (from the 1930s to the 1960s), but a number of surprising facts. Did you know that he and Hoagy Carmichael were hired by Paramount in 1950 to write songs for a Mack Sennett-Mabel Normand biopic, intended to star Betty Hutton and John Lund, called The Keystone Girl? Most of those songs didn’t go to waste: Frank Capra heard one of them and asked to incorporate "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” into his Bing Crosby film Here Comes the Groom. (It even won an Academy Award.) “I Guess It Was You All the Time” was used in Those Redheads from Seattle, while “He’s Dead But He Won’t Lie Down” was introduced by—wait for it—Vera Hruba Ralston in Republic Pictures’ Timberjack, four years later. Because of the editors’ combined scholarship, this book includes lyrics not included in the published versions of many songs, some taken directly from movie soundtracks, others from surviving papers. For instance, Mercer enjoyed writing “Spring, Spring, Spring!” so much for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers he couldn’t stop inventing new refrains full of clever couplets. (“Little skylarks are larking/ See them all double-parking/ Cuddled up, playin’ possum/ There, behind ev’ry blossom.”) There is even a complete Broadway musical inspired by Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer that was never produced—but yielded still more Mercer magic. It’s worth reading through each of those lyrics; there’s even one that drops the name of silent film star Anna Q. Nilsson!

THE LAUGH MAKERS: A BEHIND-THE-SCENES TRIBUTE TO BOB HOPE’S INCREDIBLE GAG WRITERS by Robert L. Mills; foreword by Gary Owens (Bear Manor Media) — Having spent twenty years writing for the indefatigable Bob Hope, and traveling all over the world, Bob Mills is well qualified to salute the famous corps of gagmen who kept the comedian knee-deep in jokes. These first-hand recollections summon up the final phase of Hope’s career—and the end of the trail for an entire brand of show business.

I FEEL A SONG COMING ON: THE LIFE OF JIMMY McHUGH by Alyn Shipton (University of Illinois Press) — Shipton, who writes about jazz for the Times of London and broadcasts regularly on the BBC, has given us the first full-fledged biography of a great American songwriter. McHugh wrote for Broadway and Hollywood musicals, and his songs (introduced by everyone from Bing Crosby to Shirley Temple) are still sung today: “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” I’m in the Mood for Love,” On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and many, many more. I look forward to learning more about the man behind the music.

We're not through yet. For the rest of the list click HERE: Year End Book Survey – 2009 Part 2.

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