Feb 9, 2017

Book Review--Hollywood at Play: The Lives of Stars Between Takes

Hollywood at Play: The Lives of Stars Between Takes
Stephen X. Sylvester, Mary Mallory and Donovan Brandt
Globe Pequot, 2017

Hollywood at Play is a cheerful book of beautiful photos featuring gorgeous stars from the classic age of film, here defined as the years 1925-60. In the introduction, the authors seem almost guilty about its sunny, uncomplicated tone, noting that while all looks well in the photos, these are the years of The Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. They also point out that the movie industry itself has a dark history, emphasizing the way stars were taken advantage of and otherwise abused. While these observations are interesting, there's no need for explanation. In intense times, the joy of watching charismatic, glamorous people enjoying themselves is intensely gratifying and of great importance.

With categories like On the Town, At Home and The Sporting Life, the focus is truly on enjoying life, though admittedly a meticulously staged view of such recreation. It's a pleasing mix of color and black and white, group and portrait shots and covers the decades it features fairly evenly. The 127 photos come from the collection of Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, which according to the authors is the first and oldest family-owned video store, in addition to being a photo archive. While there were a few images I recognized, for the most part the content was new to me and often fascinating.

The format of the book showcases the photos to great advantage. Each picture gets its own page and there's a short paragraph on the opposite side offering information about the image and bits of trivia about the subject. Having seen many photo books where poorly-sized images or cluttered pages made it difficult to fully appreciate the pictures, I relished being able to focus completely on each image because they all had room to breathe.

There's not a particular pattern to the tidbits in the text: a photo of Joan Crawford playing with her poodles is accompanied by several sentences about her rivalry with Norma Shearer; the passage accompanying a jolly Jimmy Stewart playing pool describes his pioneering role in making profit participation a part of actor pay. It's the one unpredictable element in a book that is designed to offer uncomplicated pleasure.

This is truly a coffee table book, it doesn't go deep into its subjects, but I did learn a few new things. That said, the photos are rightly the focus here and they are a lot of fun.

Many thanks to Globe Pequot for providing a copy of the book for review.

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