Dec 17, 2019

Favorite Film Books of 2019

There was an especially rich array of classic film books published in 2019. From great revivals to revealing memoirs, I learned so much and marveled at the grace of these varied tomes. These are the titles that stuck with me the most this year:

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
Victoria Riskin

In the first part of the book, Riskin alternates telling the individual stories of her parents’ story chapter-by-chapter. Then she slowly brings them together in her narrative. When Riskin and Wray finally connect, it is so joyful that it’s almost unbearable to see them parted again due to an illness that took Riskin too soon, but Victoria always finds the healing love at the core of the loss she and her family endured...

...I thought [Fay] Wray’s [memoir] was all I needed to hear of her story, but in telling her parents’ story, Riskin expands the narrative in a way that fully reveals the strength of both of these remarkable talents. It’s also so well written that I was sad to reach the final pages.

Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1934), When Sin Ruled the Movies
Mark Vieira

The beauty of Vieira writing this book is that he knows the topic so well that he’s able to write about it efficiently, relating vital facts and revealing the essential character of the period. Using various films from the era as starting points, he explores different genres, controversies, and production stories, while steadily moving through the overall history of the birth of the Code and its eventual enforcement.

Forbidden Hollywood looks good, with lots of the gorgeous photos for which Vieira’s books are best known, but there’s also a lot of solid research here, related in an engaging way. This is an entertaining, informative read that deserves to endure as a classic reference book.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
Robert Matzen

While it is well known among classic film fans that Audrey Hepburn endured many hardships during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, there has been little firm detail about what the actress went through. The only certainty: the troubles she endured colored the rest of her life and affected everything from the way she ate and lived to the work she did...

...The story that follows is brutal and not for more sensitive tastes, but it is an important document of civilian life in war. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the story is that the middle class Van Heemstra’s made out relatively well: losing some family, but never starving or suffering assault from German soldiers, and still suffered the fallout from those times for the rest of their lives. It makes you realize how unbearably horrifying it must have been for those with fewer resources.

Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master
Gwenda Young

Young explores the often deeply intertwined personal and professional aspects of Brown’s life with a steady eye, noting the many contradictions he embodied. Especially compelling is her account of the production of Intruder in the Dust (1949), a profound rebuke against racism which the director made to address the ghosts from his own southern past. While he showed social consciousness in pursuing the project, he insisted that a young black actor play like a “coon” in a graveyard scene, rolling his eyes in fear while the white actors remained calm.

In addition to the satisfying examination of Brown as a man, the book is also full of the reflected glory of his association with the most glittering of the MGM stars. He is famous for being Garbo’s frequent collaborator, but worked just as much with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. He nurtured the youthful talents of Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Butch Jenkins and Claude Jarman Jr. and adeptly managed big personalities like Norma Shearer and Spencer Tracy. As a result, there are lots of entertaining on-set stories here.

I Lost My Girlish Laughter Jane Allen with Jane Shore

With a foreboding title like I Lost My Girlish Laughter, I was sure this rediscovered roman à clef written by David O. Selznick’s former secretary would be a harrowing read. I was almost relieved to find it a light-hearted satire, though it takes several healthy jabs at the absurdity of Hollywood...

...While Schulman is freely ruthless with her subjects, there’s an exasperated affection woven through it all. Maybe she was driven nearly to madness by an over-demanding boss and a brutal industry, but there were plenty of perks and a great deal of adventure. Clearly she recognized that the only healthy response to it all was satire.

They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars
Dan Van Neste

Van Neste has thoroughly researched his subjects, in addition to interviewing several of them, sometimes being the last person to speak to them before their passing. In digging deep into the details of these actor’s lives and capturing their memories so late in their lives, he has preserved a considerable and invaluable piece of film history. In telling their stories, he strikes a good balance between celebrating their triumphs and lamenting what could have been.

For more reading suggestions, take a look at my favorites lists from previous years: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014

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