Favorite Film Books of 2017

This was an especially inspiring year of reviewing film books at A Classic Movie Blog. I learned a lot and found so many new areas I wanted to explore, thanks to a truly marvelous selection of new releases. It wasn't easy to pick favorites, but this batch stood out because I was reluctant to finish each of these books and I thought about them a little longer than the others. I have excerpted my reviews below, titles link to the full post:

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s, Charles Taylor

Perhaps the best thing about Taylor's analysis is that he gives everything its proper due. He doesn't make claims for Godfather-level greatness when discussing these movies, but he does find their worth, both in pure entertainment value and the social commentary they offer. He discusses the shock value of Prime Cut (1972), while acknowledging what it has to say about the frustration and despair of the Vietnam era. Moments are allowed to exist for the thrill of it, but underlying themes of gender politics, injustice and the like are folded into the analysis.

It is also encouraging the way Taylor can celebrate 'B' cinema while also acknowledging its casualties. As much fun as exploitation can be, it often takes women, people of color and other marginalized groups as its victims. He finds room to appreciate the films, while also condemning the humiliations they inflict. In an unusual, and laudable move, he also relies heavily on the words of female critics to support his views.

You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood's Golden Era, James Bawden and Ron Miller

In his introduction to the book, Miller outlines his rules for interviews, which are grounded in respect for the humanity and personal privacy of his subjects. He reveals that often that regard for boundaries would lead to more confidences shared rather than less. For that reason, both he and Bawden, who seems to have taken a similar approach, drew something richer than a production history or a few benign on-set remembrances from these stars. You learn how Bette Davis was so disgusted kissing poor, sour-faced Edward G. Robinson that she had to close her eyes or get the low-down on Jane Russell’s conspiracy theories about the death of Marilyn Monroe. The stars stay remarkable to the reader for the unusual lives they’ve led, but they also become more human.

This is an addictive book. It’s charming, revealing and graceful in a way that speaks to the past. I would hope every aspiring journalist would read this and take a lesson from the rewards these men reaped by simply treating others with respect.

Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, Scott Eyman

I’ve always felt that platonic relationships don’t get enough attention from biographers, though they can often be the source of the most fascinating stories. With his new book, Hank & Jim, Scott Eyman demonstrates just how satisfying it can be to explore an enduring friendship. Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart offered each other solace that they couldn’t find from anyone else and their complex personas and uncomplicated bond make for an intriguing history.

The first part of the book is most rich with stories of the two. As they move on to marriage, parenthood and varied careers, their stories diverge for long periods. For a while, it feels like the best of their years together are behind them, but in the closing chapters the full meaning of their friendship emerges and it is incredibly moving.

Anne Bancroft: A Life, Douglass K. Daniel

As much as Bancroft craved and thrived living the actor’s life, she valued her family equally, if not more, and often made her personal life a priority. One of the most pleasing elements of the book is the way it explores her relationship with her second husband Mel Brooks. While this pairing of comedian and dramatic actress always seemed to puzzle the public, their marriage is one of the great Hollywood love stories. The pair was steadfastly devoted, living with compassion for each other, working around hectic schedules to be together and celebrating each other’s successes without a hint of jealousy.

Daniel takes a straightforward approach to telling Bancroft’s story, easily weaving together the personal and the professional. Given the wealth of material he has gotten from his sources, he wisely avoids adding his own analysis of the actress and lets her friends and associates fill out the details of her personality. The result is a rich, authentic portrait which effectively captures her essence.

Dangerous to Know, Renee Patrick

This is a mystery for those who think that cocktails, and conversation, should sparkle. Set in late 1930s Hollywood, when the word Hitler sent a chill down many a spine, and David O. Selznick was about to set his version of Atlanta aflame, it exists in a world of classic movies and pre-war intrigue. This installment follows Design for Dying, which like this book features Hollywood social secretary Lillian Frost and a fictionalized Edith Head, who in addition to their daily duties, solve mysteries on the side. Written by Renee Patrick, the pen name for husband and wife team Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, this engaging riff on the past juggles laughs, intrigue and suspense with a pleasing zest.

The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez, Dan Van Neste

Though co-star to Stanwyck, Garbo, Young and Crawford, Ricardo Cortez has never achieved big name recognition in his own right. Classic film fans know him and love him, especially pre-code fanatics, but he is not familiar to the average movie fan. He never made a bonafide classic, but he's been in a lot of well-made films, like the underrated 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, Midnight Mary (1933) and Wonder Bar (1934). Now in a new biography, Dan Van Neste gives this fascinating, but notoriously private actor and director his due.

I know that this book has been eagerly anticipated by many and I am happy to report that it is an entertaining, informative read that does its subject justice. A must for fans of the actor and pre-code lovers in particular.

Wayne and Ford: The Films, The Friendship and The Forging of an American Hero, Nancy Shoenberger

Schoenberger looks for insight into this unusual relationship by digging into their personal lives and films. As both men often had great control over the way their movies were made, they were often a reflection of who they were. Despite the differences in their personalities and relationships, in their cinematic explorations of love, duty and what it is to be a man, the two are found to have similar values.

While there was not much that was new to me here, having read individual biographies of Wayne and Ford, being able to focus on their bond and films helped me to better understand the influence they had on each other and their public.

Backwards and In Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women in Hollywood, Alicia Malone

Malone has selected an interesting array of women to spotlight in the profiles that make up the bulk of her book. Her focus is intersectional and she covers creative, executive and technical professionals in her survey of female professionals. Her intention is to provide a brief overview of various issues and women in the interest of inspiring readers to dig deeper into each subject and there is a great list of books for further reading in the select biography.

I found this a satisfying reference in itself though; it would be a great starting point for anyone interested in the history of Hollywood. As much as they were denied, women have innovated a lot in this industry, from Dorothy Arzner inventing the boom mike and Ida Lupino and Lois Weber bringing social issues to popular cinema, to Margaret Booth all but creating the concept of film editor as the first person to hold that job title.

My deepest respect to these authors and all that they do to inform and entertain film lovers!


Silver Screenings said...

Some really interesting titles here. The only one I read was the Ricardo Cortez bio, which was hard to put down.

I'm going to Amazon next to look for a copy of "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet". Thanks for the recommendation!

KC said...

I was really looking forward to that Cortez bio. So happy it was a great read.

Yes, definitely check out "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet," it's the kind of book you can go back to over and over again. The Malone book is also a lot like that.

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