Book Review--They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars


They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars
Dan Van Neste
Bear Manor, 2019

I have come to deeply appreciate the efforts of author and film historian Dan Van Neste to preserve and promote classic Hollywood stars who are lesser known, but worthy of greater attention. His 2017 biography of frequent screen villain Ricardo Cortez was an effective exploration of an actor long overdue for a full career review. Now, with They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars, Van Neste spotlights several stars deserving of more acclaim in a collection of essays previously published in Films of the Golden Age and Classic Images.

They Coulda Been Contenders is a tribute to the kind of contract player who worked steadily during the studio age and found a certain level of fame, but never reached the top rungs of stardom, despite deserving that status. It is likely that many performers featured here will be familiar to the typical TCM-watching film fanatic. I even count actors profiled here like Claire Dodd, John Hodiak, Marian Marsh, and Karen Morely among my favorite stars. However, they are not the kind of people who get full-scale biographies written about them.

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.

This is a great introduction to lesser known stars for those new to classic films and a satisfying trove of information for fans of the actors profiled. It’s an addictive, informative read, related in a friendly, accessible voice.

Many thanks to Bear Manor for providing a copy of the book for review.

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