Darn, That’s The End.
A few months back, when I read about Raquel’s Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge over at Out of the Past, I was way too excited. This was an event that was made for me; I love buying books about the Golden Age of Hollywood – coffee table books, biographies, novels that were made into films, even a scholarly analysis now and then – but I seldom actually read them. Over the years, I’ve amassed quite an impressive collection of tomes (if I do say so myself), but don’t ask me what’s in ‘em. Oh, it’s not due to lack of interest – I’ve had every intention of reading each book I’ve ever acquired – I just never seem to be able to find the time. So this challenge was a delight: read six classic film-related books by September 15th, write reviews on them, and be eligible for a prize! I couldn’t wait to jump in!
Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, I didn’t quite achieve my goal. I only made it through four books – actually, four and one-third, if I may – but I’m still grateful that I gave it a try. I read some interesting books and I earned the kick in the pants I needed to start working my way through my collection! Plus, not to offer excuses (not much), but I surely could have finished at least one more book if I hadn’t wasted a good three weeks trying to slog my way through a certain godawful biography of Tallulah Bankhead before I gave up in disgust. (But that’s neither here nor there.)
So today, even though I’m only reviewing four books, I’m tickled pink to present to you the results of my 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.
Imitation of Life is one of my favorite movies – I’ve seen it countless times, and cry like a fool every time. It’s one of the handful of old movies that I shared with my oldest daughter before her time was taken over by the band and boys and digital devices. (And I’m pleased to say that she sobbed in all the right places.) It’s one of those movies that I can’t help watching until the end any time I happen across it on TV. So I had high expectations of this book, which is this author’s fourth “inside look” at a famous classic film (the other three being All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, and A Streetcar Named Desire). And I wasn’t disappointed. Staggs covers every aspect about the film, from the producer, Ross Hunter, to the musical score. The costume designers. The director. The author of the novel on which the film was based. The book also included a comparison with the original Imitation of Life, starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers , which spurred me to a first-time viewing of the film (after having it in my collection for more than 20 years). But my favorite part about the book was the in-depth look at each of the film’s performers, from Lana Turner (including juicy details about the whole Johnny Stompanato episode) to Ann Robinson, who played the small role of the showgirl pal of Sarah Jane’s (and who once dated noir veteran Steve Cochran!), to the little girl (Karin Dicker) who played the young Sarah Jane, and who the author almost – but not quite – managed to interview. All in all, mostly because I know and love this film so much, I greatly enjoyed this book.
I’m just wild about Hollywood gossip, which is why I bought this book. I thought I was going to find out some good juicy Hollywood secrets and discover the real dirt about some of the stories I’d heard about for years. That wasn’t quite my experience. Let me say, first off, in the interest of full disclosure, I am an editor in my “real” life and I have a tendency to be a bit anal about things like grammar and punctuation and oh, I don’t know, factual information. So I kinda lost faith in anything that followed page 27 when I came across the author’s description of Jean Harlow stealing scenes from John Barrymore and Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel. (Grand Hotel, y’all. Jean Harlow. Hello?) Also, each chapter, which focused on a different star, was subtitled with a question that the chapter would supposedly answer, but often no real answer was provided. For instance, the Marilyn Monroe chapter queried, “Was the love goddess a lonely suicide?” But while Williams offered up a number of theories, he certainly didn’t give a conclusive answer. And the chapter on James Dean asked, “Was he too fast – or too unlucky?” I’m not really sure what that even means. Anyway, don’t get me wrong – the book wasn’t all bad; I learned a number of new tidbits that I never knew, like that Peg Enwistle, the hapless gal who committed suicide by leaping from the Hollywood sign, was married to actor Robert Keith (you know him – he played Dorothy Malone’s father in Written on the Wind), whose son was Brian Keith, of Family Affair fame. I also learned that Humphrey Bogart came up with the iconic line “Here’s looking at you, kid,” in Casablanca, and that It’s a Wonderful Life won a special award for its snowfall effects, which were created with a mixture of fire-retardant soap and instant potatoes. So that’s something, anyway.
I’m a big fan of James Robert Parish – I have several of his works, including The RKO Gals, Hollywood Players: The Thirties, Hollywood Character Actors, The Leading Ladies, The Glamour Girls, and The Forties Gals. So it was a no brainer for me to buy this book when it came out. It didn’t offer any in-depth looks at the celebrities covered, but it was fairly entertaining, and definitely worth the price. It was divided into specific sections, including Accidental Deaths (such as Jeff Chandler, whose death followed a routine surgery, and Laird Cregar, who died after a zealous bout of dieting resulted in a 100-pound weight loss and a heart attack), Alcohol and Drugs (covering Montgomery Clift, W.C. Fields, and child actor Bobby Driscoll), and Puzzling Deaths (including George Reeves, TV’s Superman, whose alleged suicide is in question to this day). The best thing about the book, for me, is its extensive appendix, which contains a listing of which stars are buried in what cemeteries (which I plan to put to good use during my next visit to L.A.), and a listing of the dates of death of a long list of performers, directors, and other Hollywood notables.
This was my favorite book of the summer and the one that I’m most proud and pleased to have finished. Norma Shearer is one of my top five favorite actresses, and I’ve owned this book since its release in 1990, but despite several previous attempts, I’d never gotten past page two. I thought it would be difficult to read, and maybe even a little boring, but boy, was I wrong. The author grabs your attention from the very beginning, which describes his first meeting with La Shearer in 1973. Details from Lambert’s encounters with her are sprinkled throughout the book, which provides an excellently researched and painstakingly thorough look at Norma’s life and career, her family (including her sister, Athole, who suffered from mental illness), her first husband, famed MGM producer Irving Thalberg, and her devoted second husband, ski instructor Martin Arrouge. I was fascinated to learn that Norma was involved with actor George Raft after Thalberg’s death, and saddened to learn that, later in her life, she suffer from the same mental infirmity that had afflicted her sibling. It’s quite an impressive work – Lambert brings Norma to life and paints a picture of the actress and her world that is so fascinatingly vivid, it’s almost like stepping back in time.
So that’s it – the four classic movie books I managed to read this summer. I’m still working on number five, Alice Adams by Brooks Tarkington, which I found in a “peddlers mall” in Winchester, Kentucky last month. And after I finish it, I’m going to continue my classic movie book journey, determined to work my way through the wealth of books that are waiting for me just a room away!
Thanks, Raquelle, for this awesome idea!