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.

Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life by Sam Staggs

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.

Hollywood Myths: The Shocking Truths Behind Film’s Most Incredible Secrets and Scandals by Joe Williams

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.

Hollywood Book of Death: The Bizarre, Often Sordid, Passings of More than 125 American Movie and TV Idols by James Robert Parish

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.

Norma Shearer by Gavin Lambert

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!

~ by shadowsandsatin on September 17, 2013.

16 Responses to “Darn, That’s The End.”

  1. Definitely going to look up that Norma Shearer book. Thanks for the rec!

  2. You and me both. I can never pass up a used book sale or thrift shop find but shelve them and then generally dip into them in bits, as I get interested in a movie or specific time period. The Imitation of Life one looks cool, I like those studies of one film, and all the people involved. Also, there are not that many Norma bios and I need them in my collection! I feel like Norma and Carole Lombard are due for newer giant bios. Thanks for the reviews

    • Hi, Kristina — I should’ve known that you were like me! 🙂 I totally agree about the need for new Norma and Carole bios — in fact, I don’t even remember ever seeing a Carole Lombard treatment . . . now I have something else to look for!

  3. I have the same problem with buying film books and never getting around to reading them. I keep finding them at my library’s used book sale for under $1, so I can’t turn them down, but then I never have the time to read them! They’re cool to have, since most of them are 30+ years old (and I collect 20th century books/mags), but I wish I could actually get around to finishing them all.

    That being said, I also did finally read Born to Be Hurt recently and absolutely loved it. I’m hoping to read more from Staggs, whose thorough but highly engaging writing style I was very impressed with.

    • Hi, Lindsey — it’s so good to know I’m not alone! I also have the All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard books by Staggs (which, of course, I have not read) — I’m going to create a fall movie book reading list and put at least one of them on it. I think I’ll start with All About Eve, another of my very favorite and most-often seen movies.

      • That’s the other book I’m most looking forward to reading from him. All About Eve would be top five for me if I ever got the courage to try to narrow my favorites down to a top five, haha.

        First on my fall reading list (if required reading for college will stop boggin’ me down) is any one of the THREE books on W.C. Fields I’ve managed to collect without reading a single one. 😛

  4. I do the same thing. I buy books with the best of intentions, but I never have time to read them. I’m reading one about Howard Hawks now, which I will dedicate to you.

  5. Lambert bio of Norma Shearer is very well done and gives you an inside look at how MGM operated at its peak. A recent biography of Irving Thalberg was published a couple of years ago and makes a good companion as the author of the Thalberg bio had access to the manuscript of Shearer’s unpublished biography.

  6. Ahhh!!! I’m so happy to see this. I added your reviews to my last round-up. 4 books read and reviewed over the summer is good! Summer is my worst time for reading so I try to challenge myself during that time to keep things going.

    RE: Imitation of Life. I cry like a fool when I watch the original version with Colbert. Since that one was the first of the two I saw I connect with it more emotionally. It would be really interesting to read a book about them!

    RE: Hollywood Myths – I love gossip too! I was reading a book about Classic Hollywood style and the author made a grave error early on in the book. I lost respect for her and the book immediately. Ugh. I hate when that happens. Oh and snow made of soap and potatoes RE: It’s a Wonderful Life? Yikes!

    RE: Hollywood Book of Death – OMG I NEED THAT BOOK!

    I got that Norma Shearer bio as a birthday present from my husband back when we first started dating. I had read it before and really wanted a copy. It’s a treasure. I had read a Shearer biography before that one and it wasn’t as good. Lambert’s is the essential bio on Shearer!

    Keep reading! 🙂

  7. Wonderful post. I love to collect Hollywood books, too, and – like you – I’m a little behind on my reading. But if a person is in a 2nd-hand bookstore, you’ve gotta grab any gems you find because you may not see them again.

    I laughed at your editor comment because, while I’m not a “real” editor, I am one at heart. If I see a book with too many typos I become rather perturbed. Once I read a book that had a typo on every second page, along with very poor use of punctuation. I was so annoyed I circled all the mistakes I found and MAILED the book back to the publisher. Can you believe they never thanked me for my effort?

  8. Karen and company, I can understand your love of movie star books! Ironically, I haven’t had as much time to read as I’d like, partly because I’m trying lure agents to publish my comedy-suspense novel! 🙂 Here’s hoping!

  9. […] Darn, That’s the End, I offered up my reviews of the four classic movie-themed books I managed to read this summer as […]

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