The Siren has been tagged several times, but (she believes) first by Tony Dayoub, for a meme about books that have influenced her view of the cinema. At first, the Siren thought, that's been done. Sheila O'Malley's shelf-by-shelf descent through her enormous film-book library is a hard act to follow. Still, the Siren went over to her own haphazardly organized shelves and began to get quite nostalgic over the books she read years ago. So she decided to attempt to reconstruct a small part of her early film-book reading pattern, where she went from just watching movies to wanting to read about who made them, and how, and when, and why. This is not a heavyweight list. It is more akin to stopping into a children's bookstore and saying, "I remember that! I even remember what I was doing when I read it!" But the Siren has always found that the books you read as a youngster stay with you the longest.
So then, roughly in the order that the Siren encountered them, 10 books that shaped my view of the cinema. Herer are the first five books, with the next five to come:
Vanity Fair: Selections from America's Most Memorable Magazine, ed. Cleveland Amory and Frederick Bradlee.This wonderful book, firmly out of print but available on the Web for little more than the price of postage, is full of beautiful images from the magazine's first incarnation, which ran from 1914 to 1936. The Siren spent hours decoding the witty articles like messages from a lost ship--which, in a way, they were. Since this was well before the Internet, it sometimes took years to find out what they were talking about. Who, for example, was Doris Keane?
Long before Graydon Carter or Twitter ever came on the scene, the magazine was in the habit of handing notepads to celebrities and asking them to come up with thoughts, for example, on The Ideal Woman. And, further to our digression on Ruby Keeler, perhaps my readers would like to see what Al Jolson had to say on that matter. Read it and see if you don't appreciate Ruby a little more for sticking it out for 12 years:
1. The gift of stretching a can of sardines into a banquet.
2. A thorough dislike of all actors--save one.
3. An appreciation of the fact that, in all the important affairs of life, and in the trivial ones as well, I am, for some curious reason, invariably RIGHT.
4. A disinclination to be taken out--unless she had bid 'one club.'
5. A hearty laugh for all my jokes, including the very old ones.
6. A loathing for crossword puzzles.
7. An inability to block a straight left. [!!!! -The Siren.]
8. Complete ignorance of the existence of the Lucy Stone League.
9. A million dollars.
10. A cough.
Many were the photographs that filled the Siren with desire to see the subject's movies. Like this one, which along with Queen Christina sparked a lifelong love for Garbo:
Or this one, which prompted the Siren to pick up Sunshine and Shadow, Mary Pickford's autobiography.
Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. I could cheat here and cite 5001 Nights at the Movies, but in truth I didn't get that book until much later and I have been missing my copy for years--probably wound up with an ex-boyfriend. My father subscribed to The New Yorker and my favorite section was the front, where I could get all manner of intriguing capsules about movies I had already seen and movies I wanted to see. I didn't agree with Kael all the time (who does?) but she opened my eyes to so many directors and so many movies. Like this one below, chosen just because the title leaped out at me at this site:
Paths of Glory. Just after he made his racetrack robbery picture THE KILLING, Stanley Kubrick directed this version of Humphrey Cobb's novel, photographed in Germany. It is not so much an anti-war film as an attack on the military mind. Some of the press went all out for it ("searing in its intensity," and that sort of thing), but it wasn't popular. The movie has a fascinating jittery quality, especially when Timothy Carey, who's like a precursor of the hipster druggies of the 60s, is on the screen, and the strong, liberal-intellectual pitch makes it genuinely controversial, though it was certainly easier to be anti-militaristic in a film (made in peacetime) set during the First World War than it would have been in a film set during the Second World War. The story is about the class structure within the French army--the aristocratic generals in their spacious, sunlit châteaux and the proletarian soldiers in the dark trenches; trapped between them is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who commiserates with the men but is powerless--he carries out the orders of the high command. When the soldiers refuse to fight in a battle that is almost certain death, three of them are selected to be tried for cowardice; Dax has the task of defending them. The film's rhythm is startling--you can feel the director's temperament. And there's an element of relentlessness in the way he sets out to demonstrate the hopeless cruelty of the "system." (The film was banned in France for some years.) It's an angry film that seems meant to apply to all armies. Watching it is very frustrating: Kubrick, who wrote the script with Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, doesn't leave you with anything. He must have felt this, because he tacks on a scene at a cabaret, with a German girl (Susanne Christian) singing and the soldiers singing along, as they weep. (It just makes you uncomfortable.)
The Siren most emphatically does not agree with everything in that capsule--for one thing, I couldn't disagree more about the film's ending. Other parts engender the same "Yes, BUT..." reaction that I often have to Kael's criticism. But Kael made me want to see the movie, and she made me want to think about the movie, and she made me yearn for an intelligent conversation about the movie. And that's just one of thousands. Years later I can still remember phrases from both her capsules and her long reviews. Not many critics can expect their writing to be that fresh, that provocative, that memorable long after they have died.
Scarlett Fever by William Pratt, including the collection of Herb Bridges. This picture-packed (but alas, entirely black-and-white) book about Gone with the Wind helped spark the Siren's interest in movie-making, as opposed to just movie-watching. It could be a model for other fan books. There is a long section about Margaret Mitchell, the writing of the book and its stupendous success, but the Siren liked the movie sections the best. Pratt goes back through the filming records and shows almost day by day how GWTW was shot. He details the alterations made during filming, and the rationales for them. There are many on-set photographs, a whole series of test stills of Walter Plunkett's costumes, sketches from William Cameron Menzies, pictures of Ernest Haller at work, and many other details on the movie, from rights purchase to Atlanta premiere, all the way up through re-releases. You get all the directors, including a rundown on which bits George Cukor did, which scenes were shot by Victor Fleming and which were shot by Sam Wood. Pratt even introduced the Siren to such cinephile controversies as aspect ratio, describing misbegotten re-releases in widescreen that cut out part of the image. There's also a huge (maybe too huge) section on Herb Bridges' collection of GWTW memorabilia. Pratt eschews gossip; you will find none of the rumors about Cukor's departure, just a rundown on his "script differences" with David O. Selznick (which appear to have been real enough). But since reading this book, the Siren has read a lot more about Selznick, Vivien Leigh and all the others involved in Gone with the Wind, and has found very little to criticize in terms of Pratt's accuracy. In fact the book politely sets the record straight on a number of matters, Pratt shaking his head gently over such howlers as Bosley Crowther asserting in The Great Films that Victor Fleming died during production. Interpretation is another matter, and the book's most serious flaw is that it barely touches upon the controversies that surrounded GWTW from the moment of the book's publication. Still, this was one of the best Christmas presents my parents ever got me.
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks. Another Christmas present, and my introduction to Louise Brooks, whom I met as a writer long before I met her as Lulu. Brooks could really write, and this is another book that still has phrases rattling around in the Siren's head. The Siren recommends reading this slim volume of essays alongside Barry Paris's biography of Brooks, because some of her writing bent the facts to her particular viewpoint--the most notable example, according to Paris, being the "Gish and Garbo" essay. Which lends a whole different layer to beautifully executed passages like this one, from her essay on W.C. Fields:
The tragedy of film history is that it is fabricated, falsified, by the very people who make film history. It is understandable that in the early years of film production, when nobody believed there was going to be any film history, most film magazines and books printed trash, aimed only at fulfilling the public's wish to share a fairy-tale existence with its movie idols. But since about 1950 film has been established as an art, and its history recognized as a serious matter. Yet film celebrities continue to cast themselves as stock types--nice or naughty girls, good or bad boys--whom their chroniclers spray with a shower of anecdotes.
The Great Romantic Films by Lawrence J. Quirk. This one I bought for myself with babysitting money on the strength of a cover shot from Wuthering Heights, with which I was slightly obsessed at the time. Lawrence J. Quirk, nephew of the legendary Photoplay editor James Quirk, has written some 30 Hollywood books but the Siren loves this one for two reasons. One, the romantic melodramas it covers are often given short shrift by "Great Film" tomes. And the films that do get a fair bit of serious critical attention (Letter from an Unknown Woman, All That Heaven Allows) are often analyzed from an angle that assumes the romantic and emotional trappings are fripperies to be stripped away to reveal the "real" themes underneath. Quirk passionately believes that the sentiment in these films is part of what recommends them, and needs no apology. The Siren agrees with him. Second, the Siren loved this book for the huge variety of films the writer chose, everything from the obscure (speak up--who here has seen The Life of Vergie Winters?) to the eternally popular (Now, Voyager) to the head-scratcher (the Siren is still trying to figure out what Teorema was doing in this book, although Quirk gives it a thorough write-up). The Siren has spent years trying to see all of the films discussed here; she has about eight left, including Vergie Winters, Only Yesterday, Lydia, the 1932 Smilin' Through and The Music Lovers.
Quirk's definition of romance is a broad one, encompassing mother love and friendship as well. Here is Quirk describing No Greater Glory, the intensely moving Frank Borzage film that the Siren finally saw this year. Quirk sees no need to justify, or indeed even take note of, those things a modern audience might find hokey. He takes the movie on its own lyrical terms:
Young [George] Breakstone's Nemecsek tags after a gang of boys who wear uniforms and run their lumberyard playground like a military post. Heading the gang is Boka (Jimmy Butler), a handsome, stalwart little fellow who is idolized by Nemecsek and whose approval he constantly seeks. But Nemecsek is an outcast; he is frail and delicate, inept at the assorted skills the others regard as mandatory. The impatient, barely tolerant Boka is forever consigning him to his black book for shortcomings and minor ineptitudes. The only "private" in an army of "officers," Nemecsek is held in contempt and condescension for his failure to cope in physical and coordinational terms, although in the actualities of his soul he is a martyr and visionary in the making, the one pure soul of the lot.
(Part 2 to follow...)