Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Bookish Cinephile Christmas

Over at Indiewire's Criticwire, the smart, fine and funny Matt Singer has been running a critics' survey for a while, and this week was the first time the Siren participated. The question was, "'Tis the season for gift giving. If someone's looking to buy a film-related book for the cinephile in their life this holiday season, what would you recommend?"

The Siren confined herself to one book, because naming more felt like cheating and because Matt, bless his heart, hasn't got all damn day. So the Siren picked City of Nets by Otto Friedrich, which she's mentioned here often.

But Glenn Kenny, in the same survey, brings up a salient point (as is his wont): what kinda cinephile are we talkin' about? Is our Hypothetical Cinephile someone who adores stars and their foibles? somebody who digs Hollywood history? an auteurist? a writer? an iconoclast? a consumer of deep-and-meaningful critical theory?

So the Siren decided to suggest a few more books she likes and has read recently, say over the past couple of years. And because the holidays don't need more frustration, this is also limited to books that are either in print, or easily available via ABE Books and the like.

(The last three books were written by people the Siren considers friends, but she admired these critics' writing long before she got to know them in person.)

The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin
An exhaustively researched book that appears to have taken up a substantial portion of its author's life, with impressive results. You can't imagine anyone wanting or needing to know anything about Lorre that isn't here. The cumulative effect is tragic, as are so many Hollywood stories, but The Lost One is also a conclusive argument for Lorre the artist. Every movie, every play or other work is treated with care, if not always respect--Lorre himself didn't have much respect for the likes of Mr. Moto. Youngkin recreates all of Lorre's worlds in such detail that you feel how strange it was to be uprooted to, say, Paris, and the boarding house where Lorre and his companion Celia Lovsky stayed with fellow refugees in 1933: "He and Celia lay in their twin beds, eyes open, without speaking. Sleep was impossible with the thunderous speeches of Hitler coming over the radio from the floor above and the angry, indignant rejoinders of their fellow Germans: 'False! False!...Lies.'"

Ideal for: The character actor connoisseur and anyone who's intrigued by the emigre experience in Hollywood.

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman
You know something? The Siren loves being wrong, when she finds out she's wrong in a good way. Which we will define as: The Siren thought she didn't like someone's movies, but in fact, she hadn't been looking at the right movies, and/or she hadn't been looking at the movies she knew in the right way. Which is a convoluted way of saying that the Siren rolled her eyes over a lot of Cecil B. DeMille for many years, and she shouldn't have. This biography, by the excellent writer and film historian Scott Eyman, helped immensely in knocking some sense into her. DeMille was far more complicated and even admirable as a person than he's usually been depicted, and he was a superb visual craftsman and storyteller. Meticulous detail about DeMille's huge role in Hollywood history, too. Superb opening that describes DeMille rewriting Billy Wilder's lines (yes, you read that right) on the set of Sunset Boulevard. Who else but DeMille would have had the nerve? Who else but DeMille would have gotten away with it?

Ideal for: Smart-alecs like the Siren who haven't been giving the man his full due.

The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies by Michael G. Ankerich

The Siren has strong preferences in interview books. She likes to hear from people who were a few rungs down, as well as those at the top. She loves a good story but she definitely wants to hear about the work. Above all, she wants an interviewer who knows his stuff, who has seen the movies. Michael Ankerich fulfills all those requirements. And so you get Billie Dove's tales of Marion Davies drinking to get through a horseback outing with Hearst, or how Blondie of the Follies was recut to make Dove the villain; Barbara Boundess, who had a bit part in the scandal of Paul Bern's suicide ("I learned a great lesson through this. It taught me never to go out alone with a married man"); Marcia Mae Jones ("The minute they say, 'Oh, you're that child actress,' I want to scream, because I know it's going to hurt me"); and the late, elusive Barbara Kent ("I've always thought one had to be an exhibitionist to be in pictures. That wasn't me"). Put it this way: this year, the Siren's asking Santa for Ankerich's other book.

Ideal for: The many people who adore this period.

Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin
Admiring but unflinching account of Horne's great talent and also her flaws. Full of first-hand interviews with people who knew Horne. You get not only Hollywood, but also the simultaneous glamor and sleaze of the nightclub circuit and the people who frequented it. And my god, the stories in here--like Horne, called a "nigger bitch" by a 30-year-old white man at the Luau in Beverly Hills in 1960, throwing first a butt-filled ashtray at his head, then a hurricane lamp, then another hurricane lamp. The man wound up bleeding from a cut over his eye, and when the cops arrived and reproached her, Horne flashed back, "What do you want me to do? Apologize?"

Ideal for: Those with a passionate interest in music to go along with movie madness; anyone who wants/needs to know more about the history of black performers in Hollywood.

The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson
Until a couple of years ago the Siren had read Ferguson only in snippets. Like all late converts, she's now an evangelist. The legendary New Republic critic joined the Merchant Marines at the outbreak of war and was killed in 1943 at age 36. While his collected film criticism is criminally out of print, it's still pretty easily obtained, and if the used bookstores of America experience a colossal run on Otis Ferguson, maybe somebody will reissue him. To his weekly reviewing duties Ferguson brought scalpel-clean perception and a supremely graceful prose style. Just now, at random, trying merely to pick a passage that would show off the man's writing, the Siren rediscovered the best description of James Cagney she has ever read:
He is all crust and speed and snap on the surface, a gutter-fighter with the grace of dancing, a boy who knows all the answers and won't even wait for them, a very fast one. But underneath, the fable: the quick generosity and hidden sweetness, the antifraud straight-as-a-string dealing, the native humor and the reckless drive--everything everybody would like to be, if he had the time sometime. But always this, always: if as a low type he is wrong, you are going to see why. In spite of writers, directors, and decency legions you are going to see the world and what it does to its people through his subtle understanding of it. And in The Roaring Twenties this genuine article has had the chance of his life; he has deliberately done much that a star would refuse to attempt, because hell, he isn't a star, he's an actor; and in this actor's range of life and death he is not only an actor but an intelligence. You do not even have to like that quicksilver personality to see its effect in art here. And if you do appreciate his personality-legend, his face on this screen will haunt your dreams.

Ideal for: The Siren is considering a program to leave this in hotel desk drawers at film festivals, à la the Gideons.

Mabel: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care Girl by Betty Harper Fussell
In the early 1980s Fussell became entranced with Mabel Normand and set out to talk with just about anybody who was still alive and had known the actress. This twisty, highly idiosyncratic book chronicles not just the high times and ill fate of Mabel Normand, but also Fussell's relationship to the idea of Normand; what she saw on screen, what she learned from investigating. In many ways this is an exploration of what happens, good and bad, when an admirer digs deep into the life and myth of a star. Piece by piece, the actress whom audiences so adored emerges--not as a role model, a notion Mabel would have hooted at after you explained what the hell you meant, but still a warmhearted, talented woman laboring through some very, very bad breaks.

Ideal for: Silent movie lovers; lovers of a good mystery.

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan
Anyone who's hung around these parts long enough knows the Siren's high opinion of Dan Callahan's writing on film. The Miracle Woman does something that is very unusual: The life is the backdrop to the work, and not the other way around. You want to know about the marriages to Frank Fay and Robert Taylor, the old rumors about Stanwyck's sexual preference, the sad story of her relationship with her son? It's all there. But the focus stays on the movies, with chapters organized around periods and themes in Stanwyck's work: "The Rough-and-Tumble Wellman Five," "Screwball Stanwyck," "Stanwyck Noir." Within those sections, Dan gives detailed looks at the choices Stanwyck the actress is making--the way each character walks, moves, gestures, reacts. He compiles sources to suggest what kind of thinking and goals the actress was bringing to each part, like Stella Dallas: "A fury rises up, crests, then falls as she pulls Laurel away from her father...'Get out,' she says to her husband, making it sound like a choked afterthought. Laurel is crying hard, and Stella takes the child on her lap and tries to comfort her. The little girl keeps on crying, and Stanwyck's face takes on a distant blankness as she says that Mummy is right here."

Ideal for: Stanwyck fans (so, everybody) and any cinephile who takes acting seriously.

In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the Cities by Imogen Sara Smith
Also mentioned briefly here before. The Siren has often backed a fairly tight definition of noir, usually seen as an urban genre. Imogen argues, persuasively, for how noir "flourishes in marginal places...there are recurring noir images out here, too, evoking a transient, brutal, melancholy world." She traces noir in the suburbs (notably in a chapter delightfully titled "Maximum Security: Domestic Noir"), branching out through buses "with their miserable enforced communities of travelers," roaming down interstate highways, even into the plains and saloons of the Western. And brother, can she write.

Whether playing flawed heroes or redeemable villains, Dana Andrews found his niche as film noir's uneasy conscience. He was the most repressed of all tough guys. "It's not difficult for me to hide emotion," Andrews said, "since I've always hidden it in my personal life." His suits seem welded to him like armor. With that boxy mid-century silhouette, further fortified by the fedora, the glass of bourbon, the cigarette that stays jammed in his mouth when he talks, he looks oppressed by the masculine ideal of granite-faced impassivity. Those critics who called him wooden or monochromatic must not have looked into his troubled eyes.

Ideal for: The true noir fiend, the one who's been known to snap, "Why don't you quit cryin' and get me some bourbon?"

When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade by Dave Kehr
Every week in the New York Times, and every month in Film Comment, we have an eloquent voice for film preservation, an advocate wandering the back rooms of studios worldwide to see what's unjustly been left on the shelf. Dave Kehr is, simply, a very great critic and one of auteurism's best advocates. This book of reviews from the Chicago Reader, spanning 1974 to 1986, consists solely of raves, or near-raves. You can pull When Movies Mattered off the shelf again and again, like any great collection of essays. When she read it, the Siren couldn't resist starting with The Leopard, even though that one's in the back: "A social portrait is only successful when it ceases to be strange--when we have the sense of sharing the characters' world, seeing it as they do. If the world of The Leopard seems extraordinarily real, it is because Visconti sees it as ordinary."

Ideal for: Discerning auteurists; aspiring film critics who want to See How It's Done, Kids; the many fans of Dave's splendid writing.

That ends the Siren's list. For the movie-lover who might require something a bit more esoteric, a handful of suggestions: Things I Did...and Things I Think I Did, by Jean Negulesco (not much on the movies but he gives good yarn); anything by Oscar Levant, but the best is The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, one of the most howlingly funny autobiographies of all time; Marlene Dietrich's ABC (contains her astrological, love and wardrobe advice as well as her recipe for schnitzel); An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde; any of Anita Loos' three books on Hollywood, but especially The Talmadge Girls.

The Siren has over the years found a large number of great film books via the kind suggestions of patient readers, so if you also know a good one, speak up.


B McMolo said...

Thank you! I am forwarding this list to anyone who asks me what I want for Christmas.

Is that Marion Davies in the picture above the entry for The Sound of Silence?

Gloria said...

These are mouth-watering suggestions... I wish my pocket was up to the job! *sigh*

Good thing I have the full Oscar Levant Bibliography to re-read!

The Siren said...

Bmcmolo, yes, it's Davies, and Dove, from Blondie of the Follies, which I need to see as I just saw Page Miss Glory and it's adorable. Wasn't Dove *ravishing*? I lost like half an hour going through pictures of her yesterday; I could have gone with things a lot racier but I picked one from the movie I mentioned.

johncarvill said...

Great stuff. Particularly pleased to see 'City of Nets' listed. I've given it as a present plenty of times, and never had a complaint yet.

B McMolo said...

Many thanks, Siren! Just wanted to make sure - haven't seen that one, alas.

JC, I enjoyed City of Nets so much I tracked down Otto Friedrich's other work, as well. (Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet is probably my favorite of his.)

Raquel Stecher said...

I had to restrain myself from putting all of these on my to-be-read list. I did end up putting most of them on there however. Such a great selection and unfortunately I have not read any of these. Thank you so much for introducing them to me and for assembling such a thoughtful post.

A Bookish Cinephile Christmas sounds like the best sort of holiday to me. :-)

The Siren said...

Gloria, Oscar is the best kind of company.

Johncarvill, ha, me too! It reads so swiftly and beautifully.

BMCMolo, I have been meaning to read his companion book about Paris for the longest time. Maybe that will be another Christmas request.

Raquel, thanks so much. You might actually have an easier wallet time with the two out-of-print books; I obtained my copies very cheaply. Although naturally they weren't in pristine condition; what booksellers call a "reading copy."

ratzkywatzky said...

I love the ones I've read (City of Nets; The Lost One; Stormy Weather; Otis; When Movies Mattered) so much that I'll immediately seek out all the other suggestions. Have you read James Harvey's Romantic Comedy in Hollywood and Movie Love in the Fifties? I dip into those over and over again.

Anonymous said...

I just ordered the Otis Ferguson book (ABE Books for $12.00 including shipping). I really want the "In A Lonely Place" noir book, but can't find it for less than $40.00. Read an excerpt over on Google Gooks and it just entranced me (Read the Introduction). Thanks for the tips.

The Siren said...

Debo, yes, the McFarland books are expensive, I'm presuming because it's a small press. I got a review copy of Imogen's book, but paid for the Sounds of Silence. I'm willing to fork over to support a publisher doing these sorts of books, but in these hard times we all have to time and monitor purchases.

Ratzywatzky, I've read Romantic Comedy, which is delightful. Movie Love I will get around to at some point I am sure.

Chris Edwards said...

Eileen Whitfield's "Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood" remains the best biography I've ever read, about anyone, in any field.

Vanwall said...

Splendid list! "City of Nets" is so awesome, I'd put that as the one book, or maybe squeeze "People Will Talk" and "Lulu in Hollywood" together with it. I've got the Lorre story on my list, and Imogen Smith is now on it, she writes so well. Books still matter, around hear.

Aubyn said...

I'll second the recommendation on the Cecil B. DeMille book. That one gave me a real appreciation for DeMille's abilities. Never realized just how much talent it takes to craft those immense crowd scenes. But then, the man was more than his epics. I recommend The Cheat.

And I've been a fan of Imogen Sara Smith since I read her essay on Dana Andrews in Bright Lights.

Dave Enkosky said...

My favorite film-related book is probably Bunuel's autobiography My Last Sigh.

Paul Dionne said...

David Thompson's newly released The Big Screen is turning out to be a very invigorating read, with much to ponder and imaginarily argue with but seems comprehensive. Though I am nearing the end, I do seem to think Cassavetes might be short-shrifted, but we shall see.

gmoke said...

Intriguing list of books, none of which I know. The Siren does her homework and shares it with the class. With class.

JJ Abrams was at the MIT Media Lab today and spoke admiringly of Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last" and Alfred Whitlock's matte painting. Just thought this community would like to know that at least one contemporary film-maker knows something about the past.

Peter Nellhaus said...

The cinematic equivalent to a Lonely Planet guidebook. A bit pricey, but worth it for Davy Chou's adventures in preserving what he can of Cambodia's "Golden Age" of film. Some other good stuff as well.

Chris Walters said...

Dear Siren,

While I have yet to read it, my dear friend Leslie's mother Linda recently published a biography of Dolores Del Rio. Mr. Hall is a real scholar, too, so it ought to be worthwhile.

It was thrilling to see someone else being evangelical about Otto Friedrich. I'd give that book out like candy if I could.

You're the best.


Chris Walters said...

Also, however you may feel about David Thomson, it's nuts to avoid his two movie meta-novels, Suspects and Silver Light, both engrossing, both devoted to the theme of the present writhing with past entwining. Also the subject of Paul Auster's dark homage to silent comedy, The Book Of Illusions, and Theodore Roszak's paranoid, apocalyptic Flicker. The latter, featuring a Kael-like critic who stumbles onto an unspeakable conspiracy clues to which are hidden in the shadows of obscure Weimar films, is perhaps the weirdest of the lot.

Shamus said...

Out of interest (and the fact that the book costs more than $40 here, as well) what films does Imogen Smith consider "suburban noir" (that most intriguing category)?

Double Indemnity, would qualify, sure; possibly Clash by Night; and definitely Pitfall, Prowler and Crime of Passion- many of them Stanwyck films, which is a little strange. Are there other significant films in the genre?

John said...

How about The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 by Andrew Sarris?

Still in print!!

The Siren said...

Chris, I read Eyman's bio of Pickford (and Sunshine and Shadow, all the way back in high school) and it was also quite good, but I will keep an eye out for that one.

Vanwall, People Will Talk is one I found via the folks here and it's indeed splendid & indispensable. I love Lulu in Hollywood but always recommend that people read it in conjunction with Barry Paris' bio of Brooks so they are aware of the parts where her personal attitudes were showing more than the facts (notably Gish and Garbo, which Paris gives a whole chapter to dissecting).

Dave Enkosky, my copy of Bunuel is British and called "My Last Breath." Don't speak Spanish and so I have no idea if that is a more accurate translation but I like that title a little better for the mocking reference to death. In any event it's a great book, funny as hell and reads in a twinkling.

Paul and Chris Walters, Thomson is an odd duck, a sui generis combination of brilliance and stubborn recalcitrance. I did like how, in the lastest Biographical Dictionary, he had the self-awareness to make a joke about how the Nicole Kidman book tanked. I honestly prefer David Shipman's The Great Movie Stars as a reference, but when Thomson is writing about something he really loves, he can come up with a description so exquisite and accurate it sticks in your brain forever (like a quote I once used here about "Since You Went Away").

Also Chris, I will definitely check out the Del Rio bio. She was some kind of a woman, that is for sure, and with any luck a good bio could give me fresh eyes to look at her movies (I once included her in a list of stars whose appeal eluded me).

Shamus, Clash by Night is in "Private Traps: Noir in the Mind." Every chapter is jam-packed so it's hard to give a complete list but the domestic noir essay opens with Double Indemenity and includes Pitfall, Secret Beyond the Door and The Reckless Moment, Mildred Pierce, Angel Face, There's Always Tomorrow and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry as well as Crime of Passion. Forget where Imogen stashed Prowler but it's in there too.

John, oh yes! I was operating under the assumption that American Cinema (along with Thomson's dictionary, a good basic Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Agee on Film, From Reverence to Rape, Griffith and Mayer's The Movies, A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn bio and others) are already on the shelf. I had to replace my American Cinema a while back. There are some men out there in NY who may have not stolen my heart but certainly did a number on my bookshelves.

DavidEhrenstein said...

May I be permitted to blowmy own horn here? Masters of Cinema: Roman Polanski is an ideal stocking-stuffer. I will be doing a reading/lecture and signing at Book Soup here in L.A. on Monday December 3 at 7 PM.

Bob Turnbull said...

I can't wait to use "Why don't you quit cryin' and get me some bourbon?" the next time someone is telling me their troubles...B-)

The Stanwyck and Kehr books are already on my list, but I hadn't heard of Smith's Noir one or The Sound of Silence - both of which went immediately on the list. In particular, the multiple interviews with silent stars who made the transition to talkies sounds fascinating.


Lemora said...

I had never heard of Otis Ferguson! Thank you for that wonderful quote about James Cagney. Here are two that I haven't heard mentioned anywhere: "The Gift Horse" by Hildegard Knef (I've never forgotten her description of Louella Parsons, upon first meeting her c. 1950, as 'The Queen Mother Of Toad Hall.') The other is "In And Out Of Character," by Basil Rathbone. As a Los Angeles native, I love reading foreigners' takes on southern California. A recent bestseller I liked is Frank Langella's "Dropped Names." After reading his description of an afternoon where he, Bunny and Paul Mellon, Jackie and JFK, and Adele Astair were serenaded by Noel Coward at the piano --including Adele Astair giving JFK tap dancing lessons-- I spent an enjoyable hour hunting down Coward tunes on YouTube.

DavidEhrenstein said...


Kirk said...

I think I'd want to read ALL of the books you mentioned, without necessarily falling into any of those categories you mentioned. I'm not even sure I'd consider myself a "cinephile". I used to think of myself as a cinephile, because I'm more interested in old movies than any of my friends, relatives or co-workers. But then I started reading blogs like this one, and realized there's still a lot I don't know about classic film. Any one book out there that could make me MORE of a cinephile?

Cinephile or not, here's some thoughts about some of those subjects those books cover.

Regrettable ethnic stereotyping not withstanding, I prefer Lorre's Mr. Moto to Warner Oland's Charlie Chan.

De Mille wrote his own lines in SUNSET BOULEVARD?!?! Wish he'd paid that close of attention to the dialogue in his own THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

Otis Ferguson--a name I've heard before but couldn't remember where--is spot-on his description of Cagney and why he was always such an appealing bad guy (except when he played the bad guy in MR ROBERTS. I truly loathed him--in the sense of loathing the bad guy--in that film. I found him more sympathetic giving that guy in the trunk "air" in WHITE HEAT)

Love Stanwyck.

As for film noir, how about BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK? That's as far awas from the big city as you can get.

It's not film noir, but Dana Andrew's eyes never looked more troubled than in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES when Frederic March tells him he wants his daughter to see someone more suitable for her. Most likely, March's only concern is that he's a married man, but Andrews--his self-esteem already at the breaking point--reads so much more in the comment.

Vanwall said...

Siren - I believe Del Rio's best work was for the Cine de Oro period of Mexican Cinema, a period with many gems by Mexican actors and directors.

Kirk said...

Mentioned "mentioned" twice in that first sentence. Sheesh!

X. Trapnel said...

Noir is always licking around the edges of Best Years of Our Lives; besdies Andrews there's noir good girl Cathy O'Donnell and Virginia Mayo and Steve Cochran leaving Boone City at the end to join up with Cody Jarrett. The noirishness actually breaks out in Mackinley Kantor's original novel when Fred Derry attempts to rob Al Stephenson's bank.

Catmommie said...

I'll put in a vote for any of Kevin Brownlow's books, and for Cari Beauchamp's Without Lying Down. I just finished reading Ty Burr's Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, and found it quite worthy, too. As is Jeanine Basinger's A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960. Jeez, I could go on and on here.

bitter69uk said...

You make all of these books sound so tempting. Totally agree with you about the only one I have read: James Gavin’s biography of Lena Horne. I really loved his Chet Baker book, and this was a worthy follow-up. What a complex, unhappy woman Horne was: she certainly didn’t find much consolation in being a pioneer. In fact, she seemed to actively resent the black performers who followed in her footsteps. Re: the Suburban Noir book – is there much in there on Lizabeth Scott? I’m obsessed with her!

DavidEhrenstein said...

bigtter69uk -- read my essya Desert Fury Mon Amour in Film Quarerly: Forty Years -- A Selection.

gmoke said...

Lena Horne may have been unhappy but she did love and respect the great Billy Strayhorn. That, I'm sure, is a great story.

dfordoom said...

I make the same mistake, of unfairly dismissing DeMille. Now he's one of my favourites so I've just adored the book on your recommendation.

Unknown said...

Anything by Jeanine Basinger. Particularly The Star Machine, Silent Stars and A Woman's View. Great bio on Clara Bow called Runnin Wild, Agree on Loos' Talmadge Girls. A cracker of a book. So many....

Quinn Vincent Hough said...

Thank you!