Posted by gregferrara on November 24, 2013
My last post dealt with William K. Everson’s 1972 book, The Detective in Film, and it got me to thinking about my movie book collection. Specifically, I wondered, as I looked through my library of movie books, what was the most personally influential/rewarding movie book I had in my library. The answer came pretty easy. Back in 1985, I got the book Movies of the Forties as a present. At that point in my life, I was the easiest person in the world to buy for because I only ever wanted one thing: Movie books. I still have shelves and shelves and shelves of them and still pick up “new” ones from time to time (by “new” I mean old, as in books from the seventies on back I find at my local second hand bookstore). And of all of them, I’ve never cracked open one more often than Movies of the Forties. Why? Simple: It has everything.
Now, I have Pauline Kael’s review books. I have Molly Haskel’s From Reverence to Rape. I have Sergei Eisenstein’s The Film Sense. I also have works by Joe Franklin, William K. Everson, David Bordwell and Roger Ebert. I have both The Haunted Cinema and From Caligari to Hitler. And more. Many more. And most of them are probably more renowned and more scholarly than Movies of the Forties. And I don’t care.
Movies of the Forties was edited by Ann Lloyd and David Robinson, two film critics and historians from Britain who also worked on one for the fifties as well (Robinson also did several books on the cinema including one detailing that of the 1930′s). In 1985, it was the one book that gave me everything I wanted. One, it gave me an education on classic Hollywood and World Cinema. Two, it introduced to different critics and writers as the book is a compilation of essays written by various people on various subjects. Three, while it connected everything in it tenuously to the forties, it really covered everything (for instance, there are sections on John Huston and Orson Welles because both got their start directing in the forties but the essays on them cover their entire careers, not just what they did in the forties). And four, it introduced me to figures in film history that my other books barely mentioned. Like Norman McLaren.
Until Movies of the Forties I had no idea who Norman McLaren was. Once I found out, I couldn’t wait to see some of his work. I did, finally, two decades later, thanks to the internet. Until then, there really was no outlet for experimental animation shorts. I didn’t even see his Oscar winning short Neighbors until YouTube made it readily available (clips from it are also seen in Mark Cousins Story of Film: An Odyssey, Episode 12, which aired on TCM last week). The now famous short involves two neighbors fighting over a flower (whose yard is it in?) until a war escalates destroying everything. He used stop motion animation for the film, moving the actors around like claymation figures, despite their very much being real human beings. The result is quite striking but nothing really matches his work Pas de Deux, a beautiful short showing short ballet movements repeatedly exposed to produce a cloning effect. Other works of his involved making drawings and scratches directly on the film strip itself. Most of McLaren’s techniques are now commonplace in film but it was in Movies of the Forties that I first discovered him.
Other movies I first read about there I still haven’t seen. One such movie is Andre Halimi’s Chantons Sous l’Occupation, a 1976 documentary about the French film makers who willingly continued to work for the Vichy Government and the German run Continental Films making propaganda films for the Nazis. The short article, written by Halimi himself, covers many facets of the film, just enough to entice me to see it, but I still can’t. It’s not available anywhere. Halimi even mentions the controversy surrounding Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943). The film, which appeared to many to be an indictment of the French people and the negative attitudes towards the Nazis, caused Clouzot headaches after the war ended and he was left to answer questions as to why he made it, or why he worked for the Germans in the first place. Whether he ever answered that question adequately is lost to history. He never publicly apologized and would have been barred from making another film for life had it not been for several French film makers coming to his defense and forcing his banishment from film to end after two years.
Movies of the Forties also introduced me to war documentaries on both sides of the Atlantic, from the Americans and the British and how both countries used documentaries during the period for propaganda and morale more than enlightenment. Many of these documentaries, including the now famous Why We Fight, I would eventually see and marvel at the footage before my eyes.
Perhaps the best thing Movies of the Forties did for me was introduce me to Rank and Ealing, the two British film companies responsible for so much cinematic greatness over the years. From the Rank article I learned of Powell and Pressburger films beyond The Red Shoes, the only one I knew about at the time. From the Ealing articles I learned of Kind Hearts and Coronets (which also had its own, separate article), The Man in the White Suit, The Lady Killers and The Lavender Hill Mob. So, essentially, I learned about Alec Guinness.
It also gave me my first real insight into the Hollywood Ten and the activities surrounding the Hollywood Blacklist. At that point, I’d heard of it but knew little about the details. It was here that I first read of Ginger Roger’s mom telling the committee that her daughter refused to say the line, “Share and share alike, that’s the American way!” or Gary Cooper’s statement on communism, “From what I hear, I don’t like it because it isn’t on the level.” I found about the hearings, the players involved and the movies they wrote under pseudonyms and how long it took to get their names on the credits. And it’s true. My first several viewings of The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia always listed Pierre Boulle and Robert Bolt as their sole screenwriters, respectively. It wasn’t until reissues in the nineties that Michael Wilson finally got his name on the credits where it belonged.
I learned of the Italian neo-realists, Wellman, Ozu, Hitchcock, Sturges, Mizoguchi, Wyler, Rosselini, and a comprehensive look at all the Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour On the Road movies. Unlike an average general history movie book, it covers different topics seemingly at random, jumps back and forth between decades, goes from articles on directors to articles on genres to articles on specific movies and back again. It’s a book I can still pick up when I want something thumb through, always ending up on an article I want to read again, always finding a subject I still don’t know enough about. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Taking the movies, of any decade, and exploring them endlessly. Sometimes, it helps to have a good guide.
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