Movie History Pared Down to a Decade

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.

Forties movies

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.

McLaren 001

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.


8 Responses Movie History Pared Down to a Decade
Posted By vienna : November 24, 2013 6:29 pm

Most memorable book for me in the early days of loving vintage Hollywood was A PICTORIAL HISTORY of THE TALKIES. It conveyed to me through its hundreds of pages and pictures that there were lots and lots of movies waiting for me!
I devoured every page and studied every picture.

Posted By george : November 24, 2013 9:03 pm

I also had A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE TALKIES when I was young, maybe 13 or 14. I had seen hardly any of the movies it covered, but I couldn’t wait to see them! Those photos hooked me.

Other early movie books for me: THE MOVIES (1957) by Richard Griffith and Arthur Meyer; A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HORROR MOVIES (1973) by Dennis Gifford; THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS (1972) by Leonard Maltin; MR. LAUREL AND MR. HARDY (1961) BY John McCabe. These were all good introductions to Hollywood’s classic era.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about THE MOVIES is the afterword, which predicts pay-per-view and home video.

Posted By gregferrara : November 25, 2013 2:06 am

When I look through my film books something always pops out. Since I buy old and new, it’s hard not to notice how lazy the newer ones are (for general history, I mean) compared to the old ones. The older ones have a real thoroughness to them, covering many periods and genres with full essays and analysis whereas the newer tend to bullet point Hollywood history with lots of graphic design but copy limited to trivia and FYI’s.

Posted By robbushblog : November 25, 2013 3:52 pm

Greg- You are so right about newer film books. They are quite shallow.

The books that I looked at most growing up in the 80′s were The Hollywood Album and Immortals of the Screen. These were books that listed photographs, short filmographies and short biographies of movie stars who had died. It covered stars and supporting players. I recognize many names or faces when I watch old movies just from those two books which, though severely worn out, sit proudly on my bookshelf next to my copy of the Pictorial History of the Western Film and The Citizen Kane Book by Pauline Kael.

Posted By SusanVance : November 25, 2013 8:02 pm

I began collecting film books in the late 70s, pouring tens of hard-earned dollars during my teenage years into the then-plentiful “films of…” type books on stars of th golden age. The studio “Story” books were also foundational for me, in those days before IMDB. My hardback copy of “The MGM Story,” with a retail price of $24.95, and purchased for half that when I was a senior in high school, was my proudest possession for a long time. It taught me about me the movies I had seen, and helped me anticipate the ones I hadn’t. My collection, which I have treasured, tended and lugged from house to house for more than 30 years features plenty of “encyclopedia,” “film guide,” and “story of” books, along with good and bad star biographies, purchased because thumbing through them in the library started to draw the wrong kind of attention from the staff.

Among my most well-thumbed titles is Roger Dooley’s “From Scarface to Scarlet” a great book about films of the 30s. And I too, have a copy of “Movies of the Forties,” received as a gift from my mother, who grew to adulthood in that decade, but doesn’t really understand my fascination with classic film. I am sad to say I honestly can’t remember having read it. I’ve pulled it from the shelf, and plan to begin correcting the situation during this holiday weekend.

Posted By george : November 25, 2013 8:33 pm

Some of the older film books were staggeringly inaccurate, and some had material that must have been fabricated. Mack Sennett’s autobiography, KING OF COMEDY (1955), is one of the worst offenders. Raoul Walsh’s book is full of tall tales. I’ve read that the first edition of Frank Capra’s THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE (1971) was full of inaccuracies that were corrected in later editions.

This stuff got into print because older movies, especially silents, were harder to see 40-plus years ago, unless you had access to the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. Who was going to contradict these old guys?

Also, these moviemakers were entertainers and storytellers. They didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Posted By swac44 : November 26, 2013 7:07 pm

I have piles of movie books, among my early favourites are copies of the Kevin Brownlow silent movie books THE PARADE’S GONE BY and the book that accompanied his 13-part series about the silent days, HOLLYWOOD: THE PIONEERS, which I lucked into while still in my 20s. The glossy stills from those elaborate epics and vibrant comedies still fascinate me, especially as I get to check off more of those titles from my must-see list.

Less well-known are my copies of THE FILMS OF JOHN HUSTON and THE FILMS OF OTTO PREMINGER, by Toronto film historian Gerald Pratley, who died in 2011. I met him when he was here as a member of the jury for the Atlantic Film Festival, and when I found out he’d interviewed both directors extensively for his books (there’s also a John Frankenheimer book by Pratley I have yet to come across) I was more than a bit pleased to find myself one degree of separation away from two of my favourite filmmakers. He thought enough of my interest to send me autographed copies of those two books, which I still pull out every time I watch one of their films, just to read their own personal anecdotes about their production.

As for Norman McLaren, growing up in Canada in the ’70s and ’80s I was exposed to his films at an early age, as they would often show up on TV as filler between programs, or sometimes to fill in a gap when there was a rain delay at a sporting event. I can’t remember how many times I’d come across Neighbours totally at random, while some technical snafu was cleared up. Our local library would also show 16mm programmes of National Film Board of Canada titles on a regular basis, usually with a fair bit of animation, which was a great way to get exposed to his work in the pre-home video age.

Posted By swac44 : November 27, 2013 11:57 am

Funny, I post about my obscure Preminger book by Pratley, and the next day it pops up on the Criterion website. Guess it’s not as obscure as I thought.

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