Death Notice: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

2014 MaltlinAnother week, another obituary… only this time we’re here to bury a book (and, time permitting, praise it). Plume, the boutique imprint of Penguin Random House has announced that Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide will be the last of the series, the end of the line for the movie-lover’s favorite doorstop. It’s a bittersweet moment, one that has many of us, I’m sure, remembering the first time we clapped eyes on one of Maltin’s ever-thickening guides. I was 12, on the cusp of turning 13, and I had convinced my mother to sign me up to be a member of a book club that brokered in volumes on movie-making and entertainment. I barely remember what three books I ordered as part of the introductory offer (one was a Vincent Price biography) but part of the deal was that you got a free copy of the Maltin guide. I had no idea who Leonard Maltin was but a free book was nothing to sneeze at. Though there were no pictures, the The 1975 Edition TV Movies Guide edited by Leonard Maltin (we weren’t so much about the catchy titles back in the day) became my constant companion and the closest thing I would have to a bedmate for the next eight years. (Yeah, I was a late bloomer.) Though the book fell well short of its promise to relay “everything you want to know and more about 10,000 movies now being shown on TV” (fault: publisher, not editor), there was more than enough in there on which a pre-teen cinephile could glut himself. Over the next several years, I used my allowance to keep current with Maltin, as the TV Movies Guide became Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies and Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies Video Guide and Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide and finally Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

maltin-19751The title change says a lot about the way our enjoyment of movies in our homes changed film criticism. When I first started reading Maltin (and his reviewers — it took me many years to learn that LM was not responsible for every review), home-based movie-watching was catch-as-catch-can; one had to take whatever the television was showing and simply wait for treasured titles to turn up in their own time. The Maltin book also hipped you to a ton of movies that never seemed to play on the tube, from series installments of such (to my eyes) obscure franchises as Boston Blackie, the Lone Wolf, the Falcon, Torchy Blaine, and Mr. Moto, to horror and science fiction curios that tantalized and beckoned despite the book’s dismissive attitude toward them. A sea change in home entertainment was nigh, however, and a decade after I first started reading Maltin the home video revolution allowed us to watch our favorite movies over and over again, without commercial interruption. Even that industry was ever-evolving, as video cassettes were outpaced (if not outsold) by laserdiscs and later DVDs, which beget video-on-demand and digital streaming. Also folded into the timeline were such friends of the cinephile as American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies. This wealth, this veritable explosion of available material, turned the Maltin guide from a wish list to a shopping list — I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world who brought the book into a video store to help me make my choices.

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Things change, and nothing lasts forever — hell, that’s why we love the movies, right? They preserve, they keepsake for us memories and feelings that might otherwise slip away with the passage of time, they make immortal the stars of classic Hollywood (and not-so-classic Hollywood, and Off-Hollywood, and Off-Off Hollywood), they give us sanctuary and succor against the inevitability that we are not timeless, we are none of us eternal. But the rules of the game are encrypted in the ever-changing title of the Leonard Maltin guides, which reflected the ever-changing nature of movie-watching beyond the bijou. In the wake of the announcement that the guide will be going the way of the automat and Thanksgiving begging has been the expected hue and cry of the faithful who cannot, it seems, wave goodbye without shaking a fist, without finding someone or something to blame. We’ve been through this fire before with the decline of the repertory cinema, the demise of the independent video store, the death of film… so much finger-pointing, so much foot-stomping. As much as cinephiles love to love, they love to hate, too, and I’m not immune to the reaction (I have a standing resentment against the month of November)… but maybe blaming the Internet for the passing of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide is the wrong way to look at it.

Maltin on MoviesBefore Maltin, film criticism seemed a rich man’s game, the bailiwick of those Algonquin Roundtable swells, with their bon mots and imperious attitudes; even if you read the shirtsleeved James Agee you were hardly a meat-and-potatoes type. I don’t know how or why I came to read Agee and Andrew Sarris before I had hair on my chest but I did and I had to lift my game to understand them, I had to pull down the dictionary and look up words, I had to grow to reach them. In retrospect it seems that Leonard Maltin did much with his guides (and it is important to note that the guides were really the least of his endeavors as a film scholar/enthusiast/historian) to popularize cinephilia, to put film criticism in the public domain. With its economy of expression, the guides made film criticism accessible, portable, and relatable; you didn’t have to agree with a particular critical decision — the ratings were a point of departure to which each of us was tacitly encouraged to provide counterpoint. But the assignment of star ratings (and the designation of “BOMB” for the worst of the worst) contributed to a dumbing down of film culture in our country. Maltin did not invent star ratings but his guides legitimized the conceit and in so doing turned us into a culture quicker to rate a movie than discuss it. Other critics followed suit, adding more stars to Maltin’s four-star constellation (with no appreciable gain in nuance) or doing the thumbs up/thumbs down thing, as if a movie could only be good or bad, worthwhile or worthless. I would argue that these changes had as deleterious an effect on the valuation of cinema by the masses as do the Internet Movie Database and the glut of film blogs that are now being blamed for the death of the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide. Maybe I’m more forgiving of these new voices because I stopped buying the Maltin guide in the late 80s as I discovered other references, other sources… but I say let’s not tarnish what should be a loving sendoff with acrimony and bloviation. (Try and imagine Lou Gehrig’s famous “luckiest man” speech being capped by a tirade against Big Pharma.) Yet despite my complicated feelings, I’ll go on record to say that Leonard Maltin’s contribution to movie culture is incalculable and his legacy will continue to benefit cinephiles (and those who just like a good show) long after this one book has been forgotten. I’ll be picking up the 2015 edition, as a keepsake, and affording it a place of honor on my bookshelf as a way of saying thanks for the memories.

Related reading: Forgiving Leonard Maltin.

18 Responses Death Notice: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide
Posted By John S : August 22, 2014 7:39 pm

Well, that sucks. But I get it. I bought that black-covered book when I was about 9, I guess (didn’t realize it was the first) and most of its successors and am still struck by how generally accurate the ratings are. I still love to see what the book makes of something I saw in the theater and really liked. I can only think of a few misses (IMO), such as “Taxi Driver.” But the fact that Maltin’s reviewers could appreciate, say, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Rocco and his Brothers” is a real testament to its usefulness (though I do know that some ratings were been altered for the zeitgeist, such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” the first of which was more accurate. The book also is remarkably edited into a homogeneous yet trenchant and often funny style. Adieu, Maltin Guide. Fare thee well.

Posted By george : August 22, 2014 8:20 pm

I missed the first edition (in 1969), but I bought the second edition that came out in ’73 or ’74, just as I was starting to get interested in movies. I would keep my Maltin guides until they were falling apart, then buy another. The last one I bought was the 2010 edition, which I still have.

Aside from Internet competition, another factor in the sales decline may have been the increasing price of the guide. What began as a cheap paperback, sold in grocery stores, has become a big, thick book costing $25.

I disagreed with some of Maltin & Co.’s opinions — two stars for TAXI DRIVER, one and a half for BLADE RUNNER, two and a half for GHOST WORLD — but most of the opinions were on target, especially for classic Hollywood films.

I’ll miss those intelligent capsule commentaries. They were a heck of a lot better than the comments posted at the IMDB, Amazon and YouTube, which seem to be written by not-very-bright teenagers.

Posted By Lyndell : August 22, 2014 8:36 pm

My two “Couldn’t live without them” movie guides for years has been LEONARD MALTIN’S 2001 MOVIE AND VIDEO GUIDE and Leslie HALLIWELL’S FILM AND VIDEO GUIDE, 6th ed. I first discovered Halliwell in a Boston bookstore while browsing in the late 1980s, and it opened a whole new world to me! I had adored movies for years, but loved the idea of matching reviews with what I thought about films. Then soon discovered Maltin. What I enjoy most is reading the reviews from each–at first, very surprised at how disparate they could be. But I have often found that by reading both reviews, I can almost always figure out what it is about a movie that I would (or would not) enjoy. I also enjoyed Siskel and Ebert on TV.
I always thought Maltin should have named his 2001 Guide LEONARD MALTIN’S MOVIE & VIDEO GUIDE OF THE 20TH CENTURY. That’s why I got that edition because, with rare exception, my entire film collection is from the 20th Century.
By the way, for me and others who could use the info, where should we go on the Internet for movie reviews in the future since we will now not have Maltin. I already know and use IMDB occasionally.

Posted By AL : August 22, 2014 9:03 pm

each year his cover boasted “over 300 + new entries!”, but he never revealed the hundreds of titles he deleted…

Posted By johnnytoobad : August 22, 2014 10:22 pm

This is tragic news I think — but unfortunately the shark had already jumped for classic film lovers, basically of necessity with many classic movies moved out of the main guidebook in the last few editions …

I rely heavily on an ’09 volume because it still contains MOST classic film reviews … as well as all the relatively recent stuff … Used in tandem with his classic guide there are relatively few problems … Or you can use the TCM site for most of those …

I wonder whether this will eventually allow the TCM site to begin carrying the Maltin blurbs for 1961- present …. That would really be wonderful!

To the naysayers, I find — with plenty of exceptions to be sure — that more often than not I concur with Maltin to within a half-star of his rating … So it’s a very useful tool … Even people who are serious film conoisseurs don’t have time to watch a million horrible movies to get to one good one — so in my mind there will always be a strong place for these capsules …

My Maltins are always falling apart into pieces — whereas my Time Out guidebooks are always in virgin condition … Ultimately the reason is that knowing what a post-modern neo-Marxist academic-type thinks about a given film usually leaves me with no idea whatsoever whether it’s actually enjoyable and worthwhile or not … Ultimately that’s the difference in my opinion! So Viva Maltin!

Posted By george : August 23, 2014 1:48 am

From the “Forgiving Leonard Maltin” article:

“I mean, is it really fair to call Ed Wood’s PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) a bomb?”

Yes. It’s not as wretchedly awful as HOWARD THE DUCK (1986) or BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997), and it provides some unintentional comedy, but PLAN NINE is still a pretty bad movie.

Posted By James : August 23, 2014 7:01 pm

One of my favorite entries from the Maltin guides:

-Isn’t It Romantic?- (1948) “No.” BOMB

I bought the Maltin guides faithfully every year for a long stretch of the 90s. With the rise in accessibility of the Internet, though, I turned to other sources. I do remember Maltin striking a deal with the International Movie Database website to use the book’s entries on the website, but I don’t think that lasted very long.

Posted By george : August 23, 2014 8:02 pm

One of my favorite Maltin entries:

ARE HUSBANDS NECESSARY? (1942): “And what about this movie?”

Posted By vp19 : August 23, 2014 11:05 pm

In recent years, there have been two editions of Maltin’s “Classic Movie And Video Guide,” focusing on pre-1960 films. I hope he might periodically update that to reflect the increasing number of old movies coming out of studio vaults.

The guide wasn’t infallible and would contain its share of goofs (usually corrected in subsequent editions). For example, there was an age-change TV movie called “14 Going On 30″ listed as “41 Going On 30.” Hey, at age 41 I might have wanted to feel like a 30-year-old again, but I doubt it would’ve been that marketable a concept.

Posted By george : August 24, 2014 3:01 am

I think Maltin’s most important book is “Of Mice and Magic,” his studio-by-studio history of animated films. It took a major research effort, because most of this info was buried in studio files at the time, and the films were not that easy to see. And nobody had bothered to interview animation pioneers not named Walt Disney.(The book was published in 1980.)

I also love Maltin’s “The Great Movie Shorts” and an excellent book he wrote about old-time radio, “The Great American Broadcast.”

Posted By James : August 24, 2014 1:44 pm

The book Maltin co-wrote with Richard Bann, -The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang- is also worth reading. It offers a comprehensive look at all of the shorts (save a couple of early ones believed lost), and all sorts of related information.

Reading it, I learned how rural and under-developed southern California was in 1920s, (as reflected in the early Our Gang films), and how much both the location and the Hollywood film industry advanced as the series progressed (again, as reflected in the shorts, where agricultural elements like barn animals slowly disappeared over time).

I was also surprised and saddened to learn that one of the original Our Gang cast members, Mickey Daniels, disappeared from public view (Maltin and Bann could not locate him when they wrote the first edition of the book), and died in obscurity, unknown at the time. It’s one of those sad cautionary stories of Hollywood you hear from time to time. On the other hand, there are plenty of stories of other former cast members living full lives after leaving the series (counter to the supposed “curse” of Our Gang).

Posted By george : August 24, 2014 8:11 pm

I forgot the Our Gang book, James. It’s definitely worth reading.

Those who criticize Maltin for his lack of enthusiasm for more recent movies have to remember: his allegiance is to the films of Hollywood’s golden age, the films of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Those movies were his first love, and are still his favorites. At least he doesn’t hate every movie produced since 1959, as Leslie Halliwell seemed to.

Mike Clark, the former USA Today movie critic who contributed to the Maltin guide for many years, said he and Leonard were on the same page until the late ’70s, when their tastes began to diverge. Clark described Maltin as “a gentle soul” who doesn’t like watching violence, brutality and anti-social behavior on the screen … while Clark sees that as one of the great appeals of movies: they allow us to vicariously experience things we’d never see or do in real life.

Hence the two-star rating for TAXI DRIVER, which Maltin refused to upgrade even after a consensus formed that it was a classic. Maltin personally found the film to be ugly and repugnant. Which it is. But it’s also brilliant.

People like Maltin, Halliwell, William K. Everson and Dennis Gifford pointed me toward hundreds of great movies from the past. I’ll always be grateful for that. As I got older, I learned to take their disdain for modern movies with a grain of salt.

Posted By swac44 : August 25, 2014 11:36 am

If you get the time, I recommend listening to Marc Maron’s interview with Leonard Maltin on the WTF podcast, where he talks about his evolution from teen film buff into fanzine publisher and the creation of the guide and his transition to television. I’ve met Maltin a few times, and he comes across as a guy who genuinely loves movies and their endlessly fascinating history, and has a personable, affable style that gets that across.

Here’s the link to the podcast:

I also discovered his scholarly side with Of Mice and Magic, it’s too bad no one had the foresight to turn it into a Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood-style documentary about the birth and rise of the animation industry, at studios other than Warners and Disney, but maybe it could happen some day.

Posted By John S : August 25, 2014 4:16 pm

I had a friend who was a reporter for a small Iowa paper in the mid-80s who once called Leonard Maltin out of the blue (found him in the directory!) to check to see if the “Little Rascal” he was scheduled to interview the next day was, indeed, a Little Rascal. Not only did Leonard answer his own phone, he was cordial and happy to help. Ultimately, he told my pal the guy was a fake and had been hoodwinking many.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : August 25, 2014 6:08 pm

Given how pricey and unwieldy the print edition has become, I’m surprised he simply doesn’t continue it as an e-book or a website. With literally thousands of reviews already written, it seems silly to not put them to another use. Twenty-five dollars for a print version that’s shed a number of older movie reviews? Sounds like I haven’t been missing much in not picking up an edition in the last decade.

Before IMDB, I remember that book was everywhere. When I worked at a bookstore in the ’90s, we received so many copies of the new edition that we were able to stack them on the floor in multiple rows as high as the shelves themselves. And we had to replenish that stack every day during the holidays.

It wasn’t without its flaws, though. There’s an episode of MST3K in which they discuss how the film Laserblast, as bad as any movie they aired, received, I believe, three stars. One of the biggest laughs I ever got out of that show was when the host deadpanned towards the end “I wonder what it was about this film that kept it from getting that fourth star.”

Posted By george : August 25, 2014 9:13 pm

I had a friend who subscribed to Film Fan Monthly in the early ’70s. I would borrow his copies. So I knew who Maltin was before the movie guide and TV made him famous. I was amazed that Maltin began editing and publishing FFM while still a teenager.

Posted By John S : August 26, 2014 4:04 pm

Re: “Laserblast.” I find that incredibly charming. Pretty sure it also gave “The Boogeyman” three stars, and that is not a good movie, either. But I like the fact that a mainstream book like the Maltim Guide is willing to go out on a limb for its darlings.

Posted By Phil Marchesseault : August 27, 2014 3:15 pm

I don’t know what the third introductory book was that you received from that movie club, Richard, but I’m reasonably sure the second one was Poverty Row by Gene Fernett. I know because your old copy sits on my bookshelf next to Roger Ebert’s Book of Film and the Psychotronic Movie Guide. I have used it in my high school film course a number of times!

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