It has been a great year for books about the movies. Looking over the many titles released this year, it's striking how many of the best of them – or at least the most compelling and interesting titles – are biographies or biographical career studies. If you have an interest in silent film or film history, there is something about the life story of an actor or director that makes for good reading – especially if that story is well told or groundbreaking in some way. With that said, here are 10 recommended books published in 2012, listed alphabetically by author.
Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, by Michael G. Ankerich (University Press of Kentucky)
-- Mae Murray, known as "the girl with the bee-stung lips," was a fiery presence in silent-era Hollywood. Renowned for her beauty, she was a major star at Universal, playing opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Delicious Little Devil (1919) and most famously, in the title role of Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow (1925). Murray's moment in the spotlight, however, was fleeting. The introduction of talkies, a string of failed marriages, a serious career blunder, and a number of legal battles left the former star in a state of poverty and mental instability that she would never overcome. In this intriguing, thoroughly researched biography, Michael G. Ankerich traces Murray's career from the footlights of Broadway to the klieg lights of Hollywood, charting her rapid ascent to fame and decline into obscurity. The book includes an interview with actor George Hamilton, whom the actress befriended and danced with at the end of her life.
The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, by William Donati (McFarland)
-- Thelma Todd, popularly known in the 1930s as the "ice cream blonde,” was more than just a beautiful actresses and delicious personality who played opposite Cary Grant, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. Todd's tragic death at age 29 – ruled accidental carbon monoxide poisoning though widely thought to be murder or suicide – transformed her into an icon of Hollywood scandal and mystery about which conspiracy theories still circulate. This biography covers a fascinating era in Hollywood history. Also examined is Hollywood's first major sex scandal of 1913, involving Jewel Carmen, the future spouse of director Roland West – the man Todd loved at the time of her death. The Life and Death of Thelma Todd includes a transcript of the coroner's inquest.
Mr. Griffith's House with Closed Shutters: The Long Buried Secret That Turned Lawrence Into D.W., by William Drew (Mutoscope Publishing)
Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, by Andrew A. Erish (University of Texas Press)
-- This may well be the film book of the year, simply because it so effectively documents the life and career of one of the least known though most seminal figures in all of film history. William Selig was a visionary, as well as someone who made it up as he went along – a pioneer who set the foundation for the movie industry we know today. Active from 1896 to 1938, Selig was responsible for an amazing number of firsts, including the first two-reel narrative film and the first two-hour narrative feature made in America; the first American movie serial with cliffhanger endings; the first westerns filmed in the West with real cowboys and Indians; the creation of the jungle-adventure genre; the first horror film in America; the first successful American newsreel (made in partnership with William Randolph Hearst); and the first permanent film studio in Los Angeles. Selig was also among the first to cultivate the extensive exhibition of American films overseas, which in turn helped create a worldwide audience for American films and contributed to American domination of the medium. But wait, there's more. . . . Selig discovered talent like Bert Williams and Tom Mix; encouraged actors under contract to write and direct; and helped the second generation of producers get a foothold within the industry, which led to the establishment of Warner Bros., MGM and Fox. He also had a knack at promotion. Selig’s popular Western travelogues, some of which were shot from the back of moving trains, were lent an air of verisimilitude when screened in parked railroad cars in the Eastern cities in which they played. Selig, notably, also produced a film that resulted in the Catholic Church lifting its ban on the viewing of motion pictures, and near the end of his career, produced a still controversial film about the Armenian genocide that starred a survivor of that historic event. Selig, seemingly, did it all.
The Silent Films of Harry Langdon (1923-1928), by James L. Neibaur (Scarecrow Press)
Stan Without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927, by Ted Okuda and James L. Neibaur
Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, edited by Christel Schmidt (University Press of Kentucky)
Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent Pioneer, by Brian Taves (University Press of Kentucky)
Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood's "Mexican Spitfire," by Michelle Vogel (McFarland)
Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker, by Jan Wahl (University Press of Kentucky)
ALSO KEEP IN MIND....
Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Film Star, by Jeff Codori (McFarland) is an appealing study of the life and films of one of the biggest stars of her time. Regrettably, this otherwise worthwhile book is marred by a lack of copyediting which distracts from the author’s commendable efforts.
Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon, by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde (BearManor Media) is a massive, 692-page scrapbook style compendium featuring more than 500 images as well as five of Langdon's vaudeville scripts, ten profiles from vintage movie magazines, and an illustrated, full synopsis of Heart Trouble (1928), Langdon's lost silent feature.