Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best Films Books of 2012

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)

-- Lillian Gish once said, "There was suggestion of mystery about Mr. Griffith that has never been solved." William Drew’s new book goes a long way in revealing that mystery. An industrious researcher, Drew has uncovered unknown material about the early life of D.W. Griffith, the pioneering director who not only helped create the "language" of film but was responsible for Birth of a Nation (1915), a flawed masterpiece for which he is still reviled today. Griffith is one of the most documented artists of the 20th century, yet Drew’s findings shed new light on Griffith the man and Griffith the filmmaker. This is a problematic book on a problematic figure, which nevertheless deserves to be read.

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

-- James Neibaur is one of our most accomplished historians of early comedy. Late last year, he penned a notable book on Chaplin's early years. This year, he is responsible for two fine books on two iconic figures. In The Silent Films of Harry Langdon, Neibaur examines Langdon's quirky, slower paced films while making a case for his place among the era's great comedians. In Stan Without Ollie, Neibaur and co-author Okuda detail the little known career Stan Laurel had before teaming up with Oliver Hardy and achieving film immortality. Stan Without Ollie includes a forward by comedian Jerry Lewis, the subject of one of two forthcoming books co-authored by Neibaur due out in 2013. The other is on Buster Keaton.

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, edited by Christel Schmidt (University Press of Kentucky)

-- Ahead of the major Mary Pickford biopic now in the works comes this lavishly illustrated collection of essays on one of cinema's first great stars. Co-published with the Library of Congress and featuring more than two hundred color and black and white illustrations, Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies outlines the story of "America's Sweetheart," a gifted actress and film superstar who was also a philanthropist and savvy industry leader who fought for creative control of her films and ultimately became her own producer. One of the powerful women of early Hollywood, Pickford was also one of the co-founders of United Artists and, as this book reveals, a key figure in American cinematic history. Contributors include Molly Haskell, James Card, Eileen Whitfield, Kevin Brownlow and others.

Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent Pioneer, by Brian Taves (University Press of Kentucky)

-- Today, pioneering filmmaker Thomas H. Ince is best remembered for having died aboard a yacht belonging to media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Officially he died of heart trouble, but Hollywood rumor suggested he had been shot by Hearst in a dispute over actress Marion Davies. The circumstances of Ince's death have tainted his reputation and, unfortunately, diminished the way his many contributions to the film industry are remembered. Ince, for one thing, turned movie-making into a business enterprise. Progressing from actor to director and screenwriter, he revolutionized the motion picture industry through the development of the role of the producer. In addition to building the first major Hollywood studio facility, dubbed "Inceville," he was responsible for hundreds of films, including The Italian (1915, as screenwriter) and Civilization (1916, as director), both of which have been selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry. Author and archivist Brian Taves recounts a remarkable saga, providing a glimpse inside the world of a key silent-era filmmaker.

Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood's "Mexican Spitfire," by Michelle Vogel (McFarland)

-- Michelle Vogel, who has authored excellent books on Olive Thomas, Gene Tierney, Joan Crawford, and others, has now penned the first full-length study of the life and work of the Mexican-born actress Lupe Velez. Over the years, many crude myths have surfaced about Velez, a beauty known as the “Mexican spitfire” who got her start in silent films. The most notorious is that she "died with her head in the toilet." This biography details Lupe's personal life and career - including her affairs with the likes of Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and others, as well as her tempestuous marriage to Johnny Weissmuller. It also examines her untimely death, while putting to rest the ugly rumors and legends which have surrounded the actresses passing. Included are never-before-told family stories and photographs, and an analysis of the actress' continuing influence on popular culture. A foreword by Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow focuses on Velez's colorful public image.

Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker, by Jan Wahl (University Press of Kentucky)

-- Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer achieved worldwide acclaim with his early masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Over the last few year, another of Dreyer's films, a lesser known later work, Ordet (1955), has begun to show up on lists of the greatest films of all time. In the year it was made, Dreyer granted a 23 year-old American student the opportunity to spend a summer with him during the filming of Ordet. That student became Jan Wahl, the author of more than one hundred books, many for young readers, as well as some touching on film and film history, such as DEAR STINKPOT: Letters From Louise Brooks. Wahl's Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker is a book, in the words of David Thomson, "far from the usual run of 'film studies'."


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.

1 comment:

  1. this is really a good festival. i like silent festival very much. thanks for updating about it
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