Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hollywood's history in books

[After I posted a few of the "Tops" in 2010 from guests, I thought it would be fun if every so often I'd include something from readers and friends to give a perspective about some cinema related topic different from my own. The cool thing about putting a blog on the internet is that strangers may stumble across CineRobot and come back enough times to become a regular reader and contributor in the comment field. That's the route Eva has taken to be one of the first non-tops guest writers for CineRobot. Eva is from Germany, but now lives in Utah and loves movies [naturally!], books, walking everywhere and says "foreign languages are my thing." Eva's essay below concerns her love of books on Hollywood's rich history and is going to cause me to make some purchases it looks like. Enjoy and start reading about cinema.]

I fell in love with the Mutiny on the Bounty long before I fell in love with Clark Gable. As in: I could not read enough about it, both fiction and non-fiction, and to this day have a bit of an obsession about it and think it is one of the greatest and most unlikely stories in history. As a teenager living in Norway I was in contact with a Norwegian lady who had visited, and then moved to and married on, Pitcairn Island (still my number one spot to go to!). She wrote in her book that it really all got started because of her crush on Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in the 1935 movie Mutiny on the Bounty. I definitely envied her like hell for living on Pitcairn and being married to one of the descendants of the mutineers, but I thought: “ew, Clark Gable, what’s great about him? Yuck, I hate his mustache.”

My love of movie biographies started from very un-lofty ambitions. I don’t sleep very well. One summer night about 4 years ago I could not sleep and switched on the TV very late at night, say 3am. Much like some people “stumble across” porn at that hour, I stumbled across an old Clark Gable movie and - I really don’t know why -  he suddenly had me go weak in the knees (I think those people with the porn probably don’t get weak in the knees, just horny). He had such a presence, such chemistry with this actress, and I immediately developed an enormous crush on him. I don’t know why that night I suddenly saw what I had not seen before. To this day I am always on the lookout for early '30s Clark Gable movies, young and handsome, and preferably without a mustache (there are only a couple of those movies).

So shortly thereafter I got a biography of his and then a second, by Warren G. Harris and Chrystopher J. Spicer (for Gable fans only!). And from there on that was it – I think I have only read movie biographies ever since. I used to be such a fiction reader. Will this exclusive biography reading dumb me down??  I hope not, and find that I am learning a great deal about life stories, movie history, and history in general from them. It is somewhat of an addiction – in one biography I come across the lovers/co-stars/directors etc. of the movie star in question, and then I get curious about them, and next thing I know I got three or four more books lying there. Oh well! Best to follow a healthy addiction like this one. It will either peter out, or result in some kind of expertise.

I have read so many now I hardly remember them all. I know that initially my taste was terribly “uncultured” and I read anything, poorly written or not. Sometimes I still do, we all need our junk food. There are definitely some favorites, though.

Here are some general rules (but I emphasize, they are general; there are definitely exceptions). Generally, a lot of the really big movie stars have many biographies written on them, but they are rarely good. You will be more likely to find a good biography on a somewhat lesser star. Generally, if a biography is from the 1990s or newer, they will be better than the old ones. It seems they have more of a distance, and do more thorough research. Generally, don’t get anything by Jane Ellen Wayne; it seems poorly researched, sensationalist, and has bad spelling. Generally, biographies are better than autobiographies. Generally, stay away from books that have those subtitles like “the man behind the myth,” “tormented star” or “lifting the veil….” They are usually badly written and researched, out for a quick buck, and happy to throw some as-yet-unknown dirt on a star.

The books I like best are sometimes, though not always, on people I don’t have that much of an interest in. But because of the times they lived through, or the people they interacted with, their biographies or autobiographies are extremely interesting. I have barely seen any Shirley Temple movies, yet her autobiography Child Star was very enlightening, well-written, and shed tons of light on many Hollywood figures and events. It is also refreshing in the sense that she appears very down-to-earth and neither prone to embellishing or pitying herself. Her childhood was no trauma, and neither was it perfect. Other auto-biographies I liked were Lauren Bacall’s By Myself and Then Some, and Fred Astaire’s Steps in Time. Bacall herself is interesting and writes well, and of course there a tons of interesting insights into the lives of several directors and actors, most of all Bogie, of course. Astaire’s Steps in Time is quite tame, no sensational revelations there. I think his very nature was the opposite of sensationalist, and he has that typical charming self-effacing Fred Astaire style. I haven’t yet found a good biography of Astaire’s, so I will stick to his own words. I worship anything coming from him anyway – a while after Gable, Astaire joined him in equal rank in terms of an Eva crush.

One book I got quite lost in, and that I thought was very well-written, is a biography of Mary Pickford, by Eileen Whitfield, called Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. It was fascinating both regarding Pickford herself, as well as the times she lived in and shaped; the really early silent films, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin (who instead of calling her "America’s Sweetheart" like everyone else, called her the "Bank of America’s Sweetheart"), and the goings-on at the legendary Pickfair estate (how I would have liked to be a visitor! So did Joan Crawford, but she had to wait her turn). It becomes quite clear of how much importance she was in building Hollywood.

I loved David Stenn’s Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. It is strangely unobtainable and expensive, but luckily I managed to find it at the library of a university where I was teaching. It explored the mysterious death of her husband Paul Bern and her own unexpected death in much saner ways than had been done before. Of course these two deaths make for fascinating reading; as well as Harlow’s life – an actress who got teamed up with Gable very often and had incredible chemistry with him. Her death at a young age, and that of Irving Thalberg, majorly shocked and impacted Hollywood.

So now I have mentioned Thalberg... I am endlessly fascinated with him. He occurs in practically every biography of every movie star of the 1920s or '30s. He pops up all the time. By the time I got to an actual biography of his, by Bob Thomas, this December, I already felt like I knew him well. I liked that book, but there is also a very new Irving Thalberg biography by Mark A. Vieira that I’m keen on reading. The library here doesn’t have it and its price hasn’t sunk yet, but I’ll get it soon, ILL or otherwise.

Once Thalberg was done, of course I had to finally get to Louis B. Mayer. There is a new-ish biography, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman, that I devoured. Oh, Louis B! - part ridiculous, part scary, part scary street-smart, influential and talented. Needless to say – also offers great insights and tidbits into just about anyone he ever came in touch with!

I really liked Graham McCann’s biography on Cary Grant: Cary Grant: A Class Apart. It’s hard to get good biographies on the major stars, and this is one. I loved reading two biographies by Lee Server: Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care and Ava Garder: Love Is Nothing – both rich, long, satisfying, much-researched, with a thousand interesting tidbits. I also recommend two Garbo biographies: Garbo by Barry Paris, and Greta Garbo: A Life Apart by Karen Swenson. I much enjoyed As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin by Laurence Bergreen – a great look at Tin Pan Alley, and you can imagine how many interesting lives someone came in contact with if they turned a 101 years old!

One of the best reads was a gigantic book by David Thomson on David O. Selznick - Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick. It was the fattest book (I think over 800 pages) I had when I went on a pretty spontaneous trip to Sicily last year, and boy was I glad for it when I got stuck there for an additional week (oh, how tragic) when the Icelandic volcano exploded. Sicily had so much to offer, but my apartment was TV and internet-less (lovely!) and so in the evenings it was just me and David O. Selznick. I always enjoy Thomson’s writing – pretty much all of his books. Thomson extensively interviewed Irene Mayer Selznick in person, and he had plenty of new and interesting things to say. Of course, the making of Gone With the Wind makes up for a large part of the book (and who knew Vivien Leigh liked to play the game different-ways-to-kill-infants?) For those who like very short books, Thomson has a great little series of small books of about 100 pages each going (so far, I think, Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis). Nice, chatty, unorthodox tone.

For those who don’t want to pick any specific biography (yet), I really recommend The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger. You get tons of insights into the studio system, how stars were made, and Basinger singles out many different stars to prove her examples. Finally, here you get something on lesser-known, or less “glamorous” contract players, and finally some information on fantastic people like Irene Dunne or William Powell, on whom it is harder to find good material. This book I could not put down.

I just started a biography of Gene Kelly, and have my eye on one of Louella Parsons. Can’t wait! I also don’t have a lot of people with whom to exchange information on biographies, but I do have one friend whose taste I fully trust in this, and he says he highly recommends Chaplin’s auto-biography, as well as David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon. So they are next on my list.

Once upon a time I was really worried I would run out of these biographies. No longer so! I realize just how much material there is, and just how little I have read. That’s a good thing – plenty left for the future. When I spent a longer time in Germany, where these types of Hollywood biographies are totally unavailable, and many simply have not been translated, I got anxiety about not getting my fill. I had a couple of hospital stays there this past year and luckily thought of buying some used biographies inexpensively, shipped from the UK. Salvation! I will never forget it – I think I ordered  9 at once, and about 8 of them arrived all on the same day! I was sitting on the carpet in my living room surrounded by the parcels, and in a state of bliss (the pain and weakness was briefly forgotten).

I am not at all an authority on this topic, and the more I get in there, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Still, I hope I threw some interesting ideas out there. I am thinking of a thousand little stories from those books as I write this. Why I am so hooked on this stuff? I am massively interested in people’s life stories, and perhaps there is also a small part in me that likes to see what messes they got themselves into (and that I’m not the only one) - and out of (a couple, of course, did not). And on some level, I am definitely in love with the glamour that surrounds old Hollywood like no glamour can do these days. I love the dashing men, the good manners, the love affairs, the clothes… I realize the innocence, images, and glamour are partly fake (they did, after all, have a little thing called WWII), but we all need our dreams, and sometimes “breathe an atmosphere that simply reeks with class.”


Joshua Blevins Peck said...

Star Machine and the Robert Mitchum biography are the two I'd like to read the most from your list. I've actually had Star Machine on my "to read" list since it came out a couple of years ago.

Anonymous said...

This was an excellent piece and a great book list. Thanks.


Eva said...

Joshua, those are good picks! Star Machine I recommend to everyone, and Mitchum - ah Mitchum! - I think I am so fascinated with him because he is all sorts of things I am not, but wish I were. I wish I could pick and choose, and integrate a whole bunch of Mitchum qualities into my personality!

Anonymous said...

Love this article. Haven't read any biographies/autobiographies yet, because I didn't know how to begin and what to avoid. Plus, knowing you Eva, your taste will give me some great ones to start with.

- Molly