Tuesday, January 12, 2010
IF I DO SAY SO MYSELF: Book Review
Gary Cooper on the set of Farewell to Arms
I spend a great deal of my time reading. A very, VERY great deal. Most weeks when I come to the computer, the topics I discuss are a result of deductions I have made from different source materials. The more I read, and the more films I watch, the more I am able to pull together a thorough analysis of a given individual or situation. When I see a person surrounded by the layers of context they survived within, it makes him or her much easier to understand and flesh out.
I have been impressed by many biographies or novels of historical analysis, and nonplussed by a handful as well, but there are a few that stand out in my mind as particular favorites. This week, instead of drawing personal conclusions based on what I've read, I shall introduce the materials themselves! Here are the books that currently fill my "Top Three Faves" slots:
1) A Cast of Killers by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick: This book is amazing!!! I stumbled upon it at the Los Angeles Library when looking into the William Desmond Taylor murder. Curious about the unsolved case, I decided to investigate and was thrilled to find that a book existed told from the perspective of acclaimed Director, King Vidor. This book reads like a crime novel, with Vidor standing in as Sherlock Holmes. It passes like fiction, but is non-fiction, based totally upon the diaries and findings of the director himself as he plunged headfirst into the life and death of his dearly departed friend. Kirkpatrick weaves together the facts of the Desmond case along with Vidor's personal investigation of it. Along the way, you get to know Vidor himself, including the romantic and enduring friendship he shared with business partner and former flapper, Colleen Moore. Light is shed on the effect the case had on Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, and all of Hollywood, and recorded interviews with the people who were there give you a first-hand look at the death that knocked the film world off its Olympian pedestal. I won't give away the ending to those who wish to experience it for themselves, but for a spoiler and a recounting of the case as exposed by Kirkpatrick, go to my past blog on Taylor. I can't say enough about the pacing, the suspense, nor the fascinating approach to history that Kirkpatrick presents. I think I set a record for how quickly I read this one! For murder, mystery, scandal, and heart, this one is a must.
2) Hollywood's Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn, and the Bundy Drive Boys by Gregory William Mank: I bought this book on a whim when killing time in a Joseph-Beth Booksellers. I already had a stack of books at home and had no reason to make a purchase, but this one was pulling me to it like a moth to a flame! The jubilant, horrendous, mischievous, and down-right dirty lives and shenanigans of the group of friends who used to meet and mingle at the former residence of John Decker is brilliantly recounted in this novel. The 'Boys' include: Barrymore, Fields, Flynn, Decker, John Carradine, Sadakichi Hartmann, Thomas Mitchell, Anthony Quinn, William Fowler, and a few more. Since misery loves company, it only makes sense that these fun-loving, drunken fools find each other, and the trouble they get into is legendary. There are stories of Decker and Flynn hi-jacking a mannequin, Barrymore flashing a matronly woman in the ladies room, and the eccentric Hartmann wetting his pants because he's too lazy to get up from his seat. But with the laughs comes the tragedy, and while you chuckle at the general merriment of these troublesome fellas, you also find yourself weeping at their tales of self-destruction. Most die too young, mere fragments of the men they once were. Though their flaws are displayed openly and without apology, you cannot help but wish you had been a fly on the wall to witness even one night of their debaucheries! For all the mud slung at these men over the years, something has to be said for each of them-- if you want to know a measure of a man, count his friends. The love they denied themselves, they gave to each other... with a shot of brandy, of course.
3) Silent Stars and The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger: I grouped these two phenomenal books together, because they are written by the same author, whom I adore, and I couldn't decide between the two!!! I have my mama to thank for these, who is always on the lookout for me when it comes to literature. Silent Stars is a great jumping off point for anyone looking for an introduction to silent cinema and its celebrities. The enormous impact that the artists Basinger features is so profound, that even witnessing it years later in the pages of the book is enthralling. The decadence of the silent stars is unparalleled. Back then, passers-by could see Pola Negri walking her white tigers down the street, or see tracks on the dirt road from Tom Mix's initialed tires. In The Star Machine, she equally investigates the impact of movie stars in the golden age, but more interestingly deconstructs their calculating and laborious creation. How stars were built, physically as well as career-wise, is fascinating. The complete and utter metamorphosis many went through created a great divide between their true and their manufactured identities, and more than one celebrity fell prey to a fractured and unnerved psyche as a result. Some played along, others fought against the system. Some are remembered today, some are forgotten. Some found a place at the crest of super-stardom, and some never quite made it because the public never responded. With features on Jean Arthur, Tyrone Power, and Eleanor Powell, you get more than a taste of true Hollywood, where all the glitz and glamour is shamelessly chipped away.
I recommend all of the aforementioned books very highly, as I refer to them frequently in my studies. For those not so interested in film and its historical and social implications, they may not seem worthwhile or could be quite laborious. But for those true Hollywoodland connoisseurs out there, there will be no tastier meat upon which to feed your starving minds! If you do take a gander, tell me what you think, and if you have any recommendations for me as well, I would love to hear them. And remember, "Beware of the man of one book!"