Books/Magazines

Book vs. Movie: Fast Times at Ridgemont High

When Fast Times at Ridgemont High was released in 1982, Universal didn’t have high hopes for its success. But from its initial limited release, it grew to take on a life of its own and went on to become one of the most celebrated high school movies of all time and helped launch the careers of several actors. Fast Times was based on a book of the same name by Cameron Crowe, but while the movie has cemented its own place in film history, the book is considerably more elusive.

In the fall of 1979, 22-year-old Cameron Crowe enrolled as a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego so that he could spend a year undercover and turn his observations into a book that gave an honest look at what being a teenager at the time was really like. Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story was published in 1981 and despite the success of the movie, the book did not stick around on store shelves for very long. It hasn’t been in print since around the time the movie came out, so for fans of the movie, copies of the book are very hard to find — and typically very expensive when they can be found. I’ve long been curious to see how the book compared to the movie, so when I found a beat-up copy for a fair enough price, I couldn’t resist checking it out.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High A True Story Book Cover

As far as film adaptations of books go, Fast Times at Ridgemont High largely stays close to the source material. Some creative liberties are made, but pretty much everything that happens in the movie does happen in the book. At times, the movie follows the book closely enough to feature small details described in the book, such as some of the graffiti seen in certain scenes or the fact that Mike Damone explains his five-point plan to Mark Ratner by demonstrating with a cardboard cutout of Debbie Harry in front of a music store. And while there are scenes in the book that weren’t in the theatrical cut of the movie, some of them were filmed and included in TV edits of the movie. (As of this post being published, some of these scenes can be seen on YouTube.)

For the most part, a lot of the differences between the book and the movie aren’t hugely significant. For example, in the book, Stacy and Linda work together in an ice cream parlor, not a pizza restaurant, and Ratner and Damone had met while working at some Sea World-type park. Damone isn’t even a ticket scalper in the book version; a separate character named Randy Eddo is. But Randy Eddo is a pretty minor character in the book so combining the two characters doesn’t change a whole lot. In another minor change, nobody at Ridgemont High had cultivated the Pat Benetar look in the book. The book version mentions some people copying the look of Robin Zander from Cheap Trick, but considering that Pat Benetar is now most decidedly better remembered as a style icon of that era, it’s a change that aged well.

Spicoli’s interview dream sequence is featured in both the book and the movie, but in the book version, he’s being interviewed by Johnny Carson, not Stu Nahan. However, you can’t say they didn’t try to stick to the book on this detail. Johnny Carson was approached to be in the movie, but turned down the offer.

In some cases, there are scenes in the book that also happen in the movie, but they involve different characters. The scene where Spicoli has a pizza delivered in the middle of Mr. Hand’s class is easily one of the most famous scenes in the movie, but in the book, it’s Damone who has pizza delivered in the middle of class. Mr. Hand isn’t involved in the scene, either; the pizza is delivered during a biology class with Mr. Vargas, who is only mildly fazed by the stunt. During the movie version of the scene when a robber comes into the convenience store while Brad is working, Brad and Spicoli have a brief conversation just before the hold-up, but in the book version, Spicoli has absolutely nothing to do with this part.

One of the most interesting things about reading the book version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High is that it gives you a chance to learn more about certain character backstories in ways that the movie doesn’t get into. Linda is the biggest example of this. In the movie, Linda shows a lot of disdain for high school boys, but it comes across like her character just thinks she’s too sophisticated for them. The book explains where her loathing of high school boys comes from and that story is surprisingly dark. In junior high, Linda got into dealing drugs and partying with guys in high school, who left her in a mall parking lot one night after she overdosed. After that, she realized how immature high school boys really are and started hanging around with Stacy because she was much more straight-laced than her old friends. Charles Jefferson also plays a bigger role in the book than in the movie and has a pretty wild story that involves events like commandeering a public bus and being involved with a robbery at a Radio Shack.

Even though the movie does a good job of sticking to the book, there are some big differences in how certain storylines are carried out, such as Stacy’s pregnancy. In the book, Damone flakes out giving her a ride to the abortion clinic at the last minute, so Stacy reschedules her appointment and he flakes out on her again the second time around. The only person she is able to find who can give her a ride at the last minute is Ratner, who doesn’t catch on to why she really needs a ride until much later. After that, Stacy has an opportunity to call out some of Damone’s character flaws during a classroom exercise. Damone also later ends up working at the same ice cream parlor as Stacy, who gets promoted to manager and seems to enjoy getting to have the upper hand on him at work.

If you’re enough of a Fast Times at Ridgemont High fan that you want to feel more immersed in the world that these characters exist in, it may be worthwhile for you to track down a copy of the book. Even though the movie does follow the book pretty closely, the book does include plenty of scenes that were completely left out of the movie, like a school trip to Disneyland for Grad Night and Brad’s after-prom party. It also goes into quite a bit of detail about the student culture and social hierarchy at Ridgemont High and some of the more peripheral characters in the movie. There are also a few more characters mentioned in the book who are not featured in the movie at all, so the book might give you the wider look that you’re looking for.

Hot Toddy: The True Story of Hollywood’s Most Sensational Murder

Hot Toddy Book CoverWhen actress Thelma Todd was found dead on December 16, 1935, the circumstances surrounding her death would become a subject of much debate that would last for over 80 years. Did she commit suicide? Was it an accident? Or was she the victim of a crime?

Although there already had been a lot of speculation about how Todd might have died, the 1989 publication of Hot Toddy: The True Story of Hollywood’s Most Sensational Murder by Andy Edmonds brought that speculation to a new level by alleging that Todd had been the victim of a mob hit orchestrated by none other than Lucky Luciano, the major mob leader.

But is it true? Was one of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved mysteries orchestrated by one of the most notorious gangsters of all time? It’s hard to say. To this day, Thelma Todd’s death is officially considered an accident. But in the time since the publication of Hot Toddy, the Luciano theory has certainly become one of the most popular theories. And it’s hard to not be at least a little intrigued by it. As someone who has long been fascinated by this case, I know I was, so I’d had this book on my list of books to read for a long time.

Hot Toddy covers the entire course of Thelma Todd’s life, from her youth in Lawrence, Massachusetts to her time as a student at an acting school run by Paramount, her rise to Hollywood stardom, and her mysterious death. Although there had long been rumors that Thelma Todd had been murdered, Edmonds’ book stood out because she had anonymous sources who claimed to have been with Thelma shortly before her death.

In 1991, Hot Toddy was turned into a made-for-TV movie by the name of White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd, starring Loni Anderson as Thelma Todd. Now, that movie may eventually get a review of its own, but as I read Hot Toddy, I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, this totally reads like something that would eventually get turned into a made-for-TV movie starring Loni Anderson.”

Edmonds definitely had a specific image of Thelma in mind when she wrote the book. She really tries her best to set Thelma up to be a product of her father’s shady connections and her mother’s ambitions, desperately fighting to find something in her life that’s truly her own. Add Hollywood stardom, men, booze, pills, and gangsters to the mix and Hot Toddy gets pretty tawdry pretty quickly.

A few years ago, Michelle Morgan published another book on the Thelma Todd case titled The Ice Cream Blonde. Danny of pre-code.com pointed out that much of the biographical information in Morgan’s book comes from fan magazine interviews and letters to fans, which likely contained sanitized, studio-approved statements. And that’s a very valid point. But ultimately, I found Morgan’s style of writing much more palatable since she never seemed to have an agenda or an angle she wanted to work.

I will say that Edmonds’ book goes into more detail about Thelma’s pre-Hollywood life, which I did enjoy for the most part. I found the bits about her time at the acting school particularly interesting, since the whole concept of that school was a great example of how the film industry was trying to rehab its image after some noteworthy scandals.

But the big thing Hot Toddy is known for is claims about Luciano. As I mentioned, Thelma Todd’s death is still officially considered an accident, so this book certainly did not solve the case once and for all. How much you can believe it depends on how much trust you’re willing to place in her anonymous sources. I really wasn’t a big fan of the extended conversations that are detailed in the book purely because I have a hard time believing that any eyewitness to those conversations would remember them in such detail over 50 years later.

Aside from the Luciano claims, it’s worth mentioning that some reviews from Hot Toddy‘s initial publication pointed out mistakes in some of the book’s details. One review in the LA Times cited a basic geographical error in one of her claims. Anita Garvin, another actress with ties to the restaurant industry and friend of Thelma’s, was interviewed for Hot Toddy. A few years after its publication, Garvin was interviewed for a Mabel Normand fansite and had this to say about it:

AG: I swore that after what they wrote about Thelma Todd, you know “Hot Toddy,” I swore after I was interviewed on the thing I would never do this again: because they screwed the whole thing up! They were absolutely out of their minds. There wasn’t anything in that book that was worth five minutes of her time. What they did to Thelma Todd! “Hot Toddy” they liked the title, but I could see through whoever wrote it. (groans) Oh God!

WTS: That was Andy Edmonds.

AG: I know Andy Edmonds. But I knew Thelma very well, and she was straight laced. She never went through all these things. And she (Edmonds) even got my husband and I – had our business and things – she got that all wrong. It was at the old Monmart on Hollywood Blvd. near Highland. She had us on out on the strip someplace before there was a strip. She got everything backwards. And she interviewed me and I gave her the straight scoop on Thelma. But I think she just decided she knew because she probably liked the title “Hot Toddy” and thought she was going to make it “Hot Toddy!”

If you have an interest in the Thelma Todd case, Hot Toddy is a must-read if only for the fact that it’s the most well-known book about it. Or if you’re looking for something to read that’s a bit on the tawdry side, you might enjoy Hot Toddy. Regardless of why you read it, just be prepared to go into it ready to take a lot of its claims with a grain of salt.

Joan Crawford: My Way of Life

Joan Crawford My Way of LifeI’ve been a big Joan Crawford fan for many years and while I’ve managed to see many of her movies, until recently, I’d only heard about a book she published in 1971 titled My Way of Life. Every once in a while, I’d come across an article listing some of the more over the top quotes and lifestyle tips, which helped the book earn something of a cult following in the decades since its publication. Now, I love Joan Crawford and I love kooky lifestyle tips, so I was intrigued.

Recently, Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood did a review of the book and mentioned that an audiobook version recorded by Joan was posted on YouTube so of course, I had to check it out. I went in expecting major outrageousness, but you know what? I was actually kind of underwhelmed by it in that respect. In fact, I genuinely liked it.

That’s not to say it isn’t over the top in some respects. Of course its; it was written by a woman who lived most of her life in the public eye. Joan Crawford is very famously quoted as saying, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door,” and she certainly never pretends to be the girl next door here. She lived her life on a bigger scale than most people ever will and the advice she gives reflects that, but that’s going to be the case with any given celebrity lifestyle book. Nobody expects readers of these types of books to take every bit of advice literally. But what you can do is find ways to make their advice work for your life and Joan actually had some legitimately good tips.

My favorite section of the book dealt with fashion and style. She was a big believer in the idea that everyone should develop their own personal style that makes them feel confident and suits their lifestyle. Not everyone is going to share Joan’s enthusiasm for hats, but you can’t really argue with those core fashion beliefs. It was also really interesting to hear her talk about how hard it was for her to buy off-the-rack clothing. One might think that designers would be lining up to get someone like Joan Crawford in their clothes, but she said she was never able to just walk into a designer’s shop and buy things off the rack because the available sizes were just too small for her. Now, I was expecting a lot of things from My Way of Life, but hearing that Joan struggled with stores not carrying clothes in her size was not one of them. In fact, that may have been the single most relatable thing Joan Crawford has ever said.

Compared to some of the things you hear about the lifestyles of today’s celebrities, a lot of Joan’s advice is actually sensible in comparison. When I got to the part about diet and exercise, I thought that’s where a lot of over the top stuff would come up, but that was not the case. While she was clearly disciplined about what she ate and how much she ate, she called out extreme dieting as being unhealthy. In the section about beauty, she doesn’t advocate going out and buying the most expensive products or go on about how she only uses the most exclusive products. Instead, she gives tips on making facial masks at home. Now that we have magazines full of stories about the drastic measures celebrities go to to lose weight and the outrageous amounts they pay for beauty products and treatments, it was interesting to hear a celebrity take a more practical approach to things.

Another reason I feel like it’s just too easy to make fun of My Way of Life is because a lot of it seems outdated by today’s standards. Again, of course it does — it was written nearly 50 years ago. In some ways, it’s very clear that this is from another era, but in other ways, it showed Joan to be rather progressive in her views on what women could be. It was published at a time when many women were stay-at-home mothers and housewives, but she certainly believed that women could succeed in the workforce and that women should have interests and lives outside of their husbands. And while she had strong opinions about pants and what body type you need to have to be able to wear them, she talks about some beauty trends that are hugely popular today, like contouring and microdermabrasion.

Even if you’re not into her lifestyle advice, if you’re a fan of Joan’s, you’re bound to love getting to hear stories about her life and career. My personal favorite was her story about the time she invited Greta Garbo to join her for tea in her dressing room at MGM and the first thing she did was try to impress Garbo with the fact that her dressing room had its own bathroom. Trust me, you’ll want to listen to the audiobook recording to hear Joan tell that story.

All in all, I was surprised to find myself honestly enjoying My Way of Life. So I guess that makes me part of its fan base, but I don’t seem to be in it for the same reasons other people are. While it has its moments of being over the top, it’s really silly to criticize it for that when it’s written by someone whose life was over the top. I wanted to hear about things like how she brought 37 pieces of luggage when she went to London to film Trog; I would’ve been let down if she said she just put a few things in a bag at the last minute. By far, the most shocking thing about it is a rape joke she makes. So aside from some of the more obviously dated bits, this really wasn’t the campy riot I’d been led to believe it was by some other articles I’d read about it. As Joan famously said, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” And if you want campy Joan Crawford fun, watching Trog is a better bet. But it definitely is an interesting and entertaining book.

Book Review: Mary Astor’s Purple Diary

Mary Astor's Purple Diary by Edward SorelIf you’re a classic film fan who has spent any significant amount of time watching Turner Classic Movies, surely you have seen at least one movie starring Mary Astor. With starring roles in some of the greatest films ever made, including The Maltese FalconMeet Me in St. LouisDodsworthMidnight, and The Palm Beach Story, just to name a few, any classic film fan is bound to cross cinematic paths with Astor at some point.

While I’ve certainly seen plenty of her movies, I know little about Astor’s personal life or what she was like as a person. So when Edward Sorel recently published his book “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” and I heard it was about a major scandal from the 1930s that involved her, a bitter husband, and a diary in which she documented her affairs in great detail, I was definitely intrigued. Hollywood has seen more than its fair share of scandals over the years, but this was one I hadn’t heard about before.

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” is one of the most unusual but delightful books about old Hollywood I’ve ever read. Rather than being a straightforward recounting of the scandal, it’s part showbiz book and part personal recounting of how Sorel became acquainted with Astor. While replacing the floors in his New York apartment back in the 1960s, Sorel removed the existing flooring and found old newspapers underneath dating back to when this scandal was in all the papers. He found himself fascinated by the story and felt compelled to learn more about Astor. Over 50 years later, Sorel clearly still feels a great deal of affection for her.

If you’re hoping for a detailed, in-depth book about the scandal or about Mary Astor in general, this is not the book for you. But if you’re in the mood for a quick, light, witty read with lots of great illustrations, “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” is well worth your time. While it’s hardly an exhaustive biography, it had enough information about Astor’s personal life to make me want to learn more about her. Before reading it, I had known nothing about her awful father, her affair with John Barrymore, her ill-fated first marriage, and of course, the big scandal that occurred when her second husband tried to use her diary as a pawn to get custody of their daughter. It sounds like she led a very fascinating life. It was like this book did for me what removing that old flooring did for Sorel: drew my attention to an interesting woman by revealing a now somewhat forgotten scandal.

The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd

The Ice Cream Blonde Book CoverOn the evening of December 14, 1935, 29-year-old actress Thelma Todd headed out for a party at the Trocadero night club. Her night was very pleasant for the most part and at about 3:45 AM, her driver dropped her off at the Sidewalk Cafe, the restaurant she was involved in running and had been living above. On the morning of December 16, Todd’s maid Mae Whitehead opened the garage where her boss’s car was parked and found Todd dead, slumped over the steering wheel of her car. It was the end of a promising career for a talented actress and the beginning of one of Hollywood’s most intriguing unsolved mysteries.

Since Todd was found dead in her car and her official cause of death is carbon monoxide poisoning, it’s easy to think it was a suicide. It’s true she had some frustrations with Hollywood, but according to her friends, she had been talking about her long-term plans very often just before her death, including during the last night of her life. Her loved ones had absolutely no reason to think she’d ever considered ending it all.

Another very popular theory is that she had gotten locked out of her apartment and decided to walk to the garage to warm up in her car, not realizing how dangerous that could be. It sounds logical enough, but at the time of her death, there had been a large media campaign running to warn people about carbon monoxide poisoning. Plus, she had an interest in cars, so it doesn’t seem likely that she wouldn’t have known.

There’s also the fact that the garage was a good distance away from her apartment, where she had been dropped off at. Not only was there a considerable distance between her apartment and the garage, it would have been a very challenging walk that involved either going up a staircase of almost 300 stairs or walking through hilly streets. Some jurors involved in the inquest doubted she would have been able to make the walk due to previous ankle injuries and generally not being used to exercise. The shoes she was found wearing didn’t show any signs of wear that would be consistent with making that kind of walk, nor did her stockings have any damage that would suggest she had been walking barefoot. It was also very windy the night Thelma Todd died, but when her body was found, her hair didn’t look mussed, like it surely would have if she had been walking any kind of distance. So how did she get from the apartment to the garage?

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the theory that she was murdered. In fact, when Thelma’s mother Alice arrived at the garage after the body had been found, the first thing she said was, “My daughter was murdered.” Although Thelma Todd was adored by the people she worked with, she had been receiving some mysterious threatening letters not long before her death. And since she had recently gotten into the restaurant business, some believe gangsters were interested in running an illegal casino in her restaurant and she wasn’t having it. Could it be that the gangsters bumped her off for refusing to cooperate? There were no signs of a struggle; the only laceration on her body was likely caused by her head hitting the steering wheel of her car as she passed out. There’s also the matter of her boyfriend and business partner at the time, Roland West, whose testimony about what happened that night was full of contradictions and inconsistencies.

Several other odd things happened during the last night of Thelma Todd’s life. While she was at the Trocadero, she spoke to Ida Lupino about a new man in her life, but the identity of this man is unknown. Before she left the party, she received a message that upset her a bit, but no one knows what the message was or who it was from.  The last person known to have seen Thelma Todd alive was the driver who dropped her off at her apartment. But when Thelma Todd’s body was examined, she had a rather high level of alcohol in her bloodstream and the autopsy showed that she had eaten peas shortly before her death. None of the other guests at the party remembered seeing her eating peas, nor did they see her drink very much, certainly not enough to be anywhere near as drunk as coroner found her BAC levels to be at the time of her death. So when did she eat the peas and drink the alcohol? The driver also stated that he didn’t escort Thelma to her door that night like he usually did; she insisted she go alone that night and seemed to be stalling about going home.

At this point, we may never get a definitive answer about what exactly happened to Thelma Todd in between the time her driver brought her home and the time her body was found. But in the new book “The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd,” author Michelle Morgan does an excellent job of laying out all the facts, outlining all the theories, and pointing out the flaws in some of the most popular theories. She also highlights some important evidence that’s often been overlooked over the years.

Over the years, Thelma Todd’s death has become somewhat sensationalized with other authors raising speculation that she’d gotten mixed up with the notorious gangster Lucky Luciano and was the victim of a mob hit. Morgan steers clear of sensationalism and presents the information in a straightforward way while remaining respectful to Todd, which I really appreciated. In addition to going over the case surrounding her death, “The Ice Cream Blonde” has a good amount of biographical information about Todd, which although not terribly in depth, does help give the reader context for her life.

Whether you’re a fan of Thelma Todd or have just heard about the case and want to learn more, “The Ice Cream Blonde” is well worth your time. It’s a very enjoyable and informative read that I found hard to put down.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from Chicago Review Press.

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic

Cecil B. Demille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic

Cecil B. DeMille’s name is synonymous with the words “Hollywood epic.” Over the course of his career, DeMille played a huge role in creating the grandeur and the sense of wonder that  is now an integral part of the Hollywood mystique. Even though it’s been over 50 years since DeMille last sat in the director’s chair, his legacy of grandeur still endures and the new book “Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic” by Mark Vieira and Cecilia de Mille Presley (Cecil’s beloved granddaughter) is here to pay tribute to Hollywood’s ultimate showman.

I can’t help but be excited when I see a new book by Mark Vieira. He is responsible for some of my favorite books on the subject of classic Hollywood and “Art of the Hollywood Epic” has the same level of quality I have come to expect from Vieira. It’s exactly the type of tribute a director like DeMille deserves. Much like his films, this book is lavish, beautiful, and big. (And I do mean big. Amazon lists its shipping weight at 6.6 pounds.)

“Art of the Hollywood Epic” is illustrated with loads of stunning stills, behind the scenes photographs, storyboards, costume sketches, and photographs of original memorabilia preserved by DeMille’s estate. In her introduction, Cecilia de Mille Presley said, “DeMille was an art lover. He particularly loved illustration. It told a story, just as he did.” Vieira also states that DeMille put the same level of effort into the unit still photographs taken for his films as he did the films themselves, something Hollywood directors rarely did. As you look through this book, it’s very clear how much he truly did care about all of those things. Things other directors might have considered a nuisance or irrelevant, he treated like fine art.

Some of the memorabilia photographed for the book includes the typewriter used to write 1914’s The Straw Man, scripts, props, and costumes such as Charlton Heston’s robe from The Ten Commandments and the Adrian-designed cape from Madam Satan. I always love it when books include photographs of props and costumes that still exist. It’s exciting to see what still exists from these films. They also give you the chance to see some of these props in costumes in a whole new way. The Madam Satan cape looks pretty fabulous in black and white, but it looks even more spectacular in color.

Lest you think this is just another coffee book with nothing more to offer than pretty pictures, the text is very much worth reading. Between Vieira’s first-rate writing and insights from Cecilia de Mille Presley, Cecil B. DeMille’s granddaughter who was very close to her grandfather, the end result is a wonderful tribute to the king of Hollywood epics that not only celebrates the visual aspect of his career, but also offers a lot of insight to the type of person DeMille was.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher, which does not influence my opinion of this product in any way. 

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of HollywoodIn the early 1920s, Hollywood and the film industry was being rocked to its core by scandal. Between the death of actress Olive Thomas and the ongoing murder trials of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, moralists were clamoring for a way to stop Hollywood from corrupting the rest of the nation. Studio heads like Adolph Zukor and Marcus Lowe were fighting to keep their businesses running amid the scandals and to avoid censorship and government regulation. So when director William Desmond Taylor was found dead on February 1, 1922, the victim of a murder, it was yet another scandal that the film industry didn’t need.

Over 90 years later, the murder of William Desmond Taylor is still officially considered unsolved, but that doesn’t mean there was a lack of suspects. Taylor was pretty highly respected, but he was a man with a secret past and there were people who had an axe to grind with him. Mabel Normand was a dear friend of Taylor’s; a big star with a big drug problem. Taylor helped to get her cleaned up, but made himself an enemy to many of Hollywood’s top drug dealers in the process. And then there’s Mary Miles Minter, who starred in some of Taylor’s films and was madly in love with the director. Mary’s mother had a reputation for being a domineering stage mother and was afraid of how Mary’s unrelenting devotion to Taylor would impact her career. Edward Sands had been Taylor’s valet, but was fired shortly before Taylor’s death for forging checks and crashing Taylor’s car. After Taylor’s body was found, many top studio executives arrived at his apartment to collect any potentially incriminating evidence. Were they trying to hide something or could it have been someone else completely?

Author William J. Mann takes a fresh look at the William Desmond Taylor murder mystery in his new book “Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood.” Instead of approaching the book in a straightforward, “just the facts” style that one might expect, he tells it in the style of a crime novel. This made it a welcome change of pace from the books about Hollywood that I usually read. His writing is engaging and the story is a truly fascinating one. “Tinseltown” is informative and entertaining in equal measures. Before reading this book, I didn’t know very much about the William Desmond Taylor murder mystery, let alone the stories of the people involved in it, but I ended up being captivated by the whole thing.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy from the book from the publisher. This does not influence my opinion of the book in any way.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940

Barbara Stanwyck Steel True Victoria WilsonIf you’ve ever had any questions about the life of Barbara Stanwyck, Victoria Wilson’s “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940” is bound to have the answers.

At over 800 pages long, “Steel True” is the very definition of an extensive biography.  (Keep in mind this book only covers Barbara’s life up until 1940.  The other fifty years will be covered in future volumes.)  In fact, this may very well be the most extensive movie star biography I will ever read.  In “Steel True,” Wilson doesn’t simply offer a look at Barbara Stanwyck’s life, she immerses the reader in Stanwyck’s world.  Barring any advances in the field of time travel, “Steel True” is the closest thing to actually being there with her.   You don’t just learn what Stanwyck was doing, you learn about her friends, family, and co-workers, what they were doing,  and what was happening in the world at the time.

Whether or not I would recommend “Steel True” solely depends on what type of biography you’re looking for.  Even though I really appreciated Wilson’s in-depth approach, I can see how it might not be what other people are looking for.  Perhaps you’ve just seen a Barbara Stanwyck movie for the first time and you want to learn a bit more about her.  In that case, “Steel True” may be a bit overwhelming.  However, if you’re already a big Barbara Stanwyck fan and want to know about her life in greater detail, this is absolutely the book you want.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.

Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939

Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 by Mark A. Viera1939 is widely regarded as being Hollywood’s greatest year.  It was the year that gave us Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz and those two movies alone would have been enough for it to be remembered as being a good year for movies.  But 1939 was the year other classics such as Stagecoach, Dark Victory, The Women, Ninotchka, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all hit the silver screen for the first time.  However, it was no coincidence that all these amazing films just happened to be released in 1939.  A number of economical, political, legal, and historical factors all came into play to help create that perfect storm of cinematic excellence.

In Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939, the new book by Mark A. Viera, Viera explains the factors that helped make 1939 Hollywood’s finest year and highlights fifty of the year’s best films.  Of course you can expect to find the really big hits like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz featured in this book, but there are also several films that are often overlooked when discussing the movies of 1939 such as Bachelor Mother, In Name OnlyFive Came Back, and They Made Me a Criminal.

Rather than approach each film with a critical perspective, Viera discusses the films in Majestic Hollywood very matter-of-factly with details about the production of each movie, quotes from people who worked on the movies, and comments from critics.  In the introduction, Viera explains, “I did not see it as my job to critique them, deconstruct them, or warn you that they are ‘dated.’  My job is to transport you to a special time and place, where artists who were making big films for the end of a tumultuous decade ended with an array of cinematic art. Majestic Hollywood celebrates that art.”  This is exactly what Viera accomplishes in this book.

Majestic Hollywood is arranged chronologically and when you look at it that way, it reminds you of just how impressive that year really was. Not a month went by in 1939 without at least one indelible classic film being released.  It’s easy to remember that Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, and Love Affair all came out in the same year, but did you realize all three of those were released in the same month?

If you’re looking for a gift for a classic movie fan, I highly recommend Majestic Hollywood.  The combination of widely recognized titles with lesser known gems make it a great book for both long-time classic movie fans and people who are just starting to explore film history.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel by Christina RiceFans of pre-code cinema are no strangers to the name Ann Dvorak.  Her electrifying performances in movies like Scarface and Three on a Match helped give those movies a quality that makes them enjoyable over eighty years later.  But to other movie fans, her name probably doesn’t ring any bells.

Ann Dvorak is a movie star who never really became a movie star.  When she was moving up in the film industry, she came up alongside the likes of Bette Davis and James Cagney.  Joan Crawford was a mentor to her.  Her performance in Scarface had people calling her “Hollywood’s new Cinderella.”  But like her contemporaries Davis and Cagney, Ann Dvorak wasn’t afraid to challenge her studio bosses when she wasn’t happy with the way she was being treated.  However, Dvorak’s battles against the studio were poorly planned and as a result, her career never reached its full potential.  Despite such a promising start, Dvorak was relegated to supporting roles and mediocre movies for the rest of her film career.

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel by Christina Rice is the first biography ever written on Ann Dvorak and I was so excited when I found out a book about her was being published.  In the book’s introduction, Rice talks about her experience seeing Three on a Match for the first time, being captivated by Dvorak’s performance, and wanting to find out more about that woman.  Three on a Match was also my introduction to Ann Dvorak and I had a
similar reaction, but I never knew much information about her until now.

In Hollywood’s Forgotten RebelRice reveals a very intriguing woman.  Actually, I found the parts covering Dvorak’s life when she wasn’t acting more fascinating than the parts about her film career.  She was a woman with a wide range of interests outside of acting and she did her best to pursue them all.  During World War II, she went to England with her first husband and spent time driving an ambulance, working on a farm, and writing newspaper articles.  In her spare time, she enjoyed studying bacteriology.  In her later years, she tried creating a program for teaching history in universities.

Dvorak’s compelling story paired with Rice’s writing style make Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel an absolute pleasure to read.  I didn’t want to put it down.  There were times when I’d sit down to read just a little bit and before I knew it, I’d be a good fifty pages further in it.

Whether you’re already a fan of Ann Dvorak or are just interested in hearing a largely forgotten Hollywood tale, Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel is well worth your time.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.