Books/Magazines

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.