It has been a great year for books about the movies, especially for fans of the silent era.
Looking over the many titles released this year, it’s notable how many of the best books 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 5 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.
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.
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.
Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts and entertainment writer and early film buff, as well as the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books on the actress, organized exhibits, appeared on television and radio, and introduced Brooks’ films around the world. In 2010, he edited and wrote the introduction to the “Louise Brooks Edition” of Margarete Bohme’s The Diary of a Lost Girl.