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 more recommended books published in 2012, listed alphabetically by author.
The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, by William Donati (McFarland)
— Thelma Todd, popularly known in the 1930s as the “ice cream blonde,” was more than just a beautiful actresses and delicious personality who played opposite Cary Grant, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. Todd’s tragic death at age 29 – ruled accidental carbon monoxide poisoning though widely thought to be murder or suicide – transformed her into an icon of Hollywood scandal and mystery about which conspiracy theories still circulate. This biography covers a fascinating era in Hollywood history. Also examined is Hollywood’s first major sex scandal of 1913, involving Jewel Carmen, the future spouse of director Roland West – the man Todd loved at the time of her death. The Life and Death of Thelma Todd includes a transcript of the coroner’s inquest.
Mr. Griffith’s House with Closed Shutters: The Long Buried Secret That Turned Lawrence Into D.W., by William Drew (Mutoscope Publishing)
— Lillian Gish once said, “There was suggestion of mystery about Mr. Griffith that has never been solved.” William Drew’s new book goes a long way in revealing that mystery. An industrious researcher, Drew has uncovered unknown material about the early life of D.W. Griffith, the pioneering director who not only helped create the “language” of film but was responsible for Birth of a Nation (1915), a flawed masterpiece for which he is still reviled today. Griffith is one of the most documented artists of the 20th century, yet Drew’s findings shed new light on Griffith the man and Griffith the filmmaker. This is a problematic book on a problematic figure, which nevertheless deserves to be read.
The Silent Films of Harry Langdon (1923-1928), by James L. Neibaur (Scarecrow Press)
Stan Without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927, by Ted Okuda and James L. Neibaur (McFarland)
— James Neibaur is one of our most accomplished historians of early comedy. Late last year, he penned a notable book on Chaplin’s early years. This year, he is responsible for two fine books on two iconic figures. In The Silent Films of Harry Langdon, Neibaur examines Langdon’s quirky, slower paced films while making a case for his place among the era’s great comedians. In Stan Without Ollie, Neibaur and co-author Okuda detail the little known career Stan Laurel had before teaming up with Oliver Hardy and achieving film immortality. Stan Without Ollie includes a forward by comedian Jerry Lewis, the subject of one of two forthcoming books co-authored by Neibaur due out in 2013. The other is on Buster Keaton.
Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker, by Jan Wahl (University Press of Kentucky)
— Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer achieved worldwide acclaim with his early masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Over the last few year, another of Dreyer’s films, a lesser known later work, Ordet (1955), has begun to show up on lists of the greatest films of all time. In the year it was made, Dreyer granted a 23 year-old American student the opportunity to spend a summer with him during the filming of Ordet. That student became Jan Wahl, the author of more than one hundred books, many for young readers, as well as some touching on film and film history, such as DEAR STINKPOT: Letters From Louise Brooks. Wahl’s Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker is a book, in the words of David Thomson, “far from the usual run of ‘film studies’.”
ALSO KEEP IN MIND….
Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Film Star, by Jeff Codori (McFarland) is an appealing study of the life and films of one of the biggest stars of her time. Regrettably, this otherwise worthwhile book is marred by a lack of copyediting which distracts from the author’s commendable efforts.
Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon, by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde (BearManor Media) is a massive, 692-page scrapbook style compendium featuring more than 500 images as well as five of Langdon’s vaudeville scripts, ten profiles from vintage movie magazines, and an illustrated, full synopsis of Heart Trouble (1928), Langdon’s lost silent feature.
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.