Best Film Books of 2012

December 27, 2012

Despite those who proclaim the death of the book as well as death of film, it has been a great year for books about movies.

Four of our smartest film critics released thought provoking new books which take a look at the big picture. They are The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies by David Thomson, Do the Movies Have a Future? by David Denby, Film After Film: (Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?) by J. Hoberman, and Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame by Ty Burr. Each are recommended.

Looking over the other film books released in 2012, it’s striking how many of the best of them — or at least the most compelling and interesting titles — are biographies, memoirs or a hybrid biographical-career study. The movies are about story-telling. And if you have an interest in film, 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.

Here are a baker’s dozen of the best film books published in 2012, listed alphabetically by author. Admittedly, I love old movies and classic Hollywood — and this list reflects that preference. One could ask, “Are these the best film books of the year?” I think so. The annotated slide show highlights the dozen recommended works listed here.

There are also four additional titles noted at the end which couldn’t be included in a top 12, but are also worth checking out.

Mae Murray by Michael G. Ankerich

Mae Murray by Michael G. Ankerich

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.
Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector, by Lesley L. Coffin (University Press of Mississippi)

Lew Ayres achieved fame portraying the lead character in the epic war film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The role made him a household name, and — like Mae Murray in The Merry Widow — would overshadow his career. To be a movie star was Ayres only ambition early on, but once he found success, he was never fully satisfied in his choice of profession. Over the years, Ayres experienced not one but two comebacks. In 1938, he was cast in the Dr. Kildare film series. During the Second World War, Ayres gave up his star status in order to follow his moral compass, first as a conscientious objector and then as a noncombat medic. To everyone’s surprise, he was welcomed back to Hollywood with open arms, despite his objector status. Biographer Lesley L. Coffin tells the story of a man of quiet dignity, always searching for the right way to live and torn between the public world of Hollywood and secluded life of spiritual introspection.

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. Despite the fact that Griffith is one of the most documented artists of the 20th century, Drew’s findings shed new light on Griffith the man and Griffith the filmmaker. This is, nevertheless, a problematic book on a problematic figure which deserves to be read.

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.

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda, by Devin McKinney (St. Martin’s Press)

Henry Fonda’s performances — in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Mr. Roberts (1955), 12 Angry Men (1957), On Golden Pond (1981) and other films – helped define the “American” character in the twentieth century. In his long career, Fonda worked with the great directors and the great stars. He was a Broadway legend. He fought in World War II, and was loved the world over. Yet much of his life was “rage and struggle.” Devin McKinney’s Fonda is dark, complex, fascinating, and a product of glamour and acclaim, early losses, and personal demons. Like many men of his generation, he was a man haunted by what he’d seen who hid much emotionally but trusted his audience to see what he couldn’t show them. The Philadelphia Inquirer called this book a “Deeply wrought biography of the dark, conflicted, amazingly talented actor, whose personal life was messy, and whose professional life resulted in some of the truly great films – and film performances — in Hollywood history.”

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.

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.

The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century, by Margaret Talbot (Riverhead)

The arc of Lyle Talbot’s career echoes the story of 20th century American entertainment. He left his home in small-town Nebraska to join a traveling carnival. From there he became a magician’s assistant, an actor in a traveling theater troupe, a romantic lead in early talkies, an actor in major Warner Bros. pictures alongside stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Carole Lombard, then an actor in cult films like Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and finally a regular in early television, with parts in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. In this widely praised book, New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot tells the story of her father. It is a charming and “entertaining” combination of Hollywood history, social history and family memoir.

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.” 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.

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 an account of his time with the great director, and a book in the words of David Thomson, “far from the usual run of ‘film studies’.”


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 copy editing 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, 10 profiles from vintage movie magazines and an illustrated, full synopsis of Heart Trouble (1928), Langdon’s lost silent feature.

Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen, by David Luhrssen (University Press of Kentucky) paints the influential stage and film director as a socially conscious artist who sought to successfully combine art and commercial entertainment — which he did. Rouben Mamoulian’s credits include three of the most popular shows in the history of American musical theater, Porgy and Bess (1935), Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), as well as noted films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Queen Christina (1933). I love that latter film.

Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery, by Herbie J Pilato (Taylor Trade Publishing) is based on the author’s interviews with Elizabeth Montgomery (the daughter of actor Robert Montgomery) prior to her death in 1995. It includes never-before-published material from individuals associated with the actress/activist’s life and career before, during, and after her hit TV series Bewitched (1964 to 1972).

This article originally appeared:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: