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.

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Few realize there was a time nearly a century ago when the San Francisco Bay Area almost become a second Hollywood. Then, the Bay Area’s best hope in rivaling the film colony only just developing in Southern California lay with the California Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), which was based in San Rafael.

In the coming week, Bay Area movie goers will have the rare opportunity to see a film widely considered one of the most emblematic of the Bay Area’s long-forgotten movie making past.

On Saturday, September 22 the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont will screen Salomy Jane (1914), the first, most acclaimed, and only surviving production of the California Motion Picture Corporation. Salomy Jane will also be shown on Sunday, September 30 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The two screenings mark only the second time the film has been shown in the Bay Area in the nearly 100 years since it was made.

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The fall promises to be a great season for books about the movies and movie stars. Three of the most insightful critics writing today — David Thomson, David Denby and Ty Burr — each have new books coming out, as does one of our most accomplished film historians, Anthony Slide.

The Fall 2012 Season will also see a handful of promising biographies and biographical studies on the likes of Henry Fonda, Lyle Talbot and Lew Ayres, along with more broadly themed works of film history. Women also come in for consideration, and reconsideration, with exceptional new books on two early film superstars, Mary Pickford — “America’s Sweetheart,” and Mae Murray — “the girl with the bee-stung lips.”

These days, university presses are publishing some of the best and most provocative books on film and film history. Don’t miss Go West, Young Women!: The Rise of Early Hollywood by Hilary Hallett, due out in December from the University of California Press.

Besides the ten recommended titles which follow, there are other new releases also worth checking out, like Variety: An Illustrated History of the World from the Most Important Magazine in Hollywood, by Tim Gray (Rizzoli), and John Wayne: The Legend and the Man: An Exclusive Look Inside the Duke’s Archives(powerHouse Books). Oh, and Uggie (the canine star of The Artist) also has a book due in October. It’s Uggie — My Story: A Memoir by Uggie (Gallery Books).

Seen the movies? Now read the books. Here’s a guide, ordered by date-of-release, to the big new releases and lesser-known titles which should pique the interest of film buffs and book lovers alike.

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The story of Baby Peggy is a Hollywood fairy tale gone wrong.

It’s a story of worldwide fame, a fortune stolen, a trust broken, and a childhood lost. It’s an epic story of a pint-sized movie star who conquered the world only to lose it all. It’s the story of Diana Serra Cary, survivor extraordinaire. In the 1920s, she was known as Baby Peggy. Today, she’s widely considered the last surviving silent film star.

If you don’t know her name, you’re not alone. Baby Peggy’s film career ended some 85 years ago. Today, the 93-year-old and still sprightly former actress is largely known only to devotees of film history and early Hollywood.

How famous was she? At the age of five Baby Peggy was signed to a million dollar contract by Universal. That was big money back in the 1920s, and still is today.

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Remy Charlip, an acclaimed children’s book author and artist whose accomplishments spanned many fields, forms, audiences and years, passed away last week at the age of 83.

Charlip was best known as the author or illustrator of nearly 40 books, most for children. His most popular works, Fortunately (1964), which follows the alternating fortunes of a young boy, remains in print after more than 45 years. The book has been published around the world.

Along with his long career as a children’s book author — which dates to the mid-1950s, Charlip was also a noted dancer and choreographer and a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He was with that distinguished group for 11 years, as both a dancer and as a set and costume designer. He was succeeded in the latter role by artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Charlip was also a member of the Living Theater and the Judson Dance Theater, and a co-founder of the Paper Bag Players, a children’s theater group. For this work, he won two Obie Awards, one in 1965 for his work with the Paper Bag Players and another in 1966 for directing “A Beautiful Day” at the Judson Poets Theater in Greenwich Village.

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Normally, I’m not one to pay much attention to student films. They are what they are. Some are amusing, and some are interesting. And some are merely the work of beginners just learning their craft. But recently, I came across an 11 minute work which I think is so good it transcends the category of “student” work. Sure, it has flaws — but I find it so charming I want everyone to know about it.

It’s called Loving Louise Brooks, and it’s recently debuted on the internet. It’s the work of Sebastian Pesle, an 18 year old recently graduated French high school student. He has crafted a very true film well worth watching.

It’s a short work which speaks not only to the vagaries of young love, but also to cinematic obsession — and the times when those two forces collide. As a student effort, it is especially mature and rather impressive. It remands me of the work of Woody Allen.

Loving Louise Brooks was made in late 2009 and early 2010. It is a wordless sound film, in effect a “silent film,” and a homage to the filmmaker’s own infatuation with the movies. There is a musical soundtrack.

The film has popped up on Daily Motion, and a few other video sharing sights. There is a small French-language website for this student project at

Loving Louise Brooks features Pesle as a young cineaste obsessed with the silent film star. In a couple of scenes, he is shown sitting in a movie theater watching the 1929 Brooks film, Diary of a Lost Girl. And in another scene, he can be spotted reading a soft cover edition of Brooks’ memoir, Lulu in Hollywood.

His charming girl friend, longing for his affection, is played by Malvina Desmarest. In the end, she must effect Brooks’ appearance (a la the character she played in Diary of a Lost Girl) to get his attention. Whether this ploy works or not, I won’t tell. You will have to watch the film to find out. And by the way, the characters in this short work are themselves making a film. Also in the cast are Alexis Garin and Yannis Letournel. All are, or were, film students, I believe, at the Lycee Jean-Batiste Corot in France. The story is by Lauranne Launay. Click here for the video: Loving Louise Brooks




Is there any silent film star as popular as Louise Brooks? The actress, best known for her bangs and signature black bob, seems to be just about everywhere these days.

On July 14, Pandora’s Box (1929), the film for which Brooks is best remembered today, played twice in the United States. One screening took place at the 800 seat Music Box Theater in Chicago. The other before a crowd of 1,400 at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, where a gorgeous new restoration of the G.W. Pabst masterpiece was shown.

Before that, on June 23, another Brooks’ film — a restoration of the silent version of Prix de Beaute (1930), screened outdoors in front of a large crowd gathered in a plaza in Bologna, Italy. That screening was part of Il Cinema Ritrovato, a major European festival. Notably, the Prix de Beaute screening coincided with an exhibit at the Palazzo Incontro in Rome of the art of Guido Crepax, whose long-running Valentina comix were inspired by Brooks.

And before that, at the beginning of June, Riverhead released The Chaperone, a novel by Laura Moriarty that became a bestseller. It tells the story of the woman who chaperoned an irreverent, 15-year-old Brooks in New York City in 1922. Brooks, who appears on the cover of The Chaperone, drew a fair amount of attention to Moriarty’s splendid story, which was featured in O Magazine and named the USA Today‘s #1 Hot Fiction Pick for the summer.

Moriarty’s book spurred a handful of articles about Brooks, including a widely read piece by Susan King in the Los Angeles Times and an even more widely circulated piece by Janet Maslin in the New York Times. Maslin selected Brooks’ Lulu in Hollywood to this summer’s Hot List of must read books. That’s not bad for a 30-year old memoir.

The latest attention coming Brooks’ way takes place August 1st, when the Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles shows Beggars of Life (1928). Considered Brooks’ best American film, it is also her most atypical American effort; until then, the actress had usually portrayed flappers, gold diggers and the pretty girl next door.

Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life. Image courtesy of the Cinefamily theater.

Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life. Image courtesy of the Cinefamily theater.

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