Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reading the Movies, Part 1 (or Growing Up with the Movies)

Last summer several classic film bloggers shared their thoughts on film books which had influenced them over the years. I believe the thread started at The Dancing Image (click the title of this post). Moira, R. Emmet Sweeney, and the Siren were among the bloggers who wrote about their all-time favorite film books.

I didn't get around to writing on this subject at the time, but as I enjoy the newest beautiful film book in my collection, I have also been reflecting back on the books which were among the most significant to me as I learned about the world of classic movies. Many of these books, though out of print, are still available from used book sources such as Amazon vendors.

Paul Michael's THE AMERICAN MOVIES REFERENCE BOOK: THE SOUND ERA helped trigger my love for classic films, along with being exposed to them by my parents as I was growing up. The book is divided in half, with one section listing actors' biographical information and film credits, and the other half providing the film credits for a well-chosen cross-section of great movies.

I was perhaps six or seven years old when I first came across this book in our living room, and the photographs fascinated me. Over the years I paged through it countless times. The variety of photos and films represented opened my eyes to the wide world of "old" movies. To this day, I will see a scene in a particular movie and realize it was pictured in a photo in what I called "the big black book."

A couple of years before the release of THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974) the beautiful book THE MGM YEARS: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MOVIE MUSICALS by Lawrence B. Thomas was published. Once I found the shelf on movies at the public library I checked this book out over and over again. I was so happy when I later received my own copy for Christmas!

I was already familiar with some of the titles depicted in the book, such as TV perennials THE WIZARD OF OZ and EASTER PARADE, but for the most part the book showed me a world of musicals I could hardly wait to visit -- a feeling which was accentuated when I first saw THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!

A recent column at Big Hollywood captures well what it was like growing up with a mere handful of commercial TV channels in Southern California. (Another post at Sidewalk Crossings, which I first linked to in September, covers a similar theme.) If you were busy during the annual showing of WHITE CHRISTMAS, it was a calamity, as that was the only chance to see it that year -- and never mind that it was going to be edited and filled with commercials. Like one of the commenters at Big Hollywood, I would sometimes set my alarm and get up during the middle of the night to see a movie. After all, it might be my only chance to see the movie for years! My parents were tolerant of this since I maintained good grades (grin).

Fortunately the mid-'70s began a great era of revival theaters in the Los Angeles area, so while there was no VHS, cable TV, or DVD, I was able to see a great many musicals and other films on the big screen. Along with reliable venues such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Vagabond, and the Tiffany, we had our share of unusual viewing experiences. When I was about 12 I saw ON THE TOWN and SUMMER STOCK at the Gary Theater, projected onto little more than a sheet, accompanied by the sound of machine guns from the James Cagney film playing on the other side of a paper-thin wall. There was also a theater in Fullerton which was built in a former swimming pool -- if you walked down to the front of the theater there was still a drain in the floor! Back then you had to be a bit adventurous and willing to put up with quirks and inconveniences in order to see the movies on one's wish list.

On the plus side, I was fortunate to see a great many filmmakers who made personal appearances at various screenings and classes our family attended...I can barely scratch the surface, but the list includes Olivia DeHavilland, Loretta Young, Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Margaret O'Brien, Donald O'Connor, Ann Miller, Vincente Minnelli, Charles Walters, and many more. On more than one occasion we found ourselves watching a film with Mel Torme also in the audience...he was quite a film fan, and of course appeared in a handful himself!

To this day I still can't quite believe how many movies are available at my fingertips, any time I choose to see them -- and, whether they're on DVD, video, or Turner Classic Movies, they're typically beautiful uncut prints which I can watch on a fairly good-sized TV screen. I'll never take that for granted!

Returning to the subject of film books, one of my other early favorites was THE MGM STOCK COMPANY by James Robert Parish and Ronald L. Bowers, which I received when I was about 12. This began a very large collection of biographical film books by Mr. Parish and his colleagues; other favorites included THE FOX GIRLS and HOLLYWOOD PLAYERS: THE FORTIES.

Along with THE MGM YEARS and THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!, THE MGM STOCK COMPANY started me on a lifelong love affair with MGM movies.

Leonard Maltin's THE DISNEY FILMS is another book I first discovered at the library when I was perhaps 10 or 12. Given that the first movie I ever saw in a theater was MARY POPPINS (1965), the book immediately caught my interest and helped feed a love for Disney films which continues to this day -- as does my longstanding admiration of Mr. Maltin. It's amazing to me that decades after my first discovery of that book, next semester my oldest daughter will be taking his film class at the University of Southern California.

I hope to highlight some other favorite film books in future posts.

The end of the year is always a nice time to reflect back, and I hope my fellow film fans enjoy this trip down memory lane!

2 Comments:

Blogger mel said...

Thanks for Part 1 of your interesting post.

I have all the books you mention, and many, many more - in fact I've had them for decades. One of my favorite books (it sits here right beside my computer) is Clive Hirschhorn's The Hollywood Musical, a lavishly illustrated and comprehensive book describing 1,344 films - every Hollywood musical from 1927 to just before the date of publication, 1980. Long out of print, used copies can generally be purchased through Amazon. Highly recommended for any lover of Hollywood musicals.

The word verification here right now is appropriate: ("actone").

I wish you a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Mel!

I've got the Hirschhorn book too...we would probably have a very good time comparing our film book collections. :)

Musical books are special favorites: Ted Sennett's HOLLYWOOD MUSICALS, John Kobal's GOTTA SING, GOTTA DANCE, and the Citadel picture book ALL TALKING! ALL SINGING! ALL DANCING! are among my favorites.

As you can see from this post, I started out young -- I saved up for as many film books as I could afford, and happily I also received many from my parents. My father subscribed to the Nostalgia Book Club and obtained many titles that way, and I also got many titles used from Hollywood bookstores, which I'll probably discuss more in Part 2...

Happy New Year to you and yours, Mel!!

Best wishes,
Laura

10:52 PM  

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