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Movie History Books

Seriously Funny

Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s
by Gerald Nachman

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It's been said that analyzing comedy is a bit like dissecting a frog: you arrive at a greater understanding of the frog but the frog does tend to die in the process. The purpose of Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s is not to provide a laugh riot of his subjects' best punch lines, but rather to explore their lives, careers, and influence. Nachman's scope is impressive. He provides detailed biographies not only of household names Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, and Woody Allen but also comics like Jean Shepherd, Shelley Berman, and Will Jordan whose legacies have far outpaced their name recognition. Nachman has done his research; the book profiles 26 comedians, each in exhaustive detail, and no fan of this era will feel cheated at the end of its 768 pages. There are plenty of entertaining show biz anecdotes (Sid Caesar throwing a lit cigar at young writer Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby punching out Tommy Smothers) along with tales of the darker sides of Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, and others whose private lives were far less amusing than their stage acts. But what makes Seriously Funny so compelling, and its dopey title at least partially forgivable, is the author's meticulous attention to each comedian's imprint on the landscape of comedy itself. And while the jokes cited often seem a bit stale and obvious, it bears noting that they were revolutionary when these comedians first made them.
-from website

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Sam Spiegel

Sam Spiegel: The Incredible Life and Times of Hollywood's Most Iconoclastic Producer, the Miracle Worker Who Went from Penniless Refugee to Showbiz Legend, and Made Possible The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia
by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni (Author)

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Prior to this meticulously researched biography, legendary producer Sam Spiegel had loomed large in countless Hollywood memoirs, but was rarely the subject of close examination. Praiseworthy for negotiating a maze of apocryphal stories and unverified details, Sam Spiegel solves many of the mysteries resulting from the falsehoods of "Spiegelese," for the renowned producer--whose crowning achievements included The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia--was perhaps the most inventive liar to gain prominence in Hollywood. With a refreshing absence of judgment, this unflinching study portrays Spiegel as a consummate manipulator, hedonist, philanderer, absentee father, sexaholic (a foot fetishist who favored young girls well into his '70s), and globetrotting entertainer of the social elite, "incapable of guilt" and so charming that he could achieve miracles (and numerous faked heart attacks, to disarm his detractors) while producing some of the greatest films of Hollywood's post-Golden era. As a first-time biographer, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni (a French journalist who worked as an assistant on Spiegel's final film, 1983's Betrayal) fails to plumb the depths of Spiegel's enigmatic character (so effectively hidden behind his luxurious lifestyle), offering little insight into Spiegel's unique combination of intellect and roguish insincerity. She compensates with a journalist's greatest assets: exacting research and seemingly limitless access to Spiegel's surviving contemporaries, from the late Billy Wilder to On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan and many, many others. The result is a fair and balanced portrait of one of Hollywood's classiest scoundrels, a master thief with impeccable taste and an uncanny instinct for cinematic prestige.
-from website

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The Mailroom

The Mailroom: Hollywood History from the Bottom Up
by David Rensin

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Rensin (coauthor, Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man) captures the ambition, manipulative plotting and hustler mentality of a few Hollywood mailroom employees in this series of raunchy, realistic interviews with some top agents who started out in the mailroom. As with any entry-level gig, "the hours are long, the pay... abysmal." Star mailroom grads from the William Morris Agency, Creative Artists Agency, ICM and others voice conflicting views, making Rensin's book an uncompromisingly truthful tell-all of what it takes to make it in the movie biz. William Morris's Norman Brokaw recalls, "I made it a point to develop relationships early on," while Bernie Brillstein's a bit more blunt: "I kissed ass." Most of the agents admit opening up private correspondence and packages, insisting, "everybody did it." Rensin also exposes affairs with secretaries to learn company secrets, fights over use of phones that led to wrestling matches, and homophobia. Sam Haskell, William Morris's worldwide head of television, offers a different take: "Your primary power is your character and your integrity." Rensin furnishes fresh anecdotes about an embarrassed novice who didn't recognize Judy Garland, or another who believed in Marilyn Monroe despite a casting specialist calling her "just another blonde." Clashing views of Mike Ovitz, from "a superb leader" to someone who preferred "style over content" and to whom "appearances were everything," help explain Ovitz's meteoric rise and massive collapse. Most notably, Rensin shows that the road from mailroom to mogul is a rough one. The stories are amusing, intriguing and sometimes horrifying, but Rensin, to his credit, never dilutes sordid details.
-from website

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The Art of Noir

The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir
by Eddie Muller

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Stanley Kubrick's The Killing touted as being "In All Its Fury and Violence...Like No Other Picture Since 'SCARFACE' and 'LITTLE CAESAR'!" Bay Area mystery writer Muller (his novel Shadow Boxer will be reviewed in the Dec. 9 issue of PW) describes the various styles employed by the studio system, all designed for, in the charming vernacular of theater owners, "putting asses in the seats"; the idiosyncratic promo for Sudden Fear has Joan Crawford staring luridly over a male figure's shoulder at a miniaturized Gloria Grahame embracing Jack Palance. With a clear love for and expertise in his subject matter, Muller tracks the evolution of the form through 275 posters (338 full-color illustrations in all), many of them full-page plates, which look nothing short of smashing in the book's oversize, 10 x 14 format. A series of foreign posters reveal how artists outside the studio system were able to convey a great deal of the films' psychological complexity in a single, giant image. The variety, style and color here, representing films familiar (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and forgotten (The Big Tip Off, starring Cathy Downs), will be enticing to any fan of noir or mid-century American history.
-from website

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Stan and Ollie

Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy: The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy
by Simon Louvish (Author)

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Louvish has written a biography of Laurel and Hardy that brims with affection and still preserves an honest, unbiased view of their creativity and personal traumas. He presents a fully rounded, well-paced portrait of their contrasting backgrounds (Laurel was born in England; Hardy in Georgia), early separate careers and eventual union in a Hal Roach production, 45 Minutes from Hollywood, in 1926. Roach claimed to have discovered them before reluctantly conceding partial credit to Leo McCarey, who directed many of the duo's best movies. After appearances in five undistinguished pictures, their careers soared with such classics as Duck Soup (not to be confused with the Marx Brothers version) and The Second Hundred Years. The two saw themselves as working actors who happened to hit on an incredible streak of good luck. However, their off-camera lives were anything but lucky, and Louvish, in his chapter "Multiple Whoopee or Wives and Woes," poignantly chronicles each man's domestic catastrophes, with particularly painful emphasis on Hardy's marriage to his alcoholic second wife, Myrtle Lee. Laurel, after four disastrous unions, finally found happiness with Russian opera singer Ida Kitaeva Raphael. Thanks to Louvish's erudite yet accessible style, in-depth studies of Laurel and Hardy films are even more absorbing to read than their marital conflicts. A touching example of Louvish's deep feeling for his subjects occurs when he describes Hardy's huge 150-pound weight loss, in which he concludes, "it probably never occurred to Oliver Hardy that his fans actually considered him beautiful." It's clear the author does, and this tender admiration invites the reader to share his view.
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Footsteps in the Fog

Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco
by Jeff Kraft, Aaron Leventhal, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell

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Hitchcock fans Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal have assembled a meticulously researched work describing the trail the suspense master blazed through the greater San Francisco Bay area in many of his films. Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco is packed with pictures from both the filming time and now, and takes readers on a detailed journey through each step of filming for movies staged in San Francisco or elsewhere in Northern California (The Birds, for example, was filmed in Bodega Bay). The authors present the sites as they were for each scene and then describe those sites as they are today, if they still stand. For instance, the historic Mission Dolores Church, where a detective follows a troubled wife to a graveside in Vertigo, still lies at the heart of the city's Mission District. This book is an essential part of any Hitchcock fan's collection, and it would be a valuable read for Northern California residents who may not know the pop culture history behind many of their hometown's fixtures.
-from website

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