May Books

Greta Garbo in George Cukor’s Two-Faced Woman (1941)

This month’s round of book reviews, excerpts, events, and lists is top-heavy with titles rooted in Hollywood’s golden age. Let’s begin with Joseph McBride, the author of critical biographies of John Ford and Orson Welles (McBride appears as a film critic in Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind) and the editor of two collections on Howard Hawks. In his latest book, Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra, McBride tells the story of his years-long struggle to get his 1992 biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success out into the world. McBride’s version of the life of the director of such classics as It Happened One Night (1934) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) differs considerably from the one Capra told himself in his 1971 book, The Name Above the Title.

“Virtually all of Capra’s autobiography is fictitious,” McBride tells Ray Kelly at MassLive. But his original publisher sided with Capra’s allies, who included the director’s sons and archivist Jeanine Basinger, and after a series of face-offs in court, The Catastrophe of Success finally found a home at Simon & Schuster. Politically, Capra was “all over the map,” McBride tells David Walsh at the World Socialist Web Site. Perhaps the most damning discovery McBride came across during his research was Capra’s willingness to pass along the names of writers he’d worked with to the FBI during the Hollywood Red Scare. “That was a shock,” he tells Walsh. “He violated the principles, for example, of his finest film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939], which was written for him by a Communist Party member, Sidney Buchman.”

The bulk of McBride and Walsh’s conversation, though, is given over to McBride’s new critical study, How Did Lubitsch Do It? “The roster of those who claimed him as their master or as an artistic model is astoundingly long, including such figures as Hitchcock, Capra, Howard Hawks, Yasujiro Ozu, Max Ophuls, Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and Orson Welles,” says McBride. The interview swerves from the “Berlin style” that Ernst Lubitsch brought with him to Hollywood in 1922 through to the director’s “anti-puritanical point of view”—McBride notes that a “good number of his films suggest that affairs can enhance a marriage”—and accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against Lubitsch by historians Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner—which both Walsh and McBride refute.

Lubitsch was among the exiles from Germany and elsewhere who, during the 1930s and ’40s, as fascism was on the rise in Europe, gravitated to 165 Mabery Road in Santa Monica. The home of Berthold and Salka Viertel became a locus for dinners, drinks, and conversation among such luminaries as Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Döblin, Alma Mahler, and Christopher Isherwood. The Viertels—both were screenwriters, and he was a director as well—had followed F. W. Murnau from Europe to California. NYRB Classics has brought out a new edition of Salka’s memoir, The Kindness of Strangers, and Alex Harvey’s piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books is full of such anecdotes as the one in which Irving Thalberg and Arnold Schoenberg talk past each other as the producer offers the composer a job scoring The Good Earth (1937). “What is so moving about Salka Viertel’s memoir is the way it preserves the painful ambiguity inherent in the experience of these German modernist exiles,” writes Harvey. “Pulled both ways, Salka is grateful for the sanctuary California offered her family, yet, at the same time, is aware of the gap between her European background and American capitalist culture.”

Salka Viertel can be spotted briefly alongside Greta Garbo in Jacques Feyder’s Anna Christie (1930), and it was during the shoot that Viertel told Garbo about a biography of a Queen of Sweden that had enraptured her. Garbo urged her to write a screenplay, and Queen Christina (1933) would become one of the Swedish-American actress’s most iconic roles. Garbo’s first role in a talking picture was in another 1930 version of Anna Christie, this one directed by Clarence Brown. “Garbo he directed gently—never in anything louder than a whisper,” writes Harry Haun in his review for the DGA Quarterly of Gwenda Young’s “sprawling, massively detailed” Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master. Brown “steered a dozen performances to Academy Award contention and three more to wins,” notes Haun, adding that Young “spent a whole decade revisiting his backlot battlefields.”

One figure that keeps popping up in all these rich histories is Anita Loos, who’d become one of Hollywood’s first full-time screenwriters when she was hired by D. W. Griffith. Loos would also turn up at 165 Mabery Road, and Thalberg assigned her to doctor Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson’s screenplay for Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (1934); eventually, she once wrote, Lubitsch granted “grudging” acceptance. Loos worked on The Women (1939) with George Cukor, who, of course, directed Garbo in Camille (1936) and Two-Faced Woman (1941). But Loos’s true claim to fame was the novel she pulled together from a batch of magazine sketches in 1925. Not only did Gentlemen Prefer Blondes become a surprise best-seller (and the basis for a Broadway play, a musical, and two film adaptations), it also drew praise from the likes of Edith Wharton and Aldous Huxley. The fan letter that Literary Hub’s Emily Temple briefly tears into, though, is William Faulkner’s.

Before Ben Hecht became one of the era’s most vital screenwriters—he wrote Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), Hawks’s Scarface (1932), Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933), and Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), just to drop a few titles—he, too, was a novelist but also a city reporter for several papers in Chicago and an activist who organized campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s. Years later, the Holocaust would turn him into a dedicated Zionist. Reviewing Adina Hoffman’s Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures and Julien Gorbach’s Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist for the New York Times, Mark Horowitz argues that Gorbach “may be the weaker stylist, at times insightful while at other times too reliant on academic jargon and theory, but his is the deeper dive, and he comes up with a surprising amount of fresh material on Hecht’s activism.”

Before moving on from the classical period, let’s note that Raquel Stecher recommends Mark A. Vieira’s Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934) as a “perfect marriage of information and entertainment.” At Slant, Guy Crucianelli notes that David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling “isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon.” And writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Marshall Cohen places the landmark studies Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) and Contesting Tears: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (1996) within the framework of Stanley Cavell’s evolution as a philosopher.

The LARB moves us swiftly to the Hollywood of the present and its recent past with David Breithaupt’s interview with Duke Haney, author of Death Valley Superstars. It’s a collection of essays, profiles, and memories of what Peter L. Winkler calls in his review “a number of also-rans who briefly achieved a measure of fame only to see it undone by scandal, misbehavior, or malign fate.”

Beyond Hollywood

In 2014, Sight & Sound polled more than 200 critics and curators and around a hundred filmmakers to come up with two lists of the greatest documentaries of all time. Dziga Vertov’s groundbreaking city symphony Man with a Movie Camera (1929) was voted to the top of both lists. For Film International, Tony Williams reviews Dziga Vertov: Life and Work (Volume 1: 1896–1921), the first entry in John MacKay’s projected three-volume study. “Benefitting from the opening of former Soviet archives,” the book is “a worthy successor,” Williams argues, to such works as Annette Michelson’s 1972 essay “Man with a Movie Camera: From Magician to Epistemologist,” Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (translated by Kevin O’Brien), and Vlada Petrić’s Constructivism in Film.


Anjelica Huston kicked up a ruckus last week with remarks about Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Jeffrey Tambor, the forthcoming movie Poms, Bill Murray—the list goes on—during the course of her frank conversation with Andrew Goldman in New York magazine. Now Literary Hub has posted her introduction to a new edition of Picture, Lillian Ross’s classic account of the making of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), directed by her father, John Huston. She recalls reading the book aloud years ago with her husband, the sculptor Robert Graham. “We were laughing and having a lot of fun,” writes Huston, “when suddenly I realized that reading this book was like being in the same room with my father again.”

Manny Farber: Paintings & Writings, a collection edited by Michael Almereyda, Jonathan Lethem, and Robert Polito, features contributions from critics such as Greil Marcus and Jonathan Rosenbaum as well as from filmmakers, including Olivier Assayas and Wim Wenders. Film Comment has passed along Kelly Reichardt’s. “In both his paintings and his writing, he’s littering the floor with visual ideas,” she writes. Farber “unwraps an idea, throws it down, and is on his way. What’s he getting at? What’s that gun doing up there in the corner of his still life? For me, Farber’s sentences read like a long ash hanging off a cigarette that drops and, instantly, a new ring of fire begins.”

Film Comment’s also posted an excerpt from Patrick Keating’s The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood. The passage focuses on “the most literal form of the camera–person analogy: the point-of-view shot.” Links from several of the titles mentioned will take you to clips at the site for the book, where you’ll find dozens more.

Goings On

In anticipation of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, one of the film’s producers, Robin Swicord, will be at Toronto’s TIFF Cinematheque tonight to discuss her own adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel for the version directed by Gillian Armstrong in 1994—which will be screened tonight as well. Among Swicord’s other screenwriting credits is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and she made her directorial debut in 2007 with her adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. Tonight’s event is part of TIFF’s ongoing series Books on Film.

On Friday, Sam Bett will be at New York’s Japan Society to introduce Yasuzo Masumura’s Afraid to Die (1960) and to sign copies of his translation of Star, the novel by the film’s mercurial star, Yukio Mishima.

New Yorkers who like to plan ahead will want to make note of Make My Day: American Movies in the Age of Reagan, a series running at Film at Lincoln Center from August 23 through September 2, following the publication in July of J. Hoberman’s book bearing the same title.

Lists and Roundups

Mike Leigh has put together an annotated list of his ten favorite books for One Grand, an independent shop in upstate New York. He’s topped the list with Upton Sinclair’s searing 1904 novel The Jungle. “A grim but sympathetic portrait of the tough lives of poor immigrant workers in the Chicago meat-packing industry,” he writes, “it was one of the key works that inspired me to make films about ordinary people’s lives.”

You have no items in your shopping cart