Time travel through Hollywood

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Wednesday February 14, 2018
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Critic John DiLeo's "Ten Movies at a Time: A 350-Film Journey Through Hollywood and America 1930-1970" (Hansen Publishing Group, $29.95) is a distinctive addition to the crowded field of film history. With three exceptions, themes are his focus, not stars or directors, although they're discussed in the context of pictures cited. This approach puts movies within an historical and political context.

The first chapter is one of the exceptions. "Our Jazzy Joan, Silent Sensation Turns Sound Superstar (1930-1932)" assesses Joan Crawford (1906-71), the last important silent screen star. Volumes have been written about Crawford, but most discuss her 45-year career retrospectively, starting at its end, when she was angry and hard. DiLeo presents her as audiences first saw her: beautiful, oozing sex appeal, symbolizing vibrant youth. He illustrates her smooth transition to talkies and how she altered her flapper image in the face of the Depression.

"On Speaking Terms: The Talking Breed of Movie Star (1930-1933)" covers silent stars whose hold on the public ended with the advent of sound. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Clara Bow, John Gilbert, and Gloria Swanson would soon be gone. Some silent stars, like Greta Garbo, Crawford, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore, and Lionel Barrymore, survived and thrived. Edward G. Robinson, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Marie Dressler, Bette Davis, and Mae West were among the newcomers. Talkies also needed different stories. Some, like "A Bill of Divorcement" (1932), showed their theatrical origins. But "Ladies of Leisure," "Little Caesar" (1930) and "The Public Enemy" (1931) were cinematic, with stars who handled dialogue naturally and portrayed characters unlike those of the silent era.

Talkies introduced singing to movies. In "The Birth and Near Death of the Hollywood Musical," DiLeo covers the initial popularity of the genre and how it was almost destroyed by so many poor pictures.

"The Lost Generation Found: Making Peace with World War I" shows the impact "The War To End All Wars" had on America. "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) and "A Farewell to Arms" (1933) remain powerful reminders of how profoundly the war affected combatants.

"The Whole Town's Talking: Neglected Comedy Gems of the Early Sound Era" is a bit misleading. Frank Capra's "Platinum Blonde" (1931), Ernest Lubitsch's "Trouble In Paradise" (1932) and Victor Fleming's "Bombshell" (1933) enjoy high critical reputations and are frequently revived. But the very funny "The Whole Town's Talking" (1935), starring Robinson as a gangster and his lookalike, a meek ordinary guy, deserves new audiences.

In "Code Breakers: Loose Living Ladies of the pre-Code Era (1931-1933)" DiLeo brings fresh insights to the familiar story of the frankness of Hollywood movies before the enforcement of the Production Code. Mae West may have been the Code's most famous victim, but she wasn't the first to upset prudes. Before her arrival, Stanwyck, Davis, and others portrayed women enjoying pre-marital sex and questioning the benefits of marriage.

DiLeo discusses Hollywood's response to the Great Depression; how actresses once defined by their pre-Code images thrived after its enforcement; and the popularity of biographical pictures. His "Wuthering Lows: 1939, Hollywood's Worst Year" is funny because he cites clinkers released in the year of "Gone With the Wind," The Wizard of Oz," "The Women," "Wuthering Heights" and "Stagecoach."

"Ruff Times: The 1940s Costume Picture" is entertaining and mentions less-familiar examples of the genre, which are discussed in the context of why audiences wanted to see historical epics. "Yankee Doodle Daffy: World War II: The Comic Book Edition (1942-1945)" contrasts touching films about major battles with escapist inanities. "Making House Calls: Hollywood and the Home Front (1943-1945)" highlights shrewd, popular morale boosters like "Mrs. Miniver" (1942) and "Since You Went Away" (1944), but also discusses the patronizing "Tender Comrade" (1943), which HUAC would later claim was proof of Communist infiltration into Hollywood pictures.

"Lights Out: The Nocturnal Emergence of Film Noir (1945-1949)" offers fresh insights on this well-documented subject. The funniest chapter is "Screwy Hooey: The Random Harvest Effect (1945-1950)," which covers movies about mental breakdowns, amnesia, emotional abuse, and romantic fantasy. DiLeo skewers the title film, in which poor Ronald Coleman marries noble Greer Garson twice without realizing it! It's an unintended howler once taken seriously.

"Pink Elephant in the Room: The Astonishing Stardom of Clifton Webb (1946-1954)" chronicles the unexpected popularity of an actor celebrated for portraying acerbic middle-aged snobs who seemed as gay as Viennese waltzes, even when married with children. Webb (1889-1966) was gay, and it's amazing that in a homophobic era, he would be a three-time Oscar nominee and a major box-office star.

DiLeo assesses another round of movies about WWII, then discusses "Starlet Rising in the West: The Unsteady Climb of Marilyn Monroe (1950-1953)." By looking at Monroe (1926-62) from her earliest days, DiLeo shows that her stardom wasn't pre-ordained.

Other chapters cover the Cold War; post-WWII domesticity; musicals written for the screen, and those adapted from the stage; a decade of Westerns; and 50s remakes of 30s classics. DiLeo explains how established male stars like Humphrey Bogart, Frederic March, Spencer Tracy, Gable, and Cagney survived the emergence of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and soon after, Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins.

"Sex, Sin, and Sable: The Trashtacular (1959-1966)" is a hilarious look at the popularity of bloated melodramas like "Where Love Has Gone" (1964), a camp classic inspired by Lana Turner's daughter killing her mother's gangster boyfriend, with Susan Hayward playing mom. Other splendid chapters cover the emergence of the super-macho hero, coy sex comedies, and the demise of black-and-white films. He concludes with "Bonnie and Clyde and Ted and Alice (1968-1970)," about an era as revolutionary as the introduction of sound.

DiLeo's knowledge is encyclopedic, his opinions informed, his humor pointed. This makes for compulsive reading and lively discussions with other film buffs.