We often romanticize the past, unconsciously editing out the unsavoury parts of a certain time or event. This is not true for some events and experiences as they can mark us for life, inside and sometimes even the outside. I read a good amount of film biographies, histories, etc., purely as a labour of love, which in fact spawned this blog and the classic horror blog NITRATE FROM THE GRAVE. I occasionally wonder after finishing such a book where the truth of it is.
I speak mainly of biographies and auto biographies. Is this really what happened or is it what the studio put out? Tell-all biographies can be quite dull as what you had in mind was not really what happened. For example, I have read a few books on Jean Harlow, a personal favorite. I was able to latch onto a copy of David Stenn’s book BOMBSHELL plus DEADLY ILLUSIONS: JEAN HARLOW AND THE MURDER OF PAUL BERN. I also purchased a copy of Mark Vieras and Darrell Rooney’s large work HARLOW IN HOLLYWOOD, THE BOMBSHELL IN THE GLAMOUR CAPITAL 1928-1937.
Each had the points regarding Jean’s life, her family. Where they differed was her death and especially Paul Bern’s demise which I will not reveal as it would spoil it for those who want to check that out. Which of these was actual fact and which was rumour or controlled story from a studio? It is possible as records could have been lost or destroyed, principal people in events pass away, or memories change so you end up printing the Legend. It is nevertheless still fascinating to get different takes on someone or an era especially when the author draws their own conclusions which you don’t have to agree with.
The newest book on one of my other favourites, Loretta Young, is HOLLYWOOD MADONNA by Bernard F. Dick. I was reviewing the reviews, finding some saying things were glossed over. The book did not tell of her life, more it was regarding the plots of her films. While this is not a review article, I found it interesting that people would know that it was a gloss over as they must be privy to another source.
I suggest that film writing today has three categories depending on your taste for material. “Ghost writing” Star columns in Fan magazines of yesteryear have changed as it does happen in some form. The first style is the bio or book that arrives shortly after a person’s death or significant event. This would be usually tossed together from stories from other sources, or snippets of third hand interviews or quotes all with pictures you have seen before.
The second style is the academic approach. This can kill interest fast. It is a style more for learning in academics then what some people would read to enjoy.
The third style if that which is written by a relative, spouse, former employee or companion, which can cross into sensationalizing a subject or a person. I have found with those you often get not so much regarding the film life as you get the person as they are seen through another perspective. A good example of this is if you connect Errol Flynn’s MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS with almost any of the other books on him usually written by people he was with with the exception of the volume dealing with Flynn being a Nazi spy in World War Two, you can get an interesting feel for the one and only Errol Flynn.
The last style of writing I have found in film books is a cross between the academic and conversational style – yielding every single thing you could possibly want to know. This type of book has a long life as you can use it as reference or crowd your brain with facts you won’t use. A wonderful example of this is BORIS KARLOFF: MORE THAN A MONSTER, by Steven Jacobs, which tells you absolutely everything you would want to know about Boris Karloff’s life, journeys, loves, and mistakes.
Film writing has changed as no doubt documents are discovered such as diaries or new papers found in an attic. One of my favorites’ is when one discovers long lost film in some field or trunk that gets restored which is a huge thing to see. I also secretly wish we had the equivalent of the movie magazines of yesteryear such as MODERN SCREEN, PHOTOPLAY, PICTURE PLAY etc which I can say can be found online to an extent at the link below:
OLD MAGAZINE ARTICLES
Reading about film is great fun. The truth is not that important as it lies somewhere between the biography and the auto biography. The important thing is that you read it and engage the mind – be it a blog, online site, book or discussing it amongst your friends.
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend , that keeps the ideas flowing.