We often romanticize the past, unconsciously editing out the unsavory parts of a certain time or event. One wonders about the scandals of Mary Astor said to be documented in THE PURPLE DIARIES in which names are named. Odd since Mary denied she kept a written record of her exploits.
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 Darrel 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 rumor 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 book on one of my other favorites, 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. If the reader is archivists or attached directly to the person then that is different making the conclusion a valid one.
I suggest that film writing today has three categories depending on your taste for material as opposed to the “ghost written” Star columns in Fan magazines of yesteryear. No doubt ‘ghost writing’ goes on today. I speak of 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 more for learning that 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.
The most readable bios that I have found are John Strangeland’s bio on Warren William and Mathew Kennedy’s book on Joan Blondell.
Topping the list for rather volumes are Alan K. Rode’s extensively researched wonderfully written MICHAEL CURTIZ: A LIFE IN FILM. Well worth the time like the best books it places Curtiz in historical perspective with lots of side stories about film making at that time.
A recent style that has emerged is the Historical fiction book featuring real locales, people with a story built around them. Such examples of these are the novels of Martin Turnbull set in Hollywood following various characters.
There was also William J Mann’s large historical murder mystery part theorizing TINSELTOWN which makes for interesting whodunit. There is always room for romance against the backdrop of glamour as one can find in A TOUCH OF STARDUST.
The single volume which I have yet to find a better one is THE GENIUS OF THE SYSTEM, HOLLYWOOD FILM-MAKING IN THE STUDIO ERA by Thomas Schatz. The style is full of facts, stories and side bits in a single book covering the Golden Age of Hollywood.
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. It all starts with the word.