Great Books on Classic Movies
Obviously I love to watch classic movies, but I also love to read about them. The Golden Age of Hollywood is an endlessly fascinating period (at least for me) so I’m always on the prowl for great books about classic films.
I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorites, and I hope you’ll find something that strikes your fancy. I tend to prefer work on the “how” and “why” of classic Hollywood to books by critics discussing which movie is “better.” So my picks skew towards history, especially of the studio system and how the movies and stars we love came to be.
Here are some of my favorites: the classic movie books I have enjoyed, learned from, and keep on my shelves for inspiration, reference, or re-reading. I’d love to know what you’re reading, so please leave a comment with your favorite classic movie books!
1. The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography by Esther Williams with Digby Diehl
No surprises here! I’m a huge Esther Williams fan, and this charming, sassy autobiography of the one and only swimming movie star is far and away my favorite auto/biography of a Hollywood star. If you’re at all interested in the “million dollar mermaid,” this book is a must read. Williams relives her life and career with humor and honesty, and the book is packed with juicy tidbits and wonderful stories.
Even if you’re not that interested in Williams, I still highly recommend The Million Dollar Mermaid because it also offers a fantastic look at classic Hollywood and the studio system.
None of the other star biographies I have read give so much detail about daily life on set, or better describe what it was actually like to be a “star” in the 1940s-1950s. When you read this book, the abstract “dream factory” of classic Hollywood suddenly becomes real, glamorous warts and all.
Although Williams’ life was not perfect by any means, her story is not a downward spiral of manipulation, addiction, or destruction. Williams survived the studio system and her stardom, which makes The Million Dollar Mermaid a refreshing book in a sea of depressing biographies of doomed stars.
2. Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema by Anne Helen Petersen
Esther Williams wrote in her autobiography that the stars “lived under the protection of the great god Public Relations, because the studio had set it up that way, with a kind of army all around us to keep scandal out of the papers.” This book takes a look both at the “army” that protected the stars, and what happened when it failed.
Scandals of Classic Hollywood is a recent release (2014) by film scholar Anne Helen Petersen, who specializes in celebrity gossip. (She also writes great articles for Buzzfeed.) The book delves into some of the most notorious trials, affairs, divorces, deaths, and other falls from grace in Hollywood history, including the Fatty Arbuckle trial, the stardom and deaths of Rudolph Valentino and James Dean, the romance of Bogart and Bacall, Judy Garland‘s tragic trajectory, and Dorothy Dandridge’s brief moment of Hollywood stardom.
But instead of just rehashing the sordid details or unearthing old rumors, Petersen draws on star image theory and cultural history to examine why certain scandals became so notorious, why different stars were held to vastly different standards, and why the public can be so unforgiving when a favorite star “betrays” their trust by doing something (or being rumored to have done something) that is not consistent with their public image.
Petersen also discusses near misses, the almost-scandals that could have derailed careers and destroyed stars but were kept out of the papers or neatly re-packaged into more palatable public versions, often thanks to the mighty studio publicity machines. (Scandals would be great paired with The Million Dollar Mermaid because Williams often discusses the disconnect between her image, so carefully, consciously constructed by MGM, and her reality.)
Petersen peppers each chapter with splashy headlines and articles from fan magazines and tabloids to bring these decades-old scandals to life and illustrate how a star or scandal was understood back then as well as today.
Petersen doesn’t make moral judgments or even try to figure out what “really” happened. As she says several times in the book, the “truth” is less relevant to her study than the scandal: what the public believed, how it was “managed” or not, how it affected the star, and what it all says about American culture at that moment.
Although the scandals Petersen writes about are “old news,” the book is tremendously relevant to the celebrity-obsessed, scandal-hungry world of today. As she writes in the introduction, after reading this book, “You’ll never think about stars, Hollywood, or the machinations that create them in the same way again.”
If you love Casablanca (1942), you’ll really enjoy this exhaustively researched book. And if you don’t love Casablanca but like Old Hollywood, you’ll probably still enjoy it for its meticulous look at how movies got made.
Harmetz chronicles the making of Casablanca at the micro level, detailing every change and development in the casting, script, and production. She discusses how each person involved in the film came to be there, sometimes going back years and entire careers, and looks at how the Production Code, the Office of War Information, and WWII itself affected the film.
Harmetz’s detailed account never gets boring because Casablanca has an especially fascinating production history. For example, did you know that many of the actors playing refugees fleeing Hitler in the film were actually refugees who had fled Europe and landed in Hollywood? Or that the Production Code Administration requested quite a few changes to the film, especially in regards to the relationship between Ilsa and Rick? (For more on the Production Code, visit my post here.)
Round Up the Usual Suspects is one of the most thoroughly researched accounts of a single film out there, and, like The Million Dollar Mermaid, gives you an incredible insight into the workings of classic Hollywood. You’ll emerge from this book with a newfound respect and appreciation for the film and the system that produced it, as well as a sense of awe that so many moving parts converged to create this astoundingly timeless film.
4. Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman
Classic Hollywood biographer extraordinaire tackles Louis B. Mayer, Mr. MGM himself, in this wonderfully researched, nuanced book. Most other biographies of Mayer take a somewhat harsh and even unfair look at the man, but Eyman’s biography presents the polarizing figure with more complexity.
Beginning with Lazar Meir’s birth in what is now Belarus, Eyman traces the “lion of hollywood’s” path from Meir to Mayer: junk dealer to theater owner to film distributor to producer to head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and arguably one of the most powerful men in the country.
Mayer understood stars and he understood audiences, and for almost three decades he led MGM to the top of the Hollywood heap. He was intense, demanding, sometimes childish, and rarely forgiving, but without Mayer classic Hollywood might have been very different.
Eyman gives us a three-dimensional portrait of the man and the legend in this enjoyable biography. And along the way we get fascinating looks at MGM, the other Hollywood studios, famous people on and off the silver screen, and the movie business as it was in the 1920s-1950s.
5. The American Film Industry edited by Tino Balio
If you want to go deeper into classic Hollywood, this book is a great addition to your library. It’s an unparalleled collection of fantastic articles about the movies: beginning with the earliest days of moving pictures to the creation of Hollywood, the introduction of sound, vertical integration, the star, censorship, and even the House Un-American Activities Commitee hearings.
Some of the pieces are old (a 1932 Fortune Magazine feature about MGM is a particular favorite of mine), but most are newer articles by film scholars and historians.
The American Film Industry is an academic book, but it’s not as opaque as some, and the introductions to each section are extremely readable and give great overviews. It’s one of the better resources out there even forty years after it was first published. So if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of film history, this is a great book to choose.
6. MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan
In the studio era, almost everything was filmed on sets on the studios’ backlots. Temporary sets were built in cavernous soundstages (think of the “You Were Meant for Me” number in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)) and permanent outdoor sets were constructed on acres of land around the studios.
This book chronicles everything on the MGM lot: the dozens of buildings housing administrative and craft departments, the legendary commissary, rehearsal halls, recording studios, Esther Williams’ enormous, tricked-out pool, the zoo, power plants and railroad spurs, and the incredible collection of “Potemkin Villages” built on MGM’s 185 acre campus.
The book is packed with photos (you can see some on its website), and includes a list of each movie that used the “Fifth Avenue Street” or “Small Town Railroad Depot,” so it’s fun to go through and recognize the same location in different movies. It’s fascinating to see how the studios could re-make a street, building, square, or bridge for use in dozens of different films as dozens of different “places.”
MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot is a dream for a movie nerd. Other books might mention the backlots or talk about how movies were made during the golden age, but this book shows you in glorious detail. It’s movie magic at its best, and you’ll come away with new, awe-filled respect for the hundreds and thousands of craftspeople who worked behind the scenes. This book also explains a big reason why the studio system became unsustainable; the overhead it took to maintain the backlots was astronomical.
MGM had the biggest backlot, but other studios had their own glorious worlds of make believe. Stephen Bingen wrote a similar book about Warner Bros, Warner Bros.: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot, which I can’t wait to peruse.
Get reading! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook. If you liked this list, check out my Great Classic Films for various occasions and audiences, and my picks of classic movies available to stream on Netflix.
As always, thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what your favorite classic movie books are–leave me a comment!