Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Book Review: Conversations with Classic Film Stars

Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood's Golden Era
by James Bawden and Ron Miller
9780813167107 - 440 pages
The University Press of Kentucky
April 2016

“We possessed a treasure trove of rare interviews with some of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s golden years.” – Bawden and Miller

When you find yourself sitting on a gold mine, what do you do?  Keep it to yourself? Share it? Lucky for us classic film fans James Bawden and Ron Miller decided to share theirs. New from one of my favorite publishers The University Press of Kentucky, Conversations with Classic Film Stars is oral history in book form. Within its pages are interviews with 34 of the most beloved stars, collected over a few decades by TV journalists Bawden and Miller. Each interview was conducted face-to-face with the individual and recorded on audio. Some of the interviews were one-time occasions whereas others were composites of several conversations. The interview questions are edited for clarity and continuity but the words themselves are directly from the stars. Each conversation gets its own chapter and includes background on the actor or actress, “setting the scene” which describes how Bawden and Miller came to interview the stars, the Q&A format of the interview plus a couple of black-and-white photos for good measure.

The 34 interviews are broken up into 7 categories: Silent film stars, Leading Men, Leading Ladies, Queens of the Bs, Singing Cowboys, Four Very Special Stars and Bob Hope gets his own category Giant of Comedy. Some of the featured stars include:

Jackie Coogan
Gloria Swanson
Cary Grant
Joan Fontaine
Joseph Cotten
Maureen O'Hara
Joan Blondell
Melvyn Douglas
Luise Rainer
Roy Rogers
Jane Greer
Keye Luke
Irene Dunne
and more

Even if you’re very familiar with the star being interviewed there is always some hidden jewel of information to discover. While I was taking notes for my review I picked out one interesting fact from each of the interviews. Here are some notable ones:

  • Gloria Swanson was a champion for organic foods and loved to push her weird bean sprout diet on other people.
  • Van Johnson was hit by a drunk driver and almost died because police were arguing over the jurisdiction of where the accident took place.
  • A Letter to Three Wives (1949) was supposed to be four wives with Anne Baxter as the fourth.
  • Douglas Fairbanks Jr. avoided doing action films while his father Douglas Fairbanks, whom he affectionately called "Pete", was still alive.
  • Anna Lee referred to Fritz Lang as a "sadist".
  • Glenn Ford got his stage name from Glenford in Quebec, his dad's hometown. His real name was Gwyllyn Ford.
  • Rosalind Russell was MGM's back-up Myrna Loy.
  • Keye Luke started out as a fine artist and helped paint one of the original murals in Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
  • Jane Greer developed Bell's Palsy early on in life. This is why we rarely see her smile in her films.

You get a really good sense of the individual’s personalities. Rosalind Russell was fiesty, Van Johnson was very protective of his sexuality, Glenn Ford and Jane Wyman were very fussy, Joan Blondell was as charming as you'd image she'd be and Cary Grant talked about Cary Grant as though he were a separate person. My favorite interview was with Keye Luke, famous for playing Charlie Chan's #1 son. Harold Russell, of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) fame, had a non-profit organization, Harold Russell Association Inc., which helped the disabled get job training and placement. After some research I discovered that the original office is on my daily commute to work!

All of the stars included in the book have passed on (the only exception at the time of this review is Kirk Douglas). There are several recurring themes I've noticed. Because many of the stars were interviewed later in their lives there is a lot of discussion about their TV work in addition to their film career. Most of the stars equated billing in film credits with their current level of success. There is plenty of information about what it was like behind-the-scenes, working with other actors and the challenges of the studio system.

For those of you classic film fans who hail from Canada, many of the interviews took place in Toronto!

I spotted some errors in the book. For example in Jane Wyman’s interview, a publicity photo of her with Ronald Reagan in Brother Rat and a Baby (1940). It incorrectly lists them as the parents in the film when it was really Eddie Albert and Jane Bryan. In the same interview the authors claim that Wyman is the only “movie actress” ever to be married to a president not realizing that Nancy Reagan was also a movie actress. In the intro to Gloria Swanson’s interview, the authors explain why she never married Joseph Kennedy. I don’t think the authors are giving the reader much credit here. We know why! I found the simplicity of the text and the assumption about the reader a bit frustrating but the quality of the content makes up for this.

Conversations with Classic Film Stars

Conversations with Classic Film Stars was a quick enjoyable read. This book is perfect for someone who doesn’t want to invest their time in full-scale biographies but still wants to learn something new and interesting about their favorite stars. And if you’re like me and just devoured a 900 page biography, a compilation of short interviews makes for a great palate cleanser.  Conversations with Classic Film Stars would make a great gift for someone who is just starting to develop a love for old Hollywood or for someone who has had  a life long passion for classic movies.

Thank you so much to The University Press of Kentucky for sending me this book for review!

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