[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
THE GREAT MOVIE STARS – THE GOLDEN YEARS. By David Shipman. Crown Publishers. 576 pages. $10.
THE GREAT MOVIE STARS – THE INTERNATIONAL YEARS. By David Shipman. St. Martin’s Press. 568 pages. $15.
JAMES CAGNEY. By Andrew Bergman. Pyramid Publications. 156 pages. $1.45 (paperback).
THE FILMS OF JAMES CAGNEY. By Homer Dickens. Citadel Press.249 pages. $9.95.
CAGNEY. By Ron Offen. Henry Regnery Company. 217 pages. $6.95.
THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BOOK. By Arlene Croce. Outerbridge & Lazard, Inc. 191 pages. $9.95.
A favorite movie moment of mine comes in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt: Joseph Cotten, playing Uncle Charlie “the Merry Widow murderer,” eludes two detectives and then makes a longdistance phone call. He asks the operator for “Santa Rosa … Santa Rosa, California” and Hitch dissolves to shots of a lyrically peaceful small town. The movie is one of the director’s very best, but the special moment I’m thinking of now is produced largely by Cotten’s way of saying the name of a town. Cotten’s voice reflects the lyrical mood of the shots that follow, but it also brings an element of longing, of regret, of lost illusions, of nearly irretrievable memories. It is all very appropriate for the character, a man subtly but permanently warped by a traumatic initiation into the violence and vulnerability that he associates with the big city in particular and the modern world in general. But the moment is also something that is unmistakably Joseph Cotten: It is enhanced by a definitive part of his screen presence, that unique mixture of a modest nobility and a weakness which is quiet, refined and fatal. And this presence in turn is, for me, a function not just of Joseph Cotten at a particular moment, but also of the Joseph Cotten I remember from Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Love Letters, Duel in the Sun, The Third Man, September Affair, etc.
I mention all this partly because of my delight in discovering that an actor whom I’d almost always found “good” has taken on a meaning that transcends questions of acting skill. Now I look forward to future viewings and reviewings of Since You Went Away, Portrait of Jenny, Niagara and others with a passion that exceeds my merely professional interest in the work of John Cromwell, David Selznick, William Dieterle, Jennifer Jones, Henry Hathaway and Marilyn Monroe. Above all, I have begun to see Joseph Cotten as a kind of auteur, as a creative force in his own right, as a film artist who has brought his own personal style to the movies (or, if not that, found it there) and who has created something lasting and genuine for which he may deserve as much credit as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, William Dieterle, King Vidor, Carol Reed … all of whom, of course, have great merits of their own.
Meanwhile, the curious attitude of film criticism (and of movie reviewing) toward film stars, cinema actors and movie performers continues. Movie stars and actors have always had more to do with audience interest than movie directors, and for decades the greater bulk of writing almost certainly had to do with the stars. Even in the age of the director as superstar, books on film performers continue to proliferate, and yet the great upsurge of serious film scholarship has mostly bypassed the art of the movie actor. Nevertheless, the books listed above make noteworthy contributions to this area of study in a few instances, and one volume in particular is a remarkable achievement which may become a model for work of this sort.
David Shipman’s two volumes on the Great Movie Stars are useful though considerably less than definitive” Shipman does surveys of numerous star careers, and while the format precludes close analysis and evaluation, his film-by-film summaries give handy overviews of major performers’ work. The Great Movie Stars—The Golden Years focuses on Hollywood figures between the world wars, and The Great Movie Stars—The International Years reflects the internationalism of the last thirty years. About 180 figures are discussed in the former, and around 220 in the latter. Shipman attempts to chronicle the rises and drops in each career and usually makes some attempt to pinpoint each star’s unique qualities. Some choices are debatable—I wouldn’t argue, for example, that Goldie Hawn ought to be excluded, but why is she in when more impressive performers like Michel Simon, Stéphane Audran, and other Europeans are not? We’ll probably have to wait a while for a more authoritative survey of this sort to come along, but both Shipman tomes perform a unique service for the time being.
The three books on James Cagney, meanwhile, offer a kind of cross-section of current approaches in movie star books: the makeshift biography (Offen), the coffeetable picturebook (Dickens), the pop journalism paperback series (Bergman). The best of the three is the last, which is part of “The Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies,” a series which includes paperbacks on more than a half-dozen stars. Bergman, who has written an interesting book on Depression Era films (We’re in the Money) and had a hand in the writing of Blazing Saddles, provides a literate and knowledgeable discussion of Cagney’s films. He seems to have done his homework fairly ‘thoroughly and thus has the firsthand knowledge of films and critical comments which all too few star-book authors seem to bother themselves about.
Dickens’s The Films of James Cagney is part of another series, Citadel’s large-format picture books, with all the customary elements, a brief biography, stills from each film in the star’s career, plot summaries, full credit listings, excerpts of contemporary reviews. The physical design of Citadel’s star books has become more attractive recently, a little more dynamic and stylish than in the past (the cluttered layout of The Cinema of Edward G. Robinson, published by A.S. Barnes, shows that this important aspect of movie book production is not as easily achieved as one might expect). Neither Dickens nor Offen has anything especially original to say about Cagney, but that weighs far less heavily on Dickens’s essentially visual effort.
Offen’s “biography,” meanwhile, is noteworthy in that is has apparently given Cagney cause to write his autobiography after all. He recently told the Associated Press: “I’m doing a book now, in self-defense. A fellow came out with a book about me. A paste-up job and a piece of junk.” Offen’s book does indeed read at times like an assemblage of library notes, with organization determined by the available materials rather than by any genuine perspective on the book’s subject. Offen alludes to a series of films with Howard Hawks when in fact the two collaborated on only a pair of films, and he mentions Raoul Walsh only in connection with the last and least interesting of the four films Cagney made with that director, who probably got more from Cagney than any other filmmaker. Offen’s critical judgment must be questioned also: he pans Each Dawn I Die and The Roaring Twenties, two high points in Cagney’s career, then parlays the patriotic sentimentality of Yankee Doodle Dandy into “one of the monumental accomplishments of cinematic history.”
In sharp contrast to almost all of this is Arlene Croce’s delightful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, which stands as something of a model for books on Hollywood and Hollywood stars. Croce’s background as a dance critic serves as a special bonus (her descriptions of the Astaire-Rogers dance routines have been much quoted and justly admired), but she has also done a thorough job of researching her subject. Thus we get not only a sensitive commentary on the dance routines, but also an intense appreciation of the films themselves, knowing observations about the period and the musical genre, and pertinent views of the business and backstage aspects of the Astaire-Rogers series. Croce’s astute commentary also achieves an overall tone which gives just the mixture of reverence and delight that the films seem to merit. All this is enhanced further by Lester Glassner’s design and layout (a charming blend of Thirties popular art and Sixties Pop Art, complete with flipbook images of Fred and Ginger dancing on the outer page corners). Astaire and Rogers bear less analysis and intellectualizing than many and perhaps most of the major figures of American cinema, and it is very much to Croce’s credit that she sees them so lucidly and pleasurably, yet never betrays the desire to inflate that mars a good many critics’ attempts to analyze and evaluate the highs and lows of American moviemaking.
Copyright © 1974 Peter Hogue