New film books


I am not what one would call a cinephile and I rarely see movies in theatres, and if it wasn’t for COVID I’d still have stacks of dozens of unseen videos and DVD’s. However the films I like I also like to read about and over the past four months I have acquired several books about the earliest era of filmmaking, the silents. On-line searches for certain books took me to a Toronto bookseller, Hollywood Canteen. I stopped by in late November for a curbside pickup and was in awe of the selection. I could not go beyond the entrance but I knew that when in-person shopping was allowed again, I’d be back to spend several hours browsing and, very likely, buying.

Thus in early March I stopped by one Saturday and spent over three hours, and I still haven’t looked around the entire store. The following are the books I bought during my November and March visits, plus some other film books that I have recently acquired from other on-line retailers.

As a lover of the silents of course I knew about ZaSu Pitts. Ironically, the first films I saw of hers were her last: The Thrill of it All and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, both from 1963. It wasn’t until COVID that I finally watched both VHS versions of Greed, where she has a starring role. Once I saw her in that film, I wanted to learn more about her. ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career by Charles Stumpf came out in 2010 and is a slight biography of 190 pages where the latter half is a filmography of shorts, feature films, television, radio and stage appearances.

When I arrived to pick up my curbside order of the Pitts biography and expressed my interest in Greed, one of the store’s two Mikes retrieved a book that he thought I might like. It was Stroheim: A Pictorial Record of His Nine Films by Herman G. Weinberg from 1975. It was 259 pages with 41 of them devoted to Greed. Each chapter began with a synopsis of a Stroheim film and some publicity material, then a lengthier section of full-page film stills with captions.

In my March visit I spent hours looking through the sections on the silent era and director biographies. I chose two on Stroheim:

Von Stroheim by Thomas Quinn Curtiss was published in 1971, and contains a 42-page chapter on Greed.

Stroheim by Arthur Lennig from 2000 was the meatier of the two biographies, at exactly 500 pages, with a 35-page chapter on Greed.

My Own Story by Marie Dressler was published in November 1934 shortly after her death that July. My copy is a reprint from December 1934. Its 290 pages were printed on thick paper which gave this book a thickness that belies its page count. Dressler was born in Cobourg, Ontario and won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1931.

I have long been fascinated by the earliest days of film. I remember as a child seeing a poster in the Toronto subway advertising a film festival for movies made in the late 1890’s and at the start of the twentieth century. Decades later and I can still even remember what the poster looked like. American Cinema 1890-1909: Themes and Variations is part of a series by cinematic decade. This book starts it all: from Kinetoscopes to the first motion pictures.

I saw The Carol Burnett Show Companion: So Glad We Had This Time by Wesley Hyatt and had to have a look at it. I am a huge fan of Burnett and her show and this book was made for us. It was a thick 529-page brick of a book detailing every episode from her series run. It was indexed so it allowed me to look for all the appearances the Pointer Sisters made on the show. They appeared on the show many times, yet reruns seem to always show the same Pointer episode (the one easily identified by the sisters’ appearance on the faux game show “Up Your Income” as the “Sha Na Na Na Noony” Sisters).

Other books on film that I have recently bought, but not at Hollywood Canteen, are:

Hands With A Heart: The Personal Biography of Actress ZaSu Pitts by Gayle D. Haffner is a self-published work from 2011. It is a sizable book of 486 pages with a seven-page bibliography which, oddly, didn’t include the Stumpf biography above. Either Haffner wanted to remain independent of Stumpf or their biographies came out at almost the same time. I will take this book with a proverbial grain of salt. Readers of my blog are well familiar with my stand on unedited self-published works (and I have not yet read this to make my assessment) but I was thrown immediately by the book’s wimpy dedication–to singer Susan Boyle, of all people.

Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star by Betty Lee is from 1997. I have an autographed edition. This is a most attractive yet heavy book with a glossy cover containing 23 chapters within a firm binding, beautiful layout and a photos section, many of which I had never seen before.

I found Marie Dressler: A Biography; With a Listing of Major Stage Performances, a Filmography and a Discography by Matthew Kennedy at Hollywood Canteen as an expensive hardcover. My research showed that a paperback edition from 2006 was available, and I purchased it directly from the author, who was kind enough to autograph it for me. We had a pleasant exchange of E-mails about our fondness for the silents and for Marie Dressler. Mr. Kennedy told me that the paperback corrected a few spelling errors and formatting gaffes but was the same as the hardcover.

American Cinema of the 1910s: Themes and Variations is the second volume in the series about American film by decade. I bought this usually expensive book from a UK vendor via Abebooks. The seller did not rate it as “new” and charged for it accordingly, but when I opened the package I would swear it was as sharp and crisp as a brand new edition.

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