Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel . . . , by Laura Wagner

Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel . . . The Uncensored Book Reviews of Classic Images’ Laura Wagner, 2001-2010, by Laura Wagner. Trade paperback, 252pp. 2010. $19.95. Bear Manor Media.

Book reviews have become an increasing rarity of late, with major papers like the L.A. Times axing them entirely and other major publications joining the Times or curtailing reviews. There are, of course, the trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Booklist, if you can afford the steep price. As with everything else in contemporary culture (this magazine included), the shift is to the Web, though finding quality reviews outside of some of the better Amazon contributors or obscure literary blogs can be tricky.

Not surprisingly, this situation mirrors some of the problems with book publishing itself, from increasingly lax standards in editing and proofreading to canonizing weak, or in some cases, virtually unreadable writers (perhaps analogous to the corporate media’s obsessive mythologizing of aggressive mediocrities like Sarah Palin). There are a few glimmers of hope, however.

Laura Wagner is the longtime reviewer of film books for Classic Images, a monthly print publication that profiles golden-age Hollywood stars and character players and new DVD releases, and most recently incorporated the venerable film collector magazine The Big Reel into its pages. Wagner’s reviews, which tend to be long and densely detailed, are informed by the author’s quirky sensibility (her avatar, the photo on the cover of her new book, is buck-toothed comedian-singer Cass Daley) that not only doesn’t suffer fools but takes delight in smacking them down. Wagner boasts that she reads every word of every book she covers — no small claim but one that’s evident from the reviews themselves. The tone is one of amused exasperation with authors who write badly, appear to hate (or breathlessly worship) their subject, pile on the errors, endlessly rehash plots, quote imagined dialogue as if it were real, make unsourced claims, assume everybody’s gay (much as that consummation is devoutly to be wished), or are inexplicably overpraised by “respected” reviewers who can’t read critically or don’t know the subject well enough to comment intelligently on it.

Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel . . . collects a fair cross-section of Wagner’s reviews, positive, negative, and in-between. It’s a fascinating read. A favorite subject of attack — and let’s be honest, the negative reviews are always the most fun — are star bios, particularly those by dubious writers like Darwin Porter (The Secret Life of Humphrey Bogart), David Bret (Clark Gable: Tormented Star),and especially Marc Eliot. Comparing mainstream reviews of Eliot’s Reagan: The Hollywood Years (published by Random House) with Wagner’s is instructive. Publishers Weekly gushed: “Extensively researched, this biography is an accessible and eye-opening read.” The New York Times saluted its “powerful insights.” And most egregiously, from someone named David Pitt at Booklist:

This is a carefully written, solidly documented biography of a working actor, a “company man” who did what the studio told him because he knew he was lucky to be in show business. Eliot gives Reagan’s professional and personal lives equal weight, supplying valuable context for his future life as a world leader. Many books have shown us what sort of man Ronald Reagan the politician was; this one shows how he got that way. An important addition to Reagan lore.

Wagner spends ten pages demolishing this bloated (348 pages) waste of time and these frankly bizarre reviews. She wittily skewers Eliot’s melodramatic writing; his repeating of long-disproved rumors (e.g., that Reagan was up for the lead in Casablanca) as fact; his quoting of unreliable fan rags like Modern Screen and using his own books to “verify” facts; the tsunami of mistakes like calling the radio drama Love Is on the Air Reagan’s “most successful action picture” (and “most successful film”); repeatedly misidentifying people in photographs; offering curious descriptions unrelated to reality (Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey “a short, fat, moustachioed, cigar-smoking lout”?); godawful gushy riffing (when Reagan left for Hollywood, he “had a silent prayer in his soul”), etc. Wagner’s knowledge of film history is encyclopedic, but any serious reviewer could reasonably be expected to see what is wrong with a turkey like this, even if the reviewer has never seen Love Is on the Air. Wagner’s takedowns are thorough and unforgiving, as they should be. (Incidentally, our own experience with Eliot’s Reagan book is that one of BL’s writers agreed to review it but eventually reneged, saying “life is too short.”)

Wagner goes through other books, such as Michael Stephens’ Film Noir: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons with the same forensic precision, in this case uncovering so many errors that it would be impossible for readers to take it seriously as the authoritative reference it aims to be. She also handily nails writers who make fantastic conclusions based on movies they’ve obviously never seen, as in the case of Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Lost in the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood on the 1957 “lost” (not) film Time Limit. And Wagner doesn’t play favorites; she’s equally critical with books from Random House, McFarland (a major advertiser in Classic Images), and even her own publisher, Bear Manor Media.

Happily, this collection is not one-note. She praises plenty of worthy books like Doug McClelland’s Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces (“superbly written and researched”) or Diana Serra Cary’s Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King (“the most penetrating and perceptive biography yet on a child star”) with the same energy she brings to the more critical reviews. This is a very entertaining and informative book. Wagner’s insistence on standards, an increasingly rare attitude these days, is especially welcome.