The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry, by Anthony Slide. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press,1998. Oversize hardcover, ISBN 0-8108-3426-X, 207pp, $55.00.
Film dictionaries have become a genre unto themselves lately, and bookstore shelves are bulging with hefty tomes that cover seemingly every corner of cinema interest. The formidable Anthony Slide’s update of his 1986 entry on the subject is a little different from Katz, Konigsberg, Maltin, et al. As he says in his introduction, it’s a “What’s What” rather than a “Who’s Who,” a welcome concept indeed in a culture that’s cracking under the weight of personality obsession.
The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry is, typical of Scarecrow, overpriced and underpaged, but nonetheless an important addition to the cinephile’s shelf. While it’s not hard to find a history of M-G-M, what about obscure entities like Guaranteed Pictures Company, organized in 1918 and specializing in reissues and European imports? Or Fujiyama Feature Film Company, formed in 1916 “to produce a series of Japanese films for release in the United States”? Or, moving forward in time, exploitation houses like Dimension and Crown, from whence came campy trash like, respectively, The Twilight People and Dracula’s Dog? They’re all here, along with a wealth of other tantalizing entries that form a mosaic of how the movies spawned businesses working at every level and in every possible realm.
Slide includes helpful descriptions of sometimes misunderstood terms like block booking and references to such disparate subjects as important movie locales (Lone Pine), obscure series (Klever Komedies), film festivals, and technology. He details the history of breakthroughs like Technicolor and Cinemascope, along with amusingly cumbersome contraptions like the Kinetophone. Some entries contain useful bibliographic citations for readers wishing to do further research.
There are a few problems worth noting. For example, readers might prefer to look up blacklisting under that term, or even under HUAC, rather than the technically correct but less known Dies Committee Investigation that appears here. And occasionally an error creeps in, as when Targets, from 1968, is called a New World Picture in the same entry that says New World was formed in 1970. (The confusion may have arisen because of Roger Corman‘s association with both Targets — released by AIP— and New World Pictures.)
Still, these are petty grievances given the amount of information here. Even casual readers will find fascinating tidbits. Who knew that “the only laboratory capable of printing in the original three-strip Technicolor process is the dye transfer processing plant built by Technicolor in Peking in 1979”? Or, in one of the biggest shockers in the book, that the earliest in-flight movie was shown in 1925? (For the record, it wasThe Lost World.) Such argument-settlers make the book authoritative, useful, and even fun.
Joseph H. Lewis: Overview, Interview, and Filmography, by Francis M. Nevins. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998. Cloth, ISBN 0-8108-3407-3, 125pp, $32.00.
That there’s been no book-length study of Joseph H. Lewis in English is less an indication of his importance as a filmmaker than an indictment of a kind of cultural capriciousness that continues to write off B films and their authors as inherently second-rate. Lewis, who turned 91 in April of this year, was a stylist second to none who made what many consider the greatest noir in Gun Crazy. But aside from that film and The Big Combo, his cult has been restricted to diehard auteurists and — no doubt unconsciously — viewers who marveled at the unique atmospherics of 1960s TV shows he directed like The Rifleman without knowing who was responsible.
Francis Nevins’s book doesn’t really redress the balance, despite its hard covers, comprehensive filmography, and solid anecdotal detail. At a mere 125 pages, half of which is filmography, it’s simply too brief to register as more than a very long magazine article. That said, it’s also an affectionate, informative tribute to this undersung auteur. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York, Lewis comes off as a likeable, modest man who nevertheless fought hard for his own vision against maniacal moguls like Harry Cohn and intractable actors like Hedy Lamarr and Larry Parks, whose attempts to confound the unflappable director are amusingly recounted. Lewis’s near-miss with Joan Crawford, who tries in vain to seduce him after she sees Gun Crazy, is a comic highlight, but also shows his integrity in the face of that irresistible force. The director’s apprenticeship in B-westerns is given a thorough treatment, along with his efforts at mongrel companies like PRC and Monogram and larger studios like M-G-M, which miserably failed to utilize his talents. Lewis’s vivid memories of both a fascinating life and a powerful body of work make him an ideal subject for a heftier biography or perhaps autobiography.
Classic television is still a mostly unmined area of auteurist pleasures, and Lewis’s work in the 1950s and ’60s is among the best of its time. Nevins documents his contributions to obscurities like Alcoa Theatre (1959) and The Investigators (1961), as well as to still accessible shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, and The Rifleman, for which Lewis directed 51 episodes.
Overall, a brief but enjoyable read with solid research value for fans of some of the best of classic television and, of course, Lewis aficionados.