The new season of You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s podcast dedicated to “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century,” debuts later this month. Those of you who have torn through previous seasons—about the Hollywood blacklist, MGM, and the Manson family, among other subjects—will know that film history is an absolutely fascinating subject, one filled with big characters, big scandals, and big egos. For those who have caught the bug, here are seven books that I humbly recommend. I make no claim to be any sort of expert on film history, and I haven’t read even close to everything. But if you’re looking for a good place to start, get thee to your local bookstore/library and check these out.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris
The Oscars, as a reflection of Hollywood’s best and brightest, is far from perfect. In any given year, the slate of Best Picture nominees usually includes only one or two that stand the test of time to eventually be considered classics. Not in 1968. That year, it was Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night going to battle against each other… and against nominee number five, the hokey and largely forgotten musical Doctor Dolittle. The circumstances that led to this most exceptional Oscar contest are laid out in Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which chronicles how Hollywood was dragged kicking and screaming from one generation to the next. Harris jets back in time a bit for Five Came Back, about five directors—John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens—who both influenced and were influenced by World War II.
The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, Vito Russo
Still the landmark work on the presentation of homosexuality in the movies, The Celluloid Closet exists as both a book and a movie: the former written by Vito Russo in 1981, the latter a 1996 documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Both are well worth checking out; the movie benefits from clips and talking head commentary from the likes of Lily Tomlin, Tony Curtis, Whoopi Goldberg and Harvey Fierstein, while the book provides a more in-depth look at how the film industry’s attitude towards homosexuality has evolved along with the medium itself. I’ll leave you with this clip about Ben-Hur: Super gay, but for God’s sake, “don’t say anything to Heston.”
The Brothers Warner, Cass Warner Sperling
Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Warner Bros. founder Harry Warner, pens this portrait of the at-times fractious Warner clan, who built a movie empire only to see their relationships with each other fall apart. It’s a riveting story filled with big characters, chief among them egomaniac Jack Warner, who maneuvered the company away from his older brother Harry. The family members whose recollections Warner Sperling called upon for this book are the ultimate in Warner family insiders; thus, you get a lot of fun little inside tidbits about how the film industry used to work, like how director Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka) really fucking loved cake.
City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s, Otto Friedrich
Originally published in 1986, Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets is a sprawling, compulsively readable history of one of Hollywood’s most eventful decades. Rather than focus on one or two subjects, Friedrich bops around a lot, with sections focusing on behind-the-scenes stories of classic movies (like Casablanca and Double Indemnity), the experience of European refugees in L.A. during World War II, the post-Pearl Harbor internment of Japanese-Americans, the lessening power of the studio system, and that time (as chronicled in a You Must Remember This episode) that (possibly) Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Paul Henreid punked Errol Flynn by smuggling John Barrymore’s corpse into his living room. It’s a fun book. If Friedrich doesn’t get too in-depth into anything he covers, well, that just means City of Nets gives you ideas for specific aspects of Hollywood history to look further into.
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, William J. Mann
Hollywood history meets true crime in William J. Mann’s Tinseltown, about the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Though not incredibly well-known outside of film history buffs today, Taylor’s murder and its subsequent investigation—which drew two of the most famous movie stars of the day into its orbit—had a huge impact on the nascent Hollywood scene, helping to turn it from a lawless, drugs-and-alcohol fueled paradise to the more respectable outfit public opinion forced it to become, or at least to pretend to be. Unsolved for nearly a century, Mann pulls together new evidence to figure out who actually killed Taylor—and I’m no detective, but the case he lays out seems pretty convincing.
Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema, Anne Helen Petersen
If you enjoy Anne Helen Petersen’s celebrity journalism work on BuzzFeed—her essays on the respective career evolutions of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are great reads—be sure to check out Scandals of Classic Hollywood. Gossiphounds with a more classic bent will enjoy her entertaining retellings of the ~*~scandalous~*~ behavior of stars like Clara Bow, Fatty Arbuckle, Montgomery Clift, Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge, and more. But it’s not just tabloid stuff: Petersen recontextualizes this scandalous behavior, and the moviegoing public’s reaction to it, to comment on our changing attitudes towards gender, sexuality, race, and more.