I read a lot of books about cinema history. But I’m picky. I’m seldom interested in movie star biographies, or anyone’s autobiography. But I love a good overview of an era, the story of a major transition, or a scholarly biography of a producer, director, or screenwriter.
Here are a few books that I would love to read. The problem: No one has written them yet. I’d write them myself if I had the time.
Powers Behind the Thrones: The Careers of Joseph and Nicholas Schenck
Throughout the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, MGM president Louis B. Mayer was widely considered the most powerful man in Hollywood. Yet he served at the pleasure of Nicholas Schenck, president of MGM’s parent company, Loews, Inc. Meanwhile, Nick’s brother Joe married a movie star, produced Buster Keaton’s best work, served as president of United Artists, then of 20th Century Fox, and spent time in prison. They weren’t artists, but they made a lot of art possible. At least one Schenck brother turns up in just about any book about Hollywood’s first half century, but to my knowledge, no one has written a book about them.
Film With No Freedom: The Art of Cinema in Oppressive and Totalitarian Societies
One could reasonably assume that great art requires freedom–especially when the art also requires industrial-scale production. But against all expectations, we’ve seen some extraordinary exceptions. Consider the Soviet Union, which gave us Potemkin, Mother, October, Man with a Movie Camera, The Cranes are Flying, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Andrei Rublev and many others (although all of these came before or after the worst years of Stalinism). Iran has been producing great cinema for years. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to name a great film that came out of Nazi Germany or Maoist China. I’d love to read an intelligent discussion on this.
From New York to Hollywood: The American Film Industry in the 1910s
In 1910, the American movie industry is based in New York, all movies were one-reelers, actors went unbilled, and the major companies were Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph. No one took movies seriously, either as an art or an industry. By 1920, everyone had moved to Hollywood, feature films dominated the market and were built around specific movie stars, and the major companies were Paramount, Universal, and Fox. One of my favorite film history books, Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, covers Hollywood in the 1940s, year by year. Someone should use the same structure for this important decade.
The Color of Dreams: How the Movie Industry Slowly Abandoned Black and White
You can find good books on the talkie and widescreen revolutions (The Speed of Sound is an excellent choice), but I have yet to find one on the much slower evolution from black and white to color. I’ve covered this briefly in a blog post, but someone else should cover it in more detail.