Books That Illuminate the Silver Screen

The feature film is just about a century old, and all those years of history have produced a landslide of books about the medium. These five books, ranging from the glamorous silent era to the cusp of the 1960s renaissance, help bring it all in focus.

1. Silent Stars, (1999), by Jeanine Basinger.
Movies got by on less before the arrival of sound. But thanks in part to stars like Chaplin and Keaton, Gilbert and Garbo, Valentino and Swanson, they can seem to have delivered more. This is an impassioned guidebook to the era in which, as Swanson put it in "Sunset Boulevard," "We had faces then."

2. The Genius of the System (1988), by Thomas Schatz.
An astute guide to how the Hollywood studios adapted factory techniques to movie-making and somehow still managed to turn out terrific films.

3. The Runaway Bride (1990), by Elizabeth Kendall.
The brilliant book that a brilliant genre -- romantic comedy -- deserved. Kendall argues that movies like "It Happened One Night," "The Awful Truth," "Bringing Up Baby" and "The Lady Eve" are so good to their female stars because the directors were seriously smitten with them.

4. City of Nets (1986), by Otto Friedrich.
A chronicle of Hollywood in the 1940s -- the decade of noir and alleged communist infiltration -- by a master of storytelling.

5. I Lost It at the Movies (1965), by Pauline Kael.
Appearing just as American movies were about to enjoy a revival, this may be the most invigorating book of American criticism (about any art-form) ever written.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Christian Pelusi |  January 3, 2008; 7:25 AM ET Dennis Drabelle , Nonfiction
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For even more Kael, check out "For Keeps," which is a compilation of all her books. What a great writer and passionate movie lover she was. A pleasure to read.

Also, if you're interested in the directors' methods to their madness, take a look at "Who the Devil Made It," which is a bunch of interviews Peter Bogdanovich conducted over the years with directors like Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks and Sidney Lumet. Bogdanovich is more than a little self-aggrandizing, but when it comes to movies and movie history, he knows his stuff, and he elicits some great stories from his subjects.

Posted by: KLeewrite | January 3, 2008 10:27 AM

Okay, Mr. Drabelle,
But what do YOU think?
Hard to judge from your list.
My favorite book about Hollywood:
David Niven's "The Moon's a Balloon"
Because it made me laugh.
And because it kept me up at night.

Posted by: Steve | January 4, 2008 11:37 PM

For my money, the best movie book ever is Kevin Brownlow's "The Parade's Gone By," a rigorous researched, lavishly illustrated, and quite fascinating overview of silent movies, consisting in large part of 1970s interviews with the last wave of silent stars and film makers, most of whom died only a few years after the book's publication.

It warrants repeated browsing and reading. Unfortunately, as with most of Brownlow's books, several of the editions are poorly printed, while others are absolutely gorgeous, Check the photo quality before you buy or borrow a copy.

Posted by: Kitty Gambler | January 6, 2008 2:55 AM

I excluded biographies and autobiographies from my list (without telling anyone, I realize, but I was told to write short) and will cover them in a later short stack. But that's why the Niven book didn't make it. But, yes, I would read all the Kael possible, and Kevin Brownlow is invaluable on the silent era.

Posted by: drabelle | January 7, 2008 1:21 PM

I also like Donald Knox, "The Magic Factory," a look at how the studio system worked to produce a gem (in this case, "An American in Paris").

Here are four books on the post-1960 period, for those interested:

Julie Salamon's "The Devil's Candy" is a great book about how good and talented people get together with the finest of intentions and create a wretched, awful film.

Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" is an entertaining look at the decade of the 1970s -- how Hollywood changed, how great films were made, and how they stopped being made.

William Goldman's books, "Adventures in the Screen Trade" and "Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade" are enjoyable and fascinating as they reveal the art of filmmaking from the viewpoint of a screenwriter.

Posted by: drrico | January 11, 2008 9:46 AM

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