Roll 'Em 

Books about movies, and movies from books.

The Golden Girls of MGM
By Jane Ellen Wayne
Carroll & Graf, $26
This one volume reveals more than most people care to know about the legendary figures of Hollywood's Golden Age. From the ridiculously trivial (Jeanette McDonald's complaint about Clark Gable's garlic breath on the set of San Francisco) to the sensationally criminal (Gable's drunken hit-and-run homicide for which an MGM employee took the rap), every fact, rumor, and bit of malicious gossip is here, and all are recounted in the same breathlessly urgent voice. That urgency is on autopilot, though -- this is Wayne's ninth book, and includes rehashed abbreviations from such earlier efforts as Ava's Men and The Life and Loves of Grace Kelly. Still, trash has its appeal, and the Hollywood studio system of the '30s through the '50s is indeed a gold mine of gossip. The sixteen screen goddesses profiled here were all under contract to MGM, the studio known for its combination of extravagant spectacle and "family values" -- and which went to great lengths to maintain the appearance of virtuous glamour among its female stars. Actresses who dared marry without studio head Louis B. Mayer's permission faced suspension without pay; abortions were commonplace. Kid stars such as Judy Garland were fed Dexedrine to keep them working long hours, then put to bed with sleeping pills in the studio's own hospital. Many newcomers were renamed when the studio "bought" them; in the case of the already glamorously named Ava Gardner, MGM created a fictitious "real" name -- Lucy Ann Johnson -- just to be able to say the studio had created her. Most of these "revelations" concern the stars' sex lives, but lists of affairs and marriages are reeled off with no particular attention to the lovers' motives or the affairs' contexts. It's entertaining for a while, but long before the end you might start thinking that, frankly, you don't give a damn. -- Gina Covina

The Crimson Petal and the White
By Michel Faber
Harcourt, $26
Review a thousand-page novel in a couple hundred words? Who's kidding whom? This one starts out a little scratchy, following a capricious narrator through the filth of mid-19th-century London's poorest streets -- an arch conceit that backfires the first time he or she won't let you follow the most interesting characters. Thankfully Faber lets it go. The novel develops slowly, as do its characters: A prostitute named Sugar is famous for being able to satisfy any man, in spite of her physical imperfections (dry skin and small breasts, described ad nauseam by the author -- we got it the first time, really). But she's just being practical. Bitter about her early introduction to the profession, but trained by her heartless mother to hide the bitterness, Sugar finds an outlet in the writing of a novel in which a prostitute brutally murders a succession of men. Sugar is smart and ambitious, but she is hampered by Victorian England's utter subjugation of women and the poor. Faber revels, a bit too much, in describing the visual and aromatic qualities of filth and discomfort involving various bodily fluids (some of which are exclusive to women, so it's impressive that a male author gets it right -- when he does). Naturally there's graphic sex, but don't expect anything erotic. In a culture in which a rich girl can enter marriage without ever having learned about menstruation, sex, and childbirth -- and in a world where nothing is given and women are nothing -- loneliness is inevitable. This would be an unrecommendably bleak tale if not for Sugar's determination to gain some dignity. It doesn't bode well that the planned film version already has a possible star, Kirsten Dunst, but as yet neither writer nor director. What a shame it would be if this visceral tale ended up with a standard Hollywood treatment. -- Melanie Curry

The Reel Civil War
By Bruce Chadwick
Vintage, $15
This could have been a great pamphlet. With a solid thesis on how silent films helped foster enduring and fallacious myths about the Civil War, it would make for provocative reading on a city bus or in a medical waiting room. Film historian Chadwick explains that because this war took such an enormous toll on American lives and goodwill, the desire for reconciliation trumped any imperative for an honest reckoning. Thus through pulp novels, theater, and early cinema, Civil War mythology was born. Among the fallacies Chadwick highlights are the South as besieged victim of Yankee aggression; the war as an inexplicable tragedy with no winners or losers; and the romanticized Southern plantation as home to benign patriarch aristocrats, virtuous belles, and loyal slaves. (As the recent Trent Lott scandal reveals, the Civil War can still find its way to the forefront of American politics.) Unfortunately, Chadwick chooses to expound upon these myths by revealing how they were manifested in what feels like all eight hundred of the silent Civil War shorts produced during the first two decades of the 20th century. While the book includes longer explorations of seminal Civil War films such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, its redundancy and clunky exposition make for a tiresome read. Unless you're a film scholar, or spend your weekends chomping period salt pork with a phalanx of reenactors, chances are slim that you've actually seen any of these silents or that you ever will. In addition, Chadwick seems forever dismayed that filmmakers could possibly prioritize dramatic expedience above historical accuracy. While his arguments about African Americans paying the greatest price for Civil War mythology is dead on, it's not quite enough to make this book compelling. -- John Dicker


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