Please help me find some books about "Old Hollywood."

I’m really attracted by the idea of “Old Hollywood” - just the golden age of hollywood, where stars were capital-S Stars and people went to see movies in gigantic theatres. Hollywood was Hollywood, and the studios were king.

But, aside from that, I don’t really know enough about it to even know where to start looking for books on the subject. I want to read a few books about that era of Hollywood, something that just immerses me in that moment and really captures the feel of “Old Hollywood” - the glamor, the drama, the intrigue, etc.

Where should I start? I’ve considered picking a particular star, director, or studio of the era and just reading a book about them, but it seems like there has to be something more general and over-arching out there that does the trick.

Any ideas? Eve, I’m counting on you!

I recommend The Memory of All That, by Betsy Blair. You can read a review here.

Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II.
I keed, I keed!

It’s a HUGE subject to tackle; just start nibbling. Various books on various subjects will take you off on various tangents. Eve’s books are a good starting point, seriously. My personal favorite is Vamp.

In addition, one of my favorite books on a specific aspect of old Hollywood is Complicated Women, a book about the inherent misogyny of the Hays code. It’s an incisive portrait of that era. Also, quite possibly my single favorite book of historical Hollywood–certainly in my top 5 if I were to sit down and rank them–is Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Again, an agenda book, but it has some of the most insightful commentary, from any perspective, that I have ever read: every paragraph, practically every sentence, includes a thesis-worthy observation.

The John Ford biographies I’ve read have been fascinating and informative too. Ford was a true pioneer, and his career–and his influence–spanned the heydey of Hollywood, from the silent era to the sixties.

Donald Bogle’s Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams : The Story of Black Hollywood is likewise an extremely insightful history of Hollywood from another perspective.

Keep reading, and watch a lot of TCM: it continues to be one of the best resources for scholars of American film out there, and it continues to grow in relevance and importance. Every month they feature a particular director, actor or two, and/or theme. Last month included monthlong retrospectives on Bette Davis, Howard Hawks–two of the giants of Hollywood historyas well as a monthlong series on race in the movies, hosted by Donald Bogle (cited above). Plus it’s not even a premium channel! Their website has some great resources too: read all the ancillary material linked to each of their “Essentials” title: history, trivia, critical commentary, from a variety of different sources, on some of the greatest movies to come out of Hollywood.

I didn’t know Eve’s RL name!

I just requested one of her books through my local library! YAY EVE!

And here’s a fiction book, set in Hollywood immediately post-WW1.

Most of the facts are right, & the book is fun.

You might enjoy City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich. Note, however, that while this is indeed a portrait of Hollywood, it is not solely a portrait of the movies. The book spends a lot of time discussing the intellectual European refugee community in Hollywood during that decade – Bertold Brecht, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc., as well as American authors like William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett. Most of these people were involved in some way or another with the movies, but that isn’t necessarily the prime focus. There is still some good stuff about Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth and Ronald Reagan though, if that’s what you want. All in all a very good and interesting book. You might also check out Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by the same author; it serves as a prequel of sorts (at least in the way it follows Brecht), and is another great read.

I also had no idea Eve was a published author – kudos!

Yeah, it is a huge subject and it’s hard to even figure out a place to begin. There really aren’t good one volume books that take in the whole era. You have to specialize to narrow it down to manageable proportions.

This recommendation might horrify purists, but if you want to start with light, breezy, story-packed books just to get the mythologized flavor of the place, search out the copious oeuvre of Bob Thomas.

He’s written a book about everybody who was anyone in the Golden Age. He did books on all the moguls - Selznick, Thalberg, Cohn, Warner, Disney. He’s done biographies of Joan Crawford, Abbott & Costello, Fred Astaire, William Holden, and Marlon Brando. He ghostwrote books for Debbie Reynolds and Bob Hope. And many of them were reprinted in recent years in trade paperback by New Millennium Press, so they should be easily available.

They won’t be scholarly reassessments of the age, but it doesn’t sound like that’s what you’re looking for.

If you want to go back even farther, the best book on the comedians of the silent era is Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns. That’s another older book that’s been reprinted as a modern trade paperback.

If it fiction you want, then check out George Baxt’s series of mysteries starring various celebrities as the detectives: The Clark Gable and Carole Lombard Murder Case; The Mae West Murder Case; The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Murder Case; The Greta Garbo Murder Case; The Bette Davis Murder Case; and several others. They are bitchy in the best sense of the word, crammed with all the gossip of the day - which usually was no more true than gossip is today, and use the star’s on-screen personas rather than their real selves as characterization, except where it’s convenient to do it the other way round.

Try to keep it fun. It’s easy to take old Hollywood too seriously and frankly it’s a crime when people do. They were high school dropouts grinding out sausage for the most part, not intellectuals forging a new mythology for a technologized America. If they did any of that inadvertently, we’re the better for it, but stick with the real tinsel behind the fake tinsel and you’ll see the place for what it was.

A Cast of Killers by Sidney D Kirkpatrick is a really terrific read.

I’ve read a book about Max Factor wig maker and makeup artist. (He invented false eyelashes) His story is intertwined with Hollywood from it’s very early days up through the golden era. So, it’s not about a particular star or studio but very general,. with lots of behind the scenes stuff, and the photos are great

For instance, in the very early days of film, actors wore just about anything for a wig or false beard, including straw and moss. Max pitched the idea of real hair wigs to a film maker. He didn’t want to buy them so he rented the wigs. Max’s sons appeared as extras in tons of films, westerns mostly, so they could collect the wigs at the end of the day.

  1. An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928, by Richard Koszarski (the third volume in the History of the American Cinema series).

  2. The Parade’s Gone By, by Kevin Brownlow. History of the silent film era, with interviews of many of the participants. Beautifully illustrated.

  3. American Silent Film, by William K. Everson. The number one movie historian.

  4. The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931, by Donald Crafton (the fourth volume in the History of the American Cinema series).

  5. Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s, by Thomas Schatz (the sixth volume in the History of the American Cinema series).

  6. Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, by Scott Eyman. Studio chief of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.

  7. Memo from David O. Selznick, by David O. Selznick, edited by Rudy Behlmer. The producer of Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, and A Star Is Born.

  8. Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck, by Darryl F. Zanuck, edited by Rudy Behlmer. Studio chief of 20th Century-Fox.

  9. Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney, by Katherine and Richard Greene.

  10. The Men Who Made the Movies, by Richard Schickel. Interviews with eight of the top Hollywood directors of the Golden Era.

David Niven’s second book, Bring on the Empty Horses essentialy dealt with a star per chapter - read it about 15 years or so ago but I remember enjoying it and would probably buy a second hand copy if I saw one.

Try Hollywood by Gore Vidal.

  1. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, by Molly Haskell.

  2. Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, by Donald Bogle.

  3. The Fifties: Transforming the American Screen, 1950-1959, by Peter Lev. The seventh volume in the History of the American Cinema series.

  4. The Sixties, 1960-1969, by Paul Monaco. The eighth volume in the History of the American Cinema series.

  5. Hitchcock, by François Truffaut. Book-length series of interviews from one filmmaking master to another.

  6. The Silent Clowns, by Walter Kerr.

  7. Classics of the Horror Film, by William K. Everson.

  8. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, by Leonard Maltin.

  9. The Great Movie Shorts, by Leonard Maltin.

  10. The American Film Musical, by Rick Altman.

I have nothing to offer that hasn’t been mentioned, but just want to second that once you start looking, you’ll never lack for material. Enjoy!

And I recommend you get a copy of David Cook’s History of Narrative Film if you’re interested in the story of the art, technology, and industry from start to modern. It’s not what you asked for, and it’s pretty dense, but it may help give you a clearer frame of reference as you explore your areas of specific interest.