Thursday, July 9, 2020

Books: The Real Tinsel

The 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I have my friend Bibi to thank for the books in this year’s blogathon. She works in a library, and over a year ago, she sent me a huge package of film books her library had planned to discard. Some of them pertained to modern cinema but most were about Old Hollywood and were written in the 50s, 60s and 70s...


...such as this first one. The Real Tinsel is an oral history of the early days of Hollywood, with terrific photographs, compiled by Bernard Rosenberg & Harry Silverstein in 1970. Many of the industry types they spoke to dated their film careers back to the 1910s and 20s—so you can imagine how valuable are the stories they tell.

Some interviewees should be recognizable to the average cinephile with a working knowledge of Hollywood history: Adolph Zukor, Dore Schary, Edward Everett Horton, Fritz Lang, Max Steiner. Others are less so, but equally important: producer Walter Wanger, actresses Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet, stuntman Gil Perkins, cameraman Hal Mohr, writer Anita Loos.

They’re all given free reign to discuss not only their careers, but their lives, many of which began in the 19th century. Some common denominators include: working-class jobs in their youth, roots in the theater, wartime reminiscences, witnessing the evolution of the medium and learning how it works, the shift from New York to Hollywood, salaries, labor disputes, the coming of sound to motion pictures, industry anecdotes, etc.


A photo from Tinsel: Mae Marsh
In The Cinderella Man
At the time of publication, some were happily retired; others were still active in the industry. All spoke candidly about their ups and downs in Hollywood at a languid, rambling pace, and because they’re from a time period just barely within living memory even in 2020, their language reflects that. It’s a tad more formal, more erudite, and a far cry from modern diction, influenced by the internet and greater contact with other countries.

That said, I wonder how accessible this book was to the cinephiles of the late 60s/early 70s. Today I can (and often did) go to IMDB and look up completely unfamiliar names like Joe Rock, Dagmar Godowsky, or Billy Bletcher. Rosenberg & Silverstein don’t really provide much in the way of context as to who these people are or the people and places they describe. 


In Tinsel, Rod LaRocque talks
about his marriage to
Vilma Banky.
Tinsel would have benefited greatly with some annotation. The interviewees were in their sixties, seventies and up—way up. Memories were bound to have been faulty in places, not to mention selective. The book comes across as being for the cinephile, the insider who subscribes to THR and Variety, or teaches at film school, but I get the feeling it was meant more for the casual movie fan, and if so, a little help as to who these people were wouldn’t have hurt. It’s not like Crawford and Fonda and Bacall are in this book.

Still, Tinsel is a valuable treasure trove of Hollywood stories in the words of the people who helped build the industry.

8 comments:

  1. The Real Tinsel sounds like something I would really enjoy. Faulty memories aside, the memories of those who lived a thing are always interesting.

    I think your point about annotation is a good one. You should optimistically think about future readers.

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  2. There’s lots of good stuff to be found in this book for the classic film fan. It’s just these people speaking, at length, and the stories they tell are the kind you probably wouldn’t get from just anybody else in the industry.

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  3. This sounds like a terrific read, and I'm going to see if Amazon has a copy. It sounds like your point re: annotations is a good one. If I find a copy of this book, I'll be sure to have IMDb ready to go!

    Thanks for sharing this review. Also: I'm a little envious of your fab new film book cache...

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  4. I wouldn’t have thought I’d have been able to get through so many books, but I’ve got time now. Whether or not they’re any good is another question.

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  5. This sounds like an interesting find! I'm always suspect of these really old film history books but sounds like there is much to garner from this one. Thanks for the review!

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  6. Eh, it’s from the 70s. I wouldn’t call that really old... but you’re right. It’s worth reading for “hearing” these old-timers.

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  7. Just ordered!
    How lucky are you to have Bibi as a friend? I can never have enough film books...good or bad. Inquiring minds want to know if you live in that enchanting home?

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  8. Oh, I’ve known Bibi for over 20 years. Believe me, I feel extremely lucky to have her as a good friend.

    I’m not sure what enchanting home you mean, but my home is just an apartment like many others.

    Hope you like the book.

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