Three Books About Early Hollywoodby Larry Cox on Mar. 08, 2013, under Uncategorized
Mae Murray: The Girl with Bee-Stung Lips by Michael G. Ankerich (University Press of Kentucky, $40)
Hardly anyone reading this review will recognize the name Mae Murray but there was a time when she was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and helped define American cinema.
Born in 1885, her classic beauty and charismatic presence made her a natural for the Ziegfeld Follies. From Broadway, she transitioned to films after appearing in “To Have and to Hold” in 1916. Her sultry pout was copied as a fashion statement by women throughout the country. On stage as well in movies, she was billed as “the girl with the bee-stung lips.” She also wore jaw-dropping costumes, had numerous scandalous relationships and celebrated what was considered outrageous behavior.
In this fascinating new biography, Michael Ankerich, who has written extensively about the early days of Hollywood, documents Murray’s life and what it was like to be the ultimate silent screen star. Through exclusive interviews including lengthy sessions with the star’s only son, Daniel, Ankerich pulls no punches in his book and attempts to put in context both the woman’s fame and troubled life.
To get an idea of Murray and her attraction, one only has to view “The Merry Window,” released by MGM in 1925, co-starring John Gilbert and directed by Erich von Stroheim. Even though it is almost 90 years old, the movie has an intimacy and spark that still excites.
Unfortunately, Murray’s story has less than a happy ending. After making millions of dollars during her career, she was found wandering the streets of St. Louis during the winter of 1964, broke and forgotten. Murray was unable to mount the comeback she pursued during the final years of her life but hopefully, this meticulously researched, crisply written new book will at least reestablish the work and talent of this remarkable woman.
Mamoulian: Life on the Stage and Screen by David Luhrssen (University Press of Kentucky, $40)
When Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” was being staged on Broadway in 1935, the show’s director, Rouben Mamoulian, insisted on several things that went against the flow. Even though the show was controversial for its time, Mamoulian made it even more so when he insisted the entire cast be African-Americans. It was a radical choice, revolutionary even in the world of the Broadway theater of the 1930s.
Mamoulian followed the success of “Porgy” with “Oklahoma” in 1943, and “Carousel” two years later. He directed several outsinding films “Becky Sharp,” “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “Love Me Tonight.” “Love Me Tonight” was released in 1932 and is considered by many critics as one of the best film musicals ever produced.
What is astonishing is that the most underappreciated directors ever. This highly readable new biography will help bring both the man and his accomplished front and center.
John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Screen Stars by Eve Golden (University of Kentucky Press, $39.95)
John Gilbert, who was born in 1897, was charming, classically handsome, and a natural for the movies. A natural that is, until the advent of sound.
He spent much of his youth traveling throughout the country with his mother in acting troupes. Shortly after he began making films in Hollywood, he established himself as one of the most recognizable personalities of the silent era. He romanced with such heavy-hitters as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae Murray, in between fights with Louis B. Mayer and at least three of his wives.
Some of his films have become classics such as “The Flesh and the Devil,” “The Big Parade,” and “The Merry Widow.” Gilbert was such a dramatic, interesting personality he was one of the primary inspirations for the character of George Valentin in the 2011 Academy Award-winning movie, “The Artist.”
Eve Golden, author of five theater and film biographies, has done her homework and debunks at least one oft-repeated myth that has unfortunately become established fact. Gilbert did not have a high-pitched squeaky voice that destroyed his career. He was, instead, the victim of primitive recording equipment.