Rob Edelman: Summer Reading

Aug 18, 2014

One of the most compelling and poignant new films to go into release this summer is a documentary: LIFE ITSELF, in which Steve James (of HOOP DREAMS fame) offers a warm tribute to one of the all-time-great film critics. That would be Roger Ebert.

I did not know Ebert, but I greatly admired his intelligence, his writing, and his approach to journalism-- and, unlike so many others of his stature, he was exceedingly helpful and generous. A number of years ago, I contacted him while researching a book project on Walter Matthau. Ebert possessed manuscripts that featured extensive interviews with Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and he graciously made them available.

But the story of Roger Ebert is not only told in LIFE ITSELF. In 2011, he published a revealing and all-encompassing memoir, also titled LIFE ITSELF and also well-worth discovering. Given their content and deep insight, both film and memoir may be savored even by those who are not film fans or Ebert aficionados.

For instance, here is a quote from the memoir, one that for good reason is featured on Ebert writes: "I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."

Another first-rate film book, this one newly published, is FIVE CAME BACK, by Mark Harris, which chronicles the manner in which the American motion picture industry responded to World War II. The "five" referred to here are filmmakers John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens: movie legends who during the war abandoned the Hollywood Dream Factory and made a range of documentary films highlighting the "real" war, which included everything from GIs in combat to the liberation of concentration camps to the psychological trauma suffered by combat veterans.

FIVE CAME BACK is well-written and meticulously researched. While reading it, I was reminded of how World War II really was the last war in which all Americans, regardless of background or class or celebrity, halted their lives in meaningful ways and united to defeat a common enemy.

Finally, let me cite another memoir: YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS, by Robert Wagner with Scott Eyman. Much of the book features descriptions of period Hollywood fashion and dining, and was of little interest. But Wagner, who for decades has been on the Hollywood scene as a movie and television star, offers some astute observations on the evolution of the motion picture industry and the kinds of films that are the products of that industry.

For example, he writes: "It cannot be overemphasized that the movie industry of the late 1940s was a family business. Jack and Harry Warner were running Warner Bros. just as they had been since World War I; Harry Cohn was running Columbia just as he had since shortly after that war; Louis B. Meyer was running MGM just as he had since the company was formed in 1924. These men knew each other intimately, distrusted one another greatly, competed against one another constantly."

But as Wagner emphasizes, they "took pride in the product. For them, their work was intensely personal, a reflection of their dreams and aspirations." Wagner contrasts them to the "Harvard MBAs who run the multinational corporations who own the studios today [and who] don't make movies for themselves. They make movies for an audience they don't know and probably don't want to know. They might be proud of their quarterly earnings, but, in most cases, they can't possibly be proud of their movies." 

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.