I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. This is the second book I’ve read by MacNabb (I read and reviewed A Secret History of Brands: The Dark and Twisted Beginnings of the Brand Names We Know and Love a while back and enjoyed it, and I looked forward to this book, as it’s on a topic I’ve always been interested in.
I found this book well suited to the circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment (I’m writing this review in the middle of our confinement due to COVID-19, in case somebody comes across it at some point in the future and wonders what I was talking about). It’s written in an straightforward and easy-to-reads style; it deals with a topic that a lot of people find interesting (not only the lives of film stars and directors in general but their scandals, in particular); it contains an introduction and thirteen distinct chapters, each one dedicated to a different star, so it does not require sustained attention, and it can be dipped into according to the interest or the mood of the reader. The book also includes beautiful black and white pictures (some that I’d never seen before) and a bibliography (with books, websites, articles, and even documentaries). Although many of the stars won’t be familiar to the younger generation (there is a heavy focus on actors, actresses, and directors from early Hollywood), I don’t think that will make the book less attractive. The author manages to bring to life an era in the history of cinema that many people know more through the movies and documentaries than through the actual films of the period, but I am sure many readers will be inspired to do more research and try to find more information about the protagonists and the time.
Personally, I had heard about quite a few of the people mentioned, and in some cases I had read or watched documentaries that contained more detailed information than that available in this volume, but others were new to me. As for others, I knew the people involved (Errol Flynn was one of my father’s favourite actors, and I’ve watched and enjoyed many of his movies in glorious technicolour), but I didn’t know much about the scandals they became entangled in. I don’t think this is a book I’d recommend to experts in Hollywood (especially old Hollywood) personalities, as they are bound to know everything contained in it and more, but it’s a good entry book for people interested in the topic but not very knowledgeable, or for somebody looking for a good read and happy to find out more about a historical period and a period in the history of cinema that helped create the cult of stars, and also about the role of the press in building them up or destroying them that we’re so familiar with to this day.
The chapters, that don’t follow a strict chronological order, are dedicated to: Evelyn Nesbitt, Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Errol Flynn, Lana Turner, William Desmond Taylor, Joan Crawford, Barbara LaMarr, Mabel Normand, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and Clara Bow. Some are more familiar than others, but overall, they provide an interesting array and sample of some of the events and scandals that have plagued Hollywood from the beginning. It’s impossible not to notice that many of the subjects of the book (not all, but a significant proportion) had suffered pretty traumatic childhoods, being brought up in pretty desperate circumstances, and sometimes subject to terrible abuse. It’s sad to think that after all their efforts to make a better living for themselves, some ended up either the perpetrators (alleged in most cases) or victims of violence, abuse, or crime in later life, and very few managed to lead a happy life. Although the book does not delve into the gore or the extremely salacious details, it does include enough information to make it not suitable for young children.
This is a book I’d recommend to people who enjoy reading about Old Hollywood, scandals, and stars, but haven’t read extensively on it, and also to people looking for a source of information about the era that is easy to read and entertaining, but offers an interesting insight into what life was like for the big stars of the era (and what falling from grace was like). An engaging and easy read and a good entry level for people looking for an introduction to the beginning of film star culture.