Tuesday, October 25, 2011

forgotten hollywood, forgotten history

Article first published as Book Review: Forgotten Hollywood, Forgotten History by Manny Pacheco on Blogcritics.

Forgotten Hollywood, Forgotten History is clearly a labor of love for author Manny Pacheco. He has pulled together historical anecdotes, primarily from American history, with highlights from the careers of his favorite Hollywood character actors. Many of the essays give the reader a feeling similar to sitting around with a group of friends in front of an old black and white movie on television, trading trivia, and comparing little-known actors' roles in favorite films. Such a pastime may display a love of all things Hollywood and make for an enjoyable evening, but it doesn't really add up to a book.

Basil Rathbone with Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Pacheco's central premise, that American history can be viewed through the prism of a few select character actors' film careers, is flawed at best. He suggests that actors like Arthur Kennedy, Walter Brennan, Claude Rains, and others chose their roles to reflect their feelings of patriotism, or add up to an overarching American theme. Anyone with just the slightest knowledge of the Hollywood studio system knows that actors, especially character actors, were assigned roles and had little say in creating an overall "persona." They were typecast in roles that resonated with the public, which is why Walter Brennan was the go-to guy for Westerns and Basil Rathbone played so many villains. The studio's choice, not the actor's.

The author also compares many plots of movies to actual historical events. Even when he does take the time to point out the differences between Hollywood's version and history's, Pacheco can't help but reinforce how much of the history that we know and have been exposed to is through the movies. This is an interesting possibly controversial topic in itself that is never truly addressed in Forgotten Hollywood, Forgotten History. What Pacheco seems most interested in ultimately is trivia, not history.

Particularly troubling is the fact that eleven of thirteen chapters are devoted to white male character actors. Talk about reinforcing the "dead white male" point of view. He covers black male actors in one chapter and highlights three white actresses in another, both near the end of the book, which can't help but appear as an afterthought. To add insult to injury, for such a short book there are an alarming amount of typos and mistakes — such as the film Beau Jeste (correct title Beau Geste) and the "Salem Witch trials of the late 1700s" (they actually occurred in 1692, which is the late 17th century.)

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo (1948)]

The one chapter that worked for me in Forgotten Hollywood, Forgotten History centered on Lionel Barrymore. Here Pacheco actually included more in-depth biographical information about his subject rather than just a laundry list of movies he made with historical themes. A broken hip and severe arthritis eventually confined Barrymore to a wheelchair, but his gradually growing disability didn't hinder his acting career, but rather was successfully incorporated into his many film roles (It's a Wonderful Life, Duel in the Sun, Key Largo.)

This topic, disability in film, was far more interesting than all of the other stringed-together bits and pieces of history that filled this slim volume, and could have been expanded into a book of its own. Mentioned in passing were actors Harold Russell and Marlee Matlln — it would have been nice to read more about them and how their careers had an effect on Hollywood. Maybe Pacheco should have reined in his desire to tell every little story, make every little association that occured to him, and instead focused more deeply on one topic that would hold a reader's interest.
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