Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide, 3rd edition

Review of 
Turner Classic Movies Presents Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide: From the Silent Era Through 1965 3rd edition (2015)
by Leonard Maltin

It's been over 20 years since I've had one of Leonard Maltin's movie guides. I know it would have been the early 1990s, and I'm pretty sure we got our copy at Costco on our weekly shopping trip. My wife, and I loved that book. We used it all the time. If you're old enough, think back on the early 1990s. It was a different world. Basic cable was your local stations, plus 30 or so cable networks and a handful of premium networks we didn't subscribe to. 

Home video usually meant a trip to the video rental store, and checking out the new releases on VHS, and then wandering the aisles of Comedies, Action movies, Drama, etc. There was an Internet, but only the Military and scientists used it. There was no Netflix or IMDB or Wikipedia or Amazon. Having a guide like Leonard Maltin's helped you decide, but do you really need one now in 2015 when you carry the Internet around in your pocket. If you're an old movie geek like me, I would say, yes. 

The Internet is a wonderful thing, but often you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. I don't see myself looking up films I know real well in this book. I know these films. I know whether I like them. I know if I'd recommend them to a friend or which friends I'd recommend them to based on their tastes. Oh, I might look up the odd movie to see who directed it. And I'm sure idle curiosity will lead me to see what Leonard Maltin has to say about, Sunset Blvd., or how many stars he gave, The Big Clock, a personal favorite of mine. By the way, he gives The Big Clock three stars out of four, low in my opinion. Still this is not how I see using this book. I really want the dope on the films I don't know.

I'm going to provide a few examples and see how the Guide stacks up against the Internet in my pocket. Last night at 8 pm Eastern, TCM was showing the following movies (I'm on the West Coast, so unless I leave work early, I'm never home in time for the 8 pm Eastern stuff):
  • Why Be Good? (1929) - Of  the three, this is the only one I'm sure I've heard of. Still, I'm not sure if I've seen it or not. From the TCM Schedule, I clicked on the link. It took me to the Brief Synopsis. Ain't the Internet grand, you click on something and it takes you right to where you want to go, right? The Brief Synopsis is 12 words, A virtuous flapper .... This gave me an idea of what it's about. I click on the Full Synopsis and was presented about 10 sentences, going into more detail on the plot than I would want to know when I trying to decide whether to watch something. At IMDB, there was a Plot Synopsis (similar to the Brief Synopsis above) and a Plot Summary (similar to Full Synopsis). Wikipedia had a fairly short entry on the film, but a lot of the same info I've seen before, plus some restoration info that I haven't see yet. In about 5 minutes, I've scanned a handful of sources, and I still not sure whether I need to set the DVR. Next I turned to Leonard Maltin's book, his review gave me just enough details about the plot to make me say, Oh, I have seen this. It was really good. I decided I should call my wife and have her set the DVR. 
  • Among The Missing (1934) - Again, the links from the TCM schedule gave me both too little and too much info. I searched on the title, and apparently, there are several books with that title, so I googled, Among the Missing and added the word, film. IMDB gaves the cast and crew info but only a short teaser on the plot. There was one user review, but I tend to find these very hit or miss, so I didn't take the time to go through it. Wikipedia has virtually nothing, a disambiguation page that knows of the existence of a Drama, starring Richard Cromwell and a link to a page that doesn't have an article to go with it. Again, I read the Leonard Maltin review.  I was pretty sure I hadn't seen this, and it sounded good. I knew I wasn't going to get home in time to catch it, but had my wife DVR it.
  • Stolen Identity (1953) - Links from TCM schedule, the Brief Synopsis sounds interesting. The Full Synopsis, Holy Moses, that is a long paragraph. Easy 40 sentences in one very very very long paragraph. This time I started with googling, Stolen Identity Movie. Obviously Stolen Identity is going to give you info about things other than the 1953 film. Of course, Google assumes I'm looking for the 2013 film, Identity Thief. Nothing on the first page of results about the 1953 film other than the related link to Stolen Identity 1953 Film. I clicked on that. The teaser text for the IMDB link said, something about commentators noting similarity between Stolen Identity and The Third Man, but the main IMDB entry didn't mention The Third Man. Presumably this is in a link you need to click on. Wikipedia has a short article on the film, some good background info on the production and a pretty decent plot summary that doesn't seem to have too many spoilers. Again, the Maltin book gave a concise description that made me think, this was something I wanted to see. I didn't need to worry about the DVR, since I was sure I'd be home in time for this. Having seen it now, the similarity to The Third Man that Maltin mentioned as well got my hopes up, but the Stolen Identity didn't really deliver. I'm glad I watched it, but don't think I'd go out of my way to see it again. Maltin's three stars might have been a little generous. 
In all honesty, these three were not a good example. Last night's schedule was, Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide Additions (films added to this version of the Guide). Obviously, they would cherry pick entries from the book to make sure they are good examples. Let's see how the book fares on films that I selected more or less at random from the TCM schedule for the next week or so. I didn't do the comparison to Internet sources like the ones above. I assume the results would be similar. I have purposely tried to pick films, that at least I don't think I know and picked from different decades/genres (genre info in square brackets):
  • The Love Light (1921) [Silent] - Judging from the Guide, probably not a great film, with the major complaint being that it's too melodramatic. I will probably watch, as much for Frances Marion's direction as anything else. 
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) [Adventure] - Though I'm familiar with the title, who isn't? This is a film that from the title, you'd think you'd seen it before, but reading the description, I'm fairly certain, I haven't. Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland with supporting cast that includes Donald Crisp and David Niven, I think I'll try to catch this.
  • I Know Where I'm Going (1945) [Romance] - Looking only on the cast and crew, I probably wouldn't go out of my way to see this. Then again, Maltin gives it four stars, his highest rating, so it should be worth checking out.
  • The Iron Petticoat (1956) [Comedy] - Only rates two and a half stars, as a lackluster update of Ninotchka, but Maltin says the pairing of Katherine Hepburn with Bob Hope make it watchable. I won't expect much out of it, but it's a Katherine Hepburn movie I haven't seen before, so I'm in.
  • Two On A Guillotine (1965) [Horror] - Part of TCM's October Horror Fest, this sounds like a bad horror hoot. I would love to catch it, but considering it starts at 5 pm Pacific, when I'm still at work and the DVR's at 85% full and climbing, I will probably give it amiss, and hope they show it again or it shows up on the Watch TCM app.
So how did the Guide do? I would say, I was able to make better/more informed decisions about the films that I didn't know, and that's what a book like this is all about. Thus, I'd say it did pretty well. 

In addition to the more than 10,000 films covered, the Guide features director and star indexes, which would make a good starting point if you're looking to put together must watch lists, but bear in mind that it does cut off at 1965. For example, the director listing for Alfred Hitchcock ends with Marnie and doesn't include the four films he made after 1965. In addition, a short sources section gives resources on where to find old movies. Finally, I noticed that for series like The Thin Man, a listing of all titles in that series is given after the first film, a nice touch.

If I have one complaint, it would be that the type size is pretty small. I'm old as evidenced by the fact that I still like books made out of paper. I'm also old enough to need reading glasses, and possibly about due to go to stronger magnification. I was fine if the light was good, but if not, I would need a stronger readers. That said, I've worked in publishing much of my adult life, so I understand it can be kind of a balancing act. At a slightly oversized paperback size, the Guide clocks in at almost 900 pp. Kicking up the type size enough to make a noticeable difference, one would increase the number pages, the size of the book, and most importantly the cover price. While I would love for the type to be bigger and easier to read, but I'd sing a different tune if it cost twice as much, or if I ever dropped it on my foot. 

If you're an old movie person like me, it's a great addition to the library. This 3rd edition comes five years after the 2nd edition and ten years after the 1st. According to Amazon, the third edition has over 200 new titles added. By my rough math*, 200 new titles would mean it's roughly 2% new material. In theory, the number of films from the Silent Era to 1965 should be a finite a number, and in theory, it is. In practice, it's a bit more complicated. Prints of films that were thought lost, are found and restored, so 2% is a pretty decent number. I'm assuming that if you have the 2nd edition and used it a lot, it's seen better days, so this would be good chance to replace it.

I have no problem at all recommending this book. Using Maltin's convention, I'll give it, four stars. I hope this helps.

* Based on the 2nd edition containing over 10,000 films and the 3rd addition adding over 200 new films:

200 (added films)/10,000 (total films) = 0.02 (or 2%).

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