THE RKO STORY by Richard B. Jewell is one of a series of coffee-table studio histories that came out several decades ago, giving the behind-the-scenes stuff along with a year-by-year, film-by-film account of production. Those films includes King Kong, Bringing up Baby, The Best Years of Lives and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, along with the Saint film series and far more forgettable series (comic duo Wheeler and Woolsey, Dr. Christian and the homespun philosopher Scattergood). Behind the scenes was constant turmoil with studio and production heads moving in and out, then Howard Hughes taking over the studio. This proved a disaster as Hughes demanded absolute micromanagement of everything but was never available when a quick decision had to be made, leading to RKO expiring in the 1950s. A fun book to browse, and easier if I were doing research than trying to work through IMDB or Wikipedia.
VISIONS OF THE MAID: Joan of Arc in American Film and Culture by Robin Blaetz is more limited than I expected, with a focus on the 20th century from WW I through the 1950s; Blaetz’ interest is how America handled the iconography of a woman warrior in a time when women weren’t supposed to be fighters (she does discuss movies up through the end of the century and the appendix looks at the previous several centuries of Joan’s legend). In WW I Joan was held up as a symbol of patriotism and heroic self-sacrifice, but as women exerted more independence in the world she became a warning against female independence or a vague template for movies such as Joan of Paris and Joan of Arkansas. Blaetz does a good job showing how Joan’s remarkable life story makes it possible to celebrate her as Catholic martyr, anti-Catholic rebel, anti-English martyr French national icon, delusional lunatic, mighty hero and naive innocent. Interesting.
HALF-MAGIC was the first of seven delightful children’s fantasies by Edward Eager, writing in the 1950s in the spirit of the British writer E. Nesbit (whom the children mention as a favorite in an early chapter). Four kids in the 1920s discover a magical wishing talisman which grants half of anything you ask for: they wish for the cat to talk but it babbles nonsense, they wish to visit a desert island and end up in the desert, etc. Despite which everything works out well for them and their widowed mother in a tale as charming as I remember it (though the stereotypical Evil Arab in one scene I could have done without).
PRISONERS OF GEOGRAPHY: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall was a local book clubs selection for September, explaining how geopolitics is really just geography: Russia is aggressively expansionist to shore up the weak spot in the terrain walling it off, China covets Tibet as a vulnerable spot, American geography makes it natural to build one nation where European natural features made them fragmented. Unfortunately I don’t think this makes a lick of sense; if the U.S. is one nation because of geography, why didn’t it have the same effect of uniting the hundreds of Native tribes? Why does Marshall spend so much time covering religion in the Middle East, or China’s aggressive military posture, neither of which really relate to the topic? A waste of time that I wound up skimming in several spots.
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