I’ve had more than a few individuals remark to me in the past that I should seriously consider writing a book on classic films or television or even old-time radio…and while I am most assuredly flattered by such a reaction, I don’t anticipate undertaking any kind of project like that in the near future. You see, I have a recurring nightmare in which, having penned such a tome, I find my labor of love reviewed by Classic Images’ resident book reviewer, Laura Wagner…and that’s the point when I wake up screaming.
Okay, I thought I’d introduce a little levity in the opening paragraph because I’ve spent the last day or two (hence precious little activity on the blog) reading Laura’s new Bear Manor Media book, Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel: The Uncensored Book Reviews of Classic Images’ Laura Wagner 2001-2010. A collection of reviews on entertainment-related books that first appeared in the pages of the seminal classic film publication (printed in beautiful downtown Muscatine, Iowa), the “Uncensored” portion is explained by Wagner in the book’s introduction as the warts-and-all originals of these reviews—which were edited the first time around due to the usual complications involving language (some of it a bit salty), space constraints or just judicious pruning by Wagner’s CI editor, Bob King.
And levity is pretty much a prerequisite when tackling this book: Wagner, a no-nonsense reviewer who not only doesn’t suffer fools gladly—she doesn’t suffer them at all, to be frank—has become the bane of existence for many a book author with her take-no-prisoners criticism and refusal to allow “weak as water” film/entertainment books get away with unchecked sloppiness. She has a finely-tuned “shit detector,” as Hemingway once put it (he’s quoted at the book’s beginning): if you’ve done the research and can back up the facts with unimpeachable sources, she and the author will get along fine. If the author attempts to sneak some sort of Denmark-like rotten past her radar…well, then there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Mind you, it’s not my intention to clothe Wagner in stovepipe hat, cloak and Snidely Whiplash-moustache—I applaud her tireless efforts to keep people honest by pointing out misspellings, dates, factual errors, half-assed attempts to summarize the plot when it’s clear the author hasn’t seen the movie, etc. Nor am I claiming that book authors have some sort of sinister agenda whereas their mission is to see whether they can skate one past Laura and high-five one another upon success. It’s just that because books on classic films, vintage television, etc. are so often the product of one might call “niche marketing”—and therefore, often come with a hefty price tag—any author does him/herself a disservice to potential customers if they display a blatant disregard for facts. Contrary to popular belief, my discretionary dollars are not to be found in deep pockets, and if I make the investment in a book only to discover that it’s riddled with inaccuracies—that’s the first step on a long journey towards lack of credibility. I’m certainly no stranger to this road trip—if I screw something up on this blog because I felt my memory was more reliable than doing a quick bit of research—and research wins by a TKO—not only do I expect someone to hold my feet to the fire and point such an error out to me I’d be gravely disappointed if they didn’t. Many of the reference books or books on actors/actresses are choc-a-bloc with misinformation because an author has simply repeated what a previous source has reported without bothering to check up on that individual’s veracity. As an OTR devotee, this sort of problem runs rampant in the hobby—and I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t admit culpability in such practices from myself in the past.
Reading the reviews in Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel are a real treat; Wagner uses a Dorothy Parkerian wit to skewer those books she finds a waste of old-growth forests. In response to the myriad of tomes that have been written about Hollywood’s secret “gay” community, her “gambling in Casablanca” response is “With each subsequent trash bio, the list of gay people in Hollywood multiplies. Pretty soon, we’ll be hearing about Lassie, Toto, and Rin-Tin-Tin in a three-way.” She finds her inner Calliope in a book written by the legendary Carla Laemmle (Growing Up With Monsters: My Times at Universal Studios in Rhymes) by presenting her critique in several poetic stanzas:
Yes, folks, this is a book for the ages:
Rhymes, tired photos, just 38 pages.
And you wanna know, really, the thing that just sucks?
For this rat’s nest of nonsense, they want 15 bucks!
But I think my favorite is a recurring theme in which Laura disdains those Masters of the Obvious by dismissing what they feel is “earth-shattering” information with “a real pearl of wisdom torn from the pages of DUH!! Magazine.” (Though I must admit that when, in reviewing Tom Weaver’s I Talked with a Zombie: Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television, Wagner reveals that she might possibly be a DUH!! subscriber when she remarks on actor Robert Conrad: “The actor comes across as such an egotist…”)
In the introduction to her book, Wagner mentions five books on the subject of movies that have had a profound influence on her and because four of those choices have also dictated my views and opinions on cinema, I often feel a kindred spirit with her. (They are, for the record: Danny Peary’s Guide for the Film Fanatic; Don Miller’s B Movies; John Cocchi’s Second Feature: The Best of the B Films and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Comedy Teams). I admire greatly her dedication and devotion to the “B” film (which often gets short shrift among “film snobs”)—and I also have an appreciation for the candor she displays in not passing judgment on whether or not a film is “good” or “bad;” she has adopted Peary’s principle that regardless of a movie’s merits, every movie has its devoted following.
The only quibble I have with Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel—and it’s a minor one, to be sure—is that some of Wagner’s reviews in this volume conclude with a “note” addressing the criticism she may have received from an author who believes the only way to put his/her nose back into joint is by e-mailing her and accusing her of personal attacks, bigotry, homophobia, and not washing her hands before leaving the restroom. Laura defends this decision in the introduction: “I didn’t want to make this collection just a rehash of what I’ve previously published.” Though the inclusion of this “hate mail” provides a fascinating glimpse into the minds of some seriously disturbed individuals, I’m not completely convinced it was completely necessary—and if it was, perhaps it may have been better served stored in an appendix to the book. Wagner’s evaluations are completely justified for those with open minds or the ability to accept constructive criticism—reprinting electronic missives from disgruntled individuals has a faint and unsavory voyeuristic taint. Besides—most of these e-mails sound as if their authors have just returned from an all-you-can-eat crazy buffet…why give them any additional encouragement?
Now it’s time for that portion of the blog I like to call “Full Disclosure.” Laura Wagner is a Facebook chum, and I volunteered to do a review of her book (thinking, as she humorously relates in the intro to her book, that I’d get a free copy)…only to be foiled at the last minute when she told me I’d be getting a PDF file, courtesy of Bear Manor Media (whose editor, the wily and parsimonious Ben Ohmart, is also an acquaintance of mine). So if anyone feels that I’ve given either Laura or her book a pass because of our friendship, let me just say this. She was not happy when I opined that vocalist Jimmy Cash (whom I knew from the Burns & Allen shows sponsored by Swan Soap) “was no great shakes but got the job done” and I really waved a red flag in front of her when I stated that I preferred Jack Carson to Dennis Morgan. Make of this what you will—but if you want to read first-rate criticism with some meat on its bones, grab a copy of her book.