Friday, June 2, 2017

Tales of Hollywoodland

By Jeff Burns
            My wife and I have been enjoying the series Feud: Bette and Joan, about Hollywood legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and their epic clashes in and around the filming of the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  I always enjoy stories of the glamour and the grime of the early days of Hollywood. Actors seemed to be just so much more interesting then. Dig a little below the glitz and glam, and you’ll find stories of murder and deception that the greatest Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t imagine. Here are some books about Hollywood history.

The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine by E.J. Fleming tells the story of Eddie Mannix, the general manager of MGM from the 1930s to the 1960s.  His job was to “fix” scandals that tarnish the reputations and careers of MGM stars before they went public.  The recent movie “Hail, Caesar!” is loosely based on his life. The book details scandals from unwanted pregnancies to murders that involved such stars as Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Spencer Tracy, and Marlene Dietrich, and many others. 

            William Mann’s book, Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, demonstrates that scandal rocked the movie industry from its very infancy.  Set in the very early 1920s, it revolves around the murder of a leading director, William Desmond Taylor. Taylor’s murder has long been one of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved mysteries, with one dark secret after another coming to light.  Mann investigates thoroughly and also details the infighting among the rising Hollywood moguls, battling for movie supremacy, and the mounting public crusade against the indecency of the industry.  If you like Erik Larson books, especially Devil in the White City, you will like this book.   

WARNING: ADULT THEMES. If you’re looking for real dirt, and you can handle graphic language and situations, you might consider Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers. Bowers writes about his life in Hollywood, beginning as in 1946.  Fresh out of the Marines, he finds himself with a unique talent. He basically becomes Hollywood’s pimp, providing male and female sex partners for the biggest stars of the day.  He holds nothing back.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Recommendations from NCHE 2017

By Jeff Burns

I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Council for History Education’s annual conference held in Atlanta. Whenever a group of historians and/or history teachers meet, books, old and new, are bound to be discussed.  Here’s a list of books that were featured in sessions or by exhibitors, in no particular order.

The Snipesville Chronicles is a series of time travel books aimed at young readers (but also enjoyed by adults) written by Annette Laing, a purveyor of non-boring history.

Drum Taps, a collection of poem about the Civil War by Walt Whitman

Edward Larson was one of the keynote speakers.  He’s written several books about science and technology in history and American history including the Pulitzer-winning Summer for the Gods, about the Scopes Monkey Trial.  Other books include An Empire of Ice, A Magnificent Catastrophe, Evolution’s Workshop, and his latest, The Return of George Washington.

March is the autobiography of civil rights movement figure John Lewis, in a graphic novel trilogy.

All Quiet on the Western Front is the classic World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque.

Another keynoter was Bruce Lesh, the author of “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12.

Fire in a Canebrake: the Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler tells the story of the murders of two black couples in 1946. Considered the last lynching in Georgia, no one has ever been prosecuted for the crime.

The final keynoter was Micki McElya, the author of The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery and Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth Century America.

Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television by Matthew Bernstein

Thursday, January 26, 2017

History TV

By Jeff Burns

It pains me to say it, but if you love history like the Histocrats love history, you’ve noticed that the History Channel is no more.  There is as much history on the History Channel as there is music on MTV.  On a brighter note, there are now many television viewing options, and the history addict can find his or her fix elsewhere.

Amazon has a couple of great current options.  I just finished the second season of The Man in the High Castle, and found it to be very interesting speculative – What If? – history.  It is set in a world where the Axis powers won World War II and divided America between them.  If you’ve read the book, don’t worry, the series is totally different, and in my opinion, improved.  (That may be the only time I’ve ever said that a movie or show improves on the book.)

Good Girls Revolt is in set in the late 1960s and is based on the true story of female researchers at Newsweek who united to fight against the sexism at Newsweek magazine, which denied them the opportunity to be real reporters, relegating them to uncredited and underpaid roles as researchers who did most of the work while the male reporters took credit for the stories. If you liked Mad Men, you’ll love Good Girls.  It’s a step back into the turbulent 60s, not only addressing women’s rights and the broader sexual revolution, but also civil rights, Vietnam, and the other issues of the day.

My favorite new show is on Netflix. The Crown is the story of Queen Elizabeth II, starting from just before her father’s death and her coronation.  The first series takes the viewer through much of the 1950s. The acting is phenomenal.  John Lithgow plays Winston Churchill and dominates every scene he’s in, but the other actors are no slouches. While the series obviously takes liberties with envisioning private conversations and thoughts that will likely never become public, the history behind the show seems to hold true, and it is a great series.  I’m not much of a binge watcher, but I watched this entire season in a weekend.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Searching for Freedom

By Jeff Burns

I’ve read three enjoyable novels in the past few weeks that have a common theme, the search for freedom and equality, and I highly recommend them.

First is an older Ken Follett title.  I’m a huge fan of Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and Century trilogies, but I wasn’t familiar with A Place Called Freedom.  The novel starts in the miserable and brutal coal mines of Scotland in the mid-17th century, where miners are virtually slaves of the noble landowners.  Through a series of events, miner Mack McAsh is forced to flee the mines and move to London.  More unfortunate events make him an indentured servant, forced to go to the wilds of Virginia, where indentured servants don’t always outlive their indenture contract.  It’s full of action, and like all Follett works, it’s full of fantastic historic detail.

Second is Karen Kondazian’s The Whip.  It is a fictionalized biography of a real-life character of the California Gold Rush era, Charlie Parkhurst, the greatest wagoneer/coachman/teamster of the age, renowned for his abilities to move people and freight when no one else could.  What people didn’t know was that Charlie Parkhurst was actually Charlotte Parkhurst, a female who started dressing and living as a man when she was a girl.  Virtually no one knew her secret until her death. Kondazian takes great liberties with the facts, because little is known about Charlie, but it’s a great story, and it led me to do a little research on my own. Charlie’s real life was as exciting as any novel. For example, she may well have been the first woman to vote in America (while dressed as a man).

Finally, there’s Darktown by Thomas Mullen, a novel optioned by Jamie Foxx to produce into a series. Darktown is a 1940s murder mystery told through the first eight black police officers hired by the Atlanta Police Department in 1948.  Atlanta’s unofficial slogan has long been “the city too busy to hate,” but this novel proves that there was indeed lots and lots of hate and racism. As a Georgian and a metro Atlantan, it is a difficult read, but an important one, and of historical importance.  On top  of all that, it’s an entertaining mystery too.