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Solid first shot at another essential Maltin reference book
on March 17, 2005
As new movies proliferate but Leonard Maltin's bestselling Movie Guide remains more or less constant at 4" thick and about 18,000 entries, more and more minor old movies have gotten squeezed out (even as they become more and more available on TV). The answer, at long last, is to split the old movies out as their own book, removing all but the most popular ones from the Movie Guide and adding many, many more entries. (To start with, Leonard proudly announces, for the first time the complete oeuvres of R. Rogers, G. Autry and W.B. Elliott are reviewed.)
This is one of those things that one can read as a sign that we live either in the best of times or the worst of times for old movies. On the one hand, it's a recognition that there's a whole lotta folks out there who just won't watch anything before The Godfather at all. On the other hand, it's really kind of impressive to flip open what looks like the old familiar volume and see Arsenal or Hell's Hinges or People on Sunday rather than, say, the most recent works of Vin Diesel or Jennifer Lopez.
The other encouraging thing, too, is that these all seem to be new reviews. The fact is, given the enormity of the task of creating a guide, a lot of old movies have always been covered off in the Movie Guide by ancient capsule reviews from some service that supplied synopses to newspapers for their TV listings, and it's clear no one had actually reviewed many of them in any meaningful sense. So when you see a new entry (say, The Sin of Nora Moran), it actually is a pretty good capsule review, not "**1/2; Lurid programmer about woman on trial for murder," as it might have been if that had been in the old editions. (In case you think I'm accusing Maltin of something others don't do, go look through a Video Hound guide with a discerning eye and you'll soon see that perhaps only 10% of the "bone" ratings are really based on viewings of the films.)
Flipping through these reviews of movies no critic has actually taken the trouble to write about in decades, one discovers all kind of interesting-sounding things for which one lifetime of movie-watching will surely not be enough-- Mary Boland steals the otherwise static The Solitaire Man... The First Hundred Years is an interesting early treatment of the strains on a two-career couple... did you know that Wild Bill Elliott ended his career with a series of Dragnet-like police programmers, beginning with Dial Red 0 in 1955? Well, I didn't.
Inevitably, of course, even a 9000-title guide is going to be an arbitrary selection, but it is often frustratingly hard to predict whether something will be in there-- for instance, a weak and utterly obscure Edward Everett Horton vehicle, The Poor Rich, is in there, yet a much better one, Wild Money, which I take to be decidedly better known since I've managed to see it twice theatrically over the last 20 years, is not. Someone clearly watched the whole John Ford preservation weekend on AMC a few years back, since things like Men Without Women and The Blue Eagle are in there, but on the other hand, no one has yet made an effort to catch up with all of David Shepard's Soviet silent film releases on DVD, as Arsenal may be in there but not the wonderful Bed and Sofa or Outskirts (indeed the foreign film selections seem highly arbitrary and a bit spotty in this first edition).
It seems to me that if the book is a work in progress (and always will be), and likely to add hundreds of reviews with each new edition, the main progress it needs to make is in keeping up with major DVD releases and showings on TCM, which are the most universal way that people all over the country, not just those in cities blessed with venues like MOMA or the Siskel Center or PFA, see such things. On a much smaller note, there's a list of classic films which have been blessed with especially good editions on video-- which might be a useful thing if it gave you any clue as to which edition of The General or The Phantom of the Opera is actually good, but doesn't do much more than list a bunch of famous films as it stands now.
But quibbles, quibbles. I expect this will sell a fraction of what the Movie Guide sells, and yet it will still be one of the best-selling books about classic film in the market, thanks to the magic Maltin name. People leafing through its dozens of famous and thousands of not so famous titles will discover not only Arsenal but The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, Men Without Women and Men Must Fight and Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail. Someone looking for a quick review of a minor programmer from 1942 will get a real review, not a long-dead newspaper hack's quickly cribbed synopsis. It is A Very Good Thing, in short, go and get yours now.
P.S. Two factual notes in regards to other reviews posted here: while it is true that the same reviews of some better-known pre-1960 movies also appear in Maltin's main movie guide, the overlap is not large. This book has thousands of pre-1960 reviews not in the other one; that book has thousands of post-1960 reviews not in this one. As for the person who felt deceived by the term "classic," well, yes, it is used in the sense of "belonging to a classic age" rather than as an indication of individual merit. For them I would suggest Roger Ebert's The Great Movies, which is strictly devoted to genuine classic films.