It was fellow film noir devotee and Down the Hatch author Vince Keenan who used his incredible cocktail powers to induce me into buying a copy of Facebook compadre John DiLeo’s Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery back in November of 2008…and since that initial purchase, I have filled the bookshelves here at Rancho Yesteryear with additional DiLeo books including the Screen Savers sequel (Screen Savers II: My Grab Bag of Classic Movies) and 100 Great Performances You Should Remember – But Probably Don’t. (You may recall that I reviewed John’s inaugural tome, And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies, back in June of 2013 when that 1999 book was reissued by his publisher, Hansen Publishing Group.)
John’s newest contribution to classic movie lovers’ libraries (his sixth book) has just been released (this October), Ten Movies at a Time: A 350-Film Journey Through Hollywood and America 1930-1970. I leapt at the opportunity to review this one when John asked me, and I profusely apologize for not having the homework assignment completed in a timely manner (my dear, departed laptop started coughing up blood just about the same time I got the review copy). Armed with a new HP Chromebook that the ‘rents bestowed upon me as an early Christmas gift, I tackled Ten Movies at a Time over the weekend with great relish…because if you are as fond of John’s “Screen Savers” books as I am, you’re going to want to snap this one up as well.
“Ten movies at a time” is a most fitting format for this book. Everybody likes a good Top Ten list, but in John’s book, “each chapter addresses ten movies as examples of a particular subject,” and those chapters might discuss common movie genres or styles (film noir, musicals, Westerns) or devote their content to the oeuvre of a familiar movie personage like Clifton Webb or Marilyn Monroe. Both these chapters are among the most captivating in Ten Movies at a Time, as is the section that gets the book off to a rousing start, “Our Jazzy Joan: Silent Sensation Turns Sound Superstar” (which covers the first ten “talkies” of Joan Crawford’s career). Other highlights include sections on films dealing with the “lost generation” of World War I, Cold War features, and Westerns from the 1950s.
Classic movie mavens often cite 1939 as Hollywood’s greatest year…but in “Wuthering Lows: 1939, Hollywood’s Worst Year,” John argues that not every celluloid release was a winner and cites everything from Idiot’s Delight to Made for Each Other to The Return of Doctor X to bolster his claim. (He also includes It’s a Wonderful World…and I’m sorry: I revisited this one on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ recently and I still think it’s swell.) Before going into the decapod of movies that comprise each chapter, DiLeo discusses movies with which fans are probably more familiar before tackling features that may have slipped under their radar. This is, I believe, the book’s major strength; examining lesser known films with a keen critical eye—even movies that John expresses a fondness for have their flaws and weaknesses…but that doesn’t make them unworthy of at least one viewing.
John and I don’t always agree on movies, and this is how it should be. He has his favorites and I mine, and some silver screen icons to whom he bestows glowing praise admittedly have me scratching my head in bewilderment (I just don’t get the appeal of Clark Gable, for example). But the reason why I find myself returning to DiLeo’s essays on multiple occasions is that even when we wildly diverge on the merits of a film I’ll find myself wanting to “get a second opinion,” so to speak; he may have noticed something on which I completely zoned out. Ten Movies at a Time is very similar to one of my very favorite film reference books, Danny Peary’s Guide for the Film Fanatic; I was completely bowled over by John’s book, offering a fresh perspective on classic film entries that I’m convinced will challenge even the most jaded TCM regular and make newcomers want to embrace these movies that much more. At the risk of angering the Classic Movie Gods…I’ve learned more about movies from John DiLeo than most of the current TCM hosts. (Noir czar/wine salesman Eddie Muller is the exception, of course.)
Any book that can refer to Johnny Mack Brown (whom I like very much despite his thespic limitations) as “a meat-loaf leading man” and leave me laughing has a lot going for it; I’m even willing to cut John some slack for his description of Cool Hand Luke as “an utterly empty film about nothing except Paul Newman’s blue-eyed magnetism.” (What we have here is a failure to communicate.) With puckish humor and irreverent observations that may inspire a classic film fan or two to grab a pitchfork and/or torch before storming Castle DiLeo, Ten Movies at a Time is a first-rate read—an excellent Yuletide gift for that movie maven in your life.