Ethan Mordden is an expert on musical theatre, having been a composer and lyricist himself, and that no doubt explains the heavyish emphasis on the musical form in this look back at the golden age of the Hollywood studio system… the book may be a bit elderly itself now, first published in 1988, but then we’re looking back at a world that was long dead when the book came out, that more or less only existed from about the late 1920s to the mid-1950s at best. Not really a beginner’s book, this; it does help if you have some prior familiarity with that era of Hollywood, cos it’s not exactly a straight linear history… as the book’s subtitle suggests, it’s more about the individual studios and their varied styles, with Paramount and MGM getting the lion’s share of the discussion, and Warner’s, Fox, RKO and Universal getting rather less (Columbia is relegated to a chapter also featuring Republic, Goldwyn and Selznick; United Artists only figures in passing). As such it’s an obviously uneven book; even allowing for Paramount’s and MGM’s industry primacy making them worthy of longer discussion, I still got the feeling Mordden just isn’t as interested in the other studios as he is those two, and the others seem to interest him largely in the way they handle (or fail to handle) their musical output. Plus the bitchy old queen tone is occasionally distracting (Mordden is not even remotely neutral at any point), though it does make for a few good cracks, particular when he laments that most people (at least then) only knew Selznick’s Duel in the Sun from a cut, crappy TV print before noting the uncut film is “even more incomprehensible”. And for some reason it’s kind of pleasing to see he’s a Douglas Sirk sceptic too. Good read on the whole.
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