NOW, 10 YEARS in the making--drumroll, please-- is From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films in the 1930s, just about as exhaustive and loving a history as ever graced a movie buff's lap. This 648-page blockbuster by Roger Dooley offers the susceptible a genuine binge--a feast of images from Hollywood at its most iconoclastic and mischievous.
The hangover that Dooley leaves one with is the realization that the variety and quality of these landmark films as well as the spirited archetypes that populated them are a thing of the past. A sampling from a single year, 1939, is staggering: The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Gunga Din, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Golden Boy, The Women, Intermezzo, Babes in Arms, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Destry Rides Again, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Young Mr. Lincoln, Juarez, and Gone With the Wind. The influence the era would have over future decades of filmmaking is also formidable, perhaps greatest in the cops-and-robbers, male-dominated cinema of the last decade, which can be seen as the logical outgrowth of the gangster cycle of the '30s--Scarface, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and 300 other films.
What separated the men of the '30s from the boys of the '70s, however, were the women they rubbed elbows with. Unlike today, as Dooley points out, it was a rare film that did not include a major romantic storyline. It was the age of women in the movies. Character types popular in the silents had spilled over into the talkies-- Ruth Chatterton as the woman most betrayed, Sylvia Sidney as the victim, Constance Bennett as the woman kept most often--but, as the Production Code took hold, women checked out of the boudoir and into the offices. New heroines emerged. Ginger Rogers, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford began portraying a novel, self-sufficient type--the working girl--while Katharine Hepburn in films like Holiday and Bringing up Baby best typified the heiress--who had a problem foreign to the audience during the Depression: too much money. And if Hepburn and Russell played off the men, and Mae West toyed with them, Garbo and Dietrich, in a series of mood pieces, seemed oblivious to them. Parlaying a final option, Bette Davis--the ultimate bad girl-- laid right into the opposite sex, summoning up a near apocalyptic fury from film to film.
The tone of From Scarface to Scarlett is festive and energetic, like the movies it chronicles and the women it celebrates. But, like the studio heads of the time, Dooley wields a decisively strong hand, sifting through 5,000 films, guiding the reader through 50 distinct genres from operettas to prison films ("I'm bustin' out! I can't take no more of this slop!"), to literary adaptations, even to a chapter on films about mothers.
Within each chapter he provides an authoritative overview of the genre, followed by a film-by-film cataloguing with appropriate capsule critiques that combine the reviews of the day with a contemporary perspective. Often the narrative is interrupted to develop a theme or to analyze some of the highlights of the genre. A case in point is his discussion of Gone With the Wind, which he sees as epitomizing every taste and trend of the decade because the epic was the ideal combination of realism and escape, and Scarlett was part spoiled heiress and part working-girl while Rhett employed the same devil- may-care charm as the jewel thieves, gamblers, and gangsters of other popular films.
Dooley alternates his serious dissections of the familiar with tantalizing descriptions of offbeat, lesser-known movies like the 1934 musical We're Not Dressing, about the wreck of a yacht on a deserted island. Based loosely on J. M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, it starred Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard and Ethel Merman. (As it turned out, the island was not all that deserted since Burns and Allen turn up as local naturalists. Crosby sings "May I?," completing his series of polite songs including the previously-introduced "Please" and "Thanks.")
As a bonus, the author frequently delights with an aside (on W. C. Fields: "What a Falstaff he would have made!"), or scratches your head with a casting quirk (Spring Byington as Dolley Madison?) or waggishly reports that in Murders in the Rue Morgue none other than Arlene Francis, playing a Parisian streetwalker, is bled to death and then dropped through a trap door into the Seine. And Dooley's blend of the whimsical and the acute is the perfect one-two punch for a definitive study of the movies of the 1930s.