Book Review: Movie Star Chronicles

Ian Haydn Smith’s Movie Star Chronicles:  A Visual History of the World’s Greatest Movie Stars (Buffalo, NY:  Firefly Books, 2015.) is a beautifully illustrated,  576-page, pseudo-film reference book reminiscent of Joel Finler’s 1988 coffee-table tome, The Hollywood Story.

Categories such asmovie star chronicles “The Musical Star,” “Stars of the Martial Arts World,” “The Star as Superhero,” “Movie Clowns,” and “Screen Sirens” are interspersed with one or two-page biographies of international stars from Amy Adams to Zhag Ziyi.  At the bottom of each star’s page is a timeline identifying key movies, awards and genres in which the star appeared.  At the top of the page are grosses for select films and color-coded bars that identify the star’s oeuvre(s), e.g., femme fatale, superhero, girl next door, charmer, clown, dancer.  In short, there are plenty of facts as well as insight into a particular star’s career.  The oft-neglected Joseph Cotten and Richard Widmark get their due.  Janet Leigh, usually identified only with Psycho, receives a comprehensive career evaluation.

However, even though the author notes in his introduction that this “is not an exhaustive encyclopedia of every star that has graced the screen,” rather a tapestry, there are mind-boggling omissions.  Many of the stars left out should replace those who are included.  Robert Pattinson but not Robert Taylor?  Claudia Cardinale but not Gina Lollobrigida?  Also missing are Irene Dunne, Susan Hayward, Ronald Colman, Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney, Ray Milland, Randolph Scott, Greer Garson, Leslie Howard, Wallace Beery, Alice Faye, William Powell, Fredric March, Joel McCrea, Jennifer Jones, Jeff Chandler, Victor Mature, Rex Harrison, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Tyrone Power, Norma Shearer, and this is positively astonishing—Elizabeth Taylor!  Doesn’t Liz, like Marilyn, embody the concept, “movie star”?  Joan Fontaine gets a page, but her double-Academy Award-winning sister Olivia de Havilland is only identified as her sibling.  Merely noted in passing are Glenn Ford and Dana Andrews.  Character actors get a nod, but the greatest character and supporting actor (3 Academy Awards; a decades-long career) is not mentioned at all:  Walter Brennan.

Although older, an alternative, large, and engrossing history of film is Chronicle of the Cinema (Dorling Kindersley, 1995, rev. ed. 1997).  Even though The American Film Institute’s rankings of stars and the best of particular genres have been suspect, The American Film Institute Desk Reference (Dorling Kindersley, 2002) is an admirable survey.

By Kim

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