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Books. "Charlie Chan," "Cecil B DeMille," More

Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History "is a scintillating, provocative work of discovery, a voyage into racial stereotyping and the humanizing force of storytelling," writes Donna Seaman in the Los Angeles Times.

For the Washington Post's Michael Dirda, "it seems appropriate that this study of Charlie Chan, the Chinese-Hawaiian detective created by Earl Derr Biggers and the hero of more than 40 movies, should itself be a heady mixture of scholarship, essay and memoir. 'In many ways,' writes Yunte Huang, 'Charlie Chan is a distillation of the collective experience of Asian Americans, his résumé a history of the Chinese in America.' Chan is also a lens through which one can examine 20th-century anxieties about race, the 'yellow peril,' immigration and class."

In the New York Times, Charles McGrath notes that Huang offers a "full account of Chan's movie history and of the actor with whom he was most memorably associated: a Swede named Warner Oland, who played a Jew in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, and then, because he had vaguely Asian features, made a specialty of Oriental villains. (The original Chan, George Kuwa, was Japanese.) Oland was a heavy drinker, Mr Huang writes, and liked to take a nip before slipping into the Chan persona: it slowed down his speech and put a congenial, Chan-like grin on his face."

Charlie Chan is "one of the most hated characters in American popular culture," notes Jill Lepore in a piece for the New Yorker a few issues back. "In the 1980s and 90s, distinguished American writers, including Frank Chin and Gish Jen, argued for laying Chan to rest, a yellow Uncle Tom, best buried. In trenchant essays, Chin condemned the Warner Oland movies as 'parables of racial order'; Jen called Chan 'the original Asian whiz kid.' In 1993, the literary scholar Elaine Kim bid Chan good riddance — 'Gone for good his yellowface asexual bulk, his fortune-cookie English' — in an anthology of contemporary Asian-American fiction titled Charlie Chan Is Dead, which is not to be confused with the beautiful and fantastically clever 1982 Wayne Wang film, Chan Is Missing, and in which traces of a man named Chan are all over the place, it's just that no one can find him anymore."

Reviewing Warner Brothers' Charlie Chan Collection for the NYT in June, Dave Kehr noted that the Charlie Chan films also touched on yet another broad and deep field of racial anxiety in the States: "The greatest asset of the Monogram Chans is Mantan Moreland, a veteran of the black vaudeville circuit who arrived at the studio in 1939... Ostensibly a chauffeur, Moreland's Birmingham Brown character behaves more like a full partner in the Chan family enterprise.... Has any performer ever done more with less than Mantan Moreland? A master of comic timing, he could take the simplest stage direction ('Birmingham looks scared') and build it into a series of double, triple, quadruple takes — reacting to his own reactions. Building on a stereotype, Moreland fully humanizes his characters, and then some."

More on Huang's book: Pico Iyer (Time) and Sarah Weinman (Barnes and Noble Review); and Huang's been a guest on Fresh Air.

 

MORE BOOKS


"Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B DeMille is the first account of the pioneering filmmaker's life based on his own correspondence and papers, and [Scott] Eyman has parlayed his unprecedented access into both a judiciously balanced portrait of a complex, contradictory subject, but also a wonderfully readable Hollywood history." Tim Rutten for the LAT: "Simon Louvish's 2008 biography, Cecil B DeMille: A Life in Art, also is an intelligent, thorough account of the director's life, but Eyman's more detailed account manages to be exhaustive without being exhausting — a notable feat in a book of this length." We'll likely be hearing more about this one when it's published on September 7.

Meantime, Rutten again: "Hollywood: A Third Memoir is the distinguished writer Larry McMurtry's delightfully episodic account of his long, profitable and generally rather enjoyable engagement with the movie industry... McMurtry stands among our best not only because of his uncanny ability to compress a cogent narrative arc, but also because his eye for the moving detail is infallible." More from Jeff Baker (Oregonian) and John Barron (Chicago Sun-Times); and in Time Out New York, Joshua Rothkopf picks "McMurtry's best three Tinseltown anecdotes."

"[W]hat happens when the studio bosses cut you off?" asks Richard Beck in Bookforum. "That is the subject of James L Neibaur's book The Fall of Buster Keaton: His films for M-G-M, Educational Pictures, and Columbia. After producing a string of terrific silent films (including The General) at his own production unit, Keaton committed what he later called the worst mistake of his life, signing a contract with M-G-M in 1928 and handing over almost all creative control in the process. Charlie Chaplin told him not to do it, and Keaton should have listened — alcoholism, divorce, and bankruptcy followed in quick succession. By 1933, major studios considered him essentially unemployable. Neibaur aims to reassess the films Keaton made from his M-G-M period on, and on this count his book is a disaster."

"Scratch a film critic, and you’re likely to find a jazz buff," writes Dave Kehr in the NYT. "That the opposite is also true was suggested as far back as the 1930s by Otis Ferguson, the startlingly prescient critic who covered jazz, when it was a genuinely popular art, along with Hollywood movies, then entering their classical phase, for The New Republic. It's demonstrated again by Gary Giddins, the eminent jazz critic of The Village Voice from 1973 to 2003, and more recently the DVD columnist of The New York Sun (which ceased publication in 2008)." Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema is "an anthology of informed, engaged, illuminating writings, mainly concerned with American movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s."

Sinclair McKay's The Man With The Golden Touch: How The Bond Films Conquered The World "is one of the very best attempts to take stock of the Bond films," writes the New Republic's Isaac Chotiner. "It has its share of quirks, and is by no means appropriate for someone with a minimal interest in the series. But his analysis of the movies is smart and unexpected, and his grasp of Bond is obviously the result of thought and study."

 

GOINGS ON


Everything Is Terrible! presents: Everything Is Festival! is on for another day at Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles and Michael Joshua Rowin has an enthusiastic overview in the LA Weekly.

For those in the UK, the Guardian previews ongoing events and others happening throughout the next week, including a ten-film Hong Sang-soo retrospective touring major cities over the next few months.

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