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WGUC Reviews

Reconstructing American Historical Cinema

Reconstructing American Historical Cinema
From Cimarron to Citizen Kane
by J.E. Smyth

Review by: Larry Tomas


It has always been the hope of film buffs that the emergence of DVDs and satellite television might advance the cause of classic films in America. Most studios don’t do right by their library of titles going back to the silent and early sound days. Fewer theatres are showing these films since 35mm prints are expensive and hard to come by.

And despite many studios opening their vaults for DVD releases, there are hundreds of titles that still have not seen the light of day. Turner Classic Movies tries to maintain a regular schedule of the rarely seen films, and generally does a fine job of it. But one channel cannot show everything.

It then rests with the viewer to seek out the different in order to complement the familiar. Most everyone has seen Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz. But how many have seen a film with Clara Bow…or Richard Dix…or Paul Muni. All were major stars in their era and made films worth watching and appreciating.

A new book from The University Press of Kentucky in Lexington is titled Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane.

In this volume, author J.E. Smyth explores historical films set in historical eras, and offers insight into the early days of sound films in Hollywood. She confines her study to films made between 1931 and 1942, which gives her much leeway. After all, any film from those years, even with a contemporary setting, will still fall into historical context for those of us in 2009.

Smith says her purpose in writing the book is to illuminate that the covered films were more than pop culture, but beneficial works of film historiography. Mission accomplished…to coin a phrase. Reconstructing American Historical Cinema reveals much that is worth knowing about the films, the players, the filmmakers, and the studios involved. It’s impossible to read through the various chapters without keeping a running list of titles that you will want to seek out.

Decades before Al Pacino forged an iconic screen image in Scarface, Paul Muni was playing the same role with equal ferocity for legendary director Howard Hawks in a film that was so scandalous it was at the forefront of the birth of the Hays Office, movie censors from 1934 into the mid-1960s.

Most casual filmgoers know the Warner Brothers and Paramount logos, but very few will recognize the gleaming tower of RKO Radio Pictures. Even though the studio died in 1957, its output was of major consequence. The subtitle of the book From Cimarron to Citizen Kane indicates as much since both of those renowned films were from RKO.

For both the casual and die-hard history buff and/or film buff, “Reconstructing American Historical Cinema” is a must read. It will open up new vistas of both American history and Hollywood history, and will, I hope, encourage you to seek out and enjoy many films that you may have missed over the years.

There are appendices listing some of the historical films made by year, by studio, award winners, and more. So make your list, do your research, and start tracking down some of the best movies ever made. It’s a journey worth taking.

Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane is now available from your favorite book vendor.


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