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Why Hollywood is addicted to coffee, and always has been

“Since its Silent Era days, Hollywood has been teeming with said originators — writers, directors, actors, designers, costumers, choreographers — getting up early and staying up late, fueling themselves on caffeine cranked from industrial urns,” Steven Rea writes in the intro to his latest book, “Hollywood Cafe: Coffee with the Stars” (Schiffer). Over the course of the next 188 pages, Rea delivers meticulously curated black-and-white photographic proof of showbiz’s longtime dependence on the stuff.

A follow-up to his 2012 book, “Rides a Bike: Cycling With The Stars,” Rea, a longtime movie critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, gives “Hollywood Cafe” the same joyful “check-this-out!” collector’s treatment, using the captions that accompany each image, be they staged publicity stills or candids of actors caffeinating between takes, to offer nuggets of film lore and coffee trivia.

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Flipping through the book, you’ll find paparazzi shot of Anthony Quinn on location for the 1968 World War II comedy, “The Secret of Santa Vitorrio,” his nose buried in an espresso. A spectacularly rumpled James Dean is captured with a cigarette, some brackish-looking brew and an ice cream sundae in a Times Square diner. And an impossibly young Lauren Bacall resting against a vintage beach cruiser with coffee in hand actually does double duty, showing up in both “Cafe” and “Rides a Bike.”

Recently we caught up with Rea to discuss his research process, the stars who understood their coffee and the ones who just swilled it to get a second wind, and why we should be excited that part of the expansion of Philadelphia’s La Colombe Coffee Roasters includes an outpost opening in L.A. this summer. 

Finding 200 photos from the mid-20th century of movie icons drinking coffee. Where do you even start?

I talked to dealers in L.A. and in Canada. There’s Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Materials store in New York. There’s a guy in Uruguay who somehow has this unbelievable collection of vintage Hollywood production and publicity stills. The back cover photo of Jackie Gleason? [Los Angeles-based photo archivist] Michael Ochs, he told me about that. He sold his whole archive, which is thousands and thousands of photographs, to Getty.

Describe a photo that told you your project had scope.

At first I thought that it was just going to be movie stars holding a cup of coffee. But there [turned out to be] to be so much variety and bizarre, funny and odd situations. There’s the Rita Hayworth photo, which I absolutely love, where she’s being tended to by a seamstress and a guy is lighting her cigarette and she’s holding a coffee cup in one hand. There was one with Molly O’ Day and Milton Sills where he’s got an old-fashioned coffee grinder and he’s looking at her swooningly. There are lots of photos of stars like Ginger Rogers and Van Johnson with their own thermoses. Shirley MacLaine had a Chemex and so did David Niven and his wife. This sounds totally geeky, but sometimes it was really exciting.

For example?

Ann Sothern holding a jar of [ground] coffee that she’s just taken out of the freezer. She had this whole technique of how she keeps it fresh — which I’ve run by a few baristas here and they sort of scoffed. The first thing you learn now is to never freeze your coffee. But I love the wide-eyed look on her face and the specificity of what she’s doing with her coffee.

How did you find the one where Barbara Stanwyck is holding a personalized mug?

I stumbled onto it. I have a dear friend named Stuart Rome — he just won a Guggenheim for his photography — and he prepared these photos for me. He cleaned them up, took out all the blemishes. When we were looking at the Barbara Stanwyck photo, we were reading what it said on her mug: “Barbara Stanwyck, Actress. Tragedy Done While You Wait.” Little discoveries like that were so thrilling. I wonder if that mug still exists.

Did you find that some stars were interested in the coffee they drank? Or was it mostly just served to them?

Robert Taylor was a famous coffee fiend. I found a bunch of photos of him on set having coffee and drinking it. He had a TV series in the '50s or '60s that was sponsored by a coffee company.

Then there was [director] Preston Sturges, of course, who was the godhead over this project as far as I’m concerned. Coffee was so important to him. He was constantly drinking coffee and was incredibly prolific. He was quoted in a wire story by Rosalind Schaffer, a gossip columnist back in the '40s, that coffee drinkers are the real originators of ideas.

Preston Sturges’ “Christmas in July,” was based on a 1931 play that he wrote called “A Cup of Coffee” that he adapted for the screen. It’s about a guy who enters this contest to come up with a new slogan for a coffee company. The whole movie is coffee-centric and really funny. The slogan he comes up with makes little sense and is a running gag through the whole movie: “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee. It’s the bunk.”

What does that even mean? “Bunk” as in what you are sleeping on?

Or bunk as in the nonsense in your head. [Sturges] was constantly drinking coffee and he was incredibly prolific. He’s one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. So to discover that he held coffee in a revered place in his life was so exciting.

The act of drinking coffee — what do you think that was supposed to telegraph in old movies?

I think a big part of it was romantic. Drinking coffee was a way for a couple to meet in a less seriously committed way than going on a dinner date. Like, “Let’s go have a cup of coffee and check each other out.” Then it takes on different meanings in different types of films.

In film noir, coffee keeps the detective up all night when he’s on a stakeout and has this feverish, intense quality to it. [Off screen] it is sustenance, it’s to give you energy before dawn to get your makeup done and get in costume, to get yourself awake and starting the day.

But it also shows them as regular folk. When you look at paparazzi photos now, it’s still the same: Jennifer Garner or Mila Kunis coming out of a Starbucks. It’s like the US Weekly thing: “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!”

By the end of your research, do you think you got a handle on what the coffee they were consuming tasted like?

I don’t think it could have possibly tasted that good. In some of the photos they’re at the craft services table and there are stacks of donuts and there a giant urn of coffee that’s probably been sitting there for hours.

But you know what? Even a not-so-good cup of coffee can be good in the right context. If it’s cold outside and you’ve just come into a diner and you’re sitting at the counter and you’re having a nice chat with a friend or the waiter or waitress comes by and ask if you want more, there’s also something satisfying about that. It doesn’t have to be a $5 single origin, shaded bean from Ethiopia. There’s still something cool about it.

Steven Rea will sign copies of "Hollywood Cafe: Coffee With the Stars," at Arcana Books, on Saturday, Feb. 6 from 4 - 6 p.m.

Arcana Books, 8675 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 458-1499, www.arcanabooks.com.

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