The Whole Enchilada
Movies may not be bigger and better than ever, but the books about them certainly are. Weighing in at a more than impressive 24 pounds, 8 ounces, the new heavyweight champion is “The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States, Feature Films, 1941-1950,” a huge three-volume set whose contents are just as substantial as its title and its 4,000-plus pages of length would have you believe.
This unsurpassed set, covering every one of the 4,316 feature-length films produced in the United States between Jan. 1, 1941, and Dec. 31, 1950, is the latest in a marvelous reference series an understaffed AFI crew has been working on doggedly for more than 30 years.
This entry brings the total of volumes published to date by several presses to 15, including substantial sets on the ‘10s, the ‘20s, the ‘30s and the ‘60s, two books on “Film Beginnings, 1893-1910" and a large single volume called “Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-'60.”
Covering some 15,000 pages so far (the 1950s are due to increase the total some time in the future), these volumes add up to nothing less than an authoritative Oxford English Dictionary of American film. And if you’re curious why they’re bound in bright red cloth, it could be because these books are dangerous. Open one of the 1940s set at random and you’ll be AWOL for hours, pleasantly drifting in an infinite sea of cinematic information.
Start with the 1,362-page index volume--not one index alone but rather nine separate indexes: chronological, personal name, corporate name, subject, genre, series, geographic, songwriter and composer, literary and dramatic. The biggest is the personal name index, listing enough individuals (242,015) to populate a fair-sized city. Curious which films had Mozart’s name in the credits? The answer is 12, including the unlikely duo of “Betty Co-Ed” and “Apartment for Peggy.” While the title for greatest number of entries goes to Cedric Gibbons, the celebrated MGM art director on 325 films, closer behind him than you’d think is one very busy character actor, the more or less unknown Emmett Vogan. He was in 221 films in the 1940s alone, 562 films all told in his multi-decade career, a feat even the usually unemotional catalog admits is “remarkable.”
Other indexes feed other hungers. The geographic index, for instance, tells you not where films were set but where they were actually made when Hollywood went on location, from Ozark, Ala., to Murchison Falls, Uganda.
The subject index is perhaps the most fascinating, because it casts light on the zeitgeist of the decade by revealing what all these films were about. Billy the Kid, for instance, was the subject of more movies than Abe Lincoln, though not surprisingly Adolf Hitler surpassed them both. Look up the idle rich and you get cross-references for films on aristocrats, dowagers, heiresses, high society, madcap heiresses, millionaires, nobility, playboys, socialites and upper classes. What a world that must have been.
As for the two main volumes, they consist of thorough plot summaries (the catalog’s staff personally looked at 4,032 films, 93% of the total) and intensely detailed cast and credits lists. The catalog even has a special symbol for early uncredited roles by people who later became prominent: Polly Bergen, for instance, was the uncredited radio and juke box singer in the Kirk Douglas-starring “Champion.”
The best example of how thorough the catalog can be is the entry for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” the most critically acclaimed movie of that decade, or any other decade. More impressive than the long summary and the long cast list (did you know that Alan Ladd was one of the reporters at Xanadu?) is the enormous notes section, a 5,000-word essay that is filled with production and distribution information.
The great pleasure of these books, as any reference addict knows, is what you stumble upon while you’re on the way to what you think you’re looking for. Everyone is familiar with “Citizen Kane,” but who has heard of the next entry, “Citizen Saint,” a 1947 documentary on Mother Cabrini, the first American to attain sainthood, directed by Harold Young, from a screen story by Harold Orlob? And who can resist, on just the next page, a detailed synopsis of the strangely titled “City of Missing Girls,” in which H.B. Warner plays one Captain McVeigh, “a veteran big city police detective vexed by a series of disappearances of young women”? Has Crescent School of Fine Arts owner King Peterson (Philip Van Zandt) been using that institution “as a front for a recruiting center for his nightclub”? The answers are all here.
Though each decade of film history has its fascinations, the 1940s were especially meaty in ways that the AFI catalog inevitably reflects. Hollywood had to deal with the shadow, the actuality and the aftermath of World War II, which included the coming to prominence of genres like the hopeless film noir and hopeful socially conscious dramas. All of Preston Sturges’ greatest comedies made it to the screen in the 1940s, as well as charming musicals like “Meet Me in St. Louis.” A decade that included films like “All About Eve,” “Casablanca,” “How Green Was My Valley” and “Treasure of Sierra Madre” clearly has a great deal to recommend it.
The dedication at the front of the 1940s set is “to those who will use this information in the future,” a selfless thought that captures the spirit in which these estimable volumes were put together. It’s too bad that the AFI couldn’t give its life achievement award to executive editor Patricia King Hanson, assistant editor Amy Dunkleberger and the rest of the 11-person project staff and editorial advisory board. They all worked for eight years to produce this nonpareil reference set, and they have made an irreplaceable contribution to American film.