Book Review: ‘Warning Shadows’ by Gary Giddins

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Warning Shadows

Home Alone With Classic Cinema

Gary Giddins

W.W. Norton: 416 pp., $18.95

Gary Giddins is well known for his writing about music — he was a Village Voice jazz columnist for three decades, and his books, among them the biography “ Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams,” are revered. His writing about movies gets less attention only because he does less of it. “Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema” is his first book devoted exclusively to movies, and it makes me wish that the New York Sun — the short-lived (2002-08) newspaper where many of the essays making up the book first appeared — were still around, if only so he’d still be reviewing DVDs regularly. His film pieces — witty, informed and insightful — are an absolute pleasure to read.

Giddins is as much of a fan as a critic, and since he’s not a daily film reviewer, he hasn’t been beaten down by constant exposure to insufferable movies. It’s a mark of his enthusiasm that “Warning Shadows” makes me want to watch or re-watch nearly every movie he discusses. That includes Disney’s insane-sounding 1945 musical “The Three Caballeros” featuring Donald Duck, Carmen Miranda’s sister Aurora and Doña Luz as a disembodied head.

The book begins with a new essay tracing, with regret, cinema’s century-long migration “from Radio City Music Hall to streaming laptops.” The rest of the pieces cover directors, stars, genres and individual films.

Giddins is especially good at assessing the totality of an artist’s work. Hitchcock’s films “have achieved something better than timelessness; the older they get, the more astutely they function as social critiques.” John Ford “earns his patriotism by seeing through veils of vast sadness; he understood why America is worth dying for and even forgiving, which can be a tougher chore.” The “handsomeness” of Ingmar Bergman’s work “is itself dramatic, compensating for the occasionally sluggish pans, logical lapses and ‘whither God?’ meditations.” As for Samuel Fuller: “You can either fend his films off with invocations of logic and good taste, or give yourself up to his mania for truth, justice, and the American way.”

Giddins’ observations about actors’ strengths and significance are consistently keen and often stingingly funny. James Stewart “brought something new” to the western: “the battle-scarred victim of treachery who overcomes obstacles of nature and villainy while rediscovering his own scabbed-over core of decency. Before Mel Gibson, Stewart may have been the most shot, whipped, beaten, betrayed, and left-for-dead movie star in Hollywood history.”

By the time Joan Crawford starred in “Torch Song” in 1953, he writes, her “lipstick no longer followed the contours of her lips and her characters no longer followed the rules of humble humanity. If self-parody became her, [the 1934 film] ‘Sadie McKee’ is a reminder that there was something worth parodying — something intrepid, insubordinate, and incorruptible.”

Unsurprisingly, Giddins pays close attention to movies’ use of music. He notes “the humid saxophone glissando that became ubiquitous in melodramas of the 1950s. Whenever a doll gets flirtatious or has too much to drink or wanders into a bad part of town, cue the alto — a sultry, ascending little lick, jazz’s putative contribution to moral unrest.” He adores musicals but isn’t above slaughtering some sacred cows: Everything Rodgers and Hammerstein touched, he says, “turned to dessert.”

His jazz background enables him to make fascinating historical asides, as when describing a three-minute scene with Duke Ellington in the 1930 blackface Amos ‘n’ Andy vehicle “Check and Double Check”: “Ellington wanted Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys to handle the vocal part, but as the producers would not allow white singers to share the stage with a black band, a mike was set up for the trio to sing behind a curtain and three band members lip-synched their chorus for the camera, prefiguring the climax of ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ ”

The lead essay (as well as several other pieces) mourns what is lost now that we do more and more of our movie watching at home. The elegiac tone is set by the book’s dedication page, which salutes nearly three dozen of New York’s bygone movie theaters. Giddins’ disappointment can make him sound like a scold: “Nothing in the history of America’s long disregard for its schizophrenic architectural style is more disheartening than the wanton destruction of these magnificent tributes to art and monopoly.”

But Giddins is actually ambivalent. He realizes that DVDs and streaming allow us to watch our favorite films pretty much whenever we want and that the popularity of DVDs has led to the discovery of forgotten gems. (The book takes its title from that of “a little-remembered marvel of German Expressionism” from 1923, first released on DVD in 2006.) And while home video is no substitute for the theatrical experience — “only in a crowd is the viewer borne away on waves of joy and sorrow and recognition,” Giddins writes — it’s certainly an undeniable joy, one that keeps cinema’s past alive.

“With its glorious vistas, clanking battles, luminous colors, thumping Miklós Rózsa music, and haunting climax, unfolding in 70-mm grandeur like a living tapestry, it was cinema as circus — an enveloping, emotional, big-movie event,” Giddins writes of Anthony Mann’s “El Cid.” “The DVD, good as it is (a clean 35-mm transfer with stable colors, impenetrable blacks, vivid audio), can no more replicate that experience than a gift-shop poster can capture a Vermeer. But it’s a lovely alternative.”

Levi is co-author of “The Film Snob’s Dictionary.”