THE familiar phrase "classical filmmaking" refers to an enormously wide range of activity, from conventional studio work to experimenting by cinematic innovators. New books on the motion-picture scene cover a wide swath of this diverse territory.
CHRISTMAS IN JULY: THE LIFE AND ART OF PRESTON STURGES, by Diane Jacobs (University of California Press, 525 pp., $30). Preston Sturges began his career with a 1929 stage play called "The Guinea Pig" and turned screenwriter the following year by contributing the dialogue for "The Big Pond," an amusing Maurice Chevalier musical.
But he didn't enter his greatest period until 1940 when he wrote and directed "The Great McGinty," a political comedy that blends knockabout comedy with a hearty dose of social satire.
He then concocted the equally hilarious "Christmas in July" and "The Lady Eve," examined his own filmmaking profession in the funny and philosophical "Sullivan's Travels," and guided superb star performances in "The Palm Beach Story," all within the next couple of years.
But events did not continue smoothly in Sturges's life. He alienated his favorite studio (Paramount) by mingling humor and history too unconventionally in "The Great Moment," ran afoul of producer Howard Hughes in "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," and waxed too sophisticated for everyday audiences in "Unfaithfully Yours," which bombed at the box office. By the late 1940s, he was a Hollywood has-been, and later projects failed to recoup his former glory.
Diane Jacobs is a first-rate critic and historian whose earlier books on Woody Allen and the "Hollywood Renaissance" of the 1970s are both authoritative and entertaining.
Sturges is a worthy subject for her talents - and for renewed interest by moviegoers, who will thank Jacobs for turning their attention his way.
THIS IS ORSON WELLES, by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum (HarperCollins, 533 pp., $30). Almost any critic will tell you that director Orson Welles was one of the definitive auteurs in Hollywood history.
Someone who wouldn't say that was Welles himself, who considered the story and the acting to be the truly important elements of any movie, with the filmmaker acting as the faithful servant of those ingredients.
This is one of the surprises to emerge from a series of Welles interviews conducted over a 10-year period by Peter Bogdanovich, himself an audacious filmmaker with an up-and-down track record at the ticket booth. The discussions cover pictures from "Citizen Kane" to "The Immortal Story" and beyond.
BONUSES in the book include a chronology of Welles's career, a summary of cuts and alterations made in his 1942 masterpiece, "The Magnificent Ambersons," and notes on each chapter by editor Jonathan Rosenbaum, who writes on movies for the Chicago Reader and is perhaps the most stimulating film critic at work in the United States today.
SHOWMAN: THE LIFE OF DAVID O. SELZNICK, by David Thomson (Alfred A. Knopf. 792 pp. $35). This whopping book studies a whopping producer whose output ranges from "Gone With the Wind" and "The Third Man" to "Rebecca" and "King Kong," to name only a few of the most legendary. Along the way, he found time to marry first Louis B. Mayer's daughter Irene, and later the glamorous star Jennifer Jones, and to collaborate with a fabulous list of directors including Orson Welles, George Cukor, John Huston, and Alfre d Hitchcock - the last of whom had an extraordinary relationship with Selznick.
ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS: THE MAKING OF CASABLANCA - BOGART, BERGMAN, AND WORLD WAR II, by Aljean Harmetz (Hyperion, 402 pp. $24.95). Film fans around the world know Claude Rains's famous line about suspects from "Casablanca," signaling that in Hollywood even a Nazi collaborator can see the error of his ways and repent in time for a happy ending. What's often forgotten is that this classic about World War II was made during World War II, a fact that lent its own dark drama to the filming process.
Aljean Harmetz reported on Hollywood for the New York Times for a dozen years - one result was "Rolling Breaks and Other Movie Business," a book of solid essays on the studio scene - before leaving that post to write this historical account.
Some critics have cited "Casablanca" as prime evidence that the classical Hollywood system could produce a masterpiece without benefit of a brilliant script, a brilliant director, or brilliant anything except a couple of dazzling stars and the fortuitous coming-together of many skilled professionals just doing their jobs the way they're supposed to. Then again, it's also been called a family reunion of cliches.
Either way, its zillions of admirers can only gain from a look at what happened behind the scenes, and Harmetz is a most reputable guide.