BearManor Media recently published Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel ... The Uncensored Book Reviews of Classic Images' Laura Wagner, 2001-2010, which is the book to get for the classic film fan trying to decide ... which books to get.
Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel ... is an expanded compilation of Laura Wagner's monthly "Book Points" column in Classic Images magazine. But there's plenty here for the regular Classic Images reader too as Laura explains in her column inside the January 2010 issue:
This is not a rehash of my columns, though. Because of space limitations, language or editorial changes, some of my columns have been altered for publication in these pages. After all, Classic Images is a family paper, and some things may not be in good taste. For my new book, though, these things have been reinstated...
Also included are some of the hate mail I have received through the years from authors and friends of authors. These little missives are added in a "Laura's Note" after the appropriate reviews.
While the reviews are great, and there are over a hundred of them, Laura's introduction, "Into the Mind of a Book Reviewer," which mentions of several of her own favorite film book titles (Forties Film Talk by Doug McClelland, Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Peary, B Movies by Don Miller, etc.), was probably my own favorite portion of Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel ... This section was most responsible for my deciding to ask Laura Wagner a few questions, for as much as this trip inside her mind gives us, it also made me wonder about a few other things with the result following below.
A final point before we get to those questions. If you're not yet familiar with Laura Wagner you should know that her book reviews inside Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel ... are far more than straight reviews of the titles in question. While Laura certainly imparts her opinion, good or bad, with no holds barred, inside each entry you'll also find details about the films and their stars piled up in support of her review or, very often in the case of the bad titles, in support of the book's subject matter--defending the stars themselves. At times I found myself rooting for bad reviews just so I'd have the opportunity to read more content from Wagner.
Thanks very much to Laura Wagner for taking the time to answer my questions. Having read the book I was left wondering specifically about some of her processes, how she spots all that detail and how her reviews come together--
Q: Your knowledge of film history seems somehow beyond encyclopedic. In the forward to Let Me Tell You How I Really Feel... your Classic Images' editor Bob King credits this to the incredible scope of vision you've developed over the years. But what your reviews show is that far beyond the typical items which are certain triggers for you, you have a razor-sharp eye for items some might consider trivial: misspellings, release dates, proper studios, etc.; which absolutely amazed me. While I'm sure a good deal of this is that scope of vision, an intrinsic knowledge at this point, many authors, who should have a greater grasp of their subject matter than you do, are seemingly incapable of catching what you catch.
My apologies for the long-winded lead-in, but finally, just how do you manage to catch all that you do?
Laura Wagner: When I read a book to review, I do not have any sources around me. I’m not bragging, I just don’t have to consult anything. Why this is so? When I was younger, I used to write down every single movie I watched. With each movie I put the date, the stars and the directors. I made sure that each and every one was spelled correctly. When I saw the movie again, which I would try to do, I would take out this little book and marked off that I saw it again. I have a VERY good memory for movies – nothing else, just movies! I would “see” the spellings and the dates, know the studios; it was information that never left me as I grew. On my lunch hour in school I would read movie books, every day. After school, after homework, I would take out my Halliwell book and read the entries on the actors. At a young age I started to “correct” my movie books, no lie!
Reviewing books, especially encyclopedias, it’s like a shot in the gut when I see something wrong – a speed bump. I’m obsessive by nature, too. I notice “small” things that maybe a normal person wouldn’t … I can’t enjoy a book filled with junk. And if I see numerous mistakes on the first several pages, it puts me on my guard and I notice even more!
Q: Expanding on this, can you describe a typical critical reading from the time you receive a title up through the point where you begin putting your review to paper?
LW: It is very boringly basic. As I read, I make notes – mistakes, lines I like or don’t like. I never read the publicity that comes with each book or other reviews. I don’t want to be swayed by what others think while I’m writing. I then start to write from memory what I think about the book and then begin to mix in my notes. If the book is really, really bad, I might go online and check out reviews so I can make fun of them in MY review! The publicity is a good tool for that, too. I write my reviews directly on my computer; the notes are the only thing I write down.
Q: The reviews in your book pretty much form the basis for my own 2010 reading list. I was lucky enough to have each a few titles you liked and a few others that didn't fare so well under your eye. I was happy to see that I agreed with your verdicts and so now there are several titles that you've convinced me I must hunt down at any cost and others that I'll avoid altogether. Inside your reviews for some of the lesser works you've stated a fear that such titles become commercial successes and fuel misinformation for future generations of film fans. Beyond the obvious dreck how do you recommend the layman spot the garbage on their own?
LW: First, don’t consult Amazon or Barnes & Noble reviews. When it comes to movie books, most of those reviews are written by friends and enemies. Ask people you trust about a book, read excerpts. Sometimes on Google book search or even Amazon you can search the books and read a little. Look at the person’s rep. We know certain authors are full of baloney! If it’s filled with scandal, you know the author isn’t interested in giving a well-balanced picture of the subject.
Q: Naturally the bigger the star the more attention they garner from biographers as time passes by. You panned titles about Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Humphrey Bogart (among others) in your book, could you point readers towards better existing alternatives?
LW: Truthfully, I’ve never been happy with any book about Grant or Stewart. I LOVE Chrystopher J. Spicer’s McFarland book about Gable and the A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's Bogart book cannot be beat. Same with Anne Edward’s Early Reagan. I prefer biographies that mix personal and professional lives; I don’t like a dismissal account of the movies.
Q: Last question isn't really a question but an open forum for you. Is there anything that didn't come up that you'd like to share with classic film fans?
LW: Be careful: Just because it’s a major publisher does NOT mean that it’s good or trustworthy. Most of the publishers out there don’t know anything about movies and they do not employ fact-checkers. Some of these writers don’t care about films – I often wonder if they even watch them. We, as movie fans, have to stand up and say, “We want respectable information on movie stars.” Having a warts-and-all approach is great - if it’s true. Sexual fantasy has been taking over the biography market. Some fans are curious so they buy the books – mistake! We shouldn’t support these smut peddlers. Just sayin.
And, yes, I read every single word of the books I review. I find it awful when fellow reviewers skip around and read just the publicity. I WILL NOT WRITE PUFF PIECES! I am NOT here to promote your book. I've panned books from authors who thanked me in their acknowledgments.
Too many book authors are status-conscious, worried that if they like a movie not considered a “classic” everyone might think less of them. Well, *I* think of less of them for their so-called high-brow attitude. I LOVE movies. They are my life and I am ALWAYS thinking about them. Sad, but true. And I adore talking with people who feel the same way. I like the classics, but how wonderful to discover or revisit a little gem that gets no recognition that is filled with players that, for some reason, aren’t as celebrated as Cary Grant or Orson Welles or Bette Davis.
When I write my articles for CLASSIC IMAGES and FILMS OF THE GOLDEN AGE and my columns, I think of something my friend and mentor, Doug McClelland, related to me. He was doing an article on actress Maris Wrixon. A friend asked him, “Why are you wasting your time on Maris? No one has ever heard of her. Why don’t you write about Bette Davis?” Doug replied, “Because Maris needs it; Bette doesn’t.” I live my writing life by this quote.
Laura Wagner became book reviewer for Classic Images in 2001, and has contributed to that title and sister publication Films of the Golden Age since 1995. Laura, with Ray Hagen, was co-author of Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames, a collection in which she covers Lucille Ball, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Adele Jergens, Ida Lupino, Marilyn Maxwell, and Marie Windsor.