Another item on the list of releases that excited me in late summer and early fall was Scandals of Classic Hollywood. For the two people who haven’t already heard me blather about Anne Helen Petersen, she wrote the Scandals of Classic Hollywood posts for The Hairpin, and now the series has been expanded into a book. Petersen is a person who many academics (myself included) would like to be: someone who makes a living by sharing her field with a wider audience in a relevant and entertaining way. Yes, this woman has a PhD and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry. She’s a doctor of celebrity gossip!
In the task of adapting her wildly entertaining articles into a book, Petersen succeeds in some areas and falters in others. Let’s begin with where she succeeds. To begin with, adapting is a misleading term for this project because she’s not just recycling Hairpin articles. Some of the stars, and I would assume some of the stories, make an appearance in both, but the book was crafted as a separate entity. The chapters are organized into volumes and arranged chronologically, allowing Petersen to explore particular themes and give a sense of the industry’s evolution on a scope that would be difficult to achieve in any one article. She guides the reader through each Hollywood era by connecting them to the rise and fall of specific stars.
However, if I were to list my favorite things about Petersen’s Hairpin articles, those qualities would be largely absent from the book. The articles’ greatest strength is her irreverent sense of humor. I can understand the need to remove ALL CAPS EXCLAMATIONS and jokes about her personal life, but I still expected the characteristic witty commentary that makes Classic Hollywood feel immediate and exciting. Instead her writing style for the book is more straightforwardly journalistic. Scandals of Classic Hollywood is entertaining and accessible, but it isn’t funny. Petersen’s articles are also full of photographs, and while I understand that photos are expensive to reproduce, I missed the visual element while reading about a visual medium.
In article form, Scandals felt like an enthusiastic friend telling you about her favorite movies. Although the book brings the enthusiasm down to a “professional” minimum, there were still moments that made me want to renew the old Netflix subscription. Most notably, the trio of chapters about Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean tell an intriguing, interconnected story about how these men changed the industry with their radical new acting styles. I also knew next to nothing about the relationship between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard before reading that chapter. These stories are probably basic to a Classic Hollywood buff, but Petersen provides a clear framework for readers just starting to explore the era.
I can’t recommend Scandals of Classic Hollywood as heartily as I had hoped, but I can still recommend it. The book was compelling enough that I want to resume my classic film viewing this winter. With any luck, I can resurrect my own Craving Classic Hollywood series.