Review by C.J. Bunce
For both film buffs and a new generation of a movie fans, a definitive guide to the most influential film directors–spanning a century of Hollywood creativity–will soon be a fixture in libraries everywhere. Turner Classic Movies/TCM and film writer Sloan De Forest, author of TCM’s Dynamic Dames (reviewed here) and TCM’s Must-See Sci-fi (reviewed here), chronicle 58 directors, their works, and influence on the filmmaking in TCM’s The Essential Directors: The Art and Impact of Cinema’s Most Influential Filmmakers. From Charlie Chaplin to Steven Spielberg, these are the directors that film aficionados will be unlikely to quibble with. Some made their marks as household names, others are legendary auteurs, while others provided a singular film or image that has made them synonymous with Hollywood royalty. From epic dramas, to laugh-out-loud comedies, readers will find TCM’s Essential Directors as the go-to source for the heavy-hitters behind the biggest movies in history.
Perhaps ten percent of the guide introduces directors you may not have heard of from the Silent Era to the decade when Outsider visionaries infiltrated the studios–women and people of color whose work stands the test of time, but haven’t been given due weight in previous chronicles. De Forest includes those who fell out of favor with audiences over the years, too. For the bulk of directors chosen, you may be able to recite them off the top of your head: DeMille, Griffith, and Lang, Capra, Fleming, and Hawks, Cukor, Curtiz, Ford, and Huston, Sturges, Welles, and Wyler, Hitchcock, Wilder, and Wise. Their movies are a history of cinema in the United States.
Just because De Forest has (mostly) objectively included the cream of the crop doesn’t mean readers won’t have plenty to wrestle with–those directors that routinely make similar lists and subjectively make discerning individuals’ eyes roll are here, too. More controversial directors whose work is well-established, from Kazan to Polanski and Allen to Bogdanovich are here, with De Forest to defend their status along with quotes from later directors who were personally influenced by their movies.
Director Peter Bogdanovich provides introductory comments for TCM’s Essential Directors, with De Forest’s introduction identifying her approach and a brief foreword penned by TCM’s Jacqueline Stewart. It will come as no surprise that viewers of TCM’s decades of nightly Essentials programming will find commonality among this book and previous entries in the TCM film library, including 52 Must-See Movies That Matter and 52 More Must-See Movies That Matter. What is not discussed is why the author stops her book with Steven Spielberg as the final entry. Is it because more recent films are stretching the subject matter beyond TCM’s television scheduling? It’s a smart move from an historical standpoint, as the approach gives readers some 40 years to look back and assess these creators. But you can imagine an additional chapter could have pulled in Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee for starters.
Each director gets five pages, with the focal point those three or so key projects that merit inclusion in the book. A surprisingly great number of pages feature photographs of the director working or posing with cast members behind the scenes of major films, most in black and white because of their era, but some in color. A final page includes a list of key films and a single scene that exemplifies why the director stands apart from others. The lists of films alone are an interesting way for readers to dig into the book. Comparing directors with a phenomenal catalog of films with the breadth and scope of content, genre, and style really seems to set apart the likes of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Michael Curtiz, John Ford, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Wise, and Sidney Lumet–even from this elite group.
Other tidbits will keep you reading on, like the fact that if you’re a director with “Von” in your name, you probably just made it up.
TCM’s Essential Directors may be De Forest’s best book on film yet. It’s an informative, almost encyclopedic entry in the TCM film library. TCM’s Essential Directors is available for pre-order now here at Amazon, from publisher Running Press. It’s scheduled for publication in November. And don’t forget to check out other books in the TCM library reviewed here at borg: Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, 52 Must-See Movies That Matter, 52 More Must-See Movies That Matter, De Forest’s Must-See Sci-Fi and Dynamic Dames, Forbidden Hollywood, Christmas in the Movies, Fright Favorites, and Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics.