Slim Pickens

The Oxford Companion to Film

edited by Liz-Anne Bawden
Oxford University Press, 767 pp., $24.95

The Filmgoer's Companion

edited by Leslie Halliwell
Avon, 4th ed., 873 pp., $6.95 (paper)

According to The Oxford Companion to Film, Chester Conklin (d. 1971), Charlie Ruggles (d. 1970), composer Leigh Harline (d. 1969), and art director William Cameron Menzies (d. 1957) are actually all still alive. This is not widely known. Nor is it a familiar fact that Charlton Heston is “a well-known liberal,” an epithet that might have seemed more appropriate when William Cameron Menzies was known to be living. The Oxford Companion also alludes to William Bendix’s “distinctive rasping voice with its thick Brooklyn accent, sturdy build, and craggy features,” which ought to surprise everyone. Bendix’s death (1964) is recorded, but we are told nothing of his distinctive voice. Is it still living? Does it know where Chester Conklin is?

The encyclopedist of film does not have an easy job. Historians of the other arts can classify with ease; they have respectable standards to direct their compilation. The scholar of film history has nothing to guide him but his own preferences and the dictates of fashion, and he had better dispense with these if he aims at comprehensiveness. Cinema is still too young to have generated trustworthy principles of selection. We still have trouble explaining why a film is good or bad, or whether it is dated or inept. While the literary historian can dismiss Charles Lever and Elinor Glyn and discuss George Eliot and Arnold Bennett, the film historian has to include Archie Mayo and Jackie Cooper along with François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Because film is such a fluid and capacious medium, however, it will probably never offer solid criteria. What seems trashy in one context seems worthwhile in another. Depending on one’s point of view, John Ford is either a vulgar jingoist with a repulsive maudlin streak or a skillful visual artist with a subtle sense of history. Jerry Lewis embarrasses millions of Americans with his spastic mugging, but is exalted by the French as a masterful auteur. Furthermore, a clever director can redeem a limited actor by highlighting certain traits for special purposes. The wooden Tim Holt appears in dozens of routine productions, but Orson Welles and John Huston use him effectively in The Magnificent Ambersons and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Stanley Kubrick and Mel Brooks allude to the energetic malice of the Three Stooges. Whatever the range of their own abilities, Holt and the Stooges earn further consideration from the use of their characteristics by greater talents. An editorial assessment of these actors’ worth is irrelevant: they are ubiquitous figures, and so deserve inclusion in any compendium of film history.

Moreover, the capricious nature of the film industry makes final judgments still more difficult: “uneven” is the aptest word to use in appraising most cinematic contributions. Zasu Pitts is a versatile actress under Erich von Stroheim’s direction, then twitters into obscurity as Gale Storm’s sidekick on television. Andy Griffith, Eve Arden, and Robert Cummings also end up haunting reruns after delivering impressive performances in movies. Stars have to please big audiences and big…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.