Book Review – “Showmen, Sell It Hot! Movies as Merchandise in Golden Era Hollywood” by John McElwee

This minor clash between old and new would have been one of many, as traditional ways of showmanship gave way to modern, more impersonal exhibition of filmed entertainment. What we come to celebrate, then, are the long-gone years when movies we now call classic were sold at both nationwide and grassroot levels to a public for whom they were brand new and untried. Some worked commercially, others did not, and very often, merit would have nothing to do with it.

One of the best film blogs on the internet and one I link to occasionally– whenever I can, to be honest–is Greenbriar Picture Shows. The layout is anemic, but the content is always fantastic. The author, John McElwee, has an encyclopedic knowledge of film connections, where they played, and how. Showman, Sell It Hot! is a lavish update on several blog articles, fully illustrated with period advertisements.

Every film has its story, not just in creation and execution, but in its labyrinthine existence after it leaves theater screens. McElwee’s book, while eponymously about showmanship, is also deeply fascinating by this afterlife. The book is also fascinated by presumptions, eagerly beginning with the silent era and moving through to how Bonnie & Clyde first saturated the South. Every chapter poses its own interesting question: Was The Wizard of Oz a huge flop on its original release? Did Val Lewton’s films save RKO? Why do some movies that flop out of the gate– like Citizen Kane— manage a resurrection? And just how was it that King Kong was one of the highest grossing films of the year– that year being 1952?

McElwee’s writing style is wholly addictive. There’s no circling around to explain the who’s or what’s of any given chapter– no hoary plots descriptions or even a dabbling in film theory. If one aside about Anna Sten flies over your head, catch your breath and keep going. All of his real opinions are tossed through witty asides, and his knowledge (and copious amount of numbers) are rattled off with a . This is a book for people who’ve seen every movie he’s talking about, or, at the very least, aren’t reading to learn more about them, per se.

What instead comes out is a fascinating glimpse not in the backlots but from the street corners. McElwee may as well have called it A People’s History of Going to the Movies for all of the focus on the day-to-day focus of what life was like for the average film patron. His stretch from the dust filled halls of the silents to the various smokey Broadway venues to up and down main streets across the country. Forward thinking distributors and even the genius who first thought of assembling a double bill of Dracula and Frankenstein (the results were massive) get loving and awestruck tributes.

You can read earlier versions of some chapters over at his blog– here’s a shorter version of his chapter on King Kong— but the fully illustrated nature of the book is reason to plunk down the heavy cover price. This includes some fantastic artwork– that Bird of Paradise advertisement will open your eyes, unless you’re too young, then someone should probably cover them. And the way that McElwee structures his book doubles as a way to let you see how advertising evolved over the decades.

Showmen, Sell It Hot is a great alternative– better yet, antidote– to the usual regurgitated film history that views movies as these large static giants and confines so many pictures to a dustbin marked ‘unimportant’. Why do some movies make money and others fail? And why do those failures endure while the successes fade into obscurity? It’s a tantalizing enigma, and this book helps to reinvigorate how one views the living, breathing world of cinema.


Reading level: Devotee.

Length: 268 pages, full color.

Showmen

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2 Replies to “Book Review – “Showmen, Sell It Hot! Movies as Merchandise in Golden Era Hollywood” by John McElwee”

  1. I applaud your phrase “the usual regurgitated film history that views movies as these large static giants.” No kidding! Movies should move — and so should movie history. The making of the average movie is often as entertaining as the movie itself. But you wouldn’t think so after reading the leaden prose of some historians. John McElwee is the happy exception to this rule. This is an excellent book.

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