Historical Dictionary of American Cinema

Author: M. Keith Booker

Even at 477 pages this A-Z book is just a skim read of the history or canon of Hollywood and American cinema covering Eadweard Muybridge’s stop motion photographs through to Avatar (2009) and therefore has a lot of ground to cover. I don’t think that there is much here for anyone with any knowledge on cinema meaning there is nothing that can really be learned from this tome for cineastes. As a reference book there is probably more to be learnt and gained from owning any of Halliwell’s huge reference books instead. However, author M. Keith Booker has attempted to set the films within their historical and political context, but unfortunately there is not enough scope to do that here. The format is still in keeping with other books in the series but I can’t help thinking that different topics, including other national cinemas the reader can drill down more in the way of context. This is not the fault of the author just the expanse of the subject – maybe drilled down into decades and a series of volumes would make the book better. For example the collection of the silver covered books spanning 10 volumes titled ‘History of the American Cinema’ published by California Press is a complete and thorough study of this subject and had to be to cover the subject even though it only goes up to the 1980s. However, in keeping with the series there is a decent year by year chronology which is perhaps more effective in breaking down this history.


Of course there are always going to be omissions from the book, there will always be those films missed from either biographies or genres or even individual films. For example on the part on James Cagney for me it was a shame that Mister Roberts (1955) doesn’t get a mention, for my money Cagney’s best non-crime film performance or that Frank Sinatra isn’t given a special mention whereas other entries are names not known before. But that is the point – films you favour over others may not get a mention and from that sense while the established canon is largely there, there will always be someone new to the canon. Yet even Hitchcock doesn’t come off scot free as Vertigo (recently voted in a BFI pole as the Best Ever Film) is the only one of his films given special mention and surprisingly Psycho (1960) isn’t. The genre of film-noir is given a thorough and concise write-up whereas other areas such as horror and science-fiction are broken down as even fantasy or monster movies, but in the bibliography these are under science-fiction and horror.


The introduction is too thin and there is not enough space or room to give credit to the development of American cinema and does appear something more like a list. While it gives a nod to the pioneering development of Thomas Edison it doesn’t pay enough due respect to the early French pioneers and the part they played in the development of cinema and how or more precisely how America picked up the baton and ran with it. In contrast to this cursory introduction is the extensive but of course by no means exhaustive bibliography at the back of the book which is perhaps the most useful part of this reference book. Following an introduction to the bibliography this part of the book is split into sub-headings beginning with a general biog of cinema studies followed by specific periods, studios, genres, themes, individual films and those who starred in or made the films. This is particularly useful to those who want to search further information even if, as already mentioned this is by no means exhaustive. The major problem with this though is that these are predominantly only American publications intended for American readers. The target audience for this book are film buffs or under graduate students with perhaps a newly acquired interest and can certainly of no use to scholars. But at over £50 I’m not sure whether this is in the affordability range to a general interest reader.


Chris Hick

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