A couple of years ago, as a Christmas gift from both my blog “partner in crime” and our lovely “number one reader” (you know who you are), I received two of TCM’s compilation coffee table books: Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era, and its counterpart, Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era. These books are great conversation starters, as everyone has their own opinion about which stars really belong on such a list. But by no means are these books an exhaustive examination of studio-era talent … nor are they intended to be. Rather, these books serve as glossy introductory material for burgeoning classic movie fans looking for basic information about their favorite stars and their best-known roles.
The actors and actresses chosen for each book are not listed in any meritorious (ranking) order, but rather alphabetically, a structure with which I wholeheartedly agree. How impossible would it be to try to list the greatest actors and actresses of all time in order of perceived greatness? I mean, I know AFI’s attempted it, but don’t get me started on some of the whacked-out placements on their list. Judy Garland outranking Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur (and Jean didn’t even crack AFI’s list … what the hell)??? Fred Astaire ranked above Gregory Peck and Gene Kelly? I mean, I love me some Fred (Judy, not so much), but still … give me a break.
While I agree with many of the choices included in both of these books, there are several notable missing figures in each. Particularly, The Leading Ladies compilation leaves out the talents of skilled actresses such as Joan Fontaine and Judy Holliday in favor of odd inclusions like Debbie Reynolds–much as I love her perky schtick in films such as Singin’ in the Rain and Bundle of Joy, her repertoire was rather slight–and Marion Davies, who was more infamous for her love affair with William Randolph Hearst (whose publicity machine really made her a star much more so than mere talent) rather than her relatively short resume. And the omission of Shirley Temple, the biggest star of the 1930s, is puzzling. Though Temple did not make an ultimately successful transition from child star to adult actress, her stature within that decade alone towers over some of her older contemporaries who did make the list.
And the Leading Men collection is woefully incomplete due to the inexplicable inclusion of figures such as John Gilbert and Rock Hudson (though I do love some of the latter’s romantic pairings with Doris Day) at the expense of dynamic film personalities like Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau (whose seemingly-constant film buddy, Jack Lemmon, was rightly included), and Orson Welles.
Despite these unconscionable (in my opinion) exclusions, these books provide some wonderful biographical sketches and rare photographs of each star, as well as fascinating trivia bits and screen captures from their various films. In addition, a complete filmography on each actor/actress is included in the back of each book. Plus, each book includes insightful introductions from both Robert Osbourne and film critic (and former co-host of TCM’s The Essentials) Molly Haskell.
All in all, if you’re a classic movie nut like me, these books are a must-have, if only for the gorgeous photographs included inside. At the very least, there are some enjoyable nuggets of film trivia that even the most rabid fans may not already know.
Note: A new edition in this series, Leading Couples: The Most Unforgettable Screen Romances of the Studio Era, was released last year, highlighting the most famous on-screen couplings in classic film.