Maltin’s Movie Guide: The End of an Era

9 Sep

I’ve had a copy of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (or TV Movies as it was originally called or Movie and Video Guide as it was later called) by my TV set since sometime in the early 1970s when I got the very first edition, published in 1969, as a bonus from some movie book-of-the-month club. Maltin was already well known among film students and buffs at the time for the magazine Film Fan Monthly and assorted film books that he’d already had published by his early 20s, including the very first book I bought from that book-of-the-month club, The Disney Films (1973), which offered an in-depth survey of feature films produced by the Walt Disney Studio from 1937 to 1973. He would add more incredibly useful film books to his accomplishments in the years that followed, including Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Shorts and The Great Movie Comedians. Once they started publishing the Guide regularly, I would get a new edition every year and give the older one away. It was useful to have a handy guide where you could find cast members, running time, year of release, director, brief description and critical overview from a trusted source. This was at a time when you had to rely on TV Guide’s movie listings and various newspapers’ TV pages for whatever info was available on each film being shown on TV. Those listings were often provided by reviewers with absolutely no appreciation for the genre films my friends and I loved so much. I can’t recall offhand the scathing dismissals these films got, but they were pretty infuriating. Actually, I remember one. For the film, FROM HELL IT CAME (1957), the New York Times listing simply said, “Back send it.”

Well, we learned last month that the 2015 edition of Maltin’s Guide is the last one to be published. Thanks to internet sources of information, the average viewer no longer needs a print edition of the Guide handy. Such viewers tend to have a smartphone or laptop at the ready and can look everything up on IMDB or Wikipedia when they need to, so they’re not buying Maltin’s Guide anymore. The problem, however, with IMDB is that you have to hope that someone who knows what they’re talking about has actually posted a comment on the film in question. Sometimes you have to read a number of reviews (in cases where the films have accumulated multiple reviews) in order to determine what the consensus is, and hopefully find a reviewer with similar tastes as yours. This is certainly helpful, but it’s a bit more time-consuming than consulting Maltin.

Maltin’s Guide has long had its strong points and its weak points. One big problem I had with the Guide, especially the early editions, is the short shrift given to a lot of the regular fare on TV at the time. Westerns from the 1950s usually got a one-sentence plot synopsis and that was it.

This is all that’s said about the Randolph Scott western, THE BOUNTY HUNTER (1954): “Scott is on his horse again, this time tracking down three murderers.”

And the Guy Madison western, THE HARD MAN (1957): “Madison is earnest sheriff who falls in love with murdered rancher’s widow.”

And DAKOTA INCIDENT (1956): “Indians attack stagecoach, leading to fight to the finish.”

Now, I’ve only seen parts of THE HARD MAN (and liked what I saw very much) and have yet to see either of the other two, but I daresay that most of us who watched westerns on the Late Show so many years ago (and on Encore’s Western Channel today) would like a little more than that to go on.

Even an Alan Ladd historical adventure, DESERT LEGION (1953), a film I like a lot, gets reduced to one sentence:

“Mild Ladd vehicle of battling French Foreign Legion in a lost city; co-written by Irving Wallace.”

At some point it became obvious to me that a lot of the films covered simply had not been screened for the Guide. And how could they all be screened? Many films hadn’t been shown on TV in years and were not easily tracked down for screening in the pre-home video, pre-internet era. And I can’t imagine Maltin ever having the budget to rent films on 16mm to screen on a projector at home. Someone had to base a review on their memories of it or, if they hadn’t seen it, on contemporary reviews of it. You could always tell when someone had actually viewed a film for the publication and when they hadn’t. Eventually Maltin recruited quite a good stable of contributors, including a number of prominent authors of film books themselves, including Alvin Marill, Rob Edelman, Bill Warren, and Jerry Beck. As new editions became regularized, it was clear that every new film released since the last edition had been screened and reviewed just for this edition. Also, as older films became newly available or released in newer, restored cuts, they were re-screened and the description/review revised considerably. And it was not uncommon for the Guide to go back and redo entries for films that had gotten short shrift in earlier editions.

Just compare the entries for BACKLASH (1956), a tough western directed by John Sturges and written by Borden Chase and starring Richard Widmark, Donna Reed, and John McIntire, in the 1990 and 1997 editions:

1990: “Widmark is only survivor of Indian massacre; knowing the whereabouts of buried treasure, he is object of outlaw manhunt.”

1997: “In the aftermath of an Apache ambush, Widmark (who believes his father was in the doomed party) and Reed (whose husband was killed in the massacre) become involved in a serpentine search for buried treasure. Plotty western written by Borden Chase.”

Maybe not the most elaborate rewrite, but it was clear that in the interim someone on Maltin’s staff of contributors had seen this film and designated it worthy of revision and provided an updated entry. THE RED PONY (1949) and LUCY GALLANT (1955) are additional films I found that got enhanced entries in later editions. Also, whenever new cuts of older films got released, the Maltin entries would reflect this, as found in later entries for MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), RED RIVER (1948), and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973), to name three.

Some entries had notable errors and, as far as I can tell, the ones I noticed were all corrected. E.g., the 1966 Italian spy spoof, MATCHLESS (1967), with Patrick O’Neal and Henry Silva, originally had this inaccurate, one-sentence description in the 1990 edition:

“American journalist is tortured in order to obtain information about a lethal chemical substance”

Eventually it was replaced with a somewhat more accurate one, as found in the 1997 edition:

“Dashing, romantic 007-like journalist is pursued for his knowledge of a chemical formula and his magical ring, which makes him invisible. Usual imitation James Bond potboiler.”

Still not wholly accurate since there’s no mention that the film is a comedy, but at least there was an improvement.

The Guide has had a few very opinionated contributors over the years. I’ve occasionally noticed some entries that were way out of line—negatively–with the general opinion on certain major releases over the last 30 years, but I didn’t make notes of them and didn’t find many of them when I looked through the different editions I had on hand in preparation for this write-up. I did find one that stands out. Here’s what they say about TAXI DRIVER (1976):

“To some, Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader’s perception of hell—as a crazed taxi driver’s vision of N.Y.C.—was brilliant. To us, this gory, cold-blooded story of sick man’s lurid descent into violence is ugly and unredeeming. Judge for yourself. Searing performances and Bernard Herrmann’s final music score are among film’s few virtues.”

I don’t know that history will come down on the Guide’s side on this one.

And among the films I like that got short shrift and were never updated are these:

I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU (1946)

SWAMP FIRE (1946)

DESERT FURY (1947)

THE DESERT HAWK (1950)

CROSSWINDS (1951)

CARIBBEAN (1952)

HURRICANE SMITH (1952)

TROPIC ZONE (1953)

MAN-TRAP (1961)

And these three:

Dale Robertson, Juanita Moore in LYDIA BAILEY (1952)

Dick Davalos, Jack Palance, Dennis Hopper, Lori Nelson in I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955)

Plus: four films I’ve written about in some detail in previous entries on this blog, each of which I feel got dismissed in Maltin and I’ve copied his entries here.

Two with Alan Ladd, that I covered here in my piece on Alan Ladd’s centennial on September 3, 2013:

CHINA (1943): “Pat wartime tale of mercenary Ladd who suddenly realizes his true allegiance while helping enemy.”

THE IRON MISTRESS (1952): “Spotty western adventure of Jim Bowie (Ladd) who invented the famed two-edged knife.”

One with John Payne that I wrote about here on May 28, 2012:

CAPTAIN CHINA (1949): “Often listless sea yarn of Payne, seeking out persons responsible for his losing his ship’s command.”

And a film I wrote about on June 30, 2012:

THE MOUNTAIN ROAD (1960): “Stewart is always worth watching, but this saga of American squadron working in China during waning days of WW2 is pretty flat.”

And his write-up of CHINA DOLL (1958), which I also wrote about on June 30, 2012, contains a major spoiler, the only such spoiler I’ve ever noticed in Maltin, which I’m not going to copy here.

Of course, the most egregious example of short shrift remains the 1948 comedy, ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?, which rates only a one-word writeup: “No.”

Okay, I’ve never seen the film so I don’t know how bad it is, but it’s got Veronica Lake, Mona Freeman and Pearl Bailey in it! Certainly that alone merits at least a one-time viewing.

 

 

Despite all that, the fact remains that the Guide gets it right way more often than wrong. In addition to the ones I cited above that got revised entries, here are some other films I like that got good write-ups, based on a quick perusal during my preparation for this blog entry:

THE MOUTHPIECE (1932)

BABY FACE (1933)

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933)

TARZAN ESCAPES (1936)

DR. BROADWAY (1942)

SYNCOPATION (1942)

THE MEANEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1943)

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945)

ELIZABETH OF LADYMEAD (1947)

DRAGNET (1954)

TARANTULA (1955)

FLAMING STAR (1960)

ONE, TWO, THREE (1961)

THE T.A.M.I. SHOW (1964)

THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964)

TOPAZ (1969)

A BETTER TOMORROW (1986)

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)

LICENCE TO KILL (1989)

TRESPASS (1992)

ONE FINE DAY (1996)

300 (2007)

I could probably cite hundreds more if I had the time.

Here are four typically concise and helpful entries:

TAP ROOTS (1948): “Oddball venture into GWTW [GONE WITH THE WIND] territory, with Van [Heflin) and Susan [Hayward] as lovers in progressive Mississippi county that says it will secede from the state if the state secedes from the union! No big deal, but watchable, with Karloff as an Indian medicine man.”


STORM WARNING (1951): “Feverish but engrossing story of a woman who discovers that her sister ([Doris] Day) has married a loutish Ku Klux Klansman. Good cast, with [Ronald] Reagan in one of his better roles as a crusading D.A.; co-written by Richard Brooks.”

99 RIVER STREET (1953): “Rugged crime caper with Payne caught up in tawdry surroundings, trying to prove himself innocent of murder charge. Unpretentious film really packs a punch.”

TARANTULA (1955): “Scientist [Leo G.] Carroll’s new growth formula works a little too well, and pretty soon there’s a humongous spider chewing up the countryside. One of the best giant-insect films, with fast pacing, convincing special effects, and interesting subplot detailing formula’s effects on humans. That’s Clint Eastwood as the jet squadron leader in final sequence.”

This last one is quite a contrast with the sentiments conveyed in the book that was Maltin’s chief rival on the market, Steven Scheuer’s Movies on TV. I don’t have my one copy of that handy enough to quote directly, but I remember one entry declaring that “most” 1950s horror/sci-fi movies were “junk.” Not exactly a good strategy to endear your product to young movie fans in the 1970s.

One problem with the Guide that I noticed over the years was the fact that they removed titles from later editions. It took me a while to figure out that made-for-TV movies were being cut from later editions, and then I learned that old movies that weren’t considered renowned classics were routinely being removed also, so I had to search my apartment to find past editions of the Guide that had all those listings. The oldest one I found is the 1990 edition, which I’ve kept by my TV ever since. I eventually learned, fairly recently, that Maltin had compiled all the old movies into one new volume, Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, but I never saw that in stores and never picked one up. When I finally did see it, on a trip yesterday to buy the newest edition, I decided that $25 was too much to pay for information that I already had in other editions.

Salvaged from the scrap heap because of its Made-for TV listings

One of the great things about the Guide was the opportunity it provided to simply go through it and discover films I hadn’t previously heard of. If I wanted to do that with another authoritative source, such as bound copies of The New York Times film reviews, I had to go to the library to do that. Maltin’s Guide was film history in a nutshell. Besides, it’s much harder to do that kind of perusal on the internet.

In any event, I’ve got my latest Maltin by my TV and use it regularly to look things up when I don’t want to get up and turn on the computer (there’s only a desktop in my house, no laptop or smartphone). I’ll miss the Guide, but I have my older editions when I need them and can always look up newer films on IMDB.

 

 

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