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MOVIE BOOKS : You Oughta Be in Pictures

December 12, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

This is fantastic. I'm really in Hollywood! Look at the film people everywhere--I wonder what movies they're making. This is my dream come true. . . . I wonder if I'll appear in a movie myself!"

Those eager words were said not by a young and restless actor just off the bus or even by a movie-struck civilian fresh from the Universal Tour. No, that wistful voice belongs to one of the most celebrated and well-traveled of men, a been-there, done-it, nailed-it-shut kind of guy the world knows simply as Waldo.

Yes, the Waldo of "Where's Waldo?," with 24 million copies sold in 19 languages, has chosen Our Town for his first book set in a specific locale. WHERE'S WALDO IN HOLLYWOOD, drawn as always by Martin Handford (Candlewick Press: $14.95) has the tireless investigator of the human condition visiting sets for a Western, a Foreign Legion picture, even a musical version of his own story. The only thing missing is Waldo dodging the hookers and homeless people on the real Hollywood Boulevard, but that is presumably being saved for the next book.

That Waldo should come to Hollywood at all is an indication of the pull the movie business has on the imagination of the world in general and book buyers in particular. This holiday season shows no let up in film books available, and some of them are good enough to make even tireless Waldo stop moving and take notice.

Easily the most impressive and satisfying movie book of this or any recent season is, unfortunately, also the biggest and most expensive. THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE CATALOGUE: Feature Films, 1931-1940 (executive editor Patricia King Hanson, University of California Press: $185; 3,813 pp.) took a staff of 12 four years to compile, and it barely fits into three hefty volumes.

And no wonder. Nearly 5,000 American films of 40 minutes or longer are given complete casts and credits and described in extensive plot summaries that are at least as enjoyable to read as experience on screen. Take, for instance, the opening sentence of 1938's "The Wages of Sin": "Marjorie, a poor girl who works in a large laundry, is shunned by her co-workers because of her unkempt appearance." Adding to the catalogue's captivating delirium is a set of indexes (1,181 pages!), which let you know that "The Bowery" was really filmed in Playa Del Rey and that more films were made about Jews than Jivaros.

For those who want a few photos with their text (and why not, this is the movies after all) comes the equally encyclopedic FILM: An International History of the Medium by Robert Sklar (Harry N. Abrams: $49.50; 544 pp.). A heroic attempt to cover the world cinema scene, it succeeds remarkably well, and its inclusion of features on little-known but fascinating figures such as Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, or John Kitzmiller, the black actor who was a star of Italian neo-realist films, offers a sense of discovery even for those who think they've seen it all.

As with any endeavor that by its nature has to pick and chose, there are inevitably things to quibble with: no mention of Ava Gardner, for instance, versus an entire page devoted to the politically correct but otherwise uneventful "Daughters of the Dust." And Sklar occasionally uses phrase such as "a metaspatial world" that no one outside of academia will care to read. But this book's awesome thoroughness is continually impressive and makes the difference in the end.

Also attempting to be encyclopedic but with mixed success is THE VARIETY HISTORY OF SHOW BUSINESS (Harry N. Abrams: $39.95; 223 pp.). Rather slender for its grand title, this series of chatty, anecdotal essays by a variety of writers on key moments in show-biz history has the variable quality always associated with multi-author anthologies. The more narrowly focused essays, for instance the one on the importance of TV's "Julia" as a crossover event or "Jaws" as a marketing landmark, come off best.

Picture books are the heart of the Hollywood experience, and PHIL STERN'S HOLLYWOOD: Photographs, 1940-1979 (Alfred A. Knopf: $40; 115 pp.) selects this veteran Life photographer's best 85 shots from literally thousands of shutter snaps. The collection includes candids on the set as well as formal portraits, and the strongest, like Jack Benny and Marilyn Monroe caught incongruously in the same frame, have a poignancy that stays in the memory.

Much more playful are HOLLYWOOD DOGS and HOLLYWOOD CATS, edited by J. C. Suares (Collins Publishers: each $14.95; 78 pp.). Filled with eccentric and sometimes surreal shots of gregarious dogs and sensuous cats upstaging their more celebrated owners, these books manage to overcome their arbitrary origins with surprising ease.

Getting the last word here because they never get it on film are the movie's bad guys, more specifically THE DISNEY VILLAIN (Hyperion: $45; 232 pp.) as described by veteran animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two of the studio's legendary Nine Old Men. Though its gimmicky hologram cover is a major fizzle, the rest of the book is a thorough, well-illustrated and charmingly written look at the best of the beasts. Even the peripatetic Waldo better watch his step where these creatures are concerned.

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