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Hooray for Hollywood

Book highlights mail’s starring role

Archivist Barbara Hall and filmmaker Rocky Lang collaborated on the new book “Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking.” Images: Abrams Books

What did cinematic stalwart Joan Crawford think of sultry starlet Marilyn Monroe?

How did dashing Tyrone Power feel about putting stardom on hold to join the Marines during World War II?

Was there ever any doubt that suave Sean Connery was the right man for the job of bringing superspy James Bond to life?

To take a revealing look at Hollywood history, Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall didn’t focus on the big, bold images that have long flickered on the silver screen.

Instead, filmmaker Lang and archivist Hall, both with deep roots in the movie industry, turned to words — immersing themselves in correspondence from a bygone era when mail was a dominant force in interpersonal communication.

Their collaboration has led to a new book, Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking.”

Complete with detailed images of more than 130 letters, memos and telegrams dating from 1921-1976, the compilation explores personalities, joys and struggles behind the scenes in Tinseltown, involving stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Marlon Brando; studio power brokers such as Samuel Goldwyn, Jack L. Warner and David O. Selznick; and iconic films such as “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” and “Sunset Boulevard.”

“One of the things that always surprises me about reading letters is how well people in earlier generations expressed their thoughts and feelings on the page,” said Hall, who spent more than two decades as an archivist and oral historian for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“This was exactly what we wanted to capture in the book, which we hope provides insights both into the film industry and into the relationships between the people who lived and worked in Hollywood.”

The project had its genesis several years ago when another academy archivist contacted Lang — who grew up in Hollywood as the son of an actress and a high-profile agent turned studio executive — to share a newly discovered letter written by Lang’s father at age 24.

Jennings Lang had just moved to California in the late 1930s, and he contacted a top literary agent, H.N. Swanson, in hopes of getting a meeting that could provide a foothold for the future:

“Mr. Swanson, you have a reputation for being one of the best agents in Hollywood but more important you’re a fine man. … Ten minutes with a young personable attorney, with years of drama and screen criticism experience, and with a living desire to imitate you and your position might not prove boring. Please see me?”

“I was blown away,” Rocky Lang said. “You can see my father’s whole life before him.”

Lang envisioned a book that would appeal not only to fans of vintage Hollywood films, but also to descendants of the pros who made movie magic happen.

“The sons and daughters of these icons were so moved,” said Lang, who teamed up with Hall to navigate what was unfamiliar terrain for him: poring through archival materials and preparing epistolary gems for publication. “To hear the voices of your loved ones through letters is a powerful experience.”

Hall, too, finds family connections to be a significant aspect of “Letters from Hollywood.”

“I hope the book encourages readers to appreciate how important written correspondence was before the advent of e-mail and Twitter and to save any family letters they do have so that future generations will understand how essential letter-writing was to the fabric of everyday life,” she said.

“Even though letters have taken a back seat to other more immediate forms of communication, I hope they don’t go away entirely,” Hall added. “There is still something special and personal about a letter that is not present in a tweet or a text.”

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