Another milestone has passed for me.  In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed the entire space program, the building and tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the range of audio recordings from 45s to the cloud–not to mention the periods of Vietnam and The Beatles.  Now, Leonard Maltin’s paperback Movie Guide is closing shop due to online film bases such as http://www.imdb.com/ and http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/ .

The above photo is of my own copy of the first 1969 printing, “for Movie Book Club members,” of Maltin’s TV Movies.  The 2015 edition will be the last.  Here is an article which documents the annual guide’s successful run, and mournful demise.  –SB

 

~

Requiem for a Heavyweight Movie Guide

After 45 years, Leonard Maltin is throwing in the towel, knocked out of print by digital competition.

At 535 pages, Leonard Maltin ’s first edition of “TV Movies” (published in 1969) was more than a compendium of pithy film reviews.  To a boy of 13, it offered the entire universe of movies—“more than 8,000,” the subtitle boasted—in one fat paperback.  When I flip through that tattered volume today and get a whiff of its browning pages, it transports me to the time when I could look forward to a lifetime of movie-watching.

Now, after a 45-year run, the series—renamed “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” and having swelled to 1,632 pages, two pounds and 16,000-plus entries—is at an end.  As Mr. Maltin ruefully acknowledges in the 2015 edition published in September:  “When a growing number of people believe that everything should be free, it’s impossible to support a reference book that requires a staff of contributors and editors.”

For those of us who love books and movies, and especially books about movies, the prospect of a cultural landscape without Mr. Maltin’s mammoth guide is bleak.  In the summer of 1970, after I bought the guide, America was experiencing its own desolation, riven by political, racial and generational conflict.

Film critic and author of 'TV Movies' Leonard Maltin
Film critic and author of ‘TV Movies’ Leonard Maltin Getty Images
~

“TV Movies” was the detour into adventure and romance I yearned for.  The first entry was from 1952:  “Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick,” starring Alan Young (future friend of Mr. Ed), Dinah Shore and Veda Ann Borg.  The names entranced me, even if Mr. Maltin’s judgment of the film was less promising:  “Innocuous musical satire of the city slicker trying to fleece innocent widow Shore. Unmemorable score.”

Mr. Maltin loved (and still loves) all kinds of movies.  He saw the merits of a 1936 Warner Bros. potboiler like “Bullets or Ballots,” as well as those of Yasujiro Ozu’s elegiac contemplation on aging and death, “Tokyo Story.”

At a time when real-world consensus had broken down, Mr. Maltin forged consensus in the make-believe world of films.  Almost anybody could assent to his evaluation of “Casablanca”:  “Everything is right in this WW2 classic.”  We might not agree with our parents about Vietnam, but we could all agree with Mr. Maltin about Rick and Ilsa.

When I was 13, my favorite film genres were comedy and horror, so I was delighted to find on the first page of “TV Movies” a favorable review of 1948’s “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”  Mr. Maltin gave it three stars as “a superb blend of comedy and horror.”  By the 1998 edition, he had added that the film “still works beautifully, mainly because the monsters play it straight.” (Trenchant film criticism in one line.)

The special pleasure of alphabetical guides is being able to impose your own order on the thousands of listed films—free to skip about randomly, darting from one entry to the next. Mr. Maltin’s entry for “The Magnificent Ambersons” (“ Welles ’s follow-up to ‘Citizen Kane’ is equally exciting”) led me to the entry for “Citizen Kane” (“a film that broke all the rules and invented some new ones”) and then on to every film Orson Welles directed.

Sometimes I’d get lost in a list of movies all beginning with the same word:  “Girl Crazy,” “Girl from Manhattan,” “Girl from Missouri,” “Girl in a Million,” “Girl in Room 13,” “Girl in the Kremlin,” “Girl in White,” “Girl in the Woods,” “Girl Next Door.”  But I also have a confession:  I was not always faithful to Leonard Maltin.

His success spawned imitators.  In the late-1980s, Nick Martin and Marsha Porter ’s “DVD and Video Guide” seduced me.  The entries were longer and edgier than Mr. Maltin’s, which had begun to seem just a trifle dull to me.

Yet his book’s sheer, comprehensive reliability continually brought me back.  When friends came over, we’d talk about movies and haul out the Maltin.  Then we’d be off:  “Four stars?” “Ridiculous!  Three-and-a-half at most.”

By the mid-1990s when the Internet Movie Database had begun to replace books as the go-to place for looking up films, Maltin-style conviviality with friends was slowly replaced by the faint fun of IMDb link-sharing.

No movie guide in book form, not even one updated annually, could keep up.  A year in cybertime is an eternity.  Perhaps there is something in our streaming, digitized, endlessly evanescent culture of pictures and pixels that abhors consensus and permanence.  I suspect that Mr. Maltin’s cheerful, tolerant view of movies also is anathema in our fractious times.

Mr. Maltin has never followed critical fads or had any agenda—other than celebrating good movies and urging others to enjoy them.  As with so many things of this world, we won’t fully appreciate what we’ve lost until his movie guide is truly gone.  His books thrived for such a long time because, like the monsters in that Abbott and Costello film, he played it straight.

Mr. Nason is a writer and film-lover living in New York City.

Advertisements