Paulette Goddard and Fred MacMurray in 1947's "Suddenly It's Spring."1/2
Paulette Goddard and Fred MacMurray in 1947's "Suddenly It's Spring."
The cover photo for Steven Rea's "Hollywood Cafe" comes from Preston Sturges' 1941|Schiffer Publishing2/2
The cover photo for Steven Rea's "Hollywood Cafe" comes from Preston Sturges' 1941|Schiffer Publishing
About a third of the way through Steven Rea’s book “Hollywood Cafe: Coffee with the Stars,” one happens upon a picture of Humphrey Bogart sitting in a chair, a cigarette in one hand, a tommy gun in the other. Above him lords Lauren Bacall, looking at him with disdain while idly holding a cup of coffee. It’s not from one of their undying film classics; it’s from a rare 1955 TV production of “The Petrified Forest.”
“Few have ever seen it before,” Rea tells us. “It hasn’t been out there since the 1950s.”
The “newness” of many of the images isn’t the only thing that fuels “Hollywood Cafe.” It’s a collection of photos of stars, tied by one theme: coffee. Some are production stills shot on the set of Golden Age Hollywood films (plus a few modern-ish stragglers, like “Say Anything”). Others are staged publicity photos, creating a wholesome image of a period we now know to be even rowdier than today.
“There’s something about these photographs — the glamor of them, the artificial candidness — that really appealed to me,” Rea says. “It evokes an earlier, innocent time. They’re artificial at the same time they’re projecting something real.”
“Hollywood Cafe” is a sister book to Rea’s “Hollywood Rides a Bike: Cycling with the Stars,” from 2012, which featured exactly that. (He has since kept that one going with his popular blog, Rides a Bike, which he still updates.) Rea, who has been a film critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1992 (and an avid city cyclist), began collecting photos of that specific — yet oddly plentiful — subject, using dealers and archives to access images that are catnip to TCM addicts, like himself. It was only natural to do the same thing for coffee, another one of his obsessions.
Seeing obscure photos of people like Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable and John Wayne sipping java isn’t the book’s only thrill. It’s spotting plenty of names that may have been lost to history. One example is a striking image of Edward Nugent, star of “42nd St.,” with former child star Joan Marsh dunking donuts into mugs. Readers may also learn names like silent star Marian Nixon, sometime bad guy Victor Francen and character actor Steve Cochran.
He says even he could be stumped. “I’m not going to pretend I knew every actor or every film that’s in the book,” he admits. He says he always tried to track down the movie whose still he wanted to include, in part to make sure what the actors were drinking was really coffee. “Of course, there’s a W.C. Fields photo in there. Who knows what’s in that mug.”
Classic Hollywood films have always been popular, but the era seems to be particularly in the air right now. There’s Karina Longworth’s popular podcast “You Must Remember This,” about Old Hollywood stories, and this weekend the number two movie in America was “Hail, Caesar!”, set in the 1950s and concerning versions of old stars like Esther Williams, Loretta Young and notorious studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix.
“Turner Classics is always telling people their demographics skew much younger than you’d expect,” Rea says. “A significant chunk of their audience is people in their 20s and 30s and 40s — not people of the generation of the films they show. Part of that is fashion and style — the glamor of it, and the sexiness and self-possession of the actors. That’s something people look to now and find inspiring.
Watching films from that era can be liberating given how different Hollywood is today versus the era of the studio system.
“There wasn’t this target marketing that goes on now,” Rea explains. “There weren’t specific demographics the studios were going after. They had movies with Errol Flynn or Bette Davis, or there were ‘women’s melodramas’ or a World War II action movies. It was much more diverse in terms of what people went to see than today."
Steven Rea's "Hollywood Cafe: Coffee with the Stars" is now in bookstores
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge