That Was Hollywood: Review

Updated: Jul 26

Allen Eyles’s 1987 book That Was Hollywood: The 1930s chronicles exactly what its title suggests, the films produced in Hollywood and released nationwide in the 1930s. It examines the films, stars, and general trends in moviemaking and moviegoing throughout a decade of great highs and lows as the country sought to recover from the Great Depression and, by the end of the decade, had to contend with the growing shadow of war. The films from the 1930s, especially those from its final year, are widely regarded as some of the best ever made, and Eyles tracks these statistics.

I use the word statistics specifically because that is the general focus of Eyles’s book, rather than telling stories about stars or the production of the various movies. The book is split into chapters by year, with each section starting with a few pages providing the context of events in the country, world, and industry that were important to the films made in that year and the audiences going to see them. From there, Eyles proceeds to go through each month of the year and share the hit movies of that month, including a brief summary of each and any pertinent context. At the end of each chapter, Eyles shares the winners of Critics’ Choice polls and Academy Awards for the year.

That Was Hollywood is certainly different in format from the other books I read for the challenge this year, and it is even unique among most of the other film-related books I have read. So often, it seems like books on the movies of the 30s as a whole look at the Pre-Code era and then glaze over the middle to get to 1939 and its seemingly endless list of influential releases. However, Eyles devotes equal focus to the years in between, and by providing side-by-side comparisons of the movies released each month, avid film historians obtain a much more comprehensive understanding of the movies that were competing with each other at specific points and the choices audiences had in a given month and a year. In that way, I heard about many films I had never seen that I immediately added to my watchlist, ones that often may be lost in the shuffle of the films from the decade that may endure more today.

I concede that the unique format of Eyles’s book may not be engrossing for everyone. It is not written like a narrative, similar to many other books about movies or their stars. Instead, it is primarily a listing of films and statistics, which again may not be for everyone. However, as someone who loves such statistics and comparisons, I really enjoyed Eyles’s interesting take on studying the decade and its films. It has incredible potential for researchers of a particular era or film that falls in that period, providing a rich collection of information and moviegoing trends. In that way, it may be better as a contextual, informative book rather than an entertaining read, but I still consider it a worthwhile book for any classic film fan.

Instead, this is a book that sets out to provide some of the information that, as a film historian, I’ve always wanted to see; the precise order in which films appeared, what films were competing with each other, how well or badly they did.
Allen Eyles, That Was Hollywood: The 1930s, p. 6

This book review is part of Raquel Stecher’s Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see more reviews!

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