Alistair Cooke at the Movies, Edited by Geoff Brown

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The Independent Culture

Alistair Cooke wrote about the cinema for 75 years – most of his career, in fact. He started, inevitably, as an undergraduate reviewer at Cambridge. Then, in 1934, he managed to snag a BBC job as the only broadcasting film critic in Britain. Cooke was an authentic buff, not a dilettante: in 1940 he claimed to be seeing around two dozen films a week. He was alive to mise-en-scène – the formal qualities of cinema – and his reviews were studded with detailed observations on camerawork, editing and lighting, as well as acting and storylines.

His tastes were very particular. It should come as no immense surprise that his focus was on the American rather than British or – heaven forfend – subtitled cinema: "Though Hollywood needs smacking all the time, Hollywood is my baby and I'll defend it till death do us part."

Eighty years ago, for most Britons, the US was as unreachable as the moon; the popular image of this exotic land was a movie-fuelled fantasy. In his review of The Thin Man, the 1934 MGM comedy starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, Cooke – who had spent several years in the US on a student fellowship – reflects amusingly on his readers' aversion to all things Yankee. One common complaint against his writing on Hollywood releases was that "You didn't warn us that it was in a foreign language!"

This 300-plus page anthology spans the scripts of Cooke's Cambridge reviews, his BBC radio talks, his magazine pieces, and reports and interviews from Hollywood. After the Second World War broke out, he had to abdicate his duties as a full-time critic, but continued as a keen-eyed observer of the movie scene. As editor Geoff Brown notes, Cooke's film-going was key in igniting his fascination with America. After he went to live there permanently in 1937, he had the luxury of exploring that fascination. His life-long love affair with that country and his passion for cinema meshed perfectly.

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