When I was a teenager I was a bit of a movie buff, spending most of my Saturday afternoons at the local fleapit (‘The Savoy’!) watching whatever latest disaster film was showing. I would often go with schoolmates (in whose company I first discovered Russia and its Revolution via a re-run of ‘Doctor Zhivago’); but I was a bit of a loner at times and happy to go on my own too. However my real passion was Old Hollywood, in the form of the black and white movies of the classic years. A Bette Davis season on BBC2 was a real treat; if there was anything on with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, I was in heaven; and the highlight of our family visit to Los Angeles when I was 15 was getting to see Groucho Marx’s star on the Hollywood Boulevard. So really, I’m the perfect audience for today’s #ReadIndies book: “Cary Grant’s Suit: Nine Movies that Made Me the Wreck I Am Today” by Todd McEwen, from Notting Hill Editions.

This picture really doesn’t do justice to the loveliness of NHE books – I mean, the quote text is actually pale blue!!!

NHE should need no introduction; purveyors of most beautiful little cloth bound hardback editions devoted to the art of the essay, they’ve appeared on the Ramblings many, many times. Their latest book is penned by Todd McEwen, who hails from Southern California and has had a varied life working in radio, theatre and the rare books trade; after relocating to Scotland in the 1980s he worked at Granta, and now works editing and teaching as well as writing (he has a number of novels to his name). In “Cary Grant’s Suit” he takes a look back at his life as a movie addict, and the book is a joy from start to finish!

McEwen grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, in a normal street in a normal little Californian town; but was a stone’s throw away from the source of his celluloid dreams. A 1950s childhood was by necessity overshadowed by the aftermath of WW2, and McEwen and his friends were consumed by cinematic visions, re-enacting their current favourite, drawing their games from the on-screen action and living for those visits to the picturehouse. His book is structured around his memories of growing up with film and specific movies which are still lodged in his heart; however, it inevitably goes further than this, capturing a lost world, perhaps a more innocent one, as well as a time when cinema really was magnificent.

Some of the fun in sight gags comes from a love of destruction which is not very healthy, and these days it’s way out of control: the only movies most people now attend are nothing more than a series of explosions. Cats, houses, children, women, men, dogs, cats, cities, Russians and dinosaurs of all kinds all blown to bits in increasingly sadistic ways. Because we westerners, Americans in particular, hate and fear ourselves and the physical universe we have created. And so we should.

It has to be said that I’m not a fan of the modern movie, which frankly mostly seems to me to be a version of the computer game; so I find myself in sympathy with McEwen’s outlook. He starts by exploring Laurel and Hardy shorts (which I do love, though Mr. K is an even bigger fan); runs through such classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Casablanca and Chinatown (which he’s apparently seen 61 times – so far…); and explores the effect of technicolour, the humour of Jacques Tati and the sheer exhaustion of tramping round Scotland under the influence of The Thirty Nine Steps. There’s The Wizard of Oz, White Christmas, and of course Cary Grant himself – or rather, his immaculate suit, which manages to survive all of the dramatic action in North by Northwest with barely a crease! The latter piece is particularly entertaining; I never would have thought of looking at the film in terms of the leading man’s costume, but it actually is a fascinating study!

McEwen is a wonderfully humourous commentator, and I find myself laughing out loud at several points in the book. However, under the wit is such a genuine love of films and indeed the movie making business in general; McEwen seemed to make it a habit whenever he could to visit the projectionist’s booth; and although at several points he rues the fact that there was a lost opportunity to become involved in the movie business, films have obviously really affected his life!

When I was seven, I was going to be an Egyptologist, the skipper of a submarine, or a projectionist, which would have in some ways incorporated the other two: a projectionist unlocks certain aesthetic mysteries, and he also has at his command a lot of valves, switches, levers and bells. And there’s a bonus, as for a motion picture projectionist the possibility of being crushed to death on the floor of the sea or dying in agony from an ancient curse is somewhat reduced.

“Cary Grant’s Suit” was a treat from start to finish; I found myself empathising with McEwen all the way through, with his tales of his obsessions with movies, his deep dives into how those infatuations made him feel, and in places, with the sheer detail of his observations about the films. I’ve had obsessions with particular movies in the past, where I’d seen them so often that I could practially recite the dialogue, where I began to study the backgrounds and sets more than the action at the front of the shot, and so I totally get where he’s coming from. The book is also a wonderful paean to old Hollywood, to those classic, beautifully filmed, stunning works of art which can still hypnotise – it’s quite clear how much McEwen loves those movies. He’s also a very astute critic and I found his observations always spot on.

One thing I find with Notting Hill Editions is that, whatever the subject of their books, the quality of the essays and writing is aways superb, and that’s definitely the case here. McEwen is a funny and entertaining commentator, writing with real love about his life and the films which formed him. “Cary Grant’s Suit” was a wonderful read, and another success for #ReadIndies – really, what a wonderful month of reading it’s been!

And to round up this post in the way Madame Bibi Lophile often does, i.e. with a song, here’s a tune with which I was obsessed when it came out, and the black and white imagery in the video was the icing on the cake!

“Cary Grant’s Suit” is out today from Notting Hill Editions; many thanks to the publisher for the review copy!