The best books on Hollywood history

Why am I passionate about this?

Not only am I fascinated by old Hollywood history, I’m also interested in the creative processes that produce great art. Everyone approaches their craft a little differently, and it’s always illuminating to discover how different people do what they do. In my own work, I like to explore how creative people come to their Eureka! moments, and hope that I’ll be able to learn something from their experiences.


I wrote...

Book cover of Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation

What is my book about?

This book is about the early decades of animation history and the larger-than-life artists who created some of the most iconic characters of the pre-television twentieth century, including Felix the Cat, Bugs Bunny, Popeye, and Betty Boop. Ultimately, it’s a story about rival artists competing to outdo each other and set the standards for an emerging art form. Readers will discover the unique creative processes employed by such geniuses as Walt Disney, the Fleischer brothers, Chuck Jones, and many more. It’s a tale of business, art, and the rise and fall of creative empires.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Moon's a Balloon

Reid Mitenbuler Why did I love this book?

This book opens with an absolutely breathtaking passage, one of my favorite openings in any book ever. One imagines Niven narrating his memoir poolside, gripping a cigarette and a martini in the same fist, his pince-nez mustache dancing up and down while he describes, in sordid detail, old-school Hollywood at its most louche. If you want a book that brings alive the atmosphere of a bygone era, this is it.

By David Niven,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Moon's a Balloon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

David Niven is remembered as one of Britain's best-loved actors. The archetypal English gentleman, he starred in over ninety films. He is equally remembered as the author of this classic autobiography. In his first volume, he remembers his childhood and school days, his time at Sandhurst and his early army service. He recalls America during the prohibition era and days in Hollywood before the Second World War. Of the war itself, he tells of family life back in Britain and his time on the front line in France and Germany. THE MOON'S A BALLOON is a wonderful record of a…


Book cover of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

Reid Mitenbuler Why did I love this book?

This is a richly layered book that stacks stories upon stories, as if they were Russian nesting dolls. Using five films that were nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar, Harris dissects a waterfalling cascade of cultural trends happening in America at that time—all of them somehow revealing themselves in these five movies. At the core of this book is a story about generational change, as old Hollywood was ushered out the door and new creative types took over the industry.

By Mark Harris,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Pictures at a Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Pictures at a Revolution is probably one of the best books I've ever read in my life.” —Quentin Tarantino

The New York Times bestseller that follows the making of five films at a pivotal time in Hollywood history

In the mid-1960s, westerns, war movies, and blockbuster musicals like Mary Poppins swept the box office. The Hollywood studio system was astonishingly lucrative for the few who dominated the business. That is, until the tastes of American moviegoers radically- and unexpectedly-changed. By the Oscar ceremonies of 1968, a cultural revolution had hit Hollywood with the force of a tsunami, and films like…


Book cover of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

Reid Mitenbuler Why did I love this book?

Sam Wasson is simply a good writer, crafting tight narratives that help this book read like a novel. The best part of this book is its examination of the creative process: in order for Chinatown to get made the way it did, a million (maybe two million) things needed to align in just the right way. The movie easily could have failed, but Wasson shows how the contributions of its many collaborators saved it.

By Sam Wasson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Big Goodbye as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sight & Sound's #1 Film Book of 2020

Chinatown is the Holy Grail of 1970s cinema. Its ending is the most notorious in American film and its closing line of dialogue the most haunting. Here for the first time is the incredible true story of its making. In Sam Wasson's telling, it becomes the defining story of its most colorful characters. Here is Jack Nicholson at the height of his powers, embarking on his great, doomed love affair with Anjelica Huston. Here is director Roman Polanski, both predator and prey, haunted by the savage murder of his wife, returning to…


Book cover of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood

Reid Mitenbuler Why did I love this book?

Using detailed portraits of the moguls who built Hollywood, this book tracks the rise of an industry while also telling a unique story about American business and culture. It bristles with insights, particularly about how the moguls (almost all of them immigrants) helped create and amplify many of the popular narratives that Americans tell about themselves. It’s wonderfully written, scholarly but not dry, and serves as a time machine taking you back to a fascinating era in our national history.

By Neal Gabler,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked An Empire of Their Own as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A provocative, original, and richly entertaining group biography of the Jewish immigrants who were the moving forces behind the creation of America's motion picture industry.
 
The names Harry Cohn, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Jack and Harry Warner, and Adolph Zucker are giants in the history of contemporary Hollywood, outsiders who dared to invent their own vision of the American Dream.  Even to this day, the American values defined largely by the movies of these émigrés endure in American cinema and culture. Who these men were, how they came to dominate Hollywood, and what they gained and lost…


Book cover of We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Film

Reid Mitenbuler Why did I love this book?

This is a page-turner book that I can easily imagine being adapted into a movie of its own: one of those story-behind-the-story kind of affairs. At its heart, this book is about using stories to address current social and political issues (something that is often done with a ham fist). In the lead-up to WWII, most movie studios were too cowardly to offend Germany, Europe’s biggest market. But with Casablanca, Warner Bros. decided to fight back. It’s a lesson we could use again today, as American movie studios meekly cower before Chinese censorship demands. Their behavior is pathetic, but this book could help remind them what courage and integrity actually look like.

By Noah Isenberg,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked We'll Always Have Casablanca as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Casablanca is "not one movie," Umberto Eco once quipped; "it is 'movies.'" Film historian Noah Isenberg's We'll Always Have Casablanca offers a rich account of the film's origins, the myths and realities behind its production, and the reasons it remains so revered today, over seventy-five years after its premiere.


You might also like...

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope – about figuring out where you belong, finding your way there, and living a life that matters.

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Hollywood, film, and the film industry?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Hollywood, film, and the film industry.

Hollywood Explore 119 books about Hollywood
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The Film Industry Explore 49 books about the film industry