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Movie Man: Take a crash course in Hollywood history

Will Pfeifer

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about Hollywood that covered its history from different angles — directors, actors, the various studios, even cinematography — but I’ve never seen one quite like “Moguls & Movie Stars.” What it does is take what would seem to be the dullest possible angle — studio bosses — and somehow make it fascinating.

Stretching from the days when Thomas Edison first cranked up his camera to the decline and fall of the studio system in the late 1960s, “Moguls & Movie Stars” keeps things fresh by focusing on the personalities behind the scenes.

In the early days, no one knew what this fad of moving pictures might lead to, which meant that backyard inventors and guys looking to make a buck formed the backbone of what would become the movie biz. Those early chapters of the documentary are the most interesting because they’re the least familiar. By now, everyone has heard of Louis B. Mayer and Warner Bros. and the heyday of the grand and glorious Hollywood studios.

Those stories have been polished so many times they’re as shiny and worshipped as Oscar himself. But the early days of the movie biz — before it even moved to Hollywood — are still largely unknown, and hearing about the crazy, greedy, wise and foolish men (and, in a few cases, women) who got the ball rolling is fascinating.

Even the later chapters, which cover the more well-known topics of the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of television and the end of the studio system, are worth watching because they include those subjects as part of a larger story, the biographies of the men (but, by this time, no women) who ran the studios. Their personalities had a lot to do with the movies their companies made, and learning about their lives means learning about the history of the movies themselves.

“Moguls & Movie Stars” originally ran on the Turner Classic Movies channel, and it’s been collected here in a snappy little booklet that contains three DVDs (with all seven episodes of the series) and a booklet of stills and background info.

It’ll fit nicely on your shelf, which is only fitting — it’s a history book, after all, and a darn good one, too.

Make room in your collection

Some new DVDs out Tuesday:

“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”: Parents of teen girls, get ready to get sick of this concert movie/documentary. I have a feeling it’s going to be in constant rotation on your DVD player.

“No Strings Attached”: Natalie Portman followed her Oscar-winning performance in “Black Swan” with this critically slammed romantic comedy co-starring Ashton Kutcher. Natalie, you should ask Cuba Gooding Jr. how those sort of career choices worked out for him.

“Black Death”: Does Sean Bean — who also starred in “The Lord of the Rings” and appears on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — appear in anything these days that doesn’t require him to carry a sword? Because he carries one in this movie, too.

“Blue Valentine”: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams won rave reviews for their acting in this dark depiction of a marriage falling apart.

“I Saw the Devil”: This Korean revenge drama got a lot of buzz at film festivals for taking serial killer violence as far as it could go. Are you tough enough to watch it?

“Something Wild”: Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith star in what seems like a nice, innocent romantic comedy — until a very scary Ray Liotta shows up.

“Almighty Thor”: Not, I repeat, NOT to be confused with that “Thor” movie that just opened in theaters. This is a cheap, straight-to-DVD knockoff. And it’s on TV Saturday (See “On the Tube” on GO, Page 2.)

“Chop Kick Panda”: And, to continue the theme, not, I repeat, NOT to be confused with the “Kung Fu Panda” sequel that opens May 26.

And CDs:

The Cars, “Move Like This”: After a few years of touring as “The New Cars” with Todd Rundgren in the driver’s seat, the famed power pop band returns with Ric Ocasek at the wheel.

Black Label Society, “Song Remains Not The Same”: Does Led Zeppelin know about this?

Randy Newman, “Songbook 2”: If your kids love Randy Newman’s theme for the “Toy Story” films, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” they might like this CD. And then again, they might not. His other music is a lot darker and stranger than those movie songs.

Urge Overkill, “Rock & Roll Submarine”: This is the first new CD from the Chicago rockers in 16 years. Remember when their cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” was a big hit on the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack. I’ll bet they sure hope you do.

Matthew Morrison, “Matthew Morrison”: Matthew Morrison wins the “Least Imaginative Album Title of the Week” award — obviously.

Sources: thedigitalbits.com; tophitsonline.com

Contact Will Pfeifer at wpfeifer@rrstar.com or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/movieman/.