Book Review: They Coulda Been Contenders: Twelve Actors Who Should Have Become Cinematic Superstars

Here is a commentary on a book I have wanted to do for about a year, but life kept interfering. That is sort of what happened with a few almost superstars spotlighted by Daniel Van Neste in his book, They Coulda Been Contenders. Do not let the delay of this review detract you from getting your hands on the book, however. This latest from Mr. Van Neste, whose Magnificent Heel I enjoyed immensely, is an informative, enjoyable journey into the lives and careers of twelve notable actors who either missed the top echelon in Hollywood altogether, or couldn’t quite stay there.

Classic film fans know the majority of the names of the Contenders spotlighted in the book. Particularly interesting are the ones whose work I am less familiar with like the important discovery for WB in 1937 Gloria Dickson, but her story is one of lost promise and talent everyone would find interesting. A beauty from Pocatello, Idaho, Dickson had an all-too-brief career, which culminated with her film debut in Mervyn Leroy’s They Won’t Forget in 1937, but ended abruptly with her death in 1945. The handsome John Hodiak is another contender who had all the features for a long-lasting career as a leading man, but died suddenly at the age of 41. Hodiak was in in his prime at MGM, Hollywood’s most prestigious studio.

Not all of the Contenders in Van Neste’s book had careers end by death. Claire Dodd, “one of the best at playing other women roles in the 1930s” gets attention in Contenders. The beautiful Dodd, who had a talent for playing villains, walked away from the business in 1942 and rarely looked back. Other promising players include Marian Marsh, Karen Morley, Edward Norris, and Paula Raymond whose stories are as interesting as Nancy Carroll’s, Gloria Stuart’s or Jean Parker’s, but are less known. Speaking of Jean Parker, given her substantial beauty and on-screen grace, Parker’s lack of career trajectory is most surprising to me. Her career had reached its zenith by the time she was 21. At that time, her association with MGM ended and she became a supporting player in “B” movies. Perhaps what is most surprising about Jean Parker not becoming a top star is the fact that she is great in all movie genre always delivering believable performances. Oh well. It is our loss, but at least Mr. Van Neste gives her due in this volume.

The all-too-brief rise and fall of Nancy Carroll as told my Dan Van Neste is also supremely interesting. Carroll had all the makings of a huge star and for a time she was, beloved by audiences for her vivacious movie turns excelling is musical comedy. She starred in seven Paramount releases in 1929 alone. Yet, not long after her fast ascension to the top, she was on her way down. By the end of the 1930s she was a Hollywood has been. It is fascinating stuff and Van Neste is a compelling storyteller. I could go on and on with stories about swashbuckler Richard Greene or great movie scoundrel Zachary Scott as told in They Coulda Been Contenders, but it is best you experience them on your own.

They Coulda Been Contenders is a collection of twelve essays edited from their previous publications in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age and it will no doubt acquaint you with several compelling Hollywood stories. It will also leave you wondering about a few of these careers compared to how much you enjoy the actors in their movies. They Coulda Been Contenders makes for a great holiday gift for the movie fan in your life, by the way.

A thank you to Ben Ohmart at BearManor Media for my copy. I have – and will – refer to it often and bet you will too. Finally, a happy 30th writing anniversary to Dan Van Neste. I enjoy your work.

4 thoughts

  1. Thank for this review. It sounds a great book and I’ll look out for it. I must say that if Richard Greene had stayed in Hollywood, my childhood would have been poorer. I remember well in the 1950s-60s running home from school on Fridays to watch him in ”The Adventures of Robin Hood”. One Hollywood actor who died too soon to fulfill his potential was Robert Walker who was such a convincing psychopath as Bruno in ”Strangers on a Train”, yet so endearing in ”The Clock” with Judy Garland.

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