by Nick Thomas
It’s Friday night, time to relax on the sofa with some munchies and an old flick. So you flip on Turner Classic Movies to find Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable trading punches among the burning oilfields of Texas. The movie is Boom Town, one of the most popular films of 1940. Suddenly an older actor appears on screen: high forehead, neat moustache, a jovial fellow—you know the face and the characteristic huckster voice. “He was the wizard in The Wizard of Oz,” you mumble to yourself, scratching your head, frantically trying to recall the name that’s lodged on the tip of your tongue.
Pity you didn’t invite Laura Wagner over to share your popcorn. She could have told you in a heartbeat the actor’s name was Frank Morgan.
Wagner’s encyclopedic knowledge of classic films is remarkable. An author and reviewer of books on film for several magazines, she first became interested in movies as a small girl growing up on Long Island. She kept a journal with meticulously detailed records of all her favorite actors and their movies, as well as production dates, co-stars, directors, and film plots.
“When I was 6, I loved to watch Godzilla movies,” says Wagner, 40, from her Suffolk County home near Rocky Point, where she has lived her entire life. “I also liked the popular classics such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane and my favorite big star was Bogart, but I really loved the B-movies, film noir, crime and horror films.”
It soon became clear to her teachers that Laura’s interest was evolving into a passion.
“I remember a teacher came in one day and was very upset because the last Marx Brother had just died,” recalls Wagner. “I said ‘Oh no, not Zeppo!’ The teacher was amazed because none of the other kids knew who the Marx Brothers were, let alone Zeppo!”
And while other fourth graders were writing essays about their summer vacation, young Laura would explore lofty film-related topics such as the history of the Fleischer animation studios, a competitor of Disney, where classic cartoons such as Popeye were produced.
To date, Wagner has now amassed a personal collection of more than 22,000 DVDs and videos, two closets and a dozen bookcases filled with film books, and thousands of movie photographs.
Nine years ago, Wagner was invited to become the book reviewer for Classic Images, a popular publication for fans of classic films. She relished the daunting task of reading and reviewing up to 10 books on film each month.
Like her childhood journals, Wagner’s book reviews reflect her obsessive nature about film details. But authors shouldn’t let Wagner’s petite 5-foot-3-inch frame and blue-green eyes deceive them. When it comes to book reviews, she’s a piranha with a taste for sloppy writers who don’t do their homework, and her brutally candid comments have made some authors very unhappy.
“I read every word of every book I review,” says Wagner. “Too many writers get their facts wrong, misspell names, rehash long movie plots to fill up space, and recount scandalous stories without offering a shred of proof. Most of these authors have never even seen the movies they write about. Why not call them on it?”
That she does, according to Bob King, editor of Classic Images and its sister publication, Films of the Golden Age.