Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review: A Bunch More Characters

How many character actresses from classic movies can you name? Ten? Twelve? Those are paltry numbers to author Axel Nissen, whose third book on the subject, Accustomed to Her Face: Thirty-Five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, brings to an even 100 the number of talented players he's profiled.

The photos alone (some 60 of them) are worth the price of admission, showing these ladies in action doing what they did best -- supporting some of the biggest stars of their day, in classic films like The Little Foxes (Patricia Collinge), Rope (Edith Evanson), and Saboteur (Anita Sharp-Bolster). But the illustrations only scratch the surface of what this book has to offer. For this volume, as Nissen profiles some lesser-known players about whom information is scarce, the author digs deeper. In several cases, he offers a substantial amount of never-before-published genealogical research, throwing new light on the lives of actresses such as Libby Taylor, who worked for Mae West both onscreen and off. Not confining himself to just the usual films that we've all seen, he broadens the perspective, poking his nose into the likes of She-Wolf of London, where Sara Haden (best-known for the Andy Hardy films) had one of the bigger roles of her career.

This is no dry academic book, although it's scrupulously documented for those who need that. It's a book for those of us who love and appreciate old movies, and the performers who populated them. Nissen isn't the type of writer who just echoes what others have already said. When he doesn't like something -- like the classic Lost Horizon, which he terms "asinine" -- he says so, in no uncertain terms. But his lively commentary makes this an addictively readable volume, and never leaves us doubting that he loves the films of the Golden Age -- and these often underappreciated women who contributed so much to them.

NOTE: I was furnished a review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 26, 2016

What James Said


Film historian James L. Neibaur has written a few books -- okay, more than a few -- about the movies and stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He's especially noted for his expertise on classic comedy. (I consulted his book The Bob Hope Films while writing about Martha). So it was a delight to read his review of Martha Raye: Film and Television Clown, which he says "cover(s) her life and her work with insight and with detail." Thanks, Jim!

To read his full review, as well as his informed assessments of other recent performing arts books, go here.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Price is Right (Lower)

Joan Davis appreciates a good book, as you can see. But when you're looking for something a little lighter than a scientific tome on Einstein's theories, try my first book, The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms. Like the title says, you'll learn all about the leading female sitcom stars of early TV. Aside from Joan herself, the book spotlights Gracie Allen, Eve Arden, Spring Byington, Anne Jeffreys, Donna Reed, Ann Sothern, Gale Storm, Betty White, and, of course, Lucy.

If you've been thinking of checking out the book, now's a great time to do so, because my publisher, McFarland, has just given it a spiffy new (read: lower) price of $29.95. For the moment, you'll have to go to the publisher's website to get this deal. But Amazon and other online retailers should catch up with the new price shortly.

I loved writing about these talented ladies, and having the chance for exclusive interviews with Betty White and the late Gale Storm, as well as Eve Arden's son and others who worked with the talented ten. I hope you'll enjoy the book just as much.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review: Here He Is (By Himself!)

I was a Groucho Marx fan even before I knew much about the famous Marx Brothers as a group. That's attributable mainly to the 1970s syndicated reruns of You Bet Your Life (or, as it was retitled, The Best of Groucho), where I first appreciated the sardonic humor of the cigar-smoking Marx. So I was intrigued by the premise of Matthew Coniam's book, That's Me, Groucho! The Solo Career of Groucho Marx (McFarland, $35). As the subtitle suggests, Coniam's book gives us a new slant on Groucho's work by spotlighting the wide range of projects -- not all of them in the realm of comedy -- that he did without his illustrious brothers.

Those projects include You Bet Your Life, of course, but also a surprisingly varied lot of others: a television performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado, the stage play Time for Elizabeth (which Groucho co-wrote, with Norman Krasna)and films such as Copacabana (opposite Carmen Miranda, no less), and the groovy 1960s curiosity Skidoo, for director Otto Preminger. Often dismissed in a few sentences when other authors have written about Groucho's career, they receive full attention here, and the results are surprisingly illuminating. Also discussed is Groucho's authorship of books and magazine articles.

There have already been a lot of books about Groucho and his brothers, and I've read most of them. Take it from me: what Coniam offers here is not just a reshuffling of previously published material. He's done quite a bit of original research to inform his text, and has insightful comments to make about the career Groucho built for himself apart from his brothers. There's interesting commentary on the infamous Erin Fleming, and the live performances she managed for Marx near the end of his life.

This is Coniam's second book on matters Marxian for McFarland. I haven't read his first one -- but I think I will, now.

(No disclaimer needed today -- bought my own copy).

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Happy Labor Day!

In honor of our national holiday celebrating hard-working Americans, here are a few gainfully employed folks from classic TV:
Enjoy your weekend!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Happy Birthday, Martha!

Remembering a great lady, born 100 years ago today. There will never be another like her.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Unsung Mr. Litel

You can only watch classic films and TV for so long before you encounter busy character actor John Litel (1892-1972). The Internet Movie Database credits him with more than 200 roles, in a list that's almost certainly incomplete. Producers and casting directors knew Litel was the man to call if you needed a stern courtroom judge, a fearless military leader, or a stuffy career politician. He was also a great choice to play a firm but loving dad, as he did in the 1930s Nancy Drew movie series, and in Paramount's Henry Aldrich pictures of the 1940s.

Although Litel appeared in some genuine classics -- Jezebel, Dust Be My Destiny -- he also has a resume knee-deep in low budget and B movies. I'm not denigrating his work by pointing that out. In fact, I'm inclined to be impressed by anyone who can deliver such smoothly competent performances as he did, even under the most trying of circumstances. To me, John Litel represents the consummate professional. Judging from the sheer length of his credits list, I'm far from the only one who thought so.