Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A Tale of Two Winners

Now here's a duo you don't see every day. Joan Crawford and Shirley Booth were both nominated for Best Actress Oscars in 1953. Sudden Fear, a suspense thriller, was Joan's latest success in a career spanning more than 75 movies. Shirley, on the other hand, was nominated for her first feature film, Come Back, Little Sheba, reprising a role she'd originated to great acclaim on Broadway.

As most movie buffs already know, Shirley took home the prize on the evening of March 19, 1953. According to syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, however, Crawford was an extremely gracious loser, spending much of the evening "burning up the coast-to-coast wires" in an effort to reach Shirley in New York. When all other efforts failed, Joan roused one of Miss Booth's apartment house neighbors well after midnight, "turned on the long distance charm, and actually talked the sleepy fellow into getting out of bed ... and shuffling upstairs to slip a message of congratulations under Shirley's door."

For more about Shirley's triumphant night, see Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Andy Clyde Reels in Laughter

Most movie fans know that Columbia produced short comedy films starring the Three Stooges for more than 20 years. But how many of us are as familiar with the studio's second-longest series of short subjects, starring comedian Andy Clyde? Those films are overdue for a fresh appraisal, and author James L. Neibaur does the job beautifully with his newest book The Andy Clyde Columbia Comedies (McFarland).

Clyde was still in his thirties when his short subjects popularized his characterization of a befuddled, sometimes grouchy old man whose comedic travails included domineering wives, interfering mothers-in-law, and shiftless brothers-in-law. A gifted slapstick comedian, he could perform physical comedy that belied his old-man image.

Neibaur, who has written extensively on classic film comedy, provides a well-researched and insightful study of Clyde's work. Unlike many writers and film historians, he can pin down on paper the elusive magic of a laugh, analyzing what makes a scene or bit funny without seeming pedantic, or killing the joke. The author considers how individual writers and directors enhanced, or detracted from, Clyde's comedy. He also examines the impact of studio budget cuts on the later films, which often recycled footage and ideas from previous shorts.

Those who already appreciate Clyde's comedy will be delighted by the new information (and rare illustrations) they'll find in Neibaur's book. It's also recommended for fans of Columbia comedy in general, as there's much to learn here about how the studio and its short subjects unit operated. As for me, I knew little about Clyde's work prior to reading this book, but now I'm anxious to seek it out. And isn't that the mark of any successful film book?

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

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Business of Laughter

If, like me, you're an admirer of that quintessentially American art form, the situation comedy, you'll want to pick up a copy of Paula Finn's insightful, smart, and funny Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind the Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy (Rowman & Littlefield).

It's a compelling book of interviews with the likes of Matt Williams (Roseanne, Home Improvement), Dava Savel (Ellen), James L. Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore), and, of course, the aforementioned Messrs. Reiner and Lear. Ms. Finn brings an unusual insider's perspective in that her father -- to whom she pays tribute in a charming preface -- was sitcom writer Herbert Finn, whose credits include The Honeymooners and (be still, my heart!) The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna. 

I had already read one fine book of interviews with sitcom writers, Scott Lewellen's Funny You Should Ask, which I reviewed about five years ago, so I wondered if the newer work would cause an attack of deja vu. Surprisingly, there isn't that much duplication between the two books in terms of interviewees, although Lila Garrett, Bill Persky, and a few others grace both volumes. Ms. Finn's book skews a bit more toward recent TV history, including shows that ran into the 21st century. But don't let that mislead you: there's plenty here for the classic sitcom fan to savor. And while Lewellen presented his book in an oral history format, organizing the material by topics (working with actors, shows that failed, etc.), Ms. Finn conducts full-length interviews that cover her subjects' careers and experiences in depth. A nice touch is her periodic inclusion of sidebars, in which a colleague of the writer being interviewed adds a different perspective on the shows discussed.

I'm frequently reminded that, when it comes to capturing the type of firsthand memories that Ms. Finn's book contains, the clock is always ticking. Sitcom Writers Talk Shop is a valuable piece of television history.

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Witch Hazel?

If you've spent enough (OK, too much) time watching Screen Gems sitcoms of the 1960s, you've probably noticed the frequent use of exterior shots filmed on the Columbia Ranch. Looking closely during those outdoor scenes of our favorite TV families, it appears that Hazel and the Baxter family are neighbors of Bewitched's Sam and Darrin Stephens.

Back then, crossovers between shows weren't as common as they later became. And in this case, George, Dorothy, and their irrepressible maid were residents of NBC's subdivision, while Samantha's spells were cast over ABC. But I found myself imagining the chaos that could result if our two heroines met and became pals.

Sam, especially in the earlier episodes, could have picked up a few tips on cooking the mortal way from the maid whose meals always won raves. But while Hazel was already renowned for her take-charge ability to get things done, imagine how she could up the ante with a little help from everyone's favorite witch?

HAZEL (as George walks in from another tough day) "Ain't it hot today, Mr. B? But don't you worry none. While you was at the office, I installed a swimming pool in the backyard."

As for that nasty Deirdre, just let her try insulting Hazel now! "How'd you like a free trip to outer space, Miz Thompson?"

Aren't you glad I wasn't a TV producer in the Sixties? Maybe I'd better go lie down for a while.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Blyth Spirit

Mildred Pierce and Hostess cupcakes? If that's all you know about actress and singer Ann Blyth, who turns 90 years old today, you've missed out on a lot.

Yes, she played the incorrigible Veda in Joan Crawford's noir classic Mildred Pierce, giving a performance that netted her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. And, indeed, younger viewers may remember her TV commercials of the 1970s. But there was much more to this versatile lady's life and career, as you can find out by picking up a copy of Jacqueline T. Lynch's book Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. This month, in honor of Ann's milestone birthday, the eBook version of the book is a steal of a deal at only $2.99.

Although the basics of the star's private life are covered, Lynch devotes much more space to Blyth's career. A lengthy and incisive essay is provided for each of her films, even the lesser ones. Since many are not readily accessible on DVD, Lynch gives us thoughtful commentary that helps us better understand the range of roles Blyth played, and appreciate the nuances of her acting style. Unlike many film historians, Lynch doesn't neglect or downplay Blyth's work in other media. There's ample coverage here of career achievements in radio, television, and stage (actor-singer Bill Hayes contributing some valuable reminiscences of their joint concert appearances).

Ann Blyth is now one of the last major survivors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Jacqueline T. Lynch's book pays her the tribute she deserves, and some overdue recognition as well. Happy birthday, Miss Blyth!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Connie's Special Occasion

Here's wishing a happy birthday to actress and singer Connie Stevens, born August 8, 1938. After achieving fame with her co-starring role in Hawaiian Eye, she was cast as the star of George Burns' new comedy series Wendy and Me, debuting in 1964. With Gracie Allen having retired (she passed away that summer), Wendy and Me represented Burns' effort to promote Miss Stevens as a similarly zany, quirky comic character. The results were surprisingly effective, but the series was stuck in a tough time slot and dropped after one year.

For more about Wendy and Me, and its charming star, check out my book Lost Laughs of 50s and 60s Television.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Before Hazel, There Was Jenny

Shirley Booth on TV, playing a domestic servant? Gotta be Hazel, right? Wrong!

Only a few months before her popular sitcom premiered on NBC, Shirley starred in "Welcome Home," a one-hour drama presented on the critically-acclaimed anthology series The U.S. Steel Hour. N. Richard Nash's script cast the star as Jenny Libbett, devoted housekeeper to the suburban Austin family for 25 years. Now the Austins have raised their children, and are eager to sell their house and travel. Only one question remains -- what to do about Jenny, whom they no longer need? As Shirley noted, "They can't just discharge her after all these years."

Reviewing "Welcome Home" when it aired in March 1961, columnist Cynthia Lowry called it "a gentle wisp of a story. But it became warm and funny and sad with Miss Booth's acting magic ... It was a sentimental and delightful hour, and even had a happy ending." And it surely left viewers wanting more. Luckily, a lady named Hazel Burke was waiting just around the bend.

You can read more about this intriguing actress, her hit series Hazel, and the rest of her illustrious career in my book Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record.