Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review: Produced by Pivar

Some of the most devoted classic movie lovers never get much past the biggest names and the best-known films -- the Hitchcocks, the Gone with the Winds, the Cary Grants. This book is not for them. Stop Yellin': Ben Pivar and the Horror, Mystery and Action - Adventure Films of His Universal B-Unit, by Thomas Reeder (BearManor Media), devotes its 500+ pages to movies like House of Horrors, Escape from Hong Kong, and Eyes of the Underworld -- movies made purely to entertain viewers for an hour or so, and generally completed on a tight budget and a brief shooting schedule. Because my appreciation for B movies has grown in recent years, I found it fascinating.

The author's research was extensive, and he had the active cooperation of Pivar's children in telling the story. The illustrations, including some one-of-a-kind family photos, are plentiful and eye-catching. Reeder strikes a healthy balance in outlining his subject's career, and evaluating his films. He doesn't make inflated claims for Pivar's output, nor does he disparage it unduly. When directors, actors, or technicians do unusually good work under trying circumstances, Reeder says so; he's equally honest (without being insulting) when the rear projection screen, or the spliced-in stock footage, is a bit too obvious. Fans of the 1940s Universal Inner Sanctum, Mummy, and Creeper movies will definitely want to get this, as they are covered in great detail.

This is a worthy addition to movie history, covering an area too often ignored.

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Miss Donahue at 80

Here's wishing a very happy 80th birthday to actress Elinor Donahue, born April 19, 1937. Whether you know her as Betty 'Princess' Anderson on Father Knows Best, Ellie Walker on The Andy Griffith Show, or any of her other hundreds of TV and film credits, there's no question she's built a successful and enduring career.

If you're a fan of her work, check out her memoir/cookbook In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue. Recipes aside, it offers some charming and funny recollections of her many roles and co-stars, as well as a look at her life with longtime husband Harry Ackerman, the veteran TV producer and executive. There's a lengthy, meaty interview with her in Eddie Lucas' Close-Ups: Conversations with Our TV Favorites.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Too Shocking for TV (1954 TV, That Is)!

The cover line caught my attention. "TABOO! What You Can't See on TV." No, the answer wasn't Liberace, whose smiling face occupied the cover of TV Guide's February 26, 1954 issue. Considering that Lucy Ricardo couldn't say she was pregnant on I Love Lucy a year or so earlier, obviously there were plenty of things you couldn't say or do on the airwaves at the time. But I was curious to see what else was on the list.

As TV Guide reported, NBC's Continuity Acceptance Department was responsible for vetoing anything dicey before it aired on that network. This included not only current programs, but also old movies making their broadcast debut. Here, as quoted in the article, is a summary of one month's transgressions:

"There were numerous deletions in comedy films of men losing their pants and such items as dogs spitting, a fat woman doing a shake dance, kids sticking their tongues out at each other incessantly, an animated tuba spitting, a cruel portraiture of an Old Ladies Home and the inmates of an insane asylum, some scantily clad harem girls..." Among the dialogue deemed unacceptable was, "Who in the flaming hell do you think you are?"

Well, there you have it. Check out today's TV, and see how much the world has changed in 63 years. Whether for better or for worse may be in the eyes of the beholder.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

April Storm

Born 95 years ago today, Josephine Owaissa Cottle, better-known to fans as Gale Storm, parlayed her considerable talent and charm, along with a lucky break on a radio talent contest, into a career as an actress and singer that lasted nearly 50 years.

For more than a year, I've been working on a book about Gale's life and career, which will be published by McFarland and Company in early 2018. Along the way, I've had the opportunity to interview colleagues and family members who contributed greatly to my understanding of a woman who captivated movie and TV audiences. I look forward to sharing the results with readers.

Although Gale passed away in 2009, I hope the book may encourage readers to seek out her performances, and enjoy what they see as much as I have.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Good Day

Wishing a very happy 95th birthday to multi-talented Doris Day, born April 3, 1922. I'm a great admirer of her work as a singer and actress, but I also appreciate her lifelong interest in animal welfare. Rock on, Doris!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: Nixon's Life to Live

I'm glad Agnes Nixon, who died last September at the age of 93, wrote her memoirs. She's an important figure in television history, and it's good to have her memories recorded in her own voice. I just wish I could have found the book more satisfying.

What I found most bothersome was the way this book skims the surface, studiously avoiding controversy and unpleasantness. Ms. Nixon once again relates proudly how One Life to Live, in 1968, did what was a groundbreaking story for its day: the tale of Carla Benari, a light-skinned African-American woman trying to find her way in a bigoted society. Ms. Nixon recalls the difficulty she and her colleagues had in casting the role, and the excitement she felt when they found Ellen Holly, who played Carla so beautifully. Included in the book's photo section is a picture of Tony-winning actress Lillian Hayman, who appeared as Carla's mother, Sadie.

What's missing is any acknowledgment of the poor treatment Ms. Holly says she received from producers at One Life, the low pay she received compared to her Caucasian colleagues, and the nasty way she and Ms. Hayman were fired when bigwigs decided the actresses, and their characters, were no longer useful. Whether all of Ms. Holly's allegations, which she made in her own memoirs and in Jeff Giles' excellent oral history of One Life, are true is open to speculation. But I was disappointed, as a reader, that Ms. Nixon utterly ignores the controversy, of which she was certainly aware. In fact, One Life receives little attention here, compared to All My Children, and Ms. Nixon's third ABC serial, the less-successful Loving, is absent altogether.

I also hoped to learn more about the somewhat enigmatic Irna Phillips, often called "Queen of the Soaps," who largely invented the genre, and was Ms. Nixon's mentor. Others have depicted her as a complex, demanding woman, without probing much beneath the surface, and I wanted to hear from someone who knew her perhaps as well as anyone did. Ms. Nixon's brief discussion of Phillips is disappointingly bland and superficial.

Ms. Nixon was elderly and apparently in shaky health when she completed this book, and that may explain some of its shortcomings (including some odd factual errors about her own shows and characters). Still, she does offer an interesting account of her personal life, and the ways in which her father and others were reflected in her TV characters. It's just a pity that, for once, the story stops before she's finished telling it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The 95-Year-Old Man

Here's wishing a very happy 95th birthday to the comedic genius Carl Reiner, born March 20, 1922. He can take great pride in creating and producing The Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom classic that is still fresh and funny more than 50 years after its debut. What a legacy -- and he's not through yet!