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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

New Perspective on Richard Pryor

Given the acclaim and popularity of the late Richard Pryor (1940-2005), it's not surprising that Hollywood executives eagerly gave him lucrative movie contracts for much of the 1970s and 1980s. But what a spotty track record he had as a movie star, as seen in Anthony Balducci's thoughtful book Richard Pryor in Hollywood: The Narrative Films, 1967-1997 (McFarland). For a man who could be so funny, why did his movies (excepting his concert films) often fail to capture his gifts?

Unlike most other books about Pryor, this one doesn't let his chaotic private life frame the narrative. Balducci, a film historian whose expertise in motion picture comedy extends back to the silent era, brings a valuable long-term perspective to Pryor's work. While he provides useful cultural context for the societal atmosphere reflected in such films as Wild in the Streets (1968), he also strips away much of the baggage that prevented earlier critics from successfully analyzing Pryor's film comedy on its own terms. Enriching the text are Balducci's interviews with several screenwriters who worked on Pryor films, helping us understand the changes that took place between script and screen.

This is an important work about movie comedy that merits widespread attention, and at the same time a highly readable account that will interest Pryor's many admirers.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Gale Gets Her Due

What a pleasure it was to read the just-published review of Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record by well-known film historian James L. Neibaur. Not just because someone whose work I admire praised the book, but also because he appreciates the lady who is its subject. Acknowledging Gale's film career and success as a recording artist along with her TV stardom, Neibaur wrote, "This book is an enlightening, enjoyable look at one of the most beloved performers in show business history, and it is filled with interesting information that will please Gale Storm's many fans."

You can find the review in its entirety here.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Joan's Best Buddy

When I interviewed the late Sherwood Schwartz for my book on Joan Davis, he told me that the star's favorite TV sidekick (her "Ethel Mertz") was actress Geraldine Carr, who played Joan Stevens' buddy Mabel. That made me wonder why Miss Carr did not appear in the later episodes of I Married Joan filmed. The sad answer, as some research disclosed, was that she died in a car crash on September 2, 1954, while the series was still in production.

The recurring TV role was a career break for the up-and-coming actress, whose previous credits included supporting roles in The Sniper (1952), as Arthur Franz's unsympathetic supervisor, and in The Long, Long Trailer (1954). Miss Carr made two guest appearances on I Married Joan, in non-recurring parts, before being cast as neighbor Mabel. Seen frequently during Season Two, she was contracted for regular appearances the following year, until tragedy struck. She was 40 years old at the time her life was so abruptly cut short.

For many reasons, I'm glad that I Married Joan is currently enjoying a revival on the Decades cable channel; one is the opportunity to appreciate the work of gifted performers no longer with us. For more on this underappreciated comedy series and its cast, please see my book Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Girl Called Jeff

Born July 10, 1921, (Miss) Jeff Donnell somehow persuaded studio executives to keep her boyish nickname when she came to Hollywood. (Her given name was Jean Marie.) Making her film debut in My Sister Eileen (1942), she went on to a fine career as a character actress. While she rarely had the opportunity to play substantive roles in top-quality films, she worked steadily throughout the 1940s and beyond.

One of her best-known roles was as the wife of comedian George Gobel on his 1950s television series. TV continued to be a source of steady work for Donnell, who made guest appearances in Mister Ed, Perry Mason, Barnaby Jones, and many other popular shows. In the 1980s, she had a recurring role as Stella, maid to the wealthy Quartermaine family, on the daytime soap General Hospital. She passed away from a heart ailment in 1988.

Would anyone out there like to read a book about her?