Saturday, November 3, 2018

One Grateful Author

My first holiday gift of the season came early this year, with the publication of Classic Images' November issue. While I'm always happy to see some love for that cinematic guilty pleasure House of Horrors, the biggest treat for me was the review of Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record that appeared in Laura Wagner's "Book Points" column.

Since I have been reading and admiring Tom Weaver's books for at least 20 years, it came as a huge compliment when Ms. Wagner spotlighted us side-by-side, saying that our mutual publisher McFarland "has two of the best authors of show business history writing for them right now." My book, she says, "gives us a clear sense of who Storm was as a person," adding, "I'll be honest, his recounting of Gale's final years brought a tear to my eye." Throw in her reference to the author's "impeccable research skills," and I might feel a little verklempt myself.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Trials of O'Brien

"I want to report a murder."
"Who was murdered?"
"I was."

If you recognize that memorable exchange from 1949's film classic D.O.A., you'll want to check out Derek Sculthorpe's newest book, Edmond O'Brien: Everyman of Film Noir (McFarland). It's a welcome and worthy look at the life and career of an Oscar-winning actor who lent his talents to more than 100 films. Aside from D.O.A., O'Brien also created distinctive portraits of complex men in The Barefoot Contessa, White Heat, Seven Days in May, and a host of others. As the author notes, "His character studies were never all one thing. They were not all bad and not all good, but they were human."

Away from the cameras, O'Brien dated a dazzling array of Hollywood beauties, and married two of them -- film star Nancy Kelly (a short and tumultuous union), and actress/dancer Olga San Juan, with whom he had three children. Sculthorpe also covers the debilitating health issues that took their toll on O'Brien's life and work, including the gradual loss of his eyesight and, most cruelly, the onset of Alzheimer's while still in his fifties.

This is a quick, compelling read that should serve to reinforce O'Brien's significance as an actor, and insure that his fine performances are not overlooked.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Not Just Lucy's Babysitter

Elizabeth Patterson (r.), with Vivian Vance, on I Love Lucy. 
What I Love Lucy fan doesn't have a soft spot for the Ricardos' charming neighbor, and frequent babysitter, Mrs. Mathilda Trumbull? It's a credit to actress Elizabeth Patterson that she made such an impression -- though frequently mentioned, Mrs. Trumbull actually appeared in only ten episodes. (Before being cast in that role, Miss Patterson played a different character in the first-season segment "The Marriage License.")

One reason we didn't see more of Mrs. Trumbull was that the actress, despite her advancing years, was still in demand elsewhere. In December 1953, syndicated columnist Erskine Johnson reported, "Lucy and Desi will have to find themselves a new baby sitter," as the 78-year-old Patterson was Broadway bound in a new show. Though the play, His and Hers, starring Celeste Holm, ran only about two months, Mrs. Trumbull would be absent from Lucy until the fall of 1954, when she turned up in "The Business Manager." In that memorable episode, Lucy's note about Mrs. Trumbull's grocery order ("buy can All Pet") would cause a confused Ricky to believe his wife was playing the stock market.

Some fifteen years before she joined the I Love Lucy cast, Miss Patterson told an interviewer, "Life and fame for an actress may just begin as she reaches her fortieth year. If she can hold on in Hollywood until she's fifty, she no doubt will have a job as long as her health lasts." Indeed, she continued to act until just a few years prior to her death in 1966, at the age of 90. Her long and accomplished life might inspire all of us to keep pursuing our dreams as long as we're able.

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.