Saturday, August 30, 2014

Award-Winning Birthday Girl

Happy birthday to the one and only Shirley Booth, born August 30, 1898. With a career that lasted more than 50 years, and the proud possessor of an Academy Award, two Tony Awards, and two Emmy Awards, she may still be best-remembered as the goodhearted, busybody maid of TV's Hazel. 

Surprisingly, she was never the subject of a full-length biography until I published Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record in 2008. It was a privilege to spend more than a year researching her impressive career, and talking to colleagues like actresses Joyce Van Patten and Elizabeth Wilson, television producer Saul Turteltaub, and child actor Pat Cardi (Jeff Williams on Hazel), among others. All were happy to share their memories of this legendary leading lady of the American theater, and shed light on both the actress and the woman they knew off-stage.

Though her Oscar-winning performance in Come Back, Little Sheba is still a classic, I'm also quite fond of her lesser-known star turn in About Mrs. Leslie, opposite Robert Ryan. Her film performances are few in number, since she focused largely on her stage career, but those that endure are well worth your time to seek out and enjoy.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mr. B's Birthday

Happy birthday to film and television star Don DeFore, born 101 years ago today, on August 25, 1913. Perhaps best-remembered as George Baxter, alleged boss of TV's Hazel, DeFore also had a recurring role in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in the 1950s, and before that a thriving movie career.

DeFore is looking aghast (again) at Hazel (Shirley Booth).
As everyone including its top-billed star readily acknowledged, DeFore was an integral element in Hazel's success. "I admit it was pretty strange at first," he said during the show's run. "Here was Shirley Booth, the great and Oscar-winning Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba), as Hazel, and here I was shouting at her in the role of her boss. This Baxter is quite a guy. At the office he's a lawyer, successful, logical. Then every night he comes home to Hazel, the most illogical thing he ever ran into. Total frustration!" DeFore played that frustration beautifully, giving Hazel a worthy adversary yet never letting his character become unlikable or unkind. A family man himself, DeFore worked long and hard to take care of his wife and five children.

But to focus only on Hazel would be overlooking DeFore's accomplishments as an actor in dozens of feature films. One of my favorites is the holiday-themed It Happened on 5th Avenue. If you haven't seen it, and you'd like to celebrate Christmas with a warm, endearing movie, put it on your to-view list this year. Other film credits include Romance on the High Seas, A Guy Named Joe, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Mr. DeFore died in 1993, at the age of eighty, but is still fondly remembered by many fans, as seen in such Facebook groups as The Don DeFore Fan Club.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

That's a Wrap!

Well, I hate this. Film historian Leonard Maltin announced this week that the 2015 edition of his annual movie guide will be the last one published. Apparently those of us who consult his smart, authoritative, and comprehensive guidebook are dwindling in number, as more and more moviegoers get their information from the web. (Maybe a blog isn't the perfect place to complain about this...)

Even before I considered writing books on film and television history, I loved reading them. While I don't always agree with Maltin's opinions, I respect his expertise, and have learned a lot from his books. Whether it's a BOMB or a ****, he always has something worthwhile to say. Who else could have reviewed the low-budget 1967 chiller Castle of Evil and said, "Producers should have taken the film's production costs and bought a candy bar instead"? And I'll never forget his cogent, tongue-in-cheek advice concerning 1965's The Navy vs. the Night Monsters:

1) Look at the title. 2) Examine the cast. 3) Be aware that the plot involves omnivorous trees. 4) Don't say you weren't warned.

Luckily for those of us who love the films of an earlier era, Maltin's separate guide to vintage movies will continue to appear occasionally. Otherwise, I'd really be in a state of mourning.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Rose Marie's August Occasion

Happy birthday to Rose Marie Mazetta Guy, better known to her many fans as simply "Rose Marie." She was born 91 years ago today.

Fondly remembered for her Emmy-nominated turn as wisecracking comedy writer Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she has entertained audiences since she was a child. As Baby Rose Marie, she was singing on NBC radio at the age of five. Her adulthood found her performing on Broadway, in nightclubs, and on many television shows. She had a regular role on The Doris Day Show, and was a frequent celebrity guest on The Hollywood Squares.

If you haven't already done so, you should read her entertaining and surprisingly moving autobiography Hold the Roses, published in 2002 by the University Press of Kentucky. Even though Sally Rogers was never very lucky in love, Rose Marie was, and you'll enjoy learning about her happy marriage to musician Bobby Guy, cut short by his premature death in 1964. She also offers great stories about the many famous entertainers she's known, including the one she discovered at a Cleveland TV station in the early 1960s. 

To commemorate her big day, visit her official website, or hit YouTube for this clip of a classic musical number she performed on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

TV Lessons

It's that time of year when I'm glad I'm old enough that I don't have to go back to school. Remember that "uh-oh" feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realized summer vacation was almost over, and it was time to return to the classroom? But if I had to be in school this fall, I wouldn't mind being enrolled with one of these beloved TV teachers.

My #1 choice would be English instructor Constance (Connie) Brooks, as played by Eve Arden, from the hit radio and early TV sitcom Our Miss Brooks. Although Miss Brooks was Madison High's best-loved English teacher, here she seems to be getting an impromptu geography lesson from fellow faculty member Mr. Philip Boynton, as played by Robert Rockwell. Between radio and TV, Miss Brooks' class was in session for 8 years.
I also enjoyed visiting the video classrooms of Walt Whitman High, as seen in ABC's comedy-drama Room 222. Did you know there was a Room 222 comic book? I didn't, but here it is, with stars (left to right) Lloyd Haynes, Karen Valentine, and Michael Constantine pictured. This series, which ran from 1969 to 1974, had what I think is one of the most beautiful musical themes of any weekly show, composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith. If you don't know it, you can check it out here. This was also a trendsetting show for its day, with its relaxed presentation of a culturally diverse student body and faculty.

Who was your favorite TV teacher?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lucy at 103

Would we forget Lucille Ball's birthday around here? Well, of course not! So put on one of Mrs. Trumbull's party hats and light a candle in honor of this iconic comedy star, born August 6, 1911. Because if you don't, she'll be forced to join the Friends of the Friendless, and won't you feel guilty?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Man Who Didn't Love "Lucy"

The late John Crosby (1912-1991) was widely considered one of the most knowledgeable and respected TV critics, his newspaper column syndicated nationwide in the 1950s and beyond. His name came up often as I researched five books about show business history. So I was interested by his November 2, 1951 column, in which he expressed a less-than-delighted reaction to a new CBS television series called I Love Lucy.

Lucy gets some marital advice in "Be a Pal."
Lucy had aired only three episodes ("The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub", "Be a Pal", and "The Diet") when Crosby called Lucille Ball's now-classic series "a terrible waste of her talents and her husband's." In Crosby's view, the show was typical of much Hollywood output in the early days of TV, drawing on shopworn ideas about married life carried over from radio: "The endless cliches into which these people are thrust, and what I'm afraid is the spirit of contempt or, at very least indifference, toward television which seems to imbue the actors, robs them of a great deal of their personality and of their appeal." While acknowledging that the show was "very competently put together" and "written almost too professionally," Crosby found it an inferior offering.

Happily for Lucy lovers, Crosby did come around somewhat; a year or so later, he wrote, "At its best, the show has some of the manic informality and improvisation of the early silent film comedies." Of its star, he said with unqualified admiration, "She's a really great clown." And if, overall, he still wasn't the show's most uncritical fan, he wrote with a certain air of resignation, "Who am I to argue with 12,000,000 families?"