Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review: A Bunch More Characters

How many character actresses from classic movies can you name? Ten? Twelve? Those are paltry numbers to author Axel Nissen, whose third book on the subject, Accustomed to Her Face: Thirty-Five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, brings to an even 100 the number of talented players he's profiled.

The photos alone (some 60 of them) are worth the price of admission, showing these ladies in action doing what they did best -- supporting some of the biggest stars of their day, in classic films like The Little Foxes (Patricia Collinge), Rope (Edith Evanson), and Saboteur (Anita Sharp-Bolster). But the illustrations only scratch the surface of what this book has to offer. For this volume, as Nissen profiles some lesser-known players about whom information is scarce, the author digs deeper. In several cases, he offers a substantial amount of never-before-published genealogical research, throwing new light on the lives of actresses such as Libby Taylor, who worked for Mae West both onscreen and off. Not confining himself to just the usual films that we've all seen, he broadens the perspective, poking his nose into the likes of She-Wolf of London, where Sara Haden (best-known for the Andy Hardy films) had one of the bigger roles of her career.

This is no dry academic book, although it's scrupulously documented for those who need that. It's a book for those of us who love and appreciate old movies, and the performers who populated them. Nissen isn't the type of writer who just echoes what others have already said. When he doesn't like something -- like the classic Lost Horizon, which he terms "asinine" -- he says so, in no uncertain terms. But his lively commentary makes this an addictively readable volume, and never leaves us doubting that he loves the films of the Golden Age -- and these often underappreciated women who contributed so much to them.

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

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