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?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Maltin's Movie Memories

"Leonard Maltin has a new book." That's probably as much review as Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom (GoodKnight Books) needs from the likes of me. But I can and will say a little more about this delightful collection of essays and interviews aimed squarely at the hearts of readers who love the movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Here, Maltin goes back to the earliest days of his career, as a starstruck teenager interviewing his silver screen heroes for Film Fan Monthly. In those sessions, and even more so the later ones that follow, you sense the subjects' pleasure at being questioned by someone who knows their work inside and out. Director John Cromwell offers fascinating memories from his film Of Human Bondage, working with a young and hungry Bette Davis. But it's not only the giants and the masterpieces that merit space. I loved the interview with Paul Wurtzel, whose father Sol ran Fox's B movie factory in tbe 30s --and apparently worked himself into a frenzy doing it.

It's a safe bet that almost any reader can identify one or two favorite chapters here. I especially enjoyed "Act Three: Television," which examines how veteran performers like Buster Keaton and Lillian Gish extended their careers by embracing the new medium. Who'd've guessed that, of all people, Johnny Crawford, kid star of The Rifleman, was a silent movie buff thrilled to learn that crew members and actors from that era could often be found on his own set?

As I mentioned here before, I was pretty bummed when Maltin's annual movie guide ceased publication after so many years. I'm thrilled that he continues to share his knowledge through this irresistible new book.