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.