Thursday, June 20, 2019

Perry Mason's Boss

Born June 20, 1911, Gail Patrick Jackson had two notable careers in Hollywood. In front of the cameras, she was a successful actress whose credits included such classic films as Stage Door and My Favorite Wife.

Her second act found her serving as Executive Producer of TV's Perry Mason, a post she held for that popular show's entire nine-year run. It was highly unusual in 1957 for a woman to take on such a job, but she enjoyed the full trust of Mason's creator Erle Stanley Gardner. It was she who supposedly saw the potential of Raymond Burr to be the star, when others on the production staff were dubious. As partners in Paisano Productions, Ms. Jackson and her then-husband Cornwell (who had been Gardner's literary agent) profited handsomely from the show's success.

Gail Patrick Jackson died in 1980, but left behind a record of accomplishment that will long be remembered.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Defamation of Joan Davis

Backus and Davis, the not-so-happy couple?
It's a lonely job, but someone has to do it. I'm talking about the ongoing battle to speak in defense of Joan Davis (1912-1961), one of my favorite comediennes. Almost without exception, when her name comes up in Facebook groups or other social media outlets, someone can't wait to tell us what a horrible person she was. These are, of course, people who never met her.

This news flash is usually attributed to her sitcom husband, the late Jim Backus. It's true that the chapter on I Married Joan in his memoir (co-authored with wife Henny) does not paint a flattering picture of Joan. But I think Backus himself, who wasn't above a bit of embellishment to make a good story better, might regret what he wrote, if he could see how it's been used to bludgeon a talented performer who's no longer around to defend herself.

I can only hope that those who truly want to learn more about Miss Davis' life and career will take a look at Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy. The book, which is based on a substantial amount of research, doesn't try to make Joan a saint -- or crucify her. I believe it's a balanced presentation that treats her with the respect her accomplishments deserve. I'm sorry that's in danger of becoming a minority viewpoint.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Birthday Gale

The one and only Gale Storm was born on this date in 1922. Winning a radio talent contest in 1939, when she was 17 years old, took her from Texas to Hollywood. From there, she built a highly successful career as an actress and singer.

Get to know her in my book, Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record, named by Classic Images magazine as one of its best books of 2018.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cover Up!

Here's an advance look at the cover for my forthcoming book on Pine-Thomas Productions. That's Mr. Thomas on the left, and Mr. Pine on the right, by the way.

I hope you'll give it a look when it's published by McFarland & Co. later this year.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Case of the Consummate Actor

Happy birthday to the fine actor H.M. Wynant, who turns 92 today. During the 1960-61 season of TV's Perry Mason, when the career of co-star William Talman (Hamilton Burger) was in jeopardy due to an off-screen scandal, Wynant made three appearances as a substitute prosecutor, Deputy D.A. Sampson. Though I'm glad Talman ultimately returned as a series regular, I thought Wynant was the best of the temporary replacements. He could have been a fine addition to the regular cast. As it was, the producers liked him well enough to use him in ten episodes over the show's nine-year run, casting him at various times as prosecutor, victim, and murderer.

Among his dozens of other classic TV credits are a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone ("The Howling Man"). as well as appearances on Mission: Impossible, Batman, The Defenders ... I could go on and on. He was married for many years to a highly respected CBS casting director, the late Ethel Winant; today, Wynant and his second wife Paula have a teenage daughter.

Best wishes to Mr. Wynant and his family as they recognize him for a long and accomplished life and career.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Words from Our Sponsor

Nearly as long as we've had television, we've had commercials. Nowadays, we have so many of them that some frustrated viewers have cut the cord on broadcast TV. Thanks to the good folks of The Media History Digital Library, I recently time-traveled back to 1957, where author Harry Wayne McMahan's book The Television Commercial: How to Create and Produce Effective TV Advertising was instructing sponsors and ad men how to put their best feet forward in this still-young medium.

Some of his book's concerns clearly belong to that now-bygone era; I think the debate over live versus filmed commercials has been pretty decisively settled. But many of his comments -- don't make exaggerated claims for the product, don't talk down to viewers -- are still pertinent. As for his caution that commercials lose effectiveness when they are repeated too often, I wonder what he would say about one 60-minute program I saw recently in which the same ad aired seven times during that single broadcast. Or, for that matter, how that hour-long program, shorn of its nearly incessant commercial interruptions, would have run 37 minutes.

Wherever he might be today, I hope Mr. McMahan isn't watching 21st century television. When it comes to commercials, it's not a pretty sight.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Preserving the Republic (Studio)

Because my interest in B movies and the so-called "Poverty Row" studios has increased greatly over the past few years, I was eager to read Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian's Cowboys, Creatures, and Classics: The Story of Republic Pictures (Lyons Press). I just wish I could say I loved it.

The illustrations, including movie stills, poster art, and related ephemera, are probably the chief asset of this coffee-table-type book. The text I found less impressive. Chapters offer somewhat superficial overviews of topics such as Western heroes, serials, and stuntmen, leaning pretty heavily on previously published material. The well-documented relationship between studio head Herbert J. Yates and his favorite leading lady, Vera Ralston, is discussed at some length, but in the end I didn't feel as though I'd learned much that I didn't already know.

There are also some errors film buffs won't have any trouble spotting, including the misspelled names of actresses Phyllis Coates and Mabel Normand. And while I appreciated the coverage of Gail Russell and Anne Jeffreys in the chapter on Republic's leading ladies, how do you put out an entire book on this studio with nary a mention of funny lady Judy Canova?

It's a shame to begin a new year talking about a book I can only marginally recommend. I'll try to do better next time out.