Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Star in the East

Another book on Boris Karloff? Yes, and a worthy one it is, with an original angle to offer. Karloff and the East: Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and Oceanian Characters and Subjects in His Screen Career (McFarland), by Scott Allen Nollen with Yuyun Yuningsih Nollen, covers in depth more than forty films in which Karloff or supporting actors play characters of the ethnicities specified, or the story pertains to non-Western culture. 

If this sounds like a misguided tribute to Hollywood cultural appropriation of a bygone era, it's not. As the authors note, it was long commonplace in American films for Caucasian actors to be cast as characters of any heritage, a practice that hasn't completely died out in the 21st century. Along with his undeniable talent, Karloff had certain facial features and skin pigmentation that could be emphasized with makeup or costuming to allow him to play much more than a typical English gentleman. An early chapter, "Eastern Origins," gives us a detailed examination of the family of William Henry Pratt (Karloff's birth name), and the Anglo-Indian branches of his family tree, giving insight into his unique look.

The films discussed bridge the gap between silent and sound cinema, and include several that the star's most devoted fans have likely not seen. The book's original research allows for a full-blooded discussion even of those that are presently believed to be lost. Alongside classics like The Mummy (1932), you'll find little-known early efforts like The Infidel (1922). They represent Karloff's work ranging from the 1910s to the early 1970s. To the authors' credit, the book doesn't move jerkily from one "Eastern" film to the next, omitting the connecting threads; it can also be profitably read as an overview of Karloff's entire career, which Scott Allen Nollen knows probably as well as anyone can.

For each film, the Nollens outline its story, and an account of its production, but supplement that with an assessment of how elements of Eastern culture are depicted. This is particularly interesting when reading about films like Voodoo Island (1957), which has been covered by several good writers, but never with the added context of how it presents religious and spiritual beliefs in the Hawaiian islands (clue: not well!). The result may even damn it to more critical brickbats than it customarily receives. As a B-movie (and Poverty Row) buff, I enjoyed the discussion of Monogram's Mr. Wong series, a welcome gig for Karloff during the turn away from horror films in the mid- to late 1930s. These are often dismissed as cheap potboilers, with little more than Karloff's paycheck and presence to justify them. But the authors approach these films as they do all covered in this volume, with minds open, not parroting earlier appraisals but making a fair assessment of what they have to offer.

The book's illustrations are stunning: vintage lobby cards, film stills, one-of-a-kind photos from Karloff's personal collection, and correspondence received from the likes of Vincent Price during Nollen's decades-long research into the star. 

The brand of in-depth scholarship on display in this massive volume is becoming a bit of an endangered species, and the Nollens are to be congratulated for a strong contribution to film studies in general, and specifically the career of one of Hollywood's most enduring stars.

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

Thursday, April 8, 2021

All About Simon

The always-interesting Another Old Movie Blog just published a review of S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker: Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

You can find it here.

We're rapidly approaching the 60th anniversary of Mr. Simon's tragically early death. It's nice to see that he's getting (albeit belatedly) some of the attention he deserves.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Mr. Mason Remembered

How many performers whose careers began before the advent of motion pictures have had their achievements lost to history? Yes, we remember a select few, but a lack of documentation, and short memories, put the kibosh on too many others.

That's no longer the case for comic actor Dan Mason (1853-1929), thanks to Joseph P. Eckhardt's latest book. The author was granted access to a rich array of photographs, scripts, and playbills, as well as Mason's  uncompleted memoir. With that framework embellished by Eckhardt's exhaustive research, the result is Dan Mason: From Vaudeville to Broadway to the Silent Screen (McFarland).

In many ways, Mason's career illustrates the sweeping changes in the entertainment industry between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We follow along as Mason, a high school dropout, finds his comedic gifts adaptable to variety shows, vaudeville, Broadway, and finally silent movies. Fans of early motion picture comedy will enjoy reading about Mason's work in the Toonerville Trolley two-reelers of the early 1920s. Had he lived a year or two longer, he likely would have sound pictures on his resume as well.

Naturally, there are questions that cannot be fully answered, 100 to 150 years later. When complete details are elusive, Eckhardt is honest enough to say so. Nonetheless, the author gives us an impressively full-bodied portrait of Mason, the man and the performer. There were frequently stresses and challenges in his life, among them a brief early marriage, the death of his first two children before they reached adulthood, and recurring money problems. Not only was he devoted to his daughter Anna, known as Nan, but he also took a young actress, Wilna Hervey, under his wing. Decades ahead of his time, he was completely supportive when the two women became romantically involved, fully embracing them as a loving couple.

Cliched though it might seem, there's a poignancy about a performer who carefully saves yellowing newspaper clippings and memorabilia over a period of some years, clearly hoping that someone, sometime, will care. Luckily for Dan Mason, Joseph P. Eckhardt came along and understood the worth of what he found. Readers will surely do likewise.

NOTE: I was furnished with a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

'Mama' at 72

I'm at least a day late, and a dollar short, but belated Happy Birthday to funny lady Vicki Lawrence, born March 26, 1949.

It's a bit disconcerting to realize that Ms. Lawrence has only in recent years come within spitting distance of the right age to play her most beloved character, Thelma 'Mama' Harper, which she introduced on The Carol Burnett Show roughly half a century ago. (Be that as it may, Vicki still doesn't go in much for flowered print dresses, or gray hair, as you can see in the above photo.)

I was sorry to see her recent sitcom The Cool Kids ditched after a single season, but I trust there are still new adventures in her future. After all, who knows more about life as a senior citizen than Mama's alter ego?

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Page from History

Anita Page (1910-2008) was a blonde beauty who attained her childhood dream of becoming an actress in Hollywood's early days. Though circumstances cut her starring career short, she's still remembered and admired by many film fans. Anita Page: A Career Chronicle and Biography (McFarland) does a fine job of telling her story.

Co-author Allan R. Ellenberger is a highly respected film biographer whose earlier books on Margaret O'Brien and Miriam Hopkins I have enjoyed. His interviews with Miss Page over some years are at the heart of the book. He teams with Robert Murdoch Paton, a longtime fan and collector of memorabilia from Miss Page's life and career.  Their book offers more than 75 photographs, including rare family snapshots and cleanly reproduced film stills, that cover the entirety of her long life.

Signed to an MGM contract at the age of 17, Anita Pomares, rechristened "Page," soon advanced to lead roles, becoming a popular screen presence in films such as Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and The Broadway Melody (1929). She was named a WAMPAS Baby Star, alongside the likes of Jean Arthur and Loretta Young. Miss Page's career took an abrupt downward turn in the early 1930s, after a falling-out with studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Following her marriage to a military man, she retired from the screen, raising two daughters and having few regrets about leaving Hollywood behind. Late in life, in her eighties, she enjoyed a return to acting in indie films, and attracted a new generation of devotees.

The book is divided into two main sections, with a biography being followed by an extensively annotated filmography. It is a rare privilege in the 21st century to learn so much about an actress whose career dates back nearly 100 years, drawing on her first-hand accounts of films that encompass both the silent and sound eras. Though fans of Anita Page will certainly want to snap this up, the book will also appeal to followers of motion picture history in general, especially of the silent era. 

When reminiscing, Miss Page projects just the sort of aura we expect of a silent movie star -- just a bit high-maintenance, and not overly burdened with modesty, which only makes the book more fun. Her recollections of her film colleagues are candid and opinionated, with a dash of dish. Of co-star Clark Gable, she says, "I thought he was charming ... but he just wasn't my type," while she confides that she wasn't impressed with Joan Crawford's acting ability. ("She didn't seem to be able, in my opinion, to hold an emotional moment.") Other famous names who feature prominently in Anita Page's story are Lon Chaney (Sr.), Buster Keaton, and Jean Harlow, just to name a few.

It's still early in the year, but this bids fair to be one of classic film buffs' most noteworthy books of 2021.

NOTE: I was provided a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Words from Mr. Watson

You'd be hard-pressed to find many people who know more about the peerless Lucille Ball than Tom Watson. Longtime president of the We Love Lucy fan club, he's also the co-author of Loving Lucy: An Illustrated Tribute to Lucille Ball. Since Lucy looms large in my newly released book S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker: Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton, and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood, I invited Tom to give it a look.

Here's what he had to say:

The newest book on my Lucy Bookshelf is “S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker” (subtitled “Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood”), by author/historian David C. Tucker. I should emphasize the word “historian,” for not only is Mr. Tucker the author of at least 8 other show biz centered books, but this one (like the rest) is published by McFarland & Company, which tends to take a more erudite approach to things: most of their books tend to eschew the “Lucy ran to the bedroom in tears” anecdotes in favor of “just the facts, ma’am.” But (if I can mix in yet another Hollywood metaphor) there are a few “who shot who in the Embarcadero in August, 1879” stories just for fun -- when they reflect on the person or movie being discussed.

 "Her Husband's Affairs," with
Lucy and Franchot Tone.
The book is divided into two main parts: a names, date, places biography, chronicling Simon’s life and career, and an extensive filmography, that lists all of the pictures on which Simon worked, providing not only the official credits for each of the films, but a synopsis of the story, reviews, and comments.

Tucker has done a wonderful job here, shining some light on a little known writer-director-producer who made a profound contribution to the screen careers of both Lucille Ball and Red Skelton (and countless others). At MGM, he directed Skelton in such comedies as “Whistling in the Dark,” and it’s sequels, “Whistling in Dixie” and "Whistling in Brooklyn,” and directed Lucy in the cameo appearance she made in “Abbott and Costello in Hollywood.” Moving over to Columbia where he became a producer and soon took over as head of production, Simon starred Red in “The Fuller Brush Man,” directed Lucy in “Her Husband’s Affairs” and cast her in “Miss Grant Takes Richmond” and “The Fuller Brush Girl” (a follow-up to the Skelton hit).

As Tucker points out, the films Lucy made with Simon both showcased and helped advance her comedic abilities – setting her in motion for the stellar career in television that soon followed. Sadly, Simon himself did not live to see his star’s greatest success – he died in May of 1951 at the age of 41. Here, at last, is a fine chronicle of his life and career.

Thanks, Tom!

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Jeffersonian Era

Author Jay Moriarty takes us behind the scenes of a long-running sitcom with Honky in the House: Writing & Producing 'The Jeffersons' (Antler Productions). 

I haven't watched The Jeffersons in years, and I can't say I was ever a huge fan, though I certainly saw quite a few episodes. My hazy recollection is of a show that leaned heavily on insult humor, and was generally played to the rafters by its cast in a way I sometimes found off-putting. Moriarty considers the show groundbreaking in several aspects, and he makes a pretty good argument for his case. 

While I enjoyed his behind-the-scenes anecdotes, which also cover other shows for which he wrote, what I liked most about his book were the sections that serve as a how-to manual for aspiring sitcom writers. One of his more interesting comments explained why a newcomer submitting a sample script to producers should not send one for the show you want to write. He breaks down the structure of a traditional sitcom story in easy-to-understand terms, showing us a form almost as rigid as a haiku. Using practical examples from The Jeffersons, he illustrates the multitudinous challenges and choices that producers have to face in order to drop an episode into the can every week.  

Though this is generally a very engaging book, I do question his odd choice to write it in third person, and give himself and his longtime writing partner fictitious names. He explains in the introduction that he thought writing about himself in first-person form "egocentric." For this reader's money, the stylistic quirk was just an irritant that made the book harder to follow.

That quibble aside, Moriarty's book is well worth the read for classic TV buffs and wannabe screenwriters.