The Slide Area No. 13 / Spring 2009
Ball State (Indiana) University film professor Wes D. Gehring always impresses with his productivity. At the end of 2008, he came out with not just one but two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. The former is The James Dean Murder Mystery [A Comic Novel] (New Century Publishing, $16.95). I have not yet had a chance to read – but I will – and I am sure it will be as entertaining as the professor's earlier (and I believe first novel) The Charlie Chaplin Murder Mystery. Wes D. Gehring's non-fiction effort is a full-fledged biography, Red Skelton: The Mask behind the Mask (Indiana Historical Society Press, $19.95). The premise is the miracle "that so much laughter could be born of so much personal torment." The author has had the support of the family, and Skelton's daughter, Valentina Marie Skelton Alonso, provides a foreword to the book. I suppose in a way, this is a follow-up volume to Gehring's 2001 work, Seeing Red: The Skelton in Hollywood's Closet, which was put out by a relatively obscure publisher. The price of the new work is certainly right – incredibly cheap for a hardcover biography of 350 plus pages – and my only complaint is the lack of an index (also missing from the earlier volume).
Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance, with Tony Maietta (University of California Press/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, $45.00) is a sumptuous volume with all the elements of a coffee table work but also with a first-rate text. The photographs – all 237 of them – are beautiful to behold, with many that I have never seen before, all selected by the Academy's Robert Cushman.
There have been quite a few books on Douglas Fairbanks, going back to Alistair Cooke's Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character in 1940, while the actor himself authored some ten volumes of what are perhaps best described as "self help" books in the late 1910s and early 1920s. It is obviously difficult to come up with anything new on Fairbanks, although Jeffrey Vance certainly tries. But rather, the author attempts and succeeds in compressing the life and career of the actor into some 350 plus pages. As he explains at the beginning, the author wants to afford Douglas Fairbanks his proper place as one of the foremost artists of the cinema and to prove that "he was the dominant creative force in the production of superlative films and a gifted comic actor who made the transition from satirist to swashbuckler." It's an ambitious plan, and I am not certain that Vance ultimately succeeds. Sadly, and there is nobody to whom blame can be assigned, Douglas Fairbanks will never have the continuing fascination of say Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. He is a great figure in silent films – preeminent in his day – who will always be somewhat on the sidelines as far as modern audiences are concerned.
There is actually a need for someone in the academic community to analyze why Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford have grown out of a favor through the decades. It is not that the couple are lacking in talent, personality or prominence. You could easily argue they have more of all three virtues than does Valentino, but somehow they do not connect with the public as much as they should. That having been said, Jeffrey Vance's book will obviously serve as the definitive work on its subject – even if the subject himself is not quite as definitive in film history as perhaps he deserves to be.
McFarland has gained something of a reputation for publishing reference works that can appeal only to a limited few, but which are nonetheless informative, detailed and reliable. The latest is Science Fiction Television Series, 1990-2004 by Frank Garcia and Mark Phillips ($59.95). The series are arranged in alphabetical order from Andromeda to The X-Files, and for each the authors provide complete credits, a lengthy discussion utilizing reminiscences of those involved (an incredible number), cast notes (which are, in reality, brief biographies of the leading players). There are two appendices. The first is titled "Who Goes There?" and consists of additional memories from "our interviewees." I am not totally clear as to why these memories could not have been integrated into the main text. Appendix B, titled "Looking Back at Science Fiction Television Series, 1955-1959," does precisely that. They are listed in chronological order, and, as the authors point out, are covered in more detail in their earlier volume, subtitled 1955-1989.
As always, there is a new title in the Contemporary Film Directors series: Atom Egoyan by Emma Wilson (University of Illinois Press, $60.00/$19.95). The format is the same as expected, with a good, solid, readable study of the films, a bibliography and filmography, but, rather than a couple of reprinted interviews from elsewhere, this particular volume includes an original interview with the subject by the author. "Contemporary Film Directors" is undoubtedly the best academic series around.
Ben Ohmart, the personable and intelligent owner of BearManor Media, has sent me copies of six recent volumes from his company – and I have to report that they vary considerably in quality, with one at least very poor. Let's deal with that book first. Gene Arceri's Rocking Horse: A Personal Biography of Betty Hutton ($19.95) is a very short study of the Paramount actress, with the author's personal commentary and career and life overview broken up by portions of an interview with Hutton. It runs a mere 118 pages, with lines double-spaced and includes a collection of photographs which nobody considered it worth captioning. Even more odd is a three-page photo spread reproducing someone's typed record of Betty Hutton's movies. (I don't know if it is complete and I just didn't have the energy to check.) Substantial editing would have helped, just as quotation marks at the start of Chapter Two would have made it clear that it is now Betty Hutton and not the author speaking.
The Thin Man: Murder over Cocktails by Charles Tranberg ($24.95) is not bad as a detailed reference work on the popular MGM films of the 1930s. It is very much in the style of titles from McFarland. There are semi-complete credits for each of the films in the series (but not as complete as those to be found in the American Film Institute Catalog), along with lengthy synopses, which reprint dialogue, together with information on production ("The Back Story"), discussion of individuals involved and a selection of reviews. The book also includes chapters on the series stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy, a bibliography, and a somewhat pointless "Supporting Actor Photo Gallery." The book is promoted on its cover as #l in The Film Series Series, but there is no information as to what this Series is to consist of or whether other volumes will follow the same formula.
I am not certain what to make of Scott O'Brien's Virginia Bruce: Under My Skin ($29.95). I have been told that this author's earlier biography, Kay Francis – I Can't Wait to Be Forgotten, is better than the Kay Francis volume by Lynn Kear, of which I wrote some time ago. Based on the writing style, I find that hard to believe. There are a lot of facts here, all carefully end-noted, but the material is not particularly well gathered together. At almost 500 pages, it is a substantial book, probably far lengthier than its subject deserves, but somehow it fails to satisfy.
Jean Seberg – Breathless by Garry McGee ($24.95) is a quite splendid biography of the actress whose life, career and death was much of an enigma. The author has undertaken extensive research both in this country and Europe – and it shows. His writing style is professional, careful and studied – and, unlike the title, in no way breathless (as one might find with many a film buff). At over 300 pages, it is one of the longer BearManor volumes, and, for whatever reason, it has a far more professional look than some of the others. I don't know quite how this can be. Perhaps it is simply that it doesn't given the impression of a minor, inadequate manuscript printed in large type and double-spaced, suggesting it is more than it really is. There is a long, long bibliography and a good index. This is everything a biography should be. Congratulations to the author and to Ben for a job well done.
For the record, Garry McGee, along with Jean Russell Larson is the author of another BearManor volume on Jean Seberg: Neutralized: The FBI vs Jean Seberg ($19.95), which is described as a compilation of the FBI's campaign against the actress, and includes Seberg's released FBI file as well as interviews with former FBI agents. I have not seen the book, but it sounds like fascinating reading.
I was pleased to see Broadway after Dark by Ward Morehouse and Ward Morehouse III ($24.95) because it preserves in book form some of the writings of the former, whose career began back in 1916, and ended with his death exactly fifty years later. Ward Morehouse was once a prominent drama critic and commentator, and included here are some of his profiles beginning with Laurette Taylor and ending with three of Katharine Hepburn. Unfortunately, only less than one third of the book is occupied by Ward Morehouse Senior, with the remainder taken up by the writings of Ward Morehouse III and by a strange assortment of items, including what seem to be irrelevant (although admittedly interesting) photographs with captions and commentary by others. There is nothing wrong with anything here, but its inclusion does not always make sense, particularly as there is no list of contents (but there is, thankfully, an index). Ward Morehouse III does explain in his preface that the reprinted columns and stories provide a history of theatre in the 20th Century, and there is some validity to that claim.
At 374 pages, this is a long book for BearManor Media, but a reasonably-priced and highly readable one.
I have saved the best to last, and that is Jan Wahl's Through a Lens Darkly ($21.95), a fascinating collection of essays on celebrities he has known and a few that he would like to have met. Jan Wahl has a major reputation as a writer of children's books. A few years back, he sent me an inscribed copy of one of his books, A Gift for Miss Milo, in which he tells me he sees Lillian Gish. I have to admit that, not being a child, I didn't read it, and so I cannot comment. However, I did read Through a Lens Darkly, cover to cover, and I just loved it.
The writing style is so delightfully graceful, particularly for this type of a book. Jan Wahl has lived a fascinating life, even if he did end up in Toledo, Ohio. The best chapters, in my opinion, are those on Carl Th. Dreyer and Isak Dinesen, through which also shines Wahl's love of Denmark. Sometimes what he has to say on a personal level about a specific individual – Mae West, Rita Hayworth, etc. is brief, but always stimulating. The chapters on Louise Brooks and Leni Riefenstahl help towards a better understanding of both women.
("Pace" I beg the citizens of Toledo, Ohio. I have visited your city, and it has good restaurants and a marvelous art museum. It is also, I believe, the birthplace of Joe E. Brown – and for that I will forgive you.)
I strongly urge readers to get hold of a copy of the BearManor Media catalog. There are a large quantity of radio titles, which I won't get into, and, also, there are many film-related volumes which sound worthy of attention. I list a few:
Cordially Yours, Ann Sothern by Colin Briggs ($24.95)
The Films of the Dionne Quintuplets by Paul Talbot ($14.95)
The Fly at Fifty: The Creation and Legacy of a Classic Science Fiction Film by Diane Kachmar and David Goudsward ($21.95)
Fred MacMurray – A Biography by Charles Tranberg
George Raft – The Man Who Would be Bogart ($39.95/$19.95)
I Love the Illusion – The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead ($24.95)
John Holmes – A Life Measured in Inches ($29.95) – I love the title of this book which "unearths the human being behind the penis."
On the Good Ship Hollywood by John Agar, as told to L.C. Van Savage ($14.95)
Perverse, Adverse & Rottenverse by June Foray ($14.95)
A Prisoner of Love: The Definitive Story of Russ Colombo by Tony Toran
Socialists, Socialites, and Sociopaths – Plays and Screenplays by Frank Tuttle – Academics really need to check this volume out!
I should not need to remind readers that BearManor Media is also responsible for the publication of Incorrect Entertainment, or
Trash from the Past: A History of Political Incorrectness and Bad Taste in 20th Century American Pop Culture by Anthony Slide, and a bargain at $19.95. If this column has of yet failed to offend you, let me assure you that Incorrect Entertainment will make up for the omission.
What does one make of Darwin Porter? He was author of many of the Frommer travel guides and a former bureau chief of the Key West branch of The Miami Herald. Many probably read the Frommer guides for which he was responsible without acknowledging his authorship. Nobody can have read his 2001 novel Hollywood's Silent Closet without being aware of its author. Almost 750 two-column pages in length, it is an incredible, outrageous piece about Hollywood in the silent era with an endless stream of homosexual encounters discussed in graphic detail. I have to confess that much as I am attracted to the prurient, I could not get through this book – I gave up after less than 100 pages.
Porter has, apparently, authored a number of other novels described as best-sellers, and with Hollywood's Silent Closet he discovered a niche market in gay-themed Hollywood. In quick succession, he produced a number of biographies, equally lengthy, devoted to Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and Michael Jackson, and all (although I don't know about the last) heavy with homosexual disclosures.
The books are all published either by the Georgia Literary Association or Blue Moon Productions, and all are heavily recommended by names with which I am totally unfamiliar. Surprisingly, quoted reviews tend to be from British publications, including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Daily Express, and the Mail on Sunday (which apparently serialized the Howard Hughes book).
You notice I have not made any critical comments about these books – unlike the British press with its rave notices – and that I because I don't know what comment to make. It is just so extraordinary that these books have became popular and, unless he has a staff of writers working for him, Darwin Porter's output is quite incredible for one man. Where does he do all his research? Does he do any research?
The latest from Darwin Porter, helped by Danforth Prince, described as a former New York Times reporter, is Hollywood Babylon: It's Back! (Blood Moon Productions, Ltd., $24.95). Porter has appropriated Kenneth Anger's title, and come up with a book that goes further than did the latter, concentrating on stars of a more recent vintage and providing gay tidbits and nude photographs of many. Some of the photographs are perhaps "doctored." It is hard to decide. Some, such as full frontal of Daniel Radcliffe, appear to be genuine. (Harry Potter fans will be rushing out to buy this volume!) There are lots of outrageous quotes, all unsourced and impossible to document as to accuracy. Despite the title, the author goes far beyond Hollywood, and in a chapter titled "Doin' the Vatican Rag," identifies Pope Paul VI as gay. Even poor old Winston Churchill is outed as bisexual. It's a volume one is ashamed to read, or ogle, but which one cannot put down. Kenneth Anger must be furious that he didn't go all the way as Darwin Porter appears to have done.
You have to hand it to Mark Borkowski. He knows the art of promotion – and not only promotion, but self-promotion. A leading British public relations practitioner, Borkowski is the author of The Fame Formula: How Hollywood's Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry, published in 2008 in the U.K. by Sidgwick & Jackson. The book provides a relatively sane and entertaining overview of the public relations machine as applicable to the entertainment industry. It also contains the incredible story of Maynard Nottage, a Hollywood publicist whose granddaughter Linda Fairweather approached Borkowski in Los Angeles and gave him the family archives.
There is no record anywhere of the existence of Maynard Nottage, whose remarkable career includes promoting The Great Train Robbery, publicizing Florence Lawrence's hiring by Carl Laemmle, promotion of Chaplin's Laughing Gas, launching the career of Theda Bara, promoting Louise Brooks and Dolores Costello, and a cover-up operation in regard to the murder of William Desmond Taylor, along with many other publicity exploits. The (London) Times took up the Maynard Nottage issue in its October 17, 2008 edition, arguing that the man did not exist. "Over a ten-year period he seemed to pop up at some of the main events of his time, like an early 20th-century Forrest Gump." Borkowski responded with a press release dated October 21, 2008, in which the Heirs of Maynard Nottage expressed outrage at the article in The Times. There are lengthy quotes from a son with the strange name of Joseph Drosd.
What does it all mean? Has Mark Borkowski perpetrated a publicity hoax of his own, a hoax which conveniently helps to promote and sell his book? Is this a publicity stunt of which any Hollywood studio publicist would be proud? The answer is, in all probability, yes. Now, can any reader come up with a suitable publicity stunt to "sell" this column?