Issue No. 3 / February 2006
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans get the star treatment in King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West by Raymond E. White (University of Wisconsin Press/Popular Press, $65.00). This 550-page volume is chockfull of facts, with eleven appendices listing the pair's films, radio appearances, recordings, compositions, television appearances, and much, much more.
The problem is what the book is not – and that is an academic text. Normally, I would criticize most academic volumes in the film field as unreadable. But King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West is too suggestive of a film buff compilation. I hate to admit it, but the book is too readable, particularly if you like a dull and uninspired text and have an over-enthusiasm for credit information. A mere 115 pages (less than one third of the book) are devoted to a narrative discussion of the couple's lives and careers. While the author deserves praise for his diligence and open-mindedness in avoiding any critical commentary of, for example, Dale's obsession with inspirational works and her frequent appearances on the Trinity Broadcasting network, one wishes that he might have – at the least – tried to analyze the films and why they were successful.
There are only three references in the text to what I consider Roy Rogers' best film, Under Western Stars, and no commentary whatsoever as to the political nature of the production, its criticism of Washington government and its demand that water be provided freely to the American farmer. The film reads at times like a communist tract, but the reader would be totally unaware of this from the author's vague description. Even the hit song from the film, "Dust," which contains a powerful political message, more appropriate to an offering from Woody Guthrie or Willie Nelson, is described only as "interesting and unusual."
It is difficult to find fault with King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West as a reference work, but it could have been so much more. In all truth, it is a book that would seem more appropriate to the film buff-oriented output of McFarland than the publishing image of a University press. Even the price of $65.00 suggests a limited print run, although the publisher does describe this as a "Collector's Edition," and makes a vague promise that a paperback edition may one day be available.
(For the record, King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West is published by the Popular Press, formerly located at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and acquired as an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press in July 2002. Backlist titles of the Popular Press are now available from Wisconsin.)
Stephen D. Youngkin has made something of a career out of Peter Lorre. Back in 1982, along with James Bigwood and Raymond J. Cabana, Jr., he published The Films of Peter Lorre, and in 1998, he was responsible, along with Felix Hoffman, for a German study of the actor. Now, he has produced what is, unquestionably, the definitive work on his subject, The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (University Press of Kentucky, $39.95).
Peter Lorre is probably best known to American audiences for his performances in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, and, to a lesser extent, for the 1931 German Classic, M, directed by Fritz Lang. Youngkin takes the title of his book from the 1951 German production of Der Verlorene, a dark vision of the country's Nazi past, which Lorre co-wrote, directed and starred in. The film failed to gain an immediate American release, and Peter Lorre was doomed for the rest of his career to portray slightly "campy" characters, often villains, in films such as Beat the Devil, The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. He even played the Emperor Nero in the ghastly The Story of Mankind.
In a book that is over 600 pages in length, Stephen D. Youngkin chronicles in perhaps at times too much detail the life and career of Peter Lorre, from his 1904 birth as Laszlo Lowenstein in Hungary to semi-stardom and certainly celebrity status in Hollywood. (The early, pre-film years are the only one discussed and dismissed relatively briefly.) Youngkin had tremendous admiration for his subject, but he cannot be faulted in terms of coming to terms with and pointing out the more unpleasant sides to Lorre's character (most notably drug addiction and ill-treatment of women). There may have been a pixie-like quality to many of Lorre's American performances, but at times in his private life he seems closer to his German characterization in M. For this reader, at least, he is not likeable. Yes, Lorre is an intellectual, but he is also vulgar and crude. As an example, at one point he takes a high colonic, and when Humphrey Bogart comments, "Jesus, it stinks in here," Lorre responds, "It's a lot of those Warner Bros. scripts I'm getting rid of."
The Lost One is a curious mix of text that can sometimes be amusing and sometimes ponderous. Lorre's relationship with Brecht, as documented here, is particularly fascinating. At the same time, there is nothing that the author seems willing to leave out. As a result, he needs two sets of endnotes, one providing information as to the origins of quotes and the other providing basic documentation as to sources. There are also detailed listings of Lorre's stage, screen, radio, and television performances, both in the United States and in Europe.
To his credit, Stephen D. Youngkin does discuss individual films, with some attempt at analysis. In that sense, this is not a film buff publication – although it will undoubtedly appeal to that group. In many ways, The Lost One is a remarkable record of a remarkable, if flawed, life and career.
The University of Illinois Press is distributing the "French Film Guide" series, edited by Ginette Vincendeau, originally published in the United Kingdom by I.B. Tauris. The latter is also responsible for a "British Film Guide" series, edited by Jeffrey Richard, which is, I believe, available from Palgrave/St. Martin's Press in the U.S. I also understand that no further books are being contracted for that series, which is a great pity, as one would assume it would have a wider audience than for a series on French cinema.
The first four books in the series are currently available in both hardcover and paperback editions: Alphaville by Chris Drake ($40.00/$15.00), Les Diaboliques by Susan Hayward ($35.00/$15.00), La Haine by Ginette Vincendeau ($40.00/$15.00), and La Reine Margot by Julianne Pidduck ($40.00/$15.00).
Each follows a format that is basically the same, and which is both sensible and praiseworthy. Aside from an academic analysis of the films, comprising the bulk of the books, the reader is provided with a detailed discussion of each film's production, along with an examination of the box office and critical response. There are extremely detailed credits, a synopsis, a bibliography and variant supplemental information. For example, La Reine Margot includes a historical timeline and a filmography for star Isabelle Adjani, while Alphaville includes an Henri-Georges Clouzot filmography.
Each title represents an exemplary work of scholarship – one might only wish that a similar series existed for American films – and the only criticism that one might make is that the illustrations are very, very poorly reproduced. One suspects they are taken from DVD or VHS tapes. One can only hope that the series will continue, and that the editor and publisher will consider including more classic French titles from the 1930s and 1940s.