Issue No. 8 / June 2007
Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema, edited by Antonia Lant with Ingrid Perez (Verso, $39.95) is an extraordinary volume. More than 800 pages in length, it reprints an incredible assortment of essays and articles by contemporary women on all aspects of the motion picture. Among the "contributors" are such well-known names as Emily Post, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Djuna Barnes, Fannie Hurst, Marie Stopes, Rebecca West, and Colette. There are also pieces by critics and filmmakers as varied as Betty Balfour, Irish Barry, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Lillian Gish, Fredi Washington, Alice Guy Blaché, Ida May Park, Frances Marion, and C.A. Lejeune.
Not only are the writings published in their entirety, but also they are heavily annotated, with each section of the book complemented by a lengthy introduction. The amount of new information here is quite staggering, as is the very obvious depth of research.
As Antonia Lant notes in her acknowledgements, I was the National Endowment for the Humanities consultant for the book, and it is a volume with which I am most proud to be associated. Because the annotations gather together so much relative to women and the motion picture and because of the exhaustive selection of writings, Red Velvet Seat is, unquestionably, the most important volume on the history of women and the cinema to be published in the last twenty years or so. In fact, perhaps it should be recognized as the most important volume on the subject to date – and one that is unlikely to be surpassed on many levels. This is academic scholarship at its very, very best.
Leonard Maltin and his Movie Guide need no introduction. The latest (2007) edition of this standard reference work was published in the summer of 2006 by Signet Books and contains more than 17,000 entries, including 300 or more new ones, as well as in excess of 8,000 DVD and 13,000 video listings. It's a book that I keep on my desk and use almost on a daily basis. As I have written before, the only addition that would make it better is the inclusion of the producer/distributor, but I realize this is virtually impossible in view of the additional space it would require. This year, there are two editions of the book: a regular size paperback at $8.99 and a larger size (and print) paperback version at $20.00.
How does one justify Ford Sterling: The Life and Films by Wendy Warwick White (McFarland, $45.00)? The author states that Ford Sterling was "the" comedian until Chaplin took the crown – a highly dubious claim. In reality, Sterling was an alumnus of the Mack Sennett school of comedy, on a par with other "graduates," including Ben Turpin, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain. He did move beyond the Keystone image and become a good comedy character actor in the 1920s, a reliable performer in many major studio feature films, but he is hardly worthy of a book-length study.
The author deserves credit for her research into the comedian's early life, prior to his film career, but, generally, the book is poorly written and reads a little more than a film buff text. At times, in fact, it is nothing more than a catalog of one film after another. There is nothing the author does not consider worthy of inclusion, such as irrelevant descriptions of the paper print collection at the Library of Congress and the two-color Technicolor process (which is incorrectly described as two-strip and as being photographed on two strips of film). The author really has no understanding of film history; she believes every press release and every fan magazine piece she reads. At one point, she actually talks of dissatisfied Paramount contract players resigning – something, of course, a contract player could not do because they were under contract.
There is a filmography, but technical credits are generally not included, and synopses of films often duplicate similar synopses included in the text. Particularly weird is the author's inclusion of the release dates for some of the films in Finland. Why Finland? Why note the United Kingdom or Germany or France?
The chapter on Ford Sterling as a photographer was interesting and the information certainly new to me. But again, I think the author is over-enthusiastic, claiming that he was "an internationally recognized photographer." If he could have enjoyed "a lucrative livelihood as a photographer," as claimed, why didn't he in the 1930s, rather than desperately seek out an ever-limited number of film roles? Unfortunately, the photographs by Ford Sterling that are shown in the chapter are poorly reproduced and do little justice to whatever talent the comedian may have had.
There have been a least two English-language biographies of Josephine Baker, as well as the entertainer's autobiography, published back in 1977. The latest study of this phenomenal and remarkable African-American woman, Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image by Bennetta Jules-Rosette (University of Illinois Press, $60.00/$25.00) is, nevertheless, most welcome and should perhaps be applauded as the definitive work. It is not so much a biography as a critical and cultural study of Baker's life and career, respectful and positive throughout. It is, arguably, an academic text, and there are pages here and there that make one cringe, but it is really too good to be given that description. As the author begins her book with a personal observation on Josephine Baker as she saw her on August 28, 1963, on stage at the March on Washington, one knows this is something special, even if one is a little put off by her announcement later on the same page that a photograph of Baker wearing her famous banana skirt is "profoundly disturbing." Is this to be a feminist diatribe? Thankfully no, it is not. One assumes the author to be of the same color as her subject, and that is good in terms of tackling the racial aspects of Baker's career head-on. However, author Jules-Rosette goes beyond color to consider the entertainer's place both in French and American society. She documents Baker's humanitarian efforts (and they were many and their recounting can still bring tears to the eyes) as being as important as her endeavors as an entertainer. There have been few entertainers since – with the possible exception of Angeline Jolie – who have shown concern for ALL children of the world and the suffering that they continue to endure.
Aside from the heavily end-noted text, the book is enhanced by a chronology, bibliography and discography.
Like Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Judy Cornes, author of Alcohol in the Movies, 1898-1962: A Critical History (McFarland, $35.00) begins her study with a personal reminscence: that of seeing Jack Lemmon making a personal appearance on stage with the film, Days of Wine and Roses, at the Loew's Midland Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri. Days of Wine and Roses is just one of the major films on the subject discussed in detail, beginning with an 1898 filmed advertisement for Scottish Whiskey (is there any other type?) and the 1906 Edison production of The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. Among the other prominent feature films under consideration are, of course, The Lost Weekend and the 1934 and 1957 versions of A Star Is Born, as well as productions that do not come immediately to mind, such as The Crowd, Dinner at Eight and Doorway to Hell. Not surprisingly, W.C. Fields gets a chapter to himself as do alcoholic reporters (the subject of a 2000 Scarecrow Press volume, The Drunken Journalist by Howard Good). He doesn't get his own chapter, but Chaplin is also the subject of much commentary – and I have to confess that I had really thought of his films being so alcohol-related.
As already noted, Judy Cornes goes beyond the obvious in her critical history, and even documents novelist Jack London's writings on alcoholism, which he describes as "white logic." There is an annotated filmography, listing more than forty films relevant to the subject, along with detailed endnotes. Judy Cornes is a retired academic, and while Alcohol in the Movies, 1898-1962 meets all the required academic standards, it is thoroughly readable – and a major resource on the subject.
There have been biographies and a couple of autobiographical works by the comedian, but Jimmy Durante: His Show Business Career, with an Annotated Filmography and Discography by David Bakish (McFarland, $32.50) is probably the best available source. It was first published in 1995, and is now reprinted as a paperback. As evidenced by the acknowledgments, the amount of research is substantial, and Durante's life and career is documented in detail – but, happily, not obsessive detail. The text is enhanced by thorough listings of the comedian's appearances in film, theatre, radio, and television, along with an incredible discography and an eleven-page listing of Durante's compositions. (I had no idea that he was a composer of such magnitude, although apart from "Inka Dinka Doo"  and one or two others, the majority of the pieces are unknown today.)
Three more McFarland titles have been reissued in paperback. Jerry Vermilye's Ingmar Bergman: His Life and Films ($35.00) provides a straightforward record of the famed Swedish director's 46 productions, as well as a useful, if somewhat pedestrian, five chapter essay titled "Man and Artist." For each film, the author provides the original and English-language title, complete credits, synopses, comments by the director, and critical quotes. The last are somewhat disappointing in that often they are lifted from books rather than popular periodicals and newspapers. When a quote is from the latter, the all-important date of publication is not provided.
Fred Guida's A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens's Story on Screen and Television ($29.95) was hailed by me upon its original publication back in 2000 for its "engaging and informative text." I can only repeat my earlier comment and note how pleased I am to see this warm, sincere and definitive work back in print. Of course, I love the foreword by my friend and mentor Edward Wagenknecht. And Fred Guida's text more than lives up to that introduction. This is a book that should be on the Christmas gift list for everyone interested in the movies, but unfortunately by the time the holiday seasons comes along, it will have been forgotten. Shame!
Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star by Kelly R. Brown (McFarland, $35.00) is now available in paperback (although the price is as much as one might pay for most trade biographies in hard cover). It is an excellent biography of a pioneering screen actress. There is little point in my adding to the praise I heaped on the book when it first appeared back in 1999, but I will take this opportunity to take issue with something quoted in the book. In her final chapter, Kelly R. Brown asks various historians and buffs to offer their opinions on her subject. One respondent, William Drew, criticizes film archives for their failure to make surviving copies of the films of various early actresses available to the public through video copies. Such a comment is quite inexcusable. Public archives have only limited funds available and have a hard time of finding enough money to preserve obscure films, particularly from the silent era. They deserve praise for their work. They do not deserve opprobrium because the money available has not been diverted to making video copies available to the likes of William Drew and others. If Drew and company want videotapes from public archives, then they should be more than happy to provide the funding for the manufacture of such videotapes. Quite frankly, film buffs have never been willing to provide funding for film preservation. Years ago, the Labor Day film buff convention Cinecon boasted of its efforts to fund such preservation, but I doubt little if any money have been made available in recent years. Perhaps the time is ripe for a non-profit organization to be created by film buffs, enthusiasts and others for the sole purpose of funding the preservation of obscure, so-called "orphan films" with additional monies provided for non-commercial video distribution.
There can be few scholars and buffs who are not familiar with Orson Welles' abortive Brazilian film project, It's All True. The history of that film is recounted in positively exhaustive detail in Catherine L. Benamou's It's All True: Orson Welles's Pan-American Odyssey (University of California Press, $60.00/$24.95). Obviously, this is a story that needs to be documented. Whether a reader needs to know quite so much about it is questionable. For example, I don't know that I have ever come across a listing of the credits for a film that was never finished than runs to eight printed pages! At least the text is readable, and nobody should doubt that the author had done extensive research in both South America and the United States, where, at the UCLA Film and Television Archives, as she notes, there is still 28,000 feet of unpreserved, 35mm nitrate footage from the production. Here's an opportunity for Orson Welles fans to get together and fund a major preservation effort.
While the latter volume can be justified, I am not certain that there is any need for Jonathan Rosenbaum's Discovering Orson Welles (University of California Press, $60.00/$24.95). According to the publisher, the book "makes an irrefutable case for the seriousness of his [Welles'] work." Just as such a case is unnecessary in this day and age, so is publication of a collection of previously-published writings by the critic of the Chicago Reader, who, for some reason, is the darling of fellow (and similarly self-engrossed) critics.
First published in hardcover in 2005, Tunes for 'Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon by Daniel Goldmark (University of California Press, $15.95) is now available in paperback. Film buffs and students should be delighted. This is a lovely, entertaining and readable history of the music that has been as much a part of Hollywood's classic cartoons as the animation itself. It is a first-rate history, beginning with Carl Stalling, who composed the music for the early Walt Disney efforts and went on to be director of music for Warner Bros. cartoons, and ending with a tribute to South Park, which as the author points out quite rightly is inspired by classic Hollywood cartoons – and utilizes music for some fantastic production numbers.
Tunes for 'Toons is a volume that will appeal both to the animation buff and to the student of popular music. For its publication, as with the George Gershwin biography that I reviewed a little while ago, we have to thank the generosity of the Roth Family Foundation – and I am more than happy so to do
Two other volumes from the University of California Press are equally noteworthy and recommended: Judith Weisenfeld's Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 ($60.00/$24.95) and Dana Polan's Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film ($60.00/$24.95). The subtitles pretty much describe the content. The subject matter is new and original. The writing is engrossing and readable. I would note that the title of Judith Weisenfeld's volume has been utilized for at least two previous volumes, including William Bakewell's autobiography. So don't let the lack of originality in her titling suggest a lack of originality in the text.
David Fury has published a number of biographies over the past decade or so through his Artist's Press, and I have been happy to endorse them through the years. His latest project is Maureen O'Sullivan: "No Average Jane" (Artist's Press, $40.00), the first 1000 copies of which are signed and inscribed by the author. Complete with a detailed filmography and listings of radio and television appearances, this is an exhaustive biography. Just about the only criticism that one might make is that it contains too much – I don't think there is anything that David Fury comes across that he does not consider worthy of inclusion. Film Buffs will, of course, love it, while others might question if so many reviews need to be quoted at such length. However, I am sure that the subject would have been most pleased with the volume and the cooperation provided by her second husband, Jim Cushing.
As with all David Fury's efforts, the production is of the highest quality – and how nice to come across a volume that is stitch-bound rather the glued. This is not a book that will be found in stores, and so for more information, readers need to contact Artist's Press at P.O. Box 16087, Minneapolis, MN. 55416 or www.ArtistsPress.com.
Mike Barrier's The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (University of California Press, $29.95) has a lot of competition, most notably from Neal Gabler's recently published biography. And, an added problem for Barrier, Neal Gabler is one of the darlings of the media critics. In this latest Walt Disney biography, the reader is forced to wade through a very self-serving preface, in which Barrier admits to not having used the Disney Archives on site, but once he gets going, beginning with the events leading up to the 1941 Disney strike, the book has much to recommend it. It is very straightforward, reliant heavily upon interviews that Barrier has (thankfully) conducted through the years, and concentrates on the films rather than the politics and business activities of its subject. (The question of anti-Semitism is barely touched upon, and there is no mention of Disney's possibly having entertained Leni Riefenstahl on her 1937 visit to Los Angeles.) This book is not going to receive the attention generated by the Gabler biography, which Mike Barrier, perhaps wisely, does not mention. Is it "the best critical study to date," as one of the individuals quoted on the dust jacket maintains? Probably not. But it is pretty good, and, in the world of multi-volumes on the father of American animation, that is as good a recommendation as any author might expect. And despite the none-use of the Disney Archives, a tremendous amount of institutions are acknowledged, including, surprisingly, the Disney Archives.
How McFarland loves long titles and subtitles! Charlotte Greenwood: The Life and Career of the Comic Star of the Vaudeville, Radio and Film by Grant Hayter-Menzies (McFarland, $45.00) is based on a draft of the entertainer's memoirs, which she gave shortly before her death to William Luce, author of the play, The Belle of Amherst, along with her scrapbooks in the Cinema Library of the University of Southern California. The end result is a first-rate biography, concentrating largely on Greenwood's incredible career (as the subtitle makes clear in all media). The book also features a performance history, year by year, a far better arrangement I believe than the usual listings by entertainment categories. A Canadian art and music critic, Grant Hayter-Menzies does his subject proud.
I cringe with fear and loathing at another book about the Three Stooges. Sorry! Even more horrifying is that Stoogeology: Essays on the Three Stooges, edited by Peter Seely and Gale W. Pieper (McFarland, $35.00) looks at the comedy trio from an academic viewpoint. I have to admit that for an academic volume, the book is certainly readable, but I regret that my innate sense of good taste prevents my commenting further.
There are four new additions to the French Film Guides series, published by the University of Illinois Press, all 128 pages in length, and all available in paperback for $20.00 and in hardcover for $50.00: Casque d'or by Sarah Leahy, Le Corbeau by Judith Mayne, Cléo de 5 a 7 by Valerie Orpen, and Le Fabuleaux Destin d'Amélie Poulain by Isabelle Vanderschelden. The last, of course, is better known under its U.S. release title of Amélie. All contains detailed discussions on the production, release and critical response to the films, as well as incredibly lengthy credits, a bibliography, and other relevant documention. These are some of the best academic texts to be published in recent years, and they are deserving of far wider attention.
A prolific biographer, as well as a theatre critic, in his native England, Sheridan Morley died in London on February 16, 2007, at the age of 65. There is no question that his family background helped tremendously in his chosen career: Robert Morley was his father, Gladys Cooper was his grandmother and Noel Coward was his godfather. He was named Sheridan after the character of Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, in which his father was then appearing on the London stage. With others, Morley wrote Noel Coward and Friends (1979), edited the Noel Coward Diaries (1982), as well as Talent to Amuse: A Biography of Noel Coward (1969). He authored a biography of Gladys Cooper in 1979 and also edited Morley Marvels: Memoirs, Notes, and Essays of the Famed Actor, Raconteur, Collector, Hotel Guest, and Man of Leisure, Robert Morley that same year. He published a biography of Robert Morley, titled, appropriately enough, Robert: My Father, in 1993. Sheridan Morley published his own autobiography, Asking for Trouble, in 2002. Those are probably the best of his books as many of his biographies are very much once-over-lightly affairs, lacking any real substance, and the titles are usually nothing more than the names of the subjects: Marlene Dietrich (1977), Gertrude Lawrence (1981), Katharine Hepburn (1984), Ingrid Bergman (1985), Other Side of the Moon: The Life of David Niven (1985), James Mason: Odd Man Out (1989), Shall We Dance: The Life of Ginger Rogers (1995), Gene Kelly (1996), and Judy Garland: Beyond the Rainbow (1999). John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography (2002) is praiseworthy, but far less important are Tales from the Hollywood Raj: The British, the Movies, and Tinseltown (1984, reprinted last year with a new main title, The Brits in Hollywood), Great Stage Stars: Distinguished Theatrical Careers of the Past and Present (1986) and Spread a Little Happiness: The First Hundred Years of the British Musical (1987).
He was very disparaging of those who wrote books as a labor of love, telling me that he had many such manuscripts in his files but he wrote to make money. On a more positive note, I can recall around 1970, standing, along with Paul O'Dell, outside the Academy Cinema in London, selling copies of our magazine, The Silent Picture. Sheridan Morley and his father Robert came by, stopped to wish us well and purchased a copy (admittedly only one between the two of them).