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Book points: From silents to noir

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Posted: Saturday, June 30, 2012 12:25 pm

    Now in softcover is Silent Film Performers: An Annotated Bibliography of Published, Unpublished and Archival Sources for More Than 350 Actors and Actresses by Roy Liebman (McFarland softcover, $25). First published in 1996, this 391-page volume is ideal for researchers. Taking, for example, Richard Arlen (a particular favorite of mine), his entry tells us the following: Real name, birthplace, birth and death dates, with a short biography. This is followed by a list of articles in magazines that feature him.

Even better is the section called “Archival Material” – telling us where there are clipping files on him (and a sample of what’s available), plus the location of legal files, still collections, scrapbooks, and correspondence, etc. This is an amazing book. I wish someone would do a similar one on the later (1930s/1940s/1950s) stars, although people like Arlen crossover to those eras. The effort the author put into this is staggering, visiting or contacting archives to assemble this bounty of information for the researcher. The Appendix is a directory of collections that contain silent film material. It includes address, phone, hours, contacts, and other particulars. The bibliography, with its hundreds of listings, is a wonder. A very useful book all around.

    Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953: A History of Prime Time Programs Through the Ratings of Nielsen, Crossley and Hooper by Jim Ramsburg (McFarland softcover, $65) traces the history of radio ratings and explains the inner workings of the system. Very dry, and hardly a page-turner, it’s still interesting to learn how it all evolved. Die-hard radio fans will enjoy this. The author knows his stuff; he’s an insider who has a working knowledge of the book’s contents. That would bode well for any subject.

    Eighty Silent Film Stars: Biographies and Filmographies of the Obscure to the Well Known by George A. Katchmer; Filmographies by Richard E. Braff; Foreword by Samuel K. Rubin; Index by Sue Laimans (McFarland softcover, $75). The late George A. Katchmer was a former columnist for Classic Images, and a very enthusiastic supporter of silent movies. First published in 1991, this new softcover edition comes in two volumes. The hardcover version was a very pricey $99.50 when first released, and it’s still up-there price-wise. I will tell you that Eight Silent Film Stars doesn’t contain the typical bio sketches. Mr. Katchmer maps out the lives and careers of his subjects, but he also expresses an understanding of their screen personas. He does this in a short amount of space – three to five pages average, not counting the extensive film lists. Some of the information, while not detailed, is at least unusual (i.e., George Bancroft’s bigamy), giving us a rare, personal view of these actors. Not rumors, mind you, but long-since-forgotten printed reports.  “In this book,” the author writes in his introduction, “you will not find the ‘big’ name stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino, and others of the top echelon, simply because they have been introduced time and again in various books. Nor will you find stars of the western genre like Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Jack Holt and a few others for the same reason.” This is exactly why I enjoyed this. You WILL find: Art Acord, George Bancroft, Richard Barthelmess, Warner Baxter, Noah Beery, Sr., Wallace Beery, Monte Blue, Joe Bonomo, Hobart Bosworth, William (Hoppy) Boyd, Harry Carey, Edmund Cobb, Jim Corey, Fred Kohler, Bob Kortman (this last three share a chapter), Ricardo Cortez, Donald Crisp, Reginald Denny, William Desmond, Richard Dix, William Duncan, Dustin Farnum, William Farnum, Lefty Flynn, Francis Ford, Robert Frazer, Hoot Gibson, Alan Hale, Kenneth Harlan, Neal Hart, Raymond Hatton, Jean Hersholt, Johnny Hines, Jack Hoxie, J. Warren Kerrigan, Norman Kerry, Rod La Rocque, George Larkin, Montagu Love, Francis MacDonald, J. Farrell MacDonald, Wallace McDonald, Nelson McDowell, Slim Summerville, Ernest Torrence (this last three sharing a chapter), J.P. McGowan, Victor McLaglen, Tully Marshall, Ken Maynard, Frank Mayo, Thomas Meighan, Walter Miller, Ruth Mix, Antonio Moreno, Pete Morrison, Jack Mulhall, Conrad Nagel, Warner Oland (pre-Charlie Chan data), Eugene Pallette, Jack Perrin, House Peters, Eddie Polo, Herbert Rawlinson, Ruth Roland, Albert Roscoe, William Russell, Tom Santschi, Milton Sills, Russell Simpson, Lewis Stone, Richard Talmadge, Conway Tearle, Fred Thomson, Ben Turpin, Tom Tyler, George Walsh, H.B. Warner, Bryant Washburn, and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams.  There are three problems with this volume, however. First off, with the exception of Ruth Roland and Ruth Mix, there are no actresses. Secondly, the editing is, at times, off; one paragraph in particular jumps from marriage infidelity to a love of pets, for no apparent reason. The last difficulty is that Richard E. Braff’s filmographies, at times, contradict Katchmer’s text. Who’s right? The only sure thing (for me) is the William Boyd chapter. The text is about the Boyd we all know, the actor who played Hopalong Cassidy. In his write-up, the author is careful to mention and distinguish the other actors who share that name; Braff, however, mingles films that are definitely NOT Hoppy Boyd’s in his film list. A meeting between author and film compiler was needed. Otherwise, Braff’s contribution is, as usual for him, well done. If you can ignore these slight problems, you will like Eighty Silent Film Stars. It’s still worthwhile. The pictures (88) are good, and the subjects are unusual.

    George A. Katchmer’s A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses, with a Foreword by Diana Serra Cary (McFarland softcover, $49.95), is now much more affordable than it was as a hardcover. 488 pages, 986 photos and a listing of a thousand film players – what’s not to like? This is similar to his previous volume only in that it contains uncommon names: Jack Curtis, Lew Meehan, Blanche Mehaffey, Leon De La Mothe, Gladys Hulette, Virginia Lee, Irving Cummings, Robert McKim, Guy Oliver, Nell Shipman, Tyrone Power, Sr., Chief Yowlachie, and many, many more. This is an important work for western and silent fans alike. George A. Katchmer dedicated his life to preserving the memories of silent film actors; these books are his lasting legacy.

    Another goodie now in softcover is The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies by Michael G. Ankerich, with a Foreword by Marion Shilling (McFarland softcover, $35). While I don’t really like the title of the book, there is no denying it’s an excellent read – Ankerich is, for me, one of the best writers we have on classic film; he doesn’t write enough to suit me.  Here’s the line-up: Hugh Allan, Barbara Barondess, Thomas Beck, Mary Brian, Pauline Curley, Billie Dove, Edith Fellows, Rose Hobart, William Janney, Marcia Mae Jones, Barbara Kent, Esther Muir, Anita Page, Marion Shilling, Lupita Tovar, and Barbara Weeks. There’s a lot of insight therein: Thomas Beck explains what went wrong with his brief career. The talk with Edith Fellows was a bit sad, although she is clearly a fighter and a survivor. After all she went through at least the payoff is positive. I was completely fascinated by Barbara Barondess, as I wasn’t acquainted with her story at all. Marion Shilling was a great choice, and a great interviewee; would love to read more about her.

    Similar to this volume, and still available from McFarland, is Silent Stars Speak: Interviews with Twelve Cinema Pioneers by Tony Villecco (McFarland softcover, $39.95) -- another book seriously worth your time. Here are the interview subjects: Baby Peggy, Priscilla Bonner, Virginia Cherrill, Pauline Curley, Jean Darling, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Francis Lederer, Molly O’Day, Anita Page, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, David Rollins, and Andrew Stone. All are career-oriented, except for the Baby Peggy chapter, which is about silent film preservation. My favorite? Jean Darling talking about Our Gang, Maxie Rosenbloom, Herbert Marshall, and Clark Gable reading her fairy tales; a marvelous chapter.

    Ankerich and Villecco are very different writers, and approach their subjects in singular manners. Ankerich is more thorough, seeking the whole story; Villecco’s chapters are sometimes shorter with an emphasis on certain topics. So, although they both interview Pauline Curley and Anita Page, their take is not the same; both are valuable to their fans. I like both styles very much.

The most important aspect about these interview books is that the writers got to their subjects just in time to record their stories, since many have since died. But, here, are lasting documents on their lives and careers, put together by film historians who truly care. Do not pass these up!

    A handy little volume is The Soundtracks of Woody Allen: A Complete Guide to the Songs and Music in Every Film, 1969-2005 by Adam Harvey, with a foreword by Dick Hyman (McFarland softcover, $49.95). Allen is well known for incorporating classic songs in all his films, and this guide lists all of the music used, from Take the Money and Run (1969) to Match Point (2005). Harvey gives a scene-by-scene analysis for each movie, focusing on how Allen utilized the music. I am, however, dismayed by the inflated price for such a short tome (228 pages) – no matter how good this is.

    In a two-book softcover set is the originally hardbound Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry ($75). Hannsberry is truly a superb writer, and I love how she concentrates on the actor’s private lives and discusses each of their noir roles. Here is the amazing “cast”: Luther Adler, Leon Ames, Dana Andrews, Ed Begley, William Bendix, Bruce Bennett, Humphrey Bogart, Neville Brand, Steve Brodie, Raymond Burr, James Cagney, Morris Carnovsky, Fred Clark, Lee J. Cobb, Steve Cochran, William Conrad, Richard Conte, Elisha Cook, Jr., Jeff Corey, Wendell Corey, Joseph Cotten, James Craig, Broderick Crawford, John Dall, Howard DaSilva, Ted DeCorsia, Albert Dekker, Brad Dexter, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Howard Duff, Dan Duryea, Jay C. Flippen, Glenn Ford, Wallace Ford, Douglas Fowley, John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Farley Granger, Sydney Greenstreet, Sterling Hayden, Van Heflin, John Hodiak, William Holden, John Hoyt, John Ireland, Paul Kelly, Arthur Kennedy, Berry Kroeger, Alan Ladd, Jack Lambert, Burt Lancaster, Sheldon Leonard, Sam Levene, Gene Lockhart, Peter Lorre, Frank Lovejoy, Barton MacLane, Fred MacMurray, George Macready, Herbert Marshall, Victor Mature, Mike Mazurki, Charles McGraw, Ralph Meeker, Robert Mitchum, Harry Morgan, Tom Neal, Lloyd Nolan, Edmond O’Brien, Moroni Olsen, Jack Palance, John Payne, Dick Powell, Vincent Price, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Mickey Rooney, Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Everett Sloane, Mark Stevens, Paul Stewart, Barry Sullivan, William Talman, Robert Taylor, Lawrence Tierney, George Tobias, Regis Toomey, Harold Vermilyea, Clifton Webb, Jack Webb, Orson Welles, Richard Widmark, and Cornel Wilde.  Good solid research, great photos – 148 of ‘em. There are quite a few surprises in here, and where else are you gonna read chapters on actors such as Jack Lambert, Harold Vermilyea, Steve Brodie, and James Craig? The Craig chapter, in particular, interested me. I’ve always liked him, but, boy, his private life was messed up, and it was probably key in cutting short his career.  I envy Hannsberry’s economy of words; she gets so much in, but in a short amount of space. It’s quite wonderful to me. This book is tops, and having all these fabulous actors under two covers (no jokes, please) is a major selling point. Film noir fans or just regular ol’ movie buffs are gonna love this. Get it while you can.

    Also available is Hannsberry’s Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film Noir (McFarland softcover, $75), another two-volume set of an original hardcover. Here are gals profiled: Lauren Bacall, Joan Bennett, Ann Blyth, Peggie Castle, Jeanne Crain, Joan Crawford, Peggy Cummins, Rosemary DeCamp, Yvonne De Carlo, Faye Emerson, Hope Emerson, Rhonda Fleming, Nina Foch, Sally Forrest, Ava Gardner, Gloria Grahame, Coleen Gray, Jane Greer, Jean Hagen, Dorothy Hart, Signe Hasso, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Virginia Huston, Adele Jergens, Evelyn Keyes, Veronica Lake, Ida Lupino, Dorothy Malone, Marilyn Monroe, Agnes Moorehead, Cathy O’Donnell, Dorothy Patrick, Jean Peters, Ella Raines, Ruth Roman, Gail Russell, Jane Russell, Lizabeth Scott, Barbara Stanwyck, Jan Sterling, Gene Tierney, Audrey Totter, Claire Trevor, Lana Turner, Helen Walker, Marie Windsor, Shelley Winters, and Loretta Young.  Hannsberry is a first-rate researcher, and effectively mixes personal interviews and past interviews with her subjects beautifully. There are simply no other volumes like these; don’t make the mistake of waiting to buy them. If you’re a film fan and you aren’t excited about the subjects for both of these books, I just don’t know what else to say to you. ORDER FROM McFarland & Company, Inc. Box 611 Jefferson NC 28640, or  800-253-2187, or www.mcfarlandpub.com

    And I urge all to subscribe to The Dark Pages, “the planet’s only hard copy newsletter devoted to the shadowy world of film noir.” It’s edited by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, so you know each and every eight-page, bi-monthly issue is gonna be excellent. The newsletter contains movie reviews, biographies of performers, quotes, guest essays, and photos, etc. It’s also available in an electronic version. For more information, go to http://www.allthatnoir.com

    And, remember, tell them you read about it in Classic Images!!