Friday, September 14, 2018

Frances Langford Finally Receives Her Due

To date there has never been a biography about Frances Langford in print form, which makes Ben Ohmart's latest contribution to the reference library all the more valuable. She really was the Sweetheart of the Armed Forces, once quoted of saying "God knows I would gladly give my life to help end this terrible affair and send those boys home to their families and friends where they belong." With her vocal talents as both movie star and radio personality, her career has been immortalized in recorded form. Her personal life restricted to the tabloids and gossip columns of the times, she donated everything she owned -- including letters, scrapbooks and photographs to the Martin County Historical Society in Minnesota. Anyone can visit the Elliott Museum and browse through her collection, but Ben Ohmart saved us an expensive trip across the country with this 333-page book documenting her personal life, her radio career, her screen career and more than any other aspect of her career... what she devoted to troops overseas. 

"Frances cared a lot about her war work," Ohmart explains, "and more than anything, I wanted this book to showcase her amazing patriotism." Chapter three focuses on her tour with Bob Hope for the U.S.O. 

I could go on paragraph after paragraph of what this book contains but if you are seeking a biography that covers all aspects of her life and career, this is the book. The most impressive aspect is the fact that this book features hundreds of never-before-seen photographs from Langford's personal collection and are a rare treat. Most biographies have a handful of rare photographs, sometimes as a centerpiece in the middle of a book. Ben Ohmart gave us not just a slice of the pie, but multiple pies of various flavors. The photos alone are worth the price of this book.


Friday, September 7, 2018

Forever and a Day: The Origin of James Bond

"There is only one recipe for a best seller. You have to get the reader to turn over the page."
-- Ian Fleming

It is not every day that I receive an advance copy of a novel to be published months from now and I have to confess both my sincere appreciation and excitement when I discovered it was a James Bond novel. Not just any novel, but the official prequel to Casino Royale (1953), which provides an origin for James Bond.

Casino Royale was a magnificent read. The prose was fantastic and the story simplistic. Establishing the world of spies and international intrigue the novel described celebrated world cities, beautiful women and his motif for working with them, being captured by the villain, enjoying upscale brands, and a muted violent streak that verges on cruelty. Subsequent novels were enjoyable, but nowhere near the caliber of Casino Royale. In fact, if you are going to read any other Ian Fleming novels, I recommend his third, Moonraker (1955), simply because so many elements in that novel crept into the cinema formula of the Bond movies.

Other authors took over the mantle after the passing of Ian Fleming and dozens and dozens of Bond novels have been published over the past few decades. Of recent, Anthony Horowitz took on the task and with credits to his name (the Alex Rider novels and teleplays for Poirot, Midsomer Murders and Murder Most Horrid) it was a surefire success. His first, Trigger Mortis is enjoyable and one can hear the John Barry 007 theme numerous times during action sequences. His second, due for publication in November, is Forever and a Day.


In this new entry, James Bond has just been promoted to 00 status and is sent to the Riviera (and environs, particularly Marseille) to discover who killed his predecessor and why. There he meets with a woman who may or may not be on the side of the angels, an American industrialist making film stock for Hollywood and a grotesquely fat Corsican syndicate head who deals in drugs and could be straight out of Dick Tracy’s gallery of villains. He also encounters a CIA operative who appears to be a reliable good guy. Throw in some car chases, some great food and drink and you have a classic Bond thriller.

If you do not want to wait until November, you can purchase a copy of the book from England because it was released commercially overseas back in May. But if you are seeking adventure and escapism this holiday season, treat yourself and order a copy of this book.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook

With the American Circus a dying breed, it warms my heart to see that there are a number of good folks who are taking the time to dig into archives, newspaper files and track down family relatives to compile reference guides documenting and preserving the big top. Keith Webb and Joseph F. Laredo recently published The Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook with dozens of rare and previously unpublished photographs. 

Little did I know that the circus was featured in the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock suspense classic, Saboteur, the great animal trainer Clyde Beatty would join forces with the Russell Brothers Circus, and that silver screen cowboys made professional appearances over the years: including Hoot Gibson, Reb Russel, and a brief appearance by Ken Maynard.

Hollywood celebrities were also part of the program from time to time, often to promote their motion-pictures. The circus sometimes crept into the participation of film production. The elephants in the circus were transported to the Iverson Movie Ranch for Tarzan's New York Adventure. Johnny Sheffield, known as "Bomba, the Jungle Boy," was among the endless parade of movie personalities dining in the Russell Brothers cook hour on tour, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Gene Tierney, and others. Maureen O'Hara apparently possessed a tomboy streak so she took to the animals. There is a story about John Barrymore drinking too much at the circus, and how the circus helped with the war cause during the Second World War.

The book is available at www.russellbrotherscircus.com

Friday, August 17, 2018

Mae West: Between the Covers (Book Review)

"In my long and colorful career, one thing stands out: I have been misunderstood."
           -- Mae West

Mae West: Between the Covers, edited by Michael Gregg Michaud, is not a biography of Mae West though first impression from the outside was that this was a 540-page biography. I welcome a biography that can dig up more facts than the prior volumes but this is not that type of book.

The name Mae West conjures up a sex symbol whose status diminished as a result of the Hayes Code,  but few remember that she broke box office records, earned an Oscar nomination for "Best Picture" with She Done Him Wrong, and fought against William Randolph Hearst who insisted his editors avoid mention of her name in his newspapers. In private, she was different from her screen counterparts: he led a quiet, moral life. It was West herself who confessed, "I am a showman and I know that the public wants sex in their entertainment, and I give it to them." 

It is this last remark that makes up the majority of the book -- reprints of vintage magazine articles of the times, chronicling her career as it was documented on the newsstands beginning with an article from Liberty magazine, August 10, 1927. As most serious scholars and historians will attest, many articles in magazines and newspapers of the times were fluff pieces -- with quotes and information provided by the movie studios and their publicity departments. In short, we take what was on the printed page with a grain of salt. 

The earliest articles in this book provide interesting information on the stage plays she starred and co-starred, including one from 1929 that appeared in the International Police Bugle, printed and circulated in Detroit, Michigan. The year of 1933 featured numerous articles warning readers to be prepared for the Mae West that was coming to a theater near them, with such headlines as "Broadway's Most Daring Actress Drops Into Hollywood" and "Look Out! Here's Mae West!"

The supposed daring jewel heist from which Mae West was a victim is documented in the January 1933 issue of Movie Classic, Lew Garvey's fascinating article "I Fired Mae West for Doing the Shimmy," and "Mae West's Personal Maid Tells All" from January 1934 verified she was headline news of the time. Of amusement was a rash of articles from late 1933 and early 1934 suggesting sh knew more about sex than the average reader, with such articles as "Sex is Beautiful, Mae West Sex-plains It All," "Mae West Tells How to Handle Men," "Mae West Discusses Men and Sex Appeal" and "It's the Caveman Within Us Calling for Mae" that suggest she would say almost anything to hype her latest motion-picture.

For a fan of old-time radio, such as myself, the March 1934 issue of Radio Stars featured "Can Mae West Beat the Radio JINX?" The articles venture to May 1977 when After Dark printed an article about her personal and screen career.

The book is a fascinating and entertaining read. If you love reading those old magazine articles from the 1930s and 1940s, you will enjoy this book. If I had but one complaint... there is no index which would have been great when someone like me wants to look up Cary Grant or Edgar Bergen to see how her name was reported alongside those personalities.