Friday, May 24, 2013

Ed Wynn, Jimmy Stewart Book Reviews

I’m falling behind with my book reviews. Not a week goes by that someone isn’t sending me a book to do a book review and the pile grows faster than I can read them. So today I play catch-up. 

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BLACK RADIO IN THE UNITED STATES, 1921-1955
By Ryan Ellett
This is the kind of book old-time radio scholars will be consulting many times over the next decade, proving the Encyclopedia of Black Radio in the United States, 1921-1955 is an essential reference. And why someone hasn’t done a book about this subject until now baffles me. Almost 300 African American (and a few white) performers, organizations and series broadcast during radio’s “Golden Age” is profiled in encyclopedic form. More than half of the radio programs and celebrities documented in this 200 page book cannot be found in any other reference guide. (Hence why I say it is "essential.") From the obscure Layton and Johnstone (BBC, circa 1925) to Jerome Washington (WCBM in Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1932), they are all here.

There are two appendices: a chronology of debuts and notable events, and a week-by-week episode guide of both the pioneering African American radio series The Negro Achievement Hour and The Negro Art Group Hour, both of which debuted in 1928. Yes, the book is indexed. Yes, the book is well-researched. No, it does not have photos. But books like this one doesn't need photos when the text is truly the meat and potatoes. For fans of Duffy’s Tavern (such as myself), looking up the biography of Eddie Green is a treat because Ryan uncovered the names of a couple radio programs Green appeared in that I did not even know exist. And one pleasant surprise was a lengthy write-up of John Henry, Black River Giant, which I have seen ads for in newspapers for years but knew nothing about.

I suspect this won’t be the only book authored by the talented Ryan Ellett, and I look forward to his next one.

PERFECT FOOL: The Life and Career of Ed Wynn
by Garry Berman
To my knowledge (and correct me I am wrong) there are no biographies about Ed Wynn except for this new one from New Jersey resident and author Garry Berman. Yes, I enjoyed Keenan Wynn’s autobiography, Ed Wynn’s Son (1959), but he focuses only on his father for a brief spell. So you can imagine my surprise when this book arrived in my mail box. Ed Wynn proved that “A comedian is not a man who says funny things; a comedian is a man who says things funny.” Having listened to vintage radio recordings, watched Disney’s Babes in Toyland, Wynn’s performances on Desilu, Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone, vintage television programs and numerous cartoons spoofing the comedian, I tore into this book one Sunday afternoon and found it difficult to put down.

Where to start? Chapter Six is perhaps the most entertaining because it deals with Ed Wynn’s role as The Fire Chief for the Texaco radio program (a subject I find very enjoyable). Wynn might have been known for his vaudeville work and screen efforts but his radio program at the time was among the most popular. In this book, Wynn’s Broadway career is discussed in great detail, as well as his personal life before he decided to start a career on stage. I was only disappointed in one chapter (Chapter 13), the one covering his television work. It appeared half of the chapter was a description of the plot summaries for shows Ed Wynn appeared as a guest and I would have loved to have known more behind-the-scenes stories about the making of those programs and how television producers lured him in front of the cameras. After all, he didn’t need the money. But he wasn't known for remembering his lines and improv was more his style.

Come to think of it, there's no mention of Ed Wynn’s weekly position on The Big Show (1950-1952) mentioned in the book. Ed performed his "Carmen" routine so many times on the program it was difficult to miss him. He wasn't on the show every week... but he was on the program so often you almost thought he was a regular. I only wish there was more backstage, behind the curtain information than what was included in the book.

The photos, from the author’s personal collection, are wonderful. They help illustrate a biography that has been long overdue. If you want to know more about Ed Wynn in his early years, including Vaudeville and Radio, this is the book you want to buy and read. It is certainly worth the cover price. Garry Berman documented a lot of material about Ed Wynn’s stage work that you won’t find anywhere else.

JIMMY STEWART ON THE AIR
by Charles and Erna Reinhart
James Stewart’s life embodies professional achievement and service to both community and nation. His illustrious career encompassed theater, film, radio and television from 1930 through 1990 and included important milestones in the histories of those media. He won an Oscar for his role in The Philadelphia Story in 1940 and, in 1985, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Oscar. His military career began with his enlistment as a private in the Army Air Corps in 1941. He flew and commanded 20 combat missions, rose in rank to colonel, received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Croix du Guerre, and attained the rank of Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserves before his military retirement in 1968.

Like most Hollywood celebrities, he appeared before the radio microphone for both professional and publicity purposes. For someone to write a 600 page book documenting his radio career is impressive, especially when you consider the fact that the authors managed to compile a list so long that it took that many pages to finish the job. They document so many details such as plot summaries, script excerpts and so on, that their project is certainly a hefty cockroach killer. The authors managed to listen to two-thirds of the radio programs listed in this book. They also documented audio recordings such as syndicated transcription discs, radio commercials such as the 1988 Campbell’s Soup Company spots, public service announcements, radio drop-ins and much more. 

The only flaw I can find with the book is that while any audio recording featuring Jimmy Stewart can be referenced in a single volume that I can pull off the book shelf any time, and it helps preserve the legacy of the actor through a medium that is not often explored by Hollywood historians, the fifty dollar price tag makes me wonder how valuable the book might be for folks who find the chronological approach a sore for the eyes. You cannot read it from the first page to the last. It would be like reading an encyclopedia. Instead, if you are researching something like The Lux Radio Theatre, you would first turn to the McFarland book about Lux and then turn to this book for additional details about that particular broadcast. If you cannot find any information about an obscurity such as Miracle Over Main Street (1947), this book has some information about the radio program -- that is, if you are aware in advance that Jimmy Stewart appeared on the show so you know that you should consult this book.

It is difficult for me to do a book review for something like this because I have been part of a small operation that, week by week, adds radio credits for Hollywood actors. If we were to print out our database, it would be a multi-volume set. So when I say that Charles and Erna Reinhart did a wonderful job and I cannot see any room for improvement, I mean it. I wish other books like these were done for other Hollywood celebrities, but present-day lists of movie stars and their radio credits are often lacking commonly-known radio broadcasts. I see this time and time again in appendices and various chapters in books and are not often “comprehensive.” I fear copycats will try the same but they need to make sure they consult the probably half dozen radio historians who, day by day, dig into archives such as the Library of Congress and those owned by the advertising agencies. They compile such lists which grow with each passing week. (We just added four more radio credits for Claudette Colbert that no one knew about.) There is nothing wrong with consulting the good folks who specialize in their field and like Charles and Erna Reinhart, manage to succeed on a level that sets the bar for things to come. If Dorothy Lamour did at least 1,200 known radio appearances, I hope someone won't do a quick hack job and produce a book listing 800 appearances. Adding material such as plot summaries for movies they did on the big screen and were adapted for radio is just filler, not behind-the-scenes information. The list itself is what we look at.

Small note: No book like this can be “complete” because new radio credits will always turn up from time to time. But at least this book proves that a little hard work goes a long way and ensures the best job available under one cover and truly is as comprehensive as possible. Good job! 


THE LEGENDARY LYDECKER BROTHERS
by Jan Alan Henderson
Just who are the Lydecker Brothers, you might ask? Theodore and Howard Lydecker worked in the Hollywood film industry long before the advent of computer generated special effects. In those days, exciting and realistic action scenes had to be filmed in real time. Known throughout the industry as the “Minature Men,” they were in fact giants in their field of creating detailed scale model ships, planes, automobiles, volcanoes and trains. While these carefully crafted models performed on large-scale landscapes or backlot water tanks, all manner of mayhem and chaos would be inflicted upon them as cameras rolled at carefully calculated film speeds. The Lydeckers produced some of the most thrilling and authentic action sequences on a shoestring budget.

The exploding building in Captain America (1944) and The Black Widow (1948), the escaping gasoline truck at the conclusion of an early chapter of Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), the mechanical men in Undersea Kingdom (1936) and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), the flying sequences in Commando Cody serials, the avalanche sequence in Call of the Yukon (1938), the airplane crash landing on a train in the John Wayne picture, Flying Tigers (1942)… all crafted by Theodore and Howard Lydecker. The Japanese battleship for Remember Pearl Harbor (1942) was their handiwork (and I just watched that Republic motion-picture last week). Blazing infernos and explosions in Johnny Guitar (1954), the exploding spaceship in The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), the flying sub for underwater sequences on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68)… Lydecker again.

As you might guess, they were primarily remembered for their outstanding visual effects in the Republic Pictures cliffhanger serials, as well as their feature films. When the script called for spectacular destruction, the Lydeckers delivered onscreen production value with economy the executives of the other picture studios could only imagine. The Lydecker family helped assist the author with this book, providing a tour of the original workshop, supplying photos and everything else that would help with this monumental task. Jan Alan Henderson did a superb job and my only complaint is the lack of an index and a complete list of all the movies they worked on. The book covers them all among the chapters but a quick pit stop summary would have been nice. The photos really reveal behind-the-scenes productions that warrant revisiting. I just had to do a book review because this was released through a small press (which means you won't find this one on the New York Times bestseller list) and most of you reading this might not even know it exists. So if you love cliffhanger serials, especially Republic Pictures, this is a book worth buying and reading.

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