Friday, February 14, 2014

Fredric March, Gunsmoke and Pin-Up Girls of WWII

Now there's a title for a blog post that you don't see every day....

Finally spent the afternoon catching up on a number of books that have been sent to me by the authors and the publishers, asking me to to reviews. Of the 20 plus books, more than half of them are not very good and I would rather not do a book review at all rather than do a negative review. These four, however, warrant a closer look and if they peak your interest, I recommend you grab a copy.

Fredric March book
by Charles Tranberg
Charles Tranberg is the same man responsible for the Agnes Moorehead and Fred MacMurray biographies published through Bear Manor Media, and as long as the archives at Wisconsin continue to provide material for such books, I suspect Charles will continue to crank them out. His recent contribution is a book about Fredric March (often mis-spelled Frederic on numerous websites), the actor best remembered as a Paramount Pictures star player whose performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1932 was the inspiration for The Incredible Hulk comic books. According to a 1938 audience poll, Fredric March came in second for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939).

Tranberg's book is not the first to center on the stage and screen actor. That devotion has been published twice in the past and while one centered on a critical study and analysis, the other was a coffee table book with lots of photographs. What Tranberg accomplished here is perhaps the first true biography about the actor. And I would like to take a moment to explain that in my opinion, biographies are the most difficult books to write... especially when the actor is no longer around and most of the people who knew him are also six feet under and pushing up the daisies. Newspaper and magazine columns cannot be counted on as the gospel, nor the studio press releases for which most of that information originated, including motion-picture press books. Hollywood created fictitious lifestyles for their contract players and whether March really loved playing polo remains to be truly verified.

In the past few years there has been a rash of biographies published that are nothing more than a compilation of newspaper and magazine clippings. Most of those same books describe how the actor felt, but how does the authors know a dead man's thoughts or feelings? To say an actor was frustrated is almost impossible to verify unless they had the actor's personal letters and correspondence. Romantically, it might be nice to think the actor was uplifted by an inspirational moment. Or that the crowd gave a standing ovation on opening night. But what forms the basis of those statements? These books are becoming a dime and dozen and are not true biographies. I consider those a chronological listing of the actor's accomplishments, masqueraded in text and paragraph form and disguised as a "biography." And those type of books I get tiresome of very quickly.

Thankfully, Tranberg avoided the trap others have fallen into. He also avoided lengthy plot summaries of movies March appeared in. After all, a biography is about the actor and there is no purpose to include lengthy plot summaries of his movies... else the author momentarily steers away from the subject at hand. This is what I refer to as "structure."

Thanks to Tranberg, March is quoted through numerous letters exchanged between close friends and professionals, recorded interviews and actors who are still around today who knew him well. As a result, the book remains both factual and trivial. So if you love reading biographies of Hollywood legends and want something to verify this is not another hack job, take my word for it. Charles Tranberg's book about Fredric March is a welcome addition to the preservation of the actor's legacy.

The Gunsmoke Chronicles
THE GUNSMOKE CHRONICLES: A New History of Television's Greatest Western
by David R. Greenland
I have four books now on Gunsmoke, including James Arness' autobiography, and I questioned whether this book might be worthy of adding another to my growing collection of reference materials. I only have so much space in the closet and the loft for bookshelves and every summer I weed out five percent of my collection because I realize they are inferior compared to other tomes, or I simply no longer have a need for them. I find myself torn down the middle when it comes to David Greenland's book. The book has some information that, together with the rest of the Gunsmoke reference guides, makes it valuable. But 320 of the 575 pages is a television episode guide that offers very little of anything that is not found in prior reference guides. Trivia under various episodes include notes any casual viewer would notice themselves: "Brief appearance by Matt at the end of the episode," "Would have made a good hour-long episode," and "Matt once again shot in the left arm." Factual trivia includes a lot of actors who worked on other series such as "First of Lee Van Cleef's three Gunsmoke episodes," "Joanna Moore also appeared in this season's 'Colleen So Green'," and "Anne Helm appeared in more than a dozen television Westerns." I would have preferred trivia that warrants repeat viewing of the episodes such as where you can see the microphone on the screen (twice in the first season alone), music cues that were originally composed for Perry Mason used on some of the episodes, bloopers such as when Burt Reynolds' hat disappears and reappears on his head during a scene, and... well, you get the idea.

In fact, every entry in the episode guide provides one or two sentences for a plot summary, writer and director credits, an episode number, title and airdate, and a small list of cast names. This is going to sound like an insult but please don't take it the wrong way: imdb actually features more information per episode entry than this book. I never use the internet as reference, so comparing it to imdb was merely a way of verifying how comprehensive (or the lack thereof) by comparison. I still prefer the printed page because there is a difference between a 500 page book on a subject and a 5 page write up on a website. (You should have seen a book McFarland published earlier this year (title will not be disclosed out of politeness) that was literally a cut-and-paste from imdb -- no, I won't be reviewing that one. It's being used as a doorstop.)

The historical write up about the series, however, is really well done, well researched and three extensive interviews with Peggy Rea, Jeremy Slate and Morgan Woodward make wholesome reading. In fact, the write-up is so good it's the only reason I am recommending this book, even with a hefty $32.95 suggested retail price. But if the only reason you are seeking interest is because of an extensive episode guide to all 20 years of televised episodes, this is not the book for you.

The Pin-Up Girls of World War II
by Brett Kiser
Every branch of the American military adopted pin-up girls as a symbol of unification during the second World War. Soldiers did not care who she was, famous or not. The long legs and wavy hair reminded the troops what they were fighting for. From Candy Jones to Dorothy Lamour, Lynn Bari (who I always thought was the perfect girl-next-door) to Janet Blair, this book covers a brief background on the women who made contributions for the war cause. You might be surprised, as you read the book, which Hollywood actress took time to respond to every letter with a signed glossy, from a soldier who wrote to her, even when it meant spending $100 a week to answer all the letters. Veronica Lake's contribution to the war effort was to stop wearing her hair down because women attempting to reproduce the peek-a-boo hair style kept getting their hair caught in the machinery at the war production plants. This book explores the origin and definition of a pin-up girl, the rise in popularity, multiple purpose, how they effected the American soldiers, and the effect they had on men stationed overseas.

Marie Wilson, performing for troops by performing a strip-tease act, would begin her performance when Ken Murray, on the stage, told the actress that her clothes had to be rationed. Evelyn Keyes once responded to a letter from an American troop stationed in Saipan, claiming that American women were few and far between and the locals were starting to look attractive. Her response reassured the servicemen that American girls would wait, that they "desired to wed returning heroes" who were the best the nation had to offer, addressing the fear of limited female partners after the war.

Brett Kiser certainly took time to explore numerous avenues to research the subject, presenting unknown fun factoids page after page. The next time I watch a motion picture set in WII and see a glossy photo nailed to the wall in any given scene, I will have a deeper appreciation for what is evident on movies that frequently screens on Turner Classic Movies. If I had one complaint (and this is a small one) is that my idea of a pin-up girl means little clothing (usually a tight, form-fitting bathing suit), long wavy hair and legs that expose more than you usually witnessed in a screwball or romantic comedy. While this book features a lot of photographs, less than half would be considered actual pin-up glossies. A friend of mine once explained to me the difference between a "cheesecake photo" and a "studio glamour shot." More than half the photos in this book are studio glamour shots and I would have preferred more "cheesecake" photos. This is the kind of book, however, that you want to take with you to the beach and relax and read and devour every word, page by page.

Radio Journalism in America
by Jim Cox
"The history of radio news reporting recounts and assesses the contributions of radio toward keeping America informed since the 1920s. It identifies distinct periods and milestones in broadcast journalism and includes a biographical dictionary of important figures who brought news to the airwaves." That's how McFarland choose to describe the book on the back cover. Since they say the cover sells the book, reading the liner notes on the back cover would not have intrigued me to open the cover and skim the pages. The first paragraph on the back of any book should explain quickly and simplistically what the book is about. After all, most people browsing bookshelves won't bother reading the second paragraph if the first paragraph did not capture their attention. But this is no fault of the author. Remember, we are talking about McFarland -- the company that specializes in selling reference books to college and university libraries. Not fan boys like myself.

On the plus side, my review here (though brief) should correct that oversight. By the time I got to page ten in this book, I was addicted to the printed page. Subject matter that might seem trivial or too scholarly to the mainstream public is actually a fascinating read and the best book Jim Cox has written in the last few years. Everything from Face the Nation to Meet the Press, the earliest milestones in radio journalism is documented with one anecdote to another. Jim covers every aspect including Censorship (always humorous by today's standards but also an education in itself), public opinion, consequences both good and bad, new gadgetry, how the evolution of technological equipment changed the way news was delivered, and the combats and rivalries between the networks are included. Have you ever been to a convention and sat in on a slide show presentation that you really had no interest in? And when the presentation was over you realized just how fascinating the subject was and your opinion about a boring topic was favorably changed? This is that kind of book.

Don't let the cover fool you. Order your copy of Jim Cox's book today.

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