Saturday, October 7, 2017

Too Marvelous For Words: Silent Slapstick Book Reviews

Four books arrived at my front porch recently, all published by Bear Manor Media, focusing on the actors and actresses who made silent movies and pre-code classics essential viewing. The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez by Dan Van Neste documents the life and career of the first actor to play the role of Sam Spade on celluloid. Beginning with his poverty-stricken childhood and stage work, the author progresses chronologically through Cortez's accomplishments. His triumphs, tragedies, loves and scandals, not to mention his film legacy, this book portrays a behind-the-scenes view of the "Latin lover." The author contacted Cortez's family relatives to dig up details never documented in print, and feature photographs you will not see anywhere else. With today's print-on-demand technology, anyone with a computer can type a biography about a Hollywood celebrity and have it published. Recent efforts have been nothing but hack jobs and I find many of them padded with extensive plot summaries of motion-pictures. Thankfully, Van Neste avoided this pitfall and instead focused on the life and career of Ricardo Cortez. If you ever wanted to know more about Ricardo Cortez, this 580-page book earns my seal of approval.

Steve Massa wrote a 600-page book documenting the funny women beloved by the audiences of their day, but have been "overshadowed by the boy's club," to quote the author. Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy features extensive biographies of such legends as Mabel Normand, Pearl White, Billie Rhodes, Ruth Stonehouse, Marie Dressler, Betty Browne, Merta Stering, Vera Steadman, Jobyna Ralston, Anita Garvin and many others. The author presents their stories both academically and through enjoyable prose, with the closing fourth of the book serving as an encyclopedia. Where many books about silent slapstick focus on 101 for the beginner, this book serves as Silent Slapstick 102. Some of these "Divas" were completely new to me and caused me to pull out a few of the silent slapstick DVDs from my shelf to view. Sprinkled with photographs and vintage advertisements, this is an essential book for those who thought they knew more about silent slapstick than the average fanatic. 

Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Career of Ruby Keeler by Ed Harbur serves as a valentine to one of the most beloved stars of the stage and screen. Known to film buffs as the wife of the great Al Jolson, I was pleased to see Ruby receiving her due considering she is often overshadowed by Jolson's larger-than-life career. She sacrificed her principals and refused to follow the dictum of Hollywood, and documents the details behind her recovery from a severe brain aneurysm. The first 128 pages focuses on her biography, loaded with archival photographs, followed by extensive documentary on each of her motion-pictures. If Keeler was nervous behind the camera, Harbur found evidence and documented it. This is the kind of book you pull off the shelf when Turner Classic Movies screens Ruby Keeler movies, so you can read the behind-the-scenes making-of before the movie begins. 

Within ten years of his 1906 arrival in the U.S., Henry Lehrman had achieved both fame and fortune in the fledgling film industry. It was Lehrman's guidance and creativity that ushered newcomer Charles Chaplin to international popularity at Mack Sennett's Keystone. Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling and numerous others benefited immeasurably from his direction as well. Author Thomas Reeder wrote Mr. Suicide: Henry "Pathe" Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy, subject matter that only fans of silent slapstick would be familiar with before opening the book. At 800 pages you can be assured the author did his legwork. Does he cover the alleged rape and subsequent death of Lehrman's finance, Virginia Rappe, at the hands of his friend Arbuckle? He sure does. If a producer wanted to license this book into a documentary, the meat and potatoes are found within the first 400 pages. The second half documents all of Henry Lehrman's comedy shorts, complete with cast, production credits, plots, reviews and behind-the-scenes trivia. 

In a world where hack jobs and semi-decent reference guides contain grammatical cosmetics "borrowed" from Wikipedia, it is gratifying to know that Bear Manor Media has turned out four consecutive reference books focusing on silent slapstick and pre-code entertainers, all of them sure-fire winners, with authors to took the time to do the legwork and present us with more information than you can find on the world wide web. These are the type of books that win awards.    

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