Friday, November 23, 2012

Hans Conried, Errol Flynn, Thomas Ince, Zacherly and The Cisco Kid

Not a month goes by that I don’t receive at least half a dozen packages from various folks encouraging me to review their recent publications. I don’t know why. I doubt my endorsement would increase book sales. I do, however, manage to find time to look at them all (a great way to pass the time when traveling by train or plane), but only a few impress me. With the new age of print-on-demand, anyone can be a publisher as well as an author. The result? The number of nostalgic pop culture books to be published have grown in the last decade, but the quality of the material is thinned out and in many cases… well, poor. I read one this week about a popular television series from the sixties that was so bad I had to express my disappointment to the publisher. The author simply watched every episode and typed a lengthy plot summary and a brief commentary. Nothing more. No history, no interviews with cast and crew. Really? That’s what a $50 book is worth these days? Yeah, I was disappointed. In most cases, published reference guides offer far more than what you find on the internet. Seriously, I can gain a lot more from an 800 page book than an eight page summary on Wikipedia. But in the case of this television tome, I could get more browsing the often-incorrect imdb web-site because they offer a cast list and the book did not even bother to go that far!

Rather than offer bad reviews (which I don’t want to do), I will devote this blog post to six books I found to be really, really good. And they have my highest recommendation. Looking for some books to read this holiday? Check these out!

Hans Conried, actor
HANS CONRIED: A Biography; With a Filmography and a Listing of Radio, Television, Stage and Voice Work
By Suzanne Gargiulo

Hans Conried was once described by the well-known Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as “a high-strung, droll fellow, plagued by a multitude of talents.” Conried was indeed a talented and versatile actor, but his versatility made it difficult for him to find his niche as an actor. For Disney fans, his voice will forever be synonymous with Captain Cook. For Rocky and Bullwinkle fans, his numerous voices (including that of Snidely Whiplash) is unmistakable. For fans of old-time radio, his numerous appearances on The Mel Blanc Show, The Cavalcade of America, The Alan Young Show and Suspense are almost impossible to document fully. It was Conried, supposedly, who played with sound effects equipment and once made the sound of the guillotine prematurely on a 1943 broadcast. It was Conried who murdered Agnes Moorehead on “Sorry, Wrong Number” and delivered the punch line too soon in that same calendar year -- thus causing confusion with radio listeners along the East Coast. But this never hampered his radio career.

In 2002, Suzanne Gargiulo completed an exhaustive reference work about Hans Conried, putting to rest a number of questions us animation, old-time radio and television fans have been asking for years. Most importantly, was his last name spelled Conried or Conreid? It’s listed both ways in movie credits but Suzanne clarifies this with birth records. She visited UCLA, Boston University, the Lilly Library in Indiana University, Thousand Oaks Library in California, the Museum of Radio and Television in New York, the Maryland State Archives, Wichita State University and most importantly contacted the Conried family who offered insight, photographs and other valuable materials. Without the generous help of the late Mike Wallace, she would not have been able to rescue a copy of his 1959 interview with Hans Conried from the UCLA archives where the negatives were rapidly deteriorating.

From stage, radio, marriage, the Army years, motion-pictures, television, Jay Ward… it’s all here. With a foreword by Leonard Maltin, you can be assured Hans Conried: A Biography; With a Filmography and a Listing of Radio, Television, Stage and Voice Work is an essential “must” for anyone who wants to know more about the actor who played Dr. Terwilliker in the 1953 film, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. And because we don’t have more books like this one on supporting/character actors, Suzanne’s book should be used as a cookie-cutter format for books to come. The author has a web-site, by the way.

Errol Flynn, actor
ERROL FLYNN: The Quest for an Oscar
By James Turiello

Errol Flynn was certainly a character on screen and off. He was a free spirit who played by his own rules, much to the chagrin of the Hollywood producers. Warner Brothers used him to the best of their ability as a swashbuckler in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, the latter of which he is best remembered today. James Turiello compiled a great book about Flynn’s personal life and professional career. While there have been books written about Flynn, this one is a notch above for one noticeable feature: over 200 photographs including candid images. With so many scholarly books published these days, loaded with details we couldn’t possibly remember moments after we close the cover, it’s nice to have a book that is easy on the eyes and worth taking along on an airplane flight to help pass the time.

All the basics are here: Flynn’s personal life before his Hollywood career, how he searched for an Academy Award, went to Cuba… you get the idea. Things I learned after reading this book? Flynn was the author of three books, two of which were novels, Beam Ends and Showdown, and the third was an autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. A postage stamp was made in Germany with the image of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.

Having recently watched San Antonio (Warner Bros., 1945) with Alexis Smith and Errol Flynn, picking up this book was a treat. The movie wasn’t one of his greatest but the scene with Flynn marching the sheep down the center of town against ranchers and cattle herders was superb. If you love Flynn’s swashbuckling adventures, this is one book you’ll want to get.

Zacherly, the horror host
By Richard Scrivani (with Tom Weaver)

In 2004, John Zacherle and Richard Scrivani were in the “cool ghoul’s” Manhattan apartment, exploring and cleaning out the Legendary Zacherley Closet, looking for memorabilia that they could photograph and feature on the DVD documentary, The Zacherley Archives. They came across a large cardboard box packed with items such as newspaper clippings, photographs, press releases, fan letters, advertisements, scripts, handwritten notes and much more. This book is essentially a scrapbook of John Zacherle’s career as a late-night horror host of Shock Theater in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most have never been seen before in more than 50 years and I got a kick out of reading the handwritten complaint from a faithful television viewer who was disgusted at the letter he received from the station regarding the fan club. (You have to see it to believe it.) Lots of fun. If this is your cup of tea, grab this book and enjoy every page. I sure did.

Ed Hulse's Pulp Collecting Guide
By Ed Hulse

Buried treasures, secret formulas, hidden passages, trap doors, death rays, mad scientists, gangster chieftains, Oriental masterminds, hooded villains and intrepid heroes. These are the things that come to mind when someone mentions pulp fiction, whether magazines or paperback reprints or dime novels or hardcover anthologies or…. but pulps also include romance and Western yarns.

There had been other books printed about the subject but neither exactly what beginning collectors seem to need. Ed Hulse, having been in the hobby for many years and really knows his stuff (and is a great guy, by the way), decided to fill the void where no one went before.

Ed helps the readers gauge the desirability of certain pulps -- if not their actual value -- offering real indication of relative merit or significance attached to particular magazines and issues. Want an October 1929 issue of Black Mask which features the first of five installments of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon? Be prepared to pay more for that issue than most other issues of Black Mask. Want to know what is the most desired and most expensive pulp ever published? (I’ll give you a hint: it has the first appearance of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan character.)

One thing Ed did not do is create a systematic or comprehensive attempting at pricing. He made some estimates here and there (much like the facts I pointed out above regarding Tarzan and The Maltese Falcon), based on current trends, but his guide is not meant to be a price guide. And for beginning collectors out there take note: the pulp collecting community never embraced the concept of such a book, fearing that yearly updates would spark runaway inflation, as what happened in the comic book industry. Pricing pulps is, as Ed explained, “nearly impossible to ascertain in the first place.” What sells on eBay one week for $300 can sell for $25 the next. But Ed does explain (and prove) that assembling a small library of representative titles doesn’t require taking a second mortgage on the house.

Page after page, Ed explains how certain magazines contain varied interest and which ones are worth reading. He explains that the most popular romance pulp was the long-running Love Story Magazine, because of Peggy Gaddis. She was to love pulps what Max Brand was to Western magazines: a high-volume producer who maintained a consistent level of quality and a sizable fan following. You learn what makes Weird Tales and Argosy always in demand. If you want to collect issues of The Shadow, Ed explains where Walter Gibson peaked with brilliance and names a number of issues that serve as starting points and will not disappoint the reader if they buy and read them. Captain Future, Texas Rangers, The Spider, G-8 and his Battle Aces and many others are documented in the same fashion. So rather than buy an issue and hope it is a good one, Ed’s book serves in the same fashion as that of an expert standing next to you making recommendations, letting you know that the post-war era issues are not as enjoyable and which ones to keep an eye out for in case there is a hidden treasure at a bargain price among the stack.

Weird Tales, for example, offered original stories by Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and if you look for such examples as the November 1941 issue, you’ll find a short story adapted from one of Alonzo Deen Cole’s radio scripts of The Witch’s Tale. If the word “Spicy” was on the cover of the magazine, it meant more than exotic settings and romantic notions: it meant hard core romance with half-naked young women behaving in ways that wouldn’t be countenanced in the big cities or out on the ranch.

Every page is illustrated with two scanned covers of pulp magazines. Towards the end of the book, Ed lists other books and publications he recommends for further reading. Even if you do not plan to collect pulp magazines, this book is essential because it’s a wealth of material. You learn all about the magazines themselves and serves as a quick reference guide. Want to know when Doc Savage acquired Pat, his faithful sidekick? Want to know which Western pulps are scarce and sought after by experienced collectors? Want to know which two pulp magazines featured a Buck Rogers short story (before Buck Rogers became a comic strip)? Grab this book. It makes fascinating reading.

Thomas Ince, Hollywood Pioneer
By Brian Taves

When a book like this, published by the University Press of Kentucky, receives the “Book of the Month” treatment from Turner Classic Movies, I know it is going to be a winner without even opening the cover and reading the introduction. On a November week in 1924, Thomas Ince (a pioneer and legend of silent motion-pictures) died from what some believe was mysterious circumstances. A recent movie, The Cat’s Meow (2001), depicts a jealous Hearst believing Marian Davies was romantically involved with Charlie Chaplin. An enraged Hearst fired a pistol, mistaking the burly Ince for the slight comedian. Supposedly Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons was a witness and so gained her position with Hearst’s syndicate newspaper. The facts are otherwise and Brian addresses this issue in the very beginning of the book before venturing to the real centerfold: Thomas Ince’s career in the motion-picture business. And getting the so-called scandal that never was out of the way, the book turned out to be a very enjoyable read. I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed the chapters but to do so would do an injustice to Brian who obviously did a lot of research and his work speaks for itself. If you love silent movies and you are going to only buy and read one book about the silent era this year, this is the one.

The Cisco Kid movies and television show.
By Francis M. Nevins & Gary D. Keller

I want to make full disclosure right now, up front and center: I co-wrote a book with Mike Nevins and while I value his friendship, the following book review is honest and sincere. No favoritism was applied here.

A very lavish 260 page coffee table book (large in size) has something you don’t see in most books: color photographs. It’s very expensive to have color in a book which might explain the expensive price tag. But ten minutes into this book and you’ll agree with me that it is an essential read for anyone who loves The Cisco Kid. Mike wrote a book titled The Films of The Cisco Kid in 1998 and it’s been out of print for a long time. Make no mistake, there is no comparison between the two and any purchase of the former is like buying the cheapest tires for your Ferrari 458.

The Cisco Kid: American Hero, Hispanic Roots builds upon Mike’s 1998 book. Retaining the original’s thorough, chronological study of The Cisco Kid in films and its in-depth analysis of the Cisco phenomenon, The Cisco Kid adds a Hispanic sensibility to the history of the character in the United States film. Despite the Cisco Kid’s initial creation outside the Hispanic world by writer O. Henry and filmmakers such as Webster Cullison, by 1929’s first Cisco sound film, In Old Arizona, the fictional character was endowed with a Latino persona that it has retained in Hispanic as well as mainstream American culture. Heck, a recent set of three comic books by Moonstone Press still verified the popularity of the character.

Chapter by chapter, the book covers all aspects from the O. Henry short story, Cisco in the silents, Warner Baxter as the first talkie Cisco, Cesar Romero, Duncan Renaldo, Gilbert Roland and even Jimmy Smits. Even the television series was extensively covered with an episode guide for each and every ZIV-TV episode shot on film. Personally, I never enjoyed the television series or the radio program of the same name. I have friends who enjoy The Cisco Kid, but I don’t share that enthusiasm. But some of the movies I found to be very enjoyable and it is the movies that this book centers on more than any other aspect of the character.   

Lobby cards, movie posters, glossy photographs, behind-the-scenes images, oil paintings, book covers and more add sugar to a book best described as meat and potatoes. Francis M. Nevins and Gary D. Keller cover The Cisco Kid so extensively that they leave very little for anyone else to explore regarding the subject. As it should be with good books like this.

All of these books are available from