Friday, June 17, 2016

Recent Book Reviews

Not a week goes by that someone mails me a book, which they authored or co-authored, to write a book review. Taking a quick week to sit down and speed read half a dozen, here are a few that are noteworthy to mention and hopefully you will find a welcome addition to your bookshelf.

For the First Time on Television 
(Bear Manor Media, 2016)
Garry Berman examined the history of television with a fresh approach, documenting the historical "firsts" that some of us are aware of but did not know the details behind the story. The first person ever to appear on a television screen, when the first HDTV screen made its debut, and everything in between. Did you know that the first musical-variety program aired on television was broadcast over WABD in New York? The date was September 28, 1944 and cost the station the tune of $10,000, using 44 performers. Do you know the name of the first television program to be revived on the air after it was initially cancelled? That show was The Life of Riley. Jackie Gleason played the lead for 26 weeks, starting October 1949, but it was William Bendix people had in mind when they listened to the radio counterpart. In January 1953, the program was revived with Bendix in the lead and enjoyed five additional years, ending in August of 1958.

From the first television program to use a laugh track, the first sitcom shot in front of a live audience, the first television Western, the first prime-time medical drama, the first mini-series... this book is a true geek fest.

The Entertainer: Movies, magic and My Father's Twentieth Century 
(Riverhead Books, 2012)
Two friends of mine put me on to this book, handing me a complimentary copy at the Monster Bash convention last summer. Margaret Talbot's biography of her screen actor father, Lyle Talbot. Rather than document his stage and screen career through professional docudrama, Margaret decided to explore his career with both Hollywood and social history intertwined. A captivating narrative that is not only well-researched, but the materials she had access to was the treasure chest of photos, journals, scrapbooks and recorded interviews. From his childhood in a small Nebraska town, joining a traveling carnival, becoming a magician's assistant, an actor in traveling theater troupes, a romantic lead in early talkies (including major Warner Brothers pictures with Bogart and Lombard), a figure in later-cult B movies, and the transition to television with a regular role on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, this is also the story of supporting actors who had to make the transition from one format to another to survive in changing times.  

Handsome Heroes and Vicious Villains (Murania Press, 2016)
As reported in a previous blog post (CLICK HERE), Ed Hulse recently published the second half of his highly-anticipated documentary about cliffhanger serials during the silent age. In my opinion, the era of silent filmmaking produced the best of chapter lays ranging from railroad heroines to the Yellow Peril menace. Once the movie studios transitioned to sound movies, the cliffhanger serials were momentarily handicapped with limitations (the microphone was not mobile) and discovering the most profitable chapter plays were those licensed from comic strips and radio programs, dumbed down to a juvenile audience. But it was those silent serials that are more adult, more menacing and world domination by a menacing villain is more believable.

Ind debunking old myths and uncovering new information about vintage "cliffhangers," this book definitively places the classic chapter plays in their proper historical context. The book is heavily illustrated with hundreds of rare stills, posters, lobby cards, advertisements and even frame blowups from surviving 35mm nitrate prints. In this volume, Ed explores the Arrow Film Corporation, the Vitagraph Company of America, the Davis Distributing Division, the Weiss Brothers, Mascot (most of you who love old cliffhanger serials are probably familiar with this company), the rash of jungle pictures, Universal Studios jumping in on the action of producing serials, movie reviews, budgets, vintage advertisements... it is all here. His prior told was Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders and together these two are all you need for a complete history of silent cliffhanger serials. With so many books about the old chapter plays available, these two are all you need on your bookshelf for the silent era of cliffhangers.

Space Patrol: Missions of Daring in the Name of Early Television 
(McFarland, 2005)
This book has been out for some time but now it is available in paperback format and for a superb price. Jean-Noel Bassior documented the children's television program that captured the imagination of a generation of baby boomers. The program was telecast during an era of live television and if a blooper happened on the air, it was seen by millions of viewers. Through personal interviews and tracking down family relatives to scan never-before-seen photos, a complete history of the program and the cast is now documented in 430 pages. A complete episode guide is also provided so you can read the plot summaries and follow the inter-planetary adventures of Buzz Corry and his crew.

When I first watched a couple of the television episodes many years ago, I recall saying to myself, "Boy, what hokum this is." But after watching a few more I found myself emerged and hypnotized by the continued plots and scenarios. The radio program is just as enjoyable and while many people who document television programs often dismiss the radio counterpart as a minor contribution to pop culture, it was pleasing to note that Jean-Noel took time to explore and document that aspect of the program.

The book explores an era before women's lib with the characters of Carol and Tonga, and the actresses who played the leads, the search for the Ralston Rocket that toured the country through the 1950s, premiums given away and sold to encourage young children to buy the sponsor's product, reprints of interoffice memos, budgets and all the necessary elements that make this book a must-have. My favorite was the photo of the special effects crew in the workshop as they were crafting the models used for outer space rocket ships on the program.