Book Review: “The Hal Roach Comedy Shorts Of Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts And Patsy Kelly” By James L. Neibaur

Nowadays there’s a lot of hubbub about actresses in modern comedies, with plenty of well-meaning people proclaiming that the existence of Melissa McCarthy or Kristen Wiig proves that, at last, folks are figuring out that ladies can be funny too! It only took 130 years, y’all! No one has ever, ever noticed this before, and no, I’ve never heard of Mabel Normand or seen I Love Lucy, why do you ask?

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“…Oh. But that was, like, in black and white.”

But, as the introduction to James L. Neibaur’s latest book The Hal Roach Shorts of Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly points out, the funny ladies of film have been with us far longer than that–since the darn dawn of cinema, I would add. A few perfect examples from the Golden Age of Comedy are Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, and Patsy Kelly, who starred together in a number of shorts in the 1930s (Todd and Pitts were a comedy team for a few years; when Pitts left the Roach studio in 1933 Patsy Kelly took over her half of the team). While there are a couple biographies of ZaSu available and several about Thelma (due to her tragic death in 1935), Neibaur’s book is the first to examine the short comedies of these frequently overlooked comediennes. Continue reading

Book Review: “‘Bare Knees’ Flapper: The Life And Films Of Virginia Lee Corbin”

If I tell you to picture a child star from the silent era, two that will come to mind are likely Jackie Coogan or Baby Peggy. Likewise, if I tell you to picture an actress famous for portraying flappers, you’ll probably think of Clara Bow or (I hope) Colleen Moore. But one actress who probably won’t occur to you is Virginia Lee Corbin, a former child star who also managed to transition to flapper roles as she matured. But happily, writer and researcher Tim Lussier is determined to get you acquainted with this overlooked actress with his fine biography “Bare Knees” Flapper: The Life and Films of Virginia Lee Corbin. Continue reading

Book Review: “How To Film Moving Pictures in the 1910s” by Darren Nemeth

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I’m happy to say that the author of 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 122: Deluxe Reprint Edition has done it again! (Have you not read 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 122: Deluxe Reprint Edition? You should!) This time, as part of his newly-dubbed “Moving Picture Reprint Series,” Darren Nemeth is offering How To Film Moving Pictures in the 1910s. Much like his first book, it already promises to be an important part of my film history library. Continue reading

Book Review: “The Silent Films of Marion Davies” By Edward Lorusso

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For decades, silent star Marion Davies was known mainly for two things: for being the mistress of uber-powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and for supposedly being the inspiration for the untalented Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Well, the latter isn’t true–Susan was based on the wife of a different uber-powerful magnate (as Orson Welles himself finally revealed). And as for the former, while Marion was certainly part of a faithful “arrangement” with Hearst right up until his death, it didn’t define her. A look at her films proves that she was a warm, hardworking, immensely talented woman who likely had the charisma to make a name for herself in Hollywood without Hearst’s help. (I’d say she was mighty lucky to have him on her team, but she was already working on her acting career before he swooped in with 5-gallon buckets of money.)

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Book Review: “Slapstick Divas: The Women Of Silent Comedy” By Steve Massa

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Fans of film history–rejoice! For in the Year of our Lord two thousand and seventeen, the library of essential early film books like The Parade’s Gone By and Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory has been expanded by Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy by film historian Steve Massa. It’s been my most anticipated book of the year, and as you can already tell, I was not disappointed.

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Book Reviews: “Keaton” By Rudi Blesh And “Tempest In A Flat Hat” By Edward McPherson

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As part of the ongoing, year-long celebration of his 1917 entry into films, I will periodically review the prominent books on Buster Keaton. Here’s my take on two of the more widely read biographies out there:

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One of the great classic film biographies, Keaton–along with Buster’s own autobiography–is an absolute must for anyone looking to learn more about our favorite straight-faced comedian in a porkpie hat.  Continue reading

Book Review: “Bebe Daniels: Hollywood’s Good Little Bad Girl”

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Classic film fans who are curious enough about early Hollywood history to look beyond familiar stars like Clara Bow or Louise Brooks and seek more obscure personalities might be amazed by how many there were. Dozens of actors and actresses are forgotten today, but were once familiar sights in theaters across the nation. They were beloved by fans and left their own unique marks on pop culture–sometimes in careers that spanned decades. Take Bebe Daniels, for instance. Continue reading

Book Review: “Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap”

Decades before the likes of Lucille Ball, there was another comedienne who was every bit as well known and influential–the “madcap” Mabel Normand. She was one of the earliest screen comediennes, and for a time was the biggest. She coached Roscoe Arbuckle and directed Charlie Chaplin when they first arrived at Keystone. She was loved by moviegoers the world over. And yet, strangely, almost no books have been written about her. One “major” biography came out over 20 years ago, and…left a lot to be desired. (References and bibliographies are useful things.)

But cue the trumpets, for at long last a new biography is coming out, the result of seven years’ worth of research by author and enthusiastic fan Timothy Dean Lefler. It’s detailed, it’s sourced, it even has appendices. It gives Mabel the kind of thorough appreciation that’s been needed for decades. Is it, perhaps, definitive? Well, let’s take a look. Continue reading

Book Review: “1907 Chicago Projecting Co.’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 122”

Now this isn’t a book you get to review every day! Technically, the full title is: 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 122: Deluxe Reprint Edition, since this is the catalog’s first reprinting in over 100 years. Yes, the last time film exhibitors set eyes on this book’s contents was seven years before WWI–back in the era of vaudeville and nickelodeons! Continue reading

Book Review: “Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen”

I sometimes wonder: If comedian Larry Semon had been completely forgotten over the years–that is, if he hadn’t been discussed by Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns, and hadn’t been mentioned by people like Buster Keaton, and hadn’t had public domain copies of his films passed around over the decades–in short, if he’d been relegated to the kind of obscurity once shared by Charley Bowers, Marcel Perez, and Musty Suffer, would we look at his films today and think, “Wow, this guy’s a great performer–why haven’t I heard of him before?” Continue reading