The pandemic seems to be generating more passion projects than ever, books willed into existence by their creators in spite of all odds. One such book is “The Compleat Beau Geste” by Frank Thompson, the author of two books on film director William Wellman and a noted authority on the Alamo.
The massive new book (available exclusively from Amazon) begins with an extraordinarily compelling introduction about the author’s obsession (which began as a high school student) with the P.C. Wren novel and Wellman’s 1939 film version. Thompson covers Herbert Brenon’s 1926 silent film (starring Ronald Colman) and the sound remake (starring Gary Cooper) in exhaustive detail, along with radio adaptations, stage productions, sequels and much more, including the 1977 Marty Feldman parody.
“Cartoon Voices of the Golden Age 1930-70: Pioneers of Animation Acting” (available from BearManor Media) by voice actor Keith Scott, the latter day voice of Bullwinkle, is the result of another obsession, representing more than five decades of dedicated research. It’s actually two volumes, a detailed history of the art form, and a studio-by-studio filmography of voice credits.
Scott’s efforts to name the largely anonymous voices heard in vintage cartoons is nothing less than heroic, especially considering the lack of extant documentation. Alongside the legendary Mel Blanc and such renowned voices as Mae Questal (Betty Boop), Thurl Ravenscroft and June Foray, are details on the activities of hundreds of colleagues, from Bernie Brown (who provided Looney Tunes’ sign-off, “That’s All folks!”) to Marcellite Garner (Minnie Mouse), Billy Bletcher (The Big Bad Wolf), Joe Twerp, and radio actresses Elvia Allman and Sara Berner.
Steve Massa’s “Lame Brains and Lunatics 2” (available from BearManor Media) takes a deep dive into topics ignored by most comedy film historians. This sequel to his first volume on the subject objectively explores the erratic career of Larry Semon, routinely dismissed as unfunny by lovers of slapstick comedy, and the forgotten silent shorts of beloved 1930s comic character actor Edward Everett Horton, recently exhumed on video by Massa’s frequent partner in crime, Ben Model (available on DVD from Undercrank Productions).
The “British Invasion” of music hall comedians who followed Chaplin into movies, including Billie Ritchie, Leo White, Jimmy Finlayson and Aussies Billy Bevan and Clyde Cook, is documented in detail. There’s also a book-length chapter on animals in silent comedies—including such canine stars as Keystone Teddy, Brownie the Wonder Dog and Pete the Pup (of Our Gang Comedies), Josephine the Monkey, Toddles the Elephant, and many more.
Such projects aren’t limited to books, of course. Author Chip Deffaa, who puts as much or more passion into his efforts as anyone, has produced about 40 albums by way of sharing his lifelong collection of rare recordings. He has two new CDs devoted to one of his favorite entertainers, “Al Jolson, King of Broadway” and “Al Jolson Sings Irving Berlin” (available from Garret Mountain Records). Jolie, he reminds us, was a one of a kind phenomenon—the only performer in the history of Broadway to work without an understudy.
These limited edition releases contain a lot of familiar songs, but they don’t derive from the commercial recordings we’ve heard before. Most are live performances; many have never been issued. They’re not high fidelity, Deffaa admits, but they capture Jolson’s energy and dynamism better than his famous recordings. Among them are duets with Peggy Lee, Ginger Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Martha Raye and George Jessel. There are some real gems here, including two of Jolson’s heartfelt last performances, for soldiers during the Korean War.
Speaking of passion projects, I might as well include a shameless plug for my new book, “Roman Polanski: Behind the Scenes of His Classic Early Films” (available from Applause Theatre & Cinema Books). It covers the making of the director’s first three English-language films, “Repulsion,” “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and most notably the offbeat “Cul-de-Sac,” made under the worst possible conditions. It was written with Polanski’s cooperation.