This biographical anthology from the New England Vintage Film Society celebrates the lowly thespians whose theater training turned them into Hollywood royalty in the dawning era of sound films.
While silent movies were a quintessentially visual entertainment whose performers needed striking looks and expressive pantomime, the new-fangled talkies that arrived in the late 1920s required actors who could, well, talk—and talk well. That meant ransacking the nation’s stages and vaudeville houses for actors with the resonant voices and verbal agility to bring to life film’s new aural dimension. This uneven collection of essays—highlighting big stars as well as a raft of character actors, and decorated with dozens of striking photos—charts that migration with varying degrees of sophistication. Some of the pieces are shallow, and weakly written, rehashes of a star’s early theater appearances; they treat the stage career mainly as a training ground where actors learned their craft and incubated their future movie personas. Others explore the mutual adaptation between stage and screen styles more seriously; Cinzi Lavin’s illuminating piece on Mae West, for example, shows how the pioneering vamp jumped from stage to screen by toning down her presence, keeping her razor-sharp timing and camouflaging her bawdy repartee with double-entendres that deftly evaded studio censors. The articles on luminaries such as Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Spencer Tracy are too skimpy to add much to our understanding of these already well-mapped stars. The book’s more useful contribution is in its many profiles of character actors such as Charley Grapewin and Eddie Quillan, old vaudevillians with long-honed skills at building indelible stock characters. Jon Steinhagen’s sprightly profiles of two seldom-sung Tinseltown mainstays—Warren William, the ultimate suave lothario, and Lee Tracy, eternal embodiment of working-class operators with brains and moxie—stand out as the kind of rapt, perceptive close-ups that make for vibrant film criticism.
Scattershot, intermittently engaging profiles of Old Hollywood icons.