Scattershot, intermittently engaging profiles of Old Hollywood icons.

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PLAYBILLS TO PHOTOPLAYS

STAGE PERFORMERS WHO PIONEERED THE TALKIES

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.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1453587744

Page Count: 570

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: March 24, 2011

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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