Monday, January 16, 2012

These Amazing Shadows Giveaway Winners

Congratulations to Bob F., Janie, Bob G and Sam for winning my These Amazing Shadows (2011) BluRay giveaway. I asked contestants to write about a film they think should be in the National Film Registry and why or to share some information about the registry. Here are the winners' entries:

Bob F. of Allure:

Mystery of the Leaping Fish, The (1916) gets my vote. It shows just how different the cultural attitude toward certain controlled substances was at the time.  And it Doug Fairbanks and Bessie Love, what's not to make it a perfect candidate for inclusion.  


It's wonderful that the National Film Registry does this so all generations can look and  learn about/from movies/culture, the history of film, different cultures, the older style of special effects is on of my favorites, the things they could do way back when..   we've come a long way
Bob G.:

"I feel the National Film Registry should include a Gene Autry film.  I would consider Melody Ranch from 1940 or Back in the Saddle from 1941. I fully realize that none of the ninety-three Gene Autry pictures ever rose to the budgetary or artistic levels of a John Ford Western, yet he was more popular than John Wayne for nearly a decade. Voted the top Western star for six years straight, and was the fourth most popular of all box-office stars in America by exhibitors in 1940. I fell that the cultural impact of his films merit his consideration for inclusion
Part of his impact on American culture  was demonstrated in 1994. Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson spent four days together in a Los Angeles studio making what would be their third and final album as the Highwaymen. Among their recording selections was an old favorite: Gene Autry's Back in the Saddle Again. These legends of country music were born during the Great Depression and had grown up with Gene Autry as their hero. Gene was a great influence on these superstars trough his films.
Over the course of his career he was a star on Radio though Chicago's WLS National Barn Dance and later had his own radio show Melody Ranch. Autry's movies reinvigorated the Western with the addition of his country songcraft to action-packed morality plays. In his films, good versus evil was easily delineated. Gene Autry was in inspiration to next generation of artists, encouraging and supporting Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and others who followed. Some of his most celebrated acolytes range from Ringo Starr to Solomon Burke, Aaron Neville to James Taylor. Taylor told audiences during his 2006 tour that the inspiration behind his first hit, ""Sweet Baby James,"" was to write a cowboy lullaby like the ones he'd heard Gene Autry sing in movies when he was a boy."

"I wrote them a letter a couple of weeks ago to find someone to take an interestingly large personal collection of 16mm films that I own. I mentioned that I have an original copy of THE HEART OF TEXAS RYAN (1917) with both the Spanish and French subtitles included. The response I got from them was to contact one of 2 other organizations because my copy may be in better condition than theirs. It was a breath of fresh air to receive such nice treatment when they could have just let me slip through the cracks.
THE HEART OF TEXAS RYAN was shot on Tom Mix's ranch in Newhall CA by the Selig Polyscope Company and released Feb. 12, 1917."

Thank you to everyone who entered!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Interview with Robert S. Bader, Editor of Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales

I have had the pleasure of interviewing Robert S. Bader, the editor of the book Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales (read my review of the book here). He shared a lot of wonderful insights on Groucho Marx's writing career. Enjoy!

1) How did you become interested in Groucho Marx?

The Marx Brothers were going through a bit of a revival when I was growing up, so in the late 1960s and early 1970s I discovered them on television. I was an inquisitive kid and after seeing a couple of the films I checked out everything I could find on them in the local library and was surprised to learn that Groucho had written several books. So I became interested in him as a writer and a performer almost simultaneously. And his writing was as enjoyable to me as everything else he did from the beginning.

2) What would you like people to know about Groucho's writing career?

Groucho was mostly self-educated and sought acceptance from writers more than film critics. Writing was very important to him. He wasn't just a movie star who wrote some books and articles. He was a formidable enough writer to have succeeded at it without his other more successful endeavors.

3) Do you think Groucho's fame as a theater and film star interfered with him being taken seriously as a writer?

The most frequent criticism Groucho received as a writer had little to do with his writing ability. It was often said that he was funnier on stage or screen than he was in print. It would be hard to argue against that, but it seems unfair in assessing his written work, which is frequently hilarious. So I would agree that his status as a successful entertainer kept him from his rightful place in the world of literature. And in part because of the constraints on his time. He had a pretty successful and prolific writing career for a guy who was busy being a star for 60 years. He found time for writing because it meant a lot to him.

4) This new edition has 19 additional writings. Tell us a little about how you found these pieces and why you added them to this new expanded Edition?

Several of the additional items in the new edition were considered for the original but left out for one reason or another. I tried to keep everything in context – placing the pieces in the five sections of the book, which each deal with a certain aspect of Groucho's life and career. Many very funny and beautifully written pieces just didn't fit into any of the sections. So for the new edition I created an extra section for these difficult to categorize essays as well as a few of the items I've discovered in the years since the original publication. In the new edition I've also included a few speeches Groucho delivered. Since he wrote these without any intention of publishing them, I didn't consider them for the original edition. But over the years I've enjoyed reading them so much, I decided they belonged in the collection. Groucho's writing style is so conversational that the speeches seem like they were written for publication. My methods of finding some of this material are purely unscientific. In some cases I simply went through every page of a publication until I found Groucho's contribution. I spent many hours in libraries reading magazines from the 1930s like Judge and College Humor, which have never been indexed. As you would expect, I found a few other interesting items too. I consider it time very well spent. And the process rescued a few small treasures by Groucho.

5) Which piece in the collection is your favorite and why?

While I'm partial to anything Groucho wrote about his days in vaudeville I can say that there is one piece that stands apart for me. It was one of the things I read at a very young age that made me think the world needed a collection of Groucho's essays. "Our Father and Us" was one of the very few things written by anyone about Sam Marx, the father of the Marx Brothers. There are many articles and stories about their mother, Minnie and she developed legendary status as a result. But Sam was a very special and unique man who was so beloved that his sons considered him a sixth brother. This piece was published shortly before Sam died in 1933 and it shows a sweet and loving side of Groucho that is rarely evident in anything else he ever did. I first discovered this piece when I was around twelve years old and recall it making me more aware of the great relationship I shared with my own father, who always seemed like a friend first and a parent second.

6) My favorite piece in the collection is What This Country Needs. Could you tell us about the history of it and how Groucho came to write it?

Groucho became a very prolific writer in the early 1940s. The Marx Brothers were winding down their film career and Groucho had yet to find success on the radio, so he planned on becoming a full time writer. He wrote topical humor, quite a lot of which was published in This Week, a Sunday newspaper supplement to The New York Herald Tribune and other papers around the country. It was during this time that Groucho was involved in some collaborating with his writer friend Arthur Sheekman, who is sometimes erroneously referred to as Groucho's ghost writer. The truth is that Groucho helped Sheekman make a little money by hiring him as an editor and letting Sheekman sell a few of his own humor pieces through Groucho's agent. When he had trouble selling his own stuff Groucho and his agent let him sell the material under Groucho's name. "What This Country Needs" came to be as Groucho and Sheekman kicked around ideas and decided it would be a good time for a political piece, since it was an election year. Sheekman made some uncredited contribution to this piece but it is unmistakably Groucho's. I almost didn't include it in the book because of Sheekman's involvement and the fact that a truncated version of it appears in Groucho's 1963 book Memoirs of a Mangy Lover. But the full length original version from 1940 has so much good additional material I felt it merited inclusion.

7) What is your favorite Marx Bros. movie and why?

Like many Marx Brothers fans I love the five Paramount films – their earliest. It would be ludicrous to say that they were funnier with Zeppo, but I like seeing the Four Marx Brothers because that's how they became stars on the vaudeville stage. We get to see them as relatively young men in these films. Many people don't realize that Groucho was almost forty when the first film was made and Harpo and Chico were a couple of years older. If pressed to pick one I'd select Money Business or Duck Soup. Do I really have to pick only one? It's almost impossible for me. All of their films mean so much to me. I can say Duck Soup now and it'll be Money Business next week.

8) Why do you think people today are still drawn to the Marx Bros. movies?

Obviously they're still funny. The films were very carefully written and considering that some of them are more than 80 years old, that care paid off. There's hardly anything dated in Marx Brothers movies. Duck Soup in particular will continue to resonate as long as countries have poor diplomatic relationships. Wouldn't the world be a better place with a man like Rufus T. Firefly as president of a country? He certainly couldn't do any worse than some real presidents. Groucho's attacks on authority will remain timeless. I recently attended a double feature screening of Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers and was pleased to see a packed house that included many children laughing their heads off. It seems that each generation finds the Marx Brothers and finds them funny.

9) Tell us about your own writing career.

Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales was my first book – and as it turned out, my second book as well. (I can count the new edition, can't I?) A few years ago I wrote and produced a documentary film called The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk and I've written a few other things for television as well as several magazine articles and things like DVD and CD liner notes – usually for projects I've produced. I've also nearly finished a collection of S.J. Perelman's lost writings, which will be very similar in format to the Groucho collection.

10) What are you working on now?

For many years I've been toiling away on an exhaustive history of the Marx Brothers vaudeville and stage career. I hope to finish it in the next year or so. It's taken on a life of its own and has turned into a history of the vaudeville business as seen through the eyes of the Marx Brothers. There will be a lot of information in it that will be new to the story of the Marx Brothers – a substantial amount of material that has never been in any previous study of them. I'm also writing scripts for a weekly radio show that should debut sometime in the spring.

Thank you Robert!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales

Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales
Selected Writings of Groucho Marx
Updated and Expanded Edition
Edited by Robert S. Bader
Paperback 312 Pages
November 2011

Groucho Marx had a way with words. To me, his famous puns and one-liners are what made him so funny, more so than his funny walk and his black grease mustache and eyebrows. Most of you may not be familiar with Groucho's writings and this collection of short pieces serves as a great introduction.

Editor Robert S. Bader has compiled a varied collection of stories, editorial letters, gag pieces, advertisement copy and articles from Groucho's long writing career (1920s up until Marx's death in the 1970s). Groucho was published in Variety, Reader's Digest, the Hollywood Reporter, Saturday Evening Post, Chicago Tribune, among many other publications.

The book is very well-organized and put together. It contains a foreword from Groucho Marx's friend and interviewer Dick Cavett. Cavett has always been a great admirer of Groucho and his foreword shows his enthusiasm and devotion to Groucho's talent for wit and humor. There are several more pieces in the front matter including a foreword from Groucho himself, an introduction from the Editor as well as a few other pieces. What I learned from reading the front matter was that Groucho Marx, especially after the breakup of the Marx Bros., was passionate about his writing but also had a respect for other authors to realize that gave him some humility. He would joke about his books not becoming bestsellers and would write funny letters to his publisher about the negative critical response that one of his published books received. In the introduction, the editor quotes Groucho who had some interesting observations of the publishing industry and the realistic life of a book after publication. It still holds true today and I wish other authors would realize how fragile the life of a book really is!

The writings are grouped into 6 sections by theme and usually appear within each part chronologically. Bader does a wonderful job providing the reader context and history for each piece. There is a paragraph before each one that describes where the piece was published, the importance of when it was published (in relation to Groucho's theater and film career) and any information you may need about people, events or cultural history that would be relevant to the piece. These small introductions were very useful! Also, some of the pieces are accompanied by an image of how the original work looked in print.

I've always loved Groucho's one-liners and how he would follow one serious sentence with an absolutely ridiculous one. I just love how he twisted language that way. You don't get this as much in his writing but Groucho's wit and humor are still there. My favorite piece were the ones written in reaction to something happening during the time. The one that stood out to me was "What This Country Needs" which was a political gag piece in which Groucho "campaigns" for Vice Presidency. He extols the importance of good 5 cent cigars and plain ham sandwiches. This is my favorite part:

"But the nation does need, for one thing, a good ham sandwich. I refer to the simple, old-fashioned (now obsolete) single-decker ham sandwich which was a national institution until the druggist, with his passion for mixing things, ruined it for us. 
As an experiment, I went into a drugstore yesterday and ordered a ham sandwich. 
'Ham with what?', the clerk asked. 
'Coffee,' I told him.
'I mean,' he said, ' do you want the ham-and-tuna combination, the ham-sardine-and-tomato, or ham-bacon-and-broccoli? And will you have coleslaw or potato salad?'
'Just ham,' I pleaded. 'A plain ham sandwich, without even tomato or lettuce.' 
The young man look bewildered, then went over to the drug counter to consult with the pharmacist who glowered at me suspiciously until I fled. 
That's the sort of thing the country is up against."

I can just visualize Groucho ordering a ham sandwich, being stared down by the pharmacist and server and doing his stooped walk right out of the drug store! Ha. It's a funny joke and it demonstrates how overwhelmed Americans were with choices, as we are even more so today.

If you are a big Marx Bros. fan or just a Groucho Marx enthusiast, pick up this book! I wouldn't recommend it to someone who wasn't totally in love with the Marx brand of humor.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Applause Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!

Stay tuned because tomorrow I will have an interview with the editor Robert S. Bader!

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