The line between scholarship and obsession is often blurry. Academics are praised for spending years on a thesis or book, while superfans and enthusiasts are often dismissed as wackos. Here are five happy results of personal, passionate pursuits: four significant books and one great DVD/Blu-ray.
A TOUR DE FARCE: THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE THREE STOOGES ON THE ROAD by Gary Lassin (The Stoogeum)
This 765-page oversized book is incredibly heavy to pick up—but having plopped it on my lap the other night I found it equally difficult to put down. I am a sucker for photos of vintage theater marquees and old newspaper ads touting movie-plus-vaudeville shows. This book has literally hundreds of such images, along with a detailed record of every stage appearance the Three Stooges ever made—including the day I saw them at the Oritani Theater in Hackensack, New Jersey, which I now know for certain was July 18, 1962. The author has been compiling these photographs and information for many years as the creator and owner and of the Stoogeum, in Philadelphia, as well as editor and publisher of The Three Stooges Chronicle. If you grew up watching the Stooges as I did and didn’t discard them as an adult, you’ll probably enjoy immersing yourself in this detailed account of their career away from Hollywood—before, during, and after their heyday in movies. There are so many things to learn (they once shared a bill with Mel Tormé…they played the London Palladium on the same bill as Senor Wences, etc, etc.) and almost every appearance is documented with rare photos, posters, and ads. It’s an embarrassment of riches. You can get your copy for $49.95 with free shipping at www.tourdefarce.net.
THE COMPLEAT BEAU GESTE by Frank Thompson (Men with Wings Press)
I’ve known Frank Thompson for many years and read most of his books, on subjects including director William Wellman and the history of The Alamo on screen. I also know that once he latches onto a subject he tries to learn everything he can about it. (His original book about Wellman morphed into a huge tome, coauthored with John Andrew Gallagher, that is no longer available.). Now, a lifelong interest in the many adaptations of P.C. Wren’s colorful novel Beau Geste has resulted in a self-published coffee table book. The frontispiece features a handsome color rendering of Fort Zinderneuf, the unforgettable desert fortress where the story takes place. The Compleat Beau Geste is just as advertised, a big book that tells you everything you might want to know about the 1924 novel, the great 1926 silent film adaptation (and its nearly-forgotten director, Herbert Brenon), the less-great 1939 remake, the even lesser 1966 version, Marty Feldman’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), and Frank’s own discovery, The Lost Remake of Beau Geste (1940), shot by college students after Paramount left its standing sets behind in Arizona. Along the way the author takes us on interesting side trips and detours (even providing a link to an Orson Welles radio adaptation from 1938) in a book that can truly be classified as unique. The 456-page opus is available in paperback and hardcover from Amazon.
THE SOUNDIES: A HISTORY AND CATALOG OF JUKE-BOX FILM SHORTS OF THE 1940S by Mark Cantor; introductions by Leonard Maltin and Will Friedwald
As you may infer from my name on the cover, I cannot pretend to be objective about this book or its author. Mark Cantor is the preeminent jazz film collector and historian of our time and, like me, a devotee of Soundies, those three-minute shorts produced in the 1940s for the first generation of video jukeboxes. As long as I’ve known Mark he has been compiling the information contained in its 878 pages (broken up into two phone-book-sized volumes). At $125, it is not intended for the casual reader, but it will be an invaluable resource for researchers and diehard Soundies fans alike. Earlier efforts along these lines have done yeoman service but are now superseded by this massive endeavor. Cantor gained access to corporate paperwork in order to recount the behind-the-scenes story of how the concept came to fruition, providing context as well as content. The amount of detail (all thoroughly indexed) is staggering. I didn’t realize there were so many producers and suppliers of Soundies besides R.C.M. Productions (R for F.D.R.’s son James Roosevelt, C for songwriter Sam Coslow, M for Mills Novelty Co.)…including ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. That’s just one example of things I learned while browsing through this unique compendium of facts and figures. It’s taken a long, long time to see the light, but this book was worth waiting for.
INVADERS FROM MARS (Ignite Films DVD/Blu-ray)
Like many baby boomers I have indelible memories of seeing this 1953 science-fiction gem for the first time on television, in black & white. What kid wouldn’t respond to a story about aliens inhabiting his parents’ bodies? Only in later years did I come to appreciate the reasons for its staying power and its ingenious production design and use of color. In fact it was directed by the man who invented the term “production designer,” William Cameron Menzies. Another boomer who never forgot the film grew up to become a world-class film preservationist, Scott MacQueen, and he has produced a special edition of Invaders that can easily be labeled as definitive. Not only has he conducted a 4K scan from the original camera negatives and master positives, but he’s provided us with the original trailer, interviews with the film’s young star Jimmy Hunt, Menzies’ biographer James Curtis and granddaughter Pamela Lauesen, produced a featurette where such admirers of the film as directors John Landis and Joe Dante, editor Mark Goldblatt, and Oscar-winning visual effects artist Robert Skotak sing the praises of the movie. The estimable author and screenwriter John Sayles’ introduction of the film at the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival adds further validation of its latter-day reputation. But wait—there’s more! MacQueen includes the alternate international version of the film’s finale, before-and-after footage showing what materials he had to work with and his results, a gallery of images from the original pressbook, and a booklet which includes his essay “Invaders from Mars: A Nightmare of Restoration.” This beautifully executed disc is a must for every video library. And if the extras don’t interest you, a DVD version is currently available at a discount price. Details are HERE.
FOUR OF THE THREE MUSKETEERS: THE MARX BROTHERS ON STAGE – UPDATED EDITION by Robert S. Bader (Northwestern University Press)
I know for a fact that Robert Bader spent years traveling around the U.S. to read microfilm copies of local newspapers that weren’t available online, just to confirm the exact playdates of the Marx Brothers’ appearance there over one hundred years ago. And if you want to examine the weekly managers’ reports from the Keith/Albee vaudeville circuits you must pay a visit to the University of Iowa in Iowa City—which he did. His 2016 book incorporated this mountain of information into a compelling text that provided valuable insights into the unglamorous world of vaudeville. What could he have possibly left out? Here is his response: “Most of the new material appears in the stage chronology: new dates, corrected theatre names, etc. A fair amount of this came from readers in far flung places. (I was unfortunately not able to visit every library in the country, so I relied on the kindness of strangers in some cases.) It was a good move putting an e-mail address for updates in the book because there are people in places like Ardmore, Oklahoma who care about where the Six Mascots played when they passed through town in 1910.” He also expands and corrects the details of an incident involving Mabel O’Donnell, who was part of The Three Nightingales act, thanks to a connection with O’Donnell’s granddaughter that was made right after the hardcover version of the book went to press.