Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Reviews

As an author and researcher with credentials, it comes as no surprise that I get solicited with a number of books from other authors, asking for testimonials. I rarely do it unless the testimonial is for the back of a book. I’m touched when someone asks me to write a foreword, a request I get from someone in what appears to be every month. I suspect the reason for this request is to help sell books -- my foreword would be considered some form of endorsement that graces the front cover. But in almost every case I have to decline either because I know nothing about the subject or never got to review the book in advance to write some praise. After all, why endorse a book I have never seen?

Getting back to reviews, I received a package the other week from Bear Manor Media, containing half a dozen new books. I just spent the past week and a half reading and skimming through each tome. Some are quite impressive. Bear Manor Media, for those who haven’t been keeping in touch with the hobby, has become a force of thunder in the publishing industry. Before Bear Manor, the only companies specializing in reference books about vintage movies, television and radio programs were McFarland, Scarecrow and Midnight Marquee -- the latter of which primarily dealt with classic horror and science fiction movies. The first two, regrettably, cater to the college and university market and are dreadfully expensive. Like McFarland, Bear Manor Media has successfully published books about my favorite subjects, with varying degrees of quality and comprehensiveness -- all depending on the authors. (Hey folks, no publishing company can have a successful track record all the time. There’s always going to be  a few winners and a few losers.)

Author Michael Hayde standing behind Bear Manor Media's table at the 5th Annual Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention.

Before I offer my reviews, I’d like to make mention of a few things. As a researcher with vast connections and sources, I am in the rare position of finding room for improvement when I know of an archive that features valuable information and discover that the author did not consult those sources. The general public wouldn't know of this and therefore not be as critical. My expectations are higher than most, but I try to take this into account before typing my opinions. Second, with some name status I find myself the victim of poison pen e-mails from people such as “so you reviewed his book but you didn’t review mine?” Remember that these books were sent to me with a request to review them. It doesn’t mean I’m trying to shun someone else.

RAWHIDE: A History of Television’s Longest Cattle Drive
by David R. Greenland
This was a pleasant surprise. While I saddled up for what appears to be the first fill-length account of the television Western, I’m still surprised someone has not done so prior. The history of the program was an enjoyable read. The photographs are reproduced and easy on the eyes. There’s a good interview with Gregory Walcott, who was a frequent guest on the program. My only complaint is the author did not do much legwork. He did interview a few of the actors such as L.Q. Jones, Warren Stevens and the late Richard Devon, and it would have been nice to see a lot more recollections from the cast. (I’m not referring to Clint Eastwood. We all know he doesn’t like looking back on his past.) There’s certainly many actors still around and many were interviewed in the past in magazines and they did comment about their appearances on Wagon Train. I would have liked to have read more of those. The only flaw of the book is the episode guide. I’m sorry, but when the author listed the episode number, title, broadcast date, teleplay credits, director, cast and plot, there isn’t anything here that makes the book stand out above the internet. Heck, the closing credits list more information. Imdb.com (as much as we know how inaccurate that site is) lists more detail such as the names of the fictional characters each actor played. In short, I could add more information to the episode guide myself simply by watching the episodes. But ignore that criticism. The history of the series along is worth the cover price. 

I, RED SKELTON, EXIT LAUGHING or, A Man, His Movies, and Sometimes His Monkeys
by Wes D. Gehring
 I don’t know what to make of this. I’ve never seen a book like this before. In what the author describes as “the creative fruits of an academic haunting,” it’s an autobiography of Red Skelton, written by someone else. The author, Wes D. Gehring, met, interviewed and sometimes hung out with Red Skelton during his performing visits to Ball State University. He even gave the keynote address at the BSU ceremony in which Skelton received an honorary doctorate. Since then, Gehring has written 30 film books, generally about comic personalities, including two biographies about Red Skelton. So putting himself into the mindset of Skelton, sat behind the keyboard and typed an autobiography through Skelton’s lips, as Skelton would have done so if he was alive today. At first I thought was this is a disaster. And a bit confusing for the first few minutes as I tried to envision Skelton’s voice beginning with the opening lines, “I was born four days late….” But as I continued to read through the pages, I began devouring everything. And it works. If the author had wanted to commit fraud and claim he found Skelton’s long-long autobiography, he would have fooled me. Gehring did a great job, and you can tell the man did his homework. 

My only concern is how many people might be confused and begin quoting from this book in future reference guides (and magazine articles), quoting what they think is Skelton’s own words. Or worse, they quote from the book and then someone else sees that quote and makes the mistake, thus starting a long-time problem of deciphering what is and is not really Skelton’s own words.

YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO
edited by Ben Ohmart
This book was meant to be a supplement to Ben Ohmart’s biography on Paul Frees, Welcome Foolish Mortals: The Life and Voices of Paul Frees, but never came to be. Perhaps it was just as well. The biography would have been too thick and these letters are more personal than professional, and would not have been of interest to most readers. So a separate book about two war-time lovers works by itself. For the most part, these are love letters to and from Paul Frees’ first wife, Annelle, during their heartbreaking years of separation during World War II. While the horrors of the war are only hinted at, we might say that on the plus side, because of the war, there’ a more permanent record of Frees’ early years, before he became a showbiz professional, than we otherwise would have had. The letters are featured chronological from 1943 to 1945, and even if you don’t know who Paul Frees is (but I’ll wager you money you’ve heard his voice), it’s a collection of love letters during World War II that is welcome anytime. While it’s not a documentary or reference guide, if you enjoy this kind of thing, it comes recommended.

A number of years ago, my mother, a friend of mine (Arlene) and myself typed hundreds of love letters from a man who was stationed overseas during World War II. While they never got published, we succeeded in preserving part of our past which I encourage anyone to do because paper ages and one day most of the WWII love letters won’t be easily available.

JEFFREY HUNTER AND TEMPLE HOUSTON: A Story of Network Television
by Glenn A. Mosley 
When NBC-TV abruptly pulled The Robert Taylor Show from its fall primetime schedule in the middle of July 1963, Jeffrey Hunter’s Temple Houston Western series was rushed into production and into the spotlight. The cast and crew had just a few chaotic weeks to get their one-hour weekly dramatic series underway. Hunter described the series as “a different kind of Western, a whodunit on horseback.” Well, the real mystery is why the series has not yet been released on DVD. Television westerns are popular and thanks to companies like Timeless Media Group, they’ve been coming out on DVD faster than cattle drives. At this point in time, it’s probably the last major television Western that hasn’t been made available yet.

This book isn’t very big. 139 pages, and that includes three appendixes, the bibliography and the index. But the author proved that sometimes thin books are great when they are able to compile everything. I don’t think the author overlooked anything. My favorite books are those that are so comprehensive, you know that you won’t ever have to buy another book on the same subject. The author interviewed a ton of actors, even those who did not appear on the program but did work or know Jeffrey Hunter, the star of Temple Houston. The author also did his legwork and toured archives to ensure the most comprehensive and accurate information possible. Example? The episode guide cites the exact dates of when each episode was filmed, Hunter’s salary for each episode, behind the scenes trivia and working titles. Titles and authors for unused plot proposals are also listed.

My only complaint is that while Mosley lists the complete cast list, he doesn’t list the corresponding fictional characters for all of them. One episode features Ben Wright in the cast. I know what he looks like and if I saw the episode, I could tell you what character he plays. Sadly, that’s lacking. But that’s a minor gripe. Seriously, I wish a lot of books about television Westerns were like this one.

YOU WOULDN’T LIKE ME WHEN I’M ANGRY!
A Hulk Companion
by Patrick A. Jankiewicz
“Doctor David Banner, physician, scientist, searching for a way to tap into the hidden strength that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of Gamma Radiation alters his body chemistry. And now, when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs…”
With Marvel’s heroes now among Hollywood’s biggest stars, it seems fitting to revisit The Incredible Hulk, the television series that was their first live action success. For five seasons, David Banner traveled the back roads of America (which resemble the Universal Studios back lot) on his quest for a cure. With over 500 pages of Gamma-powered goodness, including exclusive interviews, rare photos and a foreword by Lou Ferrigno, this book documents the history of the television program in detail. Almost every episode has two or three comments, recollections and anecdotes from actors, writers and directors who were involved with the series, offering behind-the-scenes stories. That means the author did a lot of work to get the facts.

While reading the book, I was reminded of how fun the series was when I was growing up. I personally enjoyed the episode, “The Antowuk Horror” which was a salute to old horror movies, including characters named Bates and featured the clock tower from the Universal Studios back lot, to name a few surprises. “Married,“ the second season opener, was the only episode in which Banner confronted his raging alter ego on the program. “My Favorite Magician” featured Ray Walston in a fun episode that brings the viewers back to the days of the comedy sitcom that needs to introduction. “Homecoming” was the episode in which Banner went back home to confront his father and learned what motivated him. Remember the two-parter when Banner was fused into a Demi-Hulk and left him stuck in mid-Transfusion? Or the episode when Banner finally finds a cure and is forced to use it on the duplicate Hulk running around, ruining his chances for a self-made cure?

I enjoyed an early chapter about the comic books, explaining the difference between the comics and the television program, and which plots were borrowed for the series. I have all of the comics and always felt that those first six (the first run of comics) with Jack Kirby’s Frankenstein impression of The Hulk was some of the best art ever created for comic books. I still rave about them today. As much fun as it was to revisit the series, some of the trivia was troubling. What made me sad was knowing that Ang Lee’s Hulk received the highest ratings of any movie debut on USA Cable and the SyFy Channel in over a year. How can that be? The movie sucked. I mean, c’mon. Hulk dogs? A villain that vaporizes into nothing? The second movie, The Incredible Hulk, starring Ed Norton, was much better and very enjoyable. (I also liked the fact that the second movie retold the origin of The Hulk through the opening credits, so we wouldn’t waste half the movie revisiting what we already know.) Until I read this book, I never knew they created a She-Hulk television pilot, which now tempts me to find a bootleg and watch it for sheer enjoyment.

There are plenty of behind-the-scenes photos, but sadly, a couple appear pixeled as they were blown up too big. This is no fault of the author or the publisher -- just technology. In the introduction, the author states that The Fugitive template had been used many times over the years, for many different shows. He is correct. I’ve been saying that for years. “It’s another Incredible Hulk” is the terminology I’ve been using for years. Thankfully, this book stands out as a fantastic reference guide and if you love the television program (or the comics), it deserves a place on your bookshelf.

FLIGHTS OF FANTASY: The Unauthorized but True Story of Radio and TV’s Adventures of Superman
By Michael J. Hayde
Small disclaimer: Mike is a friend of mine. But even shelving friendship aside to do an honest book review, with or without this disclosure, I’d like to state that this is a great book. With so many books about Superman out there, it’s pleasing to know that one book has everything you’d want to know under one cover. Trivia, background production and numerous behind-the-scenes stories make this a must-have for everyone’s shelf.

The subtitle speaks for itself. This is not a history of the character in the comics, but rather a history of the radio program and television program. Mike not only covers the history of the programs, he also explores various aspects such as racial intolerance (did you know that Superman battled the KKK on the radio program?), the origin of Kryptonite (which appeared on radio before the comic books), the lack of continuity in the later years (circa 1947 to 1949), and why the television producer created the Stamp Day for Superman film short that has soared across the internet (including YouTube).

The episode guide for the television program reveals bloopers, in-jokes, which episodes were adapted from radio scripts and script dialogue from deleted scenes taken right from the scripts. The complete storylines for two unproduced TV episodes are included. George Reeves’ personal appearances are also documented throughout. My only alarm is why the curator of the a museum in New Jersey allowed Mike a personal tour of the archives, which contained all of the radio scripts, but never granted the author a chance to browse or read the scripts to gather plot summaries. What’s the point of owning a museum in your basement (no joke) and allowing researchers the opportunity of touring the archives for show-and-tell, but not allow them to do any serious research? I know the curator of the museum personally and it’s not surprising.

When someone writes a bad book, it leaves room for improvement and encourages others to out-do the first attempt. For the author that doesn’t do a superb job, this fact becomes front door reality one day in the future and the fault belongs to no one but the author. When good books like this are well-researched and the ego of a museum curator is the only thing that prevents the book from being “definitive,” it’s a damn shame. But ignore my complaint -- the first paragraph of this review speaks for itself. There’s no room for improvements and if you love The Adventures of Superman (radio and/or TV) and have always wanted to write a book about the series, forget it. Mike did it justice.

All of these books are available at www.BearManorMedia.com

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