John McCabe’s MR. LAUREL & MR. HARDY (1961) – Beautiful tribute to Stan and Ollie

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Prof. John McCabe befriended Stan and Babe after meeting them at one of their British-hall performances in the 1950’s, and one of the byproducts was this wonderful book. At the time of its first publication, biographies and histories of movie comedians were scarce, and their filmed work, while broadcast frequently on TV, was at the mercy of programmers who would butcher these comedy classics to get commercials in. Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy, along with Robert Youngson’s movie compilations of silent-era comics, helped to renew fervent interest in the duo’s movies and assured them of their rightful place in film history.

I hadn’t looked at this book in a long while, but recently on the podcast “Maltin on Movies,” film historian Leonard Maltin and show-biz gadfly Mark Evanier reminisced about their favorite Laurel & Hardy moments, and they highlighted this book in particular. So I re-read my dog-eared copy of the book for the umpteenth time, and it made me realize that, just as Stan and Ollie’s love for each other shown through in their movies, so McCabe’s affection for the duo shines through in his book.

It must be noted that elements of the book have dated somewhat. Years after its publication, Laurel & Hardy movies that had been regarded as long-lost have turned up over the years, so the book must regarded as of-its-time as far as completeness is concerned.

Another dated part of the book is its entries on the movies that Laurel & Hardy made for Twentieth Century-Fox in the confines of the big Studio System. While rightfully depicted as lesser than their work for Hal Roach, McCabe posits that the quality of the films got worse and worse in order to “freeze out” Laurel & Hardy, as though Fox, the studio that hired them in the first place, wanted to use its corporate clout only to put a great comedy team in their place. In fact, some of the later Fox films have their champions (see Scott MacGillivray’s terrific book on this subject); it’s more likely that Fox had not a clue what to do with comedians who wanted to do things their own way.

But these are minor debits in regard to the overall quality of the book. McCabe otherwise documents the duo’s history succinctly and lovingly. One of its most charming parts is Chapter 2, which begins with some correspondence between McCabe and Hardy’s widow Lucille. McCabe did an interview with “Babe” (as Hardy was affectionately known off-screen) in the 1950’s, and McCabe asked Lucille for permission to print it in his book. At first she declined. But after some introspection, she wrote McCabe back and said that McCabe’s printed interview had triggered personal memories of Babe, and she realized she was being selfish not to allow the interview to be printed. This correspondence is followed by the interview itself. Thus, the entirety of Chapter 2 shows how much Hardy’s work with Laurel deeply affected everyone, from fans to his widow.

This lovely book is long out of print but is well worth seeking out. It’s a perfect introduction to Laurel & Hardy for those who are unfamiliar with their work, and a great look back for those who have enjoyed L&H for years.

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MONTY PYTHON SPEAKS (2000) – The Pythons’ story in their own words

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Monty Python member Michael Palin says, “I think there’s a danger in Pythons analyzing their own work. I think we shouldn’t do it.” Unfortunately for him, he and the other Pythons spend 315 pages doing just that in the delightful Monty Python Speaks.

For the uninitiated, here’s a quick history. Monty Python is the collective name for a group of five Britons — Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin — and a transplanted American, Terry Gilliam. They are responsible for 45 of the funniest half-hours ever broadcast on television (in Britain beginning in 1969, America in 1974) and some equally inventive movies. Chapman died of cancer on the very eve of the group’s twentieth anniversary — “Worst case of party-pooping I’ve ever seen,” said Terry Jones.
For Python fanatics (I count myself among them), the new book is akin to the Holy Grail that the group sought in their infamous 1975 movie. The surviving group members and many of their associates are interviewed by David Morgan, and as befits their comedic style, the Pythons are quite open and frank about the group’s highs and lows. Among the many illuminated topics and tidbits are:

* Graham Chapman’s alcoholism, about which he was quite open himself. (While filming one of their movies, Michael Palin came across a half-empty bottle of gin belonging to Chapman. Palin had seen the bottle completely full earlier in the day.)

* Their first American TV appearance. It was on a 1972 “Tonight Show,” where guest host Joey Bishop introduced them with the immortal line, “This is a comedy group from England. I hear they’re supposed to be funny.”

* Python didn’t have a chance in America until a PBS station manager in Texas–“Dallas, of all places,” says Cleese — took a chance on them. Friends of the station manager were afraid his station would get burned down.

* Their then-manager absconded with the funds from their 1980 appearance at the Hollywood Bowl. They made no money from the gig until they released their 1982 movie of the concert.

* When ABC-TV brutally edited three of their TV episodes for a 1975 special, the Pythons sued the network, on the grounds that they’d rather make less money than have someone else censoring their work.

The ABC incident points up two concrete truths about Python:

(1) Like them or not, their particular world view is uncompromised, and their fans appreciate their honesty.

(2) Said view shouldn’t be left in the hands of people who just plain don’t understand them. The people who would “sanitize” it are the same kind of people that Python’s comedy satirizes.

But maybe I romanticize Python only because I grew up with it. I completely don’t get the followings for later work such as “South Park,” but I can still recite reams of Python dialogue. For others with similar bents, the book is must reading.

GET HAPPY: THE LIFE OF JUDY GARLAND (1999) – Engrossing Garland bio is anything but happy

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According to Gerald Clarke’s Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, at one point, the famous actress looked at the doctors who were treating her for drug abuse and declared, “There is something you fools do not understand. I am an addict. And when I want something, I can get it.”

Unfortunately, between Garland’s celebrity status and her appetite for self-destruction, this comment proved all too true. Men, drugs, food, and (though one wouldn’t think this would be desired) people who belittled, cheated, and abused her — she had it all, which probably accounts for her death at age 46.

Clarke admirably details Garland’s life from its beginning, when she was born Frances Gumm and indoctrinated into the family show-biz act commandeered by her mother, to its sordid end, where she was on her fifth marriage and died of an accidental overdose. Clarke often adopts a sob-sister tone when deconstructing Garland’s career — he is given to extensively quoting John Milton, and he calls one of Judy’s manipulators an “artful Iago.”

But Clarke succinctly catches Garland’s appeal to vast audiences (some of them blatantly gay) and shows that in the destruction of the phenomenon called Judy Garland, she was as much to blame as anyone. The book also provides a nice mini-bio of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio where Garland toiled for 15 years and was robbed of her childhood.

This is a must-read for Judy Garland fans and show-biz buffs alike.

THE 50 GREATEST MOVIES NEVER MADE (1999) – A more accurate title would have left out the word “greatest”

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Did you ever see the Marx Brothers comedy A Day at the U.N.? How about the Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel where it turns out that Bugs Bunny is Roger’s father?
If you never saw these movies, don’t worry — nobody else has, either. However, they are (or were) legitimate movie projects, well-chronicled in Chris Gore’s The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made.

The book lovingly details 50 films which never got beyond the planning stages for various reasons. Many of them involved heavy Hollywood hitters, from Steven Spielberg (who helped to get the first Roger Rabbit off the ground), to Double Indemnity director Billy Wilder (who brainstormed the aborted Marx Brothers film as well as a Laurel & Hardy comedy), to Alfred Hitchcock (who proposed a movie about a blind pianist whose sight is restored).

While the book is a fast-paced, popcorn-ish read, the book’s not-so-subtle point is to make film purists gnash their teeth at the thought of these potential film classics never getting made. For me, the book’s only surprise was that they left out many of my favorites, including Buster Keaton’s proposed take-off of Grand Hotel, Charlie Chaplin’s The Freak (about a girl who sprouts wings), and a planned Western starring The Beatles (eventually made in 1969 as A Talent for Loving and starring Richard Widmark).

It’s easy to cry about potential film masterpieces that never got beyond the planning stage. The trouble is that, like many real lost films that come to light after being re-discovered, they often turn out to be classics only if they remain lost. And considering some of the awful ideas which do make it to the light of a movie theater — as witness 1999’s At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer as (shades of Hitchcock) a blind artist who regains his sight — maybe these movies have rotted in Development Limbo for some very good reasons.

That said, the book will be an eye-opener to novices who have never heard the term “turn-around,” and brain candy for those who have seen awful ideas that did get made into movies.

Randy Skretvedt’s LAUREL & HARDY: THE MAGIC BEHIND THE MOVIES – ULTIMATE EDITION – Manna from heaven for L&H buffs

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As a feverish Laurel & Hardy buff, when I read Randy Skretvedt’s Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies in 1987, I didn’t think that any L&H biography could top it. Nearly 30 years later, Skretvedt himself has proven me wrong. Skretvedt has published a massively updated “Ultimate Edition” that far surpasses even the high standards of the earlier book. (This is actually the second update of Skretvedt’s magnum opus, but who’s counting?)

Everything you could possibly want to know about every movie featuring both Laurel & Hardy (not always as a team, as in their early movies) is contained in this 630-page volume. The past 30 years have seen remastering of the original prints of L&H movies, as well as rare L&H movie “finds” that were thought to be lost to history; Skretvedt meticulously documents those as well. In addition, the book generously details L&H movie locations, then and now; vintage press releases, promotional photographs, and posters for L&H movies; and surprisingly fun and useful information on L&H’s many co-stars.

But don’t think it sounds like some massive homework assignment. As with the ‘87 book, Skretvedt writes in the manner of a detailed but most articulate Laurel & Hardy buff. As a result, the book’s breezy style draws you in and lure you through dozens or hundreds of pages before you stop to take a breath.

We might never find Hats Off or any other Laurel & Hardy movie rarities (at least in our lifetime). But having Skretvedt’s encyclopedic Laurel & Hardy tome at hand is akin to finding a long-lost film that you never even knew was lost. It’s a gem.

(This is a limited-edition book that will not be republished, so click here to get it at Amazon.com while you can!)