Cliff notes would have been better

The Classic Film Reading Challenge –

Report #2

 Fred Astaire

By Stephen Harvey, c. 1975 Pyramid Communications, Inc – Paperback edition, 158 pages*.


Let me start by saying this, I love Fred Astaire, his style, his grace in his dancing just blew me away in his films.  I suppose the first I saw was his last “major” musical, Finian’s Rainbow, first run.  I soon discovered his earlier works, especially the ones with Ginger Rogers.

I can’t recall how I obtained this book, one in a series of Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies printed in the seventies of classic stars and genres.  But I know I never read it thoroughly until this month.  And I have to say I am disappointed.

Let’s start with the word count.  You notice I have an asterix after the page count.  It’s misleading.  The actual contents start on page 10 and ends on page 146, followed by a bibliography, filmography, and index.

Let me start with the positive.  The introduction and the first chapter covering Fred’s career with his sister up to his departure for Hollywood is very good.  That’s from pages 10 to 36.  And remember, since this is an “illustrated edition”, there are lots of pictures, including full page pictures.  And the content is provided in two column format.

The next chapter detail Fred’s early Hollywood films, including the ones with Ginger.  Here’s the problem – this is covered much better elsewhere.  There is nothing new about Fred (and merely a mention of his work with Hermes Pan on page 50.  In passing.) and most of the talk is about the plot of the film.

What this book is when it’s boiled down, that one you get pass the chapter about Fred before Hollywood, is an almost “Cliff notes” version of Fred’s films.  And I say almost because Cliff notes would have been better.  I hate the layout of the book.  Especially when the text is talking about The Bandwagon (1953) and the pictures are showing Funny Face (1957).  My other gripe is how one film blends into another – and this is especially bad when talking about the Fred – Ginger series.

There are many books on Fred Astaire, including his own biography, “Steps in Time”. There is an excellent book – “The Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers Book” by Arlene Croce.  Find those books.  Skip this one.

Until next time –



Son of Harpo Speaks!

Harpo and Bill Marx       

The Classic Film Reading ChallengeReport #1

Son of Harpo Speaks

By Bill Marx, c. 2010 Applause books – Kindle edition, 328 pages.


I decided to join this challenge to goad me into doing more reading, and with my rather large home library, I had a lot to choose from.  The challenge is rather simple, over the summer, read and write a report on the six books dealing with cinema, including actors and actresses.  This is my first report.

I had only recently learned of this book, that being via an old podcast that featured Bill Marx, the aforementioned (adopted) son of Harpo and Susan, nee Fleming, Marx.  I knew I wanted, nay, needed to read this.  Harpo’s book – Harpo Speaks, is one of my favorite biographies, and I wondered what this would add to the story.

Add to this the fact that I did not know what to expect from this book, aside from a couple of stories mentioned in the podcast.  I will say I quickly got caught up in Bill’s story, beginning at the old Dino’s Lounge (sadly demolished in 1985) and then flashing back to his earliest memories. Alex Wollcott, Harpo’s friend and Bill’s godfather and middle name namesake is here, singing the “I’m a little wabbit in the sunshine” song, also mentioned in Harpo’s book.  Bill has a habit of casually dropping names, such as “Uncle George and Aunt Gracie”, or George Burns and Gracie Allen to us lesser mortals.  Or Margaret Thomas, Danny Thomas’s daughter, who Bill takes to a prom, and who a few years later would change her name to Marlo.  And then there is Marion Davies, a friend of Harpo and Susan and who was very important in helping them being able to adopt in the first place.  Another favorite of mine is when Bill, now out of high school and moving to New York for college, spends his first away from home Christmas at the home of Margaret Hamilton.  Yes, Christmas with the Wicked Witch of the West.

And yes, his father and uncles are sprinkled liberally throughout the book, from working with his Dad as his prop man when Bill was twelve, from being Groucho’s piano man at Groucho’s home parties near the end of Groucho’s life.

Bill’s story has a fantastic element to it when we return to Dino’s lounge and something happens (trying for no spoilers here), that will result in Bill discovering why he was originally put up for adoption, a sad story that would have made a great Hollywood movie in the 30’s.    One of the things I appreciated in this book is when he writes about his adoptive mother,  Susan Fleming Marx – or “mom” to Bill.  I discovered more about her than we did in Harpo’s book.

Lastly, there is Harpo.  Bill share’s his life with Harpo and revealing, at the time of the writing, he still had the trunkful of props Harpo used in his act.  He also shares something that I sure most son’s have had…imaginary conversations with his long dead father.

So, in a sense, Harpo speaks again.