Kudos to Scarecrow for finally wising up and using attractive, well-designed dust jackets on their books. Now if they can only do something about those high prices . . . but onto the books!
September Song: An Intimate Biography of Walter Huston, by John Weld. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. $39.50. ISBN 0-8108-3408-1, Cloth, 233pp. To order, visit the Scarecrow Press web site or call 1-800-462-6420.
In spite of his importance as both actor and founder of a Hollywood dynasty, there’s never been a full-length biography of Walter Huston (1884-1950). John Weld’s September Song: An Intimate Biography of Walter Huston, though far from definitive, is an unusual attempt to remedy this situation. Weld is 93 years old and wrote the bulk of this book in the 1930s, while the Canadian-born Huston was still alive. Because no publisher at the time was interested, the manuscript languished until its present appearance. Weld was a very good friend of the star and lived with him for a time, so the book is more detailed memoir than critical appraisal and is worthwhile reading in that regard.
Because Weld lived through most of the time he describes, September Song is as much about vaudeville, stock companies, Broadway, living out of a trunk, and the movies as about Huston himself. In a wealth of comic anecdotes, he captures the authentic atmosphere of American entertainment modes at the turn of the century, seen through the story of one of the popular artists of the time. Huston’s struggles with fickle producers, errant performers, jealous wives, angry hotel owners, and the vagaries of nature in hindering his art are well documented, but the actor himself, who scored big on Broadway in the 1920s and ’30s as well as in film, comes through with charm, wit, and more common sense than we have any right to expect of actors.
The book convincingly demonstrates that remarkable combination of rugged realism and effortless ease Huston brought to his work. When many 1930s actors were continuing to substitute silent-movie style posing for more modern acting, Huston could make a character like Dodsworth in Wyler‘s film or the president in La Cava’s Gabriel over the White House come brilliantly to life in portrayals both vividly dramatic and as real as your next-door neighbor. Using quotes that, because of the author’s proximity to the time, sound more believable than most of the recreated conversations in movie star bios these days, author Weld lets Huston speak for himself on his approach to art and to life.
The star who worked with Griffith, Capra, Cukor, Wyler, La Cava, Curtiz, Anthony Mann, and of course his son John — whose sometimes exasperating relationship with his father provides some of the highlights of the book — accurately wrote his own epitaph in a line he spoke in his last film, The Furies: “There’ll never be another like me.”
Marihuana, Motherhood, and Madness: Three Screenplays from the Exploitation Cinema of Dwain Esper, by Bret Wood. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998. $38.00. ISBN 0-8108-3375-1, Cloth. 272pp. To order, visit the Scarecrow Press web site or call 1-800-462-6420.
In the mondo sweepstakes, Dwain Esper’s name ranks high. This Depression-era huckster-artiste (1894-1982) was responsible, along with his wife Hildagarde, for some of the most notorious and weird films in exploitation history. While screenplays can be tedious reading material, more soporific than enlightening, the creaky moralism and hokey theatrics of Dwain and Hildy’s seminal scripts provide plenty of unintentional laughs, and can serve as useful companions to the films themselves, which are perfect party background fodder. (Unfortunately not possible in the case of one of these films, the 1934 Modern Motherhood, of which there are no known prints.) This book provides three of his “best,” annotated by Bret Wood. A filmography and an enlightening appendix on Esper’s back-and-forth with the censors add research value.
Modern Motherhood is one of those heavy breathing alleged documentaries about still-pesky topics like abortion and infidelity. Maniac (1934) is a trashy horror flick disguised as an objective look at mental illness. Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell (1936) is a party perennial with still hilarious images of 1930s potheads puffing furiously on their joints and then trying to kill each other. These films were crazy collages of high art and low craft — Maniac uses musical quotes from Tchaikowsky alongside such laughable dialogue as “Isn’t the spark that moves the maggot the self-same spark that moves the man?” (A question that so often comes to mind.) Modern Motherhood has outré directions like “TRICK SHOT DISSOLVED INTO ABORTION.” Marihuana’s vision of addicted society matrons pleading for their weed and bogus headlines like “WAVE OF BRUTAL CRIMES LAID TO MARIJUANA SMOKING” established this as a rediscovered camp classic in the 1960s.
As amusing as the scripts are, the most intriguing aspect of the book is Bret Wood’s fascinating sketch of Dwain Esper in the introduction. Esper was by consensus a rotten sonofabitch who confounded even seasoned trashmeisters like David Friedman, who claims Esper answered the phone not with “Hello” but “I’ll sue” (referring to Esper’s compulsive lawsuit filing); and blood relatives, like his ex-son-in-law Mark Woods who says, “He always wanted to screw you somehow. . . . It wasn’t enough to do a deal. . . . It wasn’t enough to better you in the bargain . . . he had to twist the knife.” Perhaps author Wood can be convinced to expand on this tantalizing glimpse of the tin-plated pioneer with a full-length biography. Bret, are you listening?