Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A New Review of Historic Photos of Broadway

Steve Weinstein of the Edge group of websites has written a review of Historic Photos of Broadway that has me floored. I apologize for glowing today, but please let me quote:

Leonard Jacobs uses his first photograph of the Booth family as a running symbol of American theater. Like everything else in this fantastic, invaluable compendium, the choice reflects the archivist’s consummate taste, intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge of the subject.

Unlike so many critics, Jacobs...is as much of the theater as an observer. This book represents a long time spent in the stacks of the Billy Rose Collection. As someone who himself has sat for many an afternoon on the top floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, I can attest that this collection
presents a treasure trove of theater memorabilia.

….The photo of Junius Brutus Booth and son Edwin perfectly sets the stage. Judging from Edwin’s age, the photograph was taken sometime around the Astor Place Riots, the deadliest anti-immigrant street fight in the nation’s history. Just to show the primacy of theater in the mid-19th Century, the cause was a British and American actors’ interpretations of "Macbeth."

....Jacobs gives us all of the other acting legends of the time: Duse, Bernhardt, Marlowe, Russell and O’Neill. But my favorite photo of the era is of the great impersario David Belasco directing. Belasco is another potent symbol of the theater’s hold on the popular imagination in a pre-electronic medium age: He bult theaters (including the still-extant Broadway house named for him), as well writing plays that included two that provided libretti for Puccini, "Madame Butterfly" and "Girl of the Golden West."

There are so many wonderful photos that everyone will have his or her favorite, but I have to point out a svelte, 22-year-old Ethel Merman with her Svengali, accompanist Al Siegel. There’s Alfred Lunt with Helen Hayes and Mary Boland (who achieved immortality as La Comtesse de Lave in the filmed version of "The Woman," much younger and thinner here).

Seeing Tallulah Bankhead in her most famous performance in "The Little Foxes" makes me regret (once again) that Hollywood gave Bette Davis the part in the film version. But seeing Katherine Hepburn with Van Heflin in "The Philadelphia Story," which revived her career, made me realize that Cary Grant, handsome as he was, was no match for the young Heflin, much prettier than his co-star.

There are, in fact, many reminders here of how gorgeous many stage actors were. Lewis Wallace, packed into his armor as "Henry V," looks as chiseled as a statue. If Wallace looks like a bas-relief in a Gothic cathedral, many years later, Robert Goulet, being armored for "Camelot," looks like he stepped out of a GQ shoot.

I'm really honored.

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