THE GERSHWIN of Gershwin is George, although there is ample recognition of Ira's contribution to the brothers' team effort and an Epilogue called "The Myths of Ira Gershwin," about his years alone and in other collaborations after George's early death.
But the focus is on George, as it should be. We follow the composer from his sudden blossoming into musical interest at age 10 on the Lower East Side through the Tin Pan Alley years as a song plugger; his unlikely -- and not quite real -- collaboration with Sigmund Romberg; the big break with Al Jolson's adding "Swanee" to his hit show, Sinbad; and on through Ziegfeld, George White, Broadway, London, the Astaires, the symphonic pieces, Porgy; the affair -- if it was -- with Paulette Goddard; his last picture show, The Goldwyn Follies; and his death at 38. As a friend said then, speculating on what he might have achieved: "We'll never know, will we? But it would have been important."
Gershwin is thoroughly researched and comes with a top quality index, a discography, notes and a complete list of all the compositions by both brothers. Well written and illustrated, the book is essential for any study of that golden age in our musical theater.
THIS IS a detailed and fascinating account of the crucial collaboration of the two highly independent movie makers. When the British director and the American producer began working together, Hitchcock had just made The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn; Selznick had made The Young in Heart and Gone With the Wind. He had also recently produced Carole Lombard's Made for Each Other. The title seemed appropriate to the new partnership.
In many ways it was, including the products: Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious, and the flawed, final Paradine Case. The central problem, evident from the first, despite the brilliant results, was that both men were driven to achieve complete control of whatever they did; and as the Roman Empire demonstrates, shared power can rarely be maintained.
Both faltered badly, even stumbled, after their parting, Hitchcock into Rope and Under Capricorn, Selznick into Duel in the Sun and Portrait of Jenny -- both products of his affair, later marriage, with Jennifer Jones. Hitchcock recovered and went on to become The Legend. Despite the one brilliant flash of The Third Man, Selznick never did recover.
The book is superb and includes a complete cinemagraphy for both men. One lesson, not insisted upon but clear, is that Hitchcock as grandfather of the auteur mystique was misplaced. He vitally needed the help of script writers as good as Ben Hecht, of brilliant photographers and, at least briefly, of David O. Selznick, producer.
THERE IS a small but pleasant irony in the title of Lee Strasberg's posthumously published account of how great he was, A Dream of Passion. Shakespeare, the title's source, was deprecating actors -- and Hamlet, too, of course -- and the whole scene makes amply clear the author's fear of actors as threats to the play, which was the thing in other senses than as an instrument of justice or revenge. Strasberg, on the other hand, in the professional life here celebrated -- even sacramentalized -- was apotheosizing the actor's art and using plays, all plays, any plays, as mere excuses for the actor to act and in the process to indulge in the amateur auto-psychoanalysis that was the essence of "The Method."
The book is chiefly interesting for Strasberg's early recollections of the richly varied theater available in New York before and after the First World War. From the beginning, apparently, he could leave a theater without a clue as to what the play was about except as an occasion for great or less than great acting.
In the process of stealing credit from just about everyone he ever worked with, Strasberg ineluctably reveals that he misinterpreted Stanislavsky even more than Stanislavsky, on occasion at least, misinterpreted Chekhov.
IN HIS account of the making of Matewan, Thinking in Pictures, John Sayles opens with an example, "A steam engine thunders toward us, belching black smoke," which eerily recalls the title, years ago, of Parker Tyler's book about movies, The Shadow of an Airplane Climbs the Empire State Building. Both sentences succinctly express the essence of movies: movement. Sayles's book, probably destined for classic status in movie studies, details the complicated process of making the movements for one specific movie, his own recent, highly regarded Matewan. This story of a hopeless West Virginia coal miners' strike in 1920 has a new relevance in our own age of incremental union-busting with no physical violence needed. But the book, independently of that, brilliantly shows how every contributing art or craft functions in the making and in the completed work. Also included are photos from the picture and the whole shooting script.
THE DUST jacket blurb of Arlene Croce's collected pieces over the last five years is telling the simple truth when it says, "Here is the supreme dance critic of our time . . . enhancing the way we understand and value what we see." That she is and that she does. With a profound understanding of a highly technical art that comes fitted with a highly technical vocabulary, she writes about it in supple, completely literate English, relating dance to everything else she knows, and she knows plenty. Even if you see only two or three ballet evenings a year, you can read this book with pleasure and enlightenment. And should.
IF, LIKE ME, you've never heard of Gene Lees, it's time you did. The reason you haven't may be the same as mine: I love jazz, am capable of playing it, quite alone, well into early morning, but, except for pay, have never been drawn to read much about it. Gene Lees, a lyric writer himself, is not only an extraordinarily perceptive reporter and analyst of jazz performance, jazz history and jazz people, but also one of those writers who's a joy to read on any subject at all.
Here he offers a brilliant, totally convincing description of how Sinatra did what he did vocally; what amounts to a novella on the real life and real songs of the real Edith Piaf; moving and penetrating memoirs of Johnny Mercer and Dick Haymes; then, beyond that, a highly original historical analysis of lyric-writing that begins in the 10th century and takes in both Normandy and Provence, and an account of the death of the big bands that calls it murder and, among many other factors, convicts General Motors, Standard Oil and the Los Angeles Times of deep complicity. And, of course, much more.
Frank Getlein's commentaries on the arts are heard on National Public Radio's "Performance Today" program.