Friday, May 22, 2015

New book: The Five Sedgwicks: Pioneer Entertainers of Vaudeville, Film and Television by Michael Zmuda

I enjoy reading about the silent film era. Biographies are my favorite. That's why I was delighted to received a new book from McFarland, The Five Sedgwicks: Pioneer Entertainers of Vaudeville, Film and Television, by Michael Zmuda.

"Individually and together, The Five Sedgwicks are among the unsung heroes of early filmmaking in Hollywood. Their work took them from vaudeville to silent film, through the studio era and into the Golden Age of television. By the late 1920s the Sedgwick siblings were well-known motion picture personalities: Edward was satirized by actor Harry Gribbon as an enthusiastic comedy director in King Vidor's 1928 silent comedy hit Show People; Josie was a star of Western films and was presented the honorific title of "Queen of the Roundup"; Universal Films promoted Eileen as their "Queen of the Serial." This book details the family's extensive contributions to the entertainment industry."

The Sedgwicks worked with just about everybody, including Hoot Gibson, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, William Haines, Joan Crawford, Anita Page, Joe E. Brown, Robert Taylor, and many others of note, including later years Red Skelton and Lucille Ball. They also worked with Louise Brooks' one-time co-stars, like Will Rogers (Ziegfeld Follies), Neil Hamilton (Street of Forgotten Men) and Sally Blane (Rolled Stockings).

One of the Sedgwicks even appeared in a Louise Brooks' film, though you wouldn't know it. As author Michael Zmuda notes, Eileen Sedgwick's brief role as "the little Dutch girl" in the 1928 Howard Hawks' directed film, A Girl in Every Port, was under the name Gretel Yolz. Eileen Sedgwick's onscreen appearance lasts for slightly over two minutes, just long enough for viewers to notice her presence as she helps introduce a key theme of the movie - rivalry between two men for the same woman.

A Girl in Every Port is discussed over the course of four pages. In The Five Sedgwicks: Pioneer Entertainers of Vaudeville, Film and Television, Zmuda writes "In an effort to reinvent herself, Eileen took the exotic sounding name of Gretel Yoltz. Although the name change was leaked to the public through the pres, it likely fooled many, and may have even helped her get a role in A Girl in Every Port, a film that many contemporary critics recognize as a significant American film."

Zmuda continues, "According to Eileen she went to interview with Howard Hawks concerning a part in the film. She recollected in the April 1928 issue of Photoplay that Hawks said, 'I want a girl like Eileen Sedgwick, only not so heavy.' 'What's your name?' he asked her. Eileen responded, 'Gretel Yoltz.' (She thought that Hawks was kidding and gave him the first name that she could think of - that of a former maid.) 'Gretel' got the part. Still thinking that Hawks was joking, Eileen kidded him about not realizing who she really was. He seemed amused, but seriously advised her to keep the new name."

Eileen Sedgwick appeared in three other films as Gretel (or Greta) Yoltz, including two with Patsy Ruth Miller, Beautiful but Dumb (1928) and Hot Heals (1927).

Though I have only dipped into The Five Sedgwicks: Pioneer Entertainers of Vaudeville, Film and Television, it looks really good. Author Michael Zmuda has done his homework. The book is richly detailed, and features a bunch of nicely reproduced photographs. I look forward to reading more.

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