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This novel tells the story of three sisters making their way in vaudeville in Canada in the early 1900s. Aurora, Clover and Bella, together with their widowed and fragile mother Flora, go from theatre to theatre, sometimes headlining, sometimes opening the show and experiencing the various ups and downs of vaudeville and life in general.

The book covers the period from shortly before the outbreak of World War I, to shortly before the end of that war. As the family move from across the country, they each experience love and heartbreak and end up growing up in their own individual ways.

It is very clear that the author has extensively researched her subject and there are some real life characters included, although most are fictional but based on real life (for example, one character is based on Buster Keaton and his family). It made for an interesting and informative read, and I do feel that it gave a lot of insight into what is essentially an unstable profession. What I liked about the sisters was their very believable love and support for each other – each had their own talent and personality and they all complemented each other.

While overall I enjoyed this book, I would say I liked it rather than loved it. I would recommend it, but with some hesitation as I feel that if historical fiction is not a genre you would normally enjoy, this is not a book which is going to change your mind.

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At the start of this book, it is 1923, and the acclaimed magician, Carter the Great, puts on a grand show, in which President Harding comes on stage to take part in the final illusion.  Hours after the show, the President is dead, and Carter is under suspicion of causing his death, and has to flee the Secret Service.

After this tantalising peek into the life of Charles Carter the adult, the story of his life begins, from his childhood, where he turns to magic to defeat loneliness and a servant who bullies Charles and his brother.  His rise to fame is not without problems, and he suffers professional and personal triumphs and defeats.

As the story progresses up to and beyond the night of the President’s death, layer upon layer is added, including such story lines as the invention of television, and the book becomes a sprawling novel, with Carter right at it’s heart…

This is a hard book for my to review, because I have such mixed feelings it.  It started promisingly and I felt certain that I was going to love it, but as it progressed I started to feel underwhelmed, and – while I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy lots of it – I was slightly relieved to finish it.  Carter the Great was a real person, although this is a highly fictionalised account of his life.  Further, President Harding did indeed die under unusual circumstances (or rather, the way his death was immediately handled raises questions), although again, this book deals with it in a fictional manner.

I did think that Carter was an extremely likeable and enjoyable protagonist.  He was witty and clever, but also surprisingly vulnerable, and carried a sadness about him, the reason for which is explained in the story.  I also liked his brother James, who is a recurring character throughout the story, and Carter’s assistant Ledocq.

The reason that I did not enjoy this book as much as I hoped to, was that at times there just seemed to be too much going on.  From Secret Service agents (some corrupt, some incompetent, and some under-appreciated) who were trailing Carter, to an old friend who pops up throughout the story, to Carter’s rivalry with fellow magician Mysterioso – there were just so many elements to the story, some of which detracted from the part I was most interested in, which was Carter’s life story.

However, on the plus side, the author had clearly done lots of research about the era, and the popularity of vaudeville shows, where magicians such as Carter made much of their living, and I did enjoy that aspect of the story.

Overall, I would say that there was probably a terrific 400 page book contained within this 500+ page book, and it has certainly received many glowing reviews, but it perhaps wasn’t quite the right fit for me.  There was enough here though, that I would certainly read more by this author.

(Author’s blog can be found here.  For more information about Carter the Great, please click here.)

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This 1954 musical tells the story of the Donahues – a family who perform in vaudeville shows.  There’s the mother Molly (Ethel Merman), the father Terence (Dan Dailey) and their three children Steven (Johnnie Ray), Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) and Tim (Donald O’Connor).  Problems arise when Steven reveals his plans for a surprising career change, and Tim falls for aspiring singer Vicky (Marilyn Monroe).

The storyline is entertaining enough, but it’s really just a vehicle to showcase some fantastic songs (Irving Berlin wrote the songs) and some terrific and humorous dancing.  However, the film is no less enjoyable for all that.  Ethel Merman very nearly steals the show as Molly.  Marilyn looks stunning and totally sizzles when she’s singing, particularly in the ‘Heatwave’ number (goodness knows how that got past the censors in the 1950s).  Equally gorgeous is Mitzi Gaynor, who does some brilliant dancing.  Donald O’Connor is funny and sweet, and his dancing, as seen two years earlier in Singin’ In The Rain, is great.  He has a very enjoyable solo number A Man Chases A Girl (Until She Catches Him).  I also particularly liked the aforementioned Heatwave, and the whole Alexander’s Ragtime Band Sequence, which involved numerous dancers, several outfit changes, and the chance for each family member to shine.

The only weak spot in the film was Johnnie Ray, who quite frankly could not act his way out of a paper bag.  I can only assume that he was picked for the role for his singing ability (he was after all a singer, not an actor), but he was badly miscast, to the point where it almost felt embarrassing watching him on screen.  It’s fortunate that he had only a relatively small part, so it didn’t take anything away from the enjoyment of the film as a whole.

The film was not without it’s off-screen problems.  Donald O’Connor had recently separated from his wife of 10 years when he filmed this – and his estranged wife was dating Dan Dailey, who played the father of the Donahue family (Dailey subsequently married her).  Marilyn did not actually want to do the film, and was only persuaded to do so when she was told that she could have the lead in The Seven Year Itch, if she did this film.

For all it’s off-screen problems though, it’s a very entertaining and colourful film (much of it is performed on a stage setting with eye catching costumes); some might even say gaudy.  It’s over the top in places, and the storyline is fairly thin.  But – none of that matters, because it’s also a feel-good movie, with plenty of laughs, and  some hugely enjoyable songs and dances.  Definitely worth catching if you’re a fan of musicals, or of any of the actors.

Year of release: 1954

Director: Walter Lang

Writers: Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, Lamar Trotti

Main cast: Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe, Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Dan Dailey

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This 1942 musical is set during the popular vaudeville era, and follows the fortune of performers in the lead up to World War I.  It is notable for being the big-screen debut of Gene Kelly as Harry Palmer (co-star Judy Garland lobbied for Kelly to have the male lead role, after seeing him on Broadway in Pal Joey.  Originally Kelly was meant to play the supporting role of Jimmy Metcalfe; George Murphy was originally supposed to play Palmer).

Palmer is a solo dancer and comedian in vaudeville shows, with dreams of making the big time and playing The Palace in New York.  Jo Hayden (Garland) is a dancer in Jimmy Metcalfe’s act, and also the object of Metcalfe’s unrequited desire.  When Palmer persuades Jo to join him in a double act, Metcalfe doesn’t stand in her way.  However, Jo starts to fall in love with Harry, which is complicated by his friendship with singer Eve Minard.  When Harry takes action to avoid being drafted for war, Jo is angry and disappointed.  Will love prevail….?

I really enjoyed this musical, although it does not follow the format of many of the other musicals released by MGM.  The songs are delightful (although there are no original songs here; they are all songs which were popular in the era).  Also, the song and dance routines only take place in the context of stage performances, whereas in most musicals, they form part of the storyline itself.  This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment however; there are some lovely dances, particularly where Kelly and Garland perform Me and My Gal in a cafe.  Kelly’s ‘tramp dance’ near to the beginning of the film is also a delight.  Considering this was his movie debt, Kelly is very assured in his role, and displays the incredible charisma and talent which would turn him into a major star.  Harry Palmer is, in all honesty, not the nicest character – but he certainly isn’t all bad, and redemption is a major theme here.

Judy Garland is as wonderful as ever as Jo Hayden.  She and Kelly have real chemistry together, and it’s no surprise that they went on to make more musicals together.  They bounce off each other perfectly, and are a terrific on-screen partnership.

This is less comedic than many musicals, with a storyline containing human emotion and drama (and some very touching moments, which could move a viewer to tears).  The film came out during World War II, and it’s fair to say that the movie could be seen as a slice of wartime propoganda, to boost the public support for the war.  However, it doesn’t labour the point, and it never stops being entertaining.

Definitely worth seeing, for the sparkling on screen partnership between the two leads, and also for seeing a Hollywood legend right at the start of his film career.

Year of release: 1942

Director: Busby Berkeley

Writers: Howard Emmett Rogers, Richard Sherman, Fred F. Finklehoffe, Sid Silvers

Main cast: Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, George Murphy

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