Monday, February 13, 2006

Perhaps one of the worst things that can happen to a writer is for someone to have beaten him or her to the punch.

You have an idea, you do research and then you find out that someone else has published material on the same subject.

It’s happened twice to me and both times it left a mark.

I write the following in the spirit of full disclosure before I critique the new book The Tom Tyler Story.

I became seriously interested in film in junior high school when I was drawn to the very films from which my well-meaning mother had shielded me ¬– horror movies. Through late night horror movie shows on local television, I discovered, the great gods of classic horror Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. My interest in film snowballed when I would watch Karloff in a non-horror film and find other actors I liked. I read every movie magazine I could find, but especially Famous Monsters of Filmland and the obscure Larry Ivie’s Monsters and Heroes. I bought edited and excerpted 8mm versions of classic Hollywood to watch over and over at home.

My favorite in the collection was an edited version of the first chapter of The Adventures of Captain Marvel. I had seen serials on television and had even seen a chapter or two of the 1943 Batman serial as part of my own Saturday matinees.

But these viewing experiences hadn’t prepared me for what the sepia image on my home screen gave me. The version I had may have been missing a soundtrack and eight or so minute of footage, but little of the sense of wonder of the 1941 Republic Studios production was gone.

Who was this guy who played Captain Marvel? Oh, my God, he’s the one who played Kharis in one of the mummy movies! And Monsters and Heroes said he was also a cowboy star.

As my interest in film grew, so did my interest in this cowboy actor named Tom Tyler who wasn’t just a cowboy actor. As I learned more I found a story that was truly American – ¬the son of immigrants who left behind the automobile plants of Detroit to follow a dream of stardom in the movies; a man who bucked the odds and succeeded where so many failed.
Tyler, like so many other cowboy heroes could have drifted into obscurity once his moment in the spotlight had ended, but he continued acting. Despite a crippling disease that changed his appearance, Tyler held onto the dream.

The story hooked me way back in 1972.

I rented as many of his films I could afford from non-theatrical firms. I tracked down a boyhood friend and corresponded with his sister. I asked a number of people about him from “Big” Jim Pierce to Buster Crabbe to Col. Tim McCoy.
Over the years, I collected his films on video, bought stills and lobby cards and chipped away at the idea of writing something in depth on the man and his unique career.

No other B-western star did what Tyler did, other than Bob Steele. Tyler was able to break out of the sagebrush ghetto to appear in supporting roles in major “A” productions.

With the revolution of e publishing, books on demand and specialty publishing I had contacted one publisher with the idea of a Tyler book in 2005. Just my luck, though, that someone else had contacted Tyler’s relatives before I did and had secured their cooperation for a book.

The Tom Tyler Story by Mike Chapman with Bobby Copeland is a well-intentioned look at Tyler’s life and career. It succeeds in bringing to light the fact that Tyler suffered from sclerodema a crippling disease that tightens and hardens the skin. This serious ailment accounts for the dramatic change in Tyler’s looks about 1949.

The book also covers his weight-lifting career in a fair amount of depth and carries a number of family photos including several with his wife Jeanne Martel.

Where the book does not succeed is placing Tyler’s film career into its proper context. For example, there is little effort to explain the significant career fall Tyler suffered when he was dropped from F.B.O. when it was transformed into RKO.

The authors were unaware that Tyler actually wanted to change his stage name in order to start out fresh in non-Western roles.

Tyler was actually actively considered by the company bankrolling F.W. Murnau’s Tabu as the lead for that picture.

The book never explains just how lousy so many of Tyler’s B-westerns were and why and how this didn’t do his career any good. Nor does it address the better ones adequately.

I got the sense that the authors hadn’t seen many of his films. Fore instance, they wrote that the serial Phantom of the Air is a “lost” film. It isn’t. Clancy of the Mounted and Jungle Mystery apparently are missing.

Tyler’s voice is described at one point as being “high and a bit squeaky at times.” There was nothing high or squeaky about Tyler’s voice. A number of writers have noted his effectiveness in playing villains because in part due to his piercing eyes and a shadow, ominous voice.

The book relies far too heavily on Don Miler’s Hollywood’s Corral, Alan Barbour’s The Thrill of it All and Days of Thrills and Adventures and other books on westerns and serials and too little original research. For western or serial fans these frequent references to books that are probably in their libraries are a little annoying.

There are still too many unanswered questions about Tyler. I wonder what he did to support himself when he just doing a handful or roles each year in the mid-late 1940s. What was the bond between John Ford and Tyler? In the early 1950s when Tyler made appearances on TV westerns was he cast because people were trying to help him out?

I caught a Hedda Hopper Hollywood short one night on TCM. In it, the gossip columnist was taking the viewer around to Hollywood nightspots. At one club, Tyler was at the same table as Desi Arnez! The two were laughing it up. Was it for the camera or were they friends?

The best part of doing research is finding answers to questions. The worst thing is the list of questions one still has at the end of the day.

Perhaps there’s still room for another book on Tyler.


SRBissette said...

"First" on/in any subject means less than the quality of the writing, research, and finish product.

While there are times were it may be a point of concern -- as you've noted, the cooperation of the Tyler family was important to you -- that's secondary to what you can bring to the subject that is unique. Your knowledge of film history, Tyler's career, and Tyler's films is second to none -- and that's what vital here.

Sounds to me like a long-overdue "Films of Tom Tyler" book may be the ticket, Mike. I, for one, would love to read it, and it would have a place on my shelves!

Marky Mark said...

The WORST thing that can happen to a writer is to have to interview me.

Stephen Worth said...

Frank Coghlan Jr lives next door to my mother. He was talking to me about Tom Tyler the other day. If you would like to visit him when you are in Los Angeles some time, let me know.

See ya
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