Thursday, July 08, 2010

Book Review: Peggy Stewart: Princess of the Prairie

PEGGY STEWART: PRINCESS OF THE PRAIRIE is a charming memoir of the life and career of Republic Westerns actress Peggy Stewart, as told to authors Bob Carman and Dan Scapperotti. I was fortunate to come across this 1999 book in the gift shop at the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History while on vacation a few days ago.

Stewart arrived in Hollywood in the late '30s and in short order was recommended by a neighbor, actor Henry O'Neill, for a role as the daughter of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee in WELLS FARGO (1937). Stewart was cast as the "bad girl" opposite Deanna Durbin in THAT CERTAIN AGE (1938) and was part of the young Hollywood social scene of the era, including dating Jackie Cooper for a period of time.

Stewart was briefly married to actor Don "Red" Barry before launching her career as the heroine of many Republic Westerns and serials, working with Bill Elliott, Sunset Carson, Gene Autry, Bob Steele, and more. Stewart's riding skills were both a blessing and a hindrance, as Republic Pictures head Herbert Yates didn't want to promote Stewart to higher-level pictures since she saved him money by often doing her own stunts.

Stewart is a good storyteller and clearly enjoyed her job and most of her colleagues at Republic, who were a "family" working six days per week. Thanks to the authors who preserved her comments in print, Stewart provides unique first-person insights into the Republic "system" and the life of a busy working actress of the era.

The book is very well illustrated with stills, portraits, and posters which are clear and sharp despite being printed on the paperback pages. The photo reproduction quality in some paperbacks is quite disappointing -- for example, see the fuzzy pictures in the otherwise very interesting A HUNDRED OR MORE HIDDEN THINGS: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF VINCENTE MINNELLI, released earlier this year -- so the pictures in this book are a particular pleasure.

This paperback book is 176 pages. No publisher is listed in the book or at Amazon. A filmography would have been a welcome reference; however, the book does seem to be very thorough in its coverage of Stewart's films.

The book's sole drawback is that -- like too many film books (including the new release THE FILM NOIR ENCYCLOPEDIA) -- it is riddled with typos and misspellings, including misspelled proper names. For instance, actress Margaret Sullavan's name is spelled two different ways on the same page; Louis B. Mayer's name is given as Meyer; "then" and "than" are confused in multiple spots; and there are several other problems I jotted down. (And I think maybe she meant to refer to drummer Louie Bellson, not Louie Pasteur...) Someone with a good grasp of spelling and familiarity with the material wouldn't have needed more than two or three hours to make the corrections, so it's a shame the authors didn't take this final editorial step. Their book is otherwise a valuable, unique slice of film history which I thoroughly enjoyed.

There are photos from Stewart's career here. Today Peggy Stewart is 87 years old, and she is still acting!


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