From Publishers Weekly
American film comedy is barely a century old and already commentary on it can fill bookshelves, with countless pages devoted to the evolution of physical comedy, the influence of notable comedians like Charlie Chaplin, and the effects of technology on the form. Austerlitz touches on all of these things, but his objective is to provide a chronological set of biographies of the most important figures, both major (the top 30) and minor (over 100 more), and comment on their achievements and influence. The result is a comprehensive textbook that traces a legitimate line of succession from Chaplin to Apatow. Clearly Austerlitz has great affection for and knowledge of his subject; he can comment with equal skill on Renee Zellweger and W.C. Fields. Still, his take on the century is not without bias. Never less than candid ("Mel Brooks is overrated"), his tastes are also present in what he leaves out (Hal Ashby, Hal Hartley, and Cameron Crowe are all missing). Though readers will surely disagree with some of his choices, the breadth of material Austerlitz has compiled here is a feat. Photos. (Sept.)
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*Starred Review* Austerlitz asserts that comedy has been underappreciated as a cinematic genre by critics and historians, and that this has resulted in underrepresentation in Academy Awards presentations and nominations. To redress this inequity, Austerlitz presents more than 100 biographical sketches of top comedy talents from Charlie Chaplin to Judd Apatow, augmented by shorter tidbits regarding lesser players. So the Jim Carrey saga coexists with the legend of Harold Lloyd, and the debonair comic stylings of Cary Grant contrast nicely with those of Will Ferrell. As the title would indicate, Laurel and Hardy are limned, as are Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers. Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Doris Day are the only other women accorded full chapters, but Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, and Tina Fey, among others, garner tidbit status. More recent comic masters featured include Ben Stiller, the Coen Brothers, and Steve Martin. With broad coverage like this, the book has some reference applications, though most of the pieces are unfailingly upbeat. Even tragic death is fraught with dreamy potential: regarding Jean Harlow’s death at 26, Austerlitz muses, “What might Preston Sturges have made of her had she lived?” Entertaining reading. --Mike Tribby