Book Review by Michael Ladenson
Book Review by Michael Ladenson
Show business always has its martyrs. For every Rex Harrison or Angela Lansbury marching on under the spotlights into their eighties, there seems to be a River Phoenix or James Dean, their charismatic skills wiped out in the prime of life by drugs, airplane crashes, or the internal combustion engine. One such casualty, Brandon deWilde (1942-1972), is now the subject of in All Fall Down, an exhaustively researched biography by photographer and former reporter Patrisha McLean. Drawing on interviews with his co-stars, friends and wives, McLean tells us just about everything we want to know, and possibly more than we ever wanted to know, about the adorable blond kid who implored Shane to come back in the famous western and shared the stage with Julie Harris and Ethel Waters in Member of the Wedding.
In her first chapter, "A Boy Who Will Melt Your Heart," McLean finds Brandon "a second-grader who lived behind a white picket fence on Westminster Road in the Long Island suburb of Baldwin." Simultaneously, the Broadway producers of The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers' stage version of her novella, are frantically searching for a little boy to complete their cast. DeWilde is the son of two unsuccessful stage actors, who nonetheless refuse for a long time to consider making their son a child thespian.
Much space is devoted to the problem of creating another "stage brat," a spoiled little prima donna who "by the time he's 25 (will probably be) no good as an actor anyway." Though she politely refrains from naming names, McLean implicitly endorses the view that practically all child actors, with the possible exception of Shirley Temple, end up as such brats, which is why Fritz and Genie deWilde hesitate so long to do what we all know they're going to do anyway, namely audition little Brandon for the play's legendary director, Harold Clurman.
And she casts her net wide enough to land some entertaining anecdotesfrom her picture of Fritz deWilde, dressing like William Powell and finally finding his place on Broadway as a stage manager, coaching his son through every script (a role Brandon eventually found unbearable) ... to Alan Ladd, fed up with Brandon making faces during Shane's farewell speech and telling Fritz, "Make that kid stop or I'll beat him over the head with a brick." And young Brandon's peers didn't appreciate his fame so much; as McLean reports, when he committed an infraction at school, the other kids practically fell over each other to go to the principal's office and tell on him.
There are occasional mistakes, as when an interviewee, uncorrected, designates Vincent Price, rather than Rod Serling, the host of TV's "Night Gallery." And how could Vertigo, a financial flop, "resuscitate ... (Jimmy Stewart's) career?" But the book's biggest problem is that, after Member of the Wedding, Shane and Hud, in which he co-starred with Paul Newman, deWilde became just another not-so-successful actor and wannabe rock musicianand an experimenter with drugs (it was the '60s, after all).
Certainly, anyone's heart goes out to a nice guy who gets killed in a car accident at thirty. But despite her thorough homework, including a long-awaited interview with deWilde's widow Janice, McLean doesn't succeed in making the actor's last few years all that interesting.
Still, those smitten with Brandon deWilde will find a fairly complete account here of his tragically short life. Except for his divorce from his first wife (mother of his only child), which seems to come unexplained out of the blue, deWilde's story is pretty thoroughly, and fairly entertainingly, chronicled in this book.
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