Monday, September 13, 2010

Lydecker Brothers Review

Since I plugged this book, now that I've read it I feel it only fair and honest to give a review of it.

In short, I have to say that the photos are rare and amazing, and if you are into movie history and behind the scenes stuff, this book is priceless. But unfortunately the text is mostly irrelevent fluff with disturbingly little to actually do with the lives of the Lydeckers.

I recommend it based on the power of the photos and the several recollections from people like George Lydecker.

Here is my full review:

I first heard of the Lydecker brothers in a 1991 issue of American Cinematographer. That article incidentally was written by the author of this book. Since that time I had hoped that one day a definitive look at the work and lives of the Lydeckers would come about. I was very excited to learn about this book.

The photos in the book are astonishing. I have bookshelves full of books on movie making, special effects and classic movies and serials and maybe 90 percent of the photos in this book I have never seen before. In my opinion, if you are into behind the scenes movie photos, this is a must have book.

Unfortunately the text leaves a lot to be desired. From reading an interview with the author I understand he was under the gun to get the book written in 4 months. This obviously was not enough as the first 150 or so pages are 75 percent irrelevant fluff. Most chapters really have nothing to do with either the family, lives or thoughts of the Lydeckers and rarely are their effects techniques discussed. Only a few stand out moments show the promise of what I was hoping the book could have been in total. There are great descriptions of how the Lydeckers did their flying effects for aircraft, Captain Marvel and the Rocket Men. Unfortunately those types of descriptions about working on production special effects are rare. Just describing an "exciting scene where a flaming stage coach goes over a cliff" doesn't tell the reader anything about the Lydeckers. There's no story behind the glib descriptions.

Typically a chapter covers two serials of which Henderson lists several Lydecker gags. Simply listed mind you, as in "there's a exploding barn, a car crash, a model plane" etc and then the text drifts off talking about random snippets of trivia that literally has nothing whatsoever to do with the subjects featured in the title of the book.

Many times there is a sentence which promises to be the beginning of a nice story about some aspect of the brothers life in the business, but it's just one sentence that even though it begs further exploration there is none. The narrative drifts off into nonsense and tangents about things like Tom Neal's fling with Barbara Payton. That was a low point at which I was debating with myself whether I should try to continue reading. I bought a book about the Lydeckers, not a Hollywood gossip clippings collection.

The last couple of chapters hone in on more material that actually is relevant to Howard and Theodore, but it is too little too late. There are a few reminisces which are lovely, and sprinkled throughout there are some interesting revelations. Particularly the story about visiting the volcano set from FAIR WIND TO JAVA which is still standing and even used as housing for visitors to the remote island it was built on over 50 years ago. So there are certainly worthwhile bits in the books, but I am saddened that they are so few and far between.

Also it bears mentioning though there is a list of article sources, there is no filmography and no index.

Since he was stuck with just 4 months to write it, I would encourage Mr. Henderson to continue his research in earnest on the Lydeckers and find a publisher that will be a pain in his butt making sure he has the time and resources to dig up information pertinent to the subject, has time to be edited and groomed and matured into a serious and truly definitive work on the Lydeckers. An editor who is a true pain in the butt for all the right reasons can help turn a piece of fluff into a masterpiece.

I've waited nearly 20 years for this book, but strangely and sadly feel I'm still waiting.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Legendary Lydecker Brothers

When I was in art school I read a 1991 issue of American Cinematographer which had an article on the Lydecker Brothers. Theodore and Howard Lydecker were special effects geniuses who made their names working on Republic Pictures' cliffhanger serials. Some of the iconic imagery that comes to mind are the flying wing used in Dick Tracy (1937) and later reused in The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938). Using life-sized (and bigger) mannequins on string they made a generation of kids believe Captain Marvel and Commando Cody could fly. They created a lot of miniature sets and blew most of them up.

Building sets outdoors to take advantage of natural lighting and skillfully use forced perspective landscapes and models, they created a lot of truly amazing visual effects. And especially while at Republic, always done on a shoestring budget.

Later in their careers they worked in movies such as Sink the Bismark (1960), Fair Wind to Java (1953) and The Flying Tigers (1942) with John Wayne, which was considered for an Academy Award for best special effects, though the Academy board thought the aerial dogfights the Lydeckers created were purely real, causing some disbelief and uproar.

Eventually they transitioned from film to television productions such as Irwin Allen's Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea.

Well, in this American Cinematographer article on the Lydeckers I got an inkling of what these guys were about. They were hands-on, crafty and tricky artists who created movie magic not on a computer, but out of carpentry. Using wood and nails, chicken wire and paper-maché. But sadly there was scant information beyond this one article about their work. No books, no documentaries and just a passing mention in books about special effects or cliffhanger history. This was something I really lamented because I could so easily visualize the adventure of working on the set with the Lydeckers. I wanted to be able to read more about their moments of triumph and disaster.

Well now it's time to rejoice.

Jan Alan Henderson, who wrote that 1991 article was requested to fill that original piece out into a full fledged book. And it is now out through some mail order venues but primarily through for the time being.

As someone who has bookshelves full of eldritch tomes on movie making, special effects, radio, television and cliffhanger histories, I am impressed with the large amount of photos in this book of which 98% I have never seen before. Henderson has a thoughtful and personal angle to the whole narrative and is able to weave a human story into a lot of behind the scenes info.

This book has needed to be made for years and I'm glad that it has finally arrived. You can find THE LEGENDARY LYDECKER BROTHERS at
If you're not sure about the book, check out more online info on the Lydeckers at The Matt Shot blog and at