Book Review By Monica Sullivan
Most of us have divided feelings about our families. They are capable of bringing out the best & the worst in us. At some point, we either embrace our identities within these biological groups or we walk away from them & try to cultivate new ones. Filmmaker Dan Bessie (1932- ) grew up in an interesting family. His great grandfather Adolphe Bessie fought in the Civil War, leaving behind a vivid image in an 1862 photograph for his little Brooklyn descendant to remember him by. His great aunt Henrietta Bessie grew up to marry a Prussian womanizer who brought women home during his wife's seemingly continuous pregnancies. Dan's father Alvah Bessie (1904-1985) was a beautiful, sweet-faced baby who grew up to fight in the Spanish Civil War & to write "Men In Battle." He also became an Oscar-nominated Hollywood screenwriter ("Objective Burma," "Hotel Berlin," "The Very Thought Of You," "Northern Pursuit") & novelist ("Dwell In The Wilderness" & 1941's "Bread & A Stone," which Dan turned into the 1985 movie, "Hard Traveling," just in time for his father to see it). Dan's uncle Harry Burnett was one of the famous Yale Puppeteers at Hollywood's Turnabout Theatre. In the book, we get to see Helen Hayes & Albert Einstein posing proudly with the Turnabout puppets made in their likenesses. Dan Bessie made the film "Turnabout" as a tribute to Uncle Harry & partner Forman Brown & their theatrical troupe which included the great character actresses Elsa Lanchester & Dorothy Neumann.
All these lively characters & more appear in the fifteen chapters of "Rare Birds-An American Family," published by the University Press of Kentucky. Dan Bessie examines good times & hard times with an understanding eye & an indulgent heart. The true story that inspired "Bread & A Stone" is revealed here from a little boy's perspective & is a moving tribute to the love his mother Mary ("the rarest bird," 1898-1982, played onscreen by Ellen Geer in 1985) felt for Harold Frisbie, the troubled man played by J.E. Freeman in "Hard Traveling." "Rare Birds" includes seventy illustrations (& all the Bessies & Burnetts have faces that are a photographer's dream) plus a family tree, but no index, which may be a source of frustration for scholarly readers. The family tree is helpful, but for a 287 page family biography, it would have been even more useful to have birth & death dates ON the tree. Maybe in the paperback edition? For more information on "Rare Birds-An American Family," the address for the University Press of Kentucky is 633 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4088.
© 2001 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 2/14/01
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