Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: When did you begin writing, James?
James L. Niebauer: The weekend after the JFK assassination, there was nothing on TV so my parents took us to the movies. I was young, so this was my first movie theater experience. They took us to see the latest Jerry Lewis movie. The theater was packed and people were rocking in their seats with laughter. My young mind realized that this silly man on the big screen was making all of the people happy during a very sad time. It was at that precise moment that I fell in love with movies and the power of humor to cheer people up. At the same time, old comedies were marketed to TV as children’s entertainment. The 3 Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and old silent comedies (with obtrusive sound effects) were fixtures of Saturday morning TV among the Popeye and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
While I had a pretty ordinary childhood, with school, and friends, and baseball, and GI Joes, but my spare time hobby was exploring movie history, especially comedy. I was fascinated by the process, the development, and I eventually amassed a pretty thorough knowledge along the way.
John Wisniewski: When did you become interested in movies?
James L. Niebauer: My interest in writing was sort of an innate, natural thing stemming from the info I acquired. As a kid I would write little booklets about the comedians with capsule bios and my own drawings. By the time I was around 16, there was a big nostalgia boom going on in the culture, and I found movie buff magazines where I could write articles and actually get paid. Writing came easily to me and the more I did it, the better I could hone my abilities, especially when coupled with a lot of reading.
John Wisniewski: James, you wrote a book about director, William Beaudine. Could you tell us about him?
James L. Niebauer: I wrote an overview of director William Beaudine’s work because I was familiar with a lot of good films he directed, and was bothered by his constantly being identified as a hack. A book came out in the 70s inaccurately calling him “One Shot” and called him cinema’s worst director, claiming he rushed indifferently through low budget movies and rarely did more than one take. My overview of his career tells a different story, singling out some of the great silent and early sound features that Beaudine helmed, and discussing his better B product later on. Defining Beaudine’s entire career by films like “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” and “Billy the Kid Meets Dracula” is like defining Buster Keaton’s career by “How To Stuff a Wild Bikini.” William Beaudine was a successful director from the silent era into television.
John Wisniewski: Why did you want to write your crime novel “Butterfly in the Rain”?
James L. Niebauer: I was researching something else entirely and noticed a headline in a 1927 newspaper about a kidnapped girl. I wondered if she was found safely and discovered she was murdered. I then wanted to know if they ever caught the monster who killed her, and suddenly I found myself tangentially distracted from my actual research. I figured that if someone like me could get caught up in this story, someone who was actually interested in True Crime would be even more interested. I also wanted to know if I could successfully write a book that was well outside of my field. So, I gathered the research, and put together a True Crime book that enjoyed some success. That part was gratifying. But I will never write another one. The research was too unsettling, even though it happened long ago. I’ll stick with movie history.
John Wisniewski: You have written about Clint Eastwood. Could you tell us about this book?
James L. Niebauer: I have a great deal of respect for Clint Eastwood’s work as both an actor and a filmmaker. I decided to write a book that concentrated specifically on his westerns because that genre has a pretty discernible arc in his filmography — starting with the Sergio Leone “Dollars” trilogy and moving into this self-directed productions like High Plains Drifter and Outlaw Josey Wales. Unforgiven is a nice culmination. The western is central to the development of cinema — some of the earliest narrative films, like Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, are westerns. It was a very established genre by the time Clint started working in western films, and his movies challenged the genre with new ideas.
John Wisniewski: You are currently writing a book about Frank Sinatra and his films. Could you tell us about this?
James L. Niebauer: Frank Sinatra’s magnificent importance as a singer sometimes causes us to overlook that he was also a very good actor. His talent was purely innate and he turned in some remarkable performances despite no training and little rehearsal. People recall the Rat Pack movies, which are disarming and fun, but Sinatra’s acting in Suddenly, Man With the Golden Arm, The Joker is Wild, Some Came Running, and others is quite impressive. Also research reveals a lot of background information on the making of each movie. Sinatra’s wartime popularity with bobby soxers, his post-war career slump, his comeback both on the music charts and winning an Oscar as an actor, are all part of the book. All of my books are film-by-film studies of an aritst’s work, not biographies. In the case of an icon like Sinatra, there is a narrative thread throughout the book that acknowledges his life and music career as we assess each film. I am co-writing this book with Gary Schneeberger for McFarland and Company publishers. We are still actively writing it. The title is Beyond The Voice: The Frank Sinatra Films, and the publisher is McFarland.
John Wisniewski: You have written about silent movie comedians, Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle. Are you a fan of silent comedy?
James L. Niebauer: It is the history and development of the cinematic process that fascinates me most. Regarding silent comedy, back in the early 60s when I was a little kid, those films were marketed as children’s entertainment. So I connected with that slapstick style early. As I learned more about film history, I began to better understand the aesthetic artistry of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and others, and later wrote books on their work. Silent comedy is central to the development of cinema.
John Wisniewski: What book are you currently working on, James?
James L. Niebauer: I have a couple upcoming projects lined up after Sinatra is done.
About James L. Niebauer
James L. Neibaur is an American film historian and writer. Neibaur was born on January 21, 1958, in Racine, Wisconsin. He is a regular contributor to Cineaste, Film Quarterly, Senses of Cinema, and Rogue Cinema. He has also contributed dozens of articles to the Encyclopedia Britannica on the topic of various films and stars.
Neibaur published his first book, Movie Comedians: The Complete Guide, in 1986. Movie Comedians examines a number of comedians and comic teams and gives concise biographies of them. It also provides some information on the films the comedians starred in. This book was followed by Tough Guy: The American Movie Macho in 1989, which looks at the role that machismo plays in many male characters of American films.
His books can be found on Amazon.