Stars of Vaudeville #537: Una Merkel
Today is the birthday of the adorable Una Merkel (1903-1986). Ironically she did not start out in vaudeville but only wound up there after she was a star, to promote her films in the early 1930s after the advent of talkies. She got her start as a teenager in the chorus of the Broadway revue The Big Show in 1916. Towards the end of the 20s she had several decent roles on Broadway, then began her career in talking films in 1930 in Abraham Lincoln for D.W. Griffith. (She had previously done some a little work in silents and an experimental early talkie for Lee DeForest). Another early film role was in The Bat Whispers, directed by Roland West. Soon her gift for comedy was discovered, and she was memorably cast in such films as 42nd Street (1933), Harold Lloyd’s The Cat’s Paw (1934), Destry Rides Again (1939), The Bank Dick with W.C. Fields, and The Road to Zanzibar (1941) with Hope and Crosby. She continued to work steadily throughout the years; her last part was in an episode of I Spy in 1968.
She was frequently cast in the early 30s as the “best friend”. Here she is as such to Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932), in what the Countess and I have termed “the obligatory pre-code gratuitous undressing scene”:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.