Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way

Posted in African American Interest/ Blackface/ Minstrelsy, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , on April 18, 2015 by travsd


Just a few words of Saturday morning praise for Stewart F. Lane’s authoritative new book Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way. It’s rare to come across a book this beautifully designed that’s also this useful a reference work. The book is a thorough and deep history of African Americans in theatre starting from the very beginning with New York’s African Grove Theatre (1821-1823), through minstrelsy, Tom shows, vaudeville and burlesque, key early figures like Walker and Williams, Will Marion Cook, Aida Overton Walker, the Harlem Rennasiance, Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds, Paul Robeson, seminal shows like Cabin in the Sky and A Raisin in the Sun, right up through modern figures like August Wilson and Savion Glover. It’s a heritage to inspire all Americans. At any rate, it inspires the hell out of me. On top of that, if you’re no scholar, or even a reader (shame on you), it’s a gorgeous coffee table book full of photos and reproductions of posters, handbills and programs, and beautiful design elements endemic to the book. This one now has a privileged and permanent place in my library. I know I’ll be returning to it many times in the years to come. Get your copy here.

Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin in “Mabel at the Wheel”

Posted in Charley Chase, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by travsd


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Keystone comedy Mabel at the Wheel, starring Mabel Normand.

There are all sorts of reasons this film is noteworthy.

* This is one of the early films in which Charlie Chaplin does not appear in his famous tramp costume, but in another character he seemed to be developing, the top hatted melodrama character he had played in Making a Living and Cruel, Cruel Love. This character seems like he is literally being asked to fill in for Ford Sterling, who had recently left the studio. That feeling is accentuated in this film by Chaplin’s Sterlingesque chin whiskers

* This is another of those interesting Keystone films we have written about, that were semi-improvised at a live event, in this case an auto race. There were many of those

* This film contains the first known on-camera appearance by Charley Chase (Charles Parrott)

* This is the film on which Chaplin’s tension with his fellow Keystone players boiled to a head. He was having difficulty taking direction from Mabel Normand (the director and star of the picture) and so he sat down and went on strike. He considered Normand a “young girl”, with far less professional experience than he had. Yet she wouldn’t take any of his suggestions. Mack Sennett stepped in and talked him back (rather than firing him, which would have been Mabel’s preferred solution). Sennett did so because he’d recently learned that the comedies in which Chaplin appeared were starting to pull in big box office. Not long after this, Chaplin would begin directing his own pictures. Problem solved.

The plot of the film? A gossamer thing. Motorcycle-riding Charlie and his henchmen compete for Mabel’s affections with race car driving Harry McCoy. When they tie up Harry to keep him out of the race, Mabel takes his place at the wheel. Despite Chaplin’s dirty tricks (including a spectacular stunt involving an oil slick) Mabel wins the race anyway. Chester Conklin appears in the film as Mabel’s father. Mack Sennett plays a newsreel reporter. Now through the following year, appearances by Sennett in his own films grew increasingly rare and small.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Today on TCM: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by travsd


Today at 2pm (EST) on Turner Movie Classics, a camp classic if ever there was one, 1958’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. 

The film is a riff on the previous’s year’s equally preposterous The Amazing Colossal Man, with the savvy addition of sex appeal. At its center is a love triangle with the luckiest schmuck in the world (William Hudson) at its center. His wealthy wife is played by beauty queen Allison Hayes (Miss Washington D.C. 1949.) Drunk, pill-popping and neurotic, she drives him into the arms of town floozy Honey Parker (Yvette VickersPlayboy’s Playmate of the Month, July 1959) and both scheme over hamburgers and drinks at a local roadhouse to steal the wife’s fortune by sticking her in a sanitarium.

Already afflicted with too many women, he is soon afflicted with TOO MUCH WOMAN, when his jealous wife gets zapped with radiation from a nearby flying saucer and grows as large as a house. Shouting the priceless refrain “Har-ree!”, which echoes and resounds throughout the desert canyons, the giant battle-axe stomps over hill and dale to re-claim her man. (It’s a pity her rolling pin and frying pan didn’t grow with her). The movie was shot for only $89,000 — nothing like the scene depicted in that poster above ever transpires. Mostly what we get is a giant rubbery hand coming in through the window guided by wires. And the mansion the couple is supposed to live in looks modest indeed. But there is something about wonderfully, suggestively Freudian about the giant mama/wife terrorizing the suddenly diminished and guilty-as-fuck boy-man. College papers could be written, and undoubtedly have.

Beautiful Deadpan: The Brilliance of Virginia O’Brien

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Women with tags , , , on April 18, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of singer and character comedienne Virginia O’Brien (1919-2001). Though I am about 70 years too late, I will always be her advocate and champion — I see the greater thing she might have gone on to do if people of vision had decided her fate. (As it happened, her fate wasn’t so bad — I just want to be able to see her in many more and greater movie roles).

Her blessing and her curse was a gimmick — an extreme deadpan way of delivering a wisecrack or a song that was hilarious and invariably stole the show. Critics dubbed her “Frozen Face”, “Miss Ice Glacier”, and “Miss deadpan”. Something about her shtick seemed to suit the swing era; it was hip and cool and urban and cutting…just a heartbeat ahead of the beatnik chicks who would follow in her footsteps a few years later. With her dark beauty, she seems a distant cousin and ancestor to the goth comedy of Vampira, Morticia, Lily Munster and Elvira, but without the shrouds and cobwebs (she was more of a ’40s clothes horse and fashion plate).

The lore is that in 1939 the L.A. native was in a musical comedy called “Meet the People” and her nerves were so great, her performance came out “deer in the headlights”. Rather than bombing, the audience thought it was an act and loved it. The fact that her uncle was director Lloyd Bacon provided an entree into the film industry. She was an uncredited extra in Eddie Cantor’s Forty Little Mothers (1940). But she stole the show in the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941) — her number is really the only good thing about that movie. She got another scene stealing song in Ringside Maisie (1941), and then was cast in a succession of popular musicals, including Lady Be Good (1941), Panama Hattie (1942), Du Barry was a Lady (1943), Thousand Cheer (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Til the Clouds Roll By (1946). She also had great roles in two non-musical Red Skelton comedies, both re-makes, The Show-Off (1946), and Merton of the Movies (1947). Then, unceremoniously, her studio (MGM) dropped her like a hot potato. Most of the remainder of her long career was spent in live performance, although she did appear in two more movies, both of them for some reason starring mules:  Francis in the Navy (1955) and Gus (1976).

So we come to my diatribe. Clearly there’s the taint of “flavor of the month” to O’Brien. Obviously the determination was made that she was a one-trick pony, a fad, and it had played out, so the studio sent her on her way. To me, doing so was short-sided and unjust. For two reasons. One, is that she had proven she had some other notes on her instrument. From the first, she showed onscreen that the deadpan thing was just an act. She’s often play scary and severe…but then she’d let down the mask and show that she was really warm and friendly and approachable. And in those last two Skelton movies she’d held her own. But also, a certain soul brother of her’s had proven that you could work such an act for decade after decade. I’ve long admired the acumen of whatever photographer took this photo:


A smart producer would have cooked up a high concept comedy pairing these two (hopefully with Buster in a father role rather than a love interest.)  Anyway, I can cast O’Brien in imaginary movies ’til the cows come home. As I can with a certain spiritual heir apparent to both her and Keaton, Steven Wright — I don’t know why he’s not an ensemble player in a zillion comedy movies. Oh yeah, I know why. The world is insufferably stupid.

For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Finding Ella (my search for The Camel Girl)

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks) with tags , , , on April 18, 2015 by travsd


A wonderful Odyssey — the complete story of Ella Harper, the Camel Girl. I don’t usually get so excited about somebody else’s work, but this valiant volunteer scholar has knocked it out of the park.

Originally posted on ellaharper:

EllaHarper2 Ella Harper, taken about 1885-1886. There are a couple of other photos of her if interested, easily found by Googling.

Back in November of 2014 I was going through my usual morning routine of coffee and internet news when I came across an article about the new season of American Horror Story: Freak Show. I normally would have just passed it by since I’ve never watched the show nor am I a fan of sideshow freaks. However, this one was an article about some of the real people on which the Freak Show title was supposedly based.  When I got to the article there were links to related sites that had various pictures and one that caught my eye was a young Ella Harper. Two things stood out. One was her obviously rare and unusual deformity of backwards knees (also called Genu Recurvatum), causing her legs to bend the other…

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Dr. Sketchy’s at F.I.T. Tonight

Posted in Burlesk, PLUGS, VISUAL ART, Women with tags , on April 17, 2015 by travsd


Tonight on TCM: Holiday

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , on April 16, 2015 by travsd

holiday-quad  poster

Tonight at 8pm (EST) on Turner Classic Movies, the 1938 version of Philip Barry’s 1928 play Holiday. I only know a few of Barry’s plays, but those I’m familiar with make him my favorite American comic playwright of the 20s and 30s: sparkling, witty and wise, with echoes of George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward.

A young businessman (Cary Grant) is about to marry a beautiful girl (Doris Nolan), but as we soon see, he mightn’t have if he knew the truth: she’s the daughter of a rich and powerful banker (Henry Kolker) who’ll control every aspect of their lives. The hitch is that Grant’s life plan all along has only to been to make his pile of dough so that he can retire and enjoy life and find himself. This is not to the taste of his superficial fiance, but very much impresses her eccentric and outspoken sister (Kathryn Hepburn), who shares his nonconformist philosophy. Guess which sister he winds up with? Lew Ayres plays the drunken and cynical brother, and Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon play Grant’s lovable and supportive mentors. Directed by George Cukor and adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, this film instantly supplanted an earlier 1930 adaptation as the definitive screen version.

For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc



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