Hall of Hams #93: Sebastian Cabot

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, The Hall of Hams, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on July 6, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of British character actor Sebastian Cabot (1918-1977). American fans who know him best as Brian Keith’s lovable Gentleman’s Gentleman on Family Affair will be interested to know that actually began his working life as a servant (he’d been a chauffeur, a valet, a butler and a cook) and this is where he acquired his polish. He’s quit school at 14 to work for actor Frank Pettingell, and this is where and how he got the idea into his head to become an actor himself. He had no formal training and did most of his learning on the job. Interestingly, he appears to have had little stage experience; most of his career was in film and television.

In America our immediate association with Cabot is with his Family Affair character Mr. French, and with related benign roles (often for Disney): the voice of Bagheera in The Jungle Book, the narrator of Winnie the Pooh, and the part of Santa Claus in the 1973 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. 

But I’ve recently had occasion to contemplate another side of him — that of the blood curdling villain!

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Recently, TCM played Terror in a Texan Town (1958), an interesting film for all sorts of reasons. Written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, it’s main strangeness is a hero played by Sterling Hayden, whose weapon of choice is his dead father (a Swedish whaler)’s HARPOON. Don’t believe me? Look!

En route to a duel -- against a gunslinger

En route to a duel — against a gunslinger

And Cabot plays the villain — the usual sort in the usual scenario: he’s an expanding cattle baron who wants the pesky farmers out of the way so he can acquire land  — more LAND! And much as with Charles Laughton and Victor Buono, his wide girth and palpable sensuousness serves him well in such roles, as he relishes wine and cigars, and goes about dressed in silk finery. He hires a gun slinger to murder “just one” of the farmers “as an example” — and you know how that always works out. (When you hire a murderer you get…a murderer.) It’s an interesting little movie, not at least because it’s such a strange spectacle watching Cabot be so mean.

ALSO….

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Over Fourth of July weekend we watched the Disney classic Johnny Tremain (1957), a movie I had not seen since my childhood. Here, he plays a luxury loving Tory, who not only hates the Revolutionary Patriots of Boston, and not only refuses to acknowledge his own nephew (his dead sister’s only child), but tries to get him hung for stealing a pewter mug which he had rightfully inherited. A man without love or feeling or principle — and the absence of the comforting chin whiskers adds to his piggishness. This one’s a classic — everyone ought to see it at least once.

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Lastly — honorable mention: he plays one of Rod Taylor’s antagonists in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1960), one of the guys who won’t believe him no matter what he says, less a villain perhaps here than an obstacle. He sure ain’t cuddly in the role!

At any rate, another side of Sebastian Cabot. Watch these films, and it will now be possible to imagine Mr. French saying, “Buffy, Sissy, Jody — to the dungeon!”

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Friday Night at Coney

Posted in Amusement Parks, AMUSEMENTS, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, FOOD & DRINK CULTURE, ME, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , on July 5, 2015 by travsd

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As part of our pre-Fourth festivities on Friday night the Mad Marchioness and her faithful hound dog headed out to Coney Island for fun and fireworks. (Coney Island has a fireworks display every Friday night throughout the summer season). Pictures by the Marchioness!

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As an added bonus, there is a terrific exhibition of original Coney Island themed art work out there now at Smorgasburg’s Coney Island location.  There is an amazing sideshow mural by Coney Island USA’s own Marie Roberts:

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And here’s one by Miss Van:

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And then:

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Century of Slapstick #86: Court House Crooks

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on July 5, 2015 by travsd
A pre-glasses Harold Lloyd hides in the closet

A pre-glasses Harold Lloyd hides in the closet

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Keystone ensemble comedy Court House Crooks (1915), directed by and starring by Ford Sterling.

This little comedy has a number of interesting features, not the least of which is that it contains one of the very few screen appearances made by Harold Lloyd in a Keystone picture. He hasn’t yet established his glasses character; he comes across as a very nice, if undistinguished young man.

Here’s the plot: Minta Durfee plays a judge’s wife. The judge (Charles Arling) has forgotten her anniversary so she makes him go buy her a gift, so he goes and gets a jeweled necklace. Meantime she also has something going with D.A. Ford Sterling. She arranges to meet Ford at the soda fountain. The Judge accidentally drops the box with the necklace, which Ford just happens to find. He keeps the necklace and gives it to the Judge’s wife, throwing away the box, which a  young loafer (Harold Lloyd)  happens to find. Harold is pursued by police when he is discovered with the box. He runs home to his mother and little sister and hides in the closet.

The cops catch him, put him in jail. He escapes and climbs a ladder into what turns out to be the Judge’s house! He hides, once again, in a closet, but this tme it happens to be one in which Ford Sterling happens to be hiding. Ford tricks Harold into surrendering, claiming that he will get him off the hook. Then Ford slips out …does a tightrope walk on clotheslines! Coincidentally (there are quite a few coincidences in this movie) the house next door is where Lloyd’s mother and sister live. Ford promises to free the boy.

Climax: the big courtroom scene. (Um, as though they would allow a Judge to try a case in which he is also the victim). Ford renegs on his promise and vigorously argues the case to prosecute Harold. Harold’s little sister (she’s only about 7 or 8) gets an idea: she writes a message on a mirror then shines it into the court. Jury and Judge see the message. Ford hides under the Judge’s desk and Minta comes into the court wearing the necklace. Ford is bonked on the head and put in jail.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For 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.

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Tonight on TCM: 2 Classic War Comedies (Plus Thanhouser Films)

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2015 by travsd

Tonight on Turner Movie Classics, two of the greatest classic anti-war satires of all time, followed by an exploration of the the Thanhouse Film Company.

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8:00 pm (EST): Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup is the movie most die-hard Marx Brothers fans will name as their favorite Marx Brothers movie. For years it was mine. It seems like the climax of the best phase of their movie career, their early years at Paramount, with the zaniest script and songs (by Kalmar and Ruby), the biggest pretensions toward satirical meaning, and a director at the helm who himself was a comic auteur Leo McCarey, shaper of the early cinematic work of Laurel and Hardy, and then later director of a long list of classics. The film also reunites the team with Margaret Dumont, magical foil from their first two films.

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Dumont plays Mrs. Teasdale, a wealthy philanthropist in the fictional European nation of Freedonia. She agrees to lend a large sum of money to her struggling government, but only if they name Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) their President. The problem is that Firefly is insane. He seems determined to have a war, using tiny slights by Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of nearby Sylvania as the pretext. It just so happens that Trentino is a spy with malevolent intentions. But if Firefly knows it, it is only at the level of instinct. Mostly, he just likes to make crazy shit happen. His confederates are Chicolini, a peanut vendor (Chico), and Pinky (Harpo). Zeppo is busted back down to a secretary role as in the team’s first two features.

Gone completely is ANY semblance of a romantic sub-plot with two lovers, no doubt one reason the film is so much cherished by comedy fans. Unfortunately, the fact that Duck Soup didn’t do as well at the box office as the smash hit Horse Feathers would later be used as an argument that the team needed to restore those boring romances to their films. In many of their later movies, the Marx Brothers would sometimes seem to be playing second fiddle to this inferior element, making fans pine for the glory days of Duck Soup.

When I was a kid I could not for the life of me fathom why 1933 audiences might be less enthusiastic about Duck Soup than their previous and subsequent films. “This world doesn’t deserve to live!” With a much wider exposure to the times now I can better see it. With the benefit of hindsight we are able to look at Duck Soup as a great satire on the arbitrary authority and senseless absurdity of Fascism. Hitler had just come to power. It feels significant. But 1933 was a different landscape. Mussolini and Hitler had been in the headlines for years, and they hadn’t yet committed their greatest atrocities. Thus, the reaction of a lot of critics at the time was essentially  “Meh. So what?” Plus, the zany political satire thing had been done recently at the time, not just the previously mentioned Of Thee I Sing (which the Marxes had considered adapting) but also in movies starring fellow comedians like W.C. Fields (Million Dollar Legs, 1932), Jolson, Langdon et al (Hallelujah I’m a Bum, 1933), Jack Pearl (Meet the Baron, 1933) and Wheeler and Woolsey (Diplomaniacs, 1933). The latter movie had even featured Louis Calhern as a scheming diplomat!

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And there are ways in which the Marxes seemed to be repeating themselves in Duck Soup, reviving elements from their previous movies, and even cannibalizing dialogue from their recent radio show Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel (written by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin). And furthermore, the elements that McCarey contributes are not just the least Marxian elements, but themselves rehashes. The title of the film had already been used for a Laurel and Hardy film. Many of the bits that fans cherish are not Marx specific. The “mirror routine”, had been done countless times before, by Chaplin, Max Linder, Raymond Dandy, etc. The hat business with Chico, Harpo and Edgar Kennedy is old Laurel and Hardy stuff, they did it in half a dozen films. Granted, the team executes these bits expertly and put their own spin on them, but it’s not like it’s new material.

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This isn’t to disparage this brilliant film. It’s to explain why, if you were sitting in a theatre in November, 1933, you might have a different perspective on it than we do. Many people found it funny, but no one found it new or fresh.

We of course see its countless virtues. The crazy musical numbers. Groucho’s dialogue, ranking with Animal Crackers for his best. The spy trial of Chicolini, possibly the funniest Chico routine in the team’s cinematic record. The hilarious battle sequence, which outdoes the football game climax of Horse Feathers for sheer insanity. Harpo’s most surreal gag ever, when a barking dog comes out of the tattoo of a dog house on his arm. The recurring gag of Harpo’s motorcycle taking off and leaving Groucho in the sidecar, with the inevitable topper of Harpo on the sidecar leaving Groucho on the motorcycle.

The Marx Brothers had many great moments ahead of them, as a team and as individuals. But 70 minutes of sustained hilarity all in a row like this here? No, sadly, never again. Five movies and that was that.

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9:30pm (EST) The Great Dictator (1940)

By the 1930s there was no avoiding the fact that another buffoon with a toothbrush mustache was vying with Chaplin for the title of most famous man in the world. Charlie Chaplin despised Adolf Hitler. That the German tyrant  had spoiled Chaplin’s distinctive brand and banned his films was the least of it. Hitler was against everything Chaplin stood for: humanism, tolerance, sympathy, freedom. He was convincing large numbers of people to hate Jews; the woman Chaplin loved at the time (Paulette Goddard) was half Jewish.

For years Chaplin had been threatening to make a picture about Napoleon, originally with Edna Purviance as his Josephine. It was an easy matter for him to transfer the Napoleon ideas that had been gestating and adapt them into a burlesque on Hitler.  Since his trademark mustache had been stolen, the proposed film would also be his sad farewell to his famous screen character. In this film, The Little Fellow (a barber here) is a Jewish war hero who bears an uncanny resemblance to the national dictator Adenoid Hynkel. In the end, he will have the opportunity to briefly replace him and make his plea for common sense and human decency.

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This was a momentous theme, important enough for Chaplin to drop his decade-long rear guard action against dialogue. This would be a much larger job for him than it had been for any other silent comedian who had gone into talkies. Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, all of them were highly collaborative artists. When it came time to talk, writers would write their screenplays, which they would undoubtedly tweak, but that was the extent of it. But, aside from the minor contribution here and there, Chaplin had always been the sole creator of his works. This meant that in addition to the many hats he already wore, he would now have to reinvent himself as a screenwriter in the modern sense: somebody who sits down at a typewriter and writes a playscript, spoken dialogue and all, for the screen. It seems to me he made an amazing adjustment. While Chaplin did hire helpers to assist with early drafts, to anyone who is familiar with his voice there is no doubt that most of what winds up on screen is Chaplin’s.

The thing that most surprises about The Great Dictator is, despite its weighty purpose, how out-and-out funny it is. It may be his most Mack Sennett-like film since his Essanay days, frankly comical in an accessible earthy way. All of the fun with names (Tomainia, Bacteria, Garbitsch, Herring, Napoloni) is straight out of the Ben Turpin playbook. And Chaplin has been careful to balance the introduction of spoken dialogue with copious amounts of slapstick and physical business throughout the entire movie. The World War I flashback that opens the film (evoking Shoulder Arms) showcases the Little Fellow’s misadventures with a ridiculously large gun named Big Bertha, followed by a bit where he and an injured pilot (Reginald Gardiner) fly their bi-plane upside down without noticing it.  Later when we get to the present, there is a great scene where the girl, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, in her second and last Chaplin role), is hitting storm troopers on the head with a frying pan. When she accidentally strikes Charlie, he goes classically goofy with concussion and does a little dance up and down the sidewalk as though soused. Chaplin is amazingly agile in this film. At one point, the fifty-ish comedian leaps into the air and dives head first into a barrel as though he were half his age. But now that it is 1940 and he has sound with which to play, he experiments with the ways in which movement and sound can interplay. The barber shaves a customer in time to a Hungarian dance being played on the radio. A microphone withers when Hynkel yells into it (another Sennett-style gag). And then there is Hynkel’s famously beautiful dance with the globe to the music of Wagner’s Lohengrin, one of Chaplin’s most famous scenes.

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But he also saw that there were ways to make similarly symbolic points without losing the humor, as when Hynkel and Napoloni jack up the adjacent barber chairs in which they’re seated to the height of the ceiling so that they can be taller than one another. Another bit, both funny and dark, reminds me of the tone of The Gold Rush. In a grim contest to see who will go on a suicide mission to kill Hynkel, the Little Fellow and the men from the ghetto are eating cupcakes, one of which has a gold coin in it. Not particularly heroic, the barber weighs each plate that comes his way. Satisfied, he begins to eat, only to have the guy sitting next to him switch cupcakes on him. No matter which cupcake he eats, the Little Fellow seems to get the gold coin.

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A lot of the verbal humor is broad, as well. Much of it is lifted from vaudeville: Jack Oakie’s dialect as Napoloni is straight from the Chico Marx school of Italian impersonation, and Chaplin’s own parodies of Hitler’s speeches is a piece of “Dutch” comedy worthy of Weber and Fields, Baron Munchausen, or for that matter Ford Sterling. The doubletalk business hearkens back to his first onscreen spoken words, the nonsense song from Modern Times.

Some of the ethnic lampoon backfires somewhat. With no awareness of the Holocaust then in progress, Chaplin’s gentle Jewish stereotypes, hearkening back to his own “Sam Cohen” routine on the London burlesque stage, seem out of place and distasteful to say the least. But how could he have known? Conversely, the storm troopers are WAY too gently represented. Here they are painted as mere buffoons and lummoxes in the Keystone Kops mold. It rings uncomfortable and false even in the context of 1940, as the thugs, just like the real ones of the time, are painting “Jew” on storefronts, smashing windows, and beating up women and old men in the street. With hindsight it’s easy to see that the best strategy would have been to treat these characters with no humor whatsoever. There is a way to integrate such serious villains into a comedy without losing the overall humor. Chaplin had done it in films like The Kid and The Gold Rush. It seems like he flinched here.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that America had not yet joined the war, and a large part of the public was either pro-Germany or pro-neutrality, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest grossing film to date. This no doubt was in part due to curiosity on the part of the public to hear Chaplin speak.  Nowadays, I would venture to say the film is less well-known than his best-known silents The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times. However, it seems to be picking up steam all the time thanks to frequent television airplay and in the long run it may come to match them in popularity.

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Then, starting at midnight, a special treat for silent movie fans — a few hours devoted to the exploration of the pioneering Thanhouser Film Company (1909-1917). The program will begin with a screening of Ned Thanhouser’s  2014 documentary The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema and then continue by showing three of the studio’s films: Cry of the Children (1912), Evidence of the Film (1913) and Petticoat (1912). I’ve seen the latter two films — well worth a look!

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

The Revolutionary War Battle That Happened ON MY STREET

Posted in AMERICANA, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2015 by travsd

Happy 4th of July!

Since I had a holiday from work yesterday, I thought I would do a little photo essay illustrating a little known fact…not just little known to Americans, but little known to the people who live here where it happened. That is, that some major battles of the American Revolution were fought in New York City. Much of that fighting took place in Brooklyn, and much of it took place in my own neighborhood!

New York tends to get lost in the shuffle. People know about Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and Yorktown. But New York slips through the cracks and my guess as to why is because we lost that battle. The tide of the war turned for the worse here after a bunch of initial victories in Massachusetts. Washington and his troops abandoned the city and left it in the hands of the British for the next seven years. So you can see how that tale doesn’t get emphasized in school (although I imagine New York City kids get it in their classwork. I hope they do! )

The Battle of Long Island was the first major battle of the war to take place after Independence was declared. It took place in late August, 1776

At any rate, I’m always encountering the monuments when I’m kicking around my neighborhood. So I thought I’d share them.

I live in the neighborhood of Park Slope, in the middle of a rise that begins at the Brooklyn waterfront and peaks in a series of hills (the two tallest points are Mount Prospect and Battle Hill). At the bottom of my street is a VFW Hall that is built on the site of the graves of 256 fallen men from a unit that became known as the Maryland 400.

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Hard to read, but this is some more text memorializing the fallen Maryland soldiers.

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Up the hill a couple of blocks, on 5th Avenue (still Brooklyn, not Manhattan) is the Old Stone House, where some more of the fighting took place.

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The current Old Stone House is a replica of the original Dutch farmhouse that stood there. Note the colonial air conditioners.

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Up the hill some more, in Prospect Park is another monument to the fallen 400 Marylanders, at the actual battle site. I am heartened to find that though the memorial needs some restoration, there are often flowers and flags around its base left there by caring volunteers.

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Elsewhere in the park, north of the Prospect Park Zoo is the site of the pass where a lot of the fighting took place, the continentals defending from the high ground, as the British tried to break through. Here is a monument at the Site of the Dongan Oak. The test reads:

“At the Battle of Long Island, on the hill to the north of this spot, the Americans had a redoubt with two guns, to guard the old Valley Grove Road, called by the early settlers the “Porte”, meaning gate-way through the hills, and which ran in front of this monument. By that road stood a white-oak, mentioned in the patent of Governor Dongan, November 12, 1685, as a marker between Flatbush and Brooklyn. This tree was cut down and thrown across the road. With the dense woods on the south and swamps on the north, it made an important obstruction.

Americans, commanded by General Sullivan, valiantly defended this position against the Hessian General De Heister, until attacked from the rear by British troops, under General Clinton, then they retired in good order, bringing off their artillery.”

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More Battle Pass markers:

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Also close by my house (about a 15 minute walk) is historic Green-Wood Cemetery where much of the fighting also took place (as the British were approaching from the south — this fighting actually took place before the events depicted above). The land there was not yet a cemetery in 1776. Green-wood often has Revolutionary War re-enactments on the anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn. If they do this year, we’ll let you know!

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The statue of Minerva on the Battle Hill Monument faces west, towards New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty, plainly visible from the site.

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Lastly, I happen to work right near Ft. Greene Park, and often during my lunch break I’ll go there and scale Ft. Greene Hill, another of Brooklyn’s highest points. Most people don’t know this, but the neighborhood of Ft. Greene was named after an actual Revolutionary War fort that was on top of this hill (with its excellent view of Manhattan), and the fort was named after Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene, a name I’ve known since childhood (since he is from my home state of Rhode Island).

At the top of the hills nowadays is the Monument to the Prison Ship Martyrs. During the Revolutionary War , 11,500 American POWS died on British prison ships, 16 vessels moored in New York harbor whose only purpose was to confine American prisoners. It’s not cheerful but then it’s not irrelevant today either. They died for your Independence!

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Stars of Vaudeville #888: Harry Tate

Posted in British Music Hall, Comedy, Impressionists, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on July 4, 2015 by travsd

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July 4, 1872 was the birthdate of Harry Tate (Ronald McDonald Hutchinson), star of the British music hall, who also made some tours of America and Australia. His stage name was taken from his former employer Henry Tate & Sons, Sugar Refiners. Tate began his career in music hall in 1895, doing impressions of George Robey, Dan Leno and other major stars of his day. But he became best known for a series of comedy sketches, based on and centered around particular fads and trends, e.g. “Billiards”, “Fishing”, “Motoring”, “Running an Office”. In so doing, he became a major influence on W.C. Fields who was to develop a series of similar sketches for the Ziegfeld Follies and other Broadway revues. Between 1927 and 1937 he appeared in 18 motion pictures. He passed away in 1940, a much beloved British institution.

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

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Also don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Tonight on TCM: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Posted in Broadway, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Irish, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on July 4, 2015 by travsd

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Today at 8:00 pm (EST) on Turner Classic Movies: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) 

A strong contender for best Hollywood show biz bio-pic all around. James Cagney tears it up as his hero George M. Cohan, so right in so many ways. Cagney tap danced in vaudeville; this film is the best showcase he ever had in Hollywood for displaying those skills. He even masters some of Cohan’s signature moves. Cagney’s famously simple acting style was inherited from Cohan. And it is one Irish-American’s tribute to his Irish-American forebear. Equally touching (and accurate) is Walter Huston’s portrayal of Cohan’s legendary dad Jerry, a gentle and generous pushover. Released just as America was entering World War Two, it struck the right note of patriotism at just the right time. And, amazingly, it cleaves very closely to the true story of Cohan’s life. (The biggest difference being the replacement of Cohan’s real first wife Ethel Levey, with the fictional “Mary”, whom here becomes the inspiration for the Cohan song by the same name.) Eddie Foy Jr. plays his dad again, and for some additional stunt casting Jeanne Cagney (Jimmy’s sister) plays Josie Cohan, George M.’s sister. Irene Manning plays Fay Templeton; singer Frances Langford is Nora Bayes. 

Read more about George M. Cohan and the Four Cohans here.

For more about 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.

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