Stars of Vaudeville #12 & 13: Nazimova and the Ritz Brothers
Two vaudeville birthdays today: Alla Nazimova and Harry Ritz.
One of the great actresses of the early twentieth century, Nazimova was also one of vaudeville’s great sensationalists.
She was born Mariam Edez Adelaida “Alla” Leventon in Yalta in 1879. As a child she had studied the violin, but fear of her stern father prevented her from formal dramatic study until the age of 17. She was accepted to Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Philharmonic School in Moscow, which merged with Stanislawski’s newborn Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. She struggled on in minor roles and as a stage manager with the theatre for a few years, and then split off the work with the Kostroma stock company. While acting there, she met met Pavel Orlenev, a friend of Chekhov and Gorky. The two became collaborators and lovers. From touring the Russian provinces, in 1904 they went on to success in Berlin and London. In 1905, they were a hit in New York, where the Shuberts were so impressed, they offered to produce her if she would stay in the U.S. and learn English. She did.
Her 1906 performance as Hedda Gabler was such a hit that she went on to star in most of Ibsen’s major plays over the next few years. She almost always did “important” realistic plays, usually with progressive political themes. A gorgeous woman, with enormous eyes and a sensuous mouth, she reinforced the sensationalism of her feminist forays by giving them sex appeal. This is what made her a hit in vaudeville.
In 1914 she debuted a one act at the Palace called An Unknown Woman which pleaded for more sensible divorce laws. A querulous Edward Albee cancelled the act at the urging of a Roman Catholic clergyman, although Nazimova was paid in full for her services. In 1915, she returned with the pacifist playlet War Brides, which was especially timely given the conflict overseas. This turn was such a hit she toured the Orpheum Circuit with it, and then turned it into a 1916 movie. The film version was a major success, resulting in Metro offering her a 5 year, $13,000 a week contract in 1917—a deal better than even Mary Pickford’s. For the next several years, she was a major movie star and the mansion she built “The Garden of Alla”, one of the center’s of the Hollywood social scene. Her contract her total creative control, and unfortunately, as time went on her use of it alienated both critics and audiences. Her exotic sexuality was often exploited, which critics found “lurid” and “preposterous.” She lost audiences by indulging her artistic impulses. She began to allow free reign to experimental set designer Natacha Rambova, who became her lover. Rambova became the wife of Rudolph Valentino, was Nazimova’s co-star in Camille (1921). Though Camille was a success Metro started becoming uncomfortable with all of this art, and cut Nazimova loose. She produced two films on her own in 1922, A Doll’s House and Salome which continued with the stylized sets and acting. They tanked at the box office unfortunately, and Nazimova was to play only small roles in Hollywood thereafter.
It is perhaps for this reason that she returned to the Palace for several vaudeville engagements through the 1920s. One of the playlets she introduced was a feminist drama called India, co-written by Edgar Allen Woolf. Major theatre roles of her late career included Christine in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), O-lan in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1932), and the leads in major revivals of Ghosts and Hedda Galbler which she directed in 1935 and 1936 respectively. She died in 1945.
Back in the 20s and 30s when someone used the word “madcap” to describe certain comedians it actually made some sense. this was the period when anarchistic comedy was in vogue. it was just as important for the comedian to be “insane” then as it is for a stand up comedian to be topical and observational today. Thus, the Marx Bros, Olsen and Johnson, Ed Wynn, Joe Cook, Clark & McCullough and the Ritz Bros.
Conceptually the Ritz Bros are a sort of cross between the Marx bros and the 3 Stooges. Like the former, they were “crazy”. They brought pandemonium with them when they enter a room. You wondered “where’s the straight jacket?” And of course, they were brothers. Like the Three Stooges (two of whom at any given time were also brothers), there was a sameness to them. They were roughly the same size and build, and there was very little individuality in their characterizations. In the case of the Ritz Bros, there was precisely NO individual characterization.
Al started out first as a song and dance man, but was quickly joined by his brothers Jim and Harry. They debuted at the Albee Theatre in Brooklyn in 1925, dressed as college kids, dancing, kidding around and playing the ukulele. Over time, the kidding around began to make up the bulk of the act. By the end of the decade, they were headliners at the Palace. In the middle 30s they were familiar fixtures in such pictures as One in a Million (1937), On the Avenue (1937), The Goldwyn Follies (1938) and The Three Musketeers (1939). They generally weren’t the stars of their pictures, usually but got 3rd billing, woven in and out of their musical plots.
The boys’ actual patronymic was Joachim. They took the name “Ritz” from the crackers, and it was appropriate, for they were frequently covered in cheese. Audiences either loved or hated the Ritz. Bros. your author confesses to the latter stance, though no less a personage than Sid Caesar considered them his idols. To this viewer, in their films at least, they seem to be really exerting themselves, making a lot of random, aimless contortions to little effect. Rarely have so many faces been pulled in the production of so little laughter. It’s true you can see their influence on Caesar—he makes the same kind of faces—eyes crossed or bugging out, strands of hair that flop onto the forehead . The difference is, in a Caesar sketch, his eyes are crossed because (for example) he has just been hit in the stomach, his eyes are bulging in anger or terror, the hair is flopping because he is freaking out over something. The Ritz Brothers just throw out those faces just for the heck of it. John Bubbles reported seeing them at Loew’s State in 1931: “When they finished, they had to steal a bow! And they were the headliners!”.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.