Lillian Roth: From Gus Edwards to the Gutter


Have you ever watched Animal Crackers and wondered why the ingenue was so expansive and arch, as though she were one of the stars? The reason is, she was one of the stars. Though not as big as the Marx Brothers, Lillian Roth was well-known to audiences of her day. At age 9 she and her sister Ann formed a vaudeville singing duo presented by Gus Edwards. By the next year she was cast in the Broadway show Shavings, which thereafter boosted her up the billing ladder to headliner. She alternated vaudeville with parts in Earl Carroll and Ziegfeld revues and films through the mid-30s. Her major early pictures include The Love Parade (1930), The Vagabond King (1930), and Madam Satan (1930). Her bad behavior on the latter picture provoked the wrath of director Cecil B. DeMille. She was reportedly “punished” by being forced to do Animal Crackers with the even wilder Marx Brothers.

A drinking problem cut the first phase of her career short, and unfortunately, starting with her 1954 autobiography I’ll Cry Tomorrow and the campy melodramatic film version the following year starring Susan Hayward, all the attention she got going forward was related to her alcohol problem. Roth was one of the first Hollywood people to go public as an alcoholic. And she wasn’t just a drunk – -when she bottomed out it was all the way down (use your imagination). Still, she was and always will be a star.
Roth in the horror movie "Alice, Sweet Alice", released around the same time as the Boggs interview
Roth in the horror movie “Alice, Sweet Alice”, released around the same time as the Boggs interview

This interview, from 1977,  is atrocious. At one point, interviewer Bill Boggs quips that a nurse who introduced Roth to booze should be sued for “ex post facto malpractice”, though the purpose it had been used for was a legitimate one. On the other hand, Boggs DEFINITELY should be sued for malpractice for conducting such a shoddy, craven interview, ghoulishly dwelling on only the negative aspects of Roth’s life, probing her wounds with a dull scalpel. At one point he asks her, “Do you have any friends?” It isn’t until 10 minutes into the 18 minute interview that we hear anything good about her wonderful career – – a 30 second tour through her scrapbook, before we return to another 7 minutes on her substance abuse. The main reason I enjoy watching this clip, is that every ounce of her charm (and confidence apparently)  is still there. Roth sits there and absorbs this hideous drubbing on live New York television and treats it like so much…attention. Well, there you go. It’s a crazy business we’re in. We’re pointing the camera at substance abusers more than ever for entertainment these days. How much better to point them at singers, dancers, actors, and comedians.

Lillian Roth passed away in 1980. Her last film was Boardwalk (1979) with fellow old timers Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg. It’s set in Coney Island!

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and stars like Lillian Rothconsult 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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