Lillian Roth: From Gus Edwards to the Gutter

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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 revues and films through the mid-30s.

Roth had a level of charm that cannot be bought. Here she is in a Mae West inspired duet with James Dunn called “Come Up and See Me Some Time” from the 1933 film Take a Chance:

Here she is with Lupino Lane in the 1929 musical  The Love Parade (1929):

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.

The attached 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.

To find out more about these variety artists and 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.

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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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One Response to “Lillian Roth: From Gus Edwards to the Gutter”

  1. […] Eddie Cantor, Phil Silvers, Walter Winchell, Ray Bolger, Eleanor Powell, Sally Rand, Bert Wheeler, Lillian Roth and the Duncan Sisters. He was also a prolific songwriter (his best known song “School […]

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