Stars of Slapstick #123: Charlotte Greenwood
In 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein created the role of Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! for stage veteran Charlotte Greenwood, a testament to her popularity on the stage over the previous four decades and in film for the previous dozen years. In fact, it was her busy film schedule that prevented her from taking the role of Aunt Eller on Broadway at the time, although she got to play her in the movie version a dozen years later.
Born on this day in 1890, Lottie Greenwood was the daughter of a mother who managed a theatrical hotel. No doubt it’s how the bug bit her. She was just a teen when she got her first chorus part in the Klaw and Erlanger show The White Cat, directed by Ned Wayburn in 1907. The next year she was in The Rogers Brothers in Panama. In 1908, the tall and gangly Greenwood teamed up in vaudeville with short, plump Eunice Burnham as The Fisher Sisters: Two Girls and a Piano. At first Greenwood tried to work against her natural attributes, self-conscious about her Olive Oyl like physiognomy. Gradually she learned that when she moved a certain herky-jerky way, she got laughs, and so she did, and this was the basis of her theatrical identity for the remainder of her career. After Burnham, her vaudeville partner was the equally short and plump Sydney Grant. The continued to work in vaudeville and Broadway revues. In 1913, she starred in Tik-Tok in Oz, L. Frank Baum’s sequel to his hot Broadway version of his book The Wizard of Oz. From 1914-22, she starred in a series of successful musical farces called the Letty series (named after her character). In the talkie era, Greenwood went out to Hollywood, where she got to star opposite some of the greatest comedians of the era. 1931 was a particularly good year: she was in Bert Lahr’s debut film Flying High, Eddie Cantor’s Palmy Days and Buster Keaton’s Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. Here, she is in a scene from the latter (in fact, the film’s best scene):
She continued to be popular on Broadway and in films through the 40s and 50s, retiring in about 1956. She passed away in 1978.
For more about 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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about 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.