Archive for August, 2013

“Sundays with Hitch” Launches on TCM Tomorrrow

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , on August 31, 2013 by travsd


Every Sunday in September TCM will be showing dozens of works by Alfred Hitchcock from morning until…well into the next morning. It’s not the entire canon, but it’s enough to get even a jaded fan excited — this month long series even includes two or three silents that are among the few I haven’t seen.  Here’s what ‘s in the line-up tomorrow (Warning — I always include spoilers!):



Murder! (1930) There is much material in embryo form in this early talkie that looks ahead to areas Hitchcock would later explore. A setting amongst actors and theatres anticipates Stage Fright.  A trial section, as in countless of his films, The Paradine Case prominent among them. Psychological jargon anticipating Spellbound and Psycho. And then a time sensitive investigation by an amateur, laced with humor. And course, the obligatory graphic murder scene.

The plot is that an actress seems to have murdered the colleague she was having tea with. All evidence points to her as the murderer but she doesn’t remember it. Then a lengthy scene in the jury room. Eleven jurors convince the single hold out, a knighted actor, who had once turned the accused down for a role, advising her to get some seasoning in the provinces. Her having done so leads to the murder, so he feels partially responsible. But the others convince him to vote guilty. She is now facing the gallows. The actor decides to investigate himself (aided by a stage manager and his wife, an aspiring actress). Gradually they uncover the truth and the true murderer.

Strong echoes of German Expressionism linger in the film—Hitchcock cut his teeth as a director over in Germany. Despite the looming gallows, the film lacks the urgency of his double chase films (where the accused is pressured to prove his OWN innocence with the clock ticking). Here it is just a case of amateur sleuthing. When they uncover the murderer (a circus performer) he commits a spectacular suicide from the top of the big top, a fall, anticipating Vertigo and Saboteur. The denouement is a little distasteful. The accused girl, now freed, becomes the actor’s leading lady and girlfriend. Somehow his instincts to effect justice don’t seem quite so noble and generous any more.



Rope (1948) Hitchcock’s first color film, and done as a stunt—all one continuous shot (in reality, several, because there were breaks when they hate to change film). It’s based on a stage play that was inspired by the real life case of Leopold and Loeb, a pair of rich young men who committed a murder as a sort of intellectual experiment. (While Leopold and Loeb were gay, here, the homosexuality is only implied.) The two guys choke their friend, put him in a trunk, and then have a smart New York dinner party with all of his friends in the same room. When I first saw the film (during its 1980s re-release) I thought both of the principals were really terrible actors. In time, Farley Granger’s performance has grown on me. The other guy, John Dall is one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen. Not just bad, but irritating. I’d be only too glad to choke HIM with a rope and put him in a box!  Jimmy Stewart is woefully miscast as a Neitzsche spouting philosophy professor. The film is gorgeous to look at, especially the very artifical NYC skyline and sunset…paves the way for Rear Window.



Spellbound (1945) An interesting movie. A little too exploitatively “Freudian” in a dated and obvious way, but that sort of makes it fun at the same time. Elements of different Hitchcock themes are present here. One: the mysterious love interest we don’t trust (as in Suspicion and numerous others), and the parallelism between hero and villain (as in Shadow of a Doubt). Here Ingrid Bergman is an incredibly lovely but love starved psychiatrist at a ritzy sanitarium. Gregory Peck is the new head of the sanitarium. It is clear that in addition to being shrinks, they both have psychological problems. And of course they fall in love. Bergman gets deeper and deeper into Peck’s brain (through dream psychoanalysis) until she uncovers whom he really is, but not before we greatly fear that he will be her murderer. The fun parts of this film include Bernard Hermann’s score (complete with pioneering use of theramin), spinning spirals, and a dream sequence conceived by no less than Salvador Dali! Hitchcock’s overt interest in psychoanalysis and abnormal psychology re-emerges later especially in Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie and Frenzy.



Marnie (1964)  I hated this movie the first time I saw it as a teenager. I thought it was incredibly boring (especially in light of the string of films that preceded it). The film has grown on me considerably, however. What I’ve come to realize is that it’s in the tradition of a different Hitchcock strain, the moody melodrama, of which Rebecca is the best example. I wasn’t yet enough steeped in his work (and probably not mature enough) to appreciate it at first. The real weakness of the film is not the pace, which is appropriate, but the performances of the two leads. Connery’s role calls for lots of brooding and thinking; it would have been much better with a Method type actor like Paul Newman. Paul Newman in Marnie; and Sean Connery in Torn Curtain – that would be my rewriting of history. You need someone who can brood and think on camera in this role. Connery’s better at smirks and quips – which is absolutely fine, there’s a long tradition of that in Hollywood films, including Hitchcock’s. But this role needs more. Stewart pulled off a similar obsession in Vertigo, largely because aging had given him some emotional depth and vulnerability. As for Tippi Hedren, of course she also falls short, having had at the time very little training or experience. The part called for a top of the line actress, real serious acting. Hitchcock was blinded by beauty in this case.



The Birds (1963) The first time I saw this movie, watching alone on television, I was so overwrought with tension at one point that I actually sprang out of my chair and started pacing. Tippi Hedren was famously tortured by Hitchcock in this film in retaliation for his rebuffs. His behavior was unconscionable. On the other hand it did allow Hedren to transcend her limitations as an actress. Her terror that shows up on screen as she is pecked at by her avian tormentors was quite real. The mood of the film is unrelenting and Apocalyptic. A lot of Hitchcock’s films make it seem hopeless for the hero for awhile, and then they are released. Here, it is hopeless for everybody, and then there is a reprieve, following which, we are convinced there will be many more attacks. I’m not worried though. If it came down to men vs. birds, we could kill all the birds easy. Mm, delicious.



Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Supposedly Hitchcock’s favorite of all his own films, penned by Thornton Wilder. Joseph Cotton as the sometimes creepy, sometimes charming Uncle Charlie, and the then omnipresent (i.e.,in the late 40s-early 50s) Theresa Wright as his niece, also nicknamed “Charlie”. The film is profound, to the extent that Hitchcock allows himself to be so given the restrictions of the genre. Uncle Charlie is a Bluebeard, and an eloquent one, anticipating Chaplin’s Verdoux. But by creating this “special connection” and this “secret” between our heroine with whom we identify (who chafes at the normality around her and longs for something different) and her uncle, the darkest of villains, all under cover of this normal American family in this normal American town, it seems to implicate US. What is the darkness in OUR soul? A brave movie to make during the war years.

The collaboration between Hitchcock and Wilder is wonderful. Wilder’s voice comes through very strongly. One hears echoes of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. And Hitchcock manifests the feeling visually in the town itself with its granite buildings and church steeples, front porches, and townfolk like the paunchy traffic cop and scarecrow librarian. Young Charlie rails against being in the “typical American family”. Cop McDonald Carey poses as someone taking a survey about an “average American family”. The kids have that dreamy, soulful, dramatic, imaginative and precocious quality. The little bookworm reads Ivanhoe and spouts scientific jargon while her dad reads crime magazines. And the darkness in Uncle Charlie’s soul is like the one that hangs over The Skin of Our Teeth. Cotton has some eloquent, forceful misanthropic speeches, anticipating ones the characters make in Rope.



Psycho (1960) This was probably the first Hitchcock film I ever saw, probably in the late 70s on the afternoon movie on TV. Unfortunately, Psycho is a film that never gets to be seen properly the first time. I’ll never get to enjoy the experience as original audiences did in 1960. I had seen so many of its crucial scenes already BEFORE seeing the film. God knows where, but I know I had. Various televised tributes and so forth I suppose. At any rate, there was no surprise or twist. Everyone already knows that Janet Leigh will be killed early in the movie, and how; everybody knows that Norman Bates (Tony Perkins) is his own mother. I may well have seen this movie more than any other Hitchcock movie though. I have mixed feelings about the film. In the context of his own work, I think it’s a fine statement, interesting, if atypical, and obviously a towering technical achievement. However, I like almost nothing that it inspired: neither low budget slasher movies, nor De Palma’s technocentric, ice cold studies in human cruelty. Hitchcock opened the door for a lot of crap here.

The cast is great of course—Martin Balsam as the scrappy detective. I love Perkins’ performance in this movie in particular. And then there’s that weird, interminable psychological explanation by Simon Oakland at the end, explaining the whole picture to us as though we were two year olds. It reminds me of  Glen or Glenda. 



The Lodger (1927)

This silent film, based on the 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lownde is inspired by Jack the Ripper. London is terrorized by a serial killer who has been murdering blondes (!) Ivor Novello is a mysterious tenant in a rooming house whom everyone (including us, thanks to seeds planted by Hitchcock) suspects of being the killer. Much striking visual imagery in the film, which owes much to German expressionism and points the way obviously to both Psycho and Frenzy.




Blackmail (1929) This landmark film is not only Hitchcock’s first talkie, but the first talkie made in Great Britain!. Some strange herky-jerky silent passages show the transition. The film is quite racy for its day. A girl goes up with a creepy artist to his loft to look at his etchings. He forces himself on her. She knifes him in self defense. The only one who knows the secret is her boyfriend, a detective – a fairly unforgivable coincidence from a narrative point of view! Yet, another creep learns the truth and blackmails the girl. It is amazing how Hitchcock’s touch is already present in this early film…the humor, the creepiness. The scene in the artist’s studio is amazing. There is this great tension and suspense and Hitchcock really doesn’t do anything except make us wait. It’s extremely matter of fact, but we can see what the girl doesn’t – that the situation is fraught with danger.



Frenzy (1972)  After the downright dreadful Topaz (1969), Hitchock got back on his game with this one. It would have been a far more fitting last film for him than Family Plot turned out to be . Though not one of his best masterpieces, it is a very interesting mix of the double chase pictures with the psycho/creep genre. And to top it off, he even went back to his native England to make it. So it has that valedictory feel to it. All about a sick necktie murderer, and another guy who is falsely accused of the crime. We also spend time with the cop who is investigating the crime, and whose wife keeps cooking him disgusting food. Darkly humorous, thrilling and completely edgy for its time.


Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , on August 31, 2013 by travsd

Screen shot 2011-06-25 at 2.04.45 AM

Today is the birthday of Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983). Godfrey began as an announcer in radio around 1930 first in Baltimore, then in Washington, anchoring local shows, playing records, occasionally singing and playing the ukulele, even reading sentimental poems. He came to national attention in 1945 when his live coverage of President Roosevelt’s funeral was Broadcast coat to coast.

His first national radio show was Arthur Godfrey Time in 1945. The following year he launched the show he remains best known for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the CBS answer to Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. The radio version of Talent Scouts ran from 1946 through 1956; the television ran from 1948 through 1958. After a brief interlude in which he battled lung cancer (one of his lung was removed), he fought his way back, returning to the radio version of his show, which stayed on the air until 1972.

Returning to television was not so easy however. Beloved for his warm, down-home, folksy personality,  it gradually came out that he was a backstage tyrant who had fired large numbers of his staff over the years. (Most famously he fired singer Julius La Rose ON THE AIR). This eventually damaged his once universal popularity. In his final decades he did the occasional movie role and tv special, but was never able to make a hoped-for come-back. He died in 1983.

Here he is hawking Lipton’s soup!

To learn more about the history of the variety arts, including radio and tv varietyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


The Vaudeville of William Saroyan: “The Time of Your Life”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Playwrights, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on August 31, 2013 by travsd

Gene Kelly, center stage in the original Broadway production

Today is the birthday of William Saroyan (1908-1981), the literary equivalent of William Henry Johnson, Barnum’s “What is it?” Many have read Saroyan’s fiction. The work of his I am most familiar with however is his 1939 Pulitzer-Prize winning play The Time of Your Life. It is the damnedest animal. It’s both heartening and bewildering that it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is poetic and philosophical and endlessly fascinating, and yet it has no plot to speak of, it’s just this kind of dream experience that you drift into and then out of….like a patch of fog in the middle of San Francisco harbor. This dude Joe just sits around this bar “observing” a parade of dreamers and eccentrics who come in and out…much like a vaudeville show. Among them are a harmonica player, a piano player, a wild west cowboy, and a dancer who wishes he were a comedian instead (and tells the worst jokes in the world).

The original Broadway direction was produced and directed by Eddie Dowling, who also played Joe. The hoofer was played by Gene Kelly. Ten years later it was made into a movie by James Cagney (his brother was titular producer; Cagney played Joe). The cast included several vaudeville related types: Broderick Crawford, James Barton, and Paul Draper among them. (One weird thing is the character of Kitty, with whom Joe appears to have some romantic tension, is played by Cagney’s daughter Jeanne. Ick?)

At any rate, the beauty part is you can watch the whole thing for yourself right now if you so choose:

To learn more about 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.


And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc



Satan, Hold My Hand

Posted in Art Stars, Contemporary Variety, ME, Movies (Contemporary), SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , on August 31, 2013 by travsd

Rev Jen, Face Boy and Jonathan Ames. Photo by the Duchess!

The Art Stars came out in profusion for last night’s world premiere of Satan, Hold My Hand at Anthology Film Archives. Written by the Sainted performance Goddess Rev Jen Miller, produced by Jonathan Ames (author of countless awesome books and creator of HBO’s Bored to Death) and directed by Courtney Fathom Sell, the film features burlesque stars Reina Terror and Scooter Pie as a couple of Catholic school girls bound to be sacrificial victims of a rock band helmed by Robert Prichard (The Toxic Avenger and proprietor of the legendary alt comedy club Surf Reality, 1995-2002). Their aim is to harness the unholy power of Satan (Faceboy, longtime star of Faceboyz Open Mic and star of lots of previous Rev Jen movies); Satan’s secretary is played by Janeanne Garofolo. Rounding out the cast, a gaggle of Art Stars familiar to devotees of Rev Jen’s long-running Anti-Slam: Hank Flynn, Pete Gerber, Angry Bob,  John King, Don Eng, et al.  And let us not forget Rev Jen, Jr, the most talented chihuahua in this or any land, including Mexico.

The movie was dedicated to the late Taylor Mead, and that was fitting, for the entire proceedings from soup to nuts seemed infused with his gonzo spirit, from the underground rawness of the movie’s assembly, to the absinthian cocktail of humor and anarchistic free-for-all, to the neo-Warholian constellation of bona fide “characters” who not only populated the film but the screening and the before and after festivities that book-ended it. We started at the before party, where we spent time with cast members and other notables: Jason Trachtenburg (his daughter Rachel wrote some of the music for the movie), Lisa Levy, Brer Brian Homa (who wrote the movie’s theme song), Michele Carlo and her boyfriend Larry Desgaines, C.C. John, Jennifer Glick, et al. The carousal was in high gear by the time of the showing…at one point during an impromptu Q & A, which was being run by cast member John King for some reason  (the Rev being too overcome with, um, “emotion”), a man in the row in front of me stood up and threw his shirt off, revealing his tattoos and an enormous beer belly. Did he start dancing? I think he may have started dancing. At any rate, by then it was like 1:30 in the morning.  That’s like 5am in Trav S.D. time.

Anyway hopefully it’ll be screening soon a theatre near you (or available in some electronic fashion). Here is the movie’s web site:


Stars of Vaudeville #221: Joan Blondell

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2013 by travsd


Originally published in 2010

Joan Blondell was one of those vaudevillians whose career spanned so long those of us growing up in the 1970s knew her entirely from contemporary entertainment, little dreaming of the four distinguished decades that preceded. She was a regular on Here Come the Brides, and a guest star on shows like Starsky and Hutch, Fantasy IslandBonanza and many others, and in films like Grease (1978) and The Champ (1978). It never occurred to me to realize that my grandmother probably watched her in first run movies too – in 1930.

Rose Joan Blondell (born this day in 1906) was a second generation vaudevillian. Her father, Eddie was a vaudeville comedian and was in the 1903 stage play adaptation of the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids. Her mother was also an actress. As with Buster Keaton, its rumored that Joan’s cradle was literally a steamer trunk. She made her stage debut in her infancy. She traveled the world with her performing family throughout her childhood, finally settling in Dallas, where she won the Miss Dallas pageant in 1926 (placing fourth for Miss America). The next year, she moved to New York to become an actress. The breakthrough was Penny Arcade, which with Al Jolson’s support, became the Warner Brothers film Sinner’s Holiday, which put both her and James Cagney on the map. She was in a zillion movies through the 30s, including classics like Public Enemy, Three on a Match, and Golddiggers of 1933. By the next decade the pace slowed down, but she never stopped working, and her presence is memorable in films as diverse as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Her stock in trade was the wisecrack, delivered with a sly smirk and a twinkle in those huge baby blue eyes. But she could handle drama, too, and won a Golden Globe Award for her work in The Cincinnati Kid.

Her marital career was just as interesting as her professional one. Husbands included her sometime co-star, the multi-careered Dick Powell and controversial stage and screen producer Mike Todd, whom she once claimed hung her outside a window once by her ankles. Her younger sister, also in show business, was married to Cubby Broccoli, producer of the James Bond pictures. She died in 1979.

In commemoration of the day, we present this funny scene from the 1931 comedy Blonde Crazy. She knew how to take care of herself!

To learn more about 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.


And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Stars of Vaudeville #220: Fritzi Scheff

Posted in Broadway, German, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2013 by travsd


Originally posted in 2010.

Fritzi Scheff (b. Fredericka Scheff Yarger on this day in 1879) was a prima donna in every sense of the word. A second generation grand opera singer from Vienna, a tour to the U.S. exposed her to the profitable world of light operetta and musical comedy, where she became a star in the early years of the twentieth century. When the Palace opened in 1913, she was among the class acts that Martin Beck brought there, and she continued to work the lucrative big time as long as the opportunities existed — through the 1920s, and a few years later in a revival at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. Having played the great halls of Europe and having come to the U.S. initially at the behest of the Metropolitan Opera, she was known in the business for being correspondingly demanding and haughty in the lowly precincts of vaudeville. For her last quarter century she didn’t have it to kick around any more. She passed away in 1954.

The clip below is very rare — Ms. Scheff didn’t make any records…this clip of her singing “Kiss Me Again” from Victor Herbert’s Mlle. Modiste (which she first introduced in 1905) was captured from a 1936 radio performance. Incidentally, the original Broadway performance of that show featured an obscure chorus boy named Mack Sennett:

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Stars of Vaudeville #486: Fred MacMurray

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2013 by travsd

Originally posted in 2012

Most people (over a certain age) know him as “Steve Douglas” from the tv show My Three Sons (1960-1972) and a star of silly Disney movies like The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963). A lesser number (film buffs) know him as a major star of the classic Hollywood studio era of the 1930s and 1940s. But I’ll lay dollars to donuts that only a VERY few know that Fred MacMurray (1908-1991) got his start in the 1920s in  vaudeville as a saxophone player in a band called “The California Collegiates”.

The Wisconsin native enjoyed a long career. The other night the Countess and I enjoyed him (well watched him) in Irwin Allen’s 1978 disaster (I mean disaster movieThe Swarm. 

Now, here’s a clip I found that’s DOUBLY awesome. Not only is it very illuminating about Fred MacMurray the man….but also about Bob Hope, whom believe it or not, I have NEVER seen on a talk show PERIOD, let alone speak so warmly and candidly. A double testament to MacMurray:

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


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