Archive for November, 2013

Virginia Mayo: Got Her Start with the Three Mayo Brothers

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

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Today is the birthday of Virginia Mayo (Virginia Cara Jones, 1920-2005). A Saint Louis native, she was taught acting and dancing at her aunt’s dramatic academy and began her career as a professional when still a child. Starting in 1939 she appeared in her brother-in-law’s post-vaudeville vaudeville act The Mayo Brothers for three years, acting in comedy sketches with two men in a horse costume. As was fairly common in show business, she took the act’s name for her stage name.

Mayo translated her popularity in this act to a great part in Eddie Cantor’s hit Broadway show Banjo Eyes in 1941. This (helped along by her legendary beauty) led to Hollywood. While her career embraced nearly all genres, including costume epics, westerns and gangster pictures, a good percentage of her films cast her as the beautiful comic foil and love interest to top comedians: Bob Hope in The Princess and the Pirate (1944), Milton Berle in Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) and above all Danny Kaye in Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and A Song is Born (1948). Her film career wound down considerably in the 1960s, although she continued to act until 1997.

Here she is with Kaye in A Song is Born:

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable 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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Thanksgiving at Chez Josephine

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, FOOD & DRINK CULTURE, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Thanksgiving with tags , , on November 29, 2013 by travsd

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We have a thousand things to be thankful for; yesterday one of them was that the Duchess got the inspiration to book us at Chez Josephine for our Thanksgiving feast. The place is owned and operated by two of Josephine Baker’s adopted children Jean-Claude and Jarry Baker — I think it was Jean-Claude who greeted us at the door yesterday. The atmosphere is warm (in every sense), the cuisine is French, and the decor a kind of shrine to Ms. Baker and the Paris of the 1920s.

This is the first Thanksgiving dinner where I’ve gotten to enjoy my meal surrounded by pictures of a topless woman. And rightfully so. A topless Priscilla Alden would just make me uncomfortable. Nestled right on Theatre Row on the outskirts of the Deuce, the place was merry with the hilarious plinkings of a most eclectic piano player, who offered quiet, tasteful renderings of everything from the theme song to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to several disco hits. I don’t know if someone was playing “Stump the Piano Player” or the musician was just a great entertainer. Perhaps both. As for the chow, it was of the first water. Sweet, succulent scallops were my portion, with a crab cake and squash soup for openers. And to top it off a baked apple with cinnamon and caramel sauce, alongside vanilla ice cream. If they’d botched the job, we would have reported it! I think we’ve found our new “special place”.

On Busby Berkley

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , on November 29, 2013 by travsd

 

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Today is the birthday of the great choreographer and director Busby Berkley (1895-1976). One is tempted to call him the greatest Hollywood choreographer ever but then one remembers the field has included people like Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Agnes DeMille, Michael Kidd, and Bob Fosse. Berkley’s bailiwick wasn’t “dance” per se in the same way as those others; in his films you don’t see a lot of solos or duets or movement sequences in traditional dance styles (ballet, ballroom, or even tap, if you think about it). He specialized in organizing large numbers of costumed chorus girls in abstract, kaleidoscopic, even hallucinatory patterns that became the very essence of the 1930s movie musical.

Berkley was a second generation actor who first stepped onstage as a child. He’d already amassed a good amount of professional stage experience when he enlisted in the army in World War One, which is where, as a drill instructor and aerial observer, he obtained the skills that were to set him apart in show business. After the war, he played some theatrical roles and began to choreograph regionally, making it to Broadway by 1925 with the show Holka Polka. He was to choreograph 17 shows for Broadway before making the critical move to Hollywood, getting in on the ground floor of the brand new art form of talkie musicals. His movie credits as choreographer  included several Eddie Cantor vehicles, Whoopee (1930), Palmy Days (1931), The Kid From Spain (1932) and Roman Scandals (1933), as well as the classics 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), Dames (1934), Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers in Paris (1938).

His visual imagination seemed limitlessly creative. He had a magical way of wedding the spirit and aesthetics of Broadway to the motion picture medium. Yet film allowed a lavishness of spectacle not permitted on the stage, featuring sets, costumes and — most importantly — perspectives not possible in live theatre. He was able to choreograph numbers meant to be viewed from the ceiling, for example, or ones where the camera participated in the choreography, moving amongst the dancers. Often the numbers, purportedly taking place on a Broadway stage as a show-within-the-show, would catapult into total fantasy, taking us far outside the confines of any physical theatre, featuring city streets, automobiles and so forth before gradually returning us through some alchemy back to the stage show.

Here is one of his more justifiably notorious numbers, from Dames:

By the 40s tastes had changed to integrated book musicals but Berkley had also begun directing films in 1933, which helped ease the transition. His directing credits included Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), For Me and My Gal (1942)  and Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949, his last theatrical film as director). They Made Me a Criminal (1939) was a rare excursion outside the musical genre.

He worked steadily as a choreographer until the early 1950s. Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) which starred Esther Williams as Annette Kellerman, offered him a rare late chance to do the type of work he had been known for in his heyday. He directed some television in the mid 1950s, returned to the big screen to choreograph large circus sequences in Jumbo (1962) then retired for almost a decade, returning to direct the smash hit Broadway revival of No No Nanette in 1971, starring his old collaborator from four decades earlier, Ruby Keeler.

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable 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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Mayflower

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Native American Interest, Thanksgiving with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2013 by travsd

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Happy Thanksgiving. This seems a fitting day to recommend what I’ll now think of as the definitive account of the first English settlement in 17th century New England.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 Mayflower is easily the most vividly rendered, thorough and balanced account of that important history that I’ve come across. Not just exhaustively researched from primary sources, but digested, clearly contemplated, and then presented to the reader in such a way that he feels transported to that time and place. It’s a portrait that somehow manages to hit the story of 1620 from every angle, to portray the interior and exterior lives of all the players and how they influenced events. The title of the book is a symbolic play; it’s actually about all that that first Pilgrim voyage in 1620 would portend. Thus, though it starts in 1620 (actually several years before, as he fills in the backstory), Philbrick concludes his narrative in 1675-1676, the time of King Philip’s War, which effectively finished the Indians of Southern New England as a force to be reckoned with. (The latter event was one of the lures of the book for me. A climactic, tragic event of that two year war was The Great Swamp Fight, which was fought on Narragansett territory in my home town). This horrible war ranks as the worst in American history by some measures (e.g.,casualty rate) , and certainly it’s extremely most important in terms of precedent, but gets such short shrift in both the teaching of history and in American popular culture that I doubt that most Americans even know about it (as I doubt if they can name any other important Indian war either apart from Custer’s Last Stand). The ignorance is telling and needs to be redressed.

There are so many things this book does so well it’s hard to know where to begin. Chief is probably the three dimensional portrait of the Native Americans, which I found illuminating to the point of earth-shaking. Philbrick gets down into the capillaries of the politics of the era, the complex diplomatic relationships amongst the numerous tribes, and of those tribes with the Europeans, none of which were monolithic or homogeneous. Tribal leaders like Massassoit, Squanto, Alexander, Philip and dozens of others are treated as they undoubtedly were: as calculating, strategizing, thinking political creatures, neither helpless, naive pawns, nor treacherous savages. Massassoit and Squanto, invariably painted as “the friends of the Pilgrims” in children’s books, might better be described as “allies”. The Indians no less than the Europeans are given credit for brains, agency and motive. They come across as recognizable human beings; I’m not sure that I’ve ever encountered this anywhere before, at least not as well done as this. The book strikes me as quite revolutionary in this way. And likewise, just as Philbrick helps us navigate the different Native tribes, he also helps us understand the differences between the Pilgrims (or separatists) and Puritans, the nonformists who founded Rhode Island, and the people who were there for strictly economic reasons.

Philbrick seems to know just what to include to take us there, which details are important to make the experience real to us, and when to feed us numbers. (At which point are there 100 whites in New England? 50 (since a bunch died off the first winter)? 1,000? 20,000? 60,000?) After a long period (about a decade) of isolation, the early colonies grew really fast, altering the balance of power to an extent that must have been terrifying to the natives. Their backs to the wall, they banded together (some against their will) in an all-out effort to push the English back into the sea. Though they ultimately lost (in what would prove a sort of catastrophic template) this would be the one occasion when it might be said that the Natives really got in their licks; for a while they seem to have almost pulled it off. (According to Philbrick, by some measures, economically the colonies didn’t recover for almost a century after King Philip’s War).

Best of all (the dramatist in me says)…he makes you see it. What they wore, what they owned, what they ate, how they lived, how they traveled, what they felt like. Both sides. And, as you’ll see, there was so much complex interaction between natives and whites, for so many there were no sides at all. They were caught in the middle. And that’s the tragedy of it. Why should there be sides?

Ford Sterling in “Cohen Saves the Flag”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Keystone one-reel comedy Cohen Saves the Flag, directed and produced by Mack Sennett. Is it anti-Semitic? Star Ford Sterling, a non-Jew, specialized in the stereotypical Hebrew character, often called Cohen in the Keystones. This film ridicules the very notion of a Lieutenant Goldberg and a Sgt. Cohen. Yet they perform acts of heroism in the Confederate army. Or is it a parody? 

Pathe Lehrman plays Goldberg. Mabel Normand of course is the love interest. As he often did, Sennett is piggybacking his film on someone else’s big budget epic, in this case Thomas Ince’s The Battle of Gettysburg. No way in blazes Sennett hired hundreds of uniformed extras and demolition experts for a one reel comedy. This print is a re-release, retitled Mabel Saves her Darlings.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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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For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Our Debt to Toulouse-Lautrec

Posted in Frenchy, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on November 24, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great painter and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). We celebrate him today of course as the great chronicler of the variety scene at Paris’s Moulin Rouge and other contemporary venues in the late 19th century. Cinema was still in its infancy; even still photography was still expensive and cumbersome and liable to blur an object in motion. For a sense of the life and vibrancy of the era in action we must rely on artists like Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. In addition to the beauty of his works we are indebted to him for his record of a time and place, and an introduction to subjects such as these can-can dancers:

Troupe de Mlle Eglantine gekleurde seriegrafie

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And these studies of the great chanteuse Yvette Guilbert, who also was a smash in American vaudeville:

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And here is what it was like on the floor of the club:

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And in the audience:

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Toulouse-Lautrec also was a great chronicler of the circus of his day, but that seems a natural to hold in reserve for a future post.

While hard living in this decadent scene provided Toulouse-Lautrec with his inspiration, it also meant his early death at age 36. Prostitutes = syphilis; alcoholism = organ failure.

For more on the history of the variety arts consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable 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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Fatty Joins the Force

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Keystone one-reel comedy Fatty Joins the Force, directed by George Nichols and featuring Fatty Arbuckle, Dot Farley, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain,  George Jeske, Hank Mann, et al. The “Force” of course refers to the Keystone Kops.

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In this early classic, Arbuckle is walking in the park with his sweetheart (Farley) when the latter compels him to rescue a drowning girl (Durfee). She turns out to be the daughter of the police commissioner and events conspire to put Fatty in uniform. But a uniform does not a cop make. In short order, Fatty is teased by school boys, loses his clothes, is mistaken for dead, and arrested for indecency.

A perfect way to start your Sunday morning. It’s only 13 minutes long!

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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