Archive for January, 2014

Happy Chinese New Year!

Posted in Asian, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on January 31, 2014 by travsd

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Happy Chinese New Year! It is the Year of the Horse!

A fitting time methinks to give a shout-out to the many Chinese vaudeville and sideshow performers we’ve profiled on Travalanche.  Or, actually, not so many, thanks (or no thanks) to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

But there WERE some Chinese performers in America back in the times we normally write about, including the beautiful bombshell Anna May Wong and Chang Yu Sing, the Chinese Giant. The field they were most closely identified with was magic, however, thanks to the absolute craze stirred up by Ching Ling Foo. Later popular Chinese magicians in vaudeville included Long Tack Sam, Han Ping Chien, and Che Mah Che Sang.

Read about all these artists by following the handy links above! And don’t forget to check out the Asian American interest section of our blog.

For more on 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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For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history see 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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Is “The Baby” The Weirdest Movie You Will Ever See?

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2014 by travsd

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Warning: I absolutely always include spoilers, so now’s the time to turn back if you must.

Is The Baby the weirdest movie you will ever see? Let’s just say it’s likely to be “up there”.

I had never even heard of it until I saw that it was playing on TCM the other day at the latest possible hour. It’s a late-entry (1973) “psycho-biddy” movie, starring Ruth Roman (Strangers on a Train, Always Leave Them Laughing) as a “very special” mom. Mama and her two daughters, a pair of disturbingly sexy (in this context) hench-babes, spend all of their time looking after “Baby”, a 21 year old grown infant, whom we assume has some sort of a mental problem. To confuse matters, however, he doesn’t act like a retarded adult. He is TREATED as an infant by the three women: dressed like one, kept in a giant crib and an over-sized playpen, fed with a spoon and a bottle. But later, it seems like one of the sisters is CONDITIONING him to be stunted, shocking him with a cattle prod, commanding “Baby doesn’t talk! Baby doesn’t walk!”

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One of the more disturbing features is that Baby (David Mooney) coos and cries with an actual baby’s high pitched voice, not that of a retarded man with a full-sized voice box.

Mama and her girls like Baby just fine the way he is. That’s why they get a little bent out of shape when a social worker (Anjanette Comer) comes nosin’ around and starts spending TOO much time on this one particular case.

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We spend most of the movie concerned for this social worker’s well being, culminating when Baby’s family bonk her on the head and tie her up in the basement and put a gag in her mouth.

But then she escapes. With Baby. And what happens to the three crazy ladies when they catch up with the fancy social worker woman…well,  let’s just say it’s not pretty. But I will tell you it involves a variety of sharp objects. (“Social Worker mustn’t play with sharp objects!”)

And the piece de resistance…well I just have to share it with you, otherwise you won’t believe me when I tell you it’s the goddamnest thing you’ve ever seen in a movie. For it appears that all along the social worker has had DESIGNS on Baby. You see, she already has had her OWN baby-man at home, her husband, who had sustained brain damage as the result of an accident. Now he has a play mate! The movie ends with the two men lovingly playing with toys together as their new mama and grandmother look on.

At any rate, it’s not the most GRAPHIC movie, in the world…but I did find myself audibly saying “Oh my God!” at least once every five minutes at some new moment of weirdness.

Here’s the trailer:

For more on show biz historyconsult 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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The Cruel Trajectory of Mary Eaton

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Mary Eaton (1901-1948), best remembered today as the ingenue in the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts (1929) and as the sister of the “Last Ziegfeld Girl”, Doris Eaton Travis, who passed away in 2010. Mary and Doris weren’t the only performing Eatons; their sister Pearl and brothers Charles and Joseph were also stage folk. Another sister Evelyn was a professional stage manager. Like her siblings, Mary began as a child actor in the Washington DC area, working for the Poli stock company and acting in shows like Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird. An accomplished dancer, Mary made it to Broadway by 1916, appearing in the Shubert shows Follow Me (1916-1917), Over the Top (1917-1918), and The Passing Show of 1919She next went on to the Ziegfeld Follies (four editions from 1920 to 1923), then Eddie Cantor’s Kid Boots (1923-1925), the lead role in Lucky (1927) and The Five O’Clock Girl (1927-1928).

In 1929, she hit her peak, with the part of Polly in the film of The Coconuts and Gloria in the Ziegfeld film Glorifying the American Girl. 

After this auspicious beginning, however, Eaton’s career abruptly plummeted. The latter film, while an amazing record of its times, did not fare well at the box office in its own day. There were no more important parts in feature films for Mary Eaton after 1929. At the same time, the stock market crash killed opportunities in the theatre. In the early 1930s, she was quickly reduced to giving vaudeville performances on bills with moving pictures. By 1932, that work too had dried up. Alcohol too was a problem. It plagued several of the Eatons, as well as each of Mary’s three husbands. It killed Mary herself (cirrhosis of the liver) in 1948.

For more on show biz historyconsult 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 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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Mary Boland: Funny Fussbudget

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Mary Boland (Marie Anne Boland, 1880-1965), best known and loved for playing ditzy and/or dumb wives and mothers, usually wealthy ones in high society (or pretentious climbers who aspired to that status). Movie fans know the comical character actress from such classics as If I Had a Million (1932), Six of a Kind (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), The Women (1939), Pride and Prejudice (194o), One Night in the Tropics (1940) with Abbott and Costello, and Nothing But Trouble (1944) with Laurel and Hardy. Other frequent co-stars included W.C. Fields and Charlie Ruggles. 

But that highly affected manner and diction didn’t materialize out of nowhere. Boland was a second generation stage actress from Philadelphia. She began acting as a teenager, and was on Broadway by 1907, appearing in over three dozen plays over the next five decades. Notable shows included George Kelly’s The Torch Bearers (1922), her biggest hit Cradle Snatchers (1925-26), Face the Music (1932-1933), and Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin (1938-1941). From 1915 through 1920 she appeared in eight silent pictures, though this initial stab at a movie career was not judged to be a triumph. It was in the talkie era, following her many Broadway successes, that she became a cherished ensemble player in Hollywood. Boland retired from both stage and screen in the mid 1950s.

Here’s a nice little tribute someone put together:

For more on comedy film history see 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 show biz historyconsult 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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Charlie Chaplin: 100 Years of Comedy Films!

Posted in BROOKLYN, Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), ME, Movies, My Shows, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , on January 27, 2014 by travsd

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February 15, 2014 at the Brooklyn Lyceum

February 2014 marks the centennial anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s first movies!

To celebrate this landmark, Trav S.D. will screen Chaplin’s first three films, chat a little about his comedy legacy, and sign copies of his new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube. The line up includes:

* “MAKING A LIVING” (released February 2, 1914):
Charlie’s first film, made before he discovered his “Little Tramp” character. Chaplin films in which he doesn’t play the Little Fellow are surprisingly plentiful, but for those less acquainted it may come as something a revelation to see him as a fancy dude in kid gloves and a top hat, with an entirely different sort of mustache. Trying hard to fit in with the Keystone house style, Chaplin plays a nasty character who gets a job as a reporter. Much destruction and encounters with the Keystone Kops ensue.

* “KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE” (released February 7, 1914)
This was actually Charlie’s second film as the Little Tramp, although it was released first. This almost content free little solo jaunt features Chaplin improvising antics at an actual soap box derby (the titular “Kid Auto Races”) in Venice, California.

* “MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT” (released February 9, 1914):
Amazingly, this was Chaplin’s first film as the Little Tramp. We say “amazing” because he is so good in the movie, reprising his popular drunk turn from the music hall stage, playing a masher who harasses Mabel Normand (the star of the film) at a hotel. This early short holds up surprisingly well.

Admission $5

PLEASE NOTE THIS EVENT IS EXTREMELY KID FRIENDLY!!! WE WILL BE VERY SAD IF WE DON’T SEE SOME KIDS THERE!!!!!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: 100 YEARS IN COMEDY FILMS

Date and time: February 15, 2014, 3pm

Location: Brooklyn Lyceum, 227 Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn (BrooklynLyceum.com)

(Take the R Train to Union Street/ 4th Avenue. The Brooklyn Lyceum is right outside the exit)

Admission $5

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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The Heat’s On

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Movies with tags , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by travsd

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I was excited to complete a piece of my education today. Like all good classic comedy fans I’d long since seen all of Mae West’s pictures through My Little Chickadee (1940), and like any good camp aficionado I’d long since seen her last two, Myra Breckenridge (1970) and Sextette (1978). The elusive final piece has long been the final film of her initial Hollywood period, The Heat’s On (1943). I’d long heard of it as one of the classic bad/ sad comedy swan songs, up there with the Marx Brothers’ Love Happy and Laurel and Hardy’s Utopia or Atoll K.  The other aspect is that it never gets screened or shown. But curiosity got the better of me and I bought the DVD.

The good news is that it is not as bad as those other two movies, and no worse particularly than most of the other disposable crap Hollywood was squirting out during World War Two. If you are a Mae West fan it is disappointing; she’s only in about a quarter of the movie. This was a terrible era for comedy. In the 40s everyone’s needs came ahead of the comedians: singers, soldiers, studio accountants, the flag, jazz lovers, boring ass stuffed shirt romantics, the janitor… In fact the crummy plot of this movie is notably similar to the crummy plot of Love Happy: a bunch of people scheme and strive to put on a Broadway show. In a normal Mae West movie Mae is the only important person, she is onscreen almost every minute, and she gets all the funny lines. In this one she is horribly upstaged by Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Xavier Cugat and a million musicians and singers. Ironically, West was the one whose name director/producer Gregory Ratoff relied upon to raise the financing to make the film. It plays with Mae’s image some, but has nothing like the normal ratio of Westian witticisms. Instead of Mae, you get stuff like this Hazel Scott turn, which, ya know, a vaudeville guy like me can’t hate, which is why I have to say this one is a little better than Atoll K. 

For more on comedy film history see 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 show biz historyconsult 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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Lum and Abner in “Two Weeks to Live”

Posted in Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by travsd

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One of about a half dozen movie vehicles of the radio comedy team Lum and Abner (Chester Lauck and Norris Goff ), Two Weeks To Live (1943) is one of those strange animals that just wiggled though the cracks and fell out of the public’s consciousness. The low-key rural comedians, denzens of Pine Ridge, Arkansas were household names at the time. Nowadays a first encounter with this film can be a tad disorienting, especially since its sit-com plot (Abner inherits a railroad) seems to depend on prior knowledge of the Bugtusslesque characters and setting. But it’s an interesting curiosity and not without many funny lines and moments. Directed by Mal St. Clair, the plot has the boys selling stock shares in the inherited railroad, which of course turns out to be run-down and worthless. Their adventures take them to the big city (Chicago) where they encounter a nervous building manager (Franklin Pangborn) who is terrified they will sue him for an injury sustained in his skyscraper’s stairwell. But Lum and Abner are too backward to spy the potential profit in this line. Accidentally informed by a doctor that he has two weeks to live, Abner takes a succession of high paying “daredevil” jobs so the two can pay back the townfolk (led by the incomparable Charles Middleton.) Their scheme brings them in contact with a Dr. Jeckyl and his new potion, a gorilla trainer (and his gorilla), an air circus, a haunted house, terrorists, and a rocket to Mars. And for some reason, a poetical window washer with an invisible dog.

Turner Classic Movies is showing this comedy tomorrow morning 10:30 am. If you’d like a little background, here’s a link to the Lum and Abner Museum in the real Pine Ridge, Arkansas: http://lum-abner.com/. And here’s a mess of Lum and Abner radio episodes: https://archive.org/details/LumAbner1

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For more on comedy history see 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 show biz historyconsult 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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