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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Harry Langdon in “Saturday Afternoon”

Posted in Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2014 by travsd
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Harry is odd man out at his own transgression

Today is the anniversary of the release date of the hilarious Harry Langdon short Saturday Afternoon (1926). I think it’s safe to say this film is the most widely seen of Langdon’s shorts nowadays. It’s the last one he made prior to his spate of critically acclaimed features, and as such it possesses a certain amount of assurance and formal perfection. Because Langdon’s rise was so meteoric, he only made a relatively small number of shorts at the front end of his career (in comparison with the other masters); the bulk of the shorts with his name on it are talkies made after his catastrophic fall from grace. Saturday Afternoon can be said to be one of the great comedy shorts, by Langdon or anybody else. It tells the tale of henpecked Harry’s ill-fated attempt to “step out” on his wife, a shrew who won’t even let him control hiss own pocket change.  It was directed by Harry Edwards, and written by Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley. Langdon’s co-stars are Vernon Dent (well known to Three Stooges fans) as his instigating buddy, Alice Ward as the wife, and Ruth Hiatt and Peggy Montgomery as a couple of fun-loving floozies.

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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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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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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Three Crawford Camp Classics

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

As part of TCM’s month long salute to Joan Crawford, tonight and tomorrow morning they will be showing three camp classics starring the high strung actress, from her late, “thick eyebrow” period:

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Tonight at 10:15 pm Eastern:

That heartwarming family classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The part of the film that seems to stick uppermost in our mind is the situation of two old sisters, the one (Bette Davis) terrorizing and abusing her invalid sister (Crawford).

Ah but there is a vaudeville angle! For Davis’s character is the fictional former vaud child star Baby Jane Hudson, a cloying, irritating spoiled brat of a thing. If memory serves, the vaudeville scenes in the movie’s prologue are wildly inaccurate, neither the theatre itself, nor the nature of Baby Jane’s act nor the music played or the amount or type of merchandising of Baby Jane products in the lobby bear any relationship to reality. However, according to my personal experience, the scene where one sibling serves another a dead rat for luncheon was not only true to life, but tastefully realized for the screen.

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Tomorrow morning, 2:00 am Eastern

Trog (1970)

This is the movie that made Crawford (who LIVED to be a movie star), say, “Fuck it. I’ve had enough of this shit.” It was her last starring film role (not including television) and I’m sure there was no love lost by this point. In this peculiar monster movie Crawford plays some vague sort of scientist, who finds a living caveman, or troglodyte (trog for short). In numerous hilarious scenes, she attempts to “reason” with him, to “understand” him, to treat him kindly and with love in the accepted 1970 fashion. But to no avail. The instant the creature gets loose he goes on a rampage, just like monsters are supposed to do.  Maybe it’s because she calls him “Trog” — like that’s his name! A little insulting if you ask me. I got your touchy-feely social science right here, “Doctor”! Amplifying the hilarity is Trog’s costume, which consists of a single ape mask. The rest of the guy’s body is normal, not even particularly hairy. He’s just some guy wearing an ape mask. In the end, our Trog, just like Old Yeller, must be destroyed. To quote the late Pete Seeger, ” O, when will they ever learn?”

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Tomorrow morning, 7:300 am eastern: 

Berserk (1967)

My friends, I post the picture above not because it isn’t repulsive, but by golly, because it IS repulsive. After the 1962 success of Baby Jane, for the rest of her career Crawford was associated almost entirely with the horror genre, not just the movies mentioned above but also William Castle’s I Saw What You Did (1965) and numerous tv shows, such as Night Gallery, etc. As horror, Berserk is a let down. With a title clearly meant to evoke Psycho, the film advertises the promising premise of a bunch of mysterious murders committed on the atmospheric back lot of a travelling circus of which Crawford is both proprietor and ringmistress. Like the equally disappointing 1960 film Circus of Horrors which it seems clearly patterned on, the film delivers mostly boredom instead of terror but redeems itself somewhat by filling in the cracks with documentary footage of an actual circus in action. The real life show that formed the backdrop of Berserk was the Billy Smart Circus, an English show which ceased operations in 1983, and you can see many of its performers doing their specialties in the film.

As the ringmistress, the 63 year old Crawford exhibits a surprisingly viable (shapely) pair of legs, but her mug is of course the same one that was already a mask of horror in Baby Jane five years before. The love scenes with the perpetually shirtless Ty Hardin stretch credibility well past the breaking point, making even the concept of a horror circus seem reasonable by comparison, unless you go with the cynical theory that he’s only in it for the millions and millions of dollars that only lame screenwriters thought traveling circus owners possessed in 1968. Hardin was later to go on to join an anti-semitic survivalist desert cult called the Arizona Patriots. And Crawford would go on to top the follies of Berserk a thousand times over in Trog.

For more on 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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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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Hall of Hams #66: Mary Boland

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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