This post has been building for a long time. It came about because as an inevitable by-product of researching my first book No Applause (and for inspiration for my current show Horseplay), I would watch Hollywood bio-pics about famous vaudevillians (most were produced during what the Mad Marchioness and I call “The Boring Years”, the period between the late 1930s and early 1960s).
It’s an interesting sub-genre for so many reasons. Dramatizing real lives is notoriously difficult. There is built-in tension between fact and form. It’s probably the most intrinsically flawed of all cinematic genres. Normally the studios which produced these films seem to have wanted to have their cake and eat it too, by basing their film on the life of a famous person (a box office draw), one who comes with a song catalog or other crowd-pleasing bag of tricks (another box office draw)…but then assuming NO responsibility to the truth on any level when it comes to telling the story of that person’s life. Ordinarily, under the right circumstances that would be fine. A certain amount of license is necessary in biographical storytelling, a story being a story and a life being a life. Stories and lives have different shapes. Even Shakespeare and Brecht bent the truth to serve art. You have to, to some degree. Sometimes for legal reasons, you must change names. Sometimes for practical purposes you must merge or omit characters. But where you stray from fact, you should at least be true to the spirit of the subject. It’s one thing to ignore the true story, it’s another order of heresy to ignore the established myths as well. But the Hollywood studio system produced assembly line product. No responsibility of any sort was ever on the agenda. The bottom line was to attract and entertain audiences. The actual content was virtually inconsequential.
Nearly every one of these films deviates from reality in howlingly egregious ways; some of them make major detours into the lives of entirely fictional characters, abandoning their titular subjects entirely. Anachronism is a given. Art direction, costume and hairstyles are often monstrous hybrids, saying more about the time period in which the film was produced than the era in which the story is supposed to take place. Women are invariably dressed with FAR more nakedness (showing more of the legs, arms and cleavage) than would have been the case in the depicted time period, for obvious reasons. Likewise with music. Thus with the bulk of the films being made in the 1940s and 1950s, and the majority of the stories set from the 1890s to the 1920s, the music is given contemporary big band orchestration out of some apparent terror, probably an accurate one, that audiences would flee if more historically accurate arrangements were used.
Don’t get me wrong. All of this license would be more than justified if these films turned out to be entertaining. The best known and loved of the genre (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Al Jolson Story, Gypsy) are, of course. But a surprising percentage of the genre are a deadly cocktail of boredom and kitsch, so much so, that when I think of the genre, those bad qualities spring foremost to my mind. What in theory should be the most entertaining of cinematic genres turns out to be one of the least.
Thus we begin part one of our three part series on show biz bio-pics. Follow links below to learn the real stories of the performers. We proceed in chronological order.
Harmony Lane (1935)
Douglass Montgomery, a peculiarly subdued, lacklustre excuse for a movie actor, stars as Stephen Foster in this low budget offering from Mascot Pictures (normally known for westerns, serials, and the like). To its credit, the movie doesn’t ignore the depressing fact of Foster’s alcoholic decent, but the cheap nature of the production takes us perhaps a little too close to Foster’s real-life squalor. Montgomery’s other notable films included Waterloo Bridge and Little Women, movies for which his sensitive nature was better suited (this is not Chopin after all, but the guy who wrote “Camptown Races”). William Frawley is welcome as Foster’s rival Ed Christy, Joseph Cawthorn as his music teacher, and Clarence Muse as “Old Joe”, the inspiration for a minstrel song.**
Annie Oakley (1935)
This movie is pretty perfect. Despite her big city accent, Barbara Stanwyck is well cast as Annie Oakley , if for no other reason than that she came to be associated with westerns over the succeeding decades of her career. We are conditioned to accept Babs in a fringe jacket, a cowgirl hat rakishly cocked to one side, as she squints down the barrel of a rifle. As in the later musical Annie, Get Your Gun, the focal point of the movie is her romance with a fellow sharpshooter (in real life it was Frank Butler, but here he is fictionalized for some reason into one “Toby Walker”). Melvyn Douglas plays her manager, the equally fictional “Jeff Hogarth”. Pert Kelton and silent comedy vet Andy Clyde are in the cast; it was directed by George Stevens.
A racey fictionalization of stage star Libby Holman’s wedding to Reynolds Tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds, and the ensuing tragedy. It feels very “Pre-Code”, but came out soon after enforcement. The all star cast includes Jean Harlow, Franchot Tone, William Powell, May Robson, Ted Healy, Rosalind Russell, Nat Pendleton, Mickey Rooney (still just a kid), Nina Mae McKinney, and, in his first film role, Allan Jones.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
A great classic of the genre, probably one of the best films about show business, and it certainly gets the myth and entertainment parts right, even if it buries the facts. The great showman had passed away in 1932, this film does a marvelous job of perpetuating his legacy, through re-creations of his stage show (far more lavish than had ever been possible on stage) and the broad strokes of his life story. For show business buffs, I would venture to say William Powell IS Flo Ziegfeld, the elegant, slightly naughty impresario who treats all women like queens. Nat Pendleton is hilarious casting for Ziegfeld’s first great success, strong man Eugene Sandow. Frank Morgan plays a fictional rival, one “Billings”. Joseph Cawthorn plays Ziegfeld’s father, a music professor, a character not unlike the one he had played in Harmony Lane. For legal reasons, key people like Lillian Lorraine and Marilyn Miller were written out of the story and replaced with fictions, but Anna Held (of the milk baths) remains (played by Louse Rainer—who only just passed away six weeks ago!) and Billie Burke (who was deeply involved in the making of the film as Ziegfeld’s widow) is played by Myrna Loy. It’s rewarding to see Fanny Brice in the film as herself. Some of the fudging (as it always is) is nearly unbearable. For some reason the movie pretends that Ray Bolger was a stage hand to whom Ziegfeld “gave his big chance”. (In reality Bolger was a vaudeville veteran and star before going on the Broadway stage). It’s especially weird to watch that lie because Bolger plays himself in the film. It’s the kind of WTF moment that characterizes the genre, though here we mind it less because it’s such a good movie. There are two “sequels” to this film, though they are even more fictional than this one.
Rose of Washington Square (1939)
This movie is wiser than most in the genre for it has the good grace to change the names of its main characters for its fictionalization. Though plainly based on Fanny Brice‘s relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein, and employing two well-known Brice musical numbers (the title song and “My Man”) the producers have scrubbed the tale of any ethnicity. The main characters (Jewish in real life) are now as WASPY as can be and played by Alice Faye and Tyrone Power (who’d teamed in a similar musical confection Alexander’s Ragtime Band the previous year). As we’ll see, this is one of many such bio-pics Faye would star in (unaccountably). It marked a fall from grace for Al Jolson, for the first time no longer the star of the picture; he’s third billed as a character that seems modeled more on Eddie Cantor). And though it’s theoretically set in the 1920s, the music and the styles much more reflect the tastes of 1939, which will be the norm for the rest of the life of the genre. Fictional as it is, this film didn’t stop Brice and Arnstein from suing 20th Century Fox.
Swannee River (1939)
Don Ameche, who had just starred in the smash hit The Story of Alexander Graham Bell is now Fox’s “Mr. Biography” and stars in yet another film about Stephen Foster. This must have galled former minstrel man and singer of “Swannee” Al Jolson , who is only third billed in this picture, the last one in which he ever appeared in which he didn’t play himself. Here Jolson plays rival E.P. Christy who gets to sponge off of Foster’s creations while Foster struggles with family pressures and a fickle public. The film is nearly as fictional as Rose of Washington Square, but since all of the characters were long dead, the film makers could take a huge amount of license.
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
This is the last of the original Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles, apart from a reunion ten years later in The Barkleys of Broadway. Interestingly they went out on a note both romantic and somber, about the great ballroom dance team Vernon and Irene Castle . It’s a terrific love story, but one with a tragic ending that can’t be fudged (Vernon died in a plane crash while serving in World War One). It’s an Astaire and Rogers vehicle though, so it certainly succeeds as entertainment with the pair’s great screen chemistry, and their re-creations of the Castles’ famous groundbreaking dances. Much of the actual story is silliness. Vernon’s previous career as a comedian with Lew Fields (playing himself!) is made to look like some sort of horrible indignity, when in reality it was one of the best gigs to be had in show business at the time. Edna May Oliver plays their fictionalized angel and benefactor; Walter Brennan plays their fictionalized man-servant and comic relief (who continues to serve them for free even as they starve in Paris. Please! Tell me where I too can get a comical servant who’ll work for free!)
The Great Victor Herbert (1939)
Lillian Russell (1940)
Alice Faye as “The American Beauty” Lillian Russell. Faye is sort of a black hole at the center of this film, which seems to have the premise that Russell, the biggest star of her day, was defined and propelled to stardom by all the men in her life, including, her third husband the composer Edward Solomon (Don Ameche), her fourth husband the newspaperman Alexander Moore (Henry Fonda), her lover Diamond Jim Brady, here reduced to something more platonic, (Edward Arnold, well cast), and impresario Tony Pastor (Leo Carillo). On the plus side, Weber and Fields plays themselves, and Eddie Foy Jr. plays his own dad. This was the same year Fonda starred in The Grapes of Wrath and The Return of Frank James so I guess his ego could take being third billed in this mediocre bio-pic.
Lady With Red Hair (1940)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
At one point I considered ranking these films, but it was too difficult to do so since so many of the movies are bad or mediocre — at least a dozen would be tied for worst. But Yankee Doodle Dandy would be my contender for best all around, or at least on my short list. James Cagney tears it up as his hero George M. Cohan, so right in so many ways. Cagney tap danced in vaudeville; this film is the best showcase he ever had in Hollywood for displaying those skills. His famous simple acting style was inherited from Cohan. And it is one Irish-American’s tribute to his Irish-American forebear. Equally touching (and accurate) is Walter Huston’s portrayal of Cohan’s legendary dad Jerry, a gentle and generous pushover. Released just as America was entering World War Two, it struck the right note of patriotism at just the right time. And, amazingly, it cleaves very closely to the true story of Cohan’s life. (The biggest difference being the replacement of Cohan’s real first wife Ethel Levey, with the fictional “Mary”, whom here becomes the inspiration for the Cohan song by the same name.) Eddie Foy Jr. plays his dad again, and for some additional stunt casting Jeanne Cagney (Jimmy’s sister) plays Josie Cohan, George M.’s sister. Irene Manning plays Fay Templeton; singer Frances Langford is Nora Bayes.
Gentleman Jim (1942)
One of the more insulting things that Warner Brothers did to its audience more than once was to try to make us believe that the English accented Errol Flynn (he was actually Tasmanian) had that accent because he was “Irish”. I’ve yet to meet an adult person yet who was so dumb he mixed up those two nationalities — small wars have been fought over less. Nevertheless, they cast Flynn as pioneering Irish-American boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett and Flynn relished the role, performing most of the boxing scenes himself. This is Hollywood, if Flynn was nothing like the real life Corbett (whose autobiography this film is based on), he simply transforms Corbett into an Errol Flynn star turn and the movie does have a kind of magic because of it. William Frawley plays his manager. The gist of the film is about Gentleman Jim’s role in the adoption of Marquess of Queensberry rules to boxing and the resulting public acceptance of pugilism as a sport. Corbett was a show biz figure in addition to being a sportsman (he toured vaudeville after he became famous) and this movie cleaves heavily to the show biz bio-pic formula, thus its inclusion here.
Bing Crosby takes on the role of “Dixie” composer Dan Emmett, in a film that also features his “Road Picture” costar Dorothy Lamour, as well as Lynne Overman, Billy De Wolfe, Raymond Walburn, Clara Blandick, Eddie Foy Jr, Jimmy Conlin, Dell Henderson, Willie Best, Tom Kennedy, and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer. The film contains several blackface scenes, with the film’s subject matter as its logical justification. Nowadays we would answer, “So why make it?” It’s rarely shown any more, due to that controversial aspect.
Shine On, Harvest Moon (1944)
Almost everything is fictional in this bio-pic about Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. Ann Sheridan is badly cast as Bayes. She neither looks like her nor is she even Jewish, nor does she sing any of her own songs — her vocals were dubbed by another singer. The film is full of songs, only two of which were identified with Bayes. Bayes made plenty of tunes famous, but the only one which they include in the film is the title song, which was co-written by Bayes and her husband/partner Norworth, here played by one Dennis Morgan. The film-makers are most diligent in showing us Ann Sheridan’s legs, despite the fact that we never would have seen Bayes’ legs (the events take place prior to the shortening of skirt lengths). Jack Carson and Marie Wilson play a pair of fictitious vaudevillians. (And come to think of it, so do Sheridan and Morgan).
Irish Eyes Are Smiling (1944)
Ah! At last! The Ernest R. Ball bio-pic the world has been clamoring for! I’ve not seen it yet but it is cast with the usual offenders.
Buffalo Bill (1944)
Joel McCrea plays one of America’s greatest showmen Buffalo Bill Cody in a film that trades on his name but misses the point of his existence. The picture ignores Cody’s life in show biz (where he made a real, tangible mark) until the film’s last ten minutes, and spends the balance of the picture on fictitious western exploits, depicting him as brokering peace between soldiers and Indians who never existed. But those last ten minutes (in glorious Technicolor) are worth it, for me anyway. The sight of McCrea in full Buffalo Bill drag saying goodbye to his audience makes me wish we’d seen him say hello to his audience! Thomas Mitchell floats in and out of the picture as the man who made Cody’s legend in dime novels, Ned Buntline.
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
One of the more confounding things classic Hollywood did is make bio-pics about composers. One understands the logic. Composers come with song catalogs — audiences know they will hear their favorite tunes and there will be lots of musical numbers. The difficulty is coming up with a plot or anything even remotely cinematic to look at. It’s just guys sitting at a piano, frowning, playing for a second, and then scribbling on a sheet of paper with a pencil. The soporific Robert Alda gives the best performance of his sleepy career as George Gershwin, a towering genius of American music precisely because he spent his time writing tunes and not doing interesting stuff like, say, pushing a grapefruit in his gun moll’s face, which may be terrible manners but is excellent cinema. The saving grace of the film is of course lots of music (Gershwin’s protege Oscar Levant dubbed the piano parts) and lots of real show biz figures playing themselves, such as Paul Whiteman, Al Jolson, George White and Hazel Scott.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.