When Show Biz Looked at Show Biz: The Badness of the Bio-pics (Part 2 of 3)
Herewith is part two of our three part series on Hollywood show biz bio-pics of the studio era. For part one, including an introductory essay, go here. As always, click on the links to learn more about the performers and pictures in question.
Incendiary Blonde (1945)
This poster is hilarious: does it look to you like either Betty Hutton or Texas Guinan? No, but it’s pretty damn sexy! Like Alice Faye and Mitzi Gaynor, Hutton was one of the key actresses to be associated with the show biz bio pic genre, and it doesn’t require rocket science to suss out why. These are vehicles tailor made for a singing-dancing-actress-comedienne. But Hutton and Guinan are poles apart. Hutton: virginal, mid-western and comically insecure, vs. Guinan: promiscuous, foul-mouthed, brassy and the very embodiment of saloons and the wild west. (One thing they had in common though: neither were as beautiful as that poster implies). It was impossible to tell Guinan’s real life story in a Hollywood movie in 1945. I’m not sure why they tried. The tone is impossibly wrong and nearly everyone is fictional. It might as well be called Texas of Washington Square.
The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1950)
Apart from its implicit condoning of blackface, which is rather a large elephant in the room but one in keeping with its times, one can have little bad to say about The Jolson Story, fictionalized as it is. I think it is safe to say that Larry Parks disappears into his role as Al Jolson, and Jolson himself did all the singing, a major boon. Jolson was one of those rare singers whose powers did not wane as time went on; though he was near the end of his life when these pictures were made, he was in full glorious voice. Of all the dozens of bio-pics we treat of here, can there be any doubt that The Jolson Story has the best soundtrack? Much is fudged of course. Jolson’s early balcony singing job in burlesque was with one “Jersey Lil” Beeler, not the fictional Steve Martin (William Demarest), nor did said fictional, white-bread Martin become his “manager”. And Jolson’s real life wife Ruby Keeler took legal steps to be written out of the story (kinda dumb in my opinion — where was she in 1946?) And thus she too is replaced by the hilariously white-bread “Julie Benson” (Evelyn Keyes). But at least real life players in Jolson’s real life like Lew Dockstader and Oscar Hammerstein are represented.
The Jolson Story is by far the better of the two films, as it has the exciting template of Jolson’s rise to fame and his “A list” songs as assets. The second film tells the story of Jolson’s re-emergence from retirement, which is more of a ho-hum soap opera, but it does contain some great music. The fact that Jolson passed away two months after its release boosted its fortunes (in a away I can’t help comparing to John Lennon’s Double Fantasy).
The Dolly Sisters (1946)
Where to start? One is tempted to call it the nadir of the genre, but there is so much competition! In a way, this movie began the odyssey that spawned this series of posts. Prior to the research phase of No Applause, I only knew a handful of classics of the genre, i.e. The Jolson Story, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Houdini, The Seven Little Foys, Funny Girl, Gypsy. The Dolly Sisters was the first one I saw as part of a dedicated process to see ALL of them. And it’s a doozy. One quickly realizes: OK, this is useless from the point of view of wanting to learn anything about The Dolly Sisters. The film is the first offspring of George Jessel’s brief but distinctive career as a movie producer. Many similar bio-pics by his hand would follow. I suppose we ought to be grateful for the show biz pictures he made; they are certainly infused with a love for vaudeville and Broadway. However I am less grateful for the fact that they are so lousy, boring and phony. A case in point: the real life Dolly Sisters were a couple of dark beauties (twins) from Hungary, whose heyday was 1909 through the late 1920s. In Jessel’s film they are played by the bleach blonde, American-accented Betty Grable and June Haver in 1940s haircuts. John Payne plays Harry Fox, married to one of the sisters. On the positive side though, the ensemble cast includes Cuddles Sakall, Reginald Gardiner,Gene Sheldon and Sig Ruman.
Night and Day (1946)
Cary Grant as Cole Porter may sound like genius casting on the face of it: after all, they’re both slick, urbane, witty, and sophisticated. But there’s a crucial difference: Grant’s persona was an act of self-conscious self-creation, he was actually a vaudeville acrobat from a lower middle class family. Grant was playing an “idea” which he generally got right in artificial creations like screwball comedies and Hitchcock suspense thrillers. Porter, on the other hand, WAS the creature of privilege. It was in his every assumption; it was in the air he breathed. There are actors who radiate that quality. Robert Montgomery is a good example. The difference is that the actual rich guy (Montgomery) puts out a certain vibration no matter what he’s doing. The other guy (Grant) has to be “on”. In a minority of his films, Grant is not on, and to me this is one of them. Add to this a lackluster script with zero sparkle (wouldn’t you want sparkle in a film about Cole Porter, starring Cary Grant? ESPECIALLY in one as fictional as this one is?). Naturally the film doesn’t go near the fact that Porter was gay, nor does it acknowledge that he was essentially a cripple after 1937. It features lots of Porter’s music, but for that I’d rather watch any of his musicals.
Til the Clouds Roll By (1946)
‘Til the Clouds Roll By is the Jerome Kern story. It came out in 1946, right after the composer died. Kern himself is portrayed by creepy psychopath Robert Walker (best known from Strangers on a Train). The film is a howling hoot from beginning to end. It starts with Kern leaving another triumphant Broadway opening night, but in a melancholy, reflective mood. He gets into a cab, and the driver (from central casting) asks, “Where to, Mr. Koin?” And Kern says, “Why don’t you take me by the old house, [Pete, or Zeke, or whatever the cab driver’s name is].” And then Kern proceeds to sit in front of the old house and reminisce for the next 90 minutes about a bunch of things that never happened to him. (He must be a rich man; presumably, the meter is still running).The main trunk of the story is a vaguely homoerotic relationship between Kern and a completely fictional mentor named Jim Hessler (played with equally creepy intensity by Van Heflin). Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the story comes to be about Jim’s fictional daughter “Sally” (Lucille Bremer), who grows up and and gets into a spot of trouble. Kern sure wishes he could help her out, and then, by jiminy, he does. I reiterate: she’s completely fictional! And then, the big fantasy segment where most of the big musical stars in Hollywood (Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, etc etc) sing songs from Kern’s shows. At any rate, I recommend this film heartily, if only NOT to learn anything about Jerome Kern in the most entertaining way possible.
I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947)
I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now is a George Jessel-produced picture about Tin Pan Alley songwriter and performer Joseph E. Howard, co-writer of the title tune and “Hello! Ma Baby”. I’m not sure how much the public was clamoring for such a picture in 1947, but at that stage Howard was still a going concern as a nostalgia act so there may have been some justification for its existence. The plot concerns tensions between Howard and his vaudeville partner and love interest Lulu Madison (fictionalized from the real-life Ida Emerson) and then the fictional Fritzi Barrington, but most of all the fictional “Katie”, who was literally written into the film just so there could be a part for June Haver. The film stars Mark Stevens, who’d been voted the “5th Most Promising Star of Tomorrow” by film exhibitors in 1946. Despite the best efforts of this film, Howard, Stevens, Haver and even Jessel are all pretty well forgotten.
My Wild Irish Rose (1947)
Dennis Morgan portrays 19th century Irish American singer, dancer and songwriter Chauncey Olcott (although Dennis Day loops the actual singing.) Sure, ’tis full of the blarney and more than its share of malarkey, cooking up a fictional love triangle betwixt himself and Lillian Russell and the titular Rose (Arlene Dahl) on whom he is said to have based his song — though she never existed. Alan Hale, Sr. plays her father, George O’Brien portrays a boxer, and the inevitable William Frawley is there, too. The Ink Spots are in it, and that’s cool — but it might not make up for the celebratory presence of blackface numbers, which was getting mighty old by 1947.
Words and Music (1948)
I thought I would dislike this picture about the collaboration of Rodgers and Hart, but I found myself susceptible to its charms. The opening is strange and disorienting as Tom Drake appears as Richard Rodgers addressing the camera directly, laying out the story he is about to tell in an almost avant-garde manner that recalls Our Town. One could forgive the newbie for thinking Drake actually IS Rodgers — it certainly is presented that way. But the engine for the picture is Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart. I normally dislike Rooney (a great deal), but here, in one of his first grown-up roles, he tears up the scenery, as the cigar-smoking, manipulative scalawag Hart. Hart had died five years before; there’s a good deal more effort, care and love put into this tribute than was customery in a lot of these bio-pics. Also, like Rooney, the real life Hart was very short, a hair under 5 feet. Unfortunately the verisimilitude stops there. Hart was gay, and this picture gets nowhere near THAT subject. But it does have lots of star power: Janet Leigh, Betty Garrett, Ann Sothern, Perry Como and Cyd Charisse are in the cast, and there are musical numbers by Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen, Lena Horne, Mel Torme and June Allyson.
Look for the Silver Lining (1949)
One of the saving graces of this film is the sheer number of stars playing actual real historical people: June Haver plays Marilyn Miller the subject of this bio-pic, Charlie Ruggles plays her dad and the leader of the family vaudeville act, Ray Bolger plays her mentor the vaudeville dancer Jack Donahue, and Gordon MacRae plays her first husband the ill-fated Frank Carter. Cuddles Sakall is in the picture, Walter Catlett plays himself and Will Rogers Jr (as he often did) plays his dad. There is of course some nonsense. In the film, Miller gets to make her solo debut through a wacky scheme in which the rest of the family vaudeville act are represented to be quarantined with some disease. The role of Donahue in her life seems greatly exaggerated; this one guy basically stalks her throughout the picture. And her marriage to the highly self-destructive Jack Pickford is notably absent. But, all in all, I would not rank this movie near the bottom of the show business homages. Somewhere towards the middle!
Oh, You Beautiful Doll (1949)
Apparently the bio-pic of Tin Pan Alley songwriter Joseph E. Howard was such a runaway success that producer Georgie Jessel just had to do one on Fred Fisher. Yes the long-awaited Fred Fisher bio-pic, co-writer of such tunes as the title song, “Your Feet’s Too Big”, “My Man”, “Peg O’ My Heart”, “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?” and “If the Man in the Moon were a Coon.” (The latter song is tactfully omitted from this picture). This film contains one of the more egregious distortions of reality in a bio-pic, telling a fictitious story in which a promoter (Mark Stevens again) INVENTS Fred Fisher, by adapting opera tunes written by German immigrant Albert Breitenbach (Fisher’s real name), here played by the inevitable Cuddles Sakall. The catalyst? Fisher’s beautiful daughter Doris (June Haver) who would also turn out to be a popular songwriter. Charlotte Greenwood plays Fisher’s wife and Jay C. Flippen is in the film as one “Lippy” Brannigan.
Three Little Words (1950)
How’s this for three little words?: Deadly, Dull, Movie. I take the sins of this film personally because its subjects Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby are two of my favorite songwriters and screenwriters. They were screamingly hilarious and clever writers, so I’m assuming they must have come off that way in real life. But you’d never know it from this film, which casts Fred Astaire and Red Skelton (two normally entertaining men to put it mildly) as the team and then proceeds to present the writers as a couple of yawn-inducing drips. The film was and is much praised as one of the better examples of the genre but I simply don’t see it. I find it a big drag. It’s often praised for its realism, but, um, something tells me Bert Kalmar didn’t dance anything like Fred Astaire does in this movie. And the relationship between the two guys is depressing, with the power dynamic tilted toward Kalmar and Skelton’s Ruby as an insecure sad sack. (Ruby was an advisor on the picture. What’d he do, yell, “More pathos!”?) And what’s with these two conspicuous goys playing the team? They don’t have any Jews in Hollywood? On the plus side, the real life Helen Kane dubs her vocals for “I Wanna Be Loved By You”, lip-synced by an early career Debbie Reynolds.
Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
As much as I love Betty Hutton (which is a considerable lot), it’s hard not to hold some kind of inward grudge against her for playing a role that once belonged to Ethel Merman (star of the Broadway production) and then to Judy Garland (who suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after filming began). Still, she makes a better Annie Oakley than she did a Texas Guinan. She’s especially funny in the early scenes as a dirty, barefoot hillbilly girl. This (as we all know) is a musical, so holding it up to scholarly standards as a biography would be even more preposterous than usual. It succeeds brilliantly as entertainment. Also in the cast are Howard Keel as Oakley’s rival/husband Frank Butler, Louis Calhern as Buffalo Bill, Edward Arnold (as his rival Pawnee Bill), Keenan Wynn as the manager of the wild west show, and J. Carroll Naish as Sitting Bull.
Golden Girl (1951)
Never underestimate Georgie Jessel. Just when you assume there isn’t anything more heinous he can do to ruin one of his own bio-pics, he dreams up new ways. Starting with Golden Girl, his bio-pic of 19th century variety entertainer Lotta Crabtree, he begins putting himself in his movies — as HIMSELF. Here, he is merely the narrator, but it gets worse in The I Don’t Care Girl (see our next post in the series). The clown-like Mitzi Gaynor plays Crabtree, whose parents (James Barton and Una Merkel) run a boarding house. The old man loses at gambling and quickly absconds. Meanwhile Lotta gets bitten by the show biz bug and starts performing against her mother’s wishes. In the hilarious fashion of bio-pics, she is portrayed as being an essentially wholesome girl whose burlesque shenanigans onstage have nothing to do with her personality or character. Her mother has reservations at first, but she needs the money, and quickly comes on board. The most egregious part of this film is egregious indeed. For we rapidly abandon the story of the real life Lotta Crabtree, as the film becomes more about her fictional lover, one Tom Richmond (Dale Robertson), a Confederate bank robber. No word of a lie — the film turns into a western at some point as Lotta accompanies him on his fictional intrigues. They had a lot of nerve calling it Golden Girl when it could have just as easily been called The Daring Adventures of the Fictional Tom Richmond (and Girlfriend).
I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951)
This ill-fated Rudolph Valentino bio-pic starred unknown Anthony Dexter, selected (based on his resemblance to the silent film star) out of a cattle call that included 2,000 other aspirants. While he had some background in the theatre, Dexter had no film experience and had to be trained to dance from scratch. For legal reasons, none of Valentino’s real-life wives are depicted in the picture, which mostly focuses on the character’s romances with a string of fictitious lovers. It does contain clips from Valentino’s famous films, a sort of saving grace. I am amused to see that Dexter’s name is listed at the BOTTOM of the cast list on IMDB. Despite the film’s bad reviews, Dexter went on to star in a number of adventure and swashbuckler pictures over the next several years. Fans of Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind know him as Christopher Columbus in that film, creating the hilarious added indignity for Chico Marx (in addition to only having one line) to be playing second fiddle to Anthony Dexter.
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Esther Williams as Annette Kellerman sounds kind of perfect…I mean how many aquatic themed musical vehicles can there be? As an idea this would be near the top of the heap. However this movie isn’t really too much about Australian swimming champ, swimsuit fashion pioneer, vaudeville and movie star Kellerman. It’s mostly about the Busby Berkley choreographed aquatic musical numbers, and Freed Unit production values. But that’s kind of OK.
I Dream of Jeanie (1952)
It’s probably safe to say that there are NO good bio-pics of Stephen Foster. This is the third one we have written about (the second by a Poverty Row studio) and this is the worst of the three, in spite of the bad examples that came before it. It’s produced by Republic Pictures. Rex Allen, the star of many Republic westerns introduces the picture and plays Mr. Tambo in minstrel numbers. Foster himself is played by Bill Shirley in his only starring film role. Top billing actually goes to Ray Middleton as E.P. Christy. The plot is a big drag. An inordinate amount of time is spent on how Foster is an unhappy book-keeper under the thumb of his older brother. Another major thread is a love affair with the fictional “Jeanie”, who becomes the subject of his titular song. Along the way Foster becomes gradually more sophisticated about business, and after a while gets his affairs in order, achieving his long-sought goal of earning royalties! On the plus side, the cast includes an adult Carl Switzer (“Alfalfa” from the Little Rascals) and Louise Beavers as “Mammy”.
Somebody Loves Me (1952)
This one is tailor made for the 1950s sensibility. It’s all about how Blossom Seeley abandoned her career so she could support her less talented husband, Benny Fields. In the Hollywood tradition of whitewashing (WASPifying), Seeley is played by Betty Hutton, and Fields by Ralph Meeker. (haha, a musical with Ralph Meeker!)
The Story of Will Rogers (1952)
Will Rogers Jr plays his own father in this bio-pic, and does quite a good acting job! (Reminds me a little of Jimmy Stewart). Jane Wyman is his wife Betty. And a bunch of other stalwarts like James Gleason, Mary Wickes, Slim Pickens and Noah Beery Jr (as Wiley Post) round out the cast. And a cameo by Eddie Cantor as himself in blackface. A rare hagiography for someone who actually deserves a hagiography, it begins with loving shots of parks and monuments named in honor of Rogers, and follows it up with a couple of hours of Hollywood magic. It doesnt stary too far from the facts, and we get to get copious snatches of Rogers’ act, accurately done by his son. Directed by Michael Curtiz.
The Eddie Cantor Story (1953)
The Eddie Cantor Story goes many of these bio-pics a little better by simply being weird. Undoubtedly inspired by the success of The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), Warner Brothers hoped they could replicate the formula with the story of Eddie Cantor . There is no ambiguity as to what’s so downright strange about this picture, though. It’s the casting of its “star” Keefe Brasselle, previously a bit player, with one fairly decent role in A Place in the Sun (1951) to his credit. Brasselle’s tenor voice is roughly equivalent to Cantor’s. But since he doesn’t look much like Cantor, there is a concerted attempt by the actor (obviously egged on by the director Alfred E. Greene) to be as “Cantoresque” as possible. This translates into doing a very broad Eddie Cantor impression, with the constant popping of his eyes, and the adoption of his mincing mannerisms. These would be great for the scenes that are supposed to depict him in performance…but Brasselle does it ALL THE TIME. For example, he learns his wife is having a baby, and he pats his hands together. The girl agrees to marry him: he makes his eyes roll around.
The producers also seem to have done really unsettling stuff with make-up, making Brasselle resemble at times a Dick Tracy villain. There are moments in the film where Brasselle’s appearance is so grotesque I simply can’t believe what I’m watching. It’s kind of like watching the SCTV parody version of The Eddie Cantor Story with Eugene Levy playing Buddy Hackett playing Eddie Cantor. Brasselle’s marked Chicago accent adds to the hilarity. There is no one more “Lower East Side” than Eddie Cantor. But Brasselle talks like Dennis Franz.
This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Stay tuned for part 3!