Herewith is part three of our three part series on Hollywood show biz bio-pics of the studio era. For part one, including an introductory essay, go here, and for part two, go here. As always, click on the links to learn more about the performers and pictures in question.
The I Don’t Care Girl (1953)
This movie is up there (down there) with the very worst of the show biz bio-pics. This is the one where producer George Jessel writes himself into the picture, and somehow manages to make a story that has nothing to do with him, all about himself. The plot has Jessel (playing himself) giving two anonymous screenwriters the assignment of getting the “real story” on Eva Tanguay. The writers then go out and speak to three fictitious men and get three competing fictitious stories, then Rashomon-like decide which of these made-up stories is the “real one”. Even more infuriating is that, in the fashion of Lillian Russell and The Golden Girl (and too many of these bio-pics to list), ALL THREE of these stories begin and end with the assumption that some MAN was responsible for the success of Tanguay, one of the most self-driven, independent human beings who ever lived. (I named my book after her, that’s how much I admire her). Played by nightmare lady Mitzi Gaynor, Jessel’s version has nothing to do with the real Tanguay, who was considered risque in her day, but not beautiful. The costumes are preposterous. (See poster above. She’s wearing that in 1909? I don’t think so. The cops would hustle her off to The Tombs. That ain’t even underwear in 1909). Almost as afterthoughts they throw in a couple of actual Tanguay references — a few glancing shots of outrageous outfits, and one scene (fictitious but plausible) where she hires ringers to throw rotten vegetables at a rival act. But if you want to learn about Eva Tanguay, it’s no exaggeration to say that this movie is worse than nothing.
Tonight We Sing! (1953)
Just what the world has been waiting for — a bio pic of Sol Hurok! With this film George Jessel finally let his love of show business get the best of him, neglecting the business at hand — which was producing movies which people actually wanted to go see. This was the last movie Jessel produced for Fox. David Wayne, who played one of the fictitious guys in The I Don’t Care Girl, plays Hurok who was a manager of opera singers and ballet dancers. I confess that I haven’t seen this one, but it seemed a crucial link in the chain to include, being Jessel’s last gasp. John Candy must have seen this one…he named one of his SCTV characters (host of the Farm Film Celebrity Blow-up) Billy Sol Hurok!
A magical picture (no pun intended), one I’ve loved since childhood. Tony Curtis as the great escape artist Houdini with his real life wife Janet Leigh as Houdini’s wife Bess. Almost every other character and event in the picture is fictionalized but the story is very well constructed, so that at the very least it’s a highly effective movie. (For example, Houdini didn’t die in the Chinese Water Torture tank, but it sure is dramatic to stage it that way, right?) The two things the movie does well is a) build a moving love story, and b) generate an aura of the supernatural, the uncanny and a note of doom hanging over the escape artist’s life. I’ve always loved the film’s re-creation of the Houdini’s stunt known as “Metamorphosis” and Houdini’s show boating escapes from jail cells and crates in frigid rivers. The film is helped along immensely by the charisma and ability of its two stars. If the leads had been Mark Stevens and June Haver, we might not enjoy it so much, or, um even remember it.
The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing (1955)
This film achieves the impossible: it takes the story of one of the century’s sexiest women Evelyn Nesbitt, played by another of the century’s sexiest women Joan Collins, the climax of which is a tawdry, spectacular murder, the result of a rivalry between two notorious perverts, one of whom was a deranged sadomasochist…I say this movie takes all that and manages to turn it into a soporific and forgettable experience. Ray Milland is pretty good casting for Stanford White, respectable but secretly a manipulative pedophile, although the film glosses over his true nature completely. Farley Granger is not ideal casting for the lunatic Harry K. Thaw — Granger’s co-star from Strangers on a Train Robert Walker would have been closer to the mark, and would have lent the film some badly needed danger (but Walker was dead by then anyway). To its credit, the film hints at Thaw’s sadistic tendencies, which is more than I thought it would do. But just a little. The film was intended as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, but she broke her contract rather than do it. Without the Monroe star turn it just doesn’t make any sense. Collins was beautiful but didn’t develop true star quality for another 25 years. This red velvet swing needs a real push.
The Seven Little Foys (1955)
When people ask me what my favorite vaudeville film is I invariably say The Seven Little Foys. This bio-pic of Eddie Foy and the kiddie act he created with his large brood wildly distorts Foy’s life and career, making him look like a loser (when in fact he had been a star for decades) until he hits on the bright idea of solving his fatherhood problems by bringing his kids on the road with him. But this is a terrific family film (I first saw it on tv when I was a kid), which does convey many realities of life in show business. Furthermore, it is one of Bob Hope’s best performances. He is actually trying to stretch here, to do some dramatic acting, as well as revive the singing and dancing skills that had served him well in vaudeville and on Broadway. (A pity his films of the 60s and early 70s leave a lasting lasting impression of a guy who’s just coasting, sleepwalking through his lame vehicles. One thing you could not call Hope was lazy). It’s an interesting performance. As so often happens in these kinds of pictures, it is as much about Hope as it is about Foy. He actually conjures that assholey side we’ve often heard about and uses it in his performance. The result is not perfect (he often comes off as just kind of mopey), but is at least interesting. ALSO: Jerry Mathers (the Beaver) plays one of the Foy kids! At any rate, this is one movie this vaudeville dad has often watched with his own kids.
I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Based on Lillian Roth’s eponymous memoir. The focal point is Roth’s descent into alcoholism and accompanying degradations. Susan Hayward pulls out all the stops in a campstravaganza performance that’s a virtual billboard reading “On This Site Shall Be Built a Valley of the Dolls“. While she’s well cast as an alcoholic (the miles on that voice–and she’s only 38!) she doesn’t capture Roth’s impish sweetness or charm. Already a brassy broad at the outset, Hayward has nowhere to fall in the film but sideways. Nor does the film give much sense of the real Roth’s talent or level of stardom. In fact, like nearly all bio-pics, it gets pretty much everything wrong, especially period details. For a film largely set in the 1920 and 30s, it looks, sounds and feels an awful lot like 1955. My advice is: don’t watch it to learn much about Lillian Roth, but definitely watch it to be entertained.
Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
This bio-pic about Ruth Etting and the Roaring Twenties has a lot going for it — great dramatic acting by Doris Day as Etting, and James Cagney as her husband/manager/gangster Moe the Gimp (nominated for an Oscar), with Cameron Mitchell in third place as her second husband and accompanist Myrl Alderman. And lots of great singing by Day, of course, although I have to say the anachronistic musical arrangements and costumes irritate me to no end. But there is a striving for emotional maturity in the film that is kind of unprecedented in this normally lightweight genre that points the way towards the future.
The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956)
After the gains of the last three films this one feels like a throwback to the Georgie Jessel era. It’s a picture about the successful career of the Tin Pan Alley songwriting team of Desylva, Brown and Henderson, authors of some of the biggest hits of the 1920s. The team are played by Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey and that supreme musical talent Ernest Borgnine. The movie tries to wring tension out of Desylva’s personal ambition (he eventually became a movie executive) but really now, that’s no excuse for a movie. Nor, forgive me, are SONGS. For songs with no plot we have record albums, radio and live performance. At their most basic level, films are (or ought to be) about looking at events that develop through the dimension of time. Director Michael Curtiz was a great visual stylist and this film is in rich Technicolor, but goddamn it, if you don’t give me a story worth watching for 90 minutes in a narrative film, you should have stayed in bed.
The Buster Keaton Story (1957)
This is one of the most notorious of all the bio-pics. The film, which stars Donald O’Connor as Buster Keaton, is most valuable for its opening scenes, which contain the only re-creation to this day of the Three Keatons’ vaudeville act. After this, though, there’s not a single fact in the entire film that matches up with Keaton’s actual life, or for that matter the movie industry in general or life on planet Earth. Nowhere in the film will you find inconvenient names like Talmadge, or Schenck, or Arbuckle, although the film does feature Ann Blyth (Veda in Mildred Pierce) as “Gloria Brent”. Who??? Why, Keaton’s fictitious love interest of course. The film mostly dwells to a mortifying degree on Keaton’s alcoholism in a manner that seems based on the exploitational model of I’ll Cry Tomorrow. And much like Lillian Roth, Keaton literally lived on the proceeds of this sale of his dignity until the end of his days. As for O’Connor’s performance, no mere human being could do justice to Buster Keaton, but he does his best. Interestingly, it was written and directed by Sidney Sheldon!
The Helen Morgan Story (1957)
Ann Blyth again! Here she stars as the original torch singer Helen Morgan. This one goes even farther down the path of seedy realism blazed by I’ll Cry Tomorrow and Love Me or Love Me. (Indeed this film was originally intended as a vehicle for Doris Day, as a follow up to the latter film, but she rejected the role as too tawdry for her wholesome image.) Set in Morgan’s heyday of the 1920s, we watch two lowlifes, played by Paul Newman and Richard Carlson exploit Morgan and live off her, while she gradually descends into the alcoholism that will kill her. (There are high spots too of course. Morgan was most famous for creating the role of Julie in Show Boat). Though Blyth was gorgeous, she can’t really carry a picture, nor (though she was actually a great singer) does she sing her own songs (they’re dubbed) so this film has the double whammy of being both depressing and forgettable.
The Joker is Wild (1957)
A labor of love for Frank Sinatra who here gets to portray his hero, mentor and pal Joe E. Lewis. While not well known today, this movie is actually a key piece in the puzzle for understanding Sinatra, if that’s your cup of bourbon. In this film, you can see the entire inspiration for what was to become the Rat Pack in the ensuing decades. (Lewis was the pioneer of openly drinking onstage during night club performances and kidding about it. He is thus the Godfather of all that Vegas Rat Pack foolishness of later years). Unlike Lewis, Sinatra was a terrible comedian (I defy you to show me differently in ANY of his performances) and he is particularly terrible attempting to do stand-up in this film, although it is interesting to watch him try. This film is one in the subgenre that includes several of the previous films we’ve talked about, dealing as it does with alcoholism, gangsters and violence. I guess it’s what sold tickets in the ’50s! Some added bonuses: Jackie Coogan plays an agent named Swifty Morgan and Sophie Tucker plays herself!
Jeanne Eagels (1957)
Kim Novak as stage and screen star Jeanne Eagels, most famous for her definitive stage portrayal of Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham’s Rain. This film is an interesting hybrid. It latches onto the alcohol and drug abuse that harmed Eagels’ career and took her life at age 39. But it fictionalizes everything else about her life. Instead of starting out with a theatre troupe run by her first husband Morris Dubinsky (as she did in real life), the film has her starting out with a carnival run by Sal Satori (Jeff Chandler). Almost everything in the real life Eagels’ life is fudged here. And even at this late date, we are burdened with the Hollywood code tradition that a character can not be rewarded for her sins. In the film, Eagels is completely down and out when she finally collapses and dies. In real life, she had recently starred in the film The Letter, for which she was posthumously nominated for an Oscar. Full of sturm und drang with little grounding in reality, the film is not one of Novak’s finer moments.
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
This paean to the life and art of Lon Chaney is a classic by virtue of the great James Cagney performance, and greater than usual fidelity to fact. The film is largely about Chaney’s marital trouble’s with his wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone), and his relationship with his son Creighton (later known as Lon Chaney Jr). There are the obligatory re-creations of Chaney’s famous make-ups and horror roles, which are a little wince inducing: Cagney is great but he’s not Chaney (and these are definitely not Chaney’s make-ups). One of the last of the old style Hollywood bio-pics.
After the Ball (1957)
This British production features Pat Kirkwood as music hall drag king Vesta Tilley, and Laurence Harvey as her husband Walter de Frece, a theatre operator who later went into Parliament. As you can see from this poster art, the picture clearly downplays the gender bending aspects of her act.
The late 50s represents the end of the line for that period of studio era show biz bio-pics I have been describing in this series of posts. As you can see, many of the later ones trended towards the realism that will characterize films of the post-studio era, and we will talk about many of those in another series. But before then, we have a few more which came later but are throwbacks to the earlier era, mostly because they are musicals which romanticize old school show biz:
What can I say about this poem to American show business that you don’t already know? The musical cleaves surprising closely to Gypsy Rose Lee‘s 1957 autobiography, a rarity. You can quibble with the casting, and the borderline criminality of replacing Ethel Merman as Mama Rose with Rosalind Russell. And while Gypsy was famous for being refined in burlesque, we are grading on a scale. The real life Gypsy and her sister June Havoc came across as brassy dames…while Natalie Wood possessed a natural refinement and demureness that overshot the mark. I especially like the vaudeville scenes in the early half of the picture, which remind me of The Seven Little Foys and films of that ilk.
Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1974)
To watch these films today is to feel that they are much more about their star Barbra Streisand than they are about their ostensible subject Fanny Brice . Streisand is funny; Brice was a comic genius. Streisand is a brilliant pop singer, whereas Brice was a vocal “character”. Streisand is middle class and very “third generation”. Brice’s parents ran a saloon; she was very “second generation”. So as biography, it’s not the perfect fit it seems at first blush, although I hasten to add, Streisand OWNS this part, it’s a star turn in every sense of the word, and I’ve watched both films many a time. Naturally Funny Girl is far superior, telling of Fanny’s rise and her relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein (portrayed by the sleep-inducing and inappropriately Egyptian Omar Sharif). The stage production starred Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s son) as Arnstein; that sounds far more interesting. Also the ancient Walter Pigeon as Flo Ziegfeld is exceedingly weird casting. Why not cast a mummy or a cigar store Indian? Funny Lady is inferior as a musical but it does have the livelier James Caan as Billy Rose, and the two have a chemistry that is lacking in the previous film. I also like the 70s’s neo-deco art direction in the second one.
This movie was a revelation. I absolutely loved it, and I’d never heard of it until recently. Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence, star of Charlot’s Revues, and chum and colleague of Noel Coward. Directed by Robert Wise, it was intended as a follow up to the smash hit The Sound of Music. But by the time it came out, musicals were distinctly unfashionable and it bombed big time. (Why then did Funny Girl succeed? My theory is the ethnic angle, which made the latter film seem fresh). Star! is also burdened with a three hour running time, and while it does feel long, I am at a loss as to what more could be cut (it was already cut to get it down to this length). I pretty much enjoyed every minute. By the way, you may notice (coincidental) similarities in structure to Horseplay, it’s roughly organized around her string of husbands and lovers. I think this kind of epic structure justifies greater length. At any rate, to my mind this movie has aged very well, and may well become a retroactive classic as more people discover it.
This concludes part three of our three part series on Hollywood show biz bio-pics from the studio era. Look for another series about more modern show-biz biopics from 1970 to the present....coming soon!