With the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s, there was a rush on for Hollywood studios to sign big New York vaudeville and musical comedy stars. For a brief while they were trying out everybody. Big successes included Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields, and Wheeler and Woolsey. But many other major comedy stage stars of the day — people who were every bit the equals of that bunch as stage stars — were tried and found wanting. Here are some of the biggest of the big who for whatever reason didn’t become movie stars (as we think of them). (Click on the links to learn more about the artists and the films)
One of the biggest singing singles in vaudeville, night clubs and record albums, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas seems not to have possessed the same genius for delivering dialogue as she did for songs and patter. Her earliest excursions into musical comedy on stage were bust as was her single starring film Honky Tonk (1929). It’s hard to tell from the record; the visual parts of the film are lost, only the Vitaphone discs remain, so we can hear the audio. But after this she made scattered other appearances in film, occasionally as herself, but never again as the star. But she did later enjoy success in the Broadway book shows Leave it to Me (1938-1939) and High Kickers (1941-1942) so in the end she had some satisfaction as an actress. And of course she was always huge as a singer (wait! that pun was completely unintentional!)
Transferring Joe Cook’s monster Broadway hit Rain or Shine to the screen in 1930 must have seemed like a no brainer. But somehow he and it didn’t “get over”, despite all his dazzling talents. After this he returned to several more Broadway triumphs, but his screen presence was limited to a handful of Al Christie shorts and the low budget western Arizona Mahoney (1936).
Headliner in vaudeville, star of the Ziegfeld Follies, Fanny Brice starred in two features, My Man (1928) and Be Yourself (1930), before the writing was on the wall. The former film is sadly lost. I have seen the latter film and found it quite enjoyable, although Brice (like so many stage stars) can be said to be working too hard for a medium that requires subtly. After this she appeared in a couple of ensemble comedies and a couple of “Ziegfeld” pictures as herself, but never again as the main draw. Her greatest national stardom was to be achieved on radio as “Baby Snooks”.
Because Marilyn Miller’s life was cut tragically short in 1936, one might be tempted to think that her paucity of films was due to the operation that killed her. But she had made her last film five years prior to that. One of the hugest stars in the history of Broadway to this day, her efforts to translate that success into film fizzled. She made three films: Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930) (both adaptations of her Broadway hits) and Her Majesty, Love (1931), whose all star cast also includes Ben Lyon, W.C. Fields, Ford Sterling and Chester Conklin. I have seen the first two films (albeit in their current mutilated versions) and, well, the ball of fire we read about is not evident on the screen. Luckily she had one final triumph on Broadway As Thousands Cheer (1933-1934) before her untimely death.
“What’s that?,” you cry, “Heresy!” And yes, Bert Lahr is responsible for one of the most memorable performances in all of Hollywood film as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and he did have some magical moments in pictures like Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) and The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), but given the scale of his Broadway success, his film career has to be regarded as a disappointment. Lahr’s big trauma was when Joe E. Brown stole the lead from his Broadway success in the film version of Hold Everything (1930). The next year Lahr finally got his big shot as a movie star in Flying High opposite Charlotte Greenwood. It wasn’t the slam-dunk he needed; most of the 30s were spent making comedy shorts for Educational Pictures. And he certainly made plenty of film appearances thereafter, but he was not to be the star of his own comedy features like Brown or Eddie Cantor. Broadway would always be his consolation prize.
The rumor has long been that Frank Fay’s marriage to Barbara Stanwyck was the model for A Star is Born. A huge star treats his unknown, aspiring bride like crap. She clicks in movies instinctively; after initial success in films, he sinks like a stone. That’s pretty much the story. In vaudeville and Broadway revues, no one was bigger than Frank Fay. He was the highest paid entertainer. He was the master of ceremony at the Palace. Bob Hope and Jack Benny studied at his feet. He did the m.c. chores in the revue film Show of Shows (1929), and then proceeded to star in a half dozen comedies (most with a musical component) from 1930 through 1932. By then musicals were distinctly unfashionable and he was discarded. But it wasn’t just that. He possessed a sort of unctuous, off-putting self-regard that turned audiences off (although they seemed to like it when he was onstage). I recently saw God’s Gift to Women (1931) though and rather liked it, to my surprise. There were some scattered other performances on film through the early 1950s, although no longer with top billing. His last (rather huge) triumph was creating the role of Edwin P. Dowd in the original Broadway run of Harvey, which played for over four years (1944-1949).
For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.