Stars of Vaudeville #914: Mervyn LeRoy

Director Mervyn Leroy, 1960s

Today is the birthday of Mervyn LeRoy (1900-1987) . Like most sentient beings I’ve known his name since childhood, as the producer of my favorite movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). I was delighted to hear today that like almost all of the cast and creative personnel of that film, LeRoy got his start in vaudeville.

He grew up in San Francisco, the son of a well-off department store owner who lost everything in the 1906 Earthquake. LeRoy began singing in talent contests, then worked his way up to vaudeville in the act “LeRoy and Cooper — Two Kids and a Piano.” Then in the early 20s he moved to Hollywood, where he had a slightly influential cousin — Jessie Lasky! Not a bad cousin to have, eh? Still LeRoy worked his way up the ladder the old fashioned way, learning every aspect of the business in a succession of jobs: wardrobe assistant, film processing technician, camera assistant, actor and finally gag writer and scenarist, which was a fine position to be in you wanted to move to director in the silent days.

His first film as director was No Place to Go (1927). In 1936 he became a producer as well. LeRoy has his name on too many classic films for me to list them all here (go to IMDB for that). I’ll just point out a few especially relevant ones given the vaudeville/show biz focus of this web site: in addition to The Wizard of Oz, there’s Show Girl in Hollywood (1930); Gold Diggers of 1933; several Joe E. Brown pictures, including Top Speed (1930), Broadminded (1931), Local Boy Makes Good (1931), and Elmer the Great (1933); Tugboat Annie (1933) with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery; the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939, as producer); and Gypsy (1962), among scores of others.

For more on vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent and slapstick film history 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 etc etc etc.

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