The Necromancers of New Hollywood: How Nostalgia in 1970s Pop Culture Fed My Love for Vaudeville

I’ve been holding on to the image above for weeks, intending to use it in this post. Now Lucky Lady‘s director Stanley Donen died yesterday, and tonight is the Oscars; it seems like good timing to get this out there.

The subject is vague and partially personal. I touched on it in my book No Applause , but I’ve been wanting to explore it a bit more. The topic is the subcurrent of nostalgia for the 1920s-30s-40s that existed in the pop culture of the early to mid ’70s. This is a very specific little historical blip; if you blinked you would have missed it. Yet it was extremely important to me. The peak years were 1972-1975, I think, when I was between the ages of 7 and 10 years old, but naturally pop culture lingers. Songs are still played after they leave the top of the charts, and films are shown on television after their initial theatrical runs. So the stuff was around through a lot of my youth, and it had an impact on me. It is the filter through which I see vaudeville; my entrance to the time portal. When I have nostalgia it is (by definition) for my own time, the 1970s; to have nostalgia for the 1920s, I’d have to be over a century old at this writing.

I have a great deal of fun speculating about how and why. As Susan Sontag wisely said in her “Notes on Camp” (a huge influence on me), “Taste has no system and no proofs.” But I do have logical theories. I can’t pretend they are all original with me, though I can’t recall where the insights came from.

We know that Baby Boomers largely led this revival. The Romantic in me immediately goes to San Francisco (historic home of the Barbary Coast) and New York’s Lower East Side (historic home of the Bowery), where homeless, jobless hippies plunder Salvation Army bins for dirt-cheap second hand clothes, coming away with their grandparents’ suits, hats, dresses, shoes, and feather boas. With the positive energy of youth, castaways in castoffs turn their poverty into a style, transforming garbage into glamour into glam. The fetishization of old styles as camp had long been associated with gay culture, as well, and it played a key role in the aesthetics of the Theater of the Ridiculous, which emerged in the late ’60s. Bette Midler, a pivotal figure in this moment, emerged from that culture, and her debut record The Divine Miss M (1972) seems key.

We’ll primarily talk about movies, but a parallel development in pop music reinforced what was happening in Hollywood. The neo-vaudeville sensibilities of Paul McCartney and Nilsson were early harbingers. Among his many incredible original albums, Nilsson also did an entire record-length tribute to then-emerging Randy Newman, whose albums 12 Songs (1971) and Sail Away (1973) seem relevant as does his irresistible 1972 hit for Three Dog Night “Mama Told Me Not Come.” The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted in 1971. Cher’s solo hit of that year “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” seems absolutely germane. Paul Williams’ “Old Fashioned Love Song” was a hit both for himself and Three Dog Night in 1971; he is a key player in this trend, and will play a role in some of the films we’ll talk about. In 1971 The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a hit with “Mr. Bojangles” which is about a street and carnival performer, though not literally about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In 1973 Tony Orlando and Dawn released Dawn’s New Ragtime Follies, which contained the hit “(Has Anybody Seen My) Sweet Gypsy Rose” , which though about a burlesque dancer is not literally about Gypsy Rose Lee. I’ve always loved “Long Tall Glasses” (1974) by Leo Sayer, with its hungry hobo hero and its minstrel show touches. That same year Paper Lace had a number one hit with “The Night Chicago Died” about a shootout between Chicago cops and Al Capone. Much like Randy Newman, the entire careers of Tom Waits (who debuted in 1973) and Leon Redbone (1975) seem to have a foot in vaudeville. I’ve also associated the content of the songs of Jim Croce with this backward-looking thematic trend.

While there is a lot of humor in some of this stuff, there is also a lot of sorrow and sentimental longing for another time. There is a quality of mourning. There had been much of cultural value that the voracious Death God of Competitive Capitalism had devoured over the course of the 20th century: vaudeville, burlesque, old time radio, Hollywood musicals, and the Hollywood studios themselves. Times Square and Hollywood, former bywords for glamour were now combat zones for pornography and drugs. Affection for what they represented now came with sadness, for they were in reality dead and gone.

Broadway and Hollywood had been replaced by the tyranny of television, a ruthless, addictive, glamorless medium you could watch at home, alone, in your underwear. If you want to depict a depressed loner in a story you are telling, show them watching television. (I know that because I saw it on television). Created under the direct oversight of corporate sponsors explicitly in order to sell products, television could at best occasionally rise to the level of comparative excellence, but even then it was marred by mediocrity and self-censorship. There was a sameness and safeness to its market-tested programming. It was rarely special; it could not deliver magic. There was something of the mind-rape about television. The nation had mass Stockholm Syndrome, conditioned to reflexively visit a parasitic machine that simultaneously delivered pleasure and dissatisfaction, tickling and fleecing us at the same time. In the music and the movies of the 1970s you hear above all a longing to be free of the Box.

As The Beatles had provided some foreshadowing about what was to happen in music, I think you can find the cinematic equivalent in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Penn drew much inspiration from the French New Wave, and his work was full of quotation and visual reference to cinema’s early 20th century roots. In the work of certain of the New Hollywood directors I espy a kinship of sorts with Hammer Horror — new technology and more liberal standards of discourse were creating an opportunity for younger filmmakers to remake classic film, to do it over, as it were, with a fresh look and a fresh outlook. Greater realism was possible, not harnessed slavishly for its own sake, but in the service of the author’s point of view. Story and signifiers were unshackled from formula; they could now be treated irreverently.

Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds in “What’s the Matter with Helen?”

Another pathway in, I think is the psycho-biddy genre we wrote about here. Beginning with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard these films presented aging female Hollywood movie stars (often in decayed Hollywood settings), now become murderous monsters (or sometimes their victims.) Two of the later ones in the cycle, Hollywood Horror House (1970) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) feel particularly relevant to the burgeoning moment; read about them here  Very much related from a camp perspective (and the roots in gay theatre we mentioned) is 1970’s Myra Breckinridge. 

While not a psycho-biddy film per se, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) about a young man’s infatuation with an eccentric old dame (Ruth Gordon) connects us with the period of her youth. Also released that year was the art deco splendor of The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), set in the ’20s, in which a madman played by Vincent Price, who speaks with the aid of a gramophone, gets his revenge on the doctors who killed his wife. The success of this film spurred a new cycle of similar Vincent Price horror movies in the 1970s, all with a similar neo-Gothic sensibility.

The sets in “Dr. Phibes” are to die for! Especially if you’re one of nine incompetent doctors!

Bob Fosse’s movie version of Cabaret (1972) gave us the vivacious Liza Minnelli, daughter of classic Hollywood icon Judy Garland, emulating the styles of the 1920s and early ’30s. Liza would also star in two later entries in this subgenre, Lucky Lady (1975) and New York, New York (1977). In rapid order director Peter Bogdanovich gave us the neo-screwball comedy Whats Up, Doc? (1972), the Depression era Paper Moon (1973), the Cole Porter musical At Long Last Love (75), and the silent comedy tribute Nickelodeon (1976). What’s Up, Doc? of course had starred Barbra Streisand, who’d earlier played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968), which may be seen as foreshadowing to this era. She also starred in the period love story The Way We Were (1973) and the Funny Girl sequel Funny Lady (1975).

Many of Woody Allen’s films of the period riff on nostalgia for old pop culture, including Play It Again Sam (1972) with its Bogart obsession; Sleeper (73) with its Dixieland jazz soundtrack and silent comedy echoes; Annie Hall (1977), mostly in Diane Keaton’s wardrobe and Tin Pan Alley song repertoire; and Manhattan (1979), with its George Gershwin soundtrack and black and white shots of period New York skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building.

In 1970 James Earl Jones starred as a character based on early 20th century boxer Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope. In a similar vein, Diana Ross starred in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), a biopic about another black cultural hero Billie Holiday. The following year she released the camp old-timey-sounding single “Last Time I Saw Him”, which felt part of the same phase. Lady Sings the Blues was a co-production of Motown Productions, which also produced a Scott Joplin bio-pic in 1977 starring Billy Dee Williams. The Joplin picture also fed on the success of the George Roy Hill movie The Sting (1973) which had used Scott Joplin’s rags as the soundtrack. Ragtime composer and performer Eubie Blake who had appeared in Scott Joplin, translated this success into his Broadway show Eubie! in 1978.

In 1973 Robert Altman released his Philip Marlowe mystery The Long Goodbye, full of ’30s genre allusions. The following year, he made the prison breakout film Thieves Like Us, which was actually set in the ’30s. Altman was clearly in a Warner Brothers mindset.

Meanwhile, another old studio, MGM was imploding after a series of box office bombs, not unrelated to the death of the Hollywood musical. Their output slowed to a crawl. Many of their assets, including their famous backlots, were sold off in 1973 and 1974. This resulted in a couple of unique artifacts though. One was the peculiar horror movie The Phantom of Hollywood (1974), which reset The Phantom of the Opera amongst the abandoned, shuttered MGM backlots. It was the last movie to be shot there. You can read about it here. The other by-product of MGM’s financial straights was comprised of a couple of compilation films made up of clips of old movies, That’s Entertainment, Parts One and Two (1974 and 1976; later turned into a TV series). The narrator of the films was none other than Gene Kelly, and it was an early pathway for many of us into these classic old films.

At the same time, Kelly’s old collaborator from the MGM days, the now late Stanley Donen released two nostalgic tributes of his own, Lucky Lady (1975) which starred Liza Minnelli as a lady bootlegger (aided by Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds, the latter of whom starred in similar projects with Bogdanovich) and Movie Movie (1978), which parodied a ’30s boxing picture and a Busby Berkley musical. Movie Movie had narration by George Burns, then in the midst of a comeback spurred on by the success of The Sunshine Boys (1975), about a pair of old vaudevillians. This movie was crucial to many of my comedy friends. I actually know more than one person who began making regular pilgrimages to visit Joe Smith at an old actors’ home in New Jersey in the ’70s after the film came out (the team of Smith and Dale were largely the models for the comedians in the film).

Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975) was part of a spate of Quixotic attempts by most of the major New Hollywood directors to single-handedly revive the Hollywood musical. Like moths flinging themselves onto a candle, almost all of them were drawn to this challenge in the ’70s, almost always with bad luck or mixed success at best. Brian De Palma’s interesting Phantom of the Paradise, with music by Paul Williams, had been released the year before. The all-kid Bugsy Malone (1976), also with songs by Williams, was Alan Parker’s first movie and a rare success, both with critics (and more modestly) at the box office. Later came Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), which barely broke even at the box office, sending him into a tailspin, and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982) which ended up bankrupting the director/producer. Coppola of course had been one of the key players in the nostalgia wave, having directed The Godfather Parts One and Two (1972 and 1974).

Other random stuff I’d include here: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1975), John Schlesinger’s Day of the Locust (1975), Mike Nichols’ The Fortune, and Arthur Hiller’s W.C. Fields and Me, all released in 1975. Though set a few decades earlier in the 1890s, Mark Rydell’s Harry and Walter Go To New York (1976) also seems related.

Starting in 1976, television paid tribute to classic Hollywood in the form of Don Adams’ Screen Test, a game show in which contestants had the opportunity to recreate moments from famous movies. As part of the preparation, scenes from the films were screened. The show provided my first exposure to many Hollywood movies. This was around the time that classic era remakes were becoming a thing as well. That same year, there were new versions of King Kong and A Star is Born; Superman came along in 1978, followed by a full-on camp Flash Gordon in 1980.

Both Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters came out of this period; I think of the moment when they sing the old 1927 Billy Rose tune “Tonight You Belong to Me” in The Jerk (1979). Martin would also revive the old Cole and Johnson song “Under the Bamboo Tree” in The Man with Two Brains (1983). Pennies from Heaven (1981) and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) are worth mentioning here, but for the most part I think they represent a new phase.

Until I hear of something different I’ll consider Milos Forman‘s Ragtime (1980) as capping off this particular cinematic phase. There are no shortage of period films after this, but somehow, they lack the same spiritual connection. As an example, I think of Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), which feels impersonal and producer-driven. It makes no statement. If anything, like most American cinema of the Reagan era, it feels like a return to formula. And this despite having lots of actual Cotton Club tap dancers in the movie. Whatever the magic is, The Cotton Club doesn’t have it.

It is interesting to me that the bulk of the nostalgia boom I’m writing about happened during the Watergate years. There seems an element of escapism, but also a bit of a “fuck you” to Nixon and his generation, which appeared to have bestowed upon America a legacy of lies and betrayals, worlds away from the innocence, hope and optimism of earlier decades. Ironically, once Nixon was out of the way, there was a shift to nostalgia for the 1950s, a decade identified with no one so much as Richard Nixon! A topic for another day though. Soon, though, soon!

To find out more about the history of vaudeville AND neo-vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,