George Sidney: From the Mail Room to Musical Mogul

Film director George Sidney (1916-2002) was born into a show biz family in Long Island City. His father Louis K. Sidney (Louis Kronowith), of Hungarian-Jewish extraction, was a Broadway producer, and actor-manager. His mother was Hazel Mooney, part of the vaudeville act The Mooney Sisters. His uncle and namesake George Sidney, was a vaudevillian and actor. Another uncle, Jack Sidney, was a blackface** performer who billed himself as “Jack of Spades”.
Louis began working for the Loew’s theatre chain in 1923, initially managing theatres, then overseeing stage productions for the circuit. When Loew’s became part of MGM, he was put in charge of East Coast production, later moving to Hollywood, where he continued to be one of the studio bigwigs.
George the younger started in vaudeville as a kid, working a musician in pit bands. He moved to Los Angeles circa 1932, initially working as a messenger. This job took him all over the studio, giving him the opportunity to learn every aspect of the operation. By the mid ’30s he was entrusted with directing screen tests where he helped discover the likes of Red Skelton and Judy Garland. From there Sidney graduated to comedy shorts. His first film was a 1936 Pete Smith specialty, and he did a couple of promotional films featuring MGM stars in night clubs, Sunday Night at the Trocadero (1937) and Billy Rose’s Casa Manana Revue (1938). In 1938, when Hal Roach handed Our Gang over to MGM, Sidney was put in charge of the series.
Sidney’s first feature was Free and Easy (1941) starring Bob Cummings, not to be confused with the Buster Keaton film of a decade earlier. He rapidly became one of the most valuable directors of the Freed Unit, helming such classics as Thousands Cheer (1943), Bathing Beauty (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), portions of Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946), the finale of ‘Til the Clouds Roll By (1946), The Three Musketeers (1948), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1952), Scaramouche (1952), and Kiss Me, Kate (1953). Jupiter’s Darling (1955) with Esther Williams was Sidney’s last film on his original MGM contract, although he later came back to direct a couple of others.
Sidney’s later films were The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), Jeanne Eagels (1957), Pal Joey (1957), Who Was That Lady? (1960), Pepe (1960), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), A Ticklish Affair (1963), Viva Las Vegas (1964), The Swinger (1966), and Half a Sixpence (1967). Those last few films, starring the likes of Ann-Margret, Elvis Presley, and Tommy Steele proved Sidney to be a savvy showman who knew how to stay on top of current trends. This extended to dabbling in TV, where he directed a 1949 variety show starring Cliff Edwards (whom he’d directed in his earliest days at MGM), and the TV movie Who Has Seen the Wind (1964) with Edward G. Robinson, Gypsy Rose Lee, Theodore Bikel, Victor Jory, Simon Oakland, and Veronica Cartwright.
Sidney also played a role in the history of cartoon animation. He collaborated with Hanna and Barbera when they were still at MGM, where they created that segment where Jerry the Mouse dances with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh. When MGM closed their animation shop in 1957, he helped them set up Hanna-Barbera, and served as the company’s president for ten years.

Multiple award-winning Sidney was well-respected within the industry, serving as President of the Screen Directors Guild (1951-59) and President of the Directors Guild of America (1961-1967). He was married three times: to MGM drama coach, Lillian “Burnsie” Burns Salzer, who was 8 years older than him; to Edward G. Robinson’s widow Jane; and Corinne Kegley Entratter, widow of Las Vegas showman John Entratter.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.