There’s No Business Like Shaw Business: A Glance at Oscar Shaw

There is an irony in Oscar Shaw (Oscar Schwartz, 1887-1967) being best remembered in the end for his less than stellar turn in the movie version of the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts (1929). To Marx Brothers fans, he’s little more than part of the furniture, but in his day he was a big Broadway star, and remained one for a couple of decades.

The Philadelphia native first moved the needle in a show called The First American Ragtime Review, which played the London Opera House in 1913. When the show closed, Shaw toured Europe with a vaudeville act comprised of himself and eight chorus girls. Back in the States, he was cast in the Princess Theatre musical Very Good Eddie in 1915, by the creative team of P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern. He was to work with these collaborators on several shows at the Princess and elsewhere over the next several years, including Leave it to Jane (1917-18), and The Rose of China (1919-20), and he also moved to the colony of stars in Great Neck, Long Island where Bolton and Wodehouse both lived. In 1924, he appeared in The Music Box Revue, with tunes by future Cocoanuts composer Irving Berlin. In 1921 he was in Ziegfeld’s Nine O’Clock Frolic, and he was in a 1929 film short called A Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic. Then there was the smash hit Oh, Kay!(1926-27) with Gertrude Lawrence, and Victor Moore.

A Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic was not Shaw’s first film. He’d actually starred in four silents 1924-26, most of them with Broadway themes. In 1929 came The Cocoanuts. I’d always wondered why they cast the lackluster, somewhat stout Shaw in this part. (And a little quick math reveals he was 42 years old at the time, twice too old for the character). Shaw’s stage stardom is of course the answer. He also undoubtedly knew the Marx Brothers from the social scene in Long Island, where the Marxes were also living at the time. The Cocoanuts was shot in nearby Astoria. After this, he co-starred with Marion Davies in the film Marianne the same year, and that was it for movies for a while.

And why not? Shaw’s next Broadway show may have been his biggest: Flying High (1930) by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, co-starring Bert Lahr, produced by George White. It ran almost a year. Three additional shows followed through 1926. In 1937, he was embroiled in scandal when actress Florence Roberts sued him for allegedly throwing her down a staircase while they were on tour! Shortly after this he sold his tony house in Great Neck and moved to a smaller place nearby. In 1940 he appeared in his last film Rhythm on the River, with Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Basil Rathbone, Oscar Levant, Charley Grapewin, William Frawley and Jeanne Cagney. His last Broadway show Pie in the Sky was the following year.

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