Queenie Smith: Up On “Tip Toes”

Queenie Smith (1898-1978) was a familiar character actress well into the 1970s, with a career that had begun over a half-century earlier. Sounds like a blues singer, right? A mix of Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Queenie from Show Boat, played at various times by the likes of Aunt Jemima (Tess Gardella), Hattie McDaniel, and Alberta Hunter. As it happens, this Queenie Smith would have a role in Show Boat, but a different one.

At age 13 Queenie Smith began taking ballet lessons at the Metropolitan Opera Company, dancing in the company’s productions throughout her teen years. In adulthood she stood a mere 5’1″ tall, which can be something of an asset in shoe business. Her first Broadway show was Roly Boly Eyes (1919) with Eddie Leonard. Another dozen shows would follow through the mid ’30s, including George S. Kaufman’s and Marc Connelly’s Helen of Troy New York (1923) with songs by Kalmar and Ruby; Tip Toes (1925-26), in which she starred as the title character; and The Street Singer (1929-30). The latter paired her with young Archie Leach (Cary Grant), with whom she was reputedly briefly engaged:

Queenie also played vaudeville during her Broadway years. This 1926 marquee at the Palace shows her on a bill with Milton Berle, Grace Hayes, the Colleano Family, Harry Puck, Jack Whiting, and a post-scandal Roscoe Arbuckle:

The 1934 musical Vitaphone short Masks and Memories, with Lillian Roth and Jack Goode, was Smith’s first screen appearance. Her features of the era included Mississippi (1935) with W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby, and the 1936 film version of Show Boat, in the role of Ellie May. On Your Toes (1939) has a ballet-to-vaudeville setting that might have been great for the younger Smith to have starred in, but now mature, she had a supporting role, while Vera Zorina starred.

The mature Smith was on the plump side. Starting in the mid ’40s she began playing character parts in gritty dramas. Stuff from this period includes The Killers (1946), Nocturne (1946), The Long Night (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), Caged (1950), Union Station (1950), Prisoners in Petticoats (1950), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

In the ’60s and ’70s, she was one of filmdom’s go-to little old ladies. She was a regular on the short-lived sketch show The Funny Side (1971) opposite Burt Mustin, had a recurring role on Little House on the Prairie, and could be seen in guest shots on such shows as The Monkees, That Girl, The Odd Couple, Love American Style, Maude, Rhoda, Chico and the Man, Barney Miller, and Fish, and the class made-for-tv film Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976). Her later films include The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), The Day of the Locust (1975), Mother Jugs and Speed (1976), The Astral Factor (1978), The End (1978) and Foul Play (1978).

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,