Gertrude Astor: From Minstrelsy to Mrs. Hardy

Given some of the movie she’s in, it’s kind of crazy I’ve taken this long to add a post here on Gertrude Astor (Gertrude Eyster, 1887-1977). What a screen name! A cross between Gertrude Vanderbilt and Mary Astor!

But she was of course not one of those Astors; her real last name was Eyster, and she was the daughter of a small town assistant fire chief in Lima, Ohio. At the age of 12 she ran off and joined an all-girl travelling band. She played trombone and saxophone, and toured with stock companies, minstrel show outfits**, vaudeville, and show boats. She was 28 years old when she made her screen debut in Under Two Flags (1915). She signed with Universal that year, one of the first artists to do so. At 5′ 11″ she was a bit too tall for leading lady roles, though in her heyday she frequently got second lead parts — rivals and best friends, mostly. Many of her parts were aristocrats or rich wives. Almost from the beginning she was in both comedy shorts (with the likes of Wallace Beery, Eddie Lyons & Lee Moran, etc), in addition to features, often ones with provocative titles like The Devil’s Pay Day (1917), The Price of a Good Time (1917), The Brazen Beauty (1918), The Wicked Darling (1919). She was the title character in Vamping the Vamp (1918). She was second lead to Mary Pickford in Through the Back Door (1921), is in the original 1923 version of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1923), and the Jazz Age classic Flaming Youth (1923) with Colleen Moore.

About a decade into Astor’s career, it starts to truly get interesting to this show biz and classic comedy lover. She’s the vamp who accosts Harry Langdon in The Strong Man (1926), appears with Flora Finch in the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary, is in the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ginsberg the Great (1927, with George Jessel — she plays a character named Sappho!), The Cohens and Kellys in Paris (1928), the 1928 versions of Rose-Marie and The Butter and Egg Man, and the 1930 Fanny Brice feature Be Yourself!

In talkies Astor’s parts rapidly shrank, but for a while she got to enjoy good scenery-chewing parts in shorts like Chasing Husbands (1928), In Walked Charley (1932), I’ll Take Vanilla (1932), The Chases of Pimple Street (1932), and Manhattan Monkey Business (1935) with Charley Chase; The Doctor’s Wife and Over the Radio (both 1930) with Franklin Pangborn; Twisted Tales (1931) with Arthur Housman; Poker Widows (1931) with Arthur Stone; Come Clean (1931) with Laurel and Hardy (as Mrs Hardy); Wedding Belles (1931) with Lloyd Hamilton; High Hats and Low Brows (1932) with James Gleason and Harry Gribbon; The Plumber and the Lady (1933) with Frank Albertson, Marjorie Beebe, and Herman Bing; I Don’t Remember (1935) with Harry Langdon.

I was going to list all of the great, interesting and classic features in which she was a bit player but it’s crazy — there’s about 200 of them listed on IMDB. It includes many additional classic comedies and comedians. A couple of named characters that caught my eye: Zanda the Fortune Teller in Carnival Lady (1933), Mud Bath Nurse in The Women (1939), and Eva Tanguay in An Angel Comes to Brooklyn (1945). Her last screen credit was a 1966 episode of My Mother the Car, in the part of “Old Lady” when she was 79 years old.

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

**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.