Archive for the Comediennes Category

R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd


We would certainly be remiss if we didn’t lay down a few words in honor of the late Mary Tyler Moore.

As I tweeted yesterday, she influenced many of us not just as a comedienne but as an example and a role model. I’m a white working class male, and she influenced my world outlook immensely. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran during highly impressionable years of my life (1971 through 1977, and thereafter in syndication). I knew it was seminal only in retrospect. Growing up watching her, I always took it for granted that it was the most natural thing in the world that a single woman should choose to pursue a career and that she should be respected in the workplace. Unlike Marlo Thomas in That Girl (1966-1971), there was no fiance constantly waiting the wings and her career goals weren’t pie in the sky. She dated men, and sometimes it was even hinted that they stayed the night.  But her career seemed to be her priority. She later backtracked some on this takeaway, but really that is the message her show sent.

Of course, that message is what most people celebrated yesterday, but now I want to talk about her as a comedian. She was a great one. I seem to recall her saying that her teacher in playing comic scenes was her old co-star Dick Van Dyke, and I started to watch her performances with that in mind, and you can see it. (Apart from her crying routines — the debt there is probably to Lucille Ball. And I have to say, of the two, I vastly prefer MTM’s more subtle and true comic performances over Lucy’s. Lucy only had a sledgehammer in her arsenal, Mary had a full tool kit.)

Recently, when watching 30 Rock I had the revelation that Tina Fey’s show is kind of a mash-up The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. On the one hand, it’s set behind the scenes at a tv comedy show; on the other hand it’s about a single, female tv producer. 30 Rock is way more absurd and surreal, but the core of the situation echoes those pioneering shows, and I would imagine it’s not accidental. Fey is a formidable comic architect, and quite encyclopedic in her knowledge of comedy.

Like Van Dyke, Moore was an incredible dancer; it’s kind of her jumping off point as a performer. It informs both their comedy — and it’s fairly insane that, apart from some variety show appearances, they didn’t co-star in a LOT of musicals. With their array of talents that could potentially have been amazing. But something interesting happened to Moore — and it happens to a lot of actors and comedians when they get very big. Moore wasn’t just a comedian, she became a producer. And with her husband Grant Tinker, she was responsible for a large number of hit tv shows: Phyllis, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere. When you are powerful, you acquire dignity and self-assurance. She was no longer young or fresh or goofy by the 1980s. She had gravitas and was even (as she was in Ordinary People) intimidating and scary. She tried many later tv series: The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979), Mary (1985-86), Annie McGuire (1988), New York News (1995). None flew, I think partially because you see the show business titan beneath the performer. It’s not uncommon — think of Bob Hope’s last movies.

She’d gone conservative in recent years, I hear. I wonder what she thought of the millions who attended the Women’s March on Sunday, so many of whom she influenced. She’s leaving us at another time of change, when even the mild gains women have made are under serious threat. I already get melancholy and nostalgic when I watch tv. Now there’ll be some added bittersweetness when I see this and think of more innocent times:


A Muchness of Mabel’s Movies at Midnight

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on January 15, 2017 by travsd

Tonight at Midnight (Eastern) TCM will be screening several silent comedy shorts featuring the incomparable Mabel Normand:

bangville police[1]

The Bangville Police (1913) 

The Bangville Police is the comedy short containing what is considered by many to be the first appearance of The Keystone Kops (others consider the first to have been  1912′ Hoffmeyer’s Legacy). To muddy the water some, the kops aren’t uniformed in this one, they’re an all-volunteer force in a rural community called Bangville, quite different from the urban Los Angeles settings we’re accustomed to seeing the Kops run amok in. (One wonders if it isn’t a riff on Essanay’s “Snakeville” series).

At any rate Fred Mace plays the head Kop in this one. Ford Sterling, who normally plays the Kops’ Chief is in it, but just as a regular officer. Other Kops in this film include Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann and Al St. John. Mack Sennett directed. Mabel Normand plays a young farm girl who thinks she hears robbers in the barn and calls the police in. After much brouhaha and fol-de-rol, the Kops arrive and break into the barn, only to find that all the commotion has been caused by — oh but wait! Why should I tell you? Watch for yourself!


Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913) 

Directed by Mack Sennett, starring Sennett, Normand, and Alice Davenport. It’s a great little film: mama’s boy Mack disses his girlfriend, the housemaid (Mabel) who runs off to the big city and becomes a star. The coolest part of this film is the scene in the theatre, giving us an invaluable glimpse at what attending the cinema was like in the days of nickelodeons.


Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Directed by Sennett and co-starring Mabel and Charlie Chaplin In this film Chaplin plays a character somewhat unlike his more recognized Little Fellow. Here he is a middle class husband in a top hat. And Normand, not Chaplin, is still the above-the-title star at this early stage. There are several ironclad laws in the Keystone universe. One of them is, if you are in the park with your wife NEVER LEAVE HER ALONE ON A PARK BENCH. Mabel plays Charlie’s wife in this one, and the instant he steps away, masher Mack Swain shows up to harass her. When he gets back, Charlie doesn’t do much to punish the man. Later, Mabel brings home a dressmaker’s dummy for Charlie to practice punching on. That night, he comes home three sheets to the wind, mistakes the dummy for a prowler, and has a hilarious fight with it.


Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)

Directed by and co-starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Normand. In the two years following Chaplin’s departure from Keystone (1915-1916) Arbuckle-Normand team-ups were Mack Sennett’s most formidable box office combination. The pair appeared in dozens of films together, most frequently as a domestic couple. It’s especially exciting and instructive to watch the ones towards the end of this period, when the confidence that comes with prolonged stardom informs their performances, and when Arbuckle’s skills as a director blossom. Shortly after this, Arbuckle went on to his own starring series for his own company Comique, and Normand went on to her own starring series of features for Sam Goldwyn. These 1916 Fatty-Mabel shorts are kind of like Beatles records from 1968 or 1969. You’re experiencing artists who are about to be big solo stars, but still interacting in a format they’re beginning to outgrow, in this case the ensemble comedy short. The product of that tension can be very rich.

The plot of Fatty and Mabel Adrfit is very simple. Sweethearts Fatty and Mabel get married and take their honeymoon at a seaside cottage, along with another of Arbuckle’s frequent Keystone co-stars, Luke the Dog. Unfortunately, Fatty’s rival for Mabel’s hand (played as usual by Al St. John) is not through fighting. He and his several henchmen put the little house out to sea. Fatty and Mabel wake up the next day to find themselves far away from shore in a house full of water. The climactic scenes of this comedy are spectacular, on a scale we usually associate with Larry Semon or with Arbuckle’s protege Buster Keaton. Sennett rarely shelled out for such big budget extravagances, but at this stage he was trying to keep both co-stars happy so they wouldn’t “pull a Chaplin” by leaving him. (As we said, they both soon did anyway). How can Fatty and Mabel escape their dire predicament? Perhaps their heroic pooch will be of some help…


He Did and He Didn’t (1916)

One of Arbuckle’s and Norman’s last movies for Sennett. Quite a good little movie — maybe even Arbuckle’s best film, as it has a bit of emotional depth to it, while still being funny. Fatty and Mabel are a rich married couple. He’s a doctor (although that part of the exposition doesn’t emerge very clearly). They live in a mansion with servants. It opens with them dressing for dinner and bickering.  The dinner guest is her childhood sweetheart (William Jefferson). Fatty is very jealous of their little endearments. Later he is called away to a housecall (a false alarm), then returns to confront his rival — and a pair of burglars led by Al St. John (who does a spectacular stunt on the chandelier). We can hardly believe our eyes when our heroes shoot each other…until it turns out to be a bad dream, spurred on by the lobster they had for dinner.


Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) 

In this one, Fatty and Mabel are in rural mode, with Mabel as a farmer’s daughter and Fatty as the farmhand who loves her. Lots of fun at the expense of cows and calves is had during their flirtation. But there is trouble in this bucolic paradise. In parody of the old stage melodramas, Al St. John arrives as the son who holds the mortgage on the farm. The farmer (Josef Swickard) is behind in his payments. Mabel must marry St. John or the farm will be seized! Fatty and Mabel flee, pursued by St. John, the father and cops. The climax is most enjoyable. People fly through the air and fall down wells! And of course Fatty and Mabel succeed in their escape and get married.

The Water Nymph (1912) 

An early one starring Normand, Sennett, Sterling, et al.  In The Water Nymph Mabel basically reprises a role she first played for Sennett in her very first movie for him The Diving Girl (Biograph, 1911). Her scandalous appearance in her bathing suit made her something of a sensation, and she was known as “The Diving Girl” for some time after. The buzz helped put Sennett on the map, and epitomized the sort of outrageousness Keystone became known for. In time, he would develop an entire stable of Bathing Beauties.

Marie Mosquini: Leading Lady to Snub Pollard!

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2016 by travsd


Maria Mosquini’s (1899-1983) birthday is today.

Lucky Los Angeles native Mosquini stepped right out of high school directly into roles in Hal Roach comedies. She started out in bit parts in Harold Lloyd’s “Lonesome Luke” series in 1917, later appearing in many of his “glasses” comedies as well. She’s also in some of Stan Laurel’s early solo pictures for Roach, like Just Rambling Along (1918) and Hustling for Health (1919). Mosquini usually had smaller parts in the Lloyd comedies, but she was generally the leading lady in her many pictures where Snub Pollard was the star, and she also appeared opposite other Roach stars like Will Rogers and Charley Chase. But she never quite broke out as a star in her own right, properly graduated to features, or made the transition to sound. In 1930, she married the talkie pioneer Lee De Forest and retired, remaining with him until his death in 1961. Occasionally she took walk-on roles through the 1930s, but mostly she was known as a Los Angeles socialite in her later years.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

Florence Lake: Squeaky Voiced Mrs. Kennedy

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd



Today is the birthday of Florence Lake (Florence Silverlake, 1904-1980). Lake started out in 1910 in a vaudeville act called “Family Affair” with her parents and her brother Arthur. Arthur was later to gain fame in the part of Dagwood Bumstead in the screen and radio versions of the comic strip Blondie.

Like Arthur, Florence had an extreme comic character with a high pitched voice that served her well in films. She began getting movie roles in 1929, initially appearing in film shorts with the likes of Smith and Dale and Clark and McCullough. But in 1931 she began appearing as Edgar Kennedy’s wife in his series of RKO comedy shorts, a part she was to play through his death in 1948, becoming her best known film role. Throughout that period she also appeared in shorts and features of all sorts as well, comedies, musicals, dramas and westerns. From the ’50s through 1976, she continued to be in demand as a recognizable bit player on both film and television, most regularly on the tv version of Lassie, as Jenny the telephone operator from 1954 through 1962. Her last credit is an episode of Emergency! 

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc.

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the “Mexican Spitfire” Comedies

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by travsd

24180 - Mexican Spitfire Outwest

Today is the birthday of Lupe Velez (read more about the talented and gorgeous Latin star here). A fitting day, we think to do this little post on her last (and today, best known) career phase, her “Mexican Spitfire” comedies.

While worth watching as historical curiosities, to the modern sensibility these films seem both sexist and racist. The Spitfire character is a sort of combination of Lucy and Desi, hot tempered, fast talking, and trouble prone, like some sort of wild animal. The only way you would be prone to find it amusing is if you were by default poised to laugh at the idiocy of women and Mexicans. Leon Eroll as Uncle Matt (and his alter ego Lord Epping) is a bit of welcome relief. Essentially these are cheapie B pictures on every level, forgettable, disposable, and very much representative of the times.


The Girl from Mexico (1939)

The first “Mexican Spitfire” movie, although no one knew at the time that a series of films would transpire. Lupe Velez plays an unknown singer in a small Mexican village brought north of the border by a radio scout (Donald Woods) who is affianced to a scheming phony. Lupe will of course win him for her own.


Mexican Spitfire (1940)

The first official one in the series. They settle into the formula. The couple are now married and its all about the culture clash of being a Latina in America. The comedy is much broader than in the previous one. This also introduces the recurring motif of the British distiller Lord Epping, played also by Leon Erroll. So Uncle Matt (also Errol) has several bits where he goes in disguise as the English gentleman (this was one of Eroll’s stage specialties, in addition to his famous drunk routine).


Mexican Spitfire Out West (1940)

This one doesn’t quite deliver what the title promises.  It’s not a western comedy. Carmelita goes to Reno to pretend to be seeking a divorce from her boring husband because she thinks he is being unfaithful (someone turned on the radio to a peppy station while they were on the phone). And Lord Epping returns. So there is an irritating subplot of Dennis (the husband) having to outscheme some rivals for the attentions of Lord Epping, who is sometimes Uncle Matt in disguise. But the main question is “Who cares”? Who cares whether he has a coup at work or if their marriage breaks up?” On the positive side,  Tom Kennedy has a funny bit as a cab driver.


Mexican Spitfire’s Baby (1941)

The title of this film so badly makes me want to do a comedy mash-up sketch of this and the Mia Farrow/ Roman Polanski horror picture. The production values in this one seem to have improved over the previous one a little. The anonymous Donald Woods is now replaced by Buddy Rogers as Carmelita’s husband and he is much better at playing comedy than his soporific predecessor. Velez now sports a fashionable 40s haircut.  And Zasu Pitts is in the cast as prissy hotel manager Miss Emily Pepper, and Fritz Feld does his patented Frenchman routine. This improved cast makes it a vastly more watchable movie, even if the script is as tedious as the previous ones.  It opens on an anniversary party at a fancy night club. Dennis and Carmelita are still troubled. Uncle Matt suggests they adopt a “baby”. Unfortunately Dennis gets a “baby” – a gorgeous blonde French girl named “Fifi” whom he somehow has to host for work. Much misunderstanding and yelling in Spanish ensues.


Mexican Spitfire at Sea (1942)

The couple takes a ship to Honolulu to get away from work and have a second honeymoon. And who’s on board but Fifi and Miss Emily Pepper from the previous film? And Uncle Matt and his snobby wife? And it all becomes about Uncle Matt masquerading as Lord Epping to help Dennis land a business deal with a gent who is traveling on the same tub. Endless permutations of the various characters having conversations in different staterooms or on deck. Can there by anything more disposable?


Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942)

The inevitable spook comedy. The Carmelita character gets even more demeaning in this one. When we first see her she is having fun riding a painters scaffolding apparatus on the outside of a skyscraper oblivious to her safety. Dennis and his aunt go to Lord Epping’s country mansion to go hunting (for business reasons). They leave Carmelita behind because she lacks class; Uncle Matt takes her to a boxing match. But they show up anyway…after all they are the stars of the film.and it’s a good thing too. Lord Epping doesn’t arrive to clinch the business deal so Uncle Matt masquerades as him for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately the house is also haunted! (Naturally the explanation is the usual thing—crooks are hiding in the basement making explosives, and are faking the ghosts to scare them off.) One of the other guests is the irritating Donald McBride (the “jumping butterballs” guy from Room Service. And naturally the servants are Mantan Moreland and Lillian Randolph. It wouldn’t be a ghost comedy without some stereotyped eye popping and superstition.


Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant (1942)

We are initially disappointed to learn it’s not a circus elephant, but a statuette carved out of a gem (much like the titular rock in The Pink Panther). Lyle Talbot is the crook who is smuggling it. But thanks to a misunderstanding of Carmelita’s we do eventually get our live elephant. As if to provedthat the character of Dennis is a tedious cog, the actor playing him has been replaced yet again, this time by the mustachioed Walter Reed, who’s so unappealing he looks precisely like the sort of guys who normally play villains in movies like this . This one is also burdened with wartime propaganda nonsense…Uncle Matt is working for civil defense on air raid drills etc.


 Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943)

This one, the last in the series, achieves new levels of inconsequentiality. Confusingly, unlike Mexican Spitfire Out West, this one actually has a “western” setting and theme. It’s set at an Arizona resort. When we first see Carmelita she is dressed in a little cowgirl outfit. The main plot of the film is actually similar toMexican Spitfire’s Baby. Dennis thinks Carmelita is pregnant but in reality its just that her cat is going to have kittens (apparently this is a world where even married people can’t have sex – particularly sex with Mexicans). The usual boring shit about business deals with Lord Epping, now with a bunch of guys in army uniforms running around, shoving the war down our throats. Hugh Beaumont and Alan Carney play minor roles.

The following year, Velez would be expecting her own “blessed event”. Unmarried at the the time, she took her own life rather than suffer the public humiliation of such a predicament given the mores of that day. Whether there would have been more Spitfire movies after that is academic. The popularity of the series had begun to wane, and she had resumed making other sorts of films.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

Marjorie “Babe” Kane: Legendary Dental Assistant

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Marjorie “Babe” Kane (1909-1992), not to be confused with her contemporaries Marjorie Beebe, Babe London, or Helen Kane.  The Kane in question started out as a teenager in Chicago vaudeville and presentation houses in the Balaban and Katz chain. Her performance of the “Varsity Drag” in the 1928 Chicago edition of the hit Broadway musical Good News brought her to the attention of scouts. She went to Hollywood for a screen test and was hired by Paramount just as talkies were coming in.

Kane was one of those ones whose movie career was most impressive at the very beginning. She performed a number called “The Flipperty Flop” in the 1929 Paramount The Dance of Life, then went on to good roles in movies like the insane Erich Von Stroheim ventriloquism vehicle The Great Gabbo and Fanny Brice’s starring film Be Yourself! (1930). Here she is in Sunny Skies (1930) with Benny Rubin.


In 1920 she signed a five year contract with Mack Sennett, at whose studio she began to appear in comedy shorts with the likes of Andy Clyde, Bing Crosby and Edgar Kennedy. Nowadays she is perhaps best known for playing W.C. Fields’ daughter in the classic shorts The Dentist (1932) and The Pharmacist (1933). Unfortunately, Sennett went bankrupt shortly after this and the balance of her career consists mostly of bit parts and walk-ons. Notable films she appeared in during this period included Harry Langdon’s Counsel on de Fence (1934), Laurel and Hardy’s Swiss Miss (1938), Joe E. Brown’s The Gladiator (1938), Destry Rides Again (1939) and Life with Blondie, with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (1945). From 1940 through 1943, she appeared in Columbia shorts, supporting the Three Stooges, Slim Summerville and others. By the beginning of the 50s even the bit parts dried up, although she did return for one television walk-on in 1959. But for comedy fans, her role in The Dentist is more than enough to make her immortal.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Florence Roberts: Granny for Hire

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2016 by travsd


March 16 is the natal day of Florence Roberts (1861-1940). A stock player who began her career in New York and ran a company of her own in Philadelphia for 15 years, she eventually went into films where she became one of numerous dependable li’l ole ladies, her niche normally being those of the sweet, grandmotherly variety.

She made her first film shorts in 1917, but it wasn’t until the coming of sound that she began to experience some success. She appeared in the 1930 Mack Sennett short Grandma’s Girl alongside Andy Clyde and Marjorie Kane as (of course) Grandma. In the 1931 William Seiter comedy Too Many Cooks she plays Mother Cook, appearing with Bert Wheeler, Dorothy Lee and Roscoe Ates. She is Grandma in Her Majesty, Love (1931) with W.C. Fields, Marilyn Miller, Ben Lyon, Leon Errol, Ford Sterling and Chester Conklin. Perhaps her best remembered role today is Widow Peep (the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe) in Hal Roach’s version of Babes in Toyland (1934) with Laurel and Hardy. And she plays “Granny” in Fox’s series of “Jones” comedies from 1936 through 1940.

While I naturally stress the comedies, she appeared in many other notable movies, including Les Miserable (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940.)

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc. 

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