Archive for the ETHNICITIES/ IDENTITIES/ REPRESENTATIONS Category

Estelle Getty: Comedy’s Grandma Moses

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

We’s in the midst of a Golden Girls Renaissance these days; it seems like entire cable networks are devoted to showing it in reruns. I’m sure this is why it occurred to me to do something on Estelle Getty (Estelle Scher, 1923-2008). When Golden Girls originally aired, I frankly wasn’t much inclined to look at a sit-com about a bunch of old ladies, much as I loved and respected some of the cast members. But in recent months, I chanced to tune into some of these tv marathons, and, discovered that, damn, the writing and acting on the show is so jaw-droppingly funny. And yes, it’s significant that the show’s about a previously overlooked demographic (female senior citizens), blah blah blah, but why waste your time if it isn’t very good? But it was very good.

Getty, people delight in pointing out, was actually younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter. But she was petite and compact, and earthy and urban in that first generation immigrant way, which gave one the impression that she was from an earlier generation. And her professional background was very old school. She is said to have gotten her start doing Yiddish theatre, and performing in Catskills resorts.

She was nearly 40 when she got her first big break, playing the mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway (1982-1985). At the same time, she began to get small roles in movies like Tootsie (1982) and Mask (1985). The Golden Girls debuted in 1985; that show and its sequels and spin offs kept her employed for a decade. And Getty was pretty great on the show, although, I will say my comparison to Grandma Moses is apt in ways beyond her mere age. Like the famous folk painter, she was a “natural”. She worked in the role because she was perfect for it and she could deliver a funny line. By comparison, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were histrionic professionals, who could chew scenery and manufacture tears by the bucketful. (Betty White is also an actress but her character on the show, like Getty’s, was more of a joke machine). Getty could do this one thing, and people loved her so much she became a surprise star as a result of the series, even winning an Emmy in 1988. But, I think you’ll notice, in scenes that require depth and pathos, she was uncomfortable with it. She’d much rather bark a salty line.

Getty continued to do guest shots on television until the turn of the century, and was in a couple of notable movies. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) with Sylvester Stalone has been excoriated by critics as one of the worst movies ever (it earned an astounding 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And she played Grandma Estelle in the modern family classic Stuart Little (1999). When she passed away, three days prior to her 85th birthday, she was finally reaching the age of her Golden Girls character, which she’d begun playing when she was only 62.

Althea Henley: Almost a Star

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 23, 2017 by travsd

Chorus girl and actress Althea Henley (Althea Heinley, 1911-1996) was born on this day. As a girl, Henley trained as a dancer in her native Allentown,Pennsylvania. Encouraged by a teacher and a local theatre promoter, she auditioned for a chorus part in a tab musical, and began touring the Publix vaudeville circuit in 1926. Ned Wayburn spotted her and put her in his touring revue New Buds of 1927, which then led to a chorus part in Ziegfeld’s touring production of Three Cheers with Will Rogers and Dorothy Stone. This led to small roles in Ziegfeld’s Show Girl (1929) on Broadway with Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Foy, Jr. Probably through Foy or Stone, she was then cast in 1930’s Ripples, featuring Foy and the Fred Stone family.

That is she, paired with Curly on the left

Scouted while she was appearing in Ripples, she was given a contract at Fox and moved to Hollywood — where she only got bit roles and chorus parts, although she did appear in notable movies. She’s in the chorus in Eddie Cantor’s The Kid from Spain (1932), as well as International House (1933), George White’s Scandals (1934), and Redheads on Parade (1935). In 1931 she co-starred with Mary Mulhern, Jack Pickford’s last wife in a stage production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, but not much seems to have come of it.  In 1935 she signed with Columbia, where she had roles in three Three Stooges shorts: Three Little Beers (1935), Ants in the Pantry (1936) and Movie Maniacs (1936).  She then had a walk on role in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

In 1936, she got her first decent feature role in the British film Find the Lady with Jack Melford and George Sanders. While in London she married her second husband, British auto manufacturer Arthur Markham. Markham died of a brain tumor, but Henley remained in London through the war years, returning to the U.S. to marry Hollywood agent William J. Begg in 1947. 

For more on vaudeville including performers like Althea Henley,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Irene Delroy: A Star That Twinkled Briefly

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2017 by travsd

A few notes about performer Irene Delroy (Josephine Sanders), born this day in 1900. She was originally from Bloomington, Illinois; the McLean County Museum of History has a comprehensive collection of her correspondence, photographs, and newspaper clippings.  It is said that Adlai Stevenson was her senior prom date, although that has the whiff of studio p.r. puffery.

Delroy started as a dancer with the Chicago Opera. Later, she was Tom Patricola’s partner in vaudeville; the two were romantically involved. Her invented surname was arrived at by joining the first part of her mother’s first name (Della) with that of her father (Royal). In 1920 she began her Broadway career, mostly appearing in revues and a few musicals: Frivolities of 1920, The Greenwich Village Follies of 1923 and 1925, Vogues of 1924, Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, and others. She is also said to have been in an edition of Raymond Hitchcock’s Hitchie Koo series, although this credit doesn’t appear on IBDB; it may have been a touring version.  Her last New York stage show was Top Speed (1930), which was later adapted into a Joe E. Brown screen vehicle.

Delroy starred in her first film for Warner Bros., Oh, Sailor Behave! that same year (1930), with Olsen and Johnson, Charles King, Vivien Oakland, and Noah Beery. Later that year, she was second billed to Winnie Lightner in The Life of the Party, with Jack Whiting, and Charles Butterworth. Then came Divorce Among Friends (1930) with Lew Cody and her last film Man of the Sky (1931).

Believe it or not, that seems to be the end of her brief career trajectory. She retired in 1931 to marry a real estate millionaire named William Austin. Sadly, she’d sacrificed her career for nothing tangible. The couple divorced in 1937, at which time she appeared in one comedy/ musical short called Sound Defects in 1937 with the Frazee Sisters. For a few years she did radio, regional theatre, and commercials. She remarried in 1972, and died in Ithaca, New York in 1985 following a 40 year retirement.

For more on vaudeville including performers like Irene Delroy,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

How Faith Bacon, Inventor of the Fan Dance, Leaped to Her Death

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2017 by travsd

Faith Bacon (Frances Yvonne Bacon, 1910-1956) was born on July 19. Bacon started at the top as one of the most famous dancers in Broadway revues, then gradually worked her way down the show business over a period of 20 years until she made headlines one final time for her spectacular suicide.

It is said that she began dancing in Maurice Chevalier revues in Paris during the 1920s. When she came to New York, her willingness to take risks made her a favorite of Broadway showman Earl Carroll, who put her in four shows between 1928 and 1931: two editions of the Vanities, one edition of Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book, and a book musical called Fioretta.

Bacon was willing to do full nudity, an attention-getting novelty at the time. The publicity was increased by police raids and show closings for indecent exposure. Various gambits were tried in order circumvent the law. First she was presented in tableaux, totally still, with shifting light effects (the law stated that you couldn’t move on stage and be undressed at the same time). Then she and Carroll devised a fan dance for her to perform, creating an eternal question for the researcher. For, at around the same time, Sally Rand was creating her own fan dance at the Paramount Club in Chicago. Who invented it first? Did one hear about the other’s and replicate it? Did they both get the idea at the same time, a mere coincidence? Both claimed to have been the originator of the act. They both appeared at the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, each claiming to be the Original Fan Dancer. Five years later Bacon sued Rand for damages and sought an injunction to prevent her from doing the act. The legal action was unsuccessful.

In 1931, Bacon may have made a fatal career mistake by jumping ship from Earl Carroll’s Vanities to the Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld’s was the more prestigious name, but the 1931 edition was to be the last edition of the show while he lived (he died in 1932). If she’d stayed with Carroll she might have been working on Broadway as late as 1935. At any rate, after the Follies, as we said, she worked the Chicago World’s Fair, also a prominent engagement,  from 1933 through 1934.

In 1936 Bacon was dancing in a revue called Temptations at the Lake Theater in Chicago. During the run she fell through a glass platform, cutting herself badly. She sued the theatre, which eventually settled with her for a few thousand dollars.

In 1938, she landed her first and only film role in the low-budget independent feature Prison Train, which also featured Fred KeatingDorothy Comingore (soon to co-star in Citizen Kane, here billed as “Linda Winters”), Clarence Muse and Sam Bernard. The following year she performed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, although she was arrested for disorderly conduct while engaging in a publicity stunt. It is after this that her career appears to dip below the radar.

In 1942, she appeared in a couple of Soundies, including “Lady with the Fans” and “Dance of Shame” (they are presently viewable on Youtube). Through this period of the 40s, she was more what we would call a burlesque dancer, although the old burlesque circuits were a thing of the past. There were still individual theatres and clubs in most major cities devoted to the undraped female, and Bacon worked her various gimmicks, mostly the fan dance and a bubble dance, at these venues. By the end of the decade, she was also reduced to playing carnivals. In 1948, she claimed a carnival manager had placed tacks on the stage floor, and tried to sue him on that basis, but it was thrown out of court.

Now in surroundings less glamorous

According to the book Striptease: The Untold Story of the Girlie Show by Rachel Shteir she also developed an addiction to heroin, which fueled her downward spiral. At some point she was said to have gotten married to songwriter and music consultant Sanford Hunt Dickinson, whose most prominent IMDB credit is Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953). He vanished from her life at some point. According to Leslie Zemeckis in her book Behind the Burley Q, she attempted to start a dance school in Indiana in 1954, but was found unconscious on the premises, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

In 1956 Bacon went to Chicago to seek work, rooming with a grocery store employee. Unable to find employment, she finally leaped from the third floor window of her hotel to her death. She was only 46.

For more on show business history, including Broadway revues and burlesque, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

On Barbara Stanwyck: Babs of Broadway, Burlesque and the Big Valley

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

Barbara Stanwyck (Ruby Stevens, 1907-1990) is a July 16 baby. I’ve done many smaller articles about her various films as well as a book review  — high time for a full proper post, especially since there are so many aspects of her career that touch on frequent content themes of this blog. By now, I have been thoroughly steeped in her career. My wife is a major fan of hers as well, so with her largely driving the process, I’ve ended up seeing very nearly ALL of Stanwyck’s movies — and it’s a lot of movies. It includes more obscure stuff like pictures from her Pre-Code period and her late western B movies, in addition to all her well known stuff.

While Stanwyck was never in burlesque per se it would remain a part of her image through the first couple of decades of her film career. That’s less well remembered nowadays; I would imagine that, of the minority of the public who remember her at all, their first thoughts are of noir, melodramas and the tv work. (Don’t bother, as some of you will, to protest that Stanwyck has not been forgotten. Author Dan Callahan devotes a section of his Stanwyck book to talk about an informal canvas he made of millennial friends — well-educated, fairly sophisticated New Yorkers — most of whom had no idea whom Stanwyck (the highest paid woman in the U.S. in 1944) was, in even a vague sort of way. You’d be shocked to learn what major figures of the past today’s young people have never heard of. I spoke to a room full of NYU kids in the performance studies department — none of whom had heard of Mae West. But enough with the digressive diatribe.) Stanwyck’s association with burlesque occurred because she started out in a highly related occupation, as a chorus girl in speakeasies and nightclubs and Broadway revues.

Orphaned at age four, a middle school drop out, a brawler, a smoker by age nine, a runaway at 10 and 11, Stanwyck followed into her sister Mildred’s footsteps by becoming a chorus girl. She’d made a study of it, watching her sister’s performances for years, and learning the routines. When she was 16 she got her first job at the club on the Strand Roof. It is said that she was in the chorus of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1922 and 1923, although IBDB doesn’t list her there. She performed and taught dancing in Texas Guinan’s nightclubs. In 1924 she danced in the Paul Gerard Smith revue Keep Kool, which featured Hazel Dawn, Charles King, and Johnny Dooley. Through these years her room-mate and close friend was fellow chorus girl Mae Clarke, also to become a movie star in the early 30s. Both were to be cast in their first dramatic roles in the 1926 play The Noose, which had been stunt cast with real chorus girls. The play was a hit, running for nine months.

Stanwyck in “The Noose” with Rex Cherryman and Ann Shoemaker

It was at this stage that she took the stage name Barbara Stanwyck (having been billed as Ruby Stevens, previously). In 1927 she starred in the hit play Burlesque, which ran for ten months. In this show she played the leading lady of a burlesque company. Going forward she would be playing such characters, as opposed to living the life.

This might be my favorite picture of the pair. He’s trying very hard to be cheerful, and her expression says “Get me the hell out of here!”

In her first film role (and only silent one) she and Ann Sothern, played fan dancers in Broadway Nights (1927). The following year she married big time vaudeville and Broadway star Frank Fay, who was 16 years Stanwyck’s senior.  (For the longest time, I thought Stanwyck hadn’t done vaudeville. But I just came across two items on my own blog! She did a sketch with Fay at the Palace in 1929. And, as a chorus girl, she had danced in Anatole Friedland tab shows in vaudeville and presentation houses).

In 1929, Fay and Stanwyck headed out to Hollywood so Fay could appear as the host in The Show of Shows. Most people anticipated big screen stardom for Fay and a shot in the dark for Stanwyck. The opposite happened. Many folks think their story was at least a partial model for A Star is Born. Fay was an abusive alcoholic. His dreams of being a leading man in movies were dashed by 1932. By that point Stanwyck had already starred in nearly a dozen Pre-Code melodramas, including some by Frank Capra, and she was just beginning her 60 year career at the top. In 1933, Stanwyck did Fay a favor and returned to New York to appear in his self-produced Broadway revue Tattle Tales. It closed after a month. The couple divorced in 1935.

A couple of Stanwyck’s early roles, Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Ten Cents a Dance (1931) seem to hearken back to her chorus girl past, and this is an illuminating period to watch her in. She’s scarcely more than a girl here, 23 and 24, and so as a “bad girl”, there is still an emphasis on “girl”. She is like a wild, adorable, fun-loving kid in these early Pre-Code pictures. But, much like her contemporary James Cagney, who had the same combination of a show biz background and real natural acting ability, she had access to a volcano of emotion she could unleash at a moment’s notice and pretty much blow anybody else out of the water. Frank Capra, who directed her in Ladies of Leisure, was the first to recognize this potential, and starred her also in The Miracle Woman (1931) a thinly veiled expose of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, as well as Forbidden (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), and the much later Meet John Doe (1941). The naughtiest of her pre-code pictures may well be Baby Face (1933), in which she ruthlessly sleeps her way to the top, and there’s nothing subtle about it.

Racy melodrama would grow to be her meat and potatoes, even after the Production Code began to be strictly enforced in 1934. But she did re-visit the chorus girl theme in some notable later pictures. There’s the Howard Hawks-Billy Wilder screwball comedy Ball of Fire (1941) in which she plays chorus girl and gun mall Sugarpuss O’Shea. And the Gypsy Rose Lee murder mystery Lady of Burlesque (1943), in which she plays the heroine Dixie Daisey. This seems like her goodbye to the genre.

The most fatal femme fatale ever

The smoldering sexuality she had access to was channeled into subtler expression as we get into her more mature years. Her performances in The Lady Eve (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) practically cause the celluloid to burst into flames. But as early as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), the balance has begun to tip in another direction. In a lot of her later pictures she plays a tyrannical, overbearing woman, strong-willed and powerful but no longer so attractive. Instead of allure (a gaze, a mysterious smile) she substitutes chains. One wonders: can it have anything to do with her marriage to the fatally uninteresting cigar store Indian of an actor Robert Taylor from 1939 to 1951? One pictures him being not unlike the Kirk Douglas character in Martha Ivers: “Step away from the window, Bob — I wanna look at that man across the street.”

In the 50s, a lot of her movies were westerns; I blogged about them here.  She’d reinvented herself completely. From urban tough to a creature of the great outdoors. The ultimate was Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) — in which she plays a lady rancher who rides at the head of a column of 40 men at her beck and call, and goes around cracking a whip, yelling “Ya!” This wasn’t just some anomaly Stanwyck was forced into, however. She really loved making westerns. When she died in 1990, by her request her ashes were scattered over the wilderness area where she’d shot many of the films during this phase of her career.

I don’t know if anyone has written about the parallelism of Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. Both began as chorus girls. Both compensated for faded beauty by becoming tough and “mannish”. Crawford had even done a western called Johnny Guitar (1954) which compares very nicely with Stanwyck’s westerns. And Stanwyck’s last couple of movies pair VERY nicely with late Crawford vehicles: her performance in the Elvis Presley movie Roustabout (1964) would go excellent with Crawford’s Berserk (1967) which also has circus setting and features a mature woman attempting to bed a handsome young stud. And Stanwyck’s last film The Night Walker (1964) was a psychobiddy hagsploitation film by William Castle, who had also made Straight-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) with Crawford. And both women were lifelong Republicans.

“The Colbys”. Colby is a kind of cheese, isn’t it?

But unlike Crawford and almost every other actor of her generation, Stanwyck managed to add a third act to her long career. Almost every classic studio era movie star tried their own tv series in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Very few lasted beyond a single season. Stanwyck managed to be a staple of television until the 1980s. In fact that was how I first knew her — she was just a contemporary tv star. We saw her in reruns of he western series The Big Valley (1964-1969), and my mother watched her in the prime time soaps The Thorn Birds (1983), Dynasty (1985), and The Colbys (1985-1986.) She’d also had an earlier program The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961). She won three Emmys during this phase of her career.

And above all there is this wonderful discovery, this 1980 back-door pilot for a gender-reversed Charlie’s Angels, called Toni’s Boys. We blogged about that hilarious artifact here.

Even in Toni’s Boys, Stanwyck was not bad precisely. While all was stinking around her, she at least was gamely giving a performance. Could she ever be bad? I can only think of two of her performances I’m not crazy about. In the 1939 Cecil B. DeMille western Union Pacific she is called upon to speak in an Irish accent, and the results are most unfortunate (her English accent in The Lady Eve is also lousy, but as it’s a performance within a performance we can give it a pass). And for the most part, I don’t think comedy was her forte. She’s great overall in The Lady Eve, but Sturges had crafted the whole just for her, and was able to communicate to her just what to do. And she’s great in Ball of Fire. But I’ve always found Christmas in Connecticut (1945) to be fairly dreadful. Some people call it a classic, but I find it fairly unbearably. Largely because of the script — I don’t care about any of what transpires. But also because of the casting. Farces are usually funny because someone who cares what other people think desperately wants to save face, so they run around from pillar to post trying to cover up whatever embarrassments are popping up. That ain’t Stanwyck. Stanwyck was about nature. “This is me. Take it or leave it. Make your decision. The clock’s ticking.” It’s no wonder to me I’d be attracted to a movie star like that.

For more on show biz history, including burlesque, Broadway revues, nightclubs and Hollywood, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

 

How Olive Borden Went From Being “The Joy Girl” to an Early Death on Skid Row

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

Beautiful Olive Borden was born on Bastille Day, 1906 in Richmond, Virginia. Through her father, who passed away when she was an infant, she was a distant relative of Lizzie Borden. Borden and her struggling single mother moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager so she could break into movies. It is said that she became a Mack Sennett Bathing Girl in 1922(when she was 15), although her first film credits are a series of Jack White comedies starring Lige Conley. In 1924 she was hired by Hal Roach for his comedy studio, where she was cast opposite comedy stars like Will Rogers and Charley Chase.

Things changed for her in a big way in 1925 when she was named one of that year’s WAMPAS Baby Stars and signed a contract with Fox.  As a star of Fox features she became a major box office attraction and one of the top paid actors in Hollywood. Notable films of this period include the comedy Fig Leaves (1926), directed by Howard Hawks, and co-starring George O’Brien and Phyllis Haver; and the John Ford western Three Bad Men (1926), also with O’Brien as well as Lou Tellegen. The comedy The Joy Girl (1927), directed by Allan Dwan, co-starring Marie Dressler, gave her her nickname.

Foreshadowing

Borden broke her contract with Fox in 1927 over a salary dispute, but continued to appear in pictures for other studios through the early days of talkies, although by the sound era most of her films are for minor independent studios. Her last film was the voodoo horror film Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934).

At this point she moved to New York and attempted a career on the stage and what was left of vaudeville, where she was able to work for a time. But opportunities in the theatre during the depths of the Great Depression were scarce. By the late 30s she had declared bankruptcy and began working a succession of menial jobs. She served as a WAC in World War II (and was even cited for bravery) but she returned to more of what she had left. Attempts to return to films failed. Troubled by alcoholism and other health problems, she was reduced to scrubbing floors at the Sunshine Mission, on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. She died there of pneumonia and other complications in 1947. She was only 41.

For more on early silent film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For everything you need to to know about vaudeville, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Polly Bergen: Heard But Not Seen

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The late Polly Bergen (Nellie Burgin, 1930-2014) had a birthday of July 14.

I became really interested in her when I saw her entertaining performance in the 1975 tv movie Murder on Flight 502 and so I perked up and noticed her whenever I saw her in things subsequently. But here’s something that I think is worth mentioning and altogether not negligible: I had already seen her in many things previously without ever taking particular note of her. And this includes her Tony-nominated performance in the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies. (That was a special case; I was dragged to that. You might think I would like a show about a bunch of old Follies broads, and if I saw it today I might feel differently but probably not, for the simple reason that all Sondheim after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum bores the absolute ever-loving shit out of me. There, I said it. Go ahead, be outraged. I am unmoved, either by your umbrage, or by Sondheim’s reputation for genius. I don’t care how many hits he has, I find him an untheatrical bore. So when I saw that production of Follies, I’m sure I spent the whole two hours looking at my watch, the ceiling, any place but the stage.)

“The Stooge” is the one in the middle

So there’s that. But I had also already seen her in her three movies with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, At War with the Army (1950), That’s My Boy (1951) and The Stooge (1952), as well as the original Cape Fear (1962), the western Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), the insane asylum melodrama The Caretakers (1963) with Joan Crawford, and the 1983 tv mini-series The Winds of War, again without ever particularly marking her existence.

But, as I say, I liked her Murder on Flight 502. And I have my theories as to why. She is given full reign to play a big personality in that film, a big cocky diva character with a lot of bark on her, very Elaine Stritch. And she makes an impression. No doubt her Follies performance had been in this vein but I wasn’t open to anything I was seeing. But I SAW her in this dopey tv disaster movie and then subsequently I noticed her, even if she wasn’t particularly doing anything flashy. For example, she is sexy but subdued in the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President, and yet I noted her and liked her in that. (TCM had been playing this screwball comedy about America’s first female chief executive the last few years because of a certain prominent democratic candidate whose initials are HRC. Something tells me they decide to mothball it now, the way early 60s assassination films like The Manchurian Candidate got shelved after the JFK assassination. TOO SOON! Bergen’s role in this film was why she was stunt-cast as Gena Davis’s mother on Commander-in-Chief, which ran 2005-2006). And I enjoyed her on The Sopranos as Tony’s father’s old girlfriend in a 2004 episode.

Still, I can’t be the only one who had trouble “seeing her”. Her movie career had had a couple of mild peaks at best, but had never ever really taken off. She’d had some moderately good roles and shots, but she was never able to break through to the other side, although she continued to work (especially in television) pretty much all her life.

Bergen with Woody Allen and Andy Williams on The Andy Williams Show, 1965

I think I have the key, though. Bergen was more an entertainer than an actress. Don’t get me wrong — her acting performances are fine, but with some exposure to the full performer, you can see that she reigned herself in as an actress. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, Bergen began singing professionally as a teenager in the big band era, on the radio and with local orchestras. She cut ten record albums in the 50s and 60s (a couple of them charted), and for one season (1957) she starred in her own NBC tv variety show The Polly Bergen Show, on which every week she sang her closing theme song “The Party’s Over”. It is worth noting that show won an Emmy for her 1958 performance as the title character — sad, smoky, cabaret singer — in the tv movie The Helen Morgan Story. At any rate, to see the full firecracker in action, go to Youtube. Lots of clips of Polly the Performer there. She was also a popular panelist on What’s My Line? for  couple of years. Singing and cutting up in patter is what she did best. Ain’t nothin’ wrong ’bout that.

For everything you need to to know about early show business, including cabaret and tv variety performers like Polly Bergen, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

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