Archive for the Irish Category

On the Pivotal Thomas Mitchell: From Classics to “Columbo”

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Irish, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Playwrights, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by travsd

The great Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) came into the world on this day. Mitchell remains well known today as a character actor with parts in an unnaturally long list of Hollywood classic movies — the full weight of them is almost too much to talk about. The best known are Gone With the Wind (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Stagecoach (1939) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). I had already seen these movies when I was a kid, and that’s a good measure of their evergreen reach. There are dozens more besides, which we’ll get to. Yet, we are such a movie-centric culture, seeing Mitchell solely in this light gives a false, incomplete appreciation of his entire career. Movies were just the tip of the iceberg. Prior to Hollywood, he had been an actor, playwright and director for the stage for over twenty years, and continued to appear on Broadway stages and regionally over the rest of his career. During the Hollywood years, he was not just an actor, but an occasional screenwriter. Then, like most of actors of his time, he was constantly on radio throughout the 40s.  And then, over the last decade of his career, he did a huge amount of television.

So Mitchell was prolific. But he was also emblematic of a cultural shift. He was a quintessential man of the theatre and her daughter arts, but unlike many who had gone before, and who may spring to mind, he was not the slightest bit “Anglo”. Back in the day, your typical man or woman of the stage, even in America, was ever self-consciously that. The three Barrymore siblings, though they were one-quarter Irish — think of their manner, and multiply it across the generations. Warren William, Frank Morgan and even Mitchell’s own mentor Charles Coburn (whom we’ll return to) all affected English style. It was dunned into actors at the time.  But Mitchell was the son of Irish immigrants, and there was surely no point in ever pretending otherwise. His face was like the caricaturist’s conception of a leprechaun’s, and he could summon the brogue of his parents for a role at a moment’s notice. And yet interestingly (whether its because or in spite of that, I don’t know) we also think of him as just “American”. Mitchell’s father and older brother were both newspapermen, and Mitchell dabbled in journalism briefly in his youth before choosing the theatre. Think of all the newspaper editors and reporters he plays so authentically. The gruff voice, the unshaven face, the twinkle in his eye, the unlit cigar in his puss. The quality carries over so well into other American archetypes — the country doctor, the provincial politician, the crusty uncle. He represents a sea shift that was probably more noticeable to our forbears. With actors like Mitchell, American culture was coming into its own. Nothing English about that guy.

Young Mitchell, from the Broadway period

Mitchell claimed in a 1939 article that he cut his teeth by touring vaudeville with a once act play he’d written about the poet Thomas Chatterton. As we said, for a time he toured with Charles Coburn’s Shakespearean stock company. By 1916, he is already on Broadway, appearing in the play Under Sentence with Edward G. Robinson and Frank Morgan. Over the next twenty years, he was constantly on the Broadway stage, appearing in or directing some two dozen plays. And his own plays were produced there, including Glory Hallelujah (1926), Little Accident (1928-1929, and later adapted into movies more than once), and Cloudy with Showers (1931). After Stick in the Mud (1936) he made the move to Hollywood, but he returned to Broadway another half dozen times, notably in the original production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1948-49), as a replacement in the original production of The Death of a Salesman (1949-1950) as Willy Loman (how I’d love to have seen that!), and the musical Hazel Flagg (1953), for which won a Tony. His last Broadway appearance was in Cut of the the Ax (1960), which closed after only two performances.

He only appeared in one silent film, Six Cylinder Love (1923). Interestingly one of his fellow players in that film was Donald Meek, with whom he later appeared in Stagecoach. This occasion seems like an experiment, an anomaly. He was very successful on Broadway and probably saw no reason to switch horses to this upstart medium where the audience couldn’t hear you speak, and where you heard no applause.

I first saw Mitchell’s haunting performance as Gerald O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” when I was about an 11 or 12 years old. What an enormous impression it made on me.

But by 1936, many things had changed. Broadway was badly hurt by the Great Depression. And talkies had not only proven their viability they also paid former stage actors big money. His first speaking part was in Craig’s Wife (1936) an adaptation of the George Kelly play, the easiest transition conceivable for him. And then: it was like he had a charmed career, especially at the outset. Highlights included Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), the incredible John Ford disaster movie The Hurricane (1937), and that same director’s beloved Stagecoach (1939), for which Mitchell won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. 1939 was a magical year for him, for in addition to Stagecoach, he also had key roles in Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Only Angels Have Wings. 1940 wasn’t much worse: among his several pictures that year were Swiss Family Robinson, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Ford’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home. Other notable pictures: The Black Swan (1942), the notorious Howard Hughes western The Outlaw (1943), The Sullivans (1944), Buffalo Bill (1944), Wilson (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and High Noon (1952). His last film role was in Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Further, his Broadway play Little Accident was made into a movie three separate times, and he co-wrote the screenplays for All of Me (1934), and Casanova Brown (1944).

And just as our tendency to be movie-centric causes us to neglect his early theatre work, it may also cause us to miss his late work in the broadcast media of radio and television. This is interesting to me — folks older than myself no doubt will remember him from this work. Conceivably, one could remember him primarily from this work. It is so voluminous one can scarcely wrap ones arms around it. In the radio days, he made repeated appearances on shows like Suspense, The Cavalcade of America, Lux Radio Theatre, and Anthology. On TV, some of the shows he appeared on (often numerous times) included Lux Video Theatre, The O. Henry Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, and at least a dozen others. he also was the star of two different tv series of his own: Mayor of the Town (1954-55), and Glencannon (1959).

Check it out — Mitchell as Columbo, with Cotten as the killer in the stage production of “Prescription: Murder”

And amazingly — and this is quite true — Mitchell’s last role was the part of police detective Lt. Columbo, later made famous on the tv series starring Peter Falk. Created by writer William Link, the character had made on The Chevy Mystery Show, with Bert Freed, in the role in 1960. Its next incarnation was a stage play at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco on January 1962, with Mitchell as Columbo, with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead as his co-stars. Mitchell died of cancer during the play’s tour. But I love this so much — it makes him this wonderful link between the past and future. This Irishman, who started out doing Shakespeare with Charles Coburn takes us all the way to the modern age, playing this Italian police detective, and would end up (metaphorically) handing the baton to Peter Falk, a Jewish guy who would play the part on television into the 21st century.

For more on vaudeville history, including touring thespians like Thomas Mitchell consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

George Murphy: Song and Dance Man in the Senate

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2017 by travsd

July 4 is the birthday of George Murphy (1902-1992). Previous generations would be nonplussed to know how quickly and thoroughly this prominent American cultural figure (both theatrical and political) would be swallowed up by time. Sometimes it’s a lazy stream; sometimes whitewater. Murphy retired in 1971 and afterwards it was as though he’d gone over the falls. But he’s both notable and worth remembering for numerous reasons.

Murphy grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Michael Murphy, a college track coach, and the coach of the 1912 U.S. Olympic team which Jim Thorpe led to victory. The younger Murphy attended Yale for a time but dropped out in order to become a professional dancer — a rare choice in that or any era. New Haven as of course where Broadway rehearsed and workshopped shows for out-of-town tryouts. Murphy picked up dancing skills (including tap) at the local rehearsal halls. He formed a team, onstage and off with Julie Johnson in 1926; she became both his dance partner and wife. Johnson and Murphy rose rapidly, performing in nightclubs, society parties and vaudeville. In 1931 the pair made it Broadway in the show Shoot the Works. This led to Murphy being cast in the hit shows Of Thee I Sing (1931-1933) and Roberta (1933). Johnson retired from performing but the couple remained married until her death in 1973.

With Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in “Broadway Melody of 1940”

Hollywood called next. His first picture was Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor. Other notable films included Broadway Melody of 1938, Broadway Melody of 1940, For Me and My Gal (1942), and Broadway Rhythm (1944). He co-starred with Shirley Temple in Little Miss Broadway (1938), with Judy Garland in George M. Cohan’s Little Nellie Kelly (1940), and with Ann Sothern in Ringside Maisie (1941) and Up Goes Maisie (1946).

From 1944 to 1946 he served as President of the Screen Actors Guild and this proved the beginning of his transition away from acting and into politics. His last proper role was the espionage thriller Walk East on Beacon in 1952. Having switched from the Democratic to the Republican party in 1939, he began to take a more active role circa 1952, becoming a leader in the California Republican Party and directing the entertainment for Eisenhower’s inaugural gala.  At the same time, Murphy accepted executive positions at Desilu Studios and the Technicolor Corporation.  In 1966, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, serving a single term (until 1971). He was hampered in his re-election by a 1968 operations for throat cancer, which took away his ability to speak above a whisper.

Murphy was a pioneer in the not-always-fortunate innovation of show biz people entering politics as actual candidates. By contrast, Ronald Reagan, with whom he had appeared in the 1943 film This is the Army, and to whom he was to be a kind of political mentor, did not officially join the Republican Party until 1962. At the time, the idea of Murphy serving in the Senate was considered such an absurdity that Tom Lehrer wrote a satirical song about it — and it was much more about him being a dancer than being a conservative. Thanks to Reagan and Murphy, for a time there was a peculiar Hollywood conservative actor domination of California politics. (Another Murphy co-star, Shirley Temple ran for Congress as a Republican in 1967, as well, but lost). Oddly now, despite the fact that Murphy came before him, most people think of Reagan as the pioneer of the doleful trend of show biz people in office. Reagan one referred to Murphy as his “John the Baptist”, which I guess makes Reagan the Messiah. That can’t be right.

For more on show business history, vaudeville and hoofers like George Murphy, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

Marie Loftus: The Sarah Bernhardt of the Music Halls

Posted in British Music Hall, Irish, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Variety Theatre, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by travsd

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 Marie Loftus (1857-1940) was known as the “Sarah Bernhardt of the Music Halls” . Born in Glasgow to Irish parents, she grew up near the Scotia Music Hall, which is where she began dancing as a young girl. As a singing single she first appeared at Brown’s Royal Music Hall by age 17. Within three years she had made it to London. Loftus possessed a stout, buxom figure which was of a sort very much in vogue with Victorian audiences at the time. Like many music hall singers, her repertoire contained suggestive material that some frowned upon. But she remained popular in her native Glasgow, even as she became a national star on the London stages, both in music hall and as a Principal Boy in Pantomime. Her fame became international when she began to tour American vaudeville and the halls of South Africa. By the 1890s she was earning 100 pounds a week. Her daughter Cissie Loftus (1876-1943) would prove just as famous.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Beloved Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Barry

Posted in Comedy, Irish, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2016 by travsd

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THE BELOVED MR. AND MRS. JIMMY BARRY

Today is the birthday of James Maurice  “Jimmy” Barry (1868-1940). Barry was originally from Boston; his father was a harness-maker who immigrated from Ireland (although I’ve also seen it written that he was an authority on Shakespeare and manager of the Old Howard Theater.  Jimmy started out acting in New England stock companies throughout the 1890s. In 1895 he met and married fellow actor Josephine “Josie” Richards, from Plymouth, Pennsylvania. The pair remained on the legit stage until 1899, when they debuted in vaudeville as “Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Barry”.

For almost 30 years the pair appeared in a series of self-penned sketches with original songs and rural characters and settings. They were said to perform with an actor’s subtlety, as opposed to broad clowning, and are almost always mentioned in terms of respect as veterans and professionals, one of those “solid” and “popular” acts.

The snippets one finds of them in newspapers tell a story in fragments:

In 1905, they appear at Keith’s in Bronxville in a sketch called “The Skin Game”…

In 1906, an ad in a Bridgeport paper describes their act: ” Care pursuers, in a rip-roaring, rattling sketch entitled “Village Cut-Ups”.What this jolly pair will do to your troubles will be a plenty.”

In 1910, they played Poli’s in Meridien, Connecticut…

After this, though, the references are invariably to Keith houses, strictly big time. They played:

Indianapolis, 1913…

Toronto, 1914, in a sketch called “The Rube”…

Syracuse, 1920…

Portland, Maine, 1922…

In 1926 they played the Palace. 

They seem to have retired circa 1928 to their home in Dingman’s Ferry, PA. Jimmy died in 1940; Josie in 1958.  Interestingly, her brother William and Jimmy’s sister Edwina were also a stage couple (more on them in a subsequent post). And Jimmy’s brother William was also in the act for a time.

For more on vaudeville history, including performers like Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Barry, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

Francis Ford: Western Star and John Ford’s Big Brother

Posted in Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2016 by travsd

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JACK FORD’S BIG BROTHER 

Today is the birthday of Francis Ford (Francis Joseph Feeney, 1881-1953).

Born in Portland, Maine to parents from Galway, Feeney served briefly in the Spanish-American War before bumming around doing odd jobs in the theatre, including vaudeville (where one of his first gigs was to supply voices for silent movies).

This led to work in the then-new movie business, for such studios as Centaur, Edison, Al Christie and Melies. By 1910, he was starring in westerns made by Thomas Ince’s Bison pictures and had adopted his stage name (borrowed from the automobile manufacturer). Two years later he began directing his own vehicles. In 1913 he had made the move to Universal, which is where his brother John, twelve years his junior, joined him as an apprentice the following year.

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By 1917, John was directing as well, and soon became one of the top directors in Hollywood. Francis would continue directing for another decade, though he never distinguished himself on the level of his brother. The younger Ford, while often belittling and disparaging his brother as a primitive holdover from the cinema’s earliest days, also credited him with teaching him everything he new about film-making. While Francis Ford directed hundreds of films during the silent era, very few survive today.  He continued on as a bit player (often, though not exclusively, in his brother’s films) for another quarter century. His son, Philip Ford, began directing B movies in the mid 1940s, moving over to television a decade later.

Note: Tempting as it may be to conclude otherwise, Francis Ford Coppola is not named after the earlier film pioneer. Composer Carmine Coppola gave his son Francis the middle name Ford after the auto magnate, who had sponsored some of his work.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Tap Dancing Around “Cagney”

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dance, Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2016 by travsd

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For weeks the subway and tv ads for the musical Cagney have been unavoidable. I had a chance to see it a few weeks back; my review is in the current Chelsea Now (read it here).

A couple of afterthoughts I wanted to add. I mention the bio-pic genre in the review. Having seen scores of them I think I’m fairly expert on the topic (see my monster three part blogpost series which begins here). It seemed too much of a digression to include in the review, but some examples of musical bio-pics that work better as art by focusing on an aspect of the story (rather trying to tell every goddamn thing) include Walk the Line (2005), which concentrates on Johnny Cash’s efforts to win the heart of June Carter by kicking drugs; and (more to the purpose) Gypsy (1959 stage; 1962 movie), which focuses on Gypsy Rose Lee’s problematic relationship with her domineering stage mother.

That said, one important aspect of Cagney’s life that got short shrift in this musical (another tangent) was his relationship with the most important person in his life, his wife and former stage partner Willie. I can’t imagine telling Cagney’s story WITHOUT making it about that relationship. It was the most important one in his life personally, professionally and even politically, and she was there with him as his primary confidante and adviser from the Alpha to the Omega. But in this musical, she is introduced and then forgotten, becoming no more than (as the Mad Marchioness and I like to joke about June Lockhart on Lost in Space) “The Woman Who Performs the Important Function of Bringing the Sandwiches”.

For my biographical essay on Cagney the vaudevillian go here. For my review on the new musical go here. 

O’Neill (Unexpected) at the Metropolitan

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Irish, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Playwrights, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on June 9, 2016 by travsd

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As I blogged here, I am an enormous fan of the playwright Eugene O’Neill.  If I had to draw up a short list of a half dozen favorite playwrights, he would be on it, and near the top. He’s got his faults, but he’s got many more virtues. Unlike most people, I am more excited by his early work than his later stuff. The usual rusty old canard is that The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night are his great works, and everything else is so much embarrassment. Well, I have read everything — and by that I mean everything published — by O’Neill (and I’m here to tell you it’s a lot), and I am frankly much more excited by his Expressionistic work of the 1920s, and his very early experiments in naturalism…things like the Sea Plays, Anna Christie and the very obscure stuff that came before.

To my great joy Alex Roe is presenting a couple of those early plays at Metropolitan Playhouse even as we speak. I had the privilege of sitting in on a rehearsal the other day and I learned tons just by being in the room. I think Roe is one of the smartest theatre directors in Indie Theatre and he does work I place great stock in. The Metropolitan “matters” to me more than almost any other company I can name. Read more about the the O’Neill gems they have on the boards now in my feature in Chelsea Now here. 

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