Archive for the Women Category

The Perennial Mystique of Bettie Page

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2017 by travsd

Bettie Page and sister, Coney Island. Parachute Jump in background

April 22 is the birthday of Bettie Page (1923-2008). I feel sort of Bettie Page cult-adjacent, near but not of the intense widespread worship of this iconic pin-up girl of the 1950s. So many people of my generation are so crazy about her that it fascinates me. I feel I get it even if (for some reason) she doesn’t obsess and beguile me as she does so many other people. It’s almost like she’s the Mona Lisa or something to certain people. Without exaggerating, I must know dozens of women who pattern or have patterned their appearance after her, not just burlesque dancers, but artists of various kinds, painters, musicians, stage directors, and women who are simply into vintage culture. My wife has owned this fridge magnet ever since I’ve known her:

Is it something about the period? Is it the clash between the wholesome and the illicit? There is something about Bettie Page that reminds me of actresses in noir films of the 40s, like Veronica Lake. It’s like she’s the girl next door who is game enough to dabble at being daring without being swallowed up in some sinkhole of ruin. She was literally a secretary who posed for naughty pictures for a decade, then stopped doing that. Interestingly, her life didn’t fall apart (mental illness, several divorces) until AFTER she retired from modelling and became a born again Christian.

There are several points of overlap and interest for me about her life and short career. The first is that she is from the great town of Nashville, home of my ancestors. A lot of classic burlesque girls and pin-ups were of my stock: poor Southern white folk. It’s one of the strong connections I feel to classic burlesque culture — a subject for a planned future post.

The second is that she was discovered at Coney Island! She’d come to NYC to be an actress in 1949. A few months later an amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs saw her on the beach at Coney and asked her to model for him. Ironically, Tibbs was an NYPD officer and Page’s work would eventually take her into illegal territory. But photos like the one at the top of this post, and this one, are illustrations of her connection to the beach and amusement park at Coney Island:

Betty Page is in several burlesque films of the mid ’50s: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955). I became acquainted with these about five years ago in preparation for directing a couple of editions of Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-a-pades. With the passing of 60 years these films have acquired much charm they probably didn’t seem to possess when they were first released, full of theatrical values and efforts that fell by the wayside in such films as the late ’60s gave way to straight up porn.

Also, as we wrote here, in the 1950s, Bettie posed — Believe it or NOT — for Harold Lloyd! The former silent film comedian experimented with taking art shots of sexy girls with a 3-D camera during his retirement. Some are published in the 2004 book Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D. 

Bettie Page photo by Harold Lloyd

In 2004, Gretchen Mol starred in/ as The Notorious Bettie Page. Ironically, I discovered this film backwards. Mol had appeared in the film adapted from my friend Jeff Nichols’ book Trainwreck, American Loser (2007). The Mad Marchioness then referred me back to the Page bio-pic, for which Mol is obviously much better known.

In 2012 the definitive documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All was released. Access it here at the official site.

The mania continues unabated!

The Ups and Downs of Lina Basquette

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

Lina Basquette (Lena Copeland Baskette) was born on April 19, 1907. Basquette was a star of stage and screen through several different phases, but is perhaps best remembered today for her eight marriages, most notably the first one, to Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, with much ensuing personal drama.

Basquette was the child of an ambitious stage mother. Her life took a sharp turn at the tender age of eight when she was spotted dancing in her father’s drug store by a rep from RCA Victor, who hired her to dance in the company’s exhibit at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This led to a film contract with Universal Pictures, and she began starring (at age nine) in a series of films called Lena Baskette Featurettes. Her mother embraced the new life; the father did not. He committed suicide and her mother married choreographer and dance director Ernest Belcher. (Dancer/choreographer Marge Champion is the daughter of Belcher and Gladys Baskette and the half-sister of Lina Basquette).

Film work seemed to dry up an the end of the decade, so her dance skills were put to use on Broadway in a succession of shows. She appeared in John Murray Anderson’s Jack and Jill (1923), Charles Dillingham’s Nifties of 1923, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 and 1925, and Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927).

Meanwhile in 1925, she had married movie mogul Sam Warner, who famously died on the eve of the opening of his seminal project The Jazz Singer (1927). There followed a bizarre custody battle between Basquette and the Warner family over her daughter (whom the Warners wanted to raise as one of their own in the Jewish faith, and probably by someone who wasn’t a famous Siren) which lasted many years.

The Godless Girl, 1929

In 1927, Basquette returned to films. In 1928 she was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. The biggest hit of this period (and her career) was Cecil B. DeMille’s semi-talkie The Godless Girl (1929). Her film career lasted until 1943, but her battles with the Warners resulted in a loss of star billing in the talkie era. Her parts got much smaller, sometimes even bit roles, and often in B movies. At the same time, she was making live appearances in night clubs.

In 1943, she was raped and robbed by an off-duty soldier whom she had picked up while hitchhiking. This traumatic event seems to have prompted a major life change for her. She took her savings, bought a farm in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, and reinvented herself as one of the nation’s top breeders of Great Danes! In addition to raising and breeding purebred dogs, she wrote books on the subject and judged shows with the American Kennel Club, an involvement that lasted until the end of her life.

In 1991, she released her memoir Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl, and emerged from retirement after 48 years to appear in the film Paradise Park. She passed away in 1994.

To find out more about show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

The Many Lives of Jane Withers

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2017 by travsd

Happy birthday, Jane Withers (born 1926).

Though I had seen many of her performances over the years, I didn’t particularly take notice of her until a year or two ago when I watched the highly peculiar pro-Soviet movie The North Star (1943). The film is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen, because it was made by Hollywood, a pro-Soviet propaganda made by Sam Goldwyn studios! This strange development came about because the U.S.S.R. were our allies at the time (World War Two), it made a kind of expedient sense for a brief moment. And because of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were briefly strange bedfellows we have the unusual spectacle of Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan and Anne Baxter as Ukrainian peasant farmers extolling the virtues of the collective, in jolly songs written by Aaron Copeland and Ira Gershwin. (It was written by Lillian Hellman, the least surprising thing about it).

At any rate, one takes notice of Withers because she is quirky and funny and odd and a little awkward. One wonders how she got cast, and then you learn she had been a star for nearly ten years by that point. The North Star is relatively late-ish in the first leg of her career.

She began as a child star at the age of three on a local Atlanta radio program called Daisy’s Dainty Dewdrop. Success there emboldened the family’s move to Hollywood, where Jane was cast in bit roles as early as 1932 (age six). She has small parts in the original Imitation of Life (1934) and W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934), among others.

In 1934 she was cast as Shirley Temple’s rival in Bright Eyes (1934), and thereafter she began to star in her own films like Paddy O’Day (1936) and Little Miss Nobody (1936); by the end of the decade she was one of the country’s top box office draws. How could there be room for TWO female child stars at Fox at the same time, you ask? This still from Little Miss Nobody may answer your question:

Shirley Temple sang “Good Ship Lollipop”. Jane Withers punches boys. While not as popular as Temple (NO ONE was), Withers was well loved enough to have a serious of books published in which a fictional “Jane Withers” had a series of Nancy Drew-like adventures in the 1940s. By The North Star, she was a teenager, and seemed to be transitioning into older roles quite well. The first phase of her career doesn’t end until 1949, where she played an adult part in the B movie noir Danger Street. 

Her marriage to movie producer William P. Moss, Jr. (1947-1955) took her away from screen acting for a time, but she returned for a memorable turn (and a great role) in the classic Giant (1956).

Jane Withers and James Dean in “Giant”

She went on to lots of characters parts in films and television over the decades. But during this phase what she became best known for was playing the character of Josephine the Plumber in a series of tv ads for Comet Cleaners which ran in the 1960s and ’70s.

Jane Withers last professional credit was in 2002. She walks among us still, now in her 90s.

To find out more about show business past and present and other sundry arcane forms of entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. To learn more about comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

On Bette Davis: Because I Just Did Joan

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Bette Davis (1908-1989) was born on April 5. Having just given a good deal of attention to her rival Joan Crawford (an antagonist beyond the grave thanks to Feud: Bette and Joan) I herewith give equal time to Davis.

As we intimated in our earlier post, my connection to Davis has historically been stronger than any I ever felt for Crawford. For one, Davis never stopped being a movie star. She remained in the public eye until she died in 1989, when I was 25 years old. Her last film Wicked Stepmother was released the year of her death, and she was always on television talk shows and so forth. I’d seen many of her films (both classics and contemporary ones) when still a young person. By contrast, Crawford retired when I was five years old.

She looks like Lillian Gish here, yeah?

And then there is the fact that Davis was such the quintessential New Englander. She was from Massachusetts, and always had that accent. So many actors had to learn to speak “Mid-Atlantic” during the classic studio era; I imagine the studios never bothered doing that with Davis. Her accent was already appropriate for stage and screen. She reminded me of the older women in my mother’s family. Davis attended boarding school at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, which is quite close to my mother’s hometown. Like my grandmother and aunt, her actual first name is “Ruth”; my sister and niece also have that as their middle name. I feel a close regional and cultural connection. I’ve recently learned I’m distantly related to her; she is quite literally “my people”

Feud gives a false impression about the length of Davis’s career by having Crawford mutter something to the effect of “She’s always been there, dogging my every step”. It’s plausible and even probable that Crawford felt that way, but doing so would be a convenient and vain way of rewriting history. Crawford was slightly older, and first achieved fame and stardom in the silent era. She began making films in 1925, six years before Davis. Davis, on the other hand, was a stage actress, and entirely a creature of talkies. She fell in love with the stage in high school, and had auditioned to be part of Eva LaGallienne’s company, which reveals early ambitions to be a serious artist, an ambition she never lost. Rejected by La Gallienne, she studied at a dramatic school run by John Murray Anderson — a much more show bizzy kind of preparation. But her very screen name reveals something that set her apart not only from Crawford but from most of the other actors in the film colony. She used the French spelling of Bette from Balzac’s Cousin Bette — a demonstration that she not only read books, but read Balzac.  Her (real or imagined) superiority is baked right into how everyone is forced to spell her.

Nowadays, both Davis and Crawford are most often regarded in terms of their mature work, for their years as “psycho-biddies”, feuding and otherwise. My Crawford piece worked backwards, building up to the revelation that she had originally been a major sex symbol; it’s what underlay her image until the end. With Davis, we’ll go forward chronologically and lead with the fact that she, too, was tried as a sex symbol, though that period was relatively brief, and was shed for good and all, even widely forgotten, once she began winning accolades for playing unglamorous roles in the late ’30s.

Fresh as a daisy in one of her first films, the original “Waterloo Bridge” (1931) — and for once she’s not the hooker!

But in recent years, just as with Crawford, thanks largely to TCM, I have discovered that there actually had been a sexy Bette Davis, though the period was much briefer, and plenty of people always denied she could ever be beautiful or sexy, including, significantly, herself. When she originally came to Hollywood (she later said), “I was the most Yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth.”  But in the Pre-Code years they tried to tart her up a bit. They made her a platinum blonde, like Jean Harlow or Carole Lombard. And, to my eyes, she pulled it off. Of the many Bette Davis mannerisms one of the most prominent is a coquettish way she had of darting those enormous eyes all over the place: charming, scheming, flashing. It is a quality that suits a young girl best, and works for her as an asset when she is closest to girlishness in the early ’30s (when she was in her early ’20s). When she got older, it became another sort of asset. It was disturbing. But when she was quite young, it could be fetching, even seductive.

What she rarely seemed to me, however, is vulnerable. Something about her seems hard, manipulative, and calculating, even from the beginning. I’ve often wondered if she wasn’t on the Asperger’s or sociopath scale — she seems dry-eyed for an actress. She’s got that cold stare, with those enormous eyes — reminds me a lot of the (much later) actor David Hemmings. They look like they’re sizing you up to see where they can cut off the best slice. In her early years, Davis was often cast as prostitutes, rich party girls and the like. But in the Pre-Code era that had special appeal. I particularly like her in The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), where she plays the daughter of a wealthy planter who persistently tries to entice a young tenant farmer (Richard Barthelmess) away from his noble goals of raising himself up by his own exertions. This is the one in which she speaks the immortal line, “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” Somehow the content of the film makes the otherwise innocent phrase “Cabin in the Cotton” sound as dirty as “Roll in the Hay” or “Snake in the Grass”. I think this may be the sexiest role I’ve seen her in, although it may not be as well known as Three on a Match (1932), Of Human Bondage (1934), Petrified Forest (1936) or her Oscar winning turn in Dangerous (1935).

“In This Our Life” — the scene where she won’t stop dancing and blasting the radio her husband couldn’t afford but she bought anyway, because no one’s gonna stop HER from havin’ a good time!

She is still occasionally playing the Siren as late as In This Our Life (1942), one of my FAVORITES, a camp-fest in which she plays the unbelievably wicked sister of angelic Olivia De Havilland — steals her fiance, ruins him financially until he kills himself, runs over somebody in her car, and then blames it on the family’s saintly and promising young black chauffeur.

While she is occasionally able to muster glamour in later roles it seems to take a lot of effort. Though her first large move towards deglamorization is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), it seems as though the worm has already turned by Jezebel (1938) — ironic, given that the character is a Southern belle and a strumpet (though who could compete with the impression made by Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind the following year?) Private Lives is surprisingly early foreshadowing for her later psychobiddy persona. With Crawford, we don’t get anything similar until perhaps Possessed (1947), in which she plays a mental patient, and 80% of the role consists of flashbacks to when her character was still desirable and vivacious. Davis realized early on that her continued success rested on her ability to win respect for herself as an actor, as opposed to an object of desire. And after all, an actor is what she initially set out to be. Davis had three Broadway roles under her belt before she went to Hollywood; by contrast Crawford had been a chorus girl. Crawford was about her body. She may have been idiosyncratic in how she applied her make-up in later years, but she never precisely “lost her looks”, and in fact was showing off her legs to good advantage as late as Berserk (1967). Crawford had also worked hard to gain respect as an actor, but she didn’t have to work nearly as hard as Davis did to remain viable.

That said, though Davis has this widespread and well-deserved reputation as an actress, two Oscars, an ocean of accolades, I can’t say she has ever properly moved me, which is normally considered a principal part of any actor’s job. She has amused me, scared me, impressed me, even wowed me, but she has never moved me to tears or too much worried me. She is theatrical, she is a star, but she is never really vulnerable, as, say, Katharine Hepburn is vulnerable in Alice Adams (my favorite Hepburn performance). She achieves her effects by showy, sneaky subterfuges for the most part — you know you are supposed to feel sympathy for her because she has made herself ugly for the character. That is a kind of risk and a kind of bravery and a kind of nakedness, but it’s still not emotional.

Anyway, I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of the gigantic topic of Bette Davis’s career. The focus of this post was meant to call attention to her appeal in her earliest years, as I did with Crawford. For more on her late horror pictures go here. I’m sure there’ll be more than one additional post on this worthy subject.

 

 

Milberger on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by travsd

We enjoyed the pilot of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a great deal — in fact, enough to write our own review. But we knew someone who could write a better one: multi-talented actress, comedienne, screenwriter/playwright, podcast host, comedy scholar and Gracie Allen expert Lauren Milberger.  Her Gracie Allen guest post here five years ago is in our all-time top 25! I just knew she’d have great things to say about the new show, and she did. I turn you now over to her:

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: A Woman in Redux

Many people would consider the modern Golden Age of Comedy to be the 1950s and 60s, when what we know today as stand-up became all the rage and television was in its infancy. When the comedy from vaudeville finally had its eyes back again (after years of being in the dark with radio) and was able to take its experience to mint legends for the ages. Television turned night club raconteurs into instant celebrities, thanks to the likes of Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan and soon – the king of them all – Johnny Carson. But except for Lucille Ball, how many women from this era have seen their strengths and struggles dramatized, their stories told? For all the plays, films and TV based on Neil Simon, Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner’s fond memories of the 1950’s classic sketch show Your Show of Shows (and later Caesar’s Hour), sporting a writing staff that included most of the comedy legends for the latter part of 20th century (Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, etc.), where are the stories solely about Lucille Kallen or Selma Diamond? Where are the lavish odes to Madelyn Pugg, who wrote most of I Love Lucy’s classic episodes and who was given the moniker of “Girl Writer” because of the oddity of such a thing at the time?  Because for every Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Alan King, Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor, there was a Joan Rivers, a Moms Mabley and an Elaine May. Today, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are household names, but the female narrative of comedy they came from seems mostly forgotten or glossed over. That was until Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino gave us the new Amazon pilot The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells the story of Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), whom we first meet at her wedding reception, doing stand-up (unbeknownst to herself) and regaling her family and friends with the cleaned up version of her 1950’s teen life at Bryn Mawr College. Four years later, Midge has two kids and the seemingly perfect New York Upper-West Side Jewish life of 1958, and one would assume to find her spending her nights in Greenwich Village trying her hand at stand-up comedy. However, this is 1958 after all, and Midge is just a “housewife” making brisket, worried about keeping her figure and beauty for her husband – all while having time to prepare the perfect Yom Kippur break -fast for the Rabbi and for her family. It’s only when a family crisis (which I won’t give away) sends Midge’s “happy life” into upheaval that she finally discovers that she is the talented stand-up in the family, not her wannabe husband. A talent that, based on the synopsis, will take Midge all the way to Johnny Carson’s couch – the pinnacle and seminal moment for stand-ups of her generations.

Within the short pilot, Sherman-Palladino is able to establish Midge as a smart, confident and funny female who knows what she wants, even if it took her 26 years to know that she, as a woman, could achieve it. Midge belongs in the company of other Sherman-Palladino heroines: a witty, fast-talking brunette you want to root for. What the pilot also does well is establish the obstacles Midge will be up against in her upward rise to fame. The fact that Midge didn’t even expect herself to go into comedy, that it was her husband’s job, is a red flag on its own; but what the pilot does best for a layman of this era is to establish this pre-feminist environment Midge will have to push against to succeed. Midge, for example, keeps a journal of all of her measurements, something she has done since she was a child, and even goes so far as to hide her night beauty regiments from her husband to make him believe she wakes up with perfect hair and make-up – behavior that appears to have been passed down from her own mother who in the pilot worries her baby granddaughter has too big of a head and bemuses that her daughter is officially done wearing sleeveless dresses. Even Midge’s own father blames her for her husband’s failings – something that even shocks Midge. Sherman-Palladino’s music choices, as with Gilmore Girls, do a wonderful job to establish mood, tone, and style of the time period. Paired with the vibrant colors and sets of 1958 New York City, it all makes the audience feel like they’ve stepped back in time.  What you ultimately get with Mrs. Maisel is the fast, witty dialogue of Gilmore Girls mixed with the epic scope and social commentary of Mad Men, and a comedy history lesson to boot.

Along the way Midge meets Gilmore Girls alum Alex Borstein who plays a hardened (West) Village bartender Susie at the comedy club “The Gaslight Cafe “ – which appears to be a fictitious stand-in for “The Bitter End”. Susie sees the rare comic talent in Midge, comparing her to Mort Sahl (an icon in his day). Finally at one point Susie tells an unsure Midge, “I don’t mind being alone. I just do not want to be insignificant. Do you? Don’t you want to do something no one else can do? Be remembered  as something other than a wife… a housewife…” – a universal question women, hell, humans ask themselves. It resonates with Midge as it did me and it pushes Midge to take the first steps to go after her own dreams with as much gusto as she put into making a brisket or we can only imagine she put into getting back in her Rabbi’s good graces. It’s fitting that what will one day became one of most important day in Midge’s life takes place on Yom Kippur. It is a day of atonement of sins, yes, but is also a day of starting over. Of re-birth. Of having your sins forgiven and wiping the slate. (In fact, she literally ends the day wearing wearing someone else’s shoes)

Also making an appearance are The Kingston Trio and, in a more substantial role, Lenny Bruce himself (played wonderfully by Luke Kirby), establishing that there are rules to this world (which includes being arrested for indecency) and that being innovative means sometimes you have to break these rules.  Every actor in the pilot is a knockout, led by the adorably charming Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, and (as Sherman-Palladino always does) casting stalwart actors such as Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge’s parents.

For me, what really struck home this piece in my heart was not just that it was about a woman who will pioneer comedy, but that this is the story of a Jewish woman in comedy. See, a short time ago I had a revelation. And hear me out, here. It may sound crazy… but… as a Jewish woman I feel unrepresented within the comic Jewish narrative. No seriously I do. Think about it… 99.9% of what we know as the traditional comic Jewish persona is male driven. And I don’t just mean this in the sense that this narrative is mostly populated by men. What I talking about is the ideas or tropes that are usually identified as the classic heritage of Jewish comedy, or voice, comes from the point of view of a strictly male narrative. The style, the attributes, what consolidates a comic Jewish stereotype – from Alan King to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld. And yes, this is a history that stems all the way from the ethnic comedy of vaudeville to the dining rooms of the Catskills “Borscht Belt,” so of course it comes from a male dominated society.  But for me it was a persona I had adopted as my own, that I thought I was a part of. It wasn’t until I saw more of myself in the works of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh-McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) writing actual Jewish women that I started to notice it more: I wasn’t represented. Where I had previously thought I saw myself in the worlds of Allen and Seinfeld, and even Aaron Sorkin to a degree, I only had to take a step back to see that alongside their “Jewish avatars” were mostly goyisha women.  And that when any token Jewish women actually appeared, they were nags or annoying stereotypes with funny voices for laughs.  And yes, to a non-New Yorker, Midge has a funny voice, but what her voice is in so many ways authentic. Here is a familiar, confident, Jewish woman I recognize. And this is a good thing not just for seeing myself represented in the narrative, but also for what it does to the public at large. To show that we aren’t just jokes and nagging mothers in a punch-line. Or bad dates their mother sets them up with. We are also part of this heritage of comedy. And I think there is no better person than Amy Sherman-Palladino (whose own father was a comedian during this era) to use her own Jewish voice to tell us all about Mrs. Maisel and how she made it to the top of comedy. So I recommend you watch this pilot and vote for it to be picked up for series (or else it won’t, that’s how Amazon works) And if the male in your life or the ones reading this still aren’t sold on  “Mad Men/ PunchLine for chicks” … just tell ‘em there are also tits in it. 😉

 

Joan Crawford: From Sexpot to Psycho-Biddy

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2017 by travsd

To be born in the modern age is to discover many of the great figures of past ages backwards. We encounter them by reputation or in classrooms and we usually are introduced to them at their peak or in their maturity. As opposed to our ancestors who grew up with these figures and watched their lives and careers unfold in real, forward moving, chronological time.

Joan Crawford (ca. 1904-1977) was in the midst of retiring from picture-making just as I was becoming fully engrossed in Captain Kangaroo. Furthermore, she is best known for what used to be called “Women’s Pictures” — delaying any real interest on my part for decades. Some males go to their graves successfully avoiding submitting themselves to such melodramas their entire lives, and quite happily. It’s no accident that the first Joan Crawford movie I ever saw was a western, the all-butch-lady showdown picture with Mercedes McCambridge known as Johnny Guitar (1954). I had to have been in my late twenties by then. I’d seen scores of movies starring other classic Hollywood stars by then. But not Crawford.

But I did know about her. You could say that my first “encounter” with Crawford, as it was for many people my age, was at second and third and fourth hand in the form of the world’s first psycho-biddy bio-pic Mommie Dearest (1981). This naturally led to awareness of “middle period” Crawford, the iconic Mildred Pierce era persona. When you think “Joan Crawford”, I imagine that’s the incarnation most people think of.

But the monstrous campy child-beating monster Crawford we meet in Mommie Dearest leads inexorably to an exploration of LATE career Crawford, her horror phase, starting with the best known of these Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and including The Caretakers, in which she played a sadistic madhouse nurse (1963), Straight-Jacket (1964), the Hitchcock-esque Della (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk (1967), Eyes (her 1969 Night Gallery episode directed by Steven Spielberg) and the hallucination inducing caveman-exhumation flick Trog (1970). Thus the Joan Crawford I came to know best first was a kind of grotesque freak show version, a warped parody of whatever star she had originally been. We wrote about several of these pictures here. 

What use have I for a flesh-and-blood man when I now have one of these?

Over the years I also managed to fill in the middle period, the ’40s and ’50s, the battle ax years, when we often catch remnants and intimations of the great beauty she had been, but there is also a sort of steam-roller quality and a mannishness not unlike that of some of her contemporaries, like Rosalind Russell  all furry eye brows, handshakes, and padded shoulders. This period starts with a couple of (uncharacteristic) comedies, The Women (1939) and Susan and God (1940). I’ve also seen Strange Cargo (1940), Mildred Pierce, Possessed, which paves the way for the craziness of the late period (1946), Flamingo Road (1949), Harriet Craig (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), Johnny Guitar, Autumn Leaves (1956), and The Story of Esther Costello (1957). These movies, too, are all a sort of confirmation of what we gather about her movie career from Mommie Dearest; an aging beauty, usually pretty intense and crazy, sometimes dishing out the terror and antagonism, sometimes being on the receiving end. You don’t tend to see her playing Madame Curie. 

Still, something major was missing: a good third of her career. You hear it alluded to in Mommie Dearest and in other whisperings of the Crawford legend. And what you hear, based on what you know from the latter two-thirds, you don’t quite believe. And that’s this hard-to-credit, EARLY phase when she was one of the very top stars in Hollywood and a legendary beauty and vamp. Somehow one never SAW those movies, so talk about them was just so many words. But in the last few years I’ve managed to catch many of them on TCM. I’m not sure I ever would have got around to them, but the Mad Marchioness made a special point and I am grateful, for they were most illuminating. They are mostly films from the silent and pre-code eras at MGM.

I had seen one her earliest films Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) with Harry Langdon many years ago, but this isn’t too educational. She is the leading lady (barely into her twenties) but she scarcely seems herself at all. She hasn’t yet acquired much personality or sex appeal. And she also stars in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) with Lon Chaney, and that too I had seen.

But that’s not what everyone is talking about. Young Lucille Leseuer (her real name) had been a dancer and chorus girl, and it’s roles that showed her off in THAT context that made her a star as one of the key Jazz Age movie flappers in pictures like Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), Paris (1926), The Taxi Dancer (1927), Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929).

Then come talkies. In Untamed (1929) she plays a wild girl from South America. In Montana Moon (1930) a party girl socialite who must be “broken in” by her cowboy husband. Our Blushing Brides (1930), and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) revisit themes of her most popular silents.

Quite naturally she’s in the ensemble picture Grand Hotel (1932), that was one of the first of these I’d seen, as was her unfairly maligned performance in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932).

“Chained”, 1934

There’s a bunch more like this. I’ve seen about a half dozen others, usually with Clark Gable or Robert Montgomery as her co-stars and she’s usually either a dancer or a secretary and the stories are racy and involve infidelity, or money schemes, because it’s before the implementation of the Production Code.

These early movies fill in a vital piece of the puzzle. Crawford started out her career as a straight-up cinematic object of desire. Familiarity with the Siren she once was sheds light on the numerous husbands, the countless romances with co-stars and others, and her legendary negotiating prowess on the casting couch. (Some of have suggested an arrest record for prostitution, as well). Later, when year by year that part of her appeal drains away, she seems to be compensating, like you do when you limp. Her intensity becomes such that she seems almost to be trying to draw people to her with her STRENGTH, with her MENTAL POWER, with her WILL, with something. It’s kind of Norma Desmond-y, and any way you slice it the resemblance is not an irrelevant coincidence.

web_cast_jessicalange_feud_570x698

We are watching Jessica Lange’s portrayal of her on the new FX show Feud: Bette and Joan now with great interest. An unusual beauty herself (she still is!) Lange seems to grasp this aspect of Crawford’s motive power, and many other subtle things, including the very careful self-taught diction. Young Lucille had grown up in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, you see, and originally had a regional accent, which she lost through application and hard work…like everything she did.

And so you see we have worked our way backwards to her origins. Today is her birthday. Wherever she is, I bet she’s limiting herself to two bites of cake.

(P.S. Another midwife for my appreciation of Crawford has been friend Lance Werth, who actually MAJORED in Crawford at college, and writes the terrific blog Lance’s Werthwhile Classic Movie Diary. He wrote this appreciation of the star there yesterday as well).

 

Marie Wallace: From the Follies to the Film Colony

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , , on March 9, 2017 by travsd

She’s the One in the Middle

A few tidbits on Marie Wallace (1895-1961),whom I came across in Marjorie Farnsworth’s Ziegfeld Follies book. She was born in Massachusetts to parents who’d emigrated from Ireland, though the surname (if it’s her natural one) would indicate Scots-Irish descent. Circa 1912 she married a gent named David Shelley and gave birth to a son, also named David. This was a complicated time for her, given the fact that the same year she made her debut in the chorus of The Passing Show of 1912. If you’ll do the math, you’ll note that she was rather young — 17 — for both events. She also appeared in The Queen of the Movies (1914), Dance and Grow Thin (1917), Honey Girl (1920), and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, 1918, 1922, and 1923. Her sister Nancy Wallace was also in the Follies, and died in childbirth in 1919.

The publicity still above, from July 1922, bears the caption: “Heat Drives Follies Girls to Roof for Rehearsals. New York — Pearl Eaton, Marie Wallace and Leonore Baron, members of the Ziegfeld Follies Company, give pedestrians on the streets below a couple of eyes-full while they go through their daily rehearsals on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theater. The extreme heat made it necessary for the girls to be put through their paces in the open.” Pearl Eaton was the sister of (Doris Eaton, the Last Follies Girl), and Mary Eaton, from The Cocoanuts.

At some point during her decade-long theatrical career, Marie was either divorced from Mr. Shelley or he passed away, for in April, 1924 she married the popular songwriter Buddy DeSylva and retired from show business. Wallace is said to have been the inspiration for the song “Somebody Loves Me”, by DeSylva (with George Gershwin and Ballard MacDonald.)

DeSylva of course was a Broadway powerhouse. With the advent of talkies, he also became a Hollywood powerhouse, not just as a songwriter but as a producer and studio executive, and the balance of her life was spent on the west coast. Interestingly she appears in a 1929 Fox film short called Nertz, with Buddy, Paul Whiteman and NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Buddy DeSylva passed away in 1950; Wallace survived him by 11 years. Her son David Shelly was the third husband of actress and big band singer Martha Stewart.  (Shelley’s and Stewart’s son, also named David Shelley, was a successful blues rock musician.)

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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