Archive for the Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps Category

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. 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.

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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 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

Mary Mulhern: Jack Pickford’s Last and Least-Known Wife

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , on January 24, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Mary Mulhern (1908-1965). Originally from Newark, NJ, Mulhern was the daughter of Irish immigrants, her father a traveling salesman. When she was only 17 years old, she was cast as a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925. The following year she was also cast in the Ziegfeld revue No Foolin‘. In 1928 she took a trip to London and Paris. And in 1929 she appeared in three Vitaphone shorts: Somewhere in Jersey, Just Like a Man, and Harry Rosenthal and His Bath and Tennis Club Orchestra. At this point she seemed well on the way to a decent career.

But then there was a lapse in judgment. In 1930, she became the third Ziegfeld wife of rake, roué, and reprobate Jack Pickford, stepping into shoes previously filled by the better known Olive Thomas and Marilyn Miller. The day after the wedding, they were accosted by creditors for unpaid bills. Pickford was alternately violent and neglectful of her, and then he was hospitalized following a car accident. They were in the process of getting divorced when he passed away in 1932.

In the meantime she had starred in a 1931 Hollywood production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime with Althea Henley, produced by Sid Grauman. But after this, her professional career seems to have evaporated, not surprising in the depths of the Great Depression.

By 1934, she was back in New York. From this point, the only references to her are mentions by columnists, always in the context of her being a former Ziegfeld beauty and Pickford wife.

Walter Winchell gives this intriguing item in 1934: “What the gazettes omitted in the Max BaerEdward McCarthy snarl is that Edward McCarthy is Mary Mulhern’s Monkey-Doodle.” Translated, this sounds like there was a public altercation between the boxer Max Baer and this McCarthy, probably in some night club, and that McCarthy was Mulhern’s romantic interest at the time. That this appears as an item at all in Winchell’s column has all the earmarks of Mulhern contacting Winchell to complain that she wasn’t mentioned in any of the previous coverage of the event. Over the next 20 years, Winchell would apparently be one of Mulhern’s only friends, throwing her whatever crumbs he could in his column.

A Winchell column item from 1945 informs us that she is “to wed a fourth time, to a youthful British nobleman.” This one, unfortunately, seems to have been a fantasy on every level. Pickford was Mulhern’s only known husband. This may have been a simple error of flipping the facts: Mulhern was Pickford’s third wife, but Pickford was not Mulhern’s third husband. And the marriage to the nameless nobleman seems never to have taken place.

The 1950s found Mulhern in desperate straits.  In 1952, Jack Lait’s column mentions that she was “a hostess in an ice cream shop at 59th Street and Park Ave.” In 1953, Winchell reported that she was working at a restaurant and needed a job. In 1955 she wrote to Winchell seeking his corroboration that she had been in show business so she get “a loan from an actor’s group.” Later that year she was checked into a mental hospital, where she remained until she passed away a decade later.

Margaret Irving: From “The Follies” to “Aunt Gus”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Margaret Irving (1898-1988). Those Baby Boomers who remember Irving as an old lady on television will be astonished to know that she started out as a Broadway Beauty (see above). Her debut was the long-running Fred Stone musical Jack O’Lantern (1917-1918) in which she played The Lady of Dreams”. There followed the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 and 1920 and the Music Box Revue of 1921 and 1922.  She played the role of Mrs. Whitehouse in both the stage and screen versions of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, for which she is probably best known (her face if not not her name) today. That’s her on the left:

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Through the 30s and 40s she divided her time between Hollywood and Broadway. Notable films include San Francisco (1936), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and the Abbott and Costello comedy In Society (1944).

During the 1950s, she was best known as “Aunt Gus” on the now-forgotten Jackie Cooper sit-com The People’s Choice (1955-1958), created and produced by Irving Brecher, who wrote the screenplays for the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), and created the radio and tv shows The Life of Riley.

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Her last credit was a guest shot on 77 Sunset Strip in 1960.

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

Tomorrow Morning on TCM: Dames

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd

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Tomorrow morning (January 15, 2017) at 6:00am Eastern, Turner Classic Movies will show the 1934 Warner Brothers musical Dames, co-directed by Busby Berkeley and Ray Enright. 

Dames is a terrific high water mark for the Warner Bros. musical machine. Hugh Herbert is an eccentric millionaire who cuts off most of his relatives because they aren’t up to his moral standard—especially a cousin who writes and produces Broadway shows (Dick Powell). Zazu Pitts is another cousin who’ll inherit $10 million if all goes well, her husband played by the inevitable Guy Kibbee. Their daughter is Ruby Keeler, who romances Powell and stars in his new show. Joan Blondell is a chorine who frames Kibbee to get backing for the show. Also look for the hilarious Johnny Arthur as Herbert’s fey secretary.

Awesome numbers staged by Berkeley—breath-taking at times. Songs include “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the catchy title number. The stable of songwriters on this one includes: Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, Allie Wrubel, and Mort Dixon. 

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

Merry Christmas!

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Christmas, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on December 24, 2016 by travsd

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I snapped this on the wall of the Lambs Club last month during Fields Fest. It’s by the pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, a favorite of both the Mad Marchioness and myself.

Stars of Vaudeville #1015: Klondike Kate

Posted in AMERICANA, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2016 by travsd

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Klondike Kate (Kathleen Eloise Rockwell, 1873-1957) was a real person! She was the toast of Dawson, Yukon during the Gold Rush, performing in saloons, the Savoy Theatrical Company, and the Palace Grande Theatre, where her famous “Flame Dance” earned her as much as $750 a night in the boom town economy (the equivalent of over $21,000 in today’s money). She got involved romantically with Alexander Pantages, and helped bankroll his Seattle-based vaudeville circuit. Pantages proceeded to throw her over and marry another woman. Kate continued to perform in west coast vaudeville for a time in the early years of the 20th century, eventually retiring to Oregon.

Born in Junction City, Kansas, Kate grew up in North Dakota; Spokane, Washington; and Valparaiso, Chile. She moved to New York City at age 18, which is where she got her first experience as a chorus girl and dancer in Coney Island, and vaudeville houses throughout the city.

Ann Savage played a fictionalized version of her in the 1943 movie Klondike Kate. Mae West paid her homage in the title of Klondike Annie (1936), although her character’s story is quite different in that picture.

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.

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