Archive for the Broadway Category

Jack Gilford: A Cracker Jack Performer

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

Happy birthday to Jack Gilford (Jacob Aaron Gellman, 1908-1990). This universally beloved pop culture figure was perhaps more present than ever on the American landscape during his last years, between the Crackerjack commercials and the Cocoon movies. His was a quiet, gentle presence, and I realize in retrospect that he was a pathway in for my appreciation of Harpo Marx. When I read about his early career, it sounds like his live act was even more Harpo-esque.

One reason I haven’t yet written about Gilford is that it has always been a little unclear to me whether he’d literally performed in vaudeville or not. That was my original impetus for writing performer biographies and I was originally fairly strict about my definition of vaudeville as consisting of the actual circuits, which had passed from the scene by the early 1930s. Gilford was definitely old enough to have performed in the literal vaudeville. Many obituaries and capsule biographies speak of Gilford as having been in vaudeville, but this was frequently done in such squibs. But it is at best an assumption. Until I see some specifics, i.e., what theatre, what city, what year, which will require more research, I will have to keep the idea of Gilford in vaudeville what it is: vague and uncertain. (The biggest irony of all this, I actually knew and briefly worked with one of Gilford’s sons at Theater for the New City, but, as often happens when I meet relatives of famous people, I erred on the side of not peppering him with questions about his dad. I may reach out to him now to try to get a better handle on the story).

You can definitely say that in STYLE Gifford was vaudevillian, and certainly was greatly influenced by vaudeville. He has much in common with Zero Mostel, with whom he was later to work so wonderfully in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Born on the Lower East Side, raised in Williamsburg, the son of Jewish immigrants, he was later to live in Greenwich Village — and lived there until he died. And though he did lots of film and tv, he really made his biggest mark on Broadway. He really was a cradle to grave New Yorker. Like Mostel, he cut his comedy teeth working in the Catskills and in New York City night clubs and cabarets. It is said that he competed in amateur nights against the likes of Jackie Gleason, and that Milton Berle was an early mentor. His act was a blend of monologue, impressions, and pantomime. His repertoire included imitations of Harry Langdon, George Jessel, Rudy Vallee, and many others. In 1936,  he got to do a version of his act in a movie short called Midnight Melodies. By 1938 he was the emcee at a club called Cafe Society, a high profile engagement.  In 1940, he was booked in the Broadway revue Meet the People with Jack Albertson, Nanette Fabares, and Doodles Weaver. The Broadway play They Should Have Stood in Bed (1942) may have been his first straight acting gig.

If this isn’t a Harpo moment, I don’t know what is

Throughout the ’50s his time seemed about equally divided between doing his comedy specialty in clubs, revues, and on tv; and acting in roles in Broadway, tv, and films. Again, like Zero Mostel, his devotion to left wing causes is thought to have hindered his career for a time due to the blacklist. But by the mid 1950s, his Broadway career was dazzling. Just a few highlights: the original productions of The Diary of Anne Frank (1955-1957), Once Upon a Mattress (1959-1960),  Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man (1959-1961), A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1962-1964), Cabaret (1966-1969), and Sly Fox (1976-1978), as well as the smash revival of No, No, Nanette (1971-1973) with Ruby Keeler. His last Broadway show was an adaptation of The World of Sholom Aleicheim (1982), which he’d originally done on television in 1959. He also did tv versions of many musicals, and guest shots on almost every tv show known to man. Some of his notable films include the movie version of Forum (1966), The Incident (1967), They Might be Giants (1973), Save the Tiger (1973 — for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), Ringo Starr’s Caveman (1981), the Cocoon films (1985 and 1988), and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988). In 1988, he was on Golden Girls which brings us full circle to the person we began blogging about this morning, Estelle Getty. It is a synchronicitous morning.

To learn about vaudeville history,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

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.

 

On Donald Meek, Whose Characters Matched His Screen Name

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The great (small) character actor Donald Meek was born July 14, 1878. Don’t tell me you don’t know who he is! With that enormous chrome dome and his small statue (5’6″) he seemed almost like a cartoon character, say, Droopy. And so many of the movies he appeared in were classics. Statistically, some were bound to be — he made so many movies: over 120 in 16 years of talkies, which averages to almost 8 a year, or a movie every month and a half.

It is surprising to learn that he was born and raised in Glasgow; he became a world travelling trouper at quite a young age and worked to lose the accent. He started out as a child actor in local pantomimes and the like, and the legend of his early career is wonderful if true, although the many tidbits one comes across seem possibly contradictory: 1) that he acted with Sir Henry Irving by age eight; 2) that he toured Australia, India, South Africa and England in the title role in Little Lord Fauntleroy;  3) that, at age 14 he joined a troupe of acrobats called The Marvells as a top mounter; 4) that, when on tour in the U.S. he fell, breaking several bones; and that, when he recovered, he enlisted and fought for the U.S. in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, where he was not only wounded in action, but also caught a disease that caused his hair to fall out.

Much of this may be publicists’ puffery; I merely report it you because it is entertaining, and I would far rather be entertained than trouble to learn the truth of the matter. What is quite clear is that, starting in 1917 he was cast in the Broadway musical Going Up, and he was to work steadily on the Great White Way for the next 15 years. One of these shows Six Cylinder Love (1921-22) was made into a 1923 movie, Meek’s first screen credit and his only silent one. Another of them, The Potters (1923-24) was later made into a silent movie starring W.C. Fields, whom he would later appear in two films with.

As the liquor drummer Peacock in “Stagecoach”, with Thomas Mitchell as the predatory drunken doctor who dips into his samples

When talkies came in, he had a period of overlap, where he both acted on Broadway, and in films at Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone studio in Queens. It was during this period when he starred in a series of shorts called the Dr. Crabtree Mysteries. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood to concentrate solely on acting for films. Some of his well known pictures include: Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) with Zasu Pitts and W.C. Fields; Top Hat (1935) with Fred and Ginger; Barbary Coast (1935) with Joel McCrea and Edward G. Robinson; Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi; John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939); with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935); Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938); My Little Chickadee (1940) with W.C. Fields and Mae West; Jesse James (1939) and its sequel The Return of Frank James (1940); Air Raid Wardens (1943) with Laurel and Hardy; DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) with Red Skelton and others; and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945) among, scores of others.

As you can see, he made himself useful in EVERY genre. Ordinarily, he played shy, nervous, bookish or officious types: ministers, book-keepers, robbery victims and the like, although it was occasionally effective when he went against type to be a villain, as in the Jesse James films or Air Raid Wardens. His character names tell the tale: “Mr. Frisbee”, “Justice of the Peace”, “Dr. Zimmer”, “Iradius P. Oglethorpe”, “Willoughby Wendling”, “Samuel Peacock”, “Adelbert Thistlebottom”, “Mittelmeyer”, “Professor Birdo”, “Captain Makepeace Liveright”, “Henry Cadwallader”, “Mr. Twiddle”. His last film, William Wellman’s Magic Town was released posthumously in 1947. Meek had passed away the previous year.

 For everything you need to to know about early show business, including possible former child acrobats like Donald Meek, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

 

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.

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