Archive for the Melodrama and Master Thespians Category

Joseph Cotten: Courtliness Personified

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2017 by travsd

Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) was born on May 15. The late year of his death surprised me. Cotten’s last film had been in 1981 and I couldn’t imagine him ever not acting. But a stroke felled him in 1981. He eventually recovered sufficiently enough to write a memoir, but he never acted again.

From an old Virginia family, Cotten seemed from another time. This gentle, courtly quality made him perfect for a part in the original Broadway production of the antebellum themed melodrama Jezebel (1933). Orson Welles loved this quality of Cotten’s; in 1934, Cotten was to become a core cast member of the Mercury Theatre as well as its radio component The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In 1939, when Welles and company had gone out to Hollywood, Cotten remained in New York and starred in the original Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story. When it was made into a movie the following year the role he had created onstage went to the far better established Cary Grant.

But Welles was to be his patron once again, giving him key roles in the Mercury’s first three (and only completed) pictures for RKO: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Journey Into Fear (1942, which Cotten also co-wrote). Then his Hollywood career began to take off.  Alfred Hitchcock liked Cotten so much he starred him in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Under Capricorn (1949). Among Cotten’s other memorable pictures in the ’40s were: Gaslight (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Farmers Daughter (1947), Portrait of Jennie (1948) and The Third Man (1949).

With Welles once again in “The Third Man”

In the 50s, the magic sort of wore off, although he continued to be featured in copious movies through the middle of the decade, most notably Niagara (1953). He also made cameos in Welles’ Othello (1951) and Touch of Evil (1958). In 1953 he returned to Broadway to star in the original production of Sabrina Fair. As had happened with The Philadelphia Story, he was replaced in the 1954 film version, Sabrina. Cotten’s biggest splash in the ’50s was his tv show: The Joseph Cotten Show: On Trial, which ran from 1956 through 1959.

with de Havilland in “Sweet Charlotte”

I will talk a bit more about the next phase of Cotten’s career in another pioneering post I am working on. You can guess its topic by the film titles: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Oscar (1966), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Lady Frankenstein (1971),  The Screaming Woman (1972), Baron Blood (1972), The Devil’s Daughter (1973), Soylent Green (1973), Airport ’77, Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979), and The Hearse (1980). But there was also some far less schlocky movies in there: Petulia (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), A Delicate Balance (1973), and Heaven’s Gate (1980 — I don’t care what it lost at the box office, Heaven’s Gate happens to be a brilliant film, only a moron thinks otherwise). And lots and lots of other movies and tv appearances in there as well. As we say, in 1981 he had a stroke. His autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere was published in 1987.

The Acting Career of John Wilkes Booth

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , on May 10, 2017 by travsd

“Sic Semper Tyrannis”

With those immortal words, John Wilkes Booth ruined his acting career.

In an exceedingly strange and ironic way, when Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he also assassinated himself. Obsessed with immortality, in a single act he obliterated everything positive and worthy he had ever been, eclipsing it with infamy. Once you became the assassin of a beloved figure, that is the sum of what you are.

Lincoln is my favorite President (I’m hardly original in that), so I won’t spend energy trying to redeem the irredeemable. Booth fully deserved the end he received, which was to be chased and shot like a distempered dog. When we imagine hell, it is precisely to contain men like him. Booth was convinced he was doing God’s work, but we all know it went down more like this:

You may think it doing Booth too much honor to speak of his accomplishments on the stage, but, no. Countless others have done so, and anyway it helps put the unthinkable story in perspective. Booth was a scion of America’s greatest theatrical dynasty; one of the stage’s best known and loved stars. We don’t really have an equivalent today to describe what he was: the analogy would be a scenario in which one of Hollywood’s top young box office stars, who also had enormous critical respect, was mixed with someone outspokenly, rabidly conservative to a daft degree. If you crossed Daniel Day-Lewis and Mel Gibson and made them as young as Daniel Radcliffe, it would be something like that.

The patriarch of the family Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852) laid the groundwork. Junius Brutus Booth, Jr (1821-1883) followed his father into the business but was to live in the shadow of the rest of the family. Junior’s younger brother Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was considered the greatest of them all and the greatest in the country. John Wilkes (1838-1865) was the youngest theatrical Booth and was becoming a worthy rival to his brother Edwin prior to his act of madness. Raised on the family farm in Maryland, Booth was fond of manly pursuits like horses and fencing, and a somewhat lazy but popular student. He was only 17 when he began his stage career, with doors opened to him because of his famous name (although he did use pseudonyms at first so he could make his mistakes in private. His progress was extremely rapid. He spent a year at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia (1857). The following year, he joined the stock company at the Richmond Theatre in Virginia where he played 83 roles in 1858. By 1860, he was touring all of the great cities in America, north and south.

John Wilkes Booth was not as given to application and discipline as his more esteemed brother. Much of the contemporary praise of him had to with “charm”, “charisma”, “personality” and “attractiveness”. Still plenty also spoke of his “genius”, although typically that sort of praise generally qualified that his genius came in “flashes”. He played Hamlet, Romeo, Richard III. In late 1864, he co-starred with his two brothers in a production of Julius Caesar, a favorite play of his — and one that clearly screwed up his thinking.

It is interesting to observe that Booth’s career overlaps almost completely with the war years. He began acting a couple of years earlier, but his popularity took off just as the crisis began. These years define him in a way we can scarcely imagine. Like many folks in border states at the time, including his fellow Marylanders, Booth was pro-south from the very beginning. Unlike Edwin, who was pro-Union and refused to play southern cities after secession, John played both sides of the field, touring as far south and west as New Orleans. This was a peculiar state of affairs, that someone would be allowed to that.

He was a religious, superstitious, imaginative and romantic man, given to delusions of grandeur. It must have seemed he was living a charmed life, with all his easy succession and adulation. He was also a ladies man (when he was killed in 1865, there were photos of no less than five girlfriends in his pocket). When he was a kid, he’d visited a fortune teller, who warned that he’d come to a dark end. Certainly all the great tragedies which he spent so much time enacting present a world in which the hand of God is active — at least the characters would have it that way. He believed he was God’s instrument. The war was the defining event of his life, and that was to become truer than he ever imagined. Like Iago and Cassius, he schemed and planted evil ideas in people’s heads. He persuaded others to do terrible things. And then he personally did one of the foulest deeds any man ever did. And in so doing he did indeed write himself into the history books. He himself is actually a character in novels and plays and dramas, and is probably more famous by orders of magnitude than his brother Edwin, the greatest actor of his age, is remembered. But Edwin is a beloved, revered figure to those who remember him. John Wilkes Booth’s name ranks with Hitler’s and Judas Iscariot’s as one of the foulest that was ever spoken.

Some actors should just stay away from politics.

Sir Rex Harrison: Inventor of Speak Singing

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd


Sir Rex Harrison, Inventor of Speak-Singing 

Today is the birthday of stage and screen Sir Rex Harrison (Reginald Harrison, 1908-1990). It’s safe to say that Harrison was the first serious English actor with whom I had any wide familiarity as a child, and I’m betting that’s true of many Americans of my age. He was frequently on television variety and talk shows throughout the 1970s (he was funny and also famous for his many marriages — six — as well as some notorious affairs). I imagine I encountered his films in roughly this order: Dr. Doolittle (1967), My Fair Lady (1964), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Blithe Spirit (1945), Major Barbara (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Ann and the King of Siam (1946) and, quite recently, Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948). This leaves plenty I’ve yet to see; I’m particularly interested in Night Train to Munich (1940).

Harrison was certainly an early pathway to Shaw for me through My Fair Lady and Major Barbara. Onstage he’d also starred in Caesar and Cleopatra, Heartbreak House, and The Devil’s Disciple. I think of him as the consummate interpreter of Shaw, virtually his mouthpiece. For example, I’ve never seen him as Shaw’s Caesar (it’s Claude Rains in the 1945 film) yet I always picture the character as him when I read the play. Possibly partially because he played him in the 1963 blockbuster, but also because one comes to know and cherish Harrison’s delivery. It is a perfect match. Another stage performance of his I’d wish I’d seen is his Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) — it’s Richard Burton in the 1969 movie.

Harrison’s also the inventor of the technique of “speak-singing” which I confess I’ve always found frustrating. I’m the farthest thing from a musicals-Nazi, but often you hear the terrific melody the songwriters have written, and well, it feels a cheat not to hear it sung.

Originally from Lancashire, Harrison was educated in Liverpool College, where he began his career in the professional theatre in 1924. He first appeared in films and on the West End in 1930, and went to Hollywood in 1946.

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.

Florence Roberts: Star of Sapho

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd



Today is the birthday of Florence Roberts (1871-1927). This is yet another Florence Roberts, quite a different one from the professional old lady we wrote about here. This Florence Roberts was a San Francisco based trouper in melodrama and vaudeville, known for her Shakespearean acting. Her one Broadway credit was a 1906 show called The Strength of the Weak. In 1912 she appeared in a film version of the stage sensation Sapho. The following year she appeared on a bill at the Palace Theatre, the very first week it was open. In the late teens she toured South Africa with a production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. She was the step-grandmother of actresses Joan, Barbara and Constance Bennett. 

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.


Helen Dauvray: The California Diamond

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Sport & Recreation, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd


Helen Dauvray (1859-1923) has a birthday today. A prominent stage actress of her day (and one of the few female actor-managers), today she is best remembered for her private life and a brief connection to baseball.

Dauvray began her career as a child actress under the stage name Little Nell, the California Diamond. A fortunate investment in the Comstock Mine made her financially independent. She went to Paris to study, and performed at the Folies Dramatique in 1884. In 1885 she came to New York and started producing her own stage vehicles, including Mona at the Star Theatre, and at the Lyceum, Dakolar, and then Bronson Howard’s One of Our Girls, which turned out to be a major hit, which she frequently revived and toured across the U.S. and England. She also composed a popular song called “The One of Our Girls Polka”. Other plays she produced and appeared in at the Lyceum included A Scrap of Paper, Met By Chance, Masks and Faces, and Walda Lamar. She also played on variety stages as was the custom of the time.


In 1887, she married John Montgomery Ward, a member of the New York Giants who had recently graduated from law school, and was one of the founders of the first players union. She boasted that he was a “charming and cultured man” who could “speak five languages fluently”. On account of their celebrated relationship, professional baseball’s first championship trophy, instituted in 1888, was known as the Helen Dauvray Cup. (It was known by that time until after the couple divorced. In 1893 it was renamed the Temple Cup.) When the couple first married, Dauvray retired from the stage briefly, causing her to break a contract with Henry Miner, resulting in negative publicity. She and Ward caused a scandal by when they separated in 1890.


In 1896 she married naval officer Albert Winterhalter, who would be the man who first raised the American flag in Hawaii following its official annexation (1898), and would eventually attain the rank of Admiral, commanding the U.S. Asiatic Fleet 1915-1917. Dauvray retired upon her marriage to Winterhalter as well, with the exception of one comeback vaudeville engagement at Proctor’s in New York in 1901. When the reception was not encouraging, the writing was on the wall.

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.


Helen McKellar: A Favorite of O’Neill

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2017 by travsd


Actress Helen MacKeller (1895-1966) was born on this calendar day.

Originally from Detroit, MacKellar began trouping in melodramas and vaudeville as a teenager. I see references to her in reviews and playbills as early as 1910 appearing in cities like Spokane, Scranton, San Francisco and Salinas, Kansas. In 1916 she made her Broadway debut in the original production of Seven Chances (later adapted into the famous Buster Keaton vehicle).  Throughout the teens, twenties and early thirties she was a big wheel on Broadway and in Big Time Vaudeville. In 1917, she toured the big time with a one-act called “The Jay Driver” by Edmund Burke. Her notable Broadway vehicles included Back Pay (1921) by Fanny Hurst and The Mud Turtle (1925). It is said that Eugene O’Neill was a particular fan and wanted her for All God’s Chillun Got Wings but she couldn’t wrap her head around the miscegenation. With the exception of a stint as a replacement in Dear Ruth (1944-46), her last Broadway show was Bloody Laughter (1931-32).

Her Hollywood career began auspiciously when she starred in The Past of Mary Holmes (1933), featuring Jean Arthur, Skeets Gallagher and Rosco Ates, and Crane Wilbur’s High School Girl (1934). But despite her illustrious stage past she was destined not to be top-billed in films, but instead a character actress and often even an uncredited bit player. She was often in westerns such as Dark Command (1940) and The Great Train Robbery (1941). MacKellar retired from films in 1944 to return to the stage for Dear Ruth, then spent her last 20 years in retirement.

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.


Tonight: Leah, the Forsaken

Posted in Indie Theatre, Melodrama and Master Thespians, PLUGS with tags , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd


At Travalanche we are of the opinion that all who were once household words…should always be so. My friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse share a similar mission, making the works of pivotal theatremakers from earlier times live and breathe today. One of these is Master of Melodrama Augustin Daly, and their present offering of his play Leah the Forsaken (opening tonight) couldn’t be more timely: it’s all about a persecuted refugee. The more things change, the more they stay the same! The Metropolitan’s work is always top-notch, educational, and thought-provoking. Get your tickets for Leah the Forsaken here.

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