Archive for the Hollywood (History) 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.

On Nazi Comedies

Posted in Comedy, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2017 by travsd

Good heavens — no! I don’t mean great comedies MADE by the Nazi film studios!  I apologize if I gave you that impression, although if it got you here then it was a good headline. No, no, I mean, great comedies at the EXPENSE of the Nazis, of course. There’s enough of such movies to make a mini sub-genre. And you know what? Now is the ideal time to revive it.  A substantial portion of the American populace think it’s okay to warm up to Fascism; an even bigger slice think it’s fine to be soft on it, or pretend they don’t see it. But Fascism, like dog shit, is pretty unmistakable. It looks and smells odious. Animals, in their innocence, roll around in it. The rest of humanity, inasmuch as they represent humanity, have a zero tolerance policy towards it. You’re supposed to say, “Jesus! Dog shit!” Then you put a clothes pin on your nose, don some gloves, scoop the plop into a bag, and remove it from your midst. It’s the only rational course to take when confronted with unrepentant, unchanging racists, bigots, and authoritarians in a country that’s supposed to be free. You do not “live with” dog poop, even in a society of maximum tolerance. “What’s that next to the coffee table?” “Oh, that’s just some of the dog’s poop. What are you gonna do, right?” And if it’s outside your power to move the thing? Well, if you can’t scoop the abomination up, you can try to shrink it where it sits until it doesn’t matter any more. You can belittle Fascists, make them feel and appear insignificant, expose them as weak and foolish clowns. Some of our greatest comedians have chosen to make that statement at various times. If you ask me, we can use more than a few new anti-Nazi comedies at this very moment. But until new ones are forthcoming, these are these evergreen classics to enrich us:

The Great Dictator (1940)

The claim that “the Three Stooges did it first” is not completely true — Charlie Chaplin had actually begun pre-production on his satirical masterwork in 1937, three years before the short You Nazty Spy was even a gleam in Jules White’s eye, even if the latter film did beat The Great Dictator into theatres by three months. Chaplin’s comedy was not only devastating and surprisingly accessible but brave. Among Hollywood professionals only he was both rich enough and popular enough to take such a risk at the time. And the mustache made it virtually obligatory. My full essay on The Great Dictator is here. 

You Nazty Spy (1940) and I’ll Never Heil Again (1940)

Like we say, the Three Stooges beat Chaplin into cinemas with their Nazi satire, no doubt emboldened to take the risk by Chaplin. Jews themselves, they were no doubt second to none in their personal outrage at what was happening in Europe. But, speaking of Nazty Spies…the techniques in You Nazty Spy (1940) and its sequel I’ll Never Heil Again (1940) are so similar to what Chaplin was doing in The Great Dictator, I find it hard to believe the Stooges didn’t somehow get wind of what he had planned. Things like the burlesques on proper names, and the use of a globe as a football (where Chaplin had used a globe as a dancing partner) seem awfully similar. Moe is the natural Hitler figure, Curly a curiously apt Goering, and as for Larry, they sort of shoehorn into a Goebbels/Ribbentrop hybrid. After these two comedies, the Stooges continued to make Nazis their villains, frequently having Nazi spies and saboteurs be the bad guys in their films through the end of the war. (Many others used that as a plot device as well: the East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope. If we jump down the “Nazi Spy comedy” rabbit hole, we’ll never get out. This post is more about comedians ridiculing actual Nazis in uniform).

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

This movie was a lot of firsts for me — my first Lubitsch film, my first Jack Benny film, probably my first Carole Lombard film. While today it’s probably Lubitsch’s best known comedy, and in some ways might seem uncharacteristic (it’s so specifically political), there are also ways in which it is right in line with his usual concerns: it’s set in Europe; and it’s about squabbling and adultery on the part of a married couple. I’m not the hugest Lubitsch fan, but this is probably my favorite of his films on account of the farcical perfection of it, and the fact that there is the political anchor to it. Benny and Lombard play a vain, sophisticated husband-and-wife acting team at a Warsaw theatre, just as the Nazis are occupying Poland. They use their acting skills (and their whole like-minded troupe) to deceive the Nazis and foil their plans. There is a poignancy in the film’s quotation of Shylock’s “Hath Not a Jew” speech, but also in the Hamlet quote used as the film’s title. Poland has just ceased to “Be”. Many of the film’s characters have their backs to the wall — they have no choice but to be brave and take risks. What have they got to lose?

Der Fuhrers Face (1943)

This Donald Duck Short won the Oscar for Best Animated Short that year. There were many shorts featuring the Disney characters volunteering to serve, fighting in the war, and helping with home defense. This one went for the propagandistic jugular, and helped popularize the eponymous song, to boot.

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

After the conclusion of WWII there was a grace period of about a year when Nazi spies were still permissible fodder for Hollywood films. Thus we have Orson Welles’ The Stranger, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca all released in 1946. This is the only exception we make to the “No Nazi Spy Comedies” rule. The photo above seems to have been a publicity still — no uniformed Nazis appear in the movie. For my full post on A Night in Casablanca, go here. 

INTERMISSION:

There followed a period of about 20 years when you don’t see Nazis in comedy, for two conflicting reasons, I think. On the one hand, for a while (the 1950s anyway) World War II was passe in movies. On the other hand, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials and all the revelations about the Holocaust, ironically, it was also “too soon” to joke about Nazis. The full extent of their evil was so great. Perhaps, many people thought, it would never be possible to laugh at them ever again.  But that would be to underestimate the power of bad taste.

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971)

Context helps us understand the mind-bogglingly weird phenomenon of Hogan’s Heroes, the sixties’ sit-com set in a Nazi Germany POW camp. One, I think, is the success of the films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), which, mashed-together, add up to something like Hogan’s Heroes. The latter, released only two years before, put an almost cheerful, positive spin on the ordeal of Allied POWs in a German camp. The added twist on the show is that Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane) and his men are secretly spies who pretty much escape in and out of the camp at will to collect information and relay it back to their superiors via a secret radio. The fact that many of the cast members were Jewish Holocaust survivors (I’ve blogged about one, Robert Clary) was a kind of insurance against charges of callousness. And in the long run, maybe Hogan’s Heroes was almost cathartic, laughing at silly, ineffectual Nazis every week. The show remained on the air for six years — an extremely long time for a television sit com.

La Grand Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now…We’re Being Shot At) (1966)

For 40 years this unpretentious, enjoyable comedy was the most successful movie in France in terms of box office. And it’s a great movie; I just watched it for the first time this morning. How odd that Americans have never heard of it. It’s extremely popular throughout the world, regarded as a kind of classic. In fact, it’s so well made that I watched this French film on Youtube without English dubbing or subtitles and was able to follow it perfectly.  Its simple plot: RAF pilot Terry-Thomas and his crew are forced to bail over occupied Paris. Some locals (played by French stars Bouvril and Louis de Funes, and others) help them to evade the occupying Nazis through a string of subterfuges, involving lots of farce and slapstick. Again, the Nazis are presented as straw men, easy to fool, easy to bonk on the head, easy to hide from. If only ’twere ever thus!

The Producers (1967)

Dick Shawn’s Hippie Hitler, Kenneth Mars’ stormtrooper playwright, and songs like “Springtime for Hitler” are only some of the delightful outrages in Mel Brooks pathbreaking satire. And it wasn’t even the first time he went there (think of “Siegfried” in Get Smart, which Brooks had co-created with Buck Henry).

Which Way to the Front? (1969)

For better or worse, the years 1969-1972 were Jerry Lewis’s Nazi period, encompassing not only this comedy but his later notorious drama, the unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972). Until we see the latter we won’t know which is the worse film, although I think of Which Way to the Front? as being among this comedy auteur’s worst. Based on a story by the one and only Dick Miller, it concerns a 4F millionaire who decides he’ll fight the war anyway with his own private army of misfits (which also seems a twist on The Dirty Dozen, which was released at around the same time.) Lewis’s character masquerades as a Nazi general and makes it all the way to Hitler, who, for some reason, has a Beatles haircut. In fact every dude in the movie has hair that’s way too long, they wear the wrong clothes, and the interior sets are all decorated wrong. The only thing Lewis seems to have gotten right or cared about was the actual Nazi uniforms. It is a deeply weird and grating movie. Oh, and don’t worry — he doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine.

Soft Beds, Hard Battles aka Undercovers Hero (1974)

This is too interesting a movie to be as obscure as it is. Perhaps it is the fact that the film has no less than TWO terrible titles. And the movie….needs work. I’m sure a lot of people watch it and write it off as terrible, but I found myself fairly riveted, and not just because of all the topless women running around. It’s one of those comedies where Peter Sellers plays several characters, and in this, one of them is Adolph Hitler. It’s made by the Boulting Brothers, who made earlier Sellers films like I’m All Right, Jack (1959) and There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970). Here, they seem like they’re trying to get topical and experimental. The scenario is a lot like Genet’s The Balcony, set in a French brothel, where all the call girls have been called upon by the Resistance to spy on (and sometimes bump off) their high-up Nazi clientele. For some reason that must have seemed clever at the time, but must also have dated the film instantly, a Richard Nixon impersonator is the narrator.  Oh, and don’t worry — Sellers doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine, either.

To Be or Not to Be re-make (1983)

I have never been really sure why this film exists. There is some logic I guess, given Mel Brooks track record, of casting him in a remake of To Be or Not to Be, and the director Alan Johnson is the guy who choreographed “Springtime for Hitler”. But the original movie was perfect. Why remake it? This version doesn’t particularly recontextualize the story or reinvigorate it or put any new twist on it. Why make this picture in 1983? At the time, Poland was in the news because of the labor strikes and so forth, but this doesn’t particularly seem attached to that, or to anything really. It’s just a remake, almost like Gus Van Sandt’s 1998 Pyscho is a remake. Now, on the other hand — now would be an excellent time to remake this movie. It would indeed.

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.

 

The Moylan Sisters: The Angels of the Airwaves

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Sister Acts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

July 16 was the birthday of Marianne Moylan (1930-90). Along with her sister Peggy Joan (1932-2002), she was part of the kiddie act The Moylan Sisters.

All of 7 and 5 when they made their debut on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, the girls were prized for their naturalness and purity. They sang beautifully and in nice harmony, but unlike most kiddie acts they were not precocious and show bizzy. They were real kids, not performing freaks. Their repertoire tells the tale; they did songs like “School Days”, “I Don’t Want  to Play in Your Yard” and “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-I.”  Billed as “The Cinderellas of Radio” and “The Angels of the Airwaves”, they also made records, live appearances and  several short films, including The Backyard Broadcast (1936), Starlets (1937), Toyland Casino (1937 — a Vitaphone, which is how I first learned of them), and World’s Fair Junior (1939). In 1939, they were given their own network radio show, which remained on the air through 1945. For a while the show was sponsored by Thrivo Dog Food. The Thrivo jingle which they sang was one of their most popular and well-known numbers. At one point, their show was the second most popular in the country, topped only by The Shadow.

The girls both seem to have retired from the business in the early 1950s. Born and raised in Sag Harbor, New York, the Irish Catholic children of an engraver at a watch factory. They attended school at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Marianne married a local plumbing contractor in 1953 and became a homemaker, remaining in Sag Harbor. Peggy Joan married in 1955, also choosing the domestic life over a career. She moved to Maine for a time before returning to New York. Both women continued to sing in church after their professional retirement.

The act was parodied in the 1976 Broadway musical Annie as “The Boylan Sisters.”

For everything you need to to know about the variety arts, including kiddie acts, sister acts, and radio variety, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

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