Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

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With the National Hobo Convention in play this weekend, it seemed a good time to revisit the terrific and wonderfully strange Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by S.N. Behrman from a Ben Hecht idea.

In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually a good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: the two men meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York.

Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver, and several silent comedy hands and vaudevillians in smaller roles and walk-ons. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend (Madge Evans). She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!

The film has many magical elements but somehow lacks the alchemy to be the complete transformational experience that would have made it a better-known classic. It seems a little torn perhaps between two standard genres of the period: 1) crazy fantasy comedy and 2) screwball comedy. (I wish there were better terms in place for me to more clearly make the distinction between the two very different forms I referred to.k The former refers to films like the early Marx Bros, of W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, or International House…crazy comedies with no real rules: outlandish plots and characters with crazy names—anything goes. The latter (screwball) generally refers to Capraesque romantic comedies, a sort of flip side of noir actually…where the coming together of a mismatched couple makes sparks fly in all directions and they have an adventure.

Though the film is beautiful in its way, it could have gone farther.  The production feels sort of cramped and low-budget. The costumes and sets could have gone wild… the hobos and their camp could and should have been been amazing, but fall short. Another thought: by 1934, it’s very hard to have sympathy for the Jimmy Walker type — the guy who’s into high living. Though Depression era movies were full of rich people and their foibles, I don’t think we usually see much of the decadent, dissipating type, at least not as a sympathetic character. The moment for drunken partying was past. So this character seems sort of out of step.

Interesting to me that the communism of Langdon’s character is presented as a mere foible…that would have been impossible in films just a few years later. It’s definitely a bellwether of the time in which it was made.

For more on many of the stars in this film see my books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

Ten Tramp Comedians

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

This weekend is the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I have always been partial both to the hobo ethic itself (I’ve been working on an essay about that very thing for a while now) and the image of the Tramp Comedian or Clown. The first costume I can recall ever wearing was a tramp/clown get-up for a Halloween parade when I was about four years old. It captures the imagination — the rootless wanderer, riding the rails, hitting the road, no ties, bindlestiff on his shoulder. Samuel Beckett put a core of such characters at the center of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the first non-children’s show I ever saw in a theatre. And it’s the theme of one of my favorite terrifically strange movie musicals Hallelujah I’m a Bum

The theme is romantic, sentimental. And, in the hands of the right comedian, it is funny. Here’s a handful of some prominent ones from vaudeville, circus and films (there were scores, maybe hundreds of others besides these). Just click the links below to learn more about the performers.

Charlie Chaplin

Tramp comedians had long been popular in vaudeville and music hall when Chaplin decided to take his screen character in that direction, thus becoming the most popular tramp in the entire world. Not only were there other tramp comics in the world, but there were several that looked like Charlie’s. Chaplin was said (by some) to have taken his took from Billie Ritchie ; in turn Billy West stole his look and act from Chaplin.

Nat M. Wills

Billed as “The Happy Tramp”, Wills may well have been America’s most popular stage tramp from the turn of the century to his untimely death in 1917. He was a star of vaudeville, Broadway, and some of the very first comedy albums.

Harrigan

Harrigan was widely emulated in vaudeville from the late 19th century through the early 20th as the first tramp juggler. 

W.C. Fields

One of the many to emulate Harrigan early in his career was the young W.C. Fields, shown here in his tramp get-up around the turn of the century

Emmett Kelly a.k.a Wearie Willie

Circus performer Emmett Kelly’s sad clown make-up and costume were so much imitated it became a cliche.

Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader

Stage and screen Skelton had a repertoire of many characters; his clown “bum” Freddie may have been the most beloved.

Lew Bloom

Bloom was the first of the tramp comedians, preceding even Wills or Harrigan. He was known as “The Society Tramp”.

George Dewey Washington 

African American comedian George Dewey Washington affected a tramp look in Broadway and in films.

To learn more about vaudeville, including specialties like tramp comedians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

 

 

The Courtney Sisters (featuring Florence, Georgie Jessel’s First Wife)

Posted in Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

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August 11, 1892 was the birthday of Florence Courtney (Florence Grismer). With her sister Fay, she was one half of the vaudeville singing duo The Courtney Sisters. Joe Laurie, Jr. called them “one of the first great harmony sister acts”. Originally from Texas, the Grismer family moved to Missouri, and then finally to New York, where their mother pursued a career as a model and the daughters tried to break into show business.

They’re already making a noise in vaudeville by 1912; by that point they were already popular enough to feature on sheet music, like this immortal classic from that year:

In 1914, Florence married ragtime piano player Mike Bernard, a rake who had previously had an affair with Blossom Seeley, fathered children out of wedlock with a Ziegfeld girl, and was to marry two other times. Not surprisingly, they divorced two years later.

The Courtney Sisters made it all the way to Broadway, appearing in the shows The Little Whopper (1919), Blue Eyes (1921), and Snapshots of 1921. 

In 1919, Florence met and married Georgie Jessel.

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One gets Jessel’s side of their rocky romance in his typically self-serving autobiography So Help Me. The Courtney Sisters were big time when the Florence and Jessel got together, whereas Jessel was still kind of second tier. But that was the year his own career broke out as well. The way he paints it, everything conspired to undermine the marriage. First both husband and wife were too busy. Fay was against her sister’s marriage, afraid it would break up the act. Then Jessel was out of work and not bringing in dough. Then he was working again. Then there were affairs because they were apart. They separated almost immediately, then got a formal divorce in 1921. Then they got back together, then broke up again, then remarried in 1923.  Meanwhile, the Courtney Sisters had broken up; Florence appeared solo in five Broadway shows through 1925. Then she did retire from show business and became intensely religious, which further alienated Jessel. So they were frequently separated, she didn’t like to go out and party more, and had lost the “whoopie” energy that had attracted him in the first place. There were plenty of affairs. Still, they didn’t get divorced again until 1932. Perhaps out of spite she kept “forgiving him” which was pretty clearly what he didn’t want. He had begun seeing Norma Talmadge during their marriage; she was to be his second wife in 1934.

When Florence passed away in 1989, she had remarried; her surname was then Mayehoff.

To learn more about vaudeville, including acts like the Courtney Sisters, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Pickens Sisters: Singers of High Society

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2017 by travsd

Jane Pickens (1908-1992) of the Pickens Sisters was born on this day. She’s chiefly on my radar because I’ve lived and recreated in Newport, Rhode island, where she was a longtime resident (summer and otherwise) and there is a theatre there named after her.

Jane was the musical leader and arranger of the trio that first included her sisters Grace and Helen. Grace later became the group’s manager, replaced by the fourth sister Patti. The girls were Southern belles from Georgia, taught to harmonize by their mother. Their father, a wealthy cotton broker, loved to accompany them on piano. In the early 1930s, they moved to New York’s Park Avenue and became involved in New York, Long Island and Newport Society. They often sang at private functions, with a specialty in what were then called “Negro Spirituals”. Fortunately, a search was on at the time to find female trios to compete with the popular Boswell Sisters. The Pickenses were spotted at a party and quickly landed both a radio deal and a recording contract.

Their radio shows ran from 1932 through 1936. They appeared in the 1933 Vitaphone short 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, and in the 1933 feature Sitting Pretty. Next came the Broadway revue Thumbs Up! (1934-1935). Jane sang solo in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

The group split up when several sisters left to get married. Patti married radio actor Bob Simmons, with whom she performed for a time as Pickens and Simmons. Jane, the most serious about music, studied at several prestigious schools, and continued her career as a solo. She appeared on Broadway three more times: in the revue Boys and Girls Together (1940-1941), as the title character in Regina, a musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1949), and the musical Music in the Air (1951). She also made several appearances on television variety shows through the mid 1950s, and even briefly had her own such series as a replacement in 1954.

Jane was married thrice, to T.J. Russell Clark (whom she divorced), stockbroker William Langley, and Walter Hoving (the head of Tiffany and Bonwit Teller, and father of the Met Museum’s Thomas Hoving). In 1972 she ran as the Republican against Ed Koch for a New York Congressional seat (unsuccessfully, of course). Newport’s Jane Pickens Theater, named after her, opened in 1974. She died in Newport in 1992. Patti, the youngest sister, was in the midst of plans to record a tribute album to her deceased sisters when she too passed away in 1995.

Why My Low Regard for Lou Costello is Not Just “My Opinion”

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2017 by travsd

On the other hand, my high regard for the skill of Bud Abbott is a matter of record.

Having re-posted last year’s piece about “When Classic Comedy Died” yesterday and having gotten some of the usual expected chagrined replies, I offer this long-germinating blanket rebuttal.

What you get a lot when you write criticism is the age-old retort that “opinions are subjective” and “that it’s all just a matter of taste.” That is certainly a partial truth, and you’ll find my own defenses of that point of view in numerous writings of mine, including this one on Ed Wood and this one on John Waters. I don’t expect everyone to love these highly idiosyncratic film-makers as I do. I simply champion them and share my enjoyment with others. That said, I’ll also express what has come to be something of a heresy in America: all opinions are not equal. For someone who dares to call himself a professional critic, the weight of his opinion is partly a matter of instinct but also a matter of cultivation.

What does cultivation consist of? It consists of education. I don’t mean a university degree (I don’t possess one, although I did study criticism at the college level). I mean exposure — to as much relevant human culture as possible over as long a time as possible. In the case of comedy film that refers to the work of particular comedians (in their entirety), the work of particular directors and producers and writers and studios (in their entirety), the entire history of comedy film, the entire history of cinema…and THEN everything that’s relevant to THAT: the entire history of theatre, of visual art, of literature, of dance, of music…and THEN, because cinema is a form of cultural expression, everything that’s relevant to that, which essentially means a solid grounding in world history.  And, then, because you are writing as a critic, it also means reading widely the work of the greatest past critics in every artistic field. And, then, if you want to be a truly great critic of comedy, it doesn’t hurt to be an actual PRACTITIONER of comedy, to study and perform it and write it and make it, and to live and work among other professionals within its myriad forms, whether it’s stand-up, or clowning, or acting in Noel Coward. Beyond that, it is helpful to have had the experience of doing all these things over several decades.

To have to done all that is to have the ability to look at something and know –with great assurance — what is possible. I have a better than sketchy awareness of what has been accomplished over the past two millennia in western culture, so I can easily imagine what CAN be done. And thus I have an opinion about what OUGHT to be done. The usual response is a sort of chagrined, infantile, sputtering “How can you say that? How dare you say that?”  My answer is: Well, because I have seen this, this , this, and this. The feeble thing you champion is very sparing in virtues I know to exist and are fully within the ability of an artist to concoct, execute and share. You come to me with the scribblings and caterwauling of toddlers, the makework of yawning time-servers, and you say it is a classic and it is “great” and I tell you it’s not. What do I care what someone who knows less than me thinks? The Village Idiot may laugh at a dog on fire in the middle of the street; does that mean I have to be impressed and respect that opinion? I have been to the Himalayas, trekked through the Sahara, Sailed the Seven Seas. Those who haven’t can call a foothill “Everest”, but I won’t be fooled.

Some people who don’t read very well claimed that my take-down of Lou Costello in my book Chain of Fools was not supported. NOPE. The entire book draws a very careful picture of my idea of what an excellent comedian is and does, what the challenges are, what the criteria for excellence are. And then I go on to point out that Costello does not learn from the wisdom of the artists who had solved the same comedy problems 30 years earlier and does NOT follow in their footsteps. I don’t know that Costello even grappled with the problems, he just blew them off, probably wasn’t even aware that they existed. But they do. Expertise IS A THING. Knowledge and skill EXIST. We now live in a society where those attributes are so disrespected and shunted aside that a man (and I use the term loosely) with neither expertise or knowledge or any other virtue has assumed THE HIGHEST OFFICE IN THE LAND. In the ideal world, pretenders aren’t even worth talking about. In the real world, they attain places of prominence and power and popularity all the time, and so they must be pointed out, exposed, confronted, ridiculed, and whatever else it takes to crack open whatever mass delusion has allowed them to pollute human culture.

I don’t care if you – or billions of people — “like Lou Costello” or “find him funny”. I’ve never said I don’t laugh at him, by the way, or that I didn’t “like” portions of the boring, ill-made movies he co-starred in. As I say in Chain of Fools, we all laugh at the contortions of idiots all the time in our lives. I am going to ride the subway later today. Inevitably, some real life characters out there are going to make me privately smile. But there are standards in any field. Having watched thousands of movies, read and seen hundreds of plays and novels, and performed myself for decades, my standards for comedy are extremely high. These include:

  1. Physical skill. Chaplin or Keaton or any of the great physical comedians of the silent era could take a pratfall (for example) with laser accurate precision. “You want me to fall? Where should I land? How should I land? You need a backflip? A nip-up? I can land with my ass in this bucket if you want.”  The level of skill is important because it allows us to draw a line between the artist’s intention and the execution. Did he do what he set out to do? This is fundamental for all criticism, and we are talking about criticism, are we not?  Costello has zero chops in this area. In this regard, he never deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great physical comedians. He is a great mass of imprecision. He simply lets fly and gravity does the rest. Costello is just randomly fooling around, like a dog or a chimp does onstage when it stops listening to its trainer. But he’s worse than that, because unlike the dog or the monkey, HE DOESN’T KNOW ANY TRICKS. Buster Keaton or Lupino Lane or Al St. John can do a no-hands somersault. What can Costello do? Don’t call him a “slapstick master” if he hasn’t mastered any slapstick!
  2. Acting ability. This is just as crucial in comedy as in drama, at least in any comedy with a plot. This isn’t necessarily an argument for verisimilitude or truth or believability, although in the best comedians even that can be quite funny. But a comedian’s performance, unless he intends to purposely be subversive, is ideally to serve the narrative by responding to plot developments as the character in the story would. As a clown, the responses can and should be exaggerated. But they must purposeful, not RANDOM. Costello’s reactions very rarely match what is called for in the script. Some can, and probably will, argue that he is being subversive. My question would be, to what end? OF COURSE, a case can be made for doing the wrong things the wrong way for the sake of comedy. Harry Langdon, the Marx Brothers? But I KNOW what they’re doing, I know HOW they are being subversive and defying our expectations. Costello makes faces, squirms, flinches, falls down, but not in ways that serve the story, not in ways that mirror human behavior or human experience, but simply as a selfish, scene stealing plea for attention — so it’s neither art, nor craft nor even a good show. He short circuits whatever’s going on, stops the movie cold, shuts out all his scene partners, and makes a direct demand to the audience that they laugh at his funny faces for the sake alone of THAT. By his actions he is telling us not to care about the story, nor even to care about the character he is playing. The only thing that matters, he tells us with his actions, is the gratification, of him, Lou Costello. He acts out like a kindergartner with A.D.D., with neither logic nor coherence NOR intentional illogic or incoherence. He’s just an idiot. Not a comedian PLAYING an idiot. I mean documentary footage of an ACTUAL idiot, fucking around. It’s about as rewarding as laughing at the Titticut Follies. It may be temporarily amusing, but I don’t see where I’m obligated to RESPECT that, let alone EXPRESS respect for that.

Attached to these evaluationary measurements, my reactions to Costello’s comedy are much less like “mere opinions” and much more like objectivity. I am literally MEASURING his films against those of much more skilled comedians (there are many of them). If you like him uncritically, I consider it much more likely that YOUR’S is a “mere opinion” — an unexamined reflex action, an outgrowth of an impression you first formed when you were about four years old. Naturally we love things we first encountered when we were young. Here is a list of mine. I don’t argue that they are all brilliant or classics or that they need to mean anything to anyone else. Some are quite bad; I just happen to love them. So let it be, for God’s Sake, with Lou Costello.

Right?  So this isn’t about “I don’t like Lou Costello.” There are very definite reasons why Lou Costello fails to fulfill his function as a movie comedian on just about every single level. People always come back with “Well, he makes me laugh”. Well he occasionally makes me laugh too, but so can a Youtube video of a pig splashing around in its own shit. That doesn’t cause me to respect him, or call him “one of the greats”, or call his fuckin’ terrible assembly line movies “classics”! Give me a fuckin’ break here!   It depends what you want out of a movie I guess. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a film that’s 70% filler, punctuated with sporadic comedy routines starring a comedian who can neither act nor take a decent pratfall nor even hit his mark. But hey if that’s good enough for you, be my guest! By this measure, I guess Johnny Knoxville is Grimaldi. 

R.I.P. Glen Travis Campbell

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, OBITS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on August 8, 2017 by travsd

R.I.P. Glen Campbell, who passed away today at the age of 81, and let me tell you something, that ages ME, because well do I remember our family gathered to watch The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour when Campbell was a fairly young man in his mid to late 30s. Campbell’s tv variety show carried more political significance than most folks probably realize. It debuted on CBS in 1968, to replace the abruptly cancelled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Begone, troublesome, controversial satire; make way, for light, wholesome, apolitical all-American fun!

I don’t think Campbell was conservative particularly, he just liked to pick and grin and give everybody a good time. In fact, that was sort of his comic persona, such as it was, on his own tv show, and when he appeared on other people’s variety shows, and in his rare film appearances as in True Grit (1969). He liked to play that he was dumb, cheerful, a little goofy. If he’d been a better actor he’d have been PERFECT for the character of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). I’d be shocked if the character wasn’t somehow BASED on his persona. (Ye Gods, Nilson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin'”, the movie’s theme song, backed by the Wrecking Crew, of which Campbell had been a member, SOUNDS like Campbell!)

wit Ray Charles on The Goodtime Hour

Anyway, the point is that he was an Arkansas hillbilly, All-American, the same stock of people as my dad’s family. Not only do we have many a Campbell in our family tree; but Glen Campbell’s middle name — like mine — was Travis.  (And my grandfather’s name was Glenn!) 1968 was a moment of sea change, when the country turned away from Kennedy-Johnson era activism and towards Richard Nixon. The right-wing hell we have been living in ever since can be traced at least as far back as that. I don’t blame Campbell for it; like I said he wasn’t a political guy (he was a registered Democrat who supported both parties and swung more Republican in later years).

On the other hand, it’s the company you keep. Here he was with the Duke in “True Grit”. He also teamed up with neo-con Clint Eastwood a decade later in “Every Which You Can”

But damn I love his music. I particularly love “Witchita Lineman” (1968). My friend Frank Cwiklik used it for his stage adaptation of Quicksand which I acted in back somewhere around the turn of the century, and MAN I grew to loving hearing that song every night, its surprising melodic turns, and that voice of Campbell’s ringing out clear as a bell. My oldest brother, a bit of an obsessive compulsive, had a major thing for “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975) — I must have heard that one a thousand times. And I must have heard “Southern Nights” (1977) almost that many times strictly from radio plays.  “Gentle On My Mind” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix (both 1967), and “Galveston” (1968) are all great too, if less flashy.

But above all I associate him with youth: apple-cheeked, red-blooded, tow-headed health and vigor. For God’s sake, he’d even been a substitute Beach Boy! I think that’s why so many of us were so shocked a few years back when stories broke about his Alzheimer’s. Photographs of the grizzled and confused old man, no longer cheerful, in fact, now kind of snappish and nasty. The Glen Campbell everybody first knew and loved died quite a while back, I think. It’ll always be bittersweet to look at those older clips and listen to the older records. But it always is anyway.

The Several Stages of Sylvia Sidney

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2017 by travsd

Sylvia Sidney (Sophia Kosow, 1910-1999) was born on this day. I’m an enormous fan of this Hollywood screen actress in all her phases (which we’ll describe), but first, her surprising background.

Perhaps because of the strong impression she makes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), which I first saw when I was pretty young (13 or 14), I’d always formed an idea of Sidney as pretty Anglo, subconsciously anyway. And there are some parallels in her career arc with Bette Davis (see below), who was as Anglo as it gets. But Sidney was in fact the Bronx born daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. As a teenager she began to take acting classes at the Theatre Guild to deal with her shyness. That quality of shyness, sweetness, and apparent modesty was later be a major component of her screen character, something she shared with Olivia de Havilland and Ruby Keeler. If anything, Sidney had it to an even greater degree, even if, off-camera, she could be quite a terror. Her later marriage to Yiddish theatre scion Luther Adler from 1938 to 1946 further points to her origins, as do some of her later screen roles, as in Raid on Entebbe (1976).

Sidney’s professional stage and screen debuts happened simultaneously. In 1927 she was in the Broadway revue Crime (for which she got excellent reviews) and that same year she was also an extra, along with the unknown Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sothern, in the film Broadway Nights. She was a constant presence on Broadway through 1930. After that, she continued to return to the stage sporadically over the rest of her career. Her last Broadway role was in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre (1977).

By the early 30s Sidney was already a movie star, with the apparent help of her benefactor (and lover) B.P. Schulberg. She stepped in as the replacement for Clara Bow in City Streets (1931), which made her a star; other notable pictures of the early years included An American Tragedy (1931); Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1931); Thirty Day Princess (1934), penned by Preston Sturges; the Technicolor western The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the aforementioned Sabotage and Fritz Lang’s Fury (both 1936), and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End (1937).

Sidney’s beauty was of the rarest type; her enormous eyes were both “innocent” and sensuous; her bee-stung lips reinforced the latter impression even as her tremulous voice conveyed the sentiments of a damsel in distress. These traits promised the sort of stardom she’d enjoyed in the 30s far into the future. But she developed a well earned reputation for being “difficult”. She was smart, finicky, and temperamental, and given to passionate outbursts, even given to throwing things at her colleagues. She lost the affections and patronage of Schulberg, who’d lost his stature in the industry anyway. In 1935 she married Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, but the marriage only lasted three months. She starred in only 5 films during the 1940s (contrast this with the single year of 1931, when she appeared in 4).

Starting in the 1950s her main jam was dramatic television, and she was working A LOT. In fact she worked constantly from that point until her death. And this resulted in a very strange phenomenon. Late career Sylvia Sydney was an extremely familiar face to tv and movie watchers: guest shots on prominent tv shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, roles in schlocky horror films like Snowbeast (1977) and Damien: Omen II (1978) (which is why I compared her to Bette Davis above). Tim Burton loved her so much he put her in both Beetlejuice (1988) and Mars Attacks! (1996). I knew her face well, but I never paid particular attention to her name. Thus…it took me years — decades, actually — to match the Sylvia Sidney of the 1930s, whose work I knew well, with the Sylvia Sidney of the 70s, 80s and 90s, whose work I also knew well! And then one day, a few years ago, it dawned on me while watching a film of the later period, “Wait a minute! That’s Sylvia Sidney. THAT Sylvia Sidney!” Isn’t that strange?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, unlike late Bette Davis, she didn’t get star billing in these later performances; she was usually a supporting player in an ensemble. So her name is buried in the credits. And yes, the years had changed her appearance. But also her screen character had changed quite a lot in the intervening years. Once the sweet, innocent damsel, she was now a crusty old, short tempered dame with a husky smoker’s voice. (Ruby Keeler had made a similar evolution). Making the leap would be easier, I gather, by looking at performances from her middle period of the 40s and 50s, when she worked on changing her image to something a bit naughtier, but I remained (and still remain) deficient in seeing her work from this period.

Mid-period, transitional Sidney

Ironically, in light of the hilarious sight gag Tim Burton had employed in Beetlejuice (where she smoked through a hole in her neck), Sidney died of cancer of the esophagus at age 89.

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