Of Billie Thomas and Buckwheat

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by travsd

Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas was born on this day in 1931.

Thomas was all of three years old when he began to appear in Hal Roach’s Our Gang (Little Rascals) comedy shorts in 1934.

It wasn’t until 1935 that he began playing Buckwheat, a character previously played by Carlena Beard (Stymie’s sister) and Willie Mae Walton. Buckwheat was pretty clearly an attempt by Roach and his creative team to re-create the popularity of the previous Our Gang character Farina, who’d been with the series from 1922 through 1931, both by being gender-ambiguous, and by being identified with breakfast food.

Starting with the 1936 feature General Spanky, which was set during the Civil War, Buckwheat started to be attired more as a traditional “pickaninny” character and became more overtly male. Thomas remained with the series until it ended in 1944.

He later retired from show business and served in the army during the Cold War. He passed away in 1980, the same year as Farina.

Ironically, one year after he died, Eddie Murphy began portraying him on Saturday Night Live, the recurring bit becoming one of his most popular and enduring routines. The joke was that the adult Buckwheat spoke in the same adorable, childish speech impediment that he had possessed as a toddler. “O-Tay!” had been the real Buckwheat’s catchphrase; it also became Murphy’s. The success of the character proved problematic. The initial joke had been the absurdity of Buckwheat still talking the same way as a man in his 40s. But its wide popularity resulted in something else. The Our Gang franchise had been progressive in its own time for treating its African American characters as equals or near-equals as the white kids. The African American performers in the films were among the most popular, and certainly they were among America’s earliest black stars, and among the best paid black actors in their day. But that doesn’t mean that the characters weren’t relatively racist by later standards.

As a one-off, Murphy’s initial Buckwheat turn might have been read as naughty satire in the old National Lampoon/ SNL mode, and even at that it would have been a debatable gambit. But the popularity of the routine occasioned an uncritical resurrection of the character. It seemed to become too popular with white people, and for all the wrong reasons. Remember when Dave Chapelle quit his Comedy Central show, saying that he discovered that he was getting the wrong kind of laughter? Well, Buckwheat was getting the wrong kind of laughter. I was in high school at the time, and I can assure you — some of the white kids were laughing at Murphy’s Buckwheat the wrong way. Rather than being a satirist making fun of a black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites, he he had merely become the black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites. For some, that’s a difficult distinction to perceive, but it’s a crucially important one to make and be aware of. You “love” Buckwheat, huh? Do you “love” Billie Thomas? His family? Anybody black, when they’re not wearing overalls and saying “O-tay”? What is it, who is it you love, and why?

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. For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Tomorrow: The Silent Clowns Presents the Greatest Silent Comedy Feature You’ve Never Seen

Posted in AMERICANA, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow, March 11, 2017 at 2:30pm, at Lincoln Center Library, the Silent Clowns Film Series will present the hilarious Raymond Griffith feature Hands Up! (1926).

Griffith’s stock has been rising in recent years, thanks largely to screenings like this, and most aficionados today rank him as something like “the 5th or 6th genius of silent comedy”, somewhere just behind Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Of those I just mentioned Griffith has the most in common, I suppose, with Lloyd, in being less clown-like, more of a comic actor, although his character is very different from Lloyd’s. (For more on Griffith, read my full tribute).

At any rate, my provocative title presumes you’ve already seen every feature by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Hands Up! (1926) is close to them in quality. It is considered Griffith’s finest and best known film. It is a Civil War comedy told from the point of view of the South — released an entire year before Keaton’s The General.  Griffith plays a dashing Confederate spy on a mission to steal Yankee gold. Along the way, he constantly gets into fixes and coolly extricates himself from each one. Its most famous sequence has Griffith up against a wall in front of a firing squad. He gets himself out of the pickle by throwing dinner plates into the air at the crucial second, which his executioners are then obliged to shoot at, thinking they are clay pigeons.  The father of both of his love interests (he is equally in love with two sisters) is played by Mack Swain, in his first role after The Gold Rush.

Full details at the Silent Clowns web site. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Marie Wallace: From the Follies to the Film Colony

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , , on March 9, 2017 by travsd

She’s the One in the Middle

A few tidbits on Marie Wallace (1895-1961),whom I came across in Marjorie Farnsworth’s Ziegfeld Follies book. She was born in Massachusetts to parents who’d emigrated from Ireland, though the surname (if it’s her natural one) would indicate Scots-Irish descent. Circa 1912 she married a gent named David Shelley and gave birth to a son, also named David. This was a complicated time for her, given the fact that the same year she made her debut in the chorus of The Passing Show of 1912. If you’ll do the math, you’ll note that she was rather young — 17 — for both events. She also appeared in The Queen of the Movies (1914), Dance and Grow Thin (1917), Honey Girl (1920), and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, 1918, 1922, and 1923. Her sister Nancy Wallace was also in the Follies, and died in childbirth in 1919.

The publicity still above, from July 1922, bears the caption: “Heat Drives Follies Girls to Roof for Rehearsals. New York — Pearl Eaton, Marie Wallace and Leonore Baron, members of the Ziegfeld Follies Company, give pedestrians on the streets below a couple of eyes-full while they go through their daily rehearsals on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theater. The extreme heat made it necessary for the girls to be put through their paces in the open.” Pearl Eaton was the sister of (Doris Eaton, the Last Follies Girl), and Mary Eaton, from The Cocoanuts.

At some point during her decade-long theatrical career, Marie was either divorced from Mr. Shelley or he passed away, for in April, 1924 she married the popular songwriter Buddy DeSylva and retired from show business. Wallace is said to have been the inspiration for the song “Somebody Loves Me”, by DeSylva (with George Gershwin and Ballard MacDonald.)

DeSylva of course was a Broadway powerhouse. With the advent of talkies, he also became a Hollywood powerhouse, not just as a songwriter but as a producer and studio executive, and the balance of her life was spent on the west coast. Interestingly she appears in a 1929 Fox film short called Nertz, with Buddy, Paul Whiteman and NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Buddy DeSylva passed away in 1950; Wallace survived him by 11 years. Her son David Shelly was the third husband of actress and big band singer Martha Stewart.  (Shelley’s and Stewart’s son, also named David Shelley, was a successful blues rock musician.)

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #1036: Louise Beavers

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by travsd

Louise Beavers’ (1902-1962) birthday is today.

Originally from Cincinnati, Beavers moved to the Los Angeles area with her family at age 11. Her mother was a singing instructor. Through her, Beavers started singing in choirs and amateur concerts, eventually joining a group called “The Lady Minstrels” which played dates in vaudeville and presentation houses. In early adulthood she worked as a domestic to stars like Leatrice Joy and Lilyan Tashman, an irony given the large numbers of servants and house slaves she would play during her movie career. As was sadly common at the time, those sorts of characters were almost exclusively what she got to play.

Her first film work was as an extra in the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When talking films came in she instantly progressed to small speaking roles. She’s in Mary Pickford’s first talkie Coquette (1929), the lost classic Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Bombshell (1933) and dozens of others.

In 1934 she attained the highlight of her career, co-starring with Claudette Colbert in the classic race drama Imitation of Life (1934). While she had ample chance to shine in that movie, and received plenty of good notices, it unfortunately didn’t lead to lots of similar work. She was instantly relegated back to the same sort of domestic roles in films like General Spanky (1936), No Time for Comedy (1940), Holiday Inn (1942), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), although she did get a fine part in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) as the star player’s mother. In the 1950s she was a familiar face on television on shows such as Beulah (1952) and Make Room for Daddy (1953-1954).

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Women’s Strike Rally in NYC Today

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests, Women with tags , , , on March 8, 2017 by travsd

Thoughts on the Selma Anniversary

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, My Family History, Protests with tags , , , on March 7, 2017 by travsd

Today is the anniversary of the attack by police thugs on protesters at the first march in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

The town of Selma was founded by my 6th great uncle. I am related by marriage to the man this bridge was named after, Edmund Pettus,a Confederate General and Grand Dragon in the KKK. Whereas I once suspected I had relatives among the red-faced, crew cutted monsters who beat and sicced dogs on peaceful men, women and children that day: now I know that I do. It feels exactly like those metaphysical chains Jacob Marley is forced to carry around in the afterlife. I’ve spent the last several months (among other things) ruminating about ways to start making work that chips away at this moral debt, in a way that makes sense for me. I’ll be emerging from hibernation over the next several months, with projects that I hope will do more to make the world a better place.  Like so many of my heroes (Voltaire, Charlie Chaplin), I hope to remain entertaining while I do it. But I’ve definitely lost all patience for people who just want to be left alone with their diversions and distractions when the world remains so out of wack. If it bores ya:

Hirschfeld, Cats, Algonquin

Posted in Broadway, SOCIAL EVENTS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2017 by travsd

The three words in the title of this post may SOUND like Speakeasy passwords, but they all came together in a semblance of sense yesterday. The fabled Algonquin Hotel acquired a couple of Al Hirschfeld caricatures of the original production of Cats, and there was a brief unveiling ceremony yesterday afternoon in the Blue Room (thus the impression you’ll get in some of the photos below that we are in an aquarium tank).

Your correspondent and David Leopold, director of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, posing for the cover of our new record album

 

Jessica Hendy of the current “Cats” revival, with Hirschfeld’s caricature of Betty Buckley from the original production

Afterwards, colleagues and I repaired to the adjacent dining room to hatch plans regarding long-overdue memorials for deceased showfolk. With me were author Kevin Fitzpatrick of the Dorothy Parker Society and Michele Gouveia of the blog Tales of a Madcap Heiress. Every afternoon should be so pleasant!

KFitz and Cocktail

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