Archive for biography

On Barbara Stanwyck: Babs of Broadway, Burlesque and the Big Valley

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

Barbara Stanwyck (Ruby Stevens, 1907-1990) is a July 16 baby. I’ve done many smaller articles about her various films as well as a book review  — high time for a full proper post, especially since there are so many aspects of her career that touch on frequent content themes of this blog. By now, I have been thoroughly steeped in her career. My wife is a major fan of hers as well, so with her largely driving the process, I’ve ended up seeing very nearly ALL of Stanwyck’s movies — and it’s a lot of movies. It includes more obscure stuff like pictures from her Pre-Code period and her late western B movies, in addition to all her well known stuff.

While Stanwyck was never in burlesque per se it would remain a part of her image through the first couple of decades of her film career. That’s less well remembered nowadays; I would imagine that, of the minority of the public who remember her at all, their first thoughts are of noir, melodramas and the tv work. (Don’t bother, as some of you will, to protest that Stanwyck has not been forgotten. Author Dan Callahan devotes a section of his Stanwyck book to talk about an informal canvas he made of millennial friends — well-educated, fairly sophisticated New Yorkers — most of whom had no idea whom Stanwyck (the highest paid woman in the U.S. in 1944) was, in even a vague sort of way. You’d be shocked to learn what major figures of the past today’s young people have never heard of. I spoke to a room full of NYU kids in the performance studies department — none of whom had heard of Mae West. But enough with the digressive diatribe.) Stanwyck’s association with burlesque occurred because she started out in a highly related occupation, as a chorus girl in speakeasies and nightclubs and Broadway revues.

Orphaned at age four, a middle school drop out, a brawler, a smoker by age nine, a runaway at 10 and 11, Stanwyck followed into her sister Mildred’s footsteps by becoming a chorus girl. She’d made a study of it, watching her sister’s performances for years, and learning the routines. When she was 16 she got her first job at the club on the Strand Roof. It is said that she was in the chorus of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1922 and 1923, although IBDB doesn’t list her there. She performed and taught dancing in Texas Guinan’s nightclubs. In 1924 she danced in the Paul Gerard Smith revue Keep Kool, which featured Hazel Dawn, Charles King, and Johnny Dooley. Through these years her room-mate and close friend was fellow chorus girl Mae Clarke, also to become a movie star in the early 30s. Both were to be cast in their first dramatic roles in the 1926 play The Noose, which had been stunt cast with real chorus girls. The play was a hit, running for nine months.

Stanwyck in “The Noose” with Rex Cherryman and Ann Shoemaker

It was at this stage that she took the stage name Barbara Stanwyck (having been billed as Ruby Stevens, previously). In 1927 she starred in the hit play Burlesque, which ran for ten months. In this show she played the leading lady of a burlesque company. Going forward she would be playing such characters, as opposed to living the life.

This might be my favorite picture of the pair. He’s trying very hard to be cheerful, and her expression says “Get me the hell out of here!”

In her first film role (and only silent one) she and Ann Sothern, played fan dancers in Broadway Nights (1927). The following year she married big time vaudeville and Broadway star Frank Fay, who was 16 years Stanwyck’s senior.  (For the longest time, I thought Stanwyck hadn’t done vaudeville. But I just came across two items on my own blog! She did a sketch with Fay at the Palace in 1929. And, as a chorus girl, she had danced in Anatole Friedland tab shows in vaudeville and presentation houses).

In 1929, Fay and Stanwyck headed out to Hollywood so Fay could appear as the host in The Show of Shows. Most people anticipated big screen stardom for Fay and a shot in the dark for Stanwyck. The opposite happened. Many folks think their story was at least a partial model for A Star is Born. Fay was an abusive alcoholic. His dreams of being a leading man in movies were dashed by 1932. By that point Stanwyck had already starred in nearly a dozen Pre-Code melodramas, including some by Frank Capra, and she was just beginning her 60 year career at the top. In 1933, Stanwyck did Fay a favor and returned to New York to appear in his self-produced Broadway revue Tattle Tales. It closed after a month. The couple divorced in 1935.

A couple of Stanwyck’s early roles, Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Ten Cents a Dance (1931) seem to hearken back to her chorus girl past, and this is an illuminating period to watch her in. She’s scarcely more than a girl here, 23 and 24, and so as a “bad girl”, there is still an emphasis on “girl”. She is like a wild, adorable, fun-loving kid in these early Pre-Code pictures. But, much like her contemporary James Cagney, who had the same combination of a show biz background and real natural acting ability, she had access to a volcano of emotion she could unleash at a moment’s notice and pretty much blow anybody else out of the water. Frank Capra, who directed her in Ladies of Leisure, was the first to recognize this potential, and starred her also in The Miracle Woman (1931) a thinly veiled expose of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, as well as Forbidden (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), and the much later Meet John Doe (1941). The naughtiest of her pre-code pictures may well be Baby Face (1933), in which she ruthlessly sleeps her way to the top, and there’s nothing subtle about it.

Racy melodrama would grow to be her meat and potatoes, even after the Production Code began to be strictly enforced in 1934. But she did re-visit the chorus girl theme in some notable later pictures. There’s the Howard Hawks-Billy Wilder screwball comedy Ball of Fire (1941) in which she plays chorus girl and gun mall Sugarpuss O’Shea. And the Gypsy Rose Lee murder mystery Lady of Burlesque (1943), in which she plays the heroine Dixie Daisey. This seems like her goodbye to the genre.

The most fatal femme fatale ever

The smoldering sexuality she had access to was channeled into subtler expression as we get into her more mature years. Her performances in The Lady Eve (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) practically cause the celluloid to burst into flames. But as early as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), the balance has begun to tip in another direction. In a lot of her later pictures she plays a tyrannical, overbearing woman, strong-willed and powerful but no longer so attractive. Instead of allure (a gaze, a mysterious smile) she substitutes chains. One wonders: can it have anything to do with her marriage to the fatally uninteresting cigar store Indian of an actor Robert Taylor from 1939 to 1951? One pictures him being not unlike the Kirk Douglas character in Martha Ivers: “Step away from the window, Bob — I wanna look at that man across the street.”

In the 50s, a lot of her movies were westerns; I blogged about them here.  She’d reinvented herself completely. From urban tough to a creature of the great outdoors. The ultimate was Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) — in which she plays a lady rancher who rides at the head of a column of 40 men at her beck and call, and goes around cracking a whip, yelling “Ya!” This wasn’t just some anomaly Stanwyck was forced into, however. She really loved making westerns. When she died in 1990, by her request her ashes were scattered over the wilderness area where she’d shot many of the films during this phase of her career.

I don’t know if anyone has written about the parallelism of Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. Both began as chorus girls. Both compensated for faded beauty by becoming tough and “mannish”. Crawford had even done a western called Johnny Guitar (1954) which compares very nicely with Stanwyck’s westerns. And Stanwyck’s last couple of movies pair VERY nicely with late Crawford vehicles: her performance in the Elvis Presley movie Roustabout (1964) would go excellent with Crawford’s Berserk (1967) which also has circus setting and features a mature woman attempting to bed a handsome young stud. And Stanwyck’s last film The Night Walker (1964) was a psychobiddy hagsploitation film by William Castle, who had also made Straight-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) with Crawford. And both women were lifelong Republicans.

“The Colbys”. Colby is a kind of cheese, isn’t it?

But unlike Crawford and almost every other actor of her generation, Stanwyck managed to add a third act to her long career. Almost every classic studio era movie star tried their own tv series in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Very few lasted beyond a single season. Stanwyck managed to be a staple of television until the 1980s. In fact that was how I first knew her — she was just a contemporary tv star. We saw her in reruns of he western series The Big Valley (1964-1969), and my mother watched her in the prime time soaps The Thorn Birds (1983), Dynasty (1985), and The Colbys (1985-1986.) She’d also had an earlier program The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961). She won three Emmys during this phase of her career.

And above all there is this wonderful discovery, this 1980 back-door pilot for a gender-reversed Charlie’s Angels, called Toni’s Boys. We blogged about that hilarious artifact here.

Even in Toni’s Boys, Stanwyck was not bad precisely. While all was stinking around her, she at least was gamely giving a performance. Could she ever be bad? I can only think of two of her performances I’m not crazy about. In the 1939 Cecil B. DeMille western Union Pacific she is called upon to speak in an Irish accent, and the results are most unfortunate (her English accent in The Lady Eve is also lousy, but as it’s a performance within a performance we can give it a pass). And for the most part, I don’t think comedy was her forte. She’s great overall in The Lady Eve, but Sturges had crafted the whole just for her, and was able to communicate to her just what to do. And she’s great in Ball of Fire. But I’ve always found Christmas in Connecticut (1945) to be fairly dreadful. Some people call it a classic, but I find it fairly unbearably. Largely because of the script — I don’t care about any of what transpires. But also because of the casting. Farces are usually funny because someone who cares what other people think desperately wants to save face, so they run around from pillar to post trying to cover up whatever embarrassments are popping up. That ain’t Stanwyck. Stanwyck was about nature. “This is me. Take it or leave it. Make your decision. The clock’s ticking.” It’s no wonder to me I’d be attracted to a movie star like that.

For more on show biz history, including burlesque, Broadway revues, nightclubs and Hollywood, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

 

On Donald Meek, Whose Characters Matched His Screen Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Some Cool Things You May Not Know About MARY ASTOR

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2017 by travsd

Hollywood star Mary Astor (Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, 1906-1987) is a May 3 baby.

If you’re like me, you know her primarily, maybe entirely, by her LATE roles, most especially Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but also the Princess in The Palm Beach Story (1942), the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Marmee in Little Women (1949), and her small role in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). And I’ve seen a couple of her better known early talkies like Holiday (1930), Red Dust (1932), Dodsworth (1936) and The Hurricane (1937). And then there are her famous silents, such as Don Q Son of Zorro (1925) with Douglas Fairbanks, and her films with John Barrymore, such as Beau Brummel (1924, adapted from the Clyde Fitch play); and Don Juan (1926).

But there are other tidbits. Did you know she was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926? Did you know that her first movie was Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow (1920)? Did you know her first husband (of four) was Kenneth Hawks, Howard Hawks’ brother? Did you know she had an affair with George S. Kaufman? Did you know that in addition to two books of memoirs, she wrote five novels?

The early image; with John Barrymore.

She pretty much prepared her entire life to become a movie star. Both of her parents were teachers. Her father, an immigrant from Berlin, taught German. Her mother, who was half Irish, half Portuguese, contributing to her daughter’s exotic beauty, taught drama and elocution. Astor participated in amateur theatricals from childhood, and began sending her photographs to beauty contests as a teenager, coming close to winning several. Circa 1920 she modeled for photographer Charles Albin. The fruits of these sessions were spotted by a scout from Famous Players-Lasky, and that was how she landed her contract. Her screen name was devised by a committee that included Walter Wanger, Jesse Lasky, and Louella Parsons. And it’s perfect, isn’t it? She has this air of class, sophistication, even aristocracy. Many assumed (I’m sure I first did) that she was one of “those” Astors. But, of course, actual Astors had no need to become movie stars in 1920.

For more on early film please see 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

Jackie Vernon: The Offbeat Comic Who Played Frosty the Snowman

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by travsd

HAPPY BOITHDAY!

Like most people my age and younger, I have always known Jackie Vernon (Ralph Verrone, 1924-1987) for one thing: his voice-over performance as the title character in Rankin-Bass’s 1969 Christmas special Frosty the Snowman. He makes an impression in the role; even as a kid I noticed the heavy New York accent and the fact that the performer’s line readings seemed rather non-actorly.

It turns out Vernon was a highly influential night club comic who started out in strip joints in the 1950s and worked his way up to Vegas, tv variety and talk shows, and a series of popular albums, like A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night (1964), A Man and His Watermelon (1967), The Day My Rocking Horse Died (1969), and Sex is Not Hazardous to Your Health (1972).

This is decades before Gallagher, and just as inexplicable

The titles of these albums give some indication of his sense of humor, which was full of non sequitur and strangeness. Before he was a comedian he was a trumpet player, and he often carried one onstage with him, just as Jack Benny and Henny Youngman carried violins. Like them, he would seldom play his instrument, and if he did, it was bad. I find it SO perfect that the concept is “updated” to a trumpet, though, the hippest instrument of the be bop era. Appropriately, there is also something avant-garde about his material, which was downbeat, deadpan, and monotonic in a way that anticipated Steven Wright. Short and fat, he described himself as someone who liked to spend parties in the coat room, and go to bus stations and pretend he was going places. Many of his routines were built around the concepts of travel and vacations. His most popular ones were presented as “slideshows”; he would pretend to use the clicker and narrate the images, but things would always be quietly, matter-of-factly, wrong. The tour  guide would sink in quicksand; the Grand Canyon would be closed. His hometown was on a one way street; if you missed it, you had to go all the way around the world to get back. (I did a similar slideshow routine once as a teenager; I’m wondering retrospectively if I’d been inspired by a tv appearance of Vernon. Don’t worry — mine had a distinctive, highly original twist).

Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin were all fans and booked him repeatedly. In the ’60s he was especially popular at hip clubs like the Hungry i in San Francisco and the Blue Angel in New York. He was often on Hollywood Squares. But other than Frosty, he wasn’t often employed as an actor. He has a small role in Jimmy Breslin’s mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), he does a bit of stand-up in Amazon Women in the Moon (1987)….but he does have a starring role in one film, and I cannot wait to watch it. It’s a 1983 horror movie called Microwave Massacre. I intend to watch it within hours.

To find out more about show business 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

Joan Crawford: From Sexpot to Psycho-Biddy

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2017 by travsd

To be born in the modern age is to discover many of the great figures of past ages backwards. We encounter them by reputation or in classrooms and we usually are introduced to them at their peak or in their maturity. As opposed to our ancestors who grew up with these figures and watched their lives and careers unfold in real, forward moving, chronological time.

Joan Crawford (ca. 1904-1977) was in the midst of retiring from picture-making just as I was becoming fully engrossed in Captain Kangaroo. Furthermore, she is best known for what used to be called “Women’s Pictures” — delaying any real interest on my part for decades. Some males go to their graves successfully avoiding submitting themselves to such melodramas their entire lives, and quite happily. It’s no accident that the first Joan Crawford movie I ever saw was a western, the all-butch-lady showdown picture with Mercedes McCambridge known as Johnny Guitar (1954). I had to have been in my late twenties by then. I’d seen scores of movies starring other classic Hollywood stars by then. But not Crawford.

But I did know about her. You could say that my first “encounter” with Crawford, as it was for many people my age, was at second and third and fourth hand in the form of the world’s first psycho-biddy bio-pic Mommie Dearest (1981). This naturally led to awareness of “middle period” Crawford, the iconic Mildred Pierce era persona. When you think “Joan Crawford”, I imagine that’s the incarnation most people think of.

But the monstrous campy child-beating monster Crawford we meet in Mommie Dearest leads inexorably to an exploration of LATE career Crawford, her horror phase, starting with the best known of these Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and including The Caretakers, in which she played a sadistic madhouse nurse (1963), Straight-Jacket (1964), the Hitchcock-esque Della (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk (1967), Eyes (her 1969 Night Gallery episode directed by Steven Spielberg) and the hallucination inducing caveman-exhumation flick Trog (1970). Thus the Joan Crawford I came to know best first was a kind of grotesque freak show version, a warped parody of whatever star she had originally been. We wrote about several of these pictures here. 

What use have I for a flesh-and-blood man when I now have one of these?

Over the years I also managed to fill in the middle period, the ’40s and ’50s, the battle ax years, when we often catch remnants and intimations of the great beauty she had been, but there is also a sort of steam-roller quality and a mannishness not unlike that of some of her contemporaries, like Rosalind Russell  all furry eye brows, handshakes, and padded shoulders. This period starts with a couple of (uncharacteristic) comedies, The Women (1939) and Susan and God (1940). I’ve also seen Strange Cargo (1940), Mildred Pierce, Possessed, which paves the way for the craziness of the late period (1946), Flamingo Road (1949), Harriet Craig (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), Johnny Guitar, Autumn Leaves (1956), and The Story of Esther Costello (1957). These movies, too, are all a sort of confirmation of what we gather about her movie career from Mommie Dearest; an aging beauty, usually pretty intense and crazy, sometimes dishing out the terror and antagonism, sometimes being on the receiving end. You don’t tend to see her playing Madame Curie. 

Still, something major was missing: a good third of her career. You hear it alluded to in Mommie Dearest and in other whisperings of the Crawford legend. And what you hear, based on what you know from the latter two-thirds, you don’t quite believe. And that’s this hard-to-credit, EARLY phase when she was one of the very top stars in Hollywood and a legendary beauty and vamp. Somehow one never SAW those movies, so talk about them was just so many words. But in the last few years I’ve managed to catch many of them on TCM. I’m not sure I ever would have got around to them, but the Mad Marchioness made a special point and I am grateful, for they were most illuminating. They are mostly films from the silent and pre-code eras at MGM.

I had seen one her earliest films Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) with Harry Langdon many years ago, but this isn’t too educational. She is the leading lady (barely into her twenties) but she scarcely seems herself at all. She hasn’t yet acquired much personality or sex appeal. And she also stars in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) with Lon Chaney, and that too I had seen.

But that’s not what everyone is talking about. Young Lucille Leseuer (her real name) had been a dancer and chorus girl, and it’s roles that showed her off in THAT context that made her a star as one of the key Jazz Age movie flappers in pictures like Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), Paris (1926), The Taxi Dancer (1927), Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929).

Then come talkies. In Untamed (1929) she plays a wild girl from South America. In Montana Moon (1930) a party girl socialite who must be “broken in” by her cowboy husband. Our Blushing Brides (1930), and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) revisit themes of her most popular silents.

Quite naturally she’s in the ensemble picture Grand Hotel (1932), that was one of the first of these I’d seen, as was her unfairly maligned performance in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932).

“Chained”, 1934

There’s a bunch more like this. I’ve seen about a half dozen others, usually with Clark Gable or Robert Montgomery as her co-stars and she’s usually either a dancer or a secretary and the stories are racy and involve infidelity, or money schemes, because it’s before the implementation of the Production Code.

These early movies fill in a vital piece of the puzzle. Crawford started out her career as a straight-up cinematic object of desire. Familiarity with the Siren she once was sheds light on the numerous husbands, the countless romances with co-stars and others, and her legendary negotiating prowess on the casting couch. (Some of have suggested an arrest record for prostitution, as well). Later, when year by year that part of her appeal drains away, she seems to be compensating, like you do when you limp. Her intensity becomes such that she seems almost to be trying to draw people to her with her STRENGTH, with her MENTAL POWER, with her WILL, with something. It’s kind of Norma Desmond-y, and any way you slice it the resemblance is not an irrelevant coincidence.

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We are watching Jessica Lange’s portrayal of her on the new FX show Feud: Bette and Joan now with great interest. An unusual beauty herself (she still is!) Lange seems to grasp this aspect of Crawford’s motive power, and many other subtle things, including the very careful self-taught diction. Young Lucille had grown up in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, you see, and originally had a regional accent, which she lost through application and hard work…like everything she did.

And so you see we have worked our way backwards to her origins. Today is her birthday. Wherever she is, I bet she’s limiting herself to two bites of cake.

(P.S. Another midwife for my appreciation of Crawford has been friend Lance Werth, who actually MAJORED in Crawford at college, and writes the terrific blog Lance’s Werthwhile Classic Movie Diary. He wrote this appreciation of the star there yesterday as well).

 

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.

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