Archive for bit player

Beatrice Blinn: A Comedienne Close to Greatness

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2017 by travsd

Comic actress Beatrice Blinn (1901-1979) was born on this day. While I’d seen her in many, many other films previously, I didn’t take note of her until I saw her in the 1934 Vitaphone short Art Trouble, with Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard, Marjorie Main, Mary Wickes, and — most notably — a very young, early career Jimmy Stewart. Piecing her life and career together has been an interesting puzzle. I’m not all the way there yet but I’m close.

Born in Forest County, Wisconsin, she was the niece of stage and screen actor/director Holbrook Blinn, who directed plays at the Princess Theatre, and appeared in the films McTeague (1916), Janice Meredith (1924), and The Telephone Girl (1927). The elder Blinn undoubtedly could have, would have, and did provide useful introductions for her in the theatre. Yet most of her early publicity describes her as a “Seattle artist” who joined the chorus of the show Gay Paree in 1925 so that she could paint and sketch chorus girls. That may sound like a stretch to you, and it might have to me — but for the fact that I am very close to someone who is fairly obsessed with drawing chorus girls — my wife! At any rate, it is quite possible that both paths are accurate: her uncle was useful and his beautiful niece joined the chorus on a lark. It’s not without precedent. One of the greatest actors of the 20th century, John Barrymore was a visual artist until one day he decided to give the family business a whirl, and it turned out to be the thing for him.

In early 1926 Blinn appeared in the melodrama Nightstick at Werbla’s Theatre, Brooklyn. This show moved to Broadway a year later, but Blinn wasn’t in it. She had already made the move to the Great White Way several months earlier to appear in the 1926 play The Adorable Liar. After a couple more Broadway roles, she married playwright/actor/director Crane Wilbur in 1928, another connection likely made through her famous uncle.

What is especially interesting to me about Beatrice Blinn’s ensuing career is that it is a hodgepodge of roles in prestige Broadway plays, classic Hollywood films (usually in small parts), and low-down slapstick comedy shorts — pretty much all at the same time!

She first went with Wilbur to Hollywood in 1929, and appeared in three talkie comedy shorts. Grass Skirts (1929) was an Educational short, directed by Alf Goulding, and starring Lloyd Hamilton and Ruth Hiatt. She co-starred with Johnny Arthur in the 1929 Vitaphone Stimulation. The Cheerleader (1930) was a drama starring one Tom Douglas. 

In 1933 Blinn and Crane divorced. She returned to Broadway, next appearing in the original productions of three George S. Kaufman shows: The Dark Tower (1933-1934), Merrily We Roll Along (1934-1935), and Stage Door (1936-1937). Note that the aformentioned 1934 Vitaphone short Art Trouble was shot at their Astoria, Queens studio while she was living in New York.

After this she went back to Hollywood for that unusual career, juggling bit parts in classic features and better parts in low down comedy shorts and B movies. The features included Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Holiday (1938), You Can’t Take it With You (1939), Golden Boy (1939), and Mae West’s The Heat’s On (1943). At the same time you can see her in Columbia comedy shorts with Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, and Charley Chase. These comedy “classics” include the Stooges’ Whoops, I’m an Indian (1936), and Violence is the Word for Curly (1938). In Keaton’s Nothing But Pleasure (1940) she gets to play the drunk woman in his umpteenth re-creation of his famous Spite Marriage bit. Her last film was Pick a Peck of Plumbers (1944) with El Brendel and Shemp Howard.

After this, she pretty effectively vanishes, with no mention I have found until she dies in San Diego in 1979. Why she retired at that stage, a relatively young age, can only be conjecture, as would be what it was she moved on to afterwards. Did she return to her art? Did she luck into another line of work that paid more and was more satisfying than the bit roles which seemed to be her permanent lot in the movies business? Did she go back to the theatre in some regional city? We’d be delighted to know the answer and we’ll be sure to share the answer here once we uncover it. One conclusion I feel comfortable drawing from afar: she must had a lousy agent. Beatrice Blinn had many advantages and for a time a promising resume. But these assets were clearly not maximized.

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

 

 

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Steve Franken: He’s Everywhere

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2017 by travsd

Today we honor the character comedy contribution of the late actor Steve Franken (1932-2012). The son of a Hollywood agent, Franken had an easy entree into film and tv roles, although he never flew higher than recurring and guest shots on tv, and bits parts on screens big and small. But he was instantly recognizable, almost walys showcased prominently and to advantage.

His first recurring part was as a snooty rich kid on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, although that was before my time. But I grew up watching him in other things. His smallish stature and large staring eyes made him perfect for playing callow, sheltered and privileged young men: mama’s boys, nephews, clueless heirs, and psychiatry patients.

He had a memorable and prominent turn as the drunken butler in Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968):

He played several characters in 7 different episodes of Bewitched including Cousin Henry and Bruce, the Loch Ness Monster.

He’s in five episodes of Love American Style, two of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (as one of Mary’s serious boyfriends). He had a great scene in Westworld (1973) as the terrified technician Richard Benjamin encounters in the desert.

He’s in the “Chopper” episode of Kolchak: The Night StalkerHe’s a shrink in the spooky 1975 movie The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. He plays Molly Picon’s son in Murder on Flight 502He’s a perp in two episodes of Barney Miller. He’s in two Jerry Lewis movies: Which Way to the Front? (1970) and Hardly Working (1981). The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). On and on, in places expected and unexpected throughout the decades. One of his later credits was in an episodes of Angels and Demons (2009).

It’s Steve Franken’s birthday today. And to my astonishment, yes, he actually is Al Franken’s cousin.

Doodles Weaver: A Kook in Multiple Media

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2017 by travsd

I discovered Doodles Weaver (1911-1983) by a path that might confound his long time fans. But then, his was a most confounding life and career. I noticed him in the 1971 low budget exploitation horror film The Zodiac Killer. He played a goofy neighbor, and like I often do, I semi-recognized him. I went, “That’s gotta be somebody! Who is that?” But remember the surroundings: this was a Grade Z cheapie of a movie; like a lot of similar low budget movies of the time, it literally looks like a home movie. 95% of the cast are amateur non-actors.

Weaver in “The Zodiac Killer”

Reasons why it’s odd to find him in such surroundings: 1) he was of wealthy family and very old American WASP stock; and 2) he wasn’t a nobody, he had a certain measure of mainstream fame.

And yet a reason why it wasn’t so odd to find him in this movie: he kind of showed up everywhere and did everything; this was true throughout his career.

Of his family: his full name was Winstead Sheffield Glenndenning Dixon Weaver. “Doodles” is one of those humiliating WASP nicknames. I’ve known Trips, Crickets, Corkys, Bunnys, etc. He was one of those. His older brother was Pat Weaver, President of NBC, and the creator of The Today Show, among much else. Pat’s daughter Sigourney Weaver achieved fame after Doodles had passed away.

Doodles went to Stanford, where he wrote for the campus humor magazine. In the ’30s, he seems to show up immediately on radio, without the usual early formative period in vaudeville and night clubs. This was probably through the help and influence of Pat, who was already producing Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight by the mid-30s. Doodle was a semi-regular guest on Rudy Vallee’s show and Kraft Music Hall. At the same time, he was getting bit parts in Hal Roach and Columbia comedies, supporting such comedians as Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. From the mid to late 1940s, he was a star of Spike Jones band and radio show, achieving even greater fame.

Spoke Jones, left, Weaver. center

1951 was probably the peak of his career, when he had his own television comedy variety show The Doodles Weaver Show, which made full use of Doodles’ mugging and face pulling abilities. It’s both anomalous and delightful. This educated, well-off man, whose sensibilities were so unpretentious and low-brow. During these same years he wrote for Mad magazine!

“A Day with Doodles”

He continued to be a frequent presence on tv after his show went off the air, on Spike Jones show, Batman, The Monkees. In 1965 he starred in a series of kiddie show segments called A Day with Doodles (1965). In 1966 he released a parody version of “Eleanor Rigby”!

And he continued to play bit parts in movies. I had seen him in films countless times prior to The Zodiac Killer, which is clearly why I recognized him. He played the hardware store owner in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He’s the boat operator in The Birds (1963). He’s in Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963) and Which Way to the Front (1970)! He’s in Kitten with a Whip (1964)!  He’s in William Castle’s The Spirit is Willing (1967). He’s in Bob Hope’s last movie Cancel My Reservation (1972)!

So how he wound up in The Zodiac Killer is both confusing and not confusing. On the one hand, he didn’t have to. He was famous and clearly had famous friends who were happy to showcase him. Did he lose a bet? Was he doing someone a favor? On the OTHER hand, he sort of did everything. His career was a bit of “throwing spaghetti at the wall.”

He’s still doing his usual sort of turns throughout the 70s. He’s in movies like Banjo Hackett (1976) and Won Ton Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood (1976). He’s on Starsky and Hutch and Fantasy Island. His last film was the independent science fiction film Earthbound (1981), starring Burl Ives.

Then, in 1983, Weaver’s sad and shocking death by suicide. Apparently despondent over ill health, he shot himself twice in the chest. His body was discovered by his son. It’s a Hollywood ending not out-of-step with the tone of The Zodiac Killer. 

Arthur Pat West: Pudgy Little Character

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

April 19 is the birthday of Arthur Pat West (1888-1944).

Today West is best remembered among vaudeville fans for his 1929 Vitaphone short Ship Ahoy, in which the stout little man comes out in a sailor suit, does a rather rude comedy monologue and sings a couple of funny songs while pretending to play the guitar.

Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, West (sometimes billed just as Arthur or Pat) had been in a team called Arthur and Lucille West with his wife Lucille Harmon. In the ’20s, he was cast in a number of Broadway shows: the Fanchon and Marco musical revue Sun-Kist (1921), The Ziegfeld Follies of 1923Paradise Alley (1924), and Captain Jinks (1925-1926) with Joe E. Brown. 

After Ship Ahoy, West performed in at least one other Vitaphone Gates of Happiness (1930) and remained in Hollywood where he worked as an (often uncredited) bit player for the rest of his life. Initially, he was in Columbia comedy shorts and B movies, but he worked constantly and in the late ’30s through the ’40s he wound up in numerous classics, usually playing a bartender, waiter or similar kind of character. You can see him in Bringing Up Baby (1938), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Babes in Arms (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Great McGinty (1940), The Bank Dick (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), The Outlaw (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and Road to Utopia (1945), among dozens of other pictures. Keep an eye out for him!

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 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

Happy Birthday, Dick Miller

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2015 by travsd

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Well, someone else has a birthday today — prolific character actor Dick Miller (b. 1928).

I first knew Miller from his role as the man who eats flowers in Roger Corman’s original The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which, for a time, was my favorite movie. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered A Bucket of Blood (1959), also by Corman and Charles B. Griffith, in which Miller starred. But most of Miller’s role were of the walk-on variety.

Bronx born Miller had started out playing bit parts for Corman’s low budget horror, sci-fi and delinquent pictures around 1956. He worked for Corman and American International Pictures in scores of films, including The Terror (1963), The Wild Angels (1966), The Trip (1967) and Big Bad Mama (1974). He also got story credit on two pictures in these years: the low budget western Four Rode Out and Jerry Lewis’s WWII comedy Which Way to the Front? (both 1970). As Corman and his alumni grew more famous and mainstream, Miller continued to play bit parts in their films. Thus he is in almost every film ever made by Joe Dante, including The Howling (1980), the Gremlins films, Innerspace (1987) and The ‘Burbs (1989), and Martin Scorsese’New York, New York (1987) and After Hours (1985). Quentin Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction (1994) but most of his scenes wound up on the cutting room floor.

He was recently the subject of a documentary called That Guy Dick Miller (2014). I highly recommend it! Dick Miller is 87 years old at the moment and still working! See his long list of credits here. 

 

Jimmy Aubrey: “Heinie” of the Double Brush Mustache

Posted in British Music Hall, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jimmy Aubrey (1887–1983).

The son of an American-born gymnast, Aubrey was born and raised in Lancashire, England. He got his start in music hall with Karno’s Speechless Comedians, where he worked with Syd and Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and many of the other physical comedians we have written about in these annals. He jumped ship in 1908 during an American tour, as Chaplin, Laurel and many others would later do. For several years he worked primarily in American vaudeville, and then in 1914 began to make comedy films. From 1914 through 1916 he starred as “Heinie” in a series of Starlight Comedies for the independent Mittenthal Film Company. Starting in 1916 he worked at Vitagraph with the likes of Hughie Mack, Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy. From 1919 through 1925 he starred in his own silent comedy shorts for a variety of studios with his trademark “double brush” mustache. Starting in the late 20’s he worked mostly as a comical supporting or bit player, working in hundreds of movies through 1953. He worked in every genre of film, and many of the films are classics (read the IMDB list here). About a quarter of his sound era work was in B movie westerns. Read a wonderful article about that work here.

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For still more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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