Archive for burlesque

Sherry Britton: A Stripteuse with Brains

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 28, 2017 by travsd

Burlesque performer and actress Sherry Britton (Edith Zack, 1918-2008) was born this day. Originally from New Brunswick, New Jersey, Britton danced during the heyday of the national burlesque circuits in the 1930s, and then in nightclubs after the circuits folded throughout the 1940s (including a 7 year residency at Leon and Eddie’s on 52nd Street, NYC’s jazz neighborhood). Britton usually made her entrance in classy gowns and a tiara, disrobing to classical music. As she matured, she gradually switched to singing in cabarets, and acting in plays and musicals, appearing in nearly 40 regional productions over the years. As befitted her sometime billing “Great Britton: The Stripteuse with Brains”, she went back to school during her retirement, graduated from Fordham University with a pre-law degree at age 63.

How Faith Bacon, Inventor of the Fan Dance, Leaped to Her Death

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2017 by travsd

Faith Bacon (Frances Yvonne Bacon, 1910-1956) was born on July 19. Bacon started at the top as one of the most famous dancers in Broadway revues, then gradually worked her way down the show business over a period of 20 years until she made headlines one final time for her spectacular suicide.

It is said that she began dancing in Maurice Chevalier revues in Paris during the 1920s. When she came to New York, her willingness to take risks made her a favorite of Broadway showman Earl Carroll, who put her in four shows between 1928 and 1931: two editions of the Vanities, one edition of Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book, and a book musical called Fioretta.

Bacon was willing to do full nudity, an attention-getting novelty at the time. The publicity was increased by police raids and show closings for indecent exposure. Various gambits were tried in order circumvent the law. First she was presented in tableaux, totally still, with shifting light effects (the law stated that you couldn’t move on stage and be undressed at the same time). Then she and Carroll devised a fan dance for her to perform, creating an eternal question for the researcher. For, at around the same time, Sally Rand was creating her own fan dance at the Paramount Club in Chicago. Who invented it first? Did one hear about the other’s and replicate it? Did they both get the idea at the same time, a mere coincidence? Both claimed to have been the originator of the act. They both appeared at the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, each claiming to be the Original Fan Dancer. Five years later Bacon sued Rand for damages and sought an injunction to prevent her from doing the act. The legal action was unsuccessful.

In 1931, Bacon may have made a fatal career mistake by jumping ship from Earl Carroll’s Vanities to the Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld’s was the more prestigious name, but the 1931 edition was to be the last edition of the show while he lived (he died in 1932). If she’d stayed with Carroll she might have been working on Broadway as late as 1935. At any rate, after the Follies, as we said, she worked the Chicago World’s Fair, also a prominent engagement,  from 1933 through 1934.

In 1936 Bacon was dancing in a revue called Temptations at the Lake Theater in Chicago. During the run she fell through a glass platform, cutting herself badly. She sued the theatre, which eventually settled with her for a few thousand dollars.

In 1938, she landed her first and only film role in the low-budget independent feature Prison Train, which also featured Fred KeatingDorothy Comingore (soon to co-star in Citizen Kane, here billed as “Linda Winters”), Clarence Muse and Sam Bernard. The following year she performed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, although she was arrested for disorderly conduct while engaging in a publicity stunt. It is after this that her career appears to dip below the radar.

In 1942, she appeared in a couple of Soundies, including “Lady with the Fans” and “Dance of Shame” (they are presently viewable on Youtube). Through this period of the 40s, she was more what we would call a burlesque dancer, although the old burlesque circuits were a thing of the past. There were still individual theatres and clubs in most major cities devoted to the undraped female, and Bacon worked her various gimmicks, mostly the fan dance and a bubble dance, at these venues. By the end of the decade, she was also reduced to playing carnivals. In 1948, she claimed a carnival manager had placed tacks on the stage floor, and tried to sue him on that basis, but it was thrown out of court.

Now in surroundings less glamorous

According to the book Striptease: The Untold Story of the Girlie Show by Rachel Shteir she also developed an addiction to heroin, which fueled her downward spiral. At some point she was said to have gotten married to songwriter and music consultant Sanford Hunt Dickinson, whose most prominent IMDB credit is Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953). He vanished from her life at some point. According to Leslie Zemeckis in her book Behind the Burley Q, she attempted to start a dance school in Indiana in 1954, but was found unconscious on the premises, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

In 1956 Bacon went to Chicago to seek work, rooming with a grocery store employee. Unable to find employment, she finally leaped from the third floor window of her hotel to her death. She was only 46.

For more on show business history, including Broadway revues and burlesque, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most fatal femme fatale ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Mad Jenny’s Weimar Girls” is Back Tomorrow Night!

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow night: run, don’t walk, to see Mad Jenny’s Weimar Girls at the Slipper Room! It’s your last chance, at least during the present run, and the Slipper Room is the perfect, magical venue for this absinthean elixir of a show.

I have watched Mad Jenny (Jenny Lee Mitchell) marinate this delectable suaerbraten over a period of several months and it’s just gotten richer and more rewarding as she continues to develop it. Ostensibly a revival of Weimar Era Berlin cabaret, she’s tweaked what once might have been Hitler patter into Trump patter with disconcertingly little strain. We live in scary times. But the beauty of her show, and the beauty of the environment: you begin to understand escapism, even if she’s constantly making sure you don’t forget.

She’s also got a full band behind her now (trombone, piano, drums and bass, I think?) and Jenny herself plays clarinet. And (much like Company XIV, another favorite outfit of mine) she’s found a way to integrate neo-burlesque in a way that is true to her historical vision, elevating popular art to something that seems very elevated indeed (literally, in the case of Miss Ekaterina’s aerial act). Faux Germanic Jenny sings throughout, sometimes drawing from the historic songbag (Brecht/ Weill and Mischa Spoliansky mostly) and sometimes she twists modern stuff like Blondie or the Eurythmics into a post-modern pretzel. Jenny is a world class clown and mime herself, so she has her own physical bits that accompany the songs, and on some of the numbers she accompanies her talented terpsichoreans. My favorite thematic numbers in the show were something called Milk Maids, devised by Djahari Clark, which seemed like one part Von Trapp Family, one part Russ Meyer; and another number that evoked silent German Expressionist horror films. Tomorrow I imagine she’ll have more of the same, and I hope she (metaphorically) kicks Donald Trump Jr good and hard in the balls. “Ve must vip you mit ze riding crawp, Dawnald, Ja?”

Tickets and info here. 



On the Amazonian Glory of Tura Satana

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Asian, Burlesk, CAMP, Hollywood (History), Movies, Native American Interest, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2017 by travsd

It may seem impossible that such a perfect creature was born on planet earth, but it’s true: Tura Satana (Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi) came into the world on July 10, 1938. She was born in Japan, to a Filipino-Japanese father who’d been a silent movie actor, and a Cherokee-Scots-Irish mother who’d been a circus performer. The family moved to the U.S. only to be interned in a prison camp at the start of World War Two.

Her teenage years were predictably wild. She led an all-girl gang, went to reform school, worked as a stripper and burlesque dancer, and married at age 17, a liaison that only lasted a few months but gave her an excellent new last name: Satana. Satana happens to be a real surname, but the fact that it so closely resembles “Satan”, and goes so well with “Tura” makes the whole thing seem orchestrated by a cosmic puppet-master. She had moved to L.A. during her teenage years; this was the period when she posed for Harold Lloyd’s 3-D photo sessions with Hollywood nudes.

Photo from her early burlesque dancing/ pin-up period.

She became in demand as an exotic dancer for a number of years at nightclubs around the country, and is said to have become romantically involved with Elvis, undoubtedly one of the few men who could handle her.

In 1963, she was cast as the prostitute Suzette Wong in the movies Irma la Douce. Often she was cast as dancers or stippers in cabaret scenes in movies and television. Her turn in Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963) made the movie poster:

She’s in a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as a character named Tomo:

In 1965, she got the role of a lifetime, when Russ Meyer cast her as Varla in his great camp exploitation masterwork Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 

Inevitably, I think that Satana WAS Varla, we picture her in full Varla costume whenever we think of her. The film made full use of her martial arts abilities, statuesque yet buxom form, and wisecracking ad libs. She also got to race a cool hot rod in the desert and kick a lot of people’s asses, including, most satisfyingly, those of men.

“How do you like THAT health care plan, Senator?!”

Unfortunately this cult tour de force didn’t lead to big budget Hollywood stardom. She went back to playing a stripper in Our Man Flint (1966). In 1968, she returned to what seemed to work best for her — a bigger part in a smaller movies. In Ted V. Mikels The Astro Zombies (1968), she plays a Dragon Lady character she named after herself and got to share the screen with John Carradine and Wendell Corey, in a movie that was co-written and co-produced by Wayne Rogers!

Mikels hired her again for The Doll Squad (1973), about a quintet of agents set to foil a madman who wants to take over the world. It was the last film of the first phase of her career.

After this, she suffered a number of setbacks. She was actually shot by a former lover. She broke her back in a car accident. She gained weight and took a succession of jobs outside of show business. In the intervening time of course the fame of her early work grew and her movies became cult favorites. In 1985 a glam metal band emerged calling themselves Faster Pussycat. She became in demand at live fan events. Starting around 2002, she began to make appearances in films again, and acted in a few low budget movies (two of them were “sequels” to Astro Zombies). By now, her appeal had altered. An older, heavier woman, but one who simultaneously carried a legend with her, her appeal was more John Waters than Russ Meyer, but she enjoyed the renewed attention. Tura Santana passed away in 2011.

There is a campaign under way to make a documentary about her. Read about it here.



Candy Barr: Cowgirl Pioneer

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Dance, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2017 by travsd

July 6 was the birthday of Texas born burlesque dancer, stripper, nude model and actress Candy Barr (Juanita Dale Slusher, 1935-2005).  Barr rose to a fame rarely afforded to others in her profession, for a long list of reasons.

One: there’s her iconic gimmick, the cowgirl outfit with the toy guns. That’s a classic, one I’d put on a very short list of the strongest burlesque gimmicks. The U.S.O. scene in Apocalypse Now (1979) features a go-go dancer who is totally channeling Candy:

Second, at the age of 16, she starred in Smart Alec (1951), a 20 minute short which has retrospectively come to be called the first porn film. The fact she was underage, and almost certainly coerced into appearing in it (she was also a prostitute at the time), combine to make it a cinematic work I’m not inclined to celebrate. Nor was she proud of it; she invariably expressed regret that the film existed. But it did make her famous after a fashion and fame gets you hired. She began to dance professionally in burlesque and striptease clubs.

Teaching Joan Collins to dance sexy, with saxophone accompaniment

Thirdly, she was famous for her associations. For several years in the 1950s, she dated gangster Mickey Cohen. She was also a close friend and confidante of Dallas nightclub owner Jacky Ruby, particularly during the months just prior to the Kennedy assassination and Ruby’s murder of Oswald. She appears to have been the lover, at one point, of Gary Crosby, Bing Crosby’s son, who was rumored to have underwritten Smart Alec. Her third husband was “Hairdresser to the Stars” Jack Sahakian. And, in 1959, she worked as a choreographer on the film Seven Thieves, teaching Joan Collins to perform stripping routines.  In 1957, she actually appeared in a legit play, taking the Jayne Mansfield role in the Dallas production of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, surely a sign of her growing fame.

Fourthly, there were several arrests, which also helped with publicity (initially). In 1956 she shot, but did not kill, her abusive husband. Charges were dropped. In 1957, she was busted for marijuana possession and given a sentence of fifteen years. (It sounds like she was being railroaded). After many appeals, she lost her case and began to serve her sentence in late 1959, emerging in spring 1963 after being paroled. It was during this period that she palled around with Ruby, who gave her a pair of dachshunds to breed. Exiled from Dallas, she retired from dancing for a time, but returned to it in 1968. She was once again arrested for marijuana possession in 1969, but this time the charge was thrown out due to lack of evidence.

These were short term inconveniences but they fed her long term fame. Candy Barr was still being featured in men’s magazines in the mid 1970s. At her height, she was pulling down $2,000 a week to dance in the night clubs of Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. She retired to her hometown of Edna, Texas in 1992.


Vaudeville vs. Wagner: The Genius of “Spaceballs”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by travsd

I write this post this morning at a time of stellar confluence, a constellational alignment — a harmonic convergence, if you will. Today is the birthday of Mel Brooks (b. 1926); Spaceballs just turned 30 years old; and Stars Wars, the film (among others), which Spaceball parodies, just turned 40.  An auspicious time, one thinks for a reconsideration of this cinematic last gasp.

Yes, “last gasp”. For we can agree, can’t we, I should hope, that Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) are all unambiguously terrible, symptoms of an exhausted talent, adrift in a culture that had progressed beyond his ability to connect. Yes, Brooks was to reinvent himself a few years later on the musical stage with great, even unprecedented, success, but his days of making perfect screen comedies were even then behind him, as long as a quarter century and more ago.

Candy as “Barf”

For years, I would have set the period of decline a decade earlier, marking the descent with The History of the World, Part One (1981), the unnecessary remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983), and Spaceballs (1987). I’ve since re-evaluated the first and last of these, and will talk about the former film on another occasion. But when Spaceballs was released…one rolled ones eyes. Brooks was passé. This movie was passé. For so many reasons. Among others, there’s the fact that in 1987, what could have been less relevant to anything than Star Wars? The last film in the series, Return of the Jedi had been released four years before. For all anyone knew at that time, the Star Wars franchise was dead, permanently a thing of the past. It was no longer in the zeitgeist. I was 21 when Spaceballs came out; a fifth of my life had passed since Star Wars was “over”; half my life had passed since it had begun. So there was that. But then there was the fact that a new generation of comic geniuses had pressed the re-set button, and basically Brooks had been bested and made obsolete on no less than two different fronts: on his left were the SNL-SCTV guys who were making edgier, more youth-oriented comedy (I found the fact that he cast two of the stars of this movement,  John Candy and Rick Moranis, in Spaceballs, embarrassing at the time, as though Brooks thought he could hire his way back to relevance). And to his right, Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker were beating him at his own game with dead-on, far more uncompromising and knowing parodies like Airplane! (1980) Police Squad! (1982), and Top Secret (1984). (ZAZ would lose their own advantage, at least from a critical perspective, soon enough, but for the moment in 1987 they had re-set the bar higher than Brooks himself was able to hit.)

Furthermore, though mainstream audiences and maybe even Brooks himself didn’t know it, there was already a perfect Star Wars parody, Hardware Wars, a comedy short released in 1978 which I wrote about here. I was an enormous fan of Hardware Wars; only a miracle would not make Brooks’ film suffer by comparison. And Hardware Wars had been made on a shoestring. It’s about vitality. (For an interesting parallel completely WITHIN Brooks’ body of work…Brooks’ 1975 Robin Hood tv series When Things Were Rotten is vastly superior to the $20 million stinker Robin Hood: Men in Tights.) Note the date of Hardware Wars. 1978! That was the year for a Star Wars parody! When it was topical, not when it was a decade-old fad already in pop culture’s rear-view mirror!

You know what we needed in 1987? A really devastating Top Gun parody. THAT would have been comedy doing its job. One finally arrived in the form of Jim Abrahams’ Hot Shots! (1991), which was a smash success, although not the biting satire I would have hoped for. But at least it had its finger on the pulse. Much more to the purpose was Alan Spencer’s Dirty Harry parody tv show that ran 1986-1888: Sledge Hammer! That one was right on time, and on the money.

And not least of which…Jesus, that title! “Spaceballs“?! Balls? Really? And dick jokes? Brooks had been brilliant on his own, and brilliant in collaboration with Gene Wilder. Now he was collaborating with this hacky dude Ronny Graham, and it seemed like the whole enterprise was reaching, down, down, to recapture the glory of farting cowboys in Blazing Saddles. The remainder of Brooks’ film career was to be at about this level, actually.

What did this exhausted 60 year old man know about what was going on in the world? What did he know about Star Wars? Ah! And now we come to our point. For time, I feel has vindicated and rehabilitated Spaceballs in all sorts of ways. Out of its own time, we can see it better, more objectively. It has many virtues we (or at least I) never could have spotted at the time. I watched it again not long ago, and found it to be highly rewarding.

To get an easy one out of the way: as we never could have known at the time, the Stars Wars franchise would return years later, much like Star Trek before it, to be a sort of apparently permanent, open ended phenomenon, with many more sequels, prequels, and outlying stories to follow. Rather than a fad of the past, it lives now in a sort of timeless place, allowing Spaceballs to live there, too, as part of its universe, much as High Anxiety lives alongside Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Young Frankenstein lives practically within Universal horror. That’s a relief, but a kind of accidental one. That’s  just time catching up to salvage Brooks’ movie. But Spaceballs (ugh, change the title, though!) has inherent, timely virtues of its own, and three decades later it is easy to see that its creator was vastly smarter, more insightful, and more prescient than I gave him credit for at the time.

To be au courant is important to success. but it also an element that is superficial. As I said, four years, ten years, were a big deal to me at age 21, but to a 60 year old man, they are nothing. Those years passed, and Brooks hadn’t noticed that Star Wars was no longer a thing. So he went ahead and made his parody. And I’m glad that he did. Because a 60 year old man SEES things. He has an objectivity that people who are immersed in the latest pop culture (young people, generally speaking) do not. A few years ago (a bunch of years now) I went to my kid’s junior high graduation. And I had a flashback. The TUMULT of applause and screams and cheers when the popular kids went up to get their certificates! I remember being in Junior High, and thinking that about the popular kids, and thinking they were significant somehow, that they were important in some way. Whether you loved them or hated them, they dominated your life somehow. But, now as a parent, and a parent who lived in a different city (for as you well know, parents too are often sucked into the school culture of popularity), I was looking at this phenomenon with total objectivity, coolly, from a height and distance. To me, it was all very amusing. “They’re cheering for these kids like they’re rock stars! But they’re just kids! They’re just some other kids!”

In other words, I was unmoved by whatever anyone thought was going on here. I wasn’t impressed. I’m not saying I was judging any of it or anyone harshly. I was just aloof, detached, not on board to scream for Jimmy like he was the Beatles, because I was out of it, and could see that he was just another kid. He might be good looking or charming or something, but the odds are pretty good that the next Bill Gates in the class wouldn’t be that kid, it would be some dork who probably didn’t even show up for the ceremony because everyone hates him and he hates them right back.

So Brooks SEES Star Wars, he sees it in a way that many of us can’t or couldn’t. He doesn’t have any particular animus against it, he just doesn’t feel any need to show it slavish respect and worship. As a matter of fact, his attitude towards it is very much like his attitude toward the western in Blazing Saddles. It is a different approach than the one he takes towards musicals or the horror of the 1930s as in The Producers or Young Frankenstein. Those parodies are loving and indeed a little worshipful. But the HEROIC, you see, he is outside that mindset, and that is the point of this essay.

What is the heroic mindset? As is well known, George Lucas was under the spell of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces when he laid out his masterwork. It obviously, baldly draws from well-known sources in its bid to set up an original mythology: the epic poetry of the Greeks and Vikings; the opera of Wagner; and Tolkien (with its own echoes of Celtic, Norse and Germanic mythology). The story has that shape. John Williams’ music draws overtly from Wagner. And to stretch the point to a place where it is unmistakable, in one famous scene, there are visual echoes of the 1937 Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally in Triumph of the Will:

George Lucas is not a Nazi, of course. He is a cinematic storyteller. As such, he is concerned with summoning powerful iconography and, according to certain conventions, a heroic ideal. He is not alone in this. We live, after all in the age of the superhero movie, where all of our protagonists must somehow be more than human and all our stories must be about the fate of the planet. Even our stories that are not overtly about those things now tack in that direction (see my earlier critique of Poseidon). mere people aren’t good enough; everybody’s got to be Superman! A term coined by Nietzsche, I might add!

This worship of the strong, the invincible, the independently acting vigilante hero who is answerable to nobody but himself and the voices in his head makes some of us — makes me — a little skittish. It feels like conditioning for Fascism. I have been moaning about the deleterious cultural effects of action movies for decades, and people tell you you’re a Cassandra, “It’s just movies!” Yet what do we get in 2o16? A Fascist President, complete with rallies, a stream of Orwellian doublespeak, and a program for stepping on the necks of certain groups of people in pursuit of a vague, ill-defined “greatness”. Look! Look at the asshole in this picture, look at his costume. What do you think inspired it?

Motherfucker thinks he’s a superhero, gonna save something. Like a Knight? A Dark Knight? Or perhaps a Knight of the Ku Klux Klan?

And what does a certain comedian think about that sort of thing? What has he always felt? What respect does he have for it? I’ll show ya:

All the sudden, Mel Brooks looks to me like the hippest, most relevant comedian on the planet, Look at that picture. It’s recent! 

And now a little history lesson, so you know where we are. For decades, Hollywood was a place were the stories were designed to generate sympathy for the little guy — to communicate his perspective, but also, yes, to draw him to the theatre. Chaplin, Capra, Hawks, John Ford. Yes, there were superhero serials, and yes sci-fi fantasy like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (another model for Star Wars) but that was considered entertainment for children. Grown-ups watched stories about people.

OR…they laughed. Deconstruction has been a major thread in America since the days of vaudeville, burlesque, and Weber and Fields. WASP newspaper critics often sneered at this kind of disrespectful low-brow comedy back in the day, but they did so from a place of willful ignorance. Aristophanes came out of the same culture that produced the tragedians. He was there to lampoon them, keep them humble, keep them “real”. The first democracy gave birth to the first spoofs. When American cinema was born, guys like Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel parodied the heroic movies of their day. TV sketch comedy, where Mel Brooks got his start, would do the same.

During the Vietnam Era, the only Batman game in town was a camp tv series that poked relentless fun at the idea of a Caped Crusader. In the 60s, there was a healthy and perceptive idea abroad in the land that people who went around calling themselves saviors and heroes just might be buffoons. The guys who show up to your village to save you from the scourge of communism just might burn down your hooch and shoot every man, woman, child and infant. In fact, it was against this backdrop that Mel Brooks had his first smash success, the tv series Get Smart, which ran from 1965 through 1970. Get Smart turned Cold War super spy James Bond on his head, turned him into an idiot. It’s not that Mel Brooks wasn’t/ isn’t a patriot. He served in World War Two — literally went to Germany to fight Nazis. But you have to keep your eye on the ball. Fascism isn’t just a uniform. It’s a mindset and a way of behaving. And it is to be fought WHEREVER it is, at home as much as abroad, even if it is sitting right across from you at Thanksgiving dinner.

Then something dreadful happened. As Ronald Reagan began to heat up the Cold War again, the culture decided (after a REALLY short time) that the era of apologizing for Vietnam was over. Carter had bungled the response to the Iran hostage crisis, and a few other things besides. The Reagan philosophy was “Let us no longer be crippled by doubt”. Which was fine, as far as it went. Who doesn’t want to destroy totalitarianism? (In fact, that is the point of this very essay). But what rapidly evolved was a cinema that glorified military violence for its own sake, and patriotism at any cost, including the loss of America’s democratic, compassionate soul. It was now okay to kill the enemy for no other reason than the fact that we are us. And where the 60s and 70s had been an age of anti-heroes, and self-examination, it now appeared paramount to re-establish HEROES. Not just heroes, but unquestioned, unquestionable demi-Gods, the kind of characters who destroy buildings and cities to save their girlfriend or something.

But, “Whoa! The laser gun is cool!”

Pizza the Hut: THAT’s puttin’ ’em in their place!

Mel Brooks looked at that mentality, and said, much to his credit, “I’m not so impressed.” Your proto-Fascism has no power over me. This crap you fetishize is immature. The names are hokey, the plot is stupid, your intentions are nakedly self-aggrandizing. It is cloaked in mysticism, but contains no wisdom. There is a level at which a jackass with a gun is childish… therefore a jackass with a gun who is wearing a comically large helmet and falling down and swearing all the time is actually much more mature for laughing at the folly of it all. I KNOW the Buddha and Jesus would agree with me here!

I had a great epiphany a few months back at the Coney Island USA spring gala, when Reverend Billy was there and gave his (usual) great speech about how Coney Island was a a kind of holy place, for being the birthplace and haven for every kind of freak. Not just the literal ones, the born different, but the spiritual ones, too. Outsiders. And New Burlesque, like the sideshow, is so much about embracing all bodies, and celebrating self-ownership by women, the LGBTQ community etc (at least the worthwhile shows are).

Brooks, to state the obvious, is from an outsider culture. He STATES it. At the end of The History of the World, Part One, he announces that his next movie will be Jews in Space. And he made Jews in Space and decided to call it Spaceballs instead. He gives us a “Druish Princess” whose servant is played by Joan Rivers, for God’s sake. And “May the Schwartz Be With You!” Brooks is in dialogue with the dominant culture, the Anglo-Saxon culture, which appears to be getting off on some weird Aryan worshiping mythos. The vaudeville spirit is about creating a unique whole out of a zillion diverse parts, allowing them to remain different, allowing them to remain themselves, not asking them to cleave to some “ideal”. Taking the beautiful and powerful down a few pegs, that’s the stuff for me. God bless you, Mel Brooks. We need a thousand more like you right at this very moment.

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