Archive for child

The Ups and Downs of Lina Basquette

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

Lina Basquette (Lena Copeland Baskette) was born on April 19, 1907. Basquette was a star of stage and screen through several different phases, but is perhaps best remembered today for her eight marriages, most notably the first one, to Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, with much ensuing personal drama.

Basquette was the child of an ambitious stage mother. Her life took a sharp turn at the tender age of eight when she was spotted dancing in her father’s drug store by a rep from RCA Victor, who hired her to dance in the company’s exhibit at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This led to a film contract with Universal Pictures, and she began starring (at age nine) in a series of films called Lena Baskette Featurettes. Her mother embraced the new life; the father did not. He committed suicide and her mother married choreographer and dance director Ernest Belcher. (Dancer/choreographer Marge Champion is the daughter of Belcher and Gladys Baskette and the half-sister of Lina Basquette).

Film work seemed to dry up an the end of the decade, so her dance skills were put to use on Broadway in a succession of shows. She appeared in John Murray Anderson’s Jack and Jill (1923), Charles Dillingham’s Nifties of 1923, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 and 1925, and Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927).

Meanwhile in 1925, she had married movie mogul Sam Warner, who famously died on the eve of the opening of his seminal project The Jazz Singer (1927). There followed a bizarre custody battle between Basquette and the Warner family over her daughter (whom the Warners wanted to raise as one of their own in the Jewish faith, and probably by someone who wasn’t a famous Siren) which lasted many years.

The Godless Girl, 1929

In 1927, Basquette returned to films. In 1928 she was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. The biggest hit of this period (and her career) was Cecil B. DeMille’s semi-talkie The Godless Girl (1929). Her film career lasted until 1943, but her battles with the Warners resulted in a loss of star billing in the talkie era. Her parts got much smaller, sometimes even bit roles, and often in B movies. At the same time, she was making live appearances in night clubs.

In 1943, she was raped and robbed by an off-duty soldier whom she had picked up while hitchhiking. This traumatic event seems to have prompted a major life change for her. She took her savings, bought a farm in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, and reinvented herself as one of the nation’s top breeders of Great Danes! In addition to raising and breeding purebred dogs, she wrote books on the subject and judged shows with the American Kennel Club, an involvement that lasted until the end of her life.

In 1991, she released her memoir Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl, and emerged from retirement after 48 years to appear in the film Paradise Park. She passed away in 1994.

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

The Many Lives of Jane Withers

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2017 by travsd

Happy birthday, Jane Withers (born 1926).

Though I had seen many of her performances over the years, I didn’t particularly take notice of her until a year or two ago when I watched the highly peculiar pro-Soviet movie The North Star (1943). The film is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen, because it was made by Hollywood, a pro-Soviet propaganda made by Sam Goldwyn studios! This strange development came about because the U.S.S.R. were our allies at the time (World War Two), it made a kind of expedient sense for a brief moment. And because of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were briefly strange bedfellows we have the unusual spectacle of Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan and Anne Baxter as Ukrainian peasant farmers extolling the virtues of the collective, in jolly songs written by Aaron Copeland and Ira Gershwin. (It was written by Lillian Hellman, the least surprising thing about it).

At any rate, one takes notice of Withers because she is quirky and funny and odd and a little awkward. One wonders how she got cast, and then you learn she had been a star for nearly ten years by that point. The North Star is relatively late-ish in the first leg of her career.

She began as a child star at the age of three on a local Atlanta radio program called Daisy’s Dainty Dewdrop. Success there emboldened the family’s move to Hollywood, where Jane was cast in bit roles as early as 1932 (age six). She has small parts in the original Imitation of Life (1934) and W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934), among others.

In 1934 she was cast as Shirley Temple’s rival in Bright Eyes (1934), and thereafter she began to star in her own films like Paddy O’Day (1936) and Little Miss Nobody (1936); by the end of the decade she was one of the country’s top box office draws. How could there be room for TWO female child stars at Fox at the same time, you ask? This still from Little Miss Nobody may answer your question:

Shirley Temple sang “Good Ship Lollipop”. Jane Withers punches boys. While not as popular as Temple (NO ONE was), Withers was well loved enough to have a serious of books published in which a fictional “Jane Withers” had a series of Nancy Drew-like adventures in the 1940s. By The North Star, she was a teenager, and seemed to be transitioning into older roles quite well. The first phase of her career doesn’t end until 1949, where she played an adult part in the B movie noir Danger Street. 

Her marriage to movie producer William P. Moss, Jr. (1947-1955) took her away from screen acting for a time, but she returned for a memorable turn (and a great role) in the classic Giant (1956).

Jane Withers and James Dean in “Giant”

She went on to lots of characters parts in films and television over the decades. But during this phase what she became best known for was playing the character of Josephine the Plumber in a series of tv ads for Comet Cleaners which ran in the 1960s and ’70s.

Jane Withers last professional credit was in 2002. She walks among us still, now in her 90s.

To find out more about show business past and present and other sundry arcane forms of entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. To learn more about comedy film history please check out 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

On Another Famous Davis: Jack, of “Our Gang”

Posted in Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Jack Davis (1914-1992) has a birthday of April 5. Not to be confused with another famous Jack Davis, the Mad Magazine illustrator, whom we’ll undoubtedly get around to celebrating at some point. This Jack Davis is related to another well-known Davis, but (amusingly) NOT Bette Davis, who also has an April 5th birthday and whom we just done writing about. This Jack Davis was the kid brother of Mildred Davis, Harold Lloyd’s leading lady for several years prior to becoming his wife.

Mildred’s career had begun in 1916. Her boss Hal Roach was just launching Our Gang in 1922 when 8 year old Jack was thrown into the mix, usually playing tough bully characters. He was featured in some 19 comedies (with some of the footage recycled in some later shorts). Lloyd married Mildred in 1923. and packed the poor kid off to military school, thus ending the careers of two members of the Davis family at the same time. I hope they were grateful! (Actually, Jack, now known as John, probably was — he ended up being a prominent doctor). Davis also somehow found time to play bit parts in films and on tv from the early 1940s through the mid 1980s.

Davis’s  daughter Cindy married Robert Mitchum’s son Christopher, also an actor. Their children and and grandchildren carry on the family business.

For more on the history of film comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

On the Short Life and Career of Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins

Posted in Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by travsd

Our Gang’s Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins (1925-1945) was born on this day. Wheezer was part of the Gang from 1927 through 1933, which, if you’ll do the math, takes him from age two to age eight.

Eight is a young age at which to retire even for a child-star, and there has been much speculation as to why he was let go so early, given that he had been one of the more prominent and better known of the kids (they usually got to hang around until they were about 12). Aural testimony handed down through books and press accounts relate that his parents were very intense, constantly jockeying for their son’s advantage, and possibly even mistreating him with their ambitiousness.

But, purely on a gut level, I have my own theory, and it’s kind of the elephant in the room. HE’S NOT CUTE AND HE’S EXTREMELY UNAPPEALING. In fact — God forgive me — I’ve always found him kind of gross. He got the nickname “Wheezer” because of his noisy, unhealthy breathing, and he just has this puffy, hairless, glandular looking face, with rheumy eyes, and prominent gums, and probably a nose that won’t stop running. He was undoubtedly a cute li’l nipper when he was two, but long about 8, the feedback probably largely consisted of “Ugh” — making the parent’s pushy attitudes even less something Hal Roach and his cohorts were willing to put up with. Sorry to be so rude and blunt, but A is A, as Aristotle taught. In a business of cute kids, you’d better be a cute kid — and not have a name and demeanor that reminds you of disease.

Wheezer had starred in some of the shorts, and also appeared in a couple of feature films, but after 1933 he was permanently “at liberty” and returned with his family to Tacoma, Washington, from whence they came. Sadly, Robert Wheezer died in an airplane accident while serving in World War Two. Not a happy story — essentially he was robbed of both his childhood and his adulthood.

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on classic comedy, including Our Gang 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

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.

Stars of Vaudeville #1003: Allen “Farina” Hoskins

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2016 by travsd

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FARINA, STAR OF “OUR GANG” 

Today is the birthday of Allen Hoskins (1920-1980) best known for his groundbreaking role as the character “Farina” in Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts.

Hoskins literally grew up in front of the camera. Born in Boston, he was hired for the Our Gang cast in 1922 before he was even two years old. His character was named after the popular breakfast mush, often served by mothers as baby food. Like certain cartoon characters (Krazy Kat comes to mind) Farina was identified neither as male nor female, and played both sex roles as the plot warranted. He was often attired in a dress, and wore a head full of hair bows in the traditional style of the stage “pick” or “pickaninny”, perhaps most indelibly personified by the character of Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Because of this, even though Farina was one of the first African Americans to become a national movie star, and was in one of the first integrated casts, and was better paid than most adults in the county for about a decade, by the second half of the twentieth century he was saddled with this association with a negative stereotype. As with Jolson (whose reputation seems tarnished today on account of The Jazz Singer despite the fact that in his day nearly everyone in show business both black and white performed in blackface at least occasionally), Farina’s rep is brought down for having been a pick…when the reality is, again, he was only the most prominent of hundreds of scuh performers stretching out across the decades. Today we should look at it with clear eyes. We no longer wish to dehumanize African Americans in how we portray them in movies. But in 1922 most people looked at things quite differently.

 ourganghead

Farina was the biggest star of Our Gang through its early years of 1922 through 1931, which mostly embraced the silent period and a couple of years of talkies. He was let go when he was 11, and no longer an adorable cherub. He was replaced by Mathew “Stymie” Beard (the kid who wore the derby). This was the period when Farina went into vaudeville for a couple of years, joined onstage by his sister Jannie “Mango” Hoskins (who had also appeared in Our Gang shorts from 1926 to 1929). They were still children at the time; their mother Florence accompanied them on their tour.

From 1932 through 1936, Farina enjoyed a brief solo film career, co-starring with Joe E. Brown and Ginger Rogers in You Said a Mouthful (1932) (in which he is quite good), and getting uncredited bit parts in classics like Reckless (1935), Winterset (1936), and After the Thin Man (1936).  After this, the movie work dried up for good. Hoskins then served in the army for 5 years (1940-1945). After the war, he auditioned for a time, but never got cast. He left Hollywood and moved to the San Francisco area where did odd jobs, then trained to be an aide at psychiatric facilities. Within a decade he was in leadership positions at centers for the disabled, and became a well known public advocate for their welfare, a role in life he occupied until he passed away in 1980.

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.

Stars of Vaudeville #838: Bobby Breen

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Bobby Breen (b. 1927). Breen was all of four years old when he debuted in Toronto nightclubs, vaudeville theatres and on radio as a boy soprano. In 1935 he moved to Hollywood, appearing on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and then becoming RKO’s principal child actor from 1936 through 1942. After this, as with many child actors, his career declined rapidly when he reached adolescence, He continued to perform in night clubs, make recordings and appear on television through the 1960s although with a good deal less prominence. The name must have still meant something in those later years  — my first encounter with his name was on old Lenny Bruce comedy records from the late 50s and early 60s.

Here he is in the 1939 film Way Down South:

To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss 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

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