Archive for chorus girl

Billie Dove: Follies Girl

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2017 by travsd

Silent film star Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny 1903-1997) was born on this day. Born to Swiss immigrant parents in New York City, the stunningly beautiful teenager began her working life as a model to artists like Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg. She was also said to have worked as an extra on the Mabel Normand picture Joan of Plattsburg (1918), although she is not visible in the finished picture. In 1919, she was hired as a replacement for the Ziegfeld Follies during the infamous strike; she was also cast as a replacement in the Marilyn Miller show Sally, also produced by Ziegfeld.

With Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate” (1926)

She moved to Hollywood right after this, where she was a star for just over a decade. Her first proper role was in the screen adaptation of George M. Cohan’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1921) starring Sam Hardy. Interestingly, though her time as an actual chorus girl was brief, she would PORTRAY a chorus girl on screen so often that it became a big part of of her Jazz Age image, in movies like At the Stage Door (1921), Polly of the Follies (1922), An Affair of the Follies (1927), The Heart of a Follies Girl (1928), and her very last film Blondie of the Follies (1932). Among her other notable pictures were, The Black Pirate (1926), opposite Douglas Fairbanks, and Kid Boots (1926), Eddie Cantor’s screen debut, an adaptation of his Ziegfeld-produced Broadway show featuring Cantor and Clara Bow. Billie Dove also was known for co-starring in numerous westerns with the likes of Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and others.

Dove had a three year romance with Howard Hughes, who’d produced several of her films. In 1933 she retired from the screen to marry oil tycoon Robert Alan Kenaston. After a 30 year absence from the screen she stepped before the camera one last time for a cameo in the Charlton Heston vehicle Diamond Head (1963). Singer Billie Holiday is said to have taken the first part of her stage name from Billie Dove’s.

For more on silent film, 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. For 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.

Marie Wallace: From the Follies to the Film Colony

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

She’s the One in the Middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Mulhern: Jack Pickford’s Last and Least-Known Wife

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , on January 24, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Mary Mulhern (1908-1965). Originally from Newark, NJ, Mulhern was the daughter of Irish immigrants, her father a traveling salesman. When she was only 17 years old, she was cast as a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925. The following year she was also cast in the Ziegfeld revue No Foolin‘. In 1928 she took a trip to London and Paris. And in 1929 she appeared in three Vitaphone shorts: Somewhere in Jersey, Just Like a Man, and Harry Rosenthal and His Bath and Tennis Club Orchestra. At this point she seemed well on the way to a decent career.

But then there was a lapse in judgment. In 1930, she became the third Ziegfeld wife of rake, roué, and reprobate Jack Pickford, stepping into shoes previously filled by the better known Olive Thomas and Marilyn Miller. The day after the wedding, they were accosted by creditors for unpaid bills. Pickford was alternately violent and neglectful of her, and then he was hospitalized following a car accident. They were in the process of getting divorced when he passed away in 1932.

In the meantime she had starred in a 1931 Hollywood production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime with Althea Henley, produced by Sid Grauman. But after this, her professional career seems to have evaporated, not surprising in the depths of the Great Depression.

By 1934, she was back in New York. From this point, the only references to her are mentions by columnists, always in the context of her being a former Ziegfeld beauty and Pickford wife.

Walter Winchell gives this intriguing item in 1934: “What the gazettes omitted in the Max BaerEdward McCarthy snarl is that Edward McCarthy is Mary Mulhern’s Monkey-Doodle.” Translated, this sounds like there was a public altercation between the boxer Max Baer and this McCarthy, probably in some night club, and that McCarthy was Mulhern’s romantic interest at the time. That this appears as an item at all in Winchell’s column has all the earmarks of Mulhern contacting Winchell to complain that she wasn’t mentioned in any of the previous coverage of the event. Over the next 20 years, Winchell would apparently be one of Mulhern’s only friends, throwing her whatever crumbs he could in his column.

A Winchell column item from 1945 informs us that she is “to wed a fourth time, to a youthful British nobleman.” This one, unfortunately, seems to have been a fantasy on every level. Pickford was Mulhern’s only known husband. This may have been a simple error of flipping the facts: Mulhern was Pickford’s third wife, but Pickford was not Mulhern’s third husband. And the marriage to the nameless nobleman seems never to have taken place.

The 1950s found Mulhern in desperate straits.  In 1952, Jack Lait’s column mentions that she was “a hostess in an ice cream shop at 59th Street and Park Ave.” In 1953, Winchell reported that she was working at a restaurant and needed a job. In 1955 she wrote to Winchell seeking his corroboration that she had been in show business so she get “a loan from an actor’s group.” Later that year she was checked into a mental hospital, where she remained until she passed away a decade later.

NITA NALDI: A VAMP FROM VAUDEVILLE

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2016 by travsd

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NITA NALDI: A VAMP FROM VAUDEVILLE

Today is the birthday of Nita Naldi (Mary Dooley, 1894-1961).

Naldi was the child of working class Irish parents in New York City. When her (then single) mother died in 1915, she was forced to care for her two younger siblings. Fortunately her extraordinary beauty made it easier than it might have been. She worked as an artists’ model and then broke into a vaudeville in a two-act with her brother Frank. This led to chorus parts in Follow the Girl (1918), The Passing Show of 1918 and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918 and 1919. This in turn lead to acting roles in plays, the biggest of which was aptly named Opportunity (1920).

From here she went into films, essentially starting out at the top, opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). She was to become of Hollywood’s top silent era vamps, starring in such notable films as Blood and Sand (1922), The Ten Commandments (1923), Cobra (1924), and Alfred Hitchcock’s second film The Mountain Eagle (1926). She was a frequent co-star of Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova.

It was during this heyday that she she sat for this famous illustration by Alberto Vargas:

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Starting in the late 20s she spent several years in Europe and married her longtime lover the millionaire J. Searle Barclay. By 1931 this had fizzled out. The pair separated, she came home, filed for bankruptcy and starred in two short-lived Broadway shows Firebird (1932) and Queer People (1934). At this stage, it was widely held that she was no longer a beauty; she had gained weight since her film stardom. But she continued to perform. She appeared in an off-Broadway revue with Mae Murray in 1942, had a role in the 1952 Broadway show In Any Language, and coached Carol Channing for The Vamp (1955).

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.

Irene Ware: The Best of Both Worlds

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Women with tags , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Irene Ware (Irene Catherine Ahlberg, 1910-1993). And what are the “both worlds” of which we speak in our headline? Why, classic horror and chorus girl musicals, of course. What other worlds are there?

In this dichotomy, Ware’s career is not unlike Mae Clarke’s, although in different proportions. The stenographer daughter of a New York saloon keeper, she became a beauty queen at age 18, winning Miss Greater New York, Miss United States and Miss Universe in rapid order. She was featured in the 1928 edition of Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook, working her way up to the Vanities by 1930, where she remained through the 1932 edition. Then she moved to Hollywood, where she was immediately tried in starring parts. She is mostly remember for starring opposite Bela Lugosi in the horror classics Chandu the Magician (1932) and The Raven (1935, also with Boris Karloff), and in murder mysteries like Rendezvous at Midnight (1935), The Dark Hour (1936) and Murder at Glen Athol (1936). Gold Diggers of 1937 brought her back to her roots.

The Raven was the crest of her career — while much admired today, it didn’t do well at the time. She lost leading lady status, and became relegated to support roles and B pictures. She retired in 1940 to start a family.

For 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.

Janet Reade: Wife of Two Pat Rooneys

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2016 by travsd

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The Wife of Two Pat Rooneys. 

Today is the birthday of Janet Reade (Helen Dorothy Rulton, 1910-1943). Beginning as a chorus girl for Flo Ziegfeld, her lucky break was a featured part in Ballyhoo of 1930. This led to a string of Vitaphone musical comedy shorts and appearances in big time vaudeville houses like the Palace through the mid 30s. In 1935 she married vaudeville dancer Pat Rooney Jr. She raised more than a few eyebrows when she divorced him in 1942 to marry his father Pat Rooney, Sr. She died the following year of a liver ailment.

For 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.

Ann Sothern: Maisie and More

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , on January 22, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Ann Sothern (Harriet Arlene Lake, 1909-2001).

Sothern didn’t appear in vaudeville, which is why we haven’t done a post on her yet. But she had a movie career that was very vaudevillesque, which is why we post on her now. Sothern came on the scene just as vaudeville was winding down and was fortunate to get cast in bit roles and chorus parts in Hollywood musicals fresh out of high school. (Her mother was a vocal coach at Warner Brothers; Sothern had studied voice, piano and music composition, and had appeared in school productions. ) She appeared in two numbers in The Show of Shows (1929), had chorus parts in Buster Keaton’s Doughboys (1930) and Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee (1930), is in the “Shanghai Lil” number in Footlight Parade (1933), and sings in Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933).

Meanwhile, billed as Harriet Lake, she became a success on Broadway, starring in Smiles (1930), America’s Sweetheart (1931), Everybody’s Welcome (1931), and Of Thee I Sing (1933). This enhanced her status and she was able to now leverage a series of Hollywood contracts under the screen name Ann Sothern: Columbia (1934), RKO (1936) and MGM (1939). Eddie Cantor must have been a fan — the only two films I know from this stretch of her career are his Kid Millions (1934) and Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937).

Then came her big break. Jean Harlow, originally slated to play the part of a stranded Brooklyn chorus girl (the title character) in Maisie (an adaptation of a novel called Dark Dame), died in 1937. So the part went to Sothern. Sothern’s fetching, worldly-wise yet decent persona suited the part perfectly and the 1939 hit turned into a ten film series lasting until 1947, and a radio show that ran 1945-1953 (with a two year gap 1947-1949).

The success in the Maisie films got her cast in other high profile vehicles, often but not always musicals: an adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Dulcy (1940), the all-star Norman McLeod/ Busby Berkley extravaganza Lady Be Good (1941), the much altered Broadway hit Panama Hattie (1942), the World War 2 nurse drama Cry Havoc (1943),  the backstage vaudeville story April Showers (1948), the Rodgers and Hart bio-pic Words and Music (1948), the melodrama A Letter to Three Wives (1949).

Health problems caused her to leave MGM in 1949, and from then on she worked mostly in television, although she did appear in such films as the Fritz Lang noir thriller The Blue Gardenia (1953), the Gore Vidal political drama The Best Man (1964), Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama (1975), the shlocky horror film The Manitou (1978), and of course her final role in The Whales of August (1987), where her midwestern accent was stretched to its farthest limit to accommodate a downeaster one. She guest starred on television constantly, but also had her own shows, Private Secretary (1953-57) and The Ann Sothern Show (1958-1961) and she was a regular (with her best friend Lucille Ball) on The Lucy Show (1965), and played the voice of the title character in My Mother, the Car (1965-1966) with Jerry Van Dyke.

But the great hub of it all was the Maisie series. Herewith your guide:

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Maisie (1939): Sothern’s debut as wise cracking Brooklyn burlesque chorus girl with a heart of gold Mary Anastasia O’Connor a.k.a. Maisie Ravier. I was surprised upon my first viewing to discover that the film is not really a “comedy”, but more of a melodrama with the occasional lightly comical moment. In the original film she has to blow town (a gangster wants to kill her) and so she take a dancing job out west. When she arrives at her destination the job has fled, so she is stranded. She is forced to stay with straight arrow ranch foreman Robert Young and his sidekick Cliff Edwards. She takes a job as a maid to the couple who own the ranch. She tries to make a play for Young. who doesn’t like her very much at first, writing her off as one of “those” women. Meanwhile, the newlywed wife of the ranch owner is a cynical sophisticate and clearly a gold-digger. She has a lover on the side whom she installs in an old cabin on the property. Maisie earns Young’s respect when she rescues the boss in a car accident; the pair kiss and plan to marry. The story eventually gets pretty dark when the guy who owns the ranch commits suicide and Young is accused of killing him. Maisie actually inherits the ranch! Sothern would later be teamed with Robert Young in Lady Be Good.

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Congo Maisie­ (1940): The first Maisie sequel was inspired by Red Dust (recall that Jean Harlow was originally intended to play Maisie). Now the burlesque dancer is trapped on a West African rubber plantation. She stows away on a river steamer to escape her hotel bills. She is on her way to a job at a night club in Lagos. The film is still not as funny as one would hope but it’s kind of becoming funnier in aggregate — the fact that every time she goes to a gig she gets stuck in some new backwater location. Maisie is kind of like Chaplin’s character. Transient, always on the move, always hand to mouth, always vulnerable. Here, she is again teamed with another humorless, reluctant love interest, this time a cut-rate  Clark Gable (John Carroll). Adultery rears its head again, between the robber planter and the wife of a scientist.

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Gold Rush Maisie (1940):  Another western setting: Maisie’s car breaks down in the Arizona desert on the way to a date. She spends a scary night in a ghost town, in a house with a couple of mean crooks,  then gets involved with a family in a phony latter day gold rush. Slim Summerville plays a grumpy old man.

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Maisie was a Lady  (1941)  This one has surrounds Sothern with many more stars: Lew Ayres and Maureen O’Sullivan and C. Aubrey Smith and Joe Yule (Mickey Rooney’s dad). Many think this one is the best in the series. It is indeed much better, more entertaining, and moves along better (the other are by contrast rather dull and inert). Here Maisie gets fired from a carnival. Her job is to play a headless woman with a dancer’s body that wont quit, but a drunk (Lew Ayres) trips her and she tumbles over, revealing the dodge. I can’t help wondering, “What the hell-? The audience actually believed she was headless?” At any rate she is canned, but it’s okay, because Maisie has a lot of fight in her. When she explains her predicament to a local judge, he forces the drunk to hire her as a servant in his mansion! (A well known B movie punishment). Maisie brings some life into the stuffy old joint. Aubrey Smith is the butler. Maureen O’Sullivan the sister. The house is full of friends who are all snooty people, they think Maisie is a hilarious hoot, and have much fun at her expense. The servants are all appalled, and of course the tables are eventually turned.

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Ringside Maisie (1941)Aside from the first few minutes of the first Maisie film, this is the first one in which we actually see Maisie in her theoretical milieu. We meet her in a dance hall, shaking her fanny as a taxi dancer. Her manager (Rags Ragsland, with whom she also appeared in Panama Hattie) hooks her up with a job. Later she is on her way to the gig and is thrown off a train for not having a ticket. She gets hooked up with a reluctant boxer (Robert Sterling) who’d rather run a grocery store, and his manager (George Murphy). First she works in a night club and then gets fired — and then gets a job pushing an old lady in a wheelchair. Virginia O’Brien (also in the Sothern vehicles Lady Be Good, Panama Hattie and Thousands Cheer) plays herself as a nightclub singer. Two years after this film, Sothern would marry co-star Robert Sterling. The pair remained hitched through 1949.

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Maisie Gets Her Man (1942): This may be the best of the series – – at least I may have enjoyed this one the most.  It contains the most entertaining elements. We get to see Maisie at work in a vaudeville type theatre. When it starts out she is a knife thrower’s target girl, in full showgirl get-up.  Fritz Feld (the character actor best known for his mouth popping routine) plays the knife thrower. Red Skelton is Maisie’s love interest, a comedian with stage fright, and the cast also includes Leo Gorcey, Donald Meek, Walter Catlett, Rags Ragsland and Willie Best (a.k.a. Sleep ‘n’ Eat). Directed by Roy Del Ruth.

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Swing Shift Maisie (1943):  Though directed by the great Norman McLeod this one seems a distinct step down – no stars but Sothern, and a slavishly didactic war-time theme. Maisie works in an aircraft plant. Move over, Rosie the Riveter! There’s some show biz around the edges. She starts out in a dog act, and she later becomes chums with an actress, but it’s full of the usual soap opera stuff about people who may or may love another, suicide attempts etc. Her romantic interest in this one is a test pilot, which adds some apparent dash to offset the depressing fact that everyone works in a factory.

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Maisie Goes to Reno (1944):  This one has a sort of opposite arc to the other films. Here, she STARTS OUT working in a war-time factory, then develops a nervous tic (like Chaplin’s in Modern Times) and so she takes some time off to be a singer with a  bandleader in Reno. There she gets involved with the romantic dramas of card dealers and such. One of the lovers is played by an early career Ava Gardner. 

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Up Goes Maisie (1946): The series has evolved somewhat by this stage. After two films of working in factories she is now an EX-showgirl, though still with same personality and taste in clothes and jewelry. She has graduated from secretarial school  and (after several incidents with lecherous bosses) she goes undercover as a dowdy, ugly girl and and takes a job working for an inventor who is developing a new sort of helicopter (George Murphy). (This plot is sort of meta, by the way. Sothern’s grandfather had invented a submarine he tried to sell to the U.S. navy). There follows some mishigas about his invention and many romantic ups and downs. Ray Collins plays a backer for the invention

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Undercover Maisie (1947): The last in the series. Not that the Maisie series was ever realistic but now we have jumped the shark completely. Ex-showgirl Maisie joins the police department and becomes an undercover cop. We are now approximately in Bowery Boys territory. It was a good thing that everyone moved on. Ann Sothern went on to many more triumphs after this, spanning a period of 40 additional years.

 

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