Archive for comedienne

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. 

Florence Lake: Squeaky Voiced Mrs. Kennedy

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd

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LAKE OF THE SQUEAKY VOICE. 

Today is the birthday of Florence Lake (Florence Silverlake, 1904-1980). Lake started out in 1910 in a vaudeville act called “Family Affair” with her parents and her brother Arthur. Arthur was later to gain fame in the part of Dagwood Bumstead in the screen and radio versions of the comic strip Blondie.

Like Arthur, Florence had an extreme comic character with a high pitched voice that served her well in films. She began getting movie roles in 1929, initially appearing in film shorts with the likes of Smith and Dale and Clark and McCullough. But in 1931 she began appearing as Edgar Kennedy’s wife in his series of RKO comedy shorts, a part she was to play through his death in 1948, becoming her best known film role. Throughout that period she also appeared in shorts and features of all sorts as well, comedies, musicals, dramas and westerns. From the ’50s through 1976, she continued to be in demand as a recognizable bit player on both film and television, most regularly on the tv version of Lassie, as Jenny the telephone operator from 1954 through 1962. Her last credit is an episode of Emergency! 

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.

R.I.P. Judy Carne

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, OBITS, Television, TV variety, Women with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by travsd

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Just got word via Steve Stoliar that Laugh-In  “Sock it to Me” Star Judy Carne (b . Joyce Botterill, 1939) has passed on at the age of 76.

A native of Northampton, England, Carne had been acting on television in the U.S. a few years when the British Invasion hit in 1964, creating a vogue for all things evocative of swinging, mod London. (I think of Davy Jones as another tv beneficiary of this trend). After years playing bit roles on shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy, in 1968 Carne was cast on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In where her 15 seconds of fame (stretched out over several years) consisted of go-go dancing, saying “Sock it to me!” and getting doused with a bucket of water. This sounds like less than it was. Carne was adorable and funny; one sympathizes with her and a character emerged from the bit. She sort of seemed like the Charlie Brown of the Laugh-In cast. And “Sock it to me” became a national catch-phrase. However, the tale of what happened after Laugh-In isn’t pretty. You can read about it here. (Sidenote: she was married several times; the first was to Burt Reynolds, 1963-65). From the highest (though briefest) heights of fame, she eventually wond up back in Northampton, which is where she died last Thursday. You can read about it in the Northampton Herald & Post here.And here is the report in Variety. And here is the New York Times. 

The clip below is not one of the typical Laugh-in “sock it to me” segments. To take advantage of the fad, a single was recorded and released. This is the promo film that went with the song:

Elsie Ames: Trying

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Elsie Ames (1902-1983).

Comedy is a matter of taste, of course. I’ve never encountered any comedian (no matter how popular or great) that I didn’t know someone who didn’t like them. By contrast, I’ve never met anyone who liked Elsie Ames or didn’t think she was terrible. People throw that word around “bad” so often and it’s often unjust. But, no, onscreen at least Elsie Ames was at a Cherry Sisters level of bad.

She began in a vaudeville act with her husband Nicholas “Arno” Casa called Ames and Arno. The act’s first appearance on film was a dance specialty in the 1937 Paramount short Double or Nothing. 

In 1940 Jules White began casting her in comedy shorts at Columbia, appearing opposite Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and El Brendel. And this is what she is known for. She had an unfortunate habit of upstaging whatever comedian she appeared with, which might be forgivable if she brought anything to the table. If she had actually been funny and talented, we might not have minded, for Keaton and Langdon in particular are in steep decline in these years, not just off their game but painful, and El Brendel himself was bad, so we would go so far as to say that we would have been grateful for a funny scene stolen by Ames. (Think of Virginia O’Brien, whom I think is the best thing about the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store). But, no, although she’s trying mighty hard. She’s loud, screechy, unpleasant, clumsy, ungraceful, and she can’t act. Did I leave anything out? Yet for some reason for a brief moment Jules White seemed to be nourishing her at the expense of comedians we have some investment in and actually care about. In What Makes Lizzy Dizzy? she’s actually the star.

Audiences of the time must have agreed with me. By 1942, just two years into the experiment, White had dropped her. She went back to live appearances with Arno, and the two did their dance specialty in two more films, Fun Time (1944), and Rhythm Inn (1951), and they also appeared in Houdini (1953). 20 years later, John Cassavetes gave her the best screen roles of her career in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new 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

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Beautiful Deadpan: The Brilliance of Virginia O’Brien

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of singer and character comedienne Virginia O’Brien (1919-2001). Though I am about 70 years too late, I will always be her advocate and champion — I see the greater things she might have gone on to do if people of vision had decided her fate. (As it happened, her fate wasn’t so bad — I just want to be able to see her in many more and greater movie roles).

Her blessing and her curse was a gimmick — an extreme deadpan way of delivering a wisecrack or a song that was hilarious and invariably stole the show. Critics dubbed her “Frozen Face”, “Miss Ice Glacier”, and “Miss deadpan”. Something about her shtick seemed to suit the swing era; it was hip and cool and urban and cutting…just a heartbeat ahead of the beatnik chicks who would follow in her footsteps a few years later. With her dark beauty, she seems a distant cousin and ancestor to the goth comedy of Vampira, Morticia, Lily Munster and Elvira, but without the shrouds and cobwebs (she was more of a ’40s clothes horse and fashion plate).

The lore is that in 1939 the L.A. native was in a musical comedy called “Meet the People” and her nerves were so great, her performance came out “deer in the headlights”. Rather than bombing, the audience thought it was an act and loved it. The fact that her uncle was director Lloyd Bacon provided an entree into the film industry. She was an uncredited extra in Eddie Cantor’s Forty Little Mothers (1940). But she stole the show in the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941) — her number is really the only good thing about that movie. She got another scene stealing song in Ringside Maisie (1941), and then was cast in a succession of popular musicals, including Lady Be Good (1941), Panama Hattie (1942), Du Barry was a Lady (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Til the Clouds Roll By (1946). She also had great roles in two non-musical Red Skelton comedies, both re-makes, The Show-Off (1946), and Merton of the Movies (1947). Then, unceremoniously, her studio (MGM) dropped her like a hot potato. Most of the remainder of her long career was spent in live performance, although she did appear in two more movies, both of them for some reason starring mules:  Francis in the Navy (1955) and Gus (1976).

So we come to my diatribe. Clearly there’s the taint of “flavor of the month” to O’Brien. Obviously the determination was made that she was a one-trick pony, a fad, and it had played out, so the studio sent her on her way. To me, doing so was short-sided and unjust. For two reasons. One, is that she had proven she had some other notes on her instrument. From the first, she showed onscreen that the deadpan thing was just an act. She’d often play scary and severe…but then she’d let down the mask and show that she was really warm and friendly and approachable. And in those last two Skelton movies she’d held her own. But also, a certain soul brother of her’s had proven that you could work such an act for decade after decade. I’ve long admired the acumen of whatever photographer took this photo:

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A smart producer would have cooked up a high concept comedy pairing of these two (hopefully with Buster in a father role rather than a love interest.)  Anyway, I can cast O’Brien in imaginary movies ’til the cows come home. As I can with a certain spiritual heir apparent to both her and Keaton, Steven Wright — I don’t know why he’s not an ensemble player in a zillion comedy movies. Oh yeah, I know why. The world is insufferably stupid.

Anyway, one of my favorite bloggers Psychotronic Paul has also written about the expressionless one. Here’s his take at Way Too Damn Lazy to Write a Blog. 

For more on comedy film history 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

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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.

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Jobyna Ralston: Lloyd’s Third Leading Lady

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Tennessee-born silent film actress and comedian Jobyna Ralston (1899-1967).

Ralston was named after stage and screen actress Jobyna Howland by her mother, a portrait photographer who apparently had dreams for her child even before she was born. Fortunately for her mother’s aspirations, the younger Jobyna proved to possess great talent, and blossomed into a gorgeous young woman — considerable attributes for a stage and screen star.

After a number of childhood theatrical experiences, Ralston broke into films in 1919, supporting Bobby Burns in independent shorts made in Florida. Her first notable credit was in the Marx Brothers’ legendary silent feature Humor Risk (1921), sadly now lost. She continued supporting Bobby Burns and Billy Quirk in comedies until her first break in 1922, when she was hired by Hal Roach , who frequently paired her in comedies with James Parrott (sometimes billed as Paul). That year, Max Linder cast her opposite him in The Three Must-Get-Theirs, her first feature. In 1923 she was elected to the WAMPAS Baby Stars.

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Then, the credit she is best known for today: she stepped into the shoes previously filled by Bebe Daniels and Mildred Davis to become Harold Lloyd’s leading lady for his features from 1923 to 1927: Why Worry?, Girl Shy, Hot Water, The Freshman, For Heaven’s Sake and The Kid BrotherNext, she got to co-star with Eddie Cantor in his second silent feature Special Delivery (1927).

The next phase of her career is intriguing. Through the rest of the silent era, Ralston breaks out of comedy and acts in a wide range of features, sometimes even receiving star billing. She had a major role in William Wellman’s blockbuster Wings (1927), and is in a number of other westerns, adventures, dramas and comedies. (1927’s  A Racing Romeo cast her opposite football star Red Grange!). She only made three talkies; critics disparaged her diction. She retired to raise a family with Richard Arlen, her co-star in Wings. 

Here she is in the 1922 Roach short The Golf Bug with Parrott:

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new 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

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Jane Curtin: Straight Woman Par Excellence

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Television, TV variety, Women with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great comic actor Jane Curtin (b. 1947).

Believe it or not, despite the fact that she has continued to work steadily and prominently down to the present day, my experience of her career is limited almost entirely to her years on Saturday Night Live (1975-1980). I suppose I saw five or ten minutes of Kate and Allie, but certainly never a whole episode. So my celebration will be of 40 year old work, admittedly kind of an outrage.

An interesting thing happened on SNL. It doesn’t seem to have been intentional from the outset, but more an act of organic evolution, but within a matter of a few short months Curtin managed to find her niche in the cast by frequently playing the straight character. This would happen in skits, but also came to the fore in the “meta” version of herself she played on camera, presenting herself (as she was) as a sane, sober, drug-free, normal human, in contrast to all the wild people around her. Like I say, that doesn’t seem to have been the intention at the outset. Like all the other cast members she had been hired for her experience in sketch comedy troupes and off-Broadway shows, and because she was funny at the audition. And she played her share of broad, funny characters (I think of the nerd mother Enid Loopner, as a great example of that). But comedy definitely works better with some contrast and some conflict and opposition, and so the role she eventually took on brought a kind of added magic to the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

For more on comedy history please check out my new 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

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To find out about  the history of variety (including tv variety)consult 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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