Archive for Depression

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

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With the National Hobo Convention in play this weekend, it seemed a good time to revisit the terrific and wonderfully strange Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by S.N. Behrman from a Ben Hecht idea.

In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually a good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: the two men meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York.

Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver, and several silent comedy hands and vaudevillians in smaller roles and walk-ons. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend (Madge Evans). She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!

The film has many magical elements but somehow lacks the alchemy to be the complete transformational experience that would have made it a better-known classic. It seems a little torn perhaps between two standard genres of the period: 1) crazy fantasy comedy and 2) screwball comedy. (I wish there were better terms in place for me to more clearly make the distinction between the two very different forms I referred to.k The former refers to films like the early Marx Bros, of W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, or International House…crazy comedies with no real rules: outlandish plots and characters with crazy names—anything goes. The latter (screwball) generally refers to Capraesque romantic comedies, a sort of flip side of noir actually…where the coming together of a mismatched couple makes sparks fly in all directions and they have an adventure.

Though the film is beautiful in its way, it could have gone farther.  The production feels sort of cramped and low-budget. The costumes and sets could have gone wild… the hobos and their camp could and should have been been amazing, but fall short. Another thought: by 1934, it’s very hard to have sympathy for the Jimmy Walker type — the guy who’s into high living. Though Depression era movies were full of rich people and their foibles, I don’t think we usually see much of the decadent, dissipating type, at least not as a sympathetic character. The moment for drunken partying was past. So this character seems sort of out of step.

Interesting to me that the communism of Langdon’s character is presented as a mere foible…that would have been impossible in films just a few years later. It’s definitely a bellwether of the time in which it was made.

For more on many of the stars in this film see my books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

Will Rogers on Radio

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Native American Interest, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , on November 4, 2013 by travsd

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In further celebration of Will Rogers’s birthday (see full appreciation here) we pause to admire his radio work. In addition to being a star of stage, screen and the printed word, Will Rogers was a star of radio from 1925 through 1935.

In 1933 he started The Good Gulf Show featuring “the famous alarm clock”. Rogers would set the clock, and when it rang, wherever he was, he would stop talking. The fifteen minute show consisted of unedited live topical extemporization. Rogers was most effective during the Great Depression, when his warm, reassuring voice in the home had the same effect as Roosevelt’s. It made people feel better. During the 20s he had been popular because he was an oddity—a sort of throwback to the Wild West days. During the depression he was popular because he symbolized the common man and he told the unvarnished truth about what was going on. His work was akin to that of Carl SandburgJohn Steinbeck and other chroniclers of the era.

Here he is on the topic of unemployment:

To learn more about show business history 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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Ruby Keeler

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , on August 25, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Ethel Hilda “Ruby” Keeler (1910-1993). She’s another of those performers about whom I keep saying, “I haven’t done a post on her yet?“. But surprisingly, Keeler didn’t come out of vaudeville, and that’s why the lapse. Yet her artistry is so closely related we feel we can’t neglect her any more.

Born in Nova Scotia, raised in NYC, Keeler went straight from teenage dance classes into the chorus line of George M. Cohan’s Broadway show The Rise of Rose O’Reilly in 1923 (she lied about her age). This led to work at Texas Guinan’s El Fay Club and the Broadway shows Bye Bye Bonnie (1927), Lucky (1927) and Sidewalks of New York (1927).

Movie fans love her tap dancing; most of the dance experts I know tend to be less generous with respect to her abilities in that area. One quality all agree on though is her appeal. She possessed an extremely rare mix of innocence and sensuality that is like cat nip to a male audience. It was this quality that inspired Cohan and Charles Dillingham to cast her in shows, and it was this quality that drove the most eligible of show biz bachelors, the 42 year old Al Jolson to snatch the 18 year old Keeler out of the cradle and marry her.

At first the balance of power was all in Jolson’s direction. He famously humiliated her during the opening performance of Show Girl in 1929, when he stood up in the audience and sang during her number, thus stealing her spotlight. Four years later, that balance would shift to her advantage when she starred in a series of now classic Hollywood musicals: 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933Footlight Parade (1933) and Dames (1934). By this point the career of Jolson (who had been the very first star of the talkies starting in 1927) was in decline. To help boost his waning box office she co-starred with him in 1935’s Go Into Your Dance.  But movie musicals (and now Keeler too) were going out of fashion. She continued to appear in a string of ever less popular movies through 1941 and then retired to marry her second husband John Homer Lowe (she’d divorced Jolson in 1940. )

Keeler occasionally popped out of retirement to make the odd film or tv appearance thereafter. Her major re-emergence occurred in the 1970 revival of the 1925 Broadway show No, No, Nanette, which ran for two years.

And here’s something cool — a clip from that show, Keeler still kicking at age 60:

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult 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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And 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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Cliff Edwards, a.k.a “Ukulele Ike”, a.k.a. “Jiminy Cricket”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2009 by travsd

Best known today as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the 1940 Disney film Pinnochio,  Cliff Edwards (June 14, 1895 – July 17, 1971) probably gained his widest popularity on radio.

He was also big in vaudeville, films, and had a successful recording career. As the name implies, he accompanied himself on the uke. He entered vaudeville in the late teens. In 1920, he paired briefly with singer/dancer Pierre Keegan in an act called “Jazz As Is”. He cut his first record in 1922. His pleasant, smooth voice with its folksy edge made quite a hit, and by 1924, he was playing the Palace. Broadway shows included Mimic World of 1921Lady Be Good (1924), and numerous others.

His film career was launched with  The Hollywood Revue of 1929 wherein first made popular the song “Singin’ in the Rain”.  More than 80 films followed, including several co-starring vehicles with Buster Keaton. In clips, one who expects to find a Burl Ives-looking character based on his voice, will be surprised to see a young man with a Rudy Vallee like appeal.

In 1932, he launched his first radio show. In 1949, he launched two different TV shows on CBS: The Cliff Edwards Show and The 54th Street Revue. He died in 1971.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. Ukulele Ike a.k.a Jiminy Cricketconsult 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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