Archive for English

Terry-Thomas and His Tragic Final Days

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2017 by travsd

The great eccentric British comedian Terry-Thomas (Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, 1911-1990) was born on July 10. It may shock you (or perhaps not) to know that this quintessential caricature of an upper-crust Englishman was a working class kid, the son of a butcher who was into amateur theatricals. As a teenager, Young Tom Stevens began to cultivate his accent, basing his speech on that of an actor named Owen Nares, and began dressing nattily in imitation of his favorite movie stars. He was endowed by nature with the gapped teeth; the cigarette holder, tailored suits, mustache, spats, bowler hat and so forth would all be added later, as would the unique hyphenated professional name. As a young man he held menial jobs (clerkships and so forth), while simultaneously playing ukulele in jazz bands, working as a movie extra and developing a cabaret act. During World War II, he traveled with a unit that entertained the troops, and this increased his confidence and his visibility.

It wasn’t until after the war, at age 36, that his star began to rise. He performed in a sketch revue called Picadilly Hayride that was a smash success in the West End, running close to 800 performances. This led to his becoming the first British comedy tv star in 1949 on a show called How Do You View? He was a star of British comedy film throughout the 1950s (Tom Thumb, 1958, and I’m Alright, Jack, 1959 might be best known to Americans.) In the ’60s his stardom went international. La Grande Vadrouille (1966) was the most successful film in France in terms of box office dollars until 2004, and still ranks third. Americans know him from several popular Hollywood pictures made during the 60s, in which lampooned the stereotypical Brit for our benefit, though not always. He’s in The Wonderful Wold of the Brothers Grimm (1962), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Mouse on the Moon (1963), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Munster Go Home (1966), Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967), The Perils of Pauline (1967), Don’t Raise the Bridge Lower the River with Jerry Lewis (1968), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? and How Sweet It Is, both made with Doris Day in 1968, the Dr. Phibes films with Vincent Price (1971 and 1972), and the voice of the snake in Walt Disney’s Robin Hood (1973).

Unfortunately, in 1971 he learned that he had Parkinson’s Disease, and thus began a slow, painful descent that lasted nearly two decades. Throughout the ’70s he continued to act, although the roles got smaller, fewer, slower and more feeble. Here is in the 1977 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles with starred Peter Cook and Dudley Moore:

His last screen credit was in 1980. Throughout the ’80s he was forced to live off his savings to live and pay for his medical treatments, and withdrew from public life. Towards the end he had sold all of his property and was discovered living with his wife in a charity flat. At that point his condition was publicized, an all-star charity concert was held, and thousands of pounds were raised. Look at the screen shot below. For the final indignity, they left out the hyphen in the lower third caption! Terry-Thomas died a few months after the celebrity concert, in 1990.

Gertrude Lawrence: So Close But Yet So Far

Posted in British Music Hall, Broadway, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2017 by travsd

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Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) was born on the Fourth of July. She is a frustrating figure for the show biz buff. She may well be the latest (most recent) star of her stature to be so out of reach to contemporary audiences. She is of the modern age, but did very little film, television, or radio, and died comparatively young. It adds up to a legend that happened within the living memory of the older people in our lives but which we have little access to. Other than mentions in books, I discovered her chiefly through the 1968 bio-pic Julie Andrews made about her called Star! based on her own memoir A Star Danced. 

The daughter of a professional stage singer, Lawrence began her own career when she was only a child of ten, performing in a Christmas pantomime and the London version of Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle (1912), among other early productions. In 1920, she performed a music hall act with singer Walter Williams. She met Noel Coward when they were only teenagers, a lifelong friendship that later resulted in some of her most legendary stage appearances (London Calling! [1923]; Private Lives [1930]; Tonight at 8:30 [1935]). She was only 18 when she was hired by Andre Charlot to be Beatrice Lillie’s understudy. She would later star in several editions of Charlot’s revues herself, which allowed her to become a major figure of Broadway as well as the West End. This led to the Broadway hit, Oh, Kay! (1926) in which she co-starred with Victor Moore, with music by the Gershwins and book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. She sang the show-stopper “Someone to Watch Over Me”, which became a signature song for her. In 1928 she was teamed with Clifton Webb and Walter Catlett for Treasure Girl, also with songs by the Gershwins, and in which she sang “(I’ve Got a) Crush on You”.

In 1929, she made the first of her nine films, The Battle of Paris, filmed at Paramount’s Astoria studios, directed by Robert Florey and co-starring Charles Ruggles and Arthur Treacher. Other notable pictures included Rembrandt (1936) with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester; and her heavily panned appearance as Amanda, the mother in Tennessee Williams Glass Menagerie (1950).

Other notable stage productions included a Broadway revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion (1945), and a West End appearance in September Tide (1948), which Daphne Du Maurier had written especially for her, and during the production of which the two became close friends. She was appearing as the original Anna in The King and I when she was felled by an illness that proved to be advanced liver and abdominal cancer, which took her at age 54.

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

 

George Sanders: Committed Suicide Because He Was “Bored”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by travsd

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The irreplaceable George Sanders (1906-1972) was born on July 3. I am astounded to contemplate that I haven’t done a post on him yet. Perhaps the undertaking has seemed too daunting. Such an unconventional excuse for a star and yet so indispensable once he established himself. Cutting, oily, arch, cynical but rarely purely villainous — usually more soft and lacking in character. Often his characters proved to have a heart, and he often even played heroes, even conventional ones. This is because the British have the opposite class prejudices that Americans do. Sanders’ upper class air of privilege and his sensuous, nonchalant manner seems perfectly consonant with the British idea of a military officer, patriotic spy, or virtuous knight. To an American, his personality is identical to what we have become conditioned to read as the villain. And after all, we did fight two wars against them. Sanders in a red coat and periwig, taking snuff between draconian edicts, would be a perfect poster boy for what we were fighting against.

Yet, he was often the hero, especially in his early years. I was astounded a few years ago to catch him starring in B movie series like The Saint and The Falcon that were playing on television. He was even in a Mr. Moto movie. But this led pretty quickly to prestige work. He’s in The House of the Seven Gables (1940, technically a B film) with Vincent Price, but also Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Foreign Correspondent (1940).

“All About Eve”, in which he gets to paw an early career Marilyn Monroe.

The languorous Sanders we’ve all come to appreciate shows up as early as The Moon and Sixpence (1942), and is fully solidified by The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) in which he plays Wilde’s stand-in, Lord Henry Wotton. He would get to do Wilde again in The Fan (1949), an adaptation of Lady Windermere’s Fan. The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) and his Oscar winning role role as theatre critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950) cement this particular image for all time. And yet at the same time, there were all these historical costume epics: Samson and Delilah (1949), Ivanhoe (1952), King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), and Solomon and Sheba (1959).  He had his own tv show in 1957, George Sanders Mystery Theatre. There follows some fairly respectable sci-fi and horror, From the Earth to the Moon (1958), Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons (1960) and Village of the Damned (1960). And comedies like The Cracksman (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964) and The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965).

As was frequently the case with actors of his generation, his last roles in the late 1960s and early 70s were a grab-bag of strangeness. He played Mr. Freeze on Batman.  He was the voice of Shere Kahn the Tiger in Disney’s animated The Jungle Book (1967), which ironically may be his most widely known role today. The same year, he played the villain in Sonny and Cher’s experimental comedy Good Times. And The Body Stealers (1969), Doomwatch (1972), Endless Night (1972), and Psychomania a.k.a The Death Wheelers (1972) are a very weird, schlocky final chapter to a career that had embraced just about every genre, including musicals.

Yes, Sanders could sing! He actually released this record album in 1958:

The George Sanders Touch…songs for the lovely lady. Was ANY irony intended here? His screen roles conjure visions of date rape, scoundrelly coercion, rakish seduction, and sneaky departures, a la “I’m sorry, my dear. I didn’t tell you? My mother needs me in Cairo. I won’t be back for 11 years.” If you’ve any doubt, two years after this album was released, he published his autobiography: Memoirs of a Professional Cad. Sanders was married four times; two of his marriages were with Gabor Sisters. (He’d co-starred with Zsa Zsa in Death of a Scoundrel).

And thus we come to Sanders’ suicide note. Apparently he left three of them, the most famous of which read: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

It sounds very funny and characteristic of him but it cloaked a much sadder reality. He was depressed, in failing health, and had been drinking since the failure of his last marriage. Despondent, he swallowed five bottles of sleeping pills while staying in a villa on the Spanish coast.

Sanders’ older brother was the actor Tom Conway, who took over as the Falcon when Sanders left the series, and starred in three Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO. The brothers were both born in Imperial Russia; the family fled at the time of the Revolution. Thus, this quintessentially English actor was — technically — Russian. No wonder he was so depressed!

On the Tiller Girls: Pioneers in Precision Dance

Posted in British Music Hall, Broadway, Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

British music theatre director John Tiller (1854-1925) was born on June 13. While skilled and trained in music and theatre arts since childhood, Tiller initially made his fortune in the family cotton business in Manchester until circumstances permitted him to pursue his theatrical interests more seriously around 1890. At that point, Tiller began presenting pantomimes and training young girls to perform in them at the professional level. He maintained a school for young performers much akin to the one Ned Wayburn would later start in America. As an outgrowth, he appears to have been a crucial innovator in the development of precision dance.

Now, it is often claimed that Tiller was the “inventor” of precision dance, but I doubt that, since images (photos, sketches paintings) of women in dance choruses arrayed in neat lines are readily available dating from many decades earlier than this. Another influence had to have been drill teams — believe it on not, male military drill teams were also popular on variety stages in the late 19th century. At any rate, Tiller seemed to have honed and refined the practice, demanding absolute uniformity in appearance and movement, becoming an early adapter of the kick-line and the feathered headdress, and apparently inventing the useful techniques of the dancers linking arms or holding each other’s waists in order to help coordinate and steady movement. He was also a pioneer in branding and promoting. His “Tiller Girls” were booked all over the world: Paris, London and the States, were booked for Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals, and were the inspiration for the Radio City Rockettes as well as the film routines of Busby Berkley. 

Tiller himself died in 1925 but various incarnations of The Tiller Girls have persisted and thrived with great popularity down to the present day.

For more on the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold

Walter Forde: The “British Harold Lloyd”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2017 by travsd

April 21 is the natal day of British actor/ comedian/ director Walter Forde (Thomas Seymour Woolford, 1898-1984). Forde was the son of music hall comedian Tom Seymour, joining his father onstage as a child, where he learned to be an actor and physical comedian. In 1920, he wrote and starred in a series of British silent comedy two-reelers, playing a bungling character named “Walter”. The films were created in collaboration with his father, and Walter’s character often wore a straw boater and shared certain similarities in personality with Harold Lloyd. In 1923, Forde and his father tried their luck at Universal in the U.S. Forde only stayed a short time; Seymour remained in Hollywood. Forde went back to London and resumed the Walter series, directing several of them, and achieved even greater success in his home country. In 1928 he began directing features and phased out the Walter character by 1930.

Forde’s career as a director in the sound era is interesting, for it suggests a different path somebody like Lloyd might have gone down had they been so declined. Lloyd had co-directed many of his films; after retiring as an actor he produced a couple, but after that he pretty much left the business. What if he’d tried his hand at directing?  Among the slapstick comedy men, Forde’s post-silent career trajectory seems closest to somebody like George Stevens, who’d begun as cinematographer on Laurel and Hardy pictures, moved up to directing shorts for Hal Roach, and then moved up to feature film directing in all genres, not just comedy. Forde was a very different kind of director from Stevens, but like him, he was by no means restricted to screwball comedy; he also did work in other genres, especially mysteries, crime dramas, thrillers, etc. Two of his better known films today are The Ghost Train (1931 and later remade again by Forde in 1941) and Rome Express (1932). Much like Alfred Hitchcock, he worked in close collaboration with his wife Culley, a former continuity girl. In the post-war era he had difficulty getting films made; his last was Cardboard Cavalier (1949). He retired to Los Angeles for his net three and a half decades.

Many of his films, including some Walter comedies are available on Youtube; you should check ’em out!

For more on slapstick comedy 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. 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.

Charles Chaplin, Sr.: No Slouch Either!

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

To find out more about vaudeville 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

Geoffrey Kerr

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd
Kerr with Ruth Chatterton in his last film "Once a Lady" (1931)

Kerr with Ruth Chatterton in his last film “Once a Lady” (1931)

This is the natal day of Geoffrey Kerr (1895-1971). Kerr was the son of character actor Frederick Kerr, best known perhaps today for playing Frankenstein’s father in the 1931 film. Kerr was a stage name; their actual surname was Keen. 

The younger Kerr began acting in his father’s London stage and (silent) screen productions following his service in World War One. In 1920, the Kerrs (both father and son) came to New York to appear in the Broadway production of Just Suppose with Patricia Collinge and Leslie Howard. The younger Kerr was to remain a constant Broadway presence through 1934. It was during this period that he also played big time vaudeville, including the Palace, circa 1926.

He appeared in three American talkies in 1931: Once a Lady, The Runaround and Women Live Once. By this time he was also transitioning into being a writer. That same year he also wrote and appeared in the Broadway play London Calling. From the mid 1930s through late 1940s, he was a Hollywood screenwriter. In the 1950s, he wrote scripts for British television. His son (with actress June Walker) was the actor John Kerr (Tea and Sympathy, South Pacific).

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

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