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28 “Great Hitchcock Movies” Made By Other People

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2017 by travsd

This post was originally intended for Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, but since it’s not actually about the Master of Suspense himself but only some of his imitators, any old day’ll do. Elements that remind us of Hitchcock include: psychology: especially paranoia and obsessive sexuality; travelogue: a series of multiple exotic locations, often climaxing at famous landmarks and monuments; glamour: top movie stars (usually the best looking ones), wearing costumes by top fashion designers; humor: sophisticated, quipping repartee; and a self-conscious eye: often incorporating unusual angles or points of view or shot sequences that call attention to their existence, and the fact of looking. These elements are not always all present simultaneously or at all.

With one exception I’ve restricted the list to films made during Hitchcock’s lifetime. And I’ve left certain obvious things off, such as the James Bond films (not because they don’t fit, they do, but because they constitute an entire branching sub-genre themselves), and the Mel Brooks parody/tribute High Anxiety (1978). Also (interestingly) despite his clear fascination with terror, Hitchcock was noticeably, almost stubbornly, unconcerned with the supernatural, thus we leave off certain films like The Uninvited (1944), for example, whose location and atmosphere are reminiscent of Rebecca (1940), or Portrait of Jennie (1948), which has a Hitchcockesque tone. Both are disqualified for being ghost stories, which Hitchcock never indulged in.

Above Suspicion (1943)

Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray are a couple of American newlyweds drafted by British secret service to spy on the Nazis during their European honeymoon. The film is set in 1939, before American involvement in the war, thus they will be “above suspicion” by the Germans. With its theme of European tourism and innocent bystanders being drawn into international webs of espionage, the film is reminiscent of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) Secret Agent (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Saboteur (1942).

Gaslight (1944)

This classic film has actually surpassed any similar Hitchcock movie in becoming idiomatic for an evil husband (Charles Boyer) trying to make his wife (Ingrid Bergman) think she’s insane. It has much in common with Hitchcock’s earlier Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Bergman was to become a Hitchcock regular, starring in Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and Under Capricorn (1949). Joseph Cotten, who plays the hero in this, was the villain in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, released the previous year and would also star in Under Capricorn (1949).

The Stranger (1946)

Orson Welles loved spy stories. The strain was strongest in his radio work, although you can also see it in his involvement in such projects as Journey Into Fear (1942), The Third Man (1949), and Mr. Arkadin (1949 — I like its British title better: Confidential Report). With The Stranger, Welles was trying to prove his commercial viability in the wake of the box office failure of his earlier pictures Citizen Kane (1940) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). No one was more commercial than Hitchcock. The Stranger’s theme of an evil monster who has managed to integrate himself into an idyllic American small town is reminiscent of Shadow of a Doubt (Welles gives a chilling dinner table speech here much reminiscent of one that Cotten gives in the latter film); the idea of still-active post-war Nazis was explored by Hitchcock that same year in Notorious. 

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Robert Siodmak directed this thriller. Dorothy Maguire plays a mute serving girl who may be a serial killer’s next intended victim. Serial killers had been a favorite subject of Hitchcock’s since the time of The Lodger (1927); he returned to it in Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho (1960) and Frenzy (1972). The film’s opening set piece, which happens in an apartment above a movie theatre reminds us of a similar lay-out in Sabotage (1936). The film has eerie theramin music on the soundtrack, as in Spellbound. The big creepy isolated old house Maguire works in is like the one in Rebecca (and all Gothic dramas); and the titular staircase actually presages one that plays a highly memorable role in Vertigo (1958).

Dragonwyck (1946)

The “house haunted by memories” is like Rebecca; the slow poisoning of a wife (Gene Tierney) like Notorious; the tormented, controlling creep of a husband (Vincent Price) is like many Hitchcock characters. This movie is set in early 19th century upstate New York but Hitchcock occasionally did period pieces, notably Jamaica Inn (1939) and Under Capricorn (1949). Given Hitchcock’s love of Gothic melodrama, and his receptivity to female writers (see Du Maurier, below) one has to wonder if the Bronte Sisters had been a major influence on him as a youngster.

Possessed (1947)

Joan Crawford loves Van Heflin just a little too much. The theme of traumatically-induced amnesia is similar to Spellbound; the sick love obsession is like the one that would be at the heart of Vertigo. It is interesting, given the number of Hitchcockesque films Crawford appeared in, that she would never get to work with the Master.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Invalid Barbara Stanwyck accidentally overhears a murder plot over the phone. As in too many Hitchcock films to count, she is drawn into the thing, feeling morally bound to solve the mystery and prevent the crime from happening. The eventual realization that her own husband (Burt Lancaster) may be a killer also echoes Sabotage, Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious and would recur in Dial M for Murder (1954), whose telephone themed title reminds us of this one. Hitchcock would also use the invalid theme in many movies, notably Notorious and Rear Window (1954).  Wendell Corey, so memorable in Rear Window, is also in this film.

Sudden Fear (1952)

Again with Joan Crawford, and again with theme of a murderin’ schemin’ husband (Jack Palance) and a bit o’ gaslightin’. She then turns the tables in a most satisfying twist. The fact that her character is a playwright can be taken as a justification for the elaborateness of her revenge plot.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

This one is based on a novel by one of Hitchcock’s favorite writers, who provided source material for no less than three of his films: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn (1939) and The Birds (1963): Daphne Du Maurier. Hitchcock could easily have directed a film of this story as well. Richard Burton (in one of his earliest starring roles) falls in love with a young woman (Olivia de Havilland) who may have murdered his best friend and cousin (she was his cousin’s wife, thus the title). Its atmospheric setting in a castle on the Cornwall coast connects it to both Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. Du Maurier made the area her home, and frequently laid her melodramatic yarns there.

Niagara (1953)

This one is amazing — so much like the Hitchcock of the 50s, yet predates a lot of that work. Joseph Cotten is the jealous husband of Marilyn Monroe (and rightfully so. To my mind, this is the sexiest of all Monroe’s performances. It’s enough to drive every heterosexual male in the audience out of his friggin’ mind). Cotten murders Monroe’s lover, then fakes his own death, and then terrorizes a fellow tourist (Jean Peters) who has accidentally learned the truth. Having the sexual obsession with a blond at the center of the story is quintessential Hitchcock, as its setting at an iconic tourist destination (Niagara Falls, obviously) which in particular reminds us of Redwood Forest in Vertigo and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959).

Black Widow (1954)

An interesting and unjustly forgotten suspense thriller written, directed and produced by Nunnally Johnson, who’d produced and written My Cousin Rachel. A Broadway producer played by Van Helfin is accused of murdering a young schemer (Peggy Ann Garner, best remembered as the girl in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). He is forced to flee and solve the mystery himself, which of course he does. The “smart New York settings” really remind me of the Hitchcock of the period, especially Rope (1948) — it has the same kind of fake but gorgeous cyclorama paintings outside the windows of the swanky apartments — but also Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. A topic for another time, but somehow this movie doesn’t quite gel. It’s one of Johnson’s first outings as director and there are problems of pace. And somehow he manages to underuse his stellar cast, which includes Gene Tierney, George Raft, Ginger Rogers, and Reginald Gardiner. Interestingly Gardiner’s first film had been Hitchcock’s The Lodger. 

Diabolique (1955)

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, often called the French Hitchcock. It is said Hitchcock had wanted to direct a film of the novel this movie was based on, but Clouzet beat him to securing the rights. Like Hitchcock, Clouzet had been influenced by German Expressionism, and was known for suspense thrillers. In this one a pair of women (Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzet, the director’s wife) murder  the cruel tyrant (Paul Meurisse) who dominates both their lives at a provincial boys school, and events only get weirder after that. The bathtub murder scene is said to have inspired the shower scene in Psycho. 

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Hitchcock never directed Agatha Christie stories, nor for that matter conventional murder mysteries per se, but Witness for the Prosecution does have its superficial similarities with The Paradine Case (1947), and for most of its running time anyway is about the familiar Hitchcockian theme of an innocent man wrongly suspected of murder. I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) were two Hitchcock films from the same period which riffed on this theme.

The Scapegoat (1959)

Another film based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel. This one plays on the familiar Hitchcockian theme of the double, which we get in films ranging from Strangers on a Train (1951) to Vertigo.  Here drab, lonely Alec Guinness is vacationing in France when he meets a man who is his twin in every way (also played by Guinness). The other man vanishes, leaving Guinness to take over his life, which includes wealth, an enormous estate, and the people in his life, including a wife, daughter and mistress. Bette Davis plays his drug addict mother!  Then of course the wife is murdered. The double turns out to have been the culprit and it is on the original Guinness to prove he wasn’t guilty. This film was remade in 2012 with Matthew Rhys in the Guinness part.

Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is frequently compared to Hitchcock’s Pyscho. Interestingly, given the fact that Powell didn’t usually direct this kind of film (to put it mildly) and Hitchcock was known for it, Powell’s film actually came out five months before Hitchcock’s. The voyeurism of Vertigo clearly influenced Peeping Tom. I find the fact that Peeping Tom‘s psychopathic creep is German for some reason to be vaguely Hitchcockian, and obviously the self-conscious detail that the villain is a film-maker, as well. It is the latter fact that makes Peeping Tom the true antecedent of later films like Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and De Palma’s Murder a la Mod (1968), which is one reason those two films don’t have their own entries on this list.

Midnight Lace (1960)

This film is like a family reunion for former Hitchcock actors. Doris Day from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)! John Gavin from Psycho! John Williams from Dial M for Murder! Herbert Marshall from Murder (1930) and Foreign Correspondent! With Rex Harrison, Myrna Loy and Roddy McDowell! Day is said to have gotten so involved in her character’s terror in this film that she gave herself a nervous breakdown. It’s all about a gaslighting plot; the antagonist repeatedly terrorizes Day but only when she’s alone, so there’s no one around to witness it. People around her begin to suspect she is going crazy.

I Thank a Fool (1962)

An interesting little artifact I stumbled across on TCM not long ago. Susan Hayward (in one of the best performances of the late phase of her career) plays a former nurse who’s done prison time for a mercy killing she comitted. She is then hired by the Prosecutor who originally put her away (Peter Finch) who then seemingly proceeds to frame her for the murder of his insane wife (Diane Cilento). Insanity, a remote mansion, being wrongly accused of murder, and other elements remind one of Hitch

Charade (1963)

This one is too well-known for me to have to say much about, I hope! Cary Grant was a veteran of several Hitchcock pictures, with North by Northwest as the most relevant one here. Peter Stone’s script was plainly written to channel the best of all Hitchcock tropes and scenes. Saul Bass, who’d designed memorable title sequences for Vertigo and North by Northwest did them for this film as well. And to my mind Audrey Hepburn has much in common in terms of screen of screen presence with frequent Hitchcock leading lady Grace Kelly.

Topkapi (1964)

This one is less obviously Hitchcockian, but I have my reasons. Peter Ustinov is a small time crook who finds himself drafted against his will into a double bind, forced to help a gang of high end thieves, and forced to help the police. Coerced into playing the double agent, and to have to lie to both police and the crooks, is a nightmarish predicament characteristic of Hitchcock. That, the exotic Mediterranean setting and the scenario of high-end heists (both of which it shares with To Catch a Thief) inspire me to include it here.

That Man from Rio (1964)

Ostensibly a Bond parody, this Italian-French co-production is more like a stylish Hitchcock adventure such as North by Northwest — its hero is not a professional spy whose job is to have such adventures. Jean Paul Belmondo is a sailor on leave whose girlfriend gets kidnapped by some antiquities smugglers, so he goes off in pursuit. His adventures take him to Brazil, where the famous landmarks of Rio have the same kind of visual prominence that American ones do in Hitchcock films. Plus this film (like Charade) is very rich in humor, a trait of all of Hitchcock’s double chase films.

Mirage (1965)

Peter Stone’s follow-up t0 Charade, designed to be the same kind of Hitchcock tribute, directed by Edward Dmtryk. In place of the leads from the previous hit, there are two more than worthy replacements: Gregory Peck (who’d been in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and The Paradine Case) and Diane Baker (who played the sister in Marnie).  Peck plays an accountant who suddenly finds him sucked into a maelstrom of intrigue — because he is actually an important scientist with amnesia.

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

A plot of the gaslighting sort: Carol Lynley is a young mom who drops her daughter off for her first day of school. The daughter vanishes and there is no proof that she ever existed. This plot (and the eventual arrival of an actual psycho) in combination with a cast of major stars (Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Kier Dullea) approximate the magic of a Hitchcock experience. Directed by Otto Preminger. 

Blindfold (1966)

Rock Hudson was often a kind of second string stand-in for top tier guys like Cary Grant and Gregory Peck. He is used in that capacity here as a psychiatrist who is drafted by the CIA to help a valuable scientist regain his memory. His character is famous, a target of reporters, an element that reminds me of North by Northwest. Hudson is taken to visit the scientist several times for psychiatric sessions, blindfolded (so he won’t know the location). Later, he is kidnapped by international criminals who want to find the scientist themselves. At the climax, Hudson must locate the scientist himself using his wits and sense of hearing alone. I hope I don’t have to spell out why this one is Hitchcockesque — it just is!

Arabesque (1966)

Produced and directed by Stanley Donen, who’d directed Charade, and co-written by Peter Stone from Charade and others. Cary Grant was originally sought for the lead role, but this was just at the time he was in the process of retiring. Gregory Peck, who’d been in Mirage, became the choice for the hero, an Egyptologist who is kidnapped and swept away to the Middle East so he can do a job of translating. The love interest is the most beautiful woman in the world, Sophia Loren. The plot is unbelievably convoluted, nearly impossible to follow. The international settings, thrills, sex and glamour float it along, but one thing missing from the equation is humor. It’s there in the script, but Gregory Peck was not a funny man. When he delivers the quips, they fall to earth like pyramid stones.

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Audrey Hepburn as a blind lady in a New York City apartment being terrorized by a psycho (Alan Arkin) and gaslighted by his more artful partners (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, the latter of whom had been in Mirage). The men are after some heroin that was in a doll that someone gave Hepburn’s photographer husband (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) at the airport.  Her predicament of being trapped, helpless and alone in a Greenwich Village apartment is reminiscent of Rear Window, among other things.

Sisters (1973)

This is Brian de Palma’s first truly Hitchcockian film and in some ways his best, as it is more original and is less about literally quoting and re-creating Hitchcockian film techniques. Sometimes his earlier film Murder a la Mod is called Hitchcockian, but as we write above, it is more like Antonioni or Godard. In SistersMargot Kidder may or may not be a pair of separated Siamese twins, one of whom is a psycho murderer. Other “faux Hitchcock” De Palma movies include Obsession (1976), The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1992). By the 1980s this strain of his work became increasingly tiresome, just empty exercises in technique.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier story about a grieving couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who are in Venice following the death of their child (The husband has a job restoring an old cathedral). This one, with its intimation of ghostly hauntings and psychic premonition, is more supernatural than Hitchcock would have liked, but it is based on Du Maurier and does end with a meat cleaver murder.

Frantic (1988)

This is my only outlier timewise, and I include it for what I hope will be an obvious reason: it is essentially Roman Polanski doing Hitchcock. I remember thinking that very thing in the cinema when I saw it in on its original release; that moment was essentially the origin of this long germinating piece. I have been formulating this list for decades. (There are others I have left off, perhaps I will do a part two at some point). The plot is essentially The Man Who Knew Too Much, with a doctor (Harrison Ford) seeking his kidnapped wife (Betty Buckley) rather than a kidnapped child, shot against the picturesque background of Paris, all on account of some accidentally switched suitcases.

 

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Comedies of Wheeler and Woolsey

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by travsd

For Bob Woolsey’s birthday, we consolidate all of our previous posts on the films of the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey into one big monster post. Looked at all at once, RKO’s star comedy team of the 1930s was surprisingly prolific. In fact, I’d assumed I’d pretty much seen all of their films (I’ve seen 15, and that seems like a lot), but I’m astounded to realize this morning that there are still SEVEN of their films together I haven’t seen (full disclosure: They are the short Oh! Oh! Cleopatra! (1931 — actually, I’ve half “seen” this one; the audio track is available on Youtube), Peach O’Reno (1931), and their last five. In light of their truly solid track record, I’ve begun to realize that their standing ought to be reassessed, for, pound for pound, they have a more consistent record of excellence than nearly any similar comedy team I can think of. Laurel and Hardy beat ’em clearly, but in just about any other case there’s an argument to be made for both sides. A topic for another time.

At any rate, herewith their films:
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Rio Rita (1929)

The cinematic debut of the team. The movie was an adaptation of the 1927 Broadway hit, starring Wheeler and Woolsey and produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The ’29 version replaced the stage Rita (Ethelind Terry) with the box-office insurance of Bebe Daniels, and the original Jim (J. Harold Murray) with John Boles

The plot concerns a bandit known only as “the Kinkajou.”  It’s set in Mexico, just over the border from Texas. Wheeler is supposed to be there to get divorced and remarried, with Woolsey as his friend and advisor. Wheeler learns that his divorce didn’t take though, so he has to avoid his new sweetie Dorothy Lee. Then the two get drunk and there’s a funny drunk scene. Then the first wife (Helen Kaiser) shows up and she’s inherited millions of dollars so now Woolsey wants her. Meanwhile Rita (who has suspected  her brother of being the Kinkajou) makes to marry a Russian general…who turns out to be the real Kinkajou, so she is able to marry her true love (Boles).  Got all that? As always there’s far too much of the dull romantic plot and far too little comedy. Fortunately future Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles nip that drawback in the bud.

Among the pleasures of this early talkie is that the last act is in two strip Technicolor, in a scene set on an implausibly large sailing ship travelling up the Rio Grande.  Like all fantasies, it’s silly, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rio Rita was later remade in 1942 as one of the first film vehicles for Abbott and Costello.

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The Cuckoos (1930)

Ironically, this film began life as a Clark and McCullough vehicle, the 1926 Broadway hit The Ramblers. But Clark and McCullough were committed to their series of shorts for Fox — I’m sure they kicked themselves for this missed opportunity, for The Cuckoos ended up being the making of Wheeler and Woolsey, cementing their nebulous beginnings in Rio Rita into a proper screen team.

The Cuckoos is one of my favorite and one of the best Wheeler and Woolsey comedies, bringing to the table a joke-crammed script by Guy Bolton, and one of the strongest Kalmar and Ruby scores. Its only drawback is that (much like the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, which it much resembles) it is rather statically filmed and stage bound. However, unlike those films, but like Rio Rita and Dixiana, it has a two strip Technicolor sequence. Wheeler and Woolsey are terrific in their parts (even if you can’t stop yourself from imagining Bobby Clark doing the role that became Woolsey’s).

Wheeler and Woolsey play a pair of con artists who are down and out in Mexico just south of the border. Dorothy Lee is a girl whom Wheeler loves, though for some mysterious reason she is a member of a family of Gypsies. What a band of Gypsies are doing in Mexico, goes just as unexplained as why the American girl is among them. Jobyna Howland is very funny as one “Fanny Furst” (a play on the name of socialite novelist and suffragette Fanny Hurst), a rich dowager for Woolsey to romance. The show also has an obligatory pair of lovers and rivals, but the three actors are so perfunctory and stiff you can just go ahead and put them out of your mind. The real thing is the musical numbers and  the comedians, and sensing their big chance, they bring their “A” game to this film.dixiana-lobbycard

Dixiana (1930)

Dixiana was my first Wheeler and Woolsey film. W & W are the comic relief in this standard period musical, set in ante-bellum New Orleans, the main plot of which concerns the star-crossed romance between a young aristocrat (Everett Marshall) and the titular Dixiana (Bebe Daniels), the performing ward of travelling showmen Peewee (Wheeler) and Ginger (Woolsey). As he often does in their films, Wheeler gets a romantic interest of his own in the shape of shapely Dorothy Lee. The comedy and music of this film are fairly forgettable. What tends to stand out is its visual beauty, especially the film’s final third (the Mardi Gras scene), which was shot in two strip Technicolor. Joseph Cawthorn plays a stern, slave-owning plantation father; slave Bill Robinson gets to do his famous stair dance. It’s scarcely the most progressive film in the world, but at the time there was very little that would answer that description .

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, the boys are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Hook, Line and Sinker (1930)

Directed by Eddie Cline. Though the comedians are in fine form, the plot of this one is very run of the mill…the sort of thing that would be remade many times over by Joe E. Brown, the Bowery Boys etc. Wheeler and Woolsey play insurance salesman who help heiress Dorothy Lee spruce up an abandoned hotel and make a resort out of it called the Ritz de la Riviera (some echoes of Cocoanuts?) Wheeler and she are sweet on each other. Her mother wants her to marry the family lawyer, who talks a good line, but is secretly a crook. He hires a bunch of murdering gangsters and a femme fatale named the Duchess to get W & W out of the picture (and steal jewels and money from the safe). But the movie contains lots of really funny lines and situations. Woolsey romances the girl’s mother. The gangsters keep trying to kill them. The moll keeps entrapping Wheeler. Hugh Herbert plays a funny hotel detective, who’s always sleeping. At the climax, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights and they confront the crooks in the dark. Machine guns, hand grenades, dynamite. In the end all is exposed, the crooks are vanquished and the heroes get rewards.

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Everything’s Rosie (1931)

One of Woolsey’s few solo vehicles, directed by Clyde Bruckman.  Early in their careers, Wheeler and Woolsey were each tried as solo stars by RKO as an experiment and to bolster their box office value in case the team didn’t work out. Everything’s Rosie was so interesting and enjoyable to me I was tempted to store it in my DVR queue in perpetuity. I found it hilarious; I wanted to steal every joke. Yet, though it was a modest box office success in a year when the Depression caused almost every other Hollywood picture to flop, its panning by the critics was near universal.

Intellectually, I can see why. It is an almost total rip-off of W.C. Fields’ Poppy: Woolsey plays a shady but lovable circus carny with a young female ward (Anita Louise) and the plot arc is near identical (the girl falls in love with a young local rich boy, and she and Woolsey are persecuted and framed because they are showfolk.) While Fields’s film Poppy wasn’t made until 1938, he had starred in the original Broadway play of it in 1924, and a silent screen version Sally of the Sawdust in 1925. Woolsey had been in the Broadway version.  Even today, Woolsey can’t help but seem derivative, with his echoes of Groucho Marx, Walter CatlettGeorge Burns and the now equally obscure Bobby Clark (though Woolsey was much bigger star than the latter two at the time). And I can imagine that, in that day, its barrage of vaudeville one-liners (Al Boasberg was one of the writers) must have seemed passe and corny. Vaudeville was dying an agonizing death at that very moment.  But from the perspective of distance, I see only charm and hilarity. Everything’s Rosie is a film I aim to own and steal from copiously.

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Cracked Nuts (1931)

Directed by Eddie Cline. The film is interesting for many reasons. One is that, much like Burns and Allen’s 1939 Honolulu, the two comedians are kept separate through a great deal of the picture, to test whether they could work separately outside the context of the team. Secondly, it is the first of the zany satires set in a mythical European kingdom, setting the template for later comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). Released in trhe depths of the Depression, Cracked Nuts was RKO’s biggest grossing film of the year.

The plot? Young millionaire Wheeler falls in love with debutante Dorothy Lee during a transatlantic voyage. Her mother (Edna May Oliver) doesn’t think much of him, so he arranges to finance a revolution in her native country of El Dorania (she is vocal in her dislike of the President). Meanwhile, back in El Dorania, Bob Woolsey wins the crown of the king of El Dorania in a crap game. You do the comedy math! Also in the cast is a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff as a Revolutionary. And a sight gag by Ben Turpin!

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Caught Plastered (1931)

In this one, the boys play a couple of failed vaudevillians who decide to help a little old lady named “Mother” save her drug store by having performances (including a radio show) on the premises. Unfortunately, Mother owes money to a man named Harry (Jason Robards, Sr) who convinces them to sell a certain”lemon syrup” which he supplies. The syrup is a big hit, but is laced with alcohol, which gets them in trouble with the authorities, this being the Prohibition era and all. This plot twist also explains the now obscure title of the film. It’s a play on “court plaster”, an item then found in most drug stores, and “plastered” — which everyone gets when they drink the lemon-syrup. As usual Dorothy Lee plays Wheeler’s love interest, and look for Lee Moran in a bit part as a drunk.

Oh! Oh! Cleopatra (1931, short)

An interesting beast, co-produced by RKO and The Masquers, which was like Hollywood’s equivalent to the Lambs. Apart from assorted cameos, Wheeler and Woolsey almost exclusively made features; shorts were Clark and McCullough turf. But apparently The Masquers had their own series of shorts, and Wheeler and Woolsey agreed to star in this one. For some reason, just the audio portion is available to listen to on Youtube, but it gives a flavor. A professor develops a pill that allows a person to go back in time. W & W, experience what it is like to Marc Antony and Julius Caesar (if Antony and Caesar behaved like Wheeler and Woolsey) and they cavort with Cleopatra (Dorothy Burgess). It was directed by Joseph Santley, who co-directed the Marx Brothers’ The Cococanuts. 

Peach O’Reno (1931)

I really love the title of this one. There’s the obvious wordplay, but I can just hear Bob Woolsey use that expression in reference to a pretty girl: “Man, is that a Peacherino!” Further, the film sounds like a hoot: the boys play a couple of divorce lawyers, each of whom are separately advising an estranged husband and wife (Joseph Cawthorn and Cora Witherspoon), telling them each to dally with decoy correspondents. On top of this, their law office converts into a gambling casino at night; there are some clips of this process on Youtube. I’ve seen it copied in later comedies, like Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid. And naturally, some mean guy wants to kill Woolsey for helping his wife to divorce him. Wheeler has a drag scene in the film.

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Girl Crazy (1932)

The film was adapted from the hit Broadway show from a couple of years earlier which boasted a book by Guy Bolton, songs by the Gershwins, and Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers among its stars. Considerable changes were made to the film version. Here it has morphed into a much zanier vehicle appropriate for this team, no date largely through the influence of adapted Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’d also had a hand in such madcap madness as Million Dollar Legs, Meet the Baron and several Marx Brothers movies (before of course his epochal contribution to Citizen Kane). Girl Crazy lost money when it was released, but I found it mighty funny.

It’s set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. At any rate, I really go for the high absurdity in these early 30s comedies. This version of Girl Crazy is one of those happy surprises that your correspondent lives to find.

It was later remade in 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

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Hold ‘Em Jail (1932)

In this one, one of their funnier ones, the boys get their turn at a funny football game, in a feature directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” Here, the boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna May Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!

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So This is Africa (1933)

Directed by Eddie Cline, written by Norman Krasna. Esther Muir plays a lady entrusted by a movie company to make a nature documentary in Africa, but there’s one hitch: she’s afraid of animals. To complete the picture ,the company hires Wheeler and Woolsey, a couple of out-of-work vaudevillians with a lion taming act (the lions are aged and toothless). They are on the verge of jumping off a ledge when we meet them. Then they try to steak a donkey for horsemeat to feed their lions. Finally the producers catch up to them. Then there is a nightclub number and FINALLY they are off to Africa for the obligatory Tarzan gags, guys in gorilla suits and Wheeler’s hook-up with the unspeakably sexy jungle woman Miss More (Raquel Torres, from Duck Soup. That’s not the only Marx Brothers borrowing. The movie contains a Strange Interlude parody notably similar to the one in Animal Crackers.). Then they are all captured by a murderous tribe of Amazon babes, but the boys are only too glad to be captured. (Amazingly, this movie avoids overt racism — sort of — by completely omitting depictions of dark-skinned people. Africa is populated by leopard-skin wearing Caucasians.)  A total eclipse of the sun arrives and the women go into their usual night time frenzy. Our heroes disguise themselves as native girls until a tribe of randy men come to seize the Amazons as their “wives”. Unfortunately Wheeler and Woolsey are taken in the dragnet. A year later they are doing laundry and we assume they have become these native men’s bitches! But in a reveal we learn they are the happy husbands of Muir and Torres.

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Diplomaniacs (1933)

This crazy comedy was penned by Herman Mankiewicz who had written Million Dollar Legs and would produce the Marx Brothers early vehicles, including the similar Duck Soup. The plot starts out with Wheeler and Woolsey operating a barber shop on an Indian reservation. Since the Indians wear their hair long and generally don’t have much facial hair the shop has no business. When one of them utters the phrase “foreign relations” the boys are sent off to meet the Chief, who rides around in a limousine and has an Oxford accent. The Chief is going to make them delegates to the international peace conference on behalf of his tribe, to try to engineer world peace. There is a shipboard segment (as there always seems to be in 30s comedies) and then the last act is at the conference. The most tasteless bit has an exploding bomb blacking the faces of all the delegates – so they do a minstrel** number! Contains a few likable songs.  Louis Calhern plays a scheming delegate (just as he would later in Duck Soup).

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Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)

In this musical comedy, one of the team’s better remembered ones, (co-written by Kalmar and Ruby) the boys become salesmen for beauty magnate Thelma Todd’s new flavored lipstick. Dorothy Lee, as usual is Wheeler’s romantic interest, and Ruth Etting has a musical number (reduced from a much larger part). Numbers include “Keep Romance Alive” and “Keep Doin’ What You’re Doin'”. Check out the pre-code outfits on those Goldwyn Girls!

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Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)

Directed by Mark Sandrich. This is rated one of the team’s best comedies, and just like their previous film Hips, Hips, Hooray it pairs them with the double whammy of Dorothy Lee and Thelma Todd. And, as in the previous film the boys are masquerading as somebody they’re not. In this case it’s the king’s physicians (they’re just a couple of country bumpkins). Oh, did we mention the Medieval setting? That’s what makes it special and the movie gets much mileage out of the history gags, which put it in a league with films like Roman Scandals, The Court Jester and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. 

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Kentucky Kernels (1934)

This is an extremely funny movie, written by Kalmar and Ruby, and featuring Spanky McFarland from Our Gang and Margaret Dumont. It’s essentially The Kid meets The Little Colonel meets Our Hospitality meets Duck Soup meets any number of Depression Era stories. A guy tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He is caught in a fishing net by W & W. They convince the guy—who is despondent over the loss of his girl – to adopt a kid. They go to pick up the kid from the adoption agency (it’s run by Dumont). Spanky is a perfect child, except he has a compulsion to break glass. This results in much hilarity and embarrassment throughout the picture. Unfortunately the guy gets back together with his girl, leaving W & W to look after Spanky. This turns out to a blessing when it emerges that Spanky is heir to a fortune in the form of a Kentucky estate. They go down to claim it but quickly learn that Spanky’s family and another are locked in a bitter and violent feud. They are able to forestall violence for awhile until Spanky sets off the powder keg by exploding a light bulb. The last scene has the heroes trapped in the manor surrounded by scores of the enemy family. In the end they are rescued by a telegram informing them that Spanky is not a relative at all. In addition to innumerable funny lines and bits and songs, the film features the stereotypical comedy stylings of Sleep N Eat

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The Nitwits (1935)

Directed by no less than George Stevens. In this middling caper comedy, the boys work at a cigar store. Woolsey is an inventor who has created a machine that makes anyone tell the truth. Bert is a songwriter who wants to marry his girl Mary (Betty Grable). Meanwhile a killer named the Black Widow is murdering people all across town, and  the head of a music company that employs Wheeler’s girl is being threatened by the same killer. The man is murdered, and Mary is suspected. The boys have to solve it.In the end they trick the private investigator into sitting in the truth machine—he reveals that he is the culprit.  Sleep n Eat (Willie Best) has a couple of turns. The movie feels like a precursor to endless similar comedies of the forties starring, well, everybody…

Okay here are there last few, none of which I’ve seen — once I have I’ll add to this post. Some are available on DVD, so at point I’ll get to ’em:

The Rainmakers (1935)

Drought was a topical story idea during the years of the Dust Bowl. Here, the boys take on a crook whose swindling honest folk with a phony rainmaking scheme.

Silly Billies (1936)

A western comedy, with the boys as frontier dentists!

Mummy’s Boys (1936)

A mummy comedy — two full decades before Abbott and Costello’s!

On Again-Off Again (1937)

A musical comedy in which the boys are partners in a pharmaceutical firm, who keep quarreling and want to split up but really need each other. Eventually they decide to determine the fate of the company with a wrestling match. Woolsey was already physically ailing by this point.

High Flyers (1937)

The pair’s last film teams them up with Lupe Velez, almost like a passing of the torch to the Mexican Spitire, whose own comedy series started just two years later. W & W plays a couple of phony pilot who get tricked into doing some illegal smuggling. Wheeler also does his Charlie Chaplin impression, which had been a highlight of his vaudeville act prior to teaming with Woolsey.

There are also these Bert Wheeler solo vehicles, none of which I’ve seen, but are on my to-do: Too Many Cooks (1931), The Cowboy Quarterback (1939); Las Vegas Nights (1941); and then two shorts a decade later two Columbia shorts: Innocently Guilty (1950) and The Awful Sleuth (1951) . Wheeler worked in tv til 1962.

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. 

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Norma Shearer: The Subtle Magnet

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

I have a friend — a female friend — who never talks about Norma Shearer (1902-1983) without talking about how ugly and unappealing she finds her. I suppose my friend looks at her and sees what Shearer herself saw (and apparently what the ungenerous Flo Ziegfeld saw when she auditioned for him): eyes that were too close together and even sometimes (from certain angles) crossed in the bargain, almost as though both peepers both pointed at her aquiline, George Washington-esque nose. But I’ve always found her powerfully attractive. It’s rare for people who don’t deviate in some way from the ideal to make an impression. Shearer makes an impression — not only because she’s beautiful, but also weighty, serious, strong-willed, confident: qualities you want in a dramatic actor.

Also, probably because of her quirky looks, she became much more chameleon-like than other leading ladies who were her contemporaries. I had a devil of a time finding a “representative” photo to head this post with. There is no such thing. Her characters all look quite a bit different from one another. I suppose the “archetypal” look I might be tempted to choose is from The Women — but she looks (intentionally) on the frumpy side through most of that picture — it’s the one in which she loses her husband to real life offscreen rival and schemer Joan Crawford. But in so many of her films she possesses real glamorous beauty, from flappers and vamps in the silent days to Marie Antoinette (one of my favorite of her films, and one of the best of all MGM films I think). The picture above was chosen almost at random, because I was tired of trying to find just the right one.

I didn’t discover Shearer until quite late in life. There are a bunch of stars like that, mostly of the Pre-Code era, and I’ve ended up being particular fans of their’s, maybe because I was old enough when I discovered them to pay particular close attention and to say “Oh my God, here is a WHOLE MOVIE STAR with a WHOLE CAREER I’ve never even looked at yet!” and to really appreciate and savor the experience. I think the only one of her movies I saw as a kid was that silly 1936 Romeo and Juliet where she and Leslie Howard are both 20 years older than their characters. I still haven’t seen most of her silent work as a star, only He Who Gets Slapped (1925) with Lon Chaney, and Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). But by now I’ve seen a good deal of her sound work: The Hollywood Revue of 1929; her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcee (1930) opposite Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery; Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1931), again with Montgomery; The Barrets of Wimpole Street with Charles Laughton (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938), Idiot’s Delight (1939) and The Women (1939). She made three films afterwards which I’ve yet to watch.

The fact that some of her best work happened after her husband (and let’s face it, patron) Irving Thalberg died speaks to her hard won fitness for the role of movie star. But her last couple of films failed, and she retired young (age 40) a very rich woman.

Some interesting things about her early career, which initially prompted me to do this post. One is, that she was inspired to go into show business at age nine when she was taken to a vaudeville show in her native Montreal. Another is that her first movie job was the 1919 Larry Semon comedy The Star Boarder! (She was a member of the Big V Beauty Squad, Vitagraph’s attempt to compete with Mack Sennett’s Bathing Girls). She was also an extra in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East.

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

Stray Thoughts on Andy Warhol (and Art and Celebrity)

Posted in Indie Theatre, Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by travsd

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a virus, a pseudo-living entity concerned primarily with self-replication and whose effect could be toxic, occasionally even fatal. Speculation that he was of alien origin would not be far-fetched, and may possibly be correct. America absorbed him like a virus, reflects him, emulates him, was altered by him, and now IS him. I am Andy Warhol; and so many people I know are Andy Warhol, and to one degree or another. It’s more than likely that you are too.

The subject of Andy Warhol is too great and complex to be approached in an essay form. It has too many entry points; too many simultaneous, overlapping facades. The shape is wrong; it wouldn’t describe him. So I am going to write about him in a shotgun blast of fragments, ideas, memories, observations. Many or most (but not all) will honor him by being completely solipsistic, as much about me, or how he affected me, as about him.

  • Warhol is vaudeville, a mighty act of self-creation. He was the son of Slovak immigrants; his father was a coal miner. But in a very real sense Warhol is the spiritual son, the product, of Pittsburgh tycoon Andrew Carnegie. It was not only Carnegie who wrote the influential The Gospel of Wealth, but also he who endowed The Carnegie Institute of Technology, where Warhol studied to become an artist. Andy Warhol, wealthy celebrity and artist, is the creation of humble Andrew Warhola, who through his own exertions (and the organized exertions of others), pioneered new fields, and built an empire.
  • Warhol remained a devout Catholic all his life. This is significant because Catholicism is largely a religion of forms, rituals, phenomena, and works. The religion influenced his art most deeply in the form of the mass production of silk screen paintings that fetishized pop culture and commercialism, which seems to mimic the generation of Christian religious icons (literal icons) in Eastern Europe.
  • I was deeply involved for a number of years with a woman whose parents were among Warhol’s oldest friends, fellow art students from Pittsburgh who moved with him to New York and were his first room-mates. I heard a lot about the early years from them. The person I was involved with was also part of the Ridiculous theatrical movement, which also owes its origins ultimately to Warhol. All roads lead to Warholia.
  • My dad was an aspiring commercial artist in his youth. It’s made me more interested than I otherwise might be in Warhol’s early art, which was strictly work-for-hire advertising consumer goods. My dad’s working class assessment of Warhol’s work was predictably dismissive (“Sure! Looks enough like a Campbell’s Soup Can!”) and is no doubt the prevailing opinion on Warhol in American mainstream culture, which I find hugely ironic but telling. On the one hand Warhol embraces, deifies their own culture; in return, the public scorns his work as crass, ignoble, and unworthy — a swindle. There is a hypocrisy to that stance, I think.
  • This produces the inherent contradiction of Warhol: in so many ways, no one is more democratic, “of the people”, or unpretentious than Andy Warhol. On the other hand, he is one of the elect, the wealthy elite. This makes him just like the movie stars, celebrities, and rock stars he fetishizes.
  • Since I was a teenager I’ve been obsessed with the 1960s and have been enthralled with the people who galvanized all that rapid cultural change: the Beats, rock stars, political figures, avant-garde artists. Warhol, of course was pre-eminent among these, with many tentacles radiating outward from his centralized monster-brain. There’s his project the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground and Nico at its center, which then gave rise to Glam Rock and Punk (and even disco, which partially evolved out of the former). There were his underground films. I’ve gotten to know a few of his Stars over the years: the late great Taylor Mead; Randy Bourscheidt, whom I worked with at Alliance for the Arts; and the great Penny Arcade, who continues to be a generous mentor and inspiration. The films, in turn influenced theatre in the form of the Ridiculous movement, a chain that goes from Ronald Tavel to John Vaccaro to Charles Ludlam, to the many subsequent artists they spawned and inspired. John Waters and his Dreamlanders are also a major offshoot. The gaggle of friends and colleagues known as Art Stars has been principally influenced by all of these. My friend Rev Jen lives this life to a Pataphysical degree. Glam Rock, the films, and the Ridiculous all heavily incorporate drag performance, which of course ties in strongly to vaudeville.
  • For another tie-in between vaudeville and Warhol’s Factory scene, read my piece about a guy who played a role in both: Paul Swan, The Most Beautiful Man in the World.  
  • I’m told that quotes from my book No Applause were used in wall text in Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum
  • When I was starting my company Mountebanks, the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol was an influence, largely for its ornery and perverse defense of commercialism and capitalism, and his Oscar Wilde style provocative paradoxes.
  • Warhol also founded Interview magazine. I got to meet its editor Ingrid Sischy and Elton John once professionally. Read of that episode here.
  • In 2001, I reviewed a production of Up Your Ass, the play Valerie Solonas shot Warhol over in 1968. (He’s misplaced the only copy of the play, which she’d given him to read in hopes that he would fund a production. This made her very, very mad).
  • I am an avid fan of Jean Stein (and George Plimpton)’s book Edie, an oral history about the troubled life of Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgwick. More on Stein and the book are in my tribute to the late Stein here.
  • For a real weirdie, check out the Warhol-produced movie Cocaine Cowboys (1979), an appropriate trash-fest, in which Warhol plays himself. He also played himself in an episode of The Love Boat. Life imitating art? Nay, delicious trash imitating a life that imitates art imitating life!
  • Some cool movies about the Factory: I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and Factory Girl (2006). Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), in which David Bowie plays Warhol, is also highly relevant. I once played Julian Schnabel in a play that was produced in a Soho art gallery, and I believe that brings us full circle to myself, which is where I will now leave you, in hopes that it will inspire you to contemplate me. 
  • (worried expression). Um…gee! 

 

Glenn Tryon: Forgotten Silent Screen Comedian

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2017 by travsd

Idaho-born Glenn Tryon (Glenn Monroe Kunkel, 1898-1970) had worked in vaudeville and the regional melodrama stage when Hal Roach hired him in 1923 to fill the void at his studio left by Harold Lloyd, who had departed to make features. He was a good looking leading man type, on the small side, and was adept at playing romantic light comedies with a bit of slapstick. He starred in Roach two-reelers for four years, and early on, backed Stan Laurel in shorts like The Soilers (1923) and Smithy (1924). Lloyd was to remake Tryon’s The White Sheep (1924) at feature length as The Kid Brother (1927). Tryon has a cameo as himself in Harry Langdon’s Long Pants (1927). 

From 1927 through 1932 he starred in features, often comedies at first, but increasingly westerns and B movies adventures in the sound era.  He co-starred with Merna Kennedy in three features in 1929 (Broadway, Barnum Was Right and Skinner Steps Out), immediately after she had co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928). 

From 1933 through the end of the 1940s he amassed credits as a screenwriter, director and producer, contributing to many notable projects. He contributed to the screenplay for Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert (1933), the musical Roberta (1935), George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), and the Marx Brothers Room Service (1938), and was associate producer on Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost (1941) and Keep ’em Flying (1941) and Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941). On the latter picture he met Jane Frazee, to whom he was married from 1942 through 1947. (His previous wife was stage and silent screen actress Lillian Hall, who ended her career in 1924 when she married Tryon, then a rising star).

Among Tryon’s more interesting projects from the 40s were a couple of anti-Hitler comedies, made as “streamliners” for Hal Roach. He produced The Devil with Hitler in 1942; and That Nazty Nuisance in 1943.

Late in his career, he went before the camera three more times. He played George White in George White’s Scandals (1945), appeared in the musical Variety Girl (1947), and has a small role in Home Town Story (1951). Sometime after this he appears to have retired to Florida, which is where he passed away in 1970.

For more on early silent and slapstick 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. 

Henry Jones: Quietly Indispensable

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2017 by travsd

The great character actor Henry Jones (1912-1999) was born on this day. Jones’ laconic manner made him perfect for rural types, though he was from Philadelphia and the grandson of a Congressman. Yet he was also enough of an obvious WASP to play satirical corporate characters. His bemused nature and unusual voice (both high pitched and gravelly) meant he was usually used for comic purposes. Jones’ characters often seemed angry and impatient or insinuating, but also ineffectual. He knew how to use his huge eyes for maximum effect, but he’d never lift a finger to harm you — not because he was angelic, but because he was lazy or too comfortable. Though he started out as an actor in his 20s, he was definitely one of those actors who made the most sense in middle age.

Jones played supernumerary parts in Maurice Evans’ Broadway productions of Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One in 1938, 1939 and 40, and was a replacement in the original production of William Saroryan’s The Time of Your Life in 1940. He continued to work on Broadway and also broke into film and television in the 1940s, but didn’t really make his mark until the mid 50s, with George S . Kaufman’s The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953-1955) on Broadway and both the stage and screen versions of The Bad Seed (1954-55 and 1956 respectively). Frank Tashlin loved him, using him in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and (one of his best roles), as Tony Randall’s boss in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) (“Eh, Rocky Boy?”). He’s the callous coroner in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). He returned to Broadway for two more major plays, the original productions of Sunrise at Campobello (1958-1959) and Advise and Consent (1960-1961). The rest is all movies and lots of tv (over 150 credits). He was especially useful in westerns, especially comical ones: 3:10 to Yuma (1956), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Dirty Dingus McGee (1970), Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1961). And, one of his most highly visible gigs, as Chloris Leachman’s father-in-law in the tv series Phyllis (1975-77). As a kid I watched him with keen interest and enjoyment in this role. He was also a regular on the short-lived Mrs. Columbo (1979-1980), and several other high profile shows. Late in his career he was still appearing in big movies like The Grifters (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), and Arachnophobia (1990). His last credit was in 1995.

How the It Girl Lost It: Clara Bow’s Breakthroughs and Breakdowns

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

It’s true to say I think that Clara Bow (1905-1965) is one those classic early stars whom much larger numbers of people love for her backstory and offscreen life and image than know her actual pictures. A couple remain pretty well known, especially It and Wings, both made in 1927. In her decade-long career she made 57 movies: 46 silents and 11 talkies. 21 of her films, or over a third, are lost.

Interestingly, there are ways her background is not unlike Chaplin’s. While her parents weren’t in show business like Chaplin’s she did have a mentally ill mother and a father who was frequently absent. There was poverty, hunger, cold in an unheated flat. This morning I learned that she was born and raised not far from my house, so I went to take a look. She was born at 697 Bergen Street in Brooklyn, in a room above a Baptist church. The church is long gone. In its stead now is this:

By the 1920 census, she and her family were living at this address: 33 Prospect Place. She was 15 at this time, and presumably she was still living there at the time when she entered a magazine contest (1921) that launched her movie career, and when she made her first movies in 1922 and 1923, which were shot in New Jersey, Astoria (Queens), and on location in New Bedford, Mass. The house still stands:

Like I say, the mother was mentally ill, subject to seizures and delusions, once fell out a window, and once held a knife to Clara’s throat in response to her budding movie career. The absentee father, on the other hand was generally supportive, and like many similar deadbeats throughout history became all too present in Clara’s life once she began making serious dough.

Like many children from unhappy homes, she was a dreamer and her primary avenue of escape was the movies. With her father’s encouragement, she entered that 1921 magazine contest and won. The prize was a walk-on role in a film called Beyond the Rainbow (her scenes were cut from the finished picture). This led to several small but eye catching roles at east coast film studios in 1922 and 1923, resulting in her being selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1924. Meantime she moved to Hollywood to be a contract player.

Apparently this is actually a picture of Madge Bellamy, but I think I’ll leave it here since it seems to make people crazy

Despite her love for playing tom boys, her feminine sexuality is palpable in just about all moving and still pictures. That might seem contradictory, but if you think about it, it’s pretty common among stars — after all, if you have that quality you’re attractive to EVERYBODY. She was also a natural actress, a dynamo, full of nervous energy. She could shed tears at will. Her first flapper pictures were released in early 1924. She became an instant star and one of the top box office stars in the country from the mid 20s through the end of her career. In fact, she was the number box office star in Hollywood in 1928 and 1929 following hits like Mantrap (1926), It (1927) Wings (1927), Red Hair (1928) and The Wild Party (1929). She weathered the transition to talkies seamlessly, and to watch her talkies is to feel real sadness about all the cool movies we missed, since she dropped out of the business so young.

With Gary Cooper in “Children of Divorce”, 1929

Along the way she was romantically involved with Gary Cooper, Harry Richman, Gilbert Roland, Victor Fleming, Howard Hughes, and if the gossip is to be believed, the entire USC football team. Most of the other Hollywood women shunned her, as did polite society in general. She felt no need to shed her earthy Brooklyn ways, used profanity, and preferred to socialize with her own servants, and the craftspeople and crew off the film sets.

There were two issues that brought about a final crash; and they seem interrelated: mental illness and scandal.  Her behavior had always been erratic. She had always been reckless, heedless, the quintessential Jazz Age party girl. But she was also overworked. The stress of cranking out so many pictures (and making so money for the studio and her own lifestyle), brought about a need to let off steam. A 1929 magazine article referred to bottles of sedatives next to her bed. By 1930 her friend and personal assistant (who’d been her hairdresser on the set of one of her films) Daisy DeVoe stole a bunch of her correspondence and tried to blackmail her about her lifestyle. Bow called the police and a trial ensued where DeVoe kept up her allegations, accusing her of, oh, promiscuity, lesbianism, sex with multiple simultaneous partners, drug and alcohol abuse, and the topper to end all toppers, SEX WITH DOGS. Not joking. That was publicly alleged, and printed. Oh, yes, and this has to be the origin of the “sex with entire football team” rumor. These slurs emerged in print in a magazine called the Coast Reporter in late 1930. She must have been a laughing stock every she went, or imagined that she was one, which amounts to the same thing. By 1931 Bow was approaching a breakdown and had to take a rest cure, dropping out of her final Paramount Picture City Streets.

At this point she married western star Rex Bell and rested and recuperated at their new Nevada ranch for several months before returning to Hollywood to make two moderately successful pictures for Fox in 1932, and then retiring for good. The couple had a child in 1934, briefly opened and closed a cafe in 1937, and then had another kid in 1938.

Then Bow’s mental illness started to flare again. She became extremely withdrawn and wouldn’t go out or see any people. Meanwhile Bell became involved with Nevada’s Republican Party, running for Congress as their candidate in 1944. In response, Bow attempted suicide (ho ho, not because he was a Republican but because she wanted to stay out of the limelight). Bell lost that election but he became the state party leader in 1948. In 1949 Bow complained of insomnia and abdominal pains and checked herself into a facility, where doctors could find no cause, essentially chalking the whole thing up to mental illness, administering shock treatment and other therapies. Bow left her family and moved to a small bungalow in Culver City, near the movie studios, living off her savings in total seclusion for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Bell became Lieutenant Governor of Nevada in 1954. He continued to take occasional roles in westerns over the years. His last appearance was in The Misfits (1961). He died in 1962. Clara outlived him by three years.

It will probably always be an academic question whether her mental illness was inherited from her mother, or the result of childhood traumas, or brought on by substance abuse, or a breakdown caused by stresses of Hollywood, or all of the above. I do find it interesting and ironic though how someone who wanted to be a movie star SO BADLY abruptly did an about face and then wanted NOT to be a movie star so badly. The common denominator in both cases was escape.

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.

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