Archive for films

The Ups and Downs of Lina Basquette

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

Lina Basquette (Lena Copeland Baskette) was born on April 19, 1907. Basquette was a star of stage and screen through several different phases, but is perhaps best remembered today for her eight marriages, most notably the first one, to Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, with much ensuing personal drama.

Basquette was the child of an ambitious stage mother. Her life took a sharp turn at the tender age of eight when she was spotted dancing in her father’s drug store by a rep from RCA Victor, who hired her to dance in the company’s exhibit at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This led to a film contract with Universal Pictures, and she began starring (at age nine) in a series of films called Lena Baskette Featurettes. Her mother embraced the new life; the father did not. He committed suicide and her mother married choreographer and dance director Ernest Belcher. (Dancer/choreographer Marge Champion is the daughter of Belcher and Gladys Baskette and the half-sister of Lina Basquette).

Film work seemed to dry up an the end of the decade, so her dance skills were put to use on Broadway in a succession of shows. She appeared in John Murray Anderson’s Jack and Jill (1923), Charles Dillingham’s Nifties of 1923, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 and 1925, and Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927).

Meanwhile in 1925, she had married movie mogul Sam Warner, who famously died on the eve of the opening of his seminal project The Jazz Singer (1927). There followed a bizarre custody battle between Basquette and the Warner family over her daughter (whom the Warners wanted to raise as one of their own in the Jewish faith, and probably by someone who wasn’t a famous Siren) which lasted many years.

The Godless Girl, 1929

In 1927, Basquette returned to films. In 1928 she was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. The biggest hit of this period (and her career) was Cecil B. DeMille’s semi-talkie The Godless Girl (1929). Her film career lasted until 1943, but her battles with the Warners resulted in a loss of star billing in the talkie era. Her parts got much smaller, sometimes even bit roles, and often in B movies. At the same time, she was making live appearances in night clubs.

In 1943, she was raped and robbed by an off-duty soldier whom she had picked up while hitchhiking. This traumatic event seems to have prompted a major life change for her. She took her savings, bought a farm in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, and reinvented herself as one of the nation’s top breeders of Great Danes! In addition to raising and breeding purebred dogs, she wrote books on the subject and judged shows with the American Kennel Club, an involvement that lasted until the end of her life.

In 1991, she released her memoir Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl, and emerged from retirement after 48 years to appear in the film Paradise Park. She passed away in 1994.

To find out more about show business 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

Stars of Vaudeville #1039: Arthur Pat West

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

April 19 is the birthday of Arthur Pat West (1888-1944).

Today West is best remembered among vaudeville fans for his 1929 Vitaphone short Ship Ahoy, in which the stout little man comes out in a sailor suit, does a rather rude comedy monologue and sings a couple of funny songs while pretending to play the guitar.

Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, West (sometimes billed just as Arthur or Pat) had been in a team called Arthur and Lucille West with his wife Lucille Harmon. In the ’20s, he was cast in a number of Broadway shows: the Fanchon and Marco musical revue Sun-Kist (1921), The Ziegfeld Follies of 1923Paradise Alley (1924), and Captain Jinks (1925-1926) with Joe E. Brown. 

After Ship Ahoy, West performed in at least one other Vitaphone Gates of Happiness (1930) and remained in Hollywood where he worked as an (often uncredited) bit player for the rest of his life. Initially, he was in Columbia comedy shorts and B movies, but he worked constantly and in the late ’30s through the ’40s he wound up in numerous classics, usually playing a bartender, waiter or similar kind of character. You can see him in Bringing Up Baby (1938), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Babes in Arms (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Great McGinty (1940), The Bank Dick (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), The Outlaw (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and Road to Utopia (1945), among dozens of other pictures. Keep an eye out for him!

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 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

Bob Hastings: From Christmasland to Character Man

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2017 by travsd

Well, here’s a wonderful surprise: familiar character actor Bob Hastings (1925-2014) had an old school show biz background as a kiddie performer.

First: you recognize him, right? The first place I can be sure I saw him was in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He has a small but memorable and highly visible part as the master of ceremonies of the New Year’s Party — he’s the guy who leads the count-down to midnight.

But he also played Lt. Carpenter on McHale’s Navy (1962-1966), which I watched in re-runs as a kid.

And he was also Kelsey the bartender, a recurring role, on All in the Family (1971-1976). These were pretty much his peak visibility years. He was also in several films during these years, like Disney’s The Boatniks (1970) and the Don Knotts movies The Love God (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971).

So I totally know who that guy is!  But then he turns up in a 1938 Vitaphone musical short called Toyland Casino as 13 year old Bobby Hastings in rustic highland clothes and sings “In the Gloaming”!

Hastings had started out on NBC children’s radio program Coast to Coast on a Bus with such fellow stars as Ann Blyth, Walter Tetley, and Jackie Kelk. After bomber service in World War II, he returned to radio, and perhaps his greatest stardom in the part of Archie in the radio version of Archie comics, which ran from 1945 to 1953.

Publicity still: Hastings as Archie

One of his first recurring tv roles was on Sgt. Bilko, establishing a recurring theme in his career: his characters were frequently in uniform. After the 1980s, most of his acting gigs were voice-overs for animated cartoon series. For example he voiced Batman’s Commissioner Gordon in the 1990s:

Bob Hastings passed away just a couple of years ago! Today is his birthday.

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

Harvey Lembeck: High and Low

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Harvey Lembeck (1923-1982) was born on April 15.  Lembeck is a wonderful illustration of a transitional time in American show business. As with Gabe Dell of the Dead End Kids, there is surprising seriousness and depth to his artistry. Those who know only his most famous roles will probably guffaw to see me use those words (seriousness, depth) in association with him. But attention must be paid!

Transitional, I said. Lembeck was one of the last to come into his career in a very old school show biz kind of way, starting out as part of a dance act with his wife called The Dancing Carrolls. They performed at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair! If vaudeville were still around, they would have been in it. Then he served in World War Two, then prepared for a career in radio (he actually majored in it at NYU). Instead, right after graduation he got cast in the original Broadway production of Mr. Roberts in the part of Insigna. After this he was in both the stage and screen versions of Stalag 17, and several other Broadway and regional theatre productions. Theatre would always be an important part of his life.

Lembeck was a serious actor, but obviously something about his “authenticity” is what got him frequently cast, particularly in service comedies and the like — because they always have a guy from Brooklyn. (Lembeck was from Brooklyn — could there be any doubt?) So in 1955 he was cast as Barbella, Phil Silvers’ sidekick on Sgt. Bilko. Here he is with Silvers and co-star Allan Melvin:

That cushy gig lasted four years. For a tantalizing but brief time, Lembeck got good roles in all sorts of movies : he’s in the screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1962), the romantic melodrama Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), and the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), But as happens so often in the modern era, he got cast in that one role that became indelible and essentially swallowed up the rest of his career.

In 1963 he was cast as Eric Von Zipper in the movie Beach Party, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. A loose parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, the comical character is the witless leader of an equally dumb biker gang. I’ve always been particularly amused by the fact that Lembeck was 40 years old — twice the age of the other kids at the beach –when he started playing this role. The bikers are the bad guys in all the beach party movies, and to my mind, the best thing about them. Lembeck only did this for three years, until the beach party movie craze died out, but it’s a LOT of movies, including also Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). In Chain of Fools I wrote a bit about these films as one of the last vestiges of classic comedy, for there is a continuity, including the frequent presence of Buster Keaton in the casts, and old time silent comedy directors like Norman Taurog at the helm. It’s why I mention Gabe Dell in this context: the Dead End Kids too were among the last classic comedy hold-outs, and like Lembeck, Dell was also a serious stage actor. (Lembeck later taught acting — his Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop in LA turned out such distinguished acolytes as John Ritter, John Larroquette and Robin Williams*.)

After the Beach Party films Lembeck continued to work steadily, but mostly in television guest shots, many of them referencing his beach party movie past. One notable exception is the 1969 comedy Hello Down There (a movie I saw a few times when I was a kid, and am dying to see again because I haven’t seen it since). He passed away on the set of Mork and Mindy in 1982, and I can’t think of a better place. He was working.

* Thanks for the reminder, John Smith.

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

The Many Lives of Jane Withers

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2017 by travsd

Happy birthday, Jane Withers (born 1926).

Though I had seen many of her performances over the years, I didn’t particularly take notice of her until a year or two ago when I watched the highly peculiar pro-Soviet movie The North Star (1943). The film is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen, because it was made by Hollywood, a pro-Soviet propaganda made by Sam Goldwyn studios! This strange development came about because the U.S.S.R. were our allies at the time (World War Two), it made a kind of expedient sense for a brief moment. And because of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were briefly strange bedfellows we have the unusual spectacle of Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan and Anne Baxter as Ukrainian peasant farmers extolling the virtues of the collective, in jolly songs written by Aaron Copeland and Ira Gershwin. (It was written by Lillian Hellman, the least surprising thing about it).

At any rate, one takes notice of Withers because she is quirky and funny and odd and a little awkward. One wonders how she got cast, and then you learn she had been a star for nearly ten years by that point. The North Star is relatively late-ish in the first leg of her career.

She began as a child star at the age of three on a local Atlanta radio program called Daisy’s Dainty Dewdrop. Success there emboldened the family’s move to Hollywood, where Jane was cast in bit roles as early as 1932 (age six). She has small parts in the original Imitation of Life (1934) and W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934), among others.

In 1934 she was cast as Shirley Temple’s rival in Bright Eyes (1934), and thereafter she began to star in her own films like Paddy O’Day (1936) and Little Miss Nobody (1936); by the end of the decade she was one of the country’s top box office draws. How could there be room for TWO female child stars at Fox at the same time, you ask? This still from Little Miss Nobody may answer your question:

Shirley Temple sang “Good Ship Lollipop”. Jane Withers punches boys. While not as popular as Temple (NO ONE was), Withers was well loved enough to have a serious of books published in which a fictional “Jane Withers” had a series of Nancy Drew-like adventures in the 1940s. By The North Star, she was a teenager, and seemed to be transitioning into older roles quite well. The first phase of her career doesn’t end until 1949, where she played an adult part in the B movie noir Danger Street. 

Her marriage to movie producer William P. Moss, Jr. (1947-1955) took her away from screen acting for a time, but she returned for a memorable turn (and a great role) in the classic Giant (1956).

Jane Withers and James Dean in “Giant”

She went on to lots of characters parts in films and television over the decades. But during this phase what she became best known for was playing the character of Josephine the Plumber in a series of tv ads for Comet Cleaners which ran in the 1960s and ’70s.

Jane Withers last professional credit was in 2002. She walks among us still, now in her 90s.

To find out more about show business past and present and other sundry arcane forms of entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. To learn more about comedy film history please check out my 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

On Another Famous Davis: Jack, of “Our Gang”

Posted in Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Jack Davis (1914-1992) has a birthday of April 5. Not to be confused with another famous Jack Davis, the Mad Magazine illustrator, whom we’ll undoubtedly get around to celebrating at some point. This Jack Davis is related to another well-known Davis, but (amusingly) NOT Bette Davis, who also has an April 5th birthday and whom we just done writing about. This Jack Davis was the kid brother of Mildred Davis, Harold Lloyd’s leading lady for several years prior to becoming his wife.

Mildred’s career had begun in 1916. Her boss Hal Roach was just launching Our Gang in 1922 when 8 year old Jack was thrown into the mix, usually playing tough bully characters. He was featured in some 19 comedies (with some of the footage recycled in some later shorts). Lloyd married Mildred in 1923. and packed the poor kid off to military school, thus ending the careers of two members of the Davis family at the same time. I hope they were grateful! (Actually, Jack, now known as John, probably was — he ended up being a prominent doctor). Davis also somehow found time to play bit parts in films and on tv from the early 1940s through the mid 1980s.

Davis’s  daughter Cindy married Robert Mitchum’s son Christopher, also an actor. Their children and and grandchildren carry on the family business.

For more on the history of film comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

On Bette Davis: Because I Just Did Joan

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Bette Davis (1908-1989) was born on April 5. Having just given a good deal of attention to her rival Joan Crawford (an antagonist beyond the grave thanks to Feud: Bette and Joan) I herewith give equal time to Davis.

As we intimated in our earlier post, my connection to Davis has historically been stronger than any I ever felt for Crawford. For one, Davis never stopped being a movie star. She remained in the public eye until she died in 1989, when I was 25 years old. Her last film Wicked Stepmother was released the year of her death, and she was always on television talk shows and so forth. I’d seen many of her films (both classics and contemporary ones) when still a young person. By contrast, Crawford retired when I was five years old.

She looks like Lillian Gish here, yeah?

And then there is the fact that Davis was such the quintessential New Englander. She was from Massachusetts, and always had that accent. So many actors had to learn to speak “Mid-Atlantic” during the classic studio era; I imagine the studios never bothered doing that with Davis. Her accent was already appropriate for stage and screen. She reminded me of the older women in my mother’s family. Davis attended boarding school at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, which is quite close to my mother’s hometown. Like my grandmother and aunt, her actual first name is “Ruth”; my sister and niece also have that as their middle name. I feel a close regional and cultural connection. I’ve recently learned I’m distantly related to her; she is quite literally “my people”

Feud gives a false impression about the length of Davis’s career by having Crawford mutter something to the effect of “She’s always been there, dogging my every step”. It’s plausible and even probable that Crawford felt that way, but doing so would be a convenient and vain way of rewriting history. Crawford was slightly older, and first achieved fame and stardom in the silent era. She began making films in 1925, six years before Davis. Davis, on the other hand, was a stage actress, and entirely a creature of talkies. She fell in love with the stage in high school, and had auditioned to be part of Eva LaGallienne’s company, which reveals early ambitions to be a serious artist, an ambition she never lost. Rejected by La Gallienne, she studied at a dramatic school run by John Murray Anderson — a much more show bizzy kind of preparation. But her very screen name reveals something that set her apart not only from Crawford but from most of the other actors in the film colony. She used the French spelling of Bette from Balzac’s Cousin Bette — a demonstration that she not only read books, but read Balzac.  Her (real or imagined) superiority is baked right into how everyone is forced to spell her.

Nowadays, both Davis and Crawford are most often regarded in terms of their mature work, for their years as “psycho-biddies”, feuding and otherwise. My Crawford piece worked backwards, building up to the revelation that she had originally been a major sex symbol; it’s what underlay her image until the end. With Davis, we’ll go forward chronologically and lead with the fact that she, too, was tried as a sex symbol, though that period was relatively brief, and was shed for good and all, even widely forgotten, once she began winning accolades for playing unglamorous roles in the late ’30s.

Fresh as a daisy in one of her first films, the original “Waterloo Bridge” (1931) — and for once she’s not the hooker!

But in recent years, just as with Crawford, thanks largely to TCM, I have discovered that there actually had been a sexy Bette Davis, though the period was much briefer, and plenty of people always denied she could ever be beautiful or sexy, including, significantly, herself. When she originally came to Hollywood (she later said), “I was the most Yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth.”  But in the Pre-Code years they tried to tart her up a bit. They made her a platinum blonde, like Jean Harlow or Carole Lombard. And, to my eyes, she pulled it off. Of the many Bette Davis mannerisms one of the most prominent is a coquettish way she had of darting those enormous eyes all over the place: charming, scheming, flashing. It is a quality that suits a young girl best, and works for her as an asset when she is closest to girlishness in the early ’30s (when she was in her early ’20s). When she got older, it became another sort of asset. It was disturbing. But when she was quite young, it could be fetching, even seductive.

What she rarely seemed to me, however, is vulnerable. Something about her seems hard, manipulative, and calculating, even from the beginning. I’ve often wondered if she wasn’t on the Asperger’s or sociopath scale — she seems dry-eyed for an actress. She’s got that cold stare, with those enormous eyes — reminds me a lot of the (much later) actor David Hemmings. They look like they’re sizing you up to see where they can cut off the best slice. In her early years, Davis was often cast as prostitutes, rich party girls and the like. But in the Pre-Code era that had special appeal. I particularly like her in The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), where she plays the daughter of a wealthy planter who persistently tries to entice a young tenant farmer (Richard Barthelmess) away from his noble goals of raising himself up by his own exertions. This is the one in which she speaks the immortal line, “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” Somehow the content of the film makes the otherwise innocent phrase “Cabin in the Cotton” sound as dirty as “Roll in the Hay” or “Snake in the Grass”. I think this may be the sexiest role I’ve seen her in, although it may not be as well known as Three on a Match (1932), Of Human Bondage (1934), Petrified Forest (1936) or her Oscar winning turn in Dangerous (1935).

“In This Our Life” — the scene where she won’t stop dancing and blasting the radio her husband couldn’t afford but she bought anyway, because no one’s gonna stop HER from havin’ a good time!

She is still occasionally playing the Siren as late as In This Our Life (1942), one of my FAVORITES, a camp-fest in which she plays the unbelievably wicked sister of angelic Olivia De Havilland — steals her fiance, ruins him financially until he kills himself, runs over somebody in her car, and then blames it on the family’s saintly and promising young black chauffeur.

While she is occasionally able to muster glamour in later roles it seems to take a lot of effort. Though her first large move towards deglamorization is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), it seems as though the worm has already turned by Jezebel (1938) — ironic, given that the character is a Southern belle and a strumpet (though who could compete with the impression made by Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind the following year?) Private Lives is surprisingly early foreshadowing for her later psychobiddy persona. With Crawford, we don’t get anything similar until perhaps Possessed (1947), in which she plays a mental patient, and 80% of the role consists of flashbacks to when her character was still desirable and vivacious. Davis realized early on that her continued success rested on her ability to win respect for herself as an actor, as opposed to an object of desire. And after all, an actor is what she initially set out to be. Davis had three Broadway roles under her belt before she went to Hollywood; by contrast Crawford had been a chorus girl. Crawford was about her body. She may have been idiosyncratic in how she applied her make-up in later years, but she never precisely “lost her looks”, and in fact was showing off her legs to good advantage as late as Berserk (1967). Crawford had also worked hard to gain respect as an actor, but she didn’t have to work nearly as hard as Davis did to remain viable.

That said, though Davis has this widespread and well-deserved reputation as an actress, two Oscars, an ocean of accolades, I can’t say she has ever properly moved me, which is normally considered a principal part of any actor’s job. She has amused me, scared me, impressed me, even wowed me, but she has never moved me to tears or too much worried me. She is theatrical, she is a star, but she is never really vulnerable, as, say, Katharine Hepburn is vulnerable in Alice Adams (my favorite Hepburn performance). She achieves her effects by showy, sneaky subterfuges for the most part — you know you are supposed to feel sympathy for her because she has made herself ugly for the character. That is a kind of risk and a kind of bravery and a kind of nakedness, but it’s still not emotional.

Anyway, I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of the gigantic topic of Bette Davis’s career. The focus of this post was meant to call attention to her appeal in her earliest years, as I did with Crawford. For more on her late horror pictures go here. I’m sure there’ll be more than one additional post on this worthy subject.

 

 

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