Archive for Frank Morgan

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Morgan: Utility Man with a Portable Bar

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of beloved character actor Frank Morgan (Frank Wuppermann, 1890-1949), best known as the title character in the 1939 motion picture The Wizard of Ozand one of the present author’s idols. Unlike most performers in these annals, the way to fame for Frank Morgan was paved with yellow brick. His father was the wealthy manufacturer of Angostura bitters; his older brother Ralph had already been a successful actor for 5 years when Frank made his Broadway debut in 1914. Whatever small amount of struggling needed to be done was born by the older brother.  As is palpable on screen, Frank had a firm grounding in the theatre. He was to star in over two dozens Broadway plays through the early 1930s. The most famous of these today is Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926). Another of them, The Triumph of X (1921) was written by his brother Carlos Wuppermann.

His film career began two years after his stage career. Thus his first 19 films are all silents, and like his pal John Barrymore, he alternated stage and silent film roles at the same time (his first several films were directed by Barrymore’s cousin S. Rankin Drew).

The talkie era coincided nicely with Morgan’s middle age, and that was the age that suited him best. It’s how we think of him: stout, red-cheeked, jolly, convivial, somewhat befuddled, and possessed of that distinctive husky voice (tempered by stage diction) that gives the impression that he has given an awful large number of after-dinner speeches. (Morgan was a drinker; he was said to have carried a small suitcase containing a mini-bar wherever he went.)

Memorable films included Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (with Al Jolson and Harry Langdon, 1933), Naughty Marietta (1935), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Wild Man of Borneo (1941), and The Three Musketeers (1948). He was playing the role of Buffalo Bill Cody in Annie Get Your Gun in 1949 when he was fatally felled by a heart attack, thus depriving us of what potentially would have been one of his most magical performances. I’ve seen the one scene he shot (it’s an extra with the Annie Get Your Gun DVD), and yeah, it would have been great.

I learned to my delight that he is buried at Green-wood Cemetary, which is right near my house. Here is where he lies:


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