Archive for Hollywood

Stuart Erwin: Lummox, Lover and Bumpkin

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

url

Today is the birthday of actor Stuart Erwin (1903-1967). Originally from Squaw Valley, California, Erwin had a little stage experience before being cast in a small role in his feature feature film, Fox’s first talkie Mother Knows Best (1928). His second film was a Hal Roach comedy short A Pair of Tights (1929) with Anita Garvin, Marion “Peanuts” Byron, and Edgar Kennedy. Throughout the 30s he was frequently cast a goofy juvenile or romantic lead in comedies, usually with a kind of wide-eyed naif quality. He appeared in the original Big Broadcast film (1932), co-starred with Susan Fleming in He Learned About Women (1932), was in the ensemble of International House (1933), and stars in Judy Garland’s first film Pigskin Parade (1936), for which he was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He continued to appear in pictures throughout the 1940s, in films like Our Town (1940) and Blondie for Victory (1942). Then he launched his television show The Stu Erwin Show a.k.a Trouble with Father (1950-55), on which his wife, actress June Collyer also appeared (they had married in 1931.) In later years he appeared in Disney films such as Son of Flubber (1963).

For more on comedy film history please see my book 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

Stars of Vaudeville #1028: Helen McKellar

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , on February 13, 2017 by travsd

5432372076_17cdb043f6

Today is the birthday of actress Helen MacKeller (1895-1966).

Originally from Detroit, MacKellar began trouping in melodramas and vaudeville as a teenager. I see references to her in reviews and playbills as early as 1910 appearing in cities like Spokane, Scranton, San Francisco and Salinas, Kansas. In 1916 she made her Broadway debut in the original production of Seven Chances (later adapted into the famous Buster Keaton vehicle).  Throughout the teens, twenties and early thirties she was a big wheel on Broadway and in Big Time Vaudeville. In 1917, she toured the big time with a one-act called “The Jay Driver” by Edmund Burke. Her notable Broadway vehicles included Back Pay (1921) by Fanny Hurst and The Mud Turtle (1925). It is said that Eugene O’Neill was a particular fan and wanted her for All God’s Chillun Got Wings but she couldn’t wrap her head around the miscegenation. With the exception of a stint as a replacement in Dear Ruth (1944-46), her last Broadway show was Bloody Laughter (1931-32).

Her Hollywood career began auspiciously when she starred in The Past of Mary Holmes (1933), featuring Jean Arthur, Skeets Gallagher and Rosco Ates, and Crane Wilbur’s High School Girl (1934). But despite her illustrious stage past she was destined not to be top-billed in films, but instead a character actress and often even an uncredited bit player. She was often in westerns such as Dark Command (1940) and The Great Train Robbery (1941). MacKellar retired from films in 1944 to return to the stage for Dear Ruth, then spent her last 20 years in retirement.

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

safe_image

Stars of Vaudeville #1024: Percy Helton

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2017 by travsd

percy-helton-03

Today is the birthday of ubiquitous Hollywood character actor Percy Helton (Percy Alfred Michel, 1894-1971). We’ll get get into his movies anon, but few people probably know how charmed his career was in its early years.

Helton’s career began at the age of two in the vaudeville act of his father, British-born Alf Helton (real name William Alfred Michel). By age 12 he was on Broadway, appearing in Julie BonBon. He was in the original production of David Belasco’s The Return of Peter Grimm (1911) and the original production of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1914). And he was to be a familiar face on Broadway stages through 1942. Here is a clip I found from his theatre days:

59dc245a-d760-4db4-ae64-48fd2e524e93

Meanwhile in 1915 he began appearing in films. His first movie sounds too good to be true: In The Fairy and the Waif (1915), directed by Marie Hubert Frohman (wife of Gustave Frohman), he played the Waif to a Fairy played by Mary Miles Minter (later a chief suspect in the William Desmond Taylor murder). He appeared in another 5 silent movies through 1925 and then doesn’t return to Hollywood films until 1936, and THAT’S when he becomes the Percy Helton we all know and…”love”, I guess?

The leap, the important difference, was that now he was middle aged. He was a small guy. In fact he was playing children’s parts well past childhood. For example, in The Return of Peter Grimm, when he played “Little Willem”, he was 17 years old. And so he was a juvenile for as long as he could get away with it. But when he reached middle age, he became something of a grotesque, almost freakish in appearance. Short and rotund and yet stooped, nearly hunchbacked, he would have been a good person to play Marshall P. Wilder. Then that face: the venal, leering eyes, a Nixonian nose, and a toothy, drooling gash of a mouth. He was balding, and such hair as he possessed always seemed too long and unkempt.  And he had a high-pitched, scratchy voice not unlike that of the equally ubiquitous John Fiedler.

For such a unique and strange character, Helton’s uses in film ensembles appeared to be limitless. Who knew there would be so much need for seedy, nasty, cowardly little creeps in movies? Here’s something interesting: the first place I truly sat up and took note of him was in a screening at a film festival of the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). When detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) gets fed up with Helton’s infuriating lack of cooperation, he slaps his face and crushes his fingers in a desk drawer until he complies. It’s a shocking, appalling scene, perhaps all the more so because a) it’s being done to this familiar person; and b) he pretty much deserves it.  But what I find especially interesting is, when I look at his credits, I had easily seen him in two dozen other movies prior to this. This one shocked me into taking note of who he was, so that I would always note him ever after.

He was especially sought after for westerns, usually as bank tellers, train conductors, hotel clerks, and that sort of thing. There’s no point in listing them — it’s dozens. Same with noir: he’s always, like, a pawn broker, or the manager of a fleabag hotel or something. He plays the drunken Santa who gets fired in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Jerry Lewis seemed to be a special fan: Helton appears in My Friend Irma (1949), The Stooge (1951), Sacred Stiff (1953), The Big Mouth (1967), and Lewis’s TV show. He also appears with Groucho Marx in A Girl in Every Port (1952), with Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff (1949) and numerous Bowery Boys comedies. Really, he was in pretty much everything. Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), A Star is Born (1954) White Christmas (1954) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Music Man (1962), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He’s even in the Monkees’ movie Head (1968). It’s worth a peek at his IMDB page, it’s quite impressive.

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

Stars of Slapstick #225: Elise Cavanna

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, VISUAL ART, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd

url

Today is the birthday of Elise Cavanna (Elise Seeds, 1902-1963).

Originally from Philadelphia, Cavanna took art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy before studying dance with Isadora Duncan. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 where she befriended both W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks, fortuitous connections in both cases. After appearing in her second and last Broadway show Morals (1925-26) with Mischa Auer, Wheeler Dryden, and Edward Van Sloan, she got a part in the Louise Brooks film Love ’em and Leave ’em (1926), and It’s the Old Army Game (1926) with both Fields and Brooks.

Fields relished Cavanna’s comic physicality. She was tall and thin, with crazy, long limbs, not worlds away from Charlotte Greenwood. He put her to great use in his classic shorts The Dentist (1932), The Pharmacist (1933) and The Barber Shop (1933), and she also has a bit part in You’re Telling Me (1934). Her appearances in the Fields comedies is what she is best remembered for today.

8a15545c39091e905d11652cb1f669a8

Cavanna worked steadily throughout the 1930s, sometimes with minor speaking parts, more usually in bit roles. She is in short subjects with great comic stars like Ned Sparks and Walter Catlett, she has a small role in Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hips, Hips Hooray (1934), and she has a fairly decent part in I Met My Love Again (1938) with Joan Bennett and Henry Fonda. In 1939 she parted ways with the film business, although she did return on one occasion to take a walk-on in the movie Ziegfeld Follies (1945) for old times sake.

By then, she was deep into a completely different life. In 1932 Cavanna married Merle Armitage, a man who was at the center of the arts scene in Los Angeles. Armitage was a collector, arts patron, book designer, writer, publisher, and administrator with the WPA. From the time of her marriage, Cavanna’s social set became artists as opposed to the movie colony. She began to paint again, and exhibited her work professionally. This is what she looked like in her other life:

elise-photo-m2008_289_63_0

For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Stars of Vaudeville #1023: Geoffrey Kerr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Mulhern: Jack Pickford’s Last and Least-Known Wife

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , on January 24, 2017 by travsd

11284673_133270181974

Today is the birthday of Mary Mulhern (1908-1965). Originally from Newark, NJ, Mulhern was the daughter of Irish immigrants, her father a traveling salesman. When she was only 17 years old, she was cast as a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925. The following year she was also cast in the Ziegfeld revue No Foolin‘. In 1928 she took a trip to London and Paris. And in 1929 she appeared in three Vitaphone shorts: Somewhere in Jersey, Just Like a Man, and Harry Rosenthal and His Bath and Tennis Club Orchestra. At this point she seemed well on the way to a decent career.

But then there was a lapse in judgment. In 1930, she became the third Ziegfeld wife of rake, roué, and reprobate Jack Pickford, stepping into shoes previously filled by the better known Olive Thomas and Marilyn Miller. The day after the wedding, they were accosted by creditors for unpaid bills. Pickford was alternately violent and neglectful of her, and then he was hospitalized following a car accident. They were in the process of getting divorced when he passed away in 1932.

In the meantime she had starred in a 1931 Hollywood production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime with Althea Henley, produced by Sid Grauman. But after this, her professional career seems to have evaporated, not surprising in the depths of the Great Depression.

By 1934, she was back in New York. From this point, the only references to her are mentions by columnists, always in the context of her being a former Ziegfeld beauty and Pickford wife.

Walter Winchell gives this intriguing item in 1934: “What the gazettes omitted in the Max BaerEdward McCarthy snarl is that Edward McCarthy is Mary Mulhern’s Monkey-Doodle.” Translated, this sounds like there was a public altercation between the boxer Max Baer and this McCarthy, probably in some night club, and that McCarthy was Mulhern’s romantic interest at the time. That this appears as an item at all in Winchell’s column has all the earmarks of Mulhern contacting Winchell to complain that she wasn’t mentioned in any of the previous coverage of the event. Over the next 20 years, Winchell would apparently be one of Mulhern’s only friends, throwing her whatever crumbs he could in his column.

A Winchell column item from 1945 informs us that she is “to wed a fourth time, to a youthful British nobleman.” This one, unfortunately, seems to have been a fantasy on every level. Pickford was Mulhern’s only known husband. This may have been a simple error of flipping the facts: Mulhern was Pickford’s third wife, but Pickford was not Mulhern’s third husband. And the marriage to the nameless nobleman seems never to have taken place.

The 1950s found Mulhern in desperate straits.  In 1952, Jack Lait’s column mentions that she was “a hostess in an ice cream shop at 59th Street and Park Ave.” In 1953, Winchell reported that she was working at a restaurant and needed a job. In 1955 she wrote to Winchell seeking his corroboration that she had been in show business so she get “a loan from an actor’s group.” Later that year she was checked into a mental hospital, where she remained until she passed away a decade later.

Tomorrow Morning on TCM: Dames

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd

dames_dvd_cover

Tomorrow morning (January 15, 2017) at 6:00am Eastern, Turner Classic Movies will show the 1934 Warner Brothers musical Dames, co-directed by Busby Berkeley and Ray Enright. 

Dames is a terrific high water mark for the Warner Bros. musical machine. Hugh Herbert is an eccentric millionaire who cuts off most of his relatives because they aren’t up to his moral standard—especially a cousin who writes and produces Broadway shows (Dick Powell). Zazu Pitts is another cousin who’ll inherit $10 million if all goes well, her husband played by the inevitable Guy Kibbee. Their daughter is Ruby Keeler, who romances Powell and stars in his new show. Joan Blondell is a chorine who frames Kibbee to get backing for the show. Also look for the hilarious Johnny Arthur as Herbert’s fey secretary.

Awesome numbers staged by Berkeley—breath-taking at times. Songs include “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the catchy title number. The stable of songwriters on this one includes: Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, Allie Wrubel, and Mort Dixon. 

For more on classic show bizconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

%d bloggers like this: