Archive for jazz age

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.

Paul Colin: The Visual Spirit of Jazz Age Paris

Posted in African American Interest, Frenchy, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on June 27, 2017 by travsd

June 27 is the birthday of the great French poster artist Paul Colin (1892-1985). A native of Nancy, Colin attended the École des Beaux-Arts and became a master of Art Deco style, incorporating earlier movements such as Cubism.

Colin had been living and working in Paris for over a decade when Josephine Baker arrived in 1925 to become his lover and muse. His most famous poster (above) is also the one that put him on the map. Baker and Colin promoted each other’s work; they became Parisian sensations hand in hand.

In 1927 Baker, all of 21, published a memoir, with illustrations by Colin:

From a 1927 event that drew 3,000 people:

Paris in the 20s and 30s was in the grip of Le Tumulte Noir, “The Black Craze”, and this inspired a series of works from him by that name, in which Josephine was not absent:

Exoticism was key to the fad; jungle themes were prevalent, as were depictions evocative of American minstrelsy caricatures. As a consequence, these Jazz Age images can be tough for us to unpack. Racist? Yet worshipful. The height of fashion? And yet animal, not quite human? “Negrophilia” — but how deep did that love run? As we say, Baker was his lover. If you’ll pardon the expression, Colin had skin in the game. The pair remained friends for life. But outside the nightclubs, cafes, and artist studios of Paris, racism continued to reign in French culture, as is it did throughout the Western world.

Colin had a wider scope of subjects, at all events. Here is an advertisement for the great clown Grock:

Here’s an ad for the 1926 Rene Clair film The Imaginary Voyage:

Colin advertised products of all sorts over the ensuing decades and turned out dozens of pupils through his “Ecole Paul Colin”. Before the dust had settled, he had created 1,900 theatrical posters, and numerous book, theatre set and costume designs.

Billie Dove: Follies Girl

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

Silent film star Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny 1903-1997) was born on this day. Born to Swiss immigrant parents in New York City, the stunningly beautiful teenager began her working life as a model to artists like Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg. She was also said to have worked as an extra on the Mabel Normand picture Joan of Plattsburg (1918), although she is not visible in the finished picture. In 1919, she was hired as a replacement for the Ziegfeld Follies during the infamous strike; she was also cast as a replacement in the Marilyn Miller show Sally, also produced by Ziegfeld.

With Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate” (1926)

She moved to Hollywood right after this, where she was a star for just over a decade. Her first proper role was in the screen adaptation of George M. Cohan’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1921) starring Sam Hardy. Interestingly, though her time as an actual chorus girl was brief, she would PORTRAY a chorus girl on screen so often that it became a big part of of her Jazz Age image, in movies like At the Stage Door (1921), Polly of the Follies (1922), An Affair of the Follies (1927), The Heart of a Follies Girl (1928), and her very last film Blondie of the Follies (1932). Among her other notable pictures were, The Black Pirate (1926), opposite Douglas Fairbanks, and Kid Boots (1926), Eddie Cantor’s screen debut, an adaptation of his Ziegfeld-produced Broadway show featuring Cantor and Clara Bow. Billie Dove also was known for co-starring in numerous westerns with the likes of Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and others.

Dove had a three year romance with Howard Hughes, who’d produced several of her films. In 1933 she retired from the screen to marry oil tycoon Robert Alan Kenaston. After a 30 year absence from the screen she stepped before the camera one last time for a cameo in the Charlton Heston vehicle Diamond Head (1963). Singer Billie Holiday is said to have taken the first part of her stage name from Billie Dove’s.

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. 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.

This Monday: A Talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Jugglers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2016 by travsd

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Monday, December 12, 7pm: “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age” an illustrated talk by Trav S.D., sponsored by Zelda Magazine 

A look at screen comedian W.C. Fields’ growth from humble sideshow and dime museum juggler to sketch comedian and one of the biggest stars of sophisticated Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’ Sandals and Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Along the way meet the glittering stars he shared the limelight with like Louise Brooks, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Admission: $8. Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY. Tickets and information here. 

On the “Gold Diggers” Series

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Playwrights, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jazz Age playwright Avery Hopwood (1882-1928). Hopwood was long legendary for the feat of having four successful plays up on Broadway simultaneously, a feat later equaled by Neil Simon.

We have already done an extensive blog on one of the plays Hopwood was associated withThe Bat (1920), although that was primarily a Mary Roberts Rinehart work (Hopwood was called in to finish the third act and doctor the play overall). Today it seems apt to talk about what is now by far Hopwood’s best known legacy: the many versions and incarnations of The Gold Diggers. The best known one Gold Diggers of 1933 has a zillion fans even to this day; but folks may not realize that there was much that came before and much that came after.  

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Original Broadway Play (1919)

The concept of the “Gold Digger” was a major part of the zeitgeist during the Jazz Age, when prosperity made for much gold to be dug. The phrase seems initially to have been applied to Peggy Hopkins Joyce, whose many marriages just happened to be to wealthy husbands. It’s not like such scheming isn’t as old as humankind. What was new about Joyce was the unprecedentedly open and frank way that she pursued her goals. Welcome to America! This was a new phenomenon. It inspired many writers, from Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), to several characters in Fitzgerald.

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Ina Claire and Bruce McRae

Hopwood’s The Gold Diggers was early in this cycle. It gives us the familiar kernel of the story: a chorus girl and a rich young man want to get married. Relatives disapprove and try to put a stop to it. Hypocrisy is exposed through funny stratagems, and it is demonstrated that the chorus girl really loves the rich young man (thus proving she is not a heartless monster). The original lead was played by Ina Claire, and the production was a smash hit thanks in part to rave reviews by Alexander Woolcott. 

Hope Hampton

Hope Hampton

The Silent Film (1923)

David Belasco, original producer of the play, also produced the first film version, starring Hope Hampton and Louise Fazenda. Like later versions it was made by Warner Brothers. Sadly the film is now lost.

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Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929)

This is the unkindest cut of all. This one is partially lost yet just enough has survived to drive us crazy wishing we could see the rest of it. The earliest years of talkies left us some really incredible documents because of all sorts of factors which capture their moment in a way that Hollywood films which came before and after would be unable to do. Sound (Vitaphone)! Color (Two Strip Technicolor)! More realistic dialogue (Pre-Code)! For the first time Broadway spectacle could be brought to the screen in a way that made sense — and so they went at it, whole hog. Here’s a fragment:

It was the top grossing film of the year and made a screen star (for a time) of Winnie Lightner. Also in the film were Ann Pennington, Nick Lucas (who sang the version of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” that later inspired Tiny Tim), Lee Moran, and Louise Beavers. It was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who was to marry Lightner a decade later.

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Gold Diggers of 1933

Not a sequel per se, but yet another re-make with a new added poignancy (and sympathy for the heroines) because it is the depths of the Great Depression and the girls are literally starving. This (as far as we know) is the apex of the series, though one dreams about Gold Diggers of Broadway. 

Co-directed by Mervyn Leroy and Busby Berkley (musical numbers), and produced by Warner Brothers in much the same style as 42nd Street, which had been released just a couple of months earlier, and with much of the same cast (Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ned Sparks, Ginger Rogers, and Guy Kibee). Sparks plays a producer who needs cash to put on a musical about the Depression (1933 was the very worst year of that worldwide financial disaster). Songwriter and juvenile Powell turns out to be a Boston Blueblood and underwrites the show — which (thanks to Berkley’s amazing staging) turns out to better than anyone’s wildest fantasies of a live stage show could ever be. Unfortunately Powell’s conservative brother and trustee (Warren William) and family lawyer (Kibee) want to break up his romance with Keeler. As they try to do so, gold-diggers Joan Blondell and Aline McMahon kick into action and eventually get both fuddy duddies to marry them. And a pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers is yet another gold digger. Happy ending, roll credits.

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Gold Diggers of 1935 (film)

Some but not all of the luster is lost here. Here Dick Powell is a hotel clerk hired by miserly millionairess Alice Brady to escort her daughter Gloria Stuart. They fall in love though she is actually engaged to a doofus who is writing a monograph on the use of snuff (Hugh Herbert). Meanwhile, because this is a musical, the millionairess is bankrolling an annual charity show for the milk fund, and hires a wacky Russian stage director played by a very funny Adolph Menjou. It’s Busby Berkley’s first film as credited director, though of course he had choreographed many times before. The big number is “Lullaby of Broadway”: it’s brilliantly staged and shot, even surreal—it all takes place in her head, and has an amazing fantasy interlude. Of course it’s all apropos of nothing connected with the movie we’re watching!

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Gold Diggers of 1937

This one has the morbid plot of producers and cast taking out a life insurance policy on hypochondriac moneybags Victor Moore so they can finance a show. With the now married team of Dick Powell and Joan Blondell returning, the picture also features Glenda Farrell and even more notably Susan Fleming (better known as Mrs. Harpo Marx). Busby Berkley staged the production numbers once more and Lloyd Bacon directed.

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Gold Diggers in Paris (1938)

It’s always been an axiom of mine that you know your franchise has jumped the shark when you have to transplant it to another country for an angle. By these last couple in the series, it is becoming quotidian and a little tired (reminds me of the plots of some of the Fred and Ginger movies). The meat of the farce is that Hugh Herbert is sent to New York to bring back a certain ballet company to Paris. He accidentally books a bunch of chorus girls who work for Rudy Vallee and Allen Jenkins. Learning the truth too late, he hires Fritz Feld and Rosemary Lane to teach the girls ballet on the ship back to France. The fly in the ointment is that one of the French bookers (Melville Cooper) wants to watch rehearsals, and the company has to keep diverting him. The stakes in a scenario are too low to interest me. Give me the early “Gold Diggers”! Seems like the public felt the same way.

Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway, 1918-1923

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Women with tags , , , , , on June 3, 2014 by travsd

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I’ve long held that the best writers make the best critics. In addition to aesthetic insight, the job calls for  descriptive powers both sufficient to engage the reader in art he hasn’t yet experienced and entertaining enough to attract those who’ve already seen the show. In the case of Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway 1918-1923, “the show” closed over 90 years ago. The attraction here is the critic herself — and what a shiny bauble it is.

It’s shocking to me that (aside from a few selected samples) Dorothy Parker’s theatre reviews have never been collected and published in a volume. The columns she wrote for Vanity Fair and Ainslee’s were her first bread-and-butter job, and it was the writing on which she made her reputation. It was while she was at Vanity Fair that she met and befriended Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, formed the Algonquin Round Table, and added folks like F.P.A., George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woolcott to her circle. The New Yorker, short stories, comic poetry, all of that would follow later. But at the dawn of the Jazz Age, she was reaching her readers once a month in these lengthy magazine columns describing all the Broadway shows she had seen.

A precocious 25 year old when she launched her career, subbing for P.G. Wodehouse, she astounds us by debuting with her familiar voice already fully-formed. She is cruelly, hilariously frank to a fault. Indeed it is that foible which got her canned from Vanity Fair in 1920 (with Benchley and Sherwood walking off with her in sympathy).   The pleasures of reading ANYTHING written by Dorothy Parker are among the numerous reasons for buying this valuable volume. As  in her creative writing, her criticism is concise, merry and devastating. One would hesitate to call it deep, though. She covers a lot of ground in the columns; no more than a few sentences are expended on any particular show, basically a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” based on how much Dotty was entertained. But what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth. Anyone looking to experience Broadway during the Jazz Age could do worse than spending time in these annals, which chronicle some very exciting years: Eugene O’Neill, the Ziegfeld Follies, the premieres of plays like R.U.R. and The Adding Machine, and performances by so many past giants: the Barrymores, Nazimova, Ed Wynn and about five hundred more.

As an aid in appreciation, editor Kevin Fitzpatrick (founder and head of the Dorothy Parker Society) has preceded the book with an illuminating and perceptive introductory essay, and added a meticulous index of explanatory notes in the back.

I had originally intended to hold this blogpost until I had read the entire book, but as I began to delve into it, I realized that was crazy. It’s impossible to read without savoring and re-reading, which means I will spend the rest of my life with this book. It now sits on my shelf next to criticism by Shaw, Max Beerbohm, John Mason Brown, George Jean Nathan, Harold Clurman and John Lahr. Lovers of Parker’s work (and all lovers of humor), theatre buffs, and Jazz Age aficionados will all relish this book.

Buy it here. 

Ben Bernie, “The Old Maestro”

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by travsd

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Personality was everything in vaudeville. Pretty music aside, a major factor in the success of a band was a colorful and entertaining bandleader. Bernie and others we’ll meet frequently developed their own catchphrases, many of which outlived the fame of their originators. You may not have heard of Bernie, but you’ve certainly heard the phrase “yowsah, yowsah, yowsah.” That one was his.

Born Bernard Anzelvitz on this day in 1891, Ben Bernie set out to be a serious musician. He debuted as a concert violinist at Carnegie Hall at age 14. Apparently that didn’t go anywhere, for in 1910, he teamed up with accordionist Charles Klass to from the vaudeville act “the Fiddle-Up-Boys”. In 1915 he formed a more successful partnership with Phil Baker. Baker played the accordion and gradually added more and more jokes until it was essentially a comedy act. They parted ways in 1923, with Baker going to even greater fame on stage, screen and radio.

Bernie was more interested in music then laughs. In ’23, he formed Ben Bernie and All the Lads, which had a standing gig at the Roosevelt Hotel for the next six years. In the early 30s, the band toured vaudeville with Maurice Chevalier. For a long time, Oscar Levant was Bernie’s piano player. Bernie’s radio show was a fixture on CBS from 1931 until he passed away in 1943.

Bernie is responsible for Jack Benny’s stage name. In 1921, the comedian (whose real name was Benjamin Kubelsky) began calling himself Ben K. Benny. He soon received a “cease and desist” letter from Bernie’s lawyers – too similar. His music may have been sleepy and gentle, but in show business you played hardball. Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah.

Here he is with his orchestra, playing my grandmother’s favorite song, “Sweet Georgia Brown”

To find out about more about Ben Bernie and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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