Archive for MGM

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 etc etc etc

Joan Crawford: From Sexpot to Psycho-Biddy

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2017 by travsd

To be born in the modern age is to discover many of the great figures of past ages backwards. We encounter them by reputation or in classrooms and we usually are introduced to them at their peak or in their maturity. As opposed to our ancestors who grew up with these figures and watched their lives and careers unfold in real, forward moving, chronological time.

Joan Crawford (ca. 1904-1977) was in the midst of retiring from picture-making just as I was becoming fully engrossed in Captain Kangaroo. Furthermore, she is best known for what used to be called “Women’s Pictures” — delaying any real interest on my part for decades. Some males go to their graves successfully avoiding submitting themselves to such melodramas their entire lives, and quite happily. It’s no accident that the first Joan Crawford movie I ever saw was a western, the all-butch-lady showdown picture with Mercedes McCambridge known as Johnny Guitar (1954). I had to have been in my late twenties by then. I’d seen scores of movies starring other classic Hollywood stars by then. But not Crawford.

But I did know about her. You could say that my first “encounter” with Crawford, as it was for many people my age, was at second and third and fourth hand in the form of the world’s first psycho-biddy bio-pic Mommie Dearest (1981). This naturally led to awareness of “middle period” Crawford, the iconic Mildred Pierce era persona. When you think “Joan Crawford”, I imagine that’s the incarnation most people think of.

But the monstrous campy child-beating monster Crawford we meet in Mommie Dearest leads inexorably to an exploration of LATE career Crawford, her horror phase, starting with the best known of these Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and including The Caretakers, in which she played a sadistic madhouse nurse (1963), Straight-Jacket (1964), the Hitchcock-esque Della (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk (1967), Eyes (her 1969 Night Gallery episode directed by Steven Spielberg) and the hallucination inducing caveman-exhumation flick Trog (1970). Thus the Joan Crawford I came to know best first was a kind of grotesque freak show version, a warped parody of whatever star she had originally been. We wrote about several of these pictures here. 

What use have I for a flesh-and-blood man when I now have one of these?

Over the years I also managed to fill in the middle period, the ’40s and ’50s, the battle ax years, when we often catch remnants and intimations of the great beauty she had been, but there is also a sort of steam-roller quality and a mannishness not unlike that of some of her contemporaries, like Rosalind Russell  all furry eye brows, handshakes, and padded shoulders. This period starts with a couple of (uncharacteristic) comedies, The Women (1939) and Susan and God (1940). I’ve also seen Strange Cargo (1940), Mildred Pierce, Possessed, which paves the way for the craziness of the late period (1946), Flamingo Road (1949), Harriet Craig (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), Johnny Guitar, Autumn Leaves (1956), and The Story of Esther Costello (1957). These movies, too, are all a sort of confirmation of what we gather about her movie career from Mommie Dearest; an aging beauty, usually pretty intense and crazy, sometimes dishing out the terror and antagonism, sometimes being on the receiving end. You don’t tend to see her playing Madame Curie. 

Still, something major was missing: a good third of her career. You hear it alluded to in Mommie Dearest and in other whisperings of the Crawford legend. And what you hear, based on what you know from the latter two-thirds, you don’t quite believe. And that’s this hard-to-credit, EARLY phase when she was one of the very top stars in Hollywood and a legendary beauty and vamp. Somehow one never SAW those movies, so talk about them was just so many words. But in the last few years I’ve managed to catch many of them on TCM. I’m not sure I ever would have got around to them, but the Mad Marchioness made a special point and I am grateful, for they were most illuminating. They are mostly films from the silent and pre-code eras at MGM.

I had seen one her earliest films Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) with Harry Langdon many years ago, but this isn’t too educational. She is the leading lady (barely into her twenties) but she scarcely seems herself at all. She hasn’t yet acquired much personality or sex appeal. And she also stars in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) with Lon Chaney, and that too I had seen.

But that’s not what everyone is talking about. Young Lucille Leseuer (her real name) had been a dancer and chorus girl, and it’s roles that showed her off in THAT context that made her a star as one of the key Jazz Age movie flappers in pictures like Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), Paris (1926), The Taxi Dancer (1927), Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929).

Then come talkies. In Untamed (1929) she plays a wild girl from South America. In Montana Moon (1930) a party girl socialite who must be “broken in” by her cowboy husband. Our Blushing Brides (1930), and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) revisit themes of her most popular silents.

Quite naturally she’s in the ensemble picture Grand Hotel (1932), that was one of the first of these I’d seen, as was her unfairly maligned performance in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932).

“Chained”, 1934

There’s a bunch more like this. I’ve seen about a half dozen others, usually with Clark Gable or Robert Montgomery as her co-stars and she’s usually either a dancer or a secretary and the stories are racy and involve infidelity, or money schemes, because it’s before the implementation of the Production Code.

These early movies fill in a vital piece of the puzzle. Crawford started out her career as a straight-up cinematic object of desire. Familiarity with the Siren she once was sheds light on the numerous husbands, the countless romances with co-stars and others, and her legendary negotiating prowess on the casting couch. (Some of have suggested an arrest record for prostitution, as well). Later, when year by year that part of her appeal drains away, she seems to be compensating, like you do when you limp. Her intensity becomes such that she seems almost to be trying to draw people to her with her STRENGTH, with her MENTAL POWER, with her WILL, with something. It’s kind of Norma Desmond-y, and any way you slice it the resemblance is not an irrelevant coincidence.


We are watching Jessica Lange’s portrayal of her on the new FX show Feud: Bette and Joan now with great interest. An unusual beauty herself (she still is!) Lange seems to grasp this aspect of Crawford’s motive power, and many other subtle things, including the very careful self-taught diction. Young Lucille had grown up in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, you see, and originally had a regional accent, which she lost through application and hard work…like everything she did.

And so you see we have worked our way backwards to her origins. Today is her birthday. Wherever she is, I bet she’s limiting herself to two bites of cake.

(P.S. Another midwife for my appreciation of Crawford has been friend Lance Werth, who actually MAJORED in Crawford at college, and writes the terrific blog Lance’s Werthwhile Classic Movie Diary. He wrote this appreciation of the star there yesterday as well).


The Marx Brothers: The Chico Years

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2017 by travsd

Time once again to celebrate the birthday of Leonard “Chico” Marx (1887-1961). Today seems to me an appropriate time to float a notion I came up with the other day, a way of looking at the Marx Brothers films of the much-maligned MGM period (1935-1941.)

I hasten to point out that in no sense do I claim the ideas I am submitting are a real thing. They constitute a theory, not a thesis. It may be a useful lens for trying to understand these somewhat unfathomable years, when the team seemed to jettison the essence of what had defined their characters and comedy for most of their careers (around a quarter of a century) and to change into altered personas in new kinds of vehicles that didn’t suit them as well.

We begin with the observation that a shift in cultural taste was occurring in the late 1930s. Whether the shift was initiated by audiences or producers, or both in tandem, is unknown and maybe unknowable, but what we observe across the popular arts (movies, theatre, pop songwriting), is a movement away from the aesthetics of vaudeville (formal, stylized, artificial, surreal) and closer towards realism (literal, logical, comprehensible). I see several possible factors at play: a) the death of the big time vaudeville circuits in the early 1930s; b) the advent of talking pictures — the most accurate method of recording reality in history — in 1927; and c) the advent of radio, a medium that also exposed audiences to reality, in the form of extemporized performance.

Tastes seem to become more prosaic and less “smart”. Fantasia, clown make-up, verbal wordplay pass from the scene, to be replaced with plausibility and relatability. If Clark and McCullough and Wheeler and Woolsey represent the early ’30s, Bob Hope is the face of the end of the decade. He makes wisecracks but they are not TOO crazy. He’s a little goofy but not TOO strange-looking or acting. At the same time, there appears to be a trend away from the verbal, word-based joke (Burns and Allen) to those which de-emphasize The Word and replace it with, for lack of a better word, Funny Faces (the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, Abbott and Costello). Settings for stories become less whimsical (Klopstokia) and more quotidian (a night club).

Amidst this time of transition, the Marx Brothers began the second phase of their movie career. The earlier, Paramount films (1929-1933) stuck to a formula consonant with their vaudeville and Broadway successes, highly surreal in character, and dominated by Groucho and Harpo. In 1935, through the influence of Chico, they signed with MGM, whose production head Irving Thalberg preferred to stress the importance of story. But it wasn’t until after his death in 1936 that the zeitgeist seemed to overwhelm the team’s natural voice. And this is what I am calling “the Chico Period”. By using that term, I don’t mean that Chico is now suddenly the star of these pictures (A Day at the Races, At the Circus, Room Service, Go West and The Big Store). Far from it. It’s that the new settings and style are most harmonious with, less catastrophic to, Chico’s character. In fact, in certain ways, at certain times, he comes out ahead, although the gains are brief and full advantage is never made of his being better suited to the changing milieu than his brothers.

One of these guys looks relatively real, and it’s not the one in the wig or the one with the greasepaint mustache

Granted there were deleterious changes to Chico’s character as well. Gone now were the avalanche of puns and misunderstandings derived from his traditional vaudeville dialect humor, which had been funny precisely because they were an implausible stretch. The accent remained, but his joke material now consisted mostly of “stupidity” and simple-minded malapropisms. But unlike Groucho, for example, his status does not fall. Groucho had been the boss or the guest of honor in the first five movies. In the MGM ones he tumbles down to Chico’s plane (in A Night at the Opera, quite literally — he is thrown down some stairs). Groucho had always been screwy, illegitimate and manipulative, but never seedy or low-rent. Chico had ALWAYS been seedy and low-rent. Unless you’re talking about mathematical computation, Chico is not the high brow of the Marx Brothers. These dumbed down new Marx Brothers movies seem to fit him better than the other two. A racetrack, dodging a hotel bill, these are Chico places and predicaments. In A Night at the Opera and The Big Store he is made to have a relationship to the ACTUAL Italy, an unprecedented amount of realism for a Marx Bros. picture, no matter how cockamamie. This is CHICO’s world. So much so that in A Day at the Races, At the Circus and Go West Chico actually bests Groucho in several swindles and other encounters. In At the Circus, he’s actually the guy who hires Groucho — THAT is the new dynamic.  And though Harpo is by far the most entertaining, the least compromised, in these later films he also doesn’t quite BELONG there. For better or worse, Chico belongs there.

Say, maybe it IS a fantasy — in real life, Chico would NEVER turn his back to the betting counter!

After the team broke up the first time (1941), Chico fronted his own big band, proving again that he was very in tune with the times. It was hip to be a musician in the ’40s. But his character was beginning to outlive its welcome, what with ACTUAL Italians like Lou Costello, Dean Martin, Tony Pastor (the singer), Vito Scotti, et al becoming popular on the radio and on movie screens. And at last we again reach a point where Groucho makes out better than Chico. After all, Groucho could grow a real mustache. Chico couldn’t become a real Italian.

Now, now, there’s no call for that.

At any rate, I offer this up merely as a way of looking at the team’s misguided last studio films. Nothing will make them less terrible, but they may possibly be made less inexplicable.


Ann Sothern: Maisie and More

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , on January 22, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the great Ann Sothern (Harriet Arlene Lake, 1909-2001).

Sothern didn’t appear in vaudeville, which is why we haven’t done a post on her yet. But she had a movie career that was very vaudevillesque, which is why we post on her now. Sothern came on the scene just as vaudeville was winding down and was fortunate to get cast in bit roles and chorus parts in Hollywood musicals fresh out of high school. (Her mother was a vocal coach at Warner Brothers; Sothern had studied voice, piano and music composition, and had appeared in school productions. ) She appeared in two numbers in The Show of Shows (1929), had chorus parts in Buster Keaton’s Doughboys (1930) and Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee (1930), is in the “Shanghai Lil” number in Footlight Parade (1933), and sings in Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933).

Meanwhile, billed as Harriet Lake, she became a success on Broadway, starring in Smiles (1930), America’s Sweetheart (1931), Everybody’s Welcome (1931), and Of Thee I Sing (1933). This enhanced her status and she was able to now leverage a series of Hollywood contracts under the screen name Ann Sothern: Columbia (1934), RKO (1936) and MGM (1939). Eddie Cantor must have been a fan — the only two films I know from this stretch of her career are his Kid Millions (1934) and Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937).

Then came her big break. Jean Harlow, originally slated to play the part of a stranded Brooklyn chorus girl (the title character) in Maisie (an adaptation of a novel called Dark Dame), died in 1937. So the part went to Sothern. Sothern’s fetching, worldly-wise yet decent persona suited the part perfectly and the 1939 hit turned into a ten film series lasting until 1947, and a radio show that ran 1945-1953 (with a two year gap 1947-1949).

The success in the Maisie films got her cast in other high profile vehicles, often but not always musicals: an adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Dulcy (1940), the all-star Norman McLeod/ Busby Berkley extravaganza Lady Be Good (1941), the much altered Broadway hit Panama Hattie (1942), the World War 2 nurse drama Cry Havoc (1943),  the backstage vaudeville story April Showers (1948), the Rodgers and Hart bio-pic Words and Music (1948), the melodrama A Letter to Three Wives (1949).

Health problems caused her to leave MGM in 1949, and from then on she worked mostly in television, although she did appear in such films as the Fritz Lang noir thriller The Blue Gardenia (1953), the Gore Vidal political drama The Best Man (1964), Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama (1975), the shlocky horror film The Manitou (1978), and of course her final role in The Whales of August (1987), where her midwestern accent was stretched to its farthest limit to accommodate a downeaster one. She guest starred on television constantly, but also had her own shows, Private Secretary (1953-57) and The Ann Sothern Show (1958-1961) and she was a regular (with her best friend Lucille Ball) on The Lucy Show (1965), and played the voice of the title character in My Mother, the Car (1965-1966) with Jerry Van Dyke.

But the great hub of it all was the Maisie series. Herewith your guide:


Maisie (1939): Sothern’s debut as wise cracking Brooklyn burlesque chorus girl with a heart of gold Mary Anastasia O’Connor a.k.a. Maisie Ravier. I was surprised upon my first viewing to discover that the film is not really a “comedy”, but more of a melodrama with the occasional lightly comical moment. In the original film she has to blow town (a gangster wants to kill her) and so she take a dancing job out west. When she arrives at her destination the job has fled, so she is stranded. She is forced to stay with straight arrow ranch foreman Robert Young and his sidekick Cliff Edwards. She takes a job as a maid to the couple who own the ranch. She tries to make a play for Young. who doesn’t like her very much at first, writing her off as one of “those” women. Meanwhile, the newlywed wife of the ranch owner is a cynical sophisticate and clearly a gold-digger. She has a lover on the side whom she installs in an old cabin on the property. Maisie earns Young’s respect when she rescues the boss in a car accident; the pair kiss and plan to marry. The story eventually gets pretty dark when the guy who owns the ranch commits suicide and Young is accused of killing him. Maisie actually inherits the ranch! Sothern would later be teamed with Robert Young in Lady Be Good.

Poster - Congo Maisie_01

Congo Maisie­ (1940): The first Maisie sequel was inspired by Red Dust (recall that Jean Harlow was originally intended to play Maisie). Now the burlesque dancer is trapped on a West African rubber plantation. She stows away on a river steamer to escape her hotel bills. She is on her way to a job at a night club in Lagos. The film is still not as funny as one would hope but it’s kind of becoming funnier in aggregate — the fact that every time she goes to a gig she gets stuck in some new backwater location. Maisie is kind of like Chaplin’s character. Transient, always on the move, always hand to mouth, always vulnerable. Here, she is again teamed with another humorless, reluctant love interest, this time a cut-rate  Clark Gable (John Carroll). Adultery rears its head again, between the robber planter and the wife of a scientist.


Gold Rush Maisie (1940):  Another western setting: Maisie’s car breaks down in the Arizona desert on the way to a date. She spends a scary night in a ghost town, in a house with a couple of mean crooks,  then gets involved with a family in a phony latter day gold rush. Slim Summerville plays a grumpy old man.


Maisie was a Lady  (1941)  This one has surrounds Sothern with many more stars: Lew Ayres and Maureen O’Sullivan and C. Aubrey Smith and Joe Yule (Mickey Rooney’s dad). Many think this one is the best in the series. It is indeed much better, more entertaining, and moves along better (the other are by contrast rather dull and inert). Here Maisie gets fired from a carnival. Her job is to play a headless woman with a dancer’s body that wont quit, but a drunk (Lew Ayres) trips her and she tumbles over, revealing the dodge. I can’t help wondering, “What the hell-? The audience actually believed she was headless?” At any rate she is canned, but it’s okay, because Maisie has a lot of fight in her. When she explains her predicament to a local judge, he forces the drunk to hire her as a servant in his mansion! (A well known B movie punishment). Maisie brings some life into the stuffy old joint. Aubrey Smith is the butler. Maureen O’Sullivan the sister. The house is full of friends who are all snooty people, they think Maisie is a hilarious hoot, and have much fun at her expense. The servants are all appalled, and of course the tables are eventually turned.


Ringside Maisie (1941)Aside from the first few minutes of the first Maisie film, this is the first one in which we actually see Maisie in her theoretical milieu. We meet her in a dance hall, shaking her fanny as a taxi dancer. Her manager (Rags Ragsland, with whom she also appeared in Panama Hattie) hooks her up with a job. Later she is on her way to the gig and is thrown off a train for not having a ticket. She gets hooked up with a reluctant boxer (Robert Sterling) who’d rather run a grocery store, and his manager (George Murphy). First she works in a night club and then gets fired — and then gets a job pushing an old lady in a wheelchair. Virginia O’Brien (also in the Sothern vehicles Lady Be Good, Panama Hattie and Thousands Cheer) plays herself as a nightclub singer. Two years after this film, Sothern would marry co-star Robert Sterling. The pair remained hitched through 1949.


Maisie Gets Her Man (1942): This may be the best of the series – – at least I may have enjoyed this one the most.  It contains the most entertaining elements. We get to see Maisie at work in a vaudeville type theatre. When it starts out she is a knife thrower’s target girl, in full showgirl get-up.  Fritz Feld (the character actor best known for his mouth popping routine) plays the knife thrower. Red Skelton is Maisie’s love interest, a comedian with stage fright, and the cast also includes Leo Gorcey, Donald Meek, Walter Catlett, Rags Ragsland and Willie Best (a.k.a. Sleep ‘n’ Eat). Directed by Roy Del Ruth.


Swing Shift Maisie (1943):  Though directed by the great Norman McLeod this one seems a distinct step down – no stars but Sothern, and a slavishly didactic war-time theme. Maisie works in an aircraft plant. Move over, Rosie the Riveter! There’s some show biz around the edges. She starts out in a dog act, and she later becomes chums with an actress, but it’s full of the usual soap opera stuff about people who may or may love another, suicide attempts etc. Her romantic interest in this one is a test pilot, which adds some apparent dash to offset the depressing fact that everyone works in a factory.


Maisie Goes to Reno (1944):  This one has a sort of opposite arc to the other films. Here, she STARTS OUT working in a war-time factory, then develops a nervous tic (like Chaplin’s in Modern Times) and so she takes some time off to be a singer with a  bandleader in Reno. There she gets involved with the romantic dramas of card dealers and such. One of the lovers is played by an early career Ava Gardner. 


Up Goes Maisie (1946): The series has evolved somewhat by this stage. After two films of working in factories she is now an EX-showgirl, though still with same personality and taste in clothes and jewelry. She has graduated from secretarial school  and (after several incidents with lecherous bosses) she goes undercover as a dowdy, ugly girl and and takes a job working for an inventor who is developing a new sort of helicopter (George Murphy). (This plot is sort of meta, by the way. Sothern’s grandfather had invented a submarine he tried to sell to the U.S. navy). There follows some mishigas about his invention and many romantic ups and downs. Ray Collins plays a backer for the invention


Undercover Maisie (1947): The last in the series. Not that the Maisie series was ever realistic but now we have jumped the shark completely. Ex-showgirl Maisie joins the police department and becomes an undercover cop. We are now approximately in Bowery Boys territory. It was a good thing that everyone moved on. Ann Sothern went on to many more triumphs after this, spanning a period of 40 additional years.


Mervyn LeRoy

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2015 by travsd

Director Mervyn Leroy, 1960s

Today is the birthday of Mervyn LeRoy (1900-1987) . Like most sentient beings I’ve known his name since childhood, as the producer of my favorite movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). I was delighted to hear today that like almost all of the cast and creative personnel of that film, LeRoy got his start in vaudeville.

He grew up in San Francisco, the son of a well-off department store owner who lost everything in the 1906 Earthquake. LeRoy began singing in talent contests, then worked his way up to vaudeville in the act “LeRoy and Cooper — Two Kids and a Piano.” Then in the early 20s he moved to Hollywood, where he had a slightly influential cousin — Jessie Lasky! Not a bad cousin to have, eh? Still LeRoy worked his way up the ladder the old fashioned way, learning every aspect of the business in a succession of jobs: wardrobe assistant, film processing technician, camera assistant, actor and finally gag writer and scenarist, which was a fine position to be in you wanted to move to director in the silent days.

His first film as director was No Place to Go (1927). In 1936 he became a producer as well. LeRoy has his name on too many classic films for me to list them all here (go to IMDB for that). I’ll just point out a few especially relevant ones given the vaudeville/show biz focus of this web site: in addition to The Wizard of Oz, there’s Show Girl in Hollywood (1930); Gold Diggers of 1933; several Joe E. Brown pictures, including Top Speed (1930), Broadminded (1931), Local Boy Makes Good (1931), and Elmer the Great (1933); Tugboat Annie (1933) with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery; the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939, as producer); and Gypsy (1962), among scores of others.

For more on 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. For more on silent and slapstick film history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc.

Classic Horror: A Thumbnail Guide to The Studios

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2015 by travsd

Most of the posts in our month long series on Gothic horror  (launched here) will concern films produced in Hollywood during the classic studio era of the 1930s and 1940s. We thought a brief primer or road map might be useful for the new initiate.

While all of the major studios produced films in all or most of the major genres, there was a certain amount of specialization. Paramount was known for comedy, Warner Brothers for gritty crime dramas, etc. But only three of the studios made horror films in such profusion that they developed what could be called full on horror brands: Universal, MGM and RKO. The other major studios, while they made occasional horror films, did so only occasionally and cautiously. The caution was understandable. While a particularly sensational horror film could be big box office (indeed some of them were the biggest studio hits of any given year), they could be problematic. State and local censors tended to chop them to pieces; some markets banned them outright. And if they were too horrible or disturbing (e.g., MGM’s Freaks), the public could turn on them too. But some visionary producers and studio chiefs deemed them worth the gamble.


Universal Studios

In the long run, Universal became the undisputed top horror studio in the 1930s and ’40s, and it’s always the first one we think of when we think of classic horror. Their success had three major phases. Their first major hit in the genre had been the silent The Phantom of the Opera in 1925. Then in 1931, Dracula was a major smash, to be followed up by Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and too many other films to list. They had great success with these iconic monster characters and began to make sequels with them, although by the mid ’30s the Production Code started to adversely affect the quality of their output. Then in 1941, they had another major smash with The Wolf Man, launching an entirely new cycle, this time with an aggressive schedule of sequels lasting through the 40s and (thanks to Universal house comedians Abbott and Costello, into the 1950s). The popularity of the Universal monsters lasted well beyond the studio era — lasts in fact to this day. Universal also made dozens of other great horror movies featuring top stars like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (e.g. The Black Cat, The Murders in the Rue Morgue) which didn’t center on one of these famous characters.



RKO also excelled at horror, developed its own house style, and had a couple of different phases. Its biggest horror hit was King Kong (1933), which largely overshadows and informs the others, but other interesting ones included The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933) and She (1935). I think of the same art deco house style that characterized their musicals as informing the art direction in their horror films of the 1930s.

The second phase of RKO horror (the 1940s) was dominated by the sensibility of screenwriter and producer Val Lewton, who specialized in horror films that today are much prized for being subtle, understated, and noirish. A post on him will follow later this month.



Today we associate MGM mainly with musicals but in the silent days of the 1920s and in the early half of the 1930s, they had a distinctive horror brand, mostly associated with the star Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning.  Popular revulsion to the latter’s film Freaks kind of spoiled the party, although the studio did continue to make some horror films after that.


As we said, the other studios didn’t invest enough in horror to develop distinctive brands, but each turned out a handful of classics:



Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both the 1920 and 1931 versions), Island of Lost Souls (1932) Murders in the Zoo (1933), Dr. Cyclops (1940)


Warner Brothers 

Svengali (1931), Dr. X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933),  The Walking Dead (1936), The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)


The 20th Century Film Corp. and 20th Century Fox (name changed in 1935 due to merger)

This studio produced tons of mysteries and suspense thrillers that often verged on horror, but mostly stayed away from horror outright. Some movies that went all the way into the genre included Chandu the Magician (1932), Dante’s Inferno (1935), and The Undying Monster (1942)



Columbia was a smaller studio, almost single handedly kept afloat by the hits of Frank Capra. Their few horror movies, like The Return of the Vampire (1943), and Cry of the Werewolf (1944), tended to be ripoffs of the Universal house style.


Below this of course, we have the smaller independent studios such as Republic, Monogram, PRC etc which made B movies. They released some horror films in the ’30s and ’40s, but such studios would play a much larger role in the horror markets of the 1950s and ’60s.

Film Comedies of Red Skelton

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Red Skelton with tags , , , , , , , on July 18, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Red Skelton (for my full bio on the 20th century comedian go here). I thought I would take the occasion to enhance the Skelton presence on Travalanche by talking about most (though not all) off his Hollywood movies.

Now, I know Red’s not every guzzler’s glass of gin, but he’s grown on me a lot with repeated exposure. He was a bigger talent than his films generally allowed for. His physical genius tells me he was a great stage comedian; that’s no secret, and there was no shortage of laughter from the studio audience on his tv show. But film acting is all about the eyes; they reveal a state of mind. Red’s peepers always tell us he’s thinking the part of his character — even when the character is vacant. Most of his scripts are dull, plodding things, but they usually have their moments, and those moments tend to be a result of Skelton’s performance.

Skelton’s screen persona was interesting…essentially he took over where Joe E. Brown left off. Like Brown he usually plays a goofy bumpkin or naif who has to transcend his limitations in order to save the day (the plots are generally variations on those of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton features). Red ruled the cinema for pretty much the entirety of the 1940s. As the 50s wore on, he was such an unrelenting presence on television that he moved away from films (at the very same time he was aging out of his screen character anyway).


Whistling in the Dark  (1941) 

Since Red’s first fame came from radio it makes sense that in one of his first big vehicles he would play a radio personality. Here, he plays a radio detective named “The Fox” who is kidnapped and forced to devise the perfect murder, and then has to escape and solve it. The climax ends up happening over the radio (the only way for him to get the word out from the killer’s lair where he is imprisoned) so the film has a clever sort of media/meta aspect that is mildly thought provoking. Some cool references to  Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds incident which had happened only a couple of years earlier. Rags Ragland plays a thug. Skelton reprised this role in two sequels: Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943).  

Whistling in Dixie (1942)

As the title indicates, the first “Whistling” sequel has a Southern setting, with the Fox and his gal dispatched to a Gothic mansion presided over by a Judge from central casting (Guy Kibee) to investigate a murder. Rags Ragland returns as a pair of twin brothers, named Chester and Sylvester, of varying degrees of crookedness. The Fox is crackerjack at solving puzzles, but he’s a hilarious coward. Red’s early comedies have a wonderful, unpretentious energy, move right along and clock in at just over an hour. They pack more laughs per minute than the later ones.

MAISIE GETS HER MAN, US poster, Red Skelton, Ann Sothern, 1942

Maisie Gets her Man (1942) 

The sixth and perhaps the best in Ann Sothern’s “Maisie” series about the heavily traveled Brooklyn chorus girl. When we first meet Maisie she is working in a vaudeville type theatre as a target girl for a professional knife thrower played by familiar bit player Fitz Feld. Red plays her love interest, a comedian with stage fright. With Leo Gorcey, Donald Meek, Walter Catlett, Rags Ragland and Willie Best (Sleep ‘n’ Eat). Directed by Roy Del Ruth.


Panama Hattie (1942)

A screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical with songs by Cole Porter, book by Herbert Fields and Buddy de Sylva, although the film only keeps four of Porter’s songs and replaces the remaining ones with others because the original ones were considered too risqué. It’s about three sailors in the Panama Canal Zone, and Hattie, a singer/might club owner who loves a fellah who has a daughter. There’s something magical about the all-star cast: Skelton, Ben Blue, Rags Ragsland, Ann Sothern, Virginia O’Brien, Alan Mowbray etc. with turns by Lena Horne and the Berry Brothers.  Directed by Norman McLeod (with some retakes by Roy Del Ruth) and musical numbers staged by Vincent Minelli.)


Dubarry Was a Lady  (1943)

Another Cole Porter musical, originally a stage vehicle for Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman, here replaced by Skelton and Lucille Ball. The cast also includes a very young Zero Mostel as well as Gene Kelly. It’s the old Connecticut Yankee formula–about a men’s room attendant who first wins a sweepstakes and gets a lot of money and then gets a Mickey Finn and dreams that he is Louis XV and the girl he loves is Madam Dubarry. Its fabulous opening number reminds me of the one that opens The Kid from Spain. The book and lyrics are witty but it suffers from what I consider a flaw.  How the hell does a guy this dumb and this uneducated know who Louie XV and Madame DuBarry are?


I Dood It (1943)

Essentially a remake of Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage (with Buster on board as gag man, as he would throughout many of these MGM features). Red doesn’t play the Mean Wittle Kid in this but he and the producers do make hay of the popular catch phrase.  The film co-stars Eleanor Powell, who makes a pretty unappealing star at this stage – she is sort of drawn and severe looking. The movie is certainly complicated by the fact that Powell’s rival for Red’s affections is vastly more beautiful and sexier than she is. Powell plays a difficult tempestuous star who accidentally marries her stage door Johnny (Skelton) because she thinks he has a fortune (and she wants to make her philandering fiancé jealous). But Skelton’s actually just a pants presser who likes to dress in his customer’s evening clothes and be seen around town (business copped from Lloyd and Chaplin). She tries to drug him on their wedding night and the drinks get switched—here Red reenacts Keaton’s famous Spite Marriage bit. Butterfly McQueen is in it, this being MGM and all. And Powell gets to tap dance in a Hawaiian fantasy number. Of course by the end, Powell falls for him in spite of all.


Bathing Beauty (1944)

A contrived vehicle jerry-rigged to incorporate the special talents of Esther Williams. She plays a college swimming instructor. Red plays her songwriting fiance. When he hears Red plans to retire from show business, a producer played by Basil Rathbone conspires to break them up. I refer to this movie in Chain of Fools as an example of how physical comedy backslid in movie after the advent of talkies. “Bathing Beauty presents the odd spectacle of Skelton ignoring his gifts as a mime throughout the entire movie in order to speak the lines in a none too witty script. Then he is given a three-minute mime routine as a show-within-the-show—as though mime were some alien art form somehow novel to feature in a film (notwithstanding the cinema’s first thirty years). Skelton’s picture (see? We call it a picture) is instead stolen by Harry James and his Orchestra, which one could appreciate just as easily on a radio or a phonograph.”


The Show Off (1946)

Skelton makes a bang-up Aubrey Piper in this fairly excellent remake of the old George Kelly vehicle. It’s been tweaked and updated somewhat from earlier versions, but the casting is excellent, with Skelton’s brash cluelessness butting up against mother in law Marjorie Main’s icy stare. Marilyn Maxwell plays his wide-eyed wife, whom he nicknames “Turner” after Lana Turner, a sort of in-joke.


Merton of the Movies (1947)

The umpteenth version of this old warhorse (although many of the versions simply steal the plot and call it something else). First a short story by Harry Leon Wilson, than a 1922 Broadway hit by George S. Kaufman, then a 1924 silent comedy. And see Mabel Normand’s The Extra Girl and Lloyd’s Movie Crazy for uncredited piracies! Red plays a bumpkin from Kansas who’s just dying to get into movies. By accident he becomes a big comedy star — only he doesn’t know that people are laughing at him. Virginia O’Brien plays his guardian angel and love interest.


The Fuller Brush Man (1948)

A classic! In which ne’er-do-well Red needs to make something of himself in order to proved himself to his sweetheart (Janet Blair) and thus becomes a Fuller Brush salesman (a scenario not unlike Joe E. Brown’s Earthworm Tractors). This teensy step up draws him into an elaborate web culminating in a murder mystery with him as chief suspect. The murder weapon? A Fuller Brush!


A Southern Yankee (1948)

This might be my favorite Red Skelton movie. The hand of Keaton is all over it, and it is just FULL of good stuff, almost every second. Red is a bellboy in a Missouri hotel who wants to get in on the Civil War. By a series of accidents he identifies and captures a notorious Rebel spy. Now he is given a truly dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Along the way of course he falls for a Rebel girl, the daughter of a Confederate general. Even that impossible predicament works itself out. Brian Donlevy is one of the villains.


Neptune’s Daughter (1949)

Red teams up again with Esther Williams — a lot of mishigas about a swimsuit company and cavorting around in South America with Ricardo Montalban and — yes — Mel Blanc as “Pancho”.


Three Little Words (1950)

How’s this for three little words?: Deadly, Dull, Movie. I take the sins of this film personally because its subjects Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby are two of my favorite songwriters and screenwriters. They were screamingly hilarious and  clever writers, so I’m assuming they must have come off that way in real life. But you’d never know it from this film, which casts Skelton and Fred Astaire (two normally entertaining men to put it mildly) as the team and then proceeds to present the writers as a couple of yawn-inducing drips. The film was and is much praised as one of the better examples of the genre but I simply don’t see it. I find it a big drag. It’s often praised for its realism, but, um, something tells me Bert Kalmar didn’t dance anything like Fred Astaire does in this movie. And the relationship between the two guys is depressing, with the power dynamic tilted toward Kalmar and Skelton’s Ruby as an insecure sad sack. (Ruby was an advisor on the picture. What’d he do, yell, “More pathos!”?) And what’s with these two conspicuous goys playing the team? They don’t have any Jews in Hollywood? On the plus side, the real life Helen Kane dubs her vocals for “I Wanna Be Loved By You”, lip-synced by an early career Debbie Reynolds. 


Watch the Birdie (1950)

Essentially a remake of Keaton’s The Cameraman, with Red as a professional photographer who tries to dig himself out of debt by becoming one of the paparazzi, and ends up getting involved with a glamorous heiress (Arlene Dahl) and a vivacious starlet (Ann Miller).


Excuse My Dust  (1951)

Red plays a misfit inventor in the gay 90s. It has a Meet Me in St Louis vibe, and the color in the movie is just gorgeous. It’s all about his drive to invent an automobile. Everyone thinks he’s crazy and silly (there’s even a musical number called “Get a Horse”.) His prinicipal opposition includes the father of his girlfriend (William Demarest) who owns a livery stable, and the rival for the girl, college boy MacDonald Carey. It’s a pleasant enough movie…but it would be so much funnier in the hands of someone like Keaton. The plot is so much the emphasis that it plays like a drama for the most part. And it stops dead constantly for songs. Several jokes about the near-sightedness of people at the time and resistence to change, and several fantasy sequences about the future. The whole movie is just about completely by the numbers


The Clown (1953)

The Clown is a remake of The Champ essentially, more of a drama. In scale it seems sort of a comedown for Red after all his lavish MGM vehicles of the 40s and early 50s. But it also feels like a much more personal work…his clown character is the one we know well from television. He works at Steeplechase Park! He gets fired for harassing customers (and for  drinking).  Has a kid (Tim Considine). He is a former Ziegfeld star, now he’s a bottom feeding clown scrapping for gigs (and losing them). After bottoming out, his old agent gets him a shot on TV and he collapses and dies. The kid goes back with his mother. It’s a heartbreaker! Red was a real artist — he ought to be better remembered.

For more on classic comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For 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.


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