Archive for movies

Stuart Erwin: Lummox, Lover and Bumpkin

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


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 etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #1024: Percy Helton

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


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:


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


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.


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:


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 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.

Margaret Irving: From “The Follies” to “Aunt Gus”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2017 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Margaret Irving (1898-1988). Those Baby Boomers who remember Irving as an old lady on television will be astonished to know that she started out as a Broadway Beauty (see above). Her debut was the long-running Fred Stone musical Jack O’Lantern (1917-1918) in which she played The Lady of Dreams”. There followed the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 and 1920 and the Music Box Revue of 1921 and 1922.  She played the role of Mrs. Whitehouse in both the stage and screen versions of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, for which she is probably best known (her face if not not her name) today. That’s her on the left:


Through the 30s and 40s she divided her time between Hollywood and Broadway. Notable films include San Francisco (1936), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and the Abbott and Costello comedy In Society (1944).

During the 1950s, she was best known as “Aunt Gus” on the now-forgotten Jackie Cooper sit-com The People’s Choice (1955-1958), created and produced by Irving Brecher, who wrote the screenplays for the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), and created the radio and tv shows The Life of Riley.


Her last credit was a guest shot on 77 Sunset Strip in 1960.

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

Tomorrow on TCM: A Welter of Skelton

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Red Skelton with tags , , , on January 8, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow, starting early in the day, TCM will feature a day long marathon of Red Skelton 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.


6:00am (EST) Maisie Gets Her Man (1942)

The best of Ann Sothern’s Maisie 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 Ragland and Willie Best (a.k.a. Sleep ‘n’ Eat). Directed by Roy Del Ruth.


7:30 am (EST) Dubarry Was a Lady  (1943)

A 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?


9:15am (EST) 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.


11am (EST) 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.”


1pm (EST) 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.


2:30pm (EST) 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.


4pm (EST) The Yellow Cab Man (1950)

Many of Skelton’s plots were borrowed from old Keaton and Lloyd comedies; the premise of this one bears more than passing resemblance to the W.C. Fields features So’s Your Old Man (1926) and You’re Telling Me (1934). In those movies Fields invents an unpoppable tire and tries to sell it to companies. Here, Red is a cabbie who has invented an unbreakable windshield. Lots of stars in this one: Gloria DeHaven (we’ve blogged about her father), Edward Arnold, James Gleason, Walter Slezak, Jay C. Flippen and Polly Moran. 


5:30pm (EST) 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).


6:45pm (EST) Half a Hero (1953)

One of Red’s last starring vehicles and you can see the old comedy machine grinding to a halt. It’s an attempt at a more mature comedy, and they were doing a lot of these kinds of movies in the 50s and 60s (Bob Hope is in about ten of them): middle aged writer moves to suburbia and is vaguely dissatisfied with his life, vaguely almost decides to make a change, and then decides not to. C’mon! That’s a movie?

New Year’s Eve in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), New Year's Eve with tags , on December 31, 2016 by travsd

In honor of the day, some favorite movies featuring New Year’s Eve scenes. This holiday is often used to mark extreme or catastrophic change in the life of the characters or their environment — a theme for us to contemplate this year in particular when the clock strikes midnight.

the gold rush_new year's eve

The Gold Rush (1925)

Shame on you if you don’t know this movie or this scene. Led on by the supercilious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) lone prospector Charlie Chaplin prepares for what he thinks will be a delightful New Year’s party with Georgia and a few friends. He sleeps and dreams a magical time, but awakens to find himself alone and stood up. Warning: don’t watch if you’re alone and depressed!


Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Something about the early Technicolor adds to the eeriness of this, one of the creepiest of classic studio era horror films. The opening scenes depict feisty girl reporter Glenda Farrell making her way through the crowded New York City streets on New Year’s Eve, clogged with carnivalesque revelers. Holidays are always interesting in older films — what people wear, the different ways they celebrated. Farrell’s journey will lead her to a corpse, and eventually to mad wax sculptor Lionel Atwill. 


Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)

Mae West loved to celebrate the period of her early childhood, the gay ’90s, in her films.  Something about the era symbolized relative freedom to her, I think: saloons and bawdy houses and crooked politicians. That’s the milieu of her last true starring film Every Day’s a Holiday, set in Tammany era NYC, with crucial scenes taking place on New Year’s Eve 1900 — just when the city and nation were poised to go from horses and buggies to automobiles.


Sunset Boulevard (1950)

One of the most touching scenes in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece has William Holden briefly escaping from the virtual tomb he has been inhabiting with former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to the relative joy and vitality of a proper New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house, full of youth and music, and a much more appropriate girlfriend. The moment is a poignant blip, a last chance, a fleeting glimpse into a happy life he’ll never get to have.


The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

At age seven this was my introduction to New Years’s Eve, the first place I heard “Auld Lang Syne”, witnessed a countdown to midnight, saw grownups with noise-makers and party hats. It’s part of the mysterious magic of this film (which is still one of my favorites) that the moment of disaster strikes just at midnight: it’s a new year and everything turns upside down. Celebration turns to tragedy in the blink of an eye. It’s part of the peculiar dream logic and symbolism of movies, and it works extraordinarily well.


Jaws the Revenge (1987)

This is  a most entertainingly terrible movie which has only recently become a new classic around my house. (I never bothered with it when it came out.) It’s predicated on the concept that now-deceased Amity Island Police Chief Brody’s wife Ellen’s most irrational fears are TRUE — that a sentient, malevolent, psychic shark has designs on her family for some reason, and that you get killed every time you are crazy enough to go into the water. That her son managed to become a MARINE BIOLOGIST given such a family dynamic is one of the film’s countless delightful head-scratchers. Lorraine Gary is the film’s star, Roy Scheider having long since decided he had far better things to do. At any rate, the film starts around Christmas (her other son is killed by a shark while people on shore sing Christmas carols), and so the family travels to the Bahamas to forget it all (wouldn’t you choose someplace far INLAND?) At any rate, the New Year’s Eve scene in this film is memorable for being one of tent pole WTF moments, where you go…”H’m, we seem to have lost the narrative thread here.” As Gary and Michael Caine dance and romance each other and talk, and various other characters move around the party and talk, and you’re like, “Wasn’t this supposed to be a thing about sharks?” Oh, but it will be, for Bruce the Shark soon swims the thousand or more miles to the Bahamas from New England just to have another go at this particular family. New Year, same old killer shark!


Boogie Nights (1997)

Much like Mae West’s Every Day’s a Holiday, P.T. Anderson’s porn-industry portrait features a scene on a historically significant New Year’s Eve, in this case not a century demarcation but an important change of decades. The coming of the ’80s (and home video) will mean the end of porn theatres, and the end of the time when the industry had some claims to professionalism. Soon any amateur could grab a video camera and make their own porn and the industry would be glutted. The death of the old era is symbolized by a tragedy at the party — but I won’t spoil it, in the unlikely event you’ve not seen this terrific movie.


New Year’s Eve (2011)

Let’s get one thing straight: New Year’s Eve is a nearly unwatchable trough of expensive garbage. You can just hear Garry Marshall saying, “Ya like good lookin’ young people? I’ll give ya 28 good lookin’ young people — plus Robert de Niro!” I watched a good hunk of this rubbish for the first time last year, and there was one aspect I found very interesting, however. Its structure…of constant cross-cutting between over-expository scenes of diverse people bustling around in anticipation of some major event….feels EXACTLY like the opening act of a DISASTER MOVIE. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that it’s set in New York…TIMES SQUARE, to be precise. A major terrorist target. And I LOVE disaster movies . So I so badly want this to be a disaster movie, to re-cut it, so that instead of a midnight countdown, the climax will be a gigantic wall of water coming from the Hudson River, or a bunch of mid-town skyscrapers toppling like dominoes. And the fact that this DOESN’T happen, in particular, to all these beautiful Caucasian cipher-people, is a total let down.  Roland Emmerich, please step in and give us a new third act for this movie.

Stars of Vaudeville #1016: Ruth Chatterton

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on December 24, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Ruth Chatterton (1892-1961). Born and raised in New York City, Chatterton was only a teenager when she secured her first professional stage work with a stock company in Milwaukee in 1908. By 1911. she was on Broadway, where she was to appear in a succession of plays through 1925, the biggest success of which was Daddy Long Legs (1914-1915 and 1918). She later returned to Broadway in the 1940s and early ’50s. It was during her stage years, that (like so many) she also appeared in big time vaudeville, performing at the Palace in 1927.

Her film career was launched in 1928 with the part-talking Sins of the Fathers with Emil Jannings. Other notable films included Madame X (1929), The Laughing Lady (1929) and Dodsworth (1936). By 1938 her screen career had petered out and that was when she made her return to the stage, and occasional television appearances. Throughout the 1950s, she reinvented herself as an author, penning four successful books.

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.

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