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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. 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.

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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 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.

 

Frank Buck: Brought ‘Em Back Alive

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2017 by travsd

March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day; it also happens to be the birthday of Frank Buck (1884-1950). What an interesting American character!

Born and raised in Texas, Buck started out his working life as a cowpuncher. At the age of 17 he traveled with a herd by rail to the stockyards in Chicago, and decided to remain in the big city. While working as a bellhop at the Virginia Hotel he met lady drama critic Amy Leslie, 29 years his senior, and the pair married. (The arrangement seems to have worked out for both of them — they remained hitched from 1901 to 1913).

In 1911, Buck took his winnings from a poker game and used it to finance an excursion to Brazil. While there, he trapped some exotic birds, which he brought back to New York and sold for lucrative sums. Trapping and caring for animals is something he had done for fun as a boy. Now he he began to do it in earnest. With the profits from the Brazil trip, he next went to Singapore, and then other parts of Asia, capturing all manner of creatures and bringing them back to sell in the U.S.

In 1923, he became on the the first directors of the San Diego Zoo, bringing to the table two Indian elephants, two orangutans, a leopard, two macaques, two langurs, two kangaroos, three flamingos, five cranes, and a python, all of which he had captured in the wild. After a few months, he was dismissed after repeated conflicts with the board of directors.

In 1930 he wrote his best selling book Bring ‘Em Back Alive, recounting his adventures. This was followed by a 1932 film and promotional radio show of the same name. Two other book-and-film projects followed: Wild Cargo (1932, book; 1934, film) and Fang and Claw (1935). He was to co-author five more books over the next decade.

In 1937, he starred in the B movie serial Jungle Menace, the only film in which he acted as a fictional character

In 1938, he and his creatures were the star attraction of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. I love how the poster above stresses that the man himself, not just his animals, will be making a personal appearance.

The following year, he brought his animals to the 1939 World’s Fair.

The coming of World War Two prevented him from going out on expeditions during the 1940s but he continued to busy himself by writing more books, and appearing in numerous films as himself. The last of these was Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams, which is, quite frankly, where I first heard of him and the reason why you are reading this blog post.

After his death in 1950, his fame continued to spread. In 1953, Bring ‘Em Back Alive was adapted into a Classics Illustrated comic book. In 1954, the Frank Buck Zoo opened in his home town of Gainesville, Texas. And in 1982 Bring ‘Em Back Alive became the inspiration for a tv series starring Bruce Boxleitner! Really, this is about as famous as an animal collector can possibly get.

Of Billie Thomas and Buckwheat

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by travsd

Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas was born on this day in 1931.

Thomas was all of three years old when he began to appear in Hal Roach’s Our Gang (Little Rascals) comedy shorts in 1934.

It wasn’t until 1935 that he began playing Buckwheat, a character previously played by Carlena Beard (Stymie’s sister) and Willie Mae Walton. Buckwheat was pretty clearly an attempt by Roach and his creative team to re-create the popularity of the previous Our Gang character Farina, who’d been with the series from 1922 through 1931, both by being gender-ambiguous, and by being identified with breakfast food.

Starting with the 1936 feature General Spanky, which was set during the Civil War, Buckwheat started to be attired more as a traditional “pickaninny” character and became more overtly male. Thomas remained with the series until it ended in 1944.

He later retired from show business and served in the army during the Cold War. He passed away in 1980, the same year as Farina.

Ironically, one year after he died, Eddie Murphy began portraying him on Saturday Night Live, the recurring bit becoming one of his most popular and enduring routines. The joke was that the adult Buckwheat spoke in the same adorable, childish speech impediment that he had possessed as a toddler. “O-Tay!” had been the real Buckwheat’s catchphrase; it also became Murphy’s. The success of the character proved problematic. The initial joke had been the absurdity of Buckwheat still talking the same way as a man in his 40s. But its wide popularity resulted in something else. The Our Gang franchise had been progressive in its own time for treating its African American characters as equals or near-equals as the white kids. The African American performers in the films were among the most popular, and certainly they were among America’s earliest black stars, and among the best paid black actors in their day. But that doesn’t mean that the characters weren’t relatively racist by later standards.

As a one-off, Murphy’s initial Buckwheat turn might have been read as naughty satire in the old National Lampoon/ SNL mode, and even at that it would have been a debatable gambit. But the popularity of the routine occasioned an uncritical resurrection of the character. It seemed to become too popular with white people, and for all the wrong reasons. Remember when Dave Chapelle quit his Comedy Central show, saying that he discovered that he was getting the wrong kind of laughter? Well, Buckwheat was getting the wrong kind of laughter. I was in high school at the time, and I can assure you — some of the white kids were laughing at Murphy’s Buckwheat the wrong way. Rather than being a satirist making fun of a black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites, he he had merely become the black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites. For some, that’s a difficult distinction to perceive, but it’s a crucially important one to make and be aware of. You “love” Buckwheat, huh? Do you “love” Billie Thomas? His family? Anybody black, when they’re not wearing overalls and saying “O-tay”? What is it, who is it you love, and why?

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

Stars of Vaudeville #1036: Louise Beavers

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by travsd

Louise Beavers’ (1902-1962) birthday is today.

Originally from Cincinnati, Beavers moved to the Los Angeles area with her family at age 11. Her mother was a singing instructor. Through her, Beavers started singing in choirs and amateur concerts, eventually joining a group called “The Lady Minstrels” which played dates in vaudeville and presentation houses. In early adulthood she worked as a domestic to stars like Leatrice Joy and Lilyan Tashman, an irony given the large numbers of servants and house slaves she would play during her movie career. As was sadly common at the time, those sorts of characters were almost exclusively what she got to play.

Her first film work was as an extra in the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When talking films came in she instantly progressed to small speaking roles. She’s in Mary Pickford’s first talkie Coquette (1929), the lost classic Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Bombshell (1933) and dozens of others.

In 1934 she attained the highlight of her career, co-starring with Claudette Colbert in the classic race drama Imitation of Life (1934). While she had ample chance to shine in that movie, and received plenty of good notices, it unfortunately didn’t lead to lots of similar work. She was instantly relegated back to the same sort of domestic roles in films like General Spanky (1936), No Time for Comedy (1940), Holiday Inn (1942), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), although she did get a fine part in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) as the star player’s mother. In the 1950s she was a familiar face on television on shows such as Beulah (1952) and Make Room for Daddy (1953-1954).

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Hall of Hams #113: Rex Harrison

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

rex_harrison

Sir Rex Harrison, Inventor of Speak-Singing 

Today is the birthday of stage and screen Sir Rex Harrison (Reginald Harrison, 1908-1990). It’s safe to say that Harrison was the first serious English actor with whom I had any wide familiarity as a child, and I’m betting that’s true of many Americans of my age. He was frequently on television variety and talk shows throughout the 1970s (he was funny and also famous for his many marriages — six — as well as some notorious affairs). I imagine I encountered his films in roughly this order: Dr. Doolittle (1967), My Fair Lady (1964), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Blithe Spirit (1945), Major Barbara (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Ann and the King of Siam (1946) and, quite recently, Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948). This leaves plenty I’ve yet to see; I’m particularly interested in Night Train to Munich (1940).

Harrison was certainly an early pathway to Shaw for me through My Fair Lady and Major Barbara. Onstage he’d also starred in Caesar and Cleopatra, Heartbreak House, and The Devil’s Disciple. I think of him as the consummate interpreter of Shaw, virtually his mouthpiece. For example, I’ve never seen him as Shaw’s Caesar (it’s Claude Rains in the 1945 film) yet I always picture the character as him when I read the play. Possibly partially because he played him in the 1963 blockbuster, but also because one comes to know and cherish Harrison’s delivery. It is a perfect match. Another stage performance of his I’d wish I’d seen is his Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) — it’s Richard Burton in the 1969 movie.

Harrison’s also the inventor of the technique of “speak-singing” which I confess I’ve always found frustrating. I’m the farthest thing from a musicals-Nazi, but often you hear the terrific melody the songwriters have written, and well, it feels a cheat not to hear it sung.

Originally from Lancashire, Harrison was educated in Liverpool College, where he began his career in the professional theatre in 1924. He first appeared in films and on the West End in 1930, and went to Hollywood in 1946.

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Stars of Vaudeville #1034: George Shelton

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2017 by travsd

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GEORGE SHELTON: IT PAYS TO BE IGNORANT 

Today is the birthday of George Shelton (1884-1971), best remembered (when at all) as one of the panelists on the popular radio show It Pays to Be Ignorant. Born on New York’s Lower East Side, he started out playing tent shows in Iowa, served in World War One, then returned to play vaudeville solo for a time before teaming up with Tom Howard, his partner in vaudeville and numerous comedy shorts for Paramount and Educational pictures (1932-1936). He also appeared in shorts without Howard through 1938, and had bit parts in a couple of other movies through 1945. He was a regular on It Pays to Be Ignorant from 1942 through 1951. Among his other skills, he was known as a Bobby Clark impersonator, and even understudied and replaced him in some shows. His Broadway credits included The Governor’s Lady (1912-1913), Three of Hearts (1915), and Keep Moving (1934). He died in a tragic fire in 1971.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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