Archive for musical

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd


With the National Hobo Convention in play this weekend, it seemed a good time to revisit the terrific and wonderfully strange Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by S.N. Behrman from a Ben Hecht idea.

In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually a good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: the two men meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York.

Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver, and several silent comedy hands and vaudevillians in smaller roles and walk-ons. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend (Madge Evans). She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!

The film has many magical elements but somehow lacks the alchemy to be the complete transformational experience that would have made it a better-known classic. It seems a little torn perhaps between two standard genres of the period: 1) crazy fantasy comedy and 2) screwball comedy. (I wish there were better terms in place for me to more clearly make the distinction between the two very different forms I referred to.k The former refers to films like the early Marx Bros, of W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, or International House…crazy comedies with no real rules: outlandish plots and characters with crazy names—anything goes. The latter (screwball) generally refers to Capraesque romantic comedies, a sort of flip side of noir actually…where the coming together of a mismatched couple makes sparks fly in all directions and they have an adventure.

Though the film is beautiful in its way, it could have gone farther.  The production feels sort of cramped and low-budget. The costumes and sets could have gone wild… the hobos and their camp could and should have been been amazing, but fall short. Another thought: by 1934, it’s very hard to have sympathy for the Jimmy Walker type — the guy who’s into high living. Though Depression era movies were full of rich people and their foibles, I don’t think we usually see much of the decadent, dissipating type, at least not as a sympathetic character. The moment for drunken partying was past. So this character seems sort of out of step.

Interesting to me that the communism of Langdon’s character is presented as a mere foible…that would have been impossible in films just a few years later. It’s definitely a bellwether of the time in which it was made.

For more on many of the stars in this film see my books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

Aida Overton Walker: Queen of the Cakewalk

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd


Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914): singer, dancer, actor, choreographer, comedienne and “Queen of the Cakewalk”. Her birthday: today.

Born Ada Overton (she later embellished the spelling for professional reasons) in Greenwich Village, Overton was the daughter of a waiter and a seamstress. Her dancing talent was so evident from a young age that her parents provided her with formal training. She was only 15 when she joined John Isham’s Octoroons, an all-black minstrel show in 1895. In 1896-97 she was a member of the legendary Black Patti’s Troubadours.  In 1898, the comely chorine answered a call to model for an advertisement for Walker and Williams vaudeville revue at Koster and Bial’s. This led to her joining the show in the chorus, which then led to her being a featured performer with her partner Grace Halliday. Overton and Halliday performed as the Honolulu Belles in the first of the Walker and Williams musicals The Policy Players (1899).

That year, she also married George Walker and attained star status in the company, essentially becoming a third partner in the most celebrated African American act of the era. Overton was to choreograph all the Walker and Williams shows, as well as Cole and Johnson’s 1911 show Red Moon. The  Walkers became the most celebrated cakewalking couple in the country. Overton was to gain inroads into white society by teaching the dance at private functions. Meanwhile, she was in the process of becoming the top female African American stage performer of her day. In The Sons of Ham (1900) she made a hit with “Miss Hannah from Savanna”.  In Dahomey (1902) was the show that turned the decades-old cakewalk into a dance craze with whites as well; it toured as far as London, where the company gave a Command Performance for King Edward VII. Next came Abyssinia (1905) and Bandanna Land (1907). The latter show featured Overton’s tasteful, refined take on the Salome dance craze then sweeping the nation.

As Salome

As Salome

In 1909 George Walker collapsed while they were still performing Bandanna Land, incapacitated by late-stage syphilis. Overton took over his role in the show in addition to her own, an indication of the scope of her talents. Walker passed away in 1911,but Overton remained in the limelight. She appeared in and choreographed Cole and Johnson’s Red Moon (1909), co-starred with J.S. Dudley in the Smart Set Company’s production of His Honor the Barber (1910). And she toured Big Time Vaudeville. In 1912 she performed her Salome dance at the Victoria Theatre. The following she returned at the head of an entire troupe. She also donated her time organizing benefit shows charities.

When she died suddenly and mysteriously of kidney failure in 1914 it was mourned as a great loss throughout the African American community. She was only 34. Bert Williams would pass away only 8 years later.

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.


Marilyn Miller and W.C. Fields in “Her Majesty Love”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by travsd


Her Majesty, Love (1931) was W.C. Fields‘ first sound feature, though he is not the star — that honor falls to his old Follies colleague Marilyn Miller. However the plot structure is one that would become in most of his features. Based on a German film Ihre Majestat die Liebe which had been released only months earlier, the film casts Miller as a barmaid at a Berlin nightclub who falls in love with a wealthy young heir (Ben Lyon). Fields plays her father, a barber and former juggler to whom the boy’s appalled family, led by his snobbish brother (Ford Sterling) begins objecting the instant he starts doing tricks at the supper table. Another Fields Follies cohort Leon Errol is also in the cast as a rival for the girl, and Fields’ former screen partner Chester Conklin is in the film as well. Her Majesty, Love was the last of only three pre-code musical screen vehicles for Miller, the other two being Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930). Dissatisfied with the results, she returned to the stage, and died in a botched surgical operation only five years later. The reception to Fields’ performance in the film on the other hand assured of him a career in sound features.

Long available in vaults, Her Majesty, Love was finally released on DVD by Warner Brothers earlier this year. Get your copy here. 

Tap Dancing Around “Cagney”

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dance, Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2016 by travsd


For weeks the subway and tv ads for the musical Cagney have been unavoidable. I had a chance to see it a few weeks back; my review is in the current Chelsea Now (read it here).

A couple of afterthoughts I wanted to add. I mention the bio-pic genre in the review. Having seen scores of them I think I’m fairly expert on the topic (see my monster three part blogpost series which begins here). It seemed too much of a digression to include in the review, but some examples of musical bio-pics that work better as art by focusing on an aspect of the story (rather trying to tell every goddamn thing) include Walk the Line (2005), which concentrates on Johnny Cash’s efforts to win the heart of June Carter by kicking drugs; and (more to the purpose) Gypsy (1959 stage; 1962 movie), which focuses on Gypsy Rose Lee’s problematic relationship with her domineering stage mother.

That said, one important aspect of Cagney’s life that got short shrift in this musical (another tangent) was his relationship with the most important person in his life, his wife and former stage partner Willie. I can’t imagine telling Cagney’s story WITHOUT making it about that relationship. It was the most important one in his life personally, professionally and even politically, and she was there with him as his primary confidante and adviser from the Alpha to the Omega. But in this musical, she is introduced and then forgotten, becoming no more than (as the Mad Marchioness and I like to joke about June Lockhart on Lost in Space) “The Woman Who Performs the Important Function of Bringing the Sandwiches”.

For my biographical essay on Cagney the vaudevillian go here. For my review on the new musical go here. 

Why “Hamilton” is the Best Show Ever

Posted in AMERICANA, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Latin American/ Spanish, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Playwrights with tags , , , , , , on May 4, 2016 by travsd


Well, as predicted, Hamilton was nominated for a gazillion Tonys yesterday, and I would say “well deserved” except I never follow the Tonys, I know nothing of the other nominees, and I have not seen Hamilton live. But the announcement does give me an occasion to gather together stray thoughts I’ve been germinating about the show for a couple of weeks. I haven’t done so yet because a) I haven’t seen it, I’ve only done like millions of people around the world have done, and how I did with many shows as a teenager — played the cast album (and watched the occasional video clip); and 2) I didn’t listen to the album until rather recently, and I’m so behind the curve in this case that I feared my gushing would only embarrass both of us. It is particularly embarrassing because my praise for it is as immoderate as everyone else’s, and this too puts me behind the curve. I am not accustomed to agreeing with everyone else. After all, everyone else seemed to love Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and I walked out of that show after ten minutes. It was rubbish, and the sycophantic audience at the Public combined the worst qualities of Restoration bubble-heads mixed with the mob at the Roman coliseum (yes, I review audiences along with productions). Finding myself in agreement with the sickening masses of humanity disorients me and makes me want to bury that knowledge in a deep hole. However, my love is much better than your love — at least I can have that consolation.

Since I was a teenager I have periodically penned little rants and manifestos and essays and blogs about how things (theatre, plays, musicals) ought to be. In fact, I was about to do another this month, along with a series of other serious, thinky posts that began with this one on May 1. But my encounter with Hamilton pre-empted it. Headed it off at the pass. Hamilton is so great an accomplishment, and so aligned with what I have been seeking from the theatre my entire life, that I no longer have any complaints. Granted, I am not satisfied with most everything else (including my own attempts to attain my own ideal). But for the rest of my life, I will be able to say, I have been satisfied — so much more than satisfied — by this. Forgive me, but I have a personal mental checklist…and every box was checked. And normally almost none of them are. An American theme. Check! A historical theme! Check! An American history theme! Check check check!!! An American history theme that represents the outsider and talks about our problematic history with issues of class and difference!!!! Check!!! A quasi-Shakespearean tragic hero!!!! Check check!! Populist in both spirit and aesthetic while NOT dumbing down to the audience or pandering to the lowest common denominator!!! Quntillion checks!!!! Poetical genius in the literary sense!!!! Formal brilliance!!!! Quintillion checks to the 10th power!!!! Contemporary music that talks to our own culture and reaches past the normal self-imposed musical theatre ghetto that has made most live theatre culturally irrelevant for the past 75 years! Quintillion checks to the the quintillionth power!!!!! Created by an individual as opposed to a committee! (Unmeasurable!!!) An individual who is essentially a rock star as a performer, comparable in his way to Elvis (Unmeasurable to the gazillionth power).

The Mad Marchioness put it best — Lin-Manuel Miranda is like the George M. Cohan of our time. But in some ways, he’s even better. Cohan wrote indelible, timeless popular songs, and was a terrific stage star. But as a playwright he never wrought anything as complex or as masterful as Hamilton. Is Miranda the Second Coming of Jesus? Well, I suppose only his next show will be able to tell whether he will hold this exalted status for the rest of his life. But you know what? As far as I’m concerned, he never has to do anything else as long as he lives. He never does.

Sextette: Mae West Goes Out with a Bang

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2015 by travsd

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Mae West was a pro — she had been in show business for several decades. In fact, it would be technically accurate to say that she had been a professional actress and performer since the 19th century.

Thus, Mae knew that the key to success is: whatever happens, you gotta keep hustling. Keep your mind on your goals, and keep hustling to realize them. Sometimes there may be layoffs. There may be some down time between projects. But always keep a hand in, because the wheel will eventually turn around again.

And so it was that in 1978 — 35 years after her last starring vehicle and over 40 years since starring in a vehicle that could be called her own — Mae West finally got the chance to make her next script, Sextette. She’d written the script in the early 1950s, when she was already a shade long in the tooth, but roughly age appropriate. Then she’d starred in a stage version of the play about ten years later. And now here she was…not 50, not 60, not 70, not 80, but 85 years old, starring in this picture. The iffiness springs not from the fact she was elderly. Hey, look at The Whales of August and On Golden Pond. Nor does chagrin emerge even from the fact that her character is 85 years old and SEXUAL. Hey, look at Cocoon. But what is strange (uncanny? Halloween-like?) about Sextette is that West insisted on playing her character as though the 40 years hadn’t passed at all. The idea was that she was STILL the same sex symbol (a notion that had already become questionable among audiences in the late 1930s). And so in this movie her character gets married to her sixth husband (hence the title), a young Timothy Dalton who was some six decades her junior.


And to prove that she Got By With a Little Help From Her Friends, there was also Ringo Starr! Dom Deluise! Tony Curtis! George Hamilton! Alice Cooper! Keith Moon! All flirting with her (and presumably doing it with her on a large canopy bed with silver, space-age pillows) just as though she were half a century younger. Hey, what the hell. It was the 70s. Sex was in. Even gross sex was in. And not only that, it’s a musical! With crazy disco numbers! Some of which Mae sings herself!

How did this even happen? you may well ask. Well in 1970, Mae had appeared in another of the era’s more notorious films, Myra Breckenridge, an x rated adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel about a transsexual, which despite the adventurous subject matter was a critical and popular flop. Still, Mae was back in the game again and presumably bankable on some level, and so financial backing was found.

At this stage of her life, Mae’s hearing, sight and memory were all gone, so throughout the picture her lines were fed to her through a special ear piece, and you generally see handsome young gents leading her around by the arm. Which a gentleman should do anyway. None of the major studios would distribute the film, so its initial release wasn’t the huge splash one might expect given this major star’s emergence from forced retirement. But over time it has become a cult favorite among, oh, people like me. Everyone should see this film at least once. No one should ever see the film more than once.

But there’s an up side to all this. West passed away two years after Sextette’s release. I think it’s really nice that she passed at a moment when she felt like she was back in the game.

For more on comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

Beautiful Deadpan: The Brilliance of Virginia O’Brien

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of singer and character comedienne Virginia O’Brien (1919-2001). Though I am about 70 years too late, I will always be her advocate and champion — I see the greater things she might have gone on to do if people of vision had decided her fate. (As it happened, her fate wasn’t so bad — I just want to be able to see her in many more and greater movie roles).

Her blessing and her curse was a gimmick — an extreme deadpan way of delivering a wisecrack or a song that was hilarious and invariably stole the show. Critics dubbed her “Frozen Face”, “Miss Ice Glacier”, and “Miss deadpan”. Something about her shtick seemed to suit the swing era; it was hip and cool and urban and cutting…just a heartbeat ahead of the beatnik chicks who would follow in her footsteps a few years later. With her dark beauty, she seems a distant cousin and ancestor to the goth comedy of Vampira, Morticia, Lily Munster and Elvira, but without the shrouds and cobwebs (she was more of a ’40s clothes horse and fashion plate).

The lore is that in 1939 the L.A. native was in a musical comedy called “Meet the People” and her nerves were so great, her performance came out “deer in the headlights”. Rather than bombing, the audience thought it was an act and loved it. The fact that her uncle was director Lloyd Bacon provided an entree into the film industry. She was an uncredited extra in Eddie Cantor’s Forty Little Mothers (1940). But she stole the show in the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941) — her number is really the only good thing about that movie. She got another scene stealing song in Ringside Maisie (1941), and then was cast in a succession of popular musicals, including Lady Be Good (1941), Panama Hattie (1942), Du Barry was a Lady (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Til the Clouds Roll By (1946). She also had great roles in two non-musical Red Skelton comedies, both re-makes, The Show-Off (1946), and Merton of the Movies (1947). Then, unceremoniously, her studio (MGM) dropped her like a hot potato. Most of the remainder of her long career was spent in live performance, although she did appear in two more movies, both of them for some reason starring mules:  Francis in the Navy (1955) and Gus (1976).

So we come to my diatribe. Clearly there’s the taint of “flavor of the month” to O’Brien. Obviously the determination was made that she was a one-trick pony, a fad, and it had played out, so the studio sent her on her way. To me, doing so was short-sided and unjust. For two reasons. One, is that she had proven she had some other notes on her instrument. From the first, she showed onscreen that the deadpan thing was just an act. She’d often play scary and severe…but then she’d let down the mask and show that she was really warm and friendly and approachable. And in those last two Skelton movies she’d held her own. But also, a certain soul brother of her’s had proven that you could work such an act for decade after decade. I’ve long admired the acumen of whatever photographer took this photo:


A smart producer would have cooked up a high concept comedy pairing of these two (hopefully with Buster in a father role rather than a love interest.)  Anyway, I can cast O’Brien in imaginary movies ’til the cows come home. As I can with a certain spiritual heir apparent to both her and Keaton, Steven Wright — I don’t know why he’s not an ensemble player in a zillion comedy movies. Oh yeah, I know why. The world is insufferably stupid.

Anyway, one of my favorite bloggers Psychotronic Paul has also written about the expressionless one. Here’s his take at Way Too Damn Lazy to Write a Blog. 

For more on comedy film history 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 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.


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