Archive for painter

James Montgomery Flagg: Lived Up To His Name

Posted in AMERICANA, Silent Film, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2017 by travsd

Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) was born on June 18. Flagg’s best known work (above) is especially timely — the Uncle Sam/ “I Want You” poster was created one century ago as part of the World War One recruitment drive. It’s so well known and so frequently parodied I used it as the inspiration for a publicity still around the time I was launching my American Vaudeville Theatre around 20 years ago.

Photo by Joseph Silva

Flagg designed a slue of patriotic pictures during the Great War. I liked his rendering of Columbia encouraging Victory Gardens so much I acquired the fridge magnet version:

My wife (herself an illustrator) and myself took in many of his works during our recent pilgrimage to the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport. RI. 

There are other good connections to this blog. For example, from 1903 through 1907, Flagg drew the comic strip Nervy Nat for Judge magazine. Nervy Nat is a tramp character of the sort that was popular at the time, and paved the way in some sense sense for Chaplin’s screen character a decade later

There is a 1904 comedy short called Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride produced by Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter, and starring Arthur Byron and Evelyn Nesbit, which is clearly inspired by the strip. It is available to watch on Youtube.

Flagg is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I have visited his marker! (I am not obsessed or anything. I was visiting ALL the stars. Have more to go, too).

Flagg was a prodigy. Originally from Pelham Manor, New York, he was already publishing magazine illustrations by age 12. He attended the Art Students League from 1894 through 1898, after which he studied for a couple of years in London and Paris before returning the the States to pursue his professional career. At one point he was the highest paid illustrator in America. One of his favorite models was Mabel Normand! He also painted portraits of prominent people like Ethyl Barrymore and Mark Twain.

Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975).

Benton was the namesake and great grand-nephew of the five term Missouri Senator who was one of America’s prominent 19th century politicians, a Jacksonian Democrat and advocate for Manifest Destiny. The younger Benton was also the son of Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four term Missouri Congressman. Pressure must have been on follow a certain course in life (politics) but in spite of his name, Thomas Hart Benton followed his artistic bent with the encouragement of his mother, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian. In the spirit of his namesake, Benton’s vision was populist and patriotic, but in the spirit of his own times it also took a leftist turn and expressed a deep sympathy with the underdog. His visions were epic and heroic, but also questioning and thought-provoking. Rural America and history were frequent themes, but today we thought it especially fitting to share word about an exhibition we caught a couple of years ago at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which we thought would be of especial interest to our readers. It was called American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood. 

The jumping off point for this study is Benton’s painting “Hollywood” painted in 1937 and 1938, initially on a commission for Life magazine. It depicts the shooting of the John Ford movie The Long Voyage Home based on O’Neil’s Sea Plays. He chose to concentrate on the apparatus behind the film.

As part of the project, he did this sketch entitled “Member of the Chorus” on the soundstage of a musical:

Benton also illustrated an edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). His image “The Departure of the Joads” was used on posters for John Ford’s 1940 film version:

The exhibition also covered the entirety of Benton’s career, relating his lifelong penchant for mythology to that of Hollywood. But there is much room for overlap. For example there’s his eponymous painting inspired by the 1954 film The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster. If you didn’t know the backstory, it would simply seem a typical Benton scene:

Benton’s 1948 painting “Poker Night (From  A Streetcar Named Desire)” may well be one of his best known images. It was inspired by the Broadway version (the film didn’t come out until 1951), but movie producer David O. Selznick liked it so much he bought it for his wife.

As we all know, those with a penchant for mythologizing frequently also have an unfortunate bent for stereotype and demonization. When World War II arrived, Benton began depicting the Japanese enemy in less-than-human terms, exaggerating and misrepresenting their features, and doing the same with his depictions of African Americans, a tendency which paralleled Hollywood’s depictions of minorities on film. (While this section of the exhibition was certainly germane, it had less to do directly with Benton’s relationship to Hollywood. His problematic relationship to race is a topic for another day.) At any rate, those images are certainly available to look at online; no need to perpetuate them here today.

Show business was a subject Benton returned to throughout his life. In fact, he died while working on this mural, “The Sources of Country Music”, in 1975:

Elise Cavanna: An Artist of Diverse Canvases

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Slapstick, VISUAL ART, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd

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AN ARTIST OF DIVERSE CANVASES. 

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.

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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:

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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 amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Salvador Dali and Vaudeville

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc., VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , on May 11, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Those of us whose lives were lucky enough to have overlapped his will have no problem digesting why this painter merits inclusion on a show biz and vaudeville blog. He himself was as much a work of art as any of his brilliant paintings. He dressed and groomed himself with such flash and flair, and more than this, he was a tv star, doing the rounds of television talk and variety shows just like any performing artist. There’s no doubt in my mind that if the opportunity had presented itself and the time was right he would have been on the vaudeville stage.

Look! Here he is on Merv in 1965:

You could devote an entire blog (not just a blogpost) to Dali’s life and work. As tempting as that is, today I have others to write about too, so I’ll just cut off a small, relevant slice: Salvador Dali and his connection to vaudeville.

First, there is Dali’s fascination with Mae West, as evidenced by his 1935 painting Face of Mae West Which May Be Used As An Apartment:

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And did you know that Dali wrote a script called Giraffe on Horseback Salad for the Marx Brothers in 1937? In my dream world (the real world, the world as it should be), the Marx Brothers make the film for RKO and Disney instead of all those wretched movies they made for MGM. Someday, my heart of heart hopes someone will finally produce the film using CGI.

And look, here is a special harp he made for Harpo. It’s made of spoons and barbed wire:

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In 1996, Harper’s published some of the scenario for Giraffes on Horseback Salad. It goes like this:

The “Surrealist woman” is lying in the middle of a great bed, sixty feet long, with the rest of the guests seated around each side.  Along the bed, as decorations, are a group of dwarfs caught by Harpo.  Each is supported on a crystal base, decorated with climbing flowers.  The dwarfs stay as still as statues, holding lighted candelabras, and change their positions every few minutes.

While love tears at Jimmy’s heart, Groucho tries to crack a nut on the bald head of the dwarf in front of him.  The dwarf, far from looking surprised, smiles at Groucho in the most amiable way possible. Suddenly in the middle of dinner, thunder and lightning begin inside the room.  A squall of wind blows the things over on the table and brings in a whirl of dry leaves, which stick to everything.  As Groucho opens his umbrella, it begins to rain slowly.

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Although the guests show surprise, they try for a time to continue their meal, which is, however, brought to an end by showers of rain. In a panic, the guests rush in all directions, while from the hall a torrent of waters washes in, bringing with it all sorts of debris, including a drowned ox.  A shepherd makes a desperate effort to collect his flock of sheep, which climb up on the sofas and the bed in an effort to avoid being carried away by the water.  A cradle is carried in on the flood containing a baby crying piteously, followed by the mother, hair streaming behind her.

The “Surrealist woman” crosses several rooms – rain falling more and more heavily – but stops in front of a door and hesitates.  She goes in, followed by Jimmy, who has never left her side.  On the other side of the door, there is no more rain and everything changes.  It is the childhood room of the “Surrealist woman,” where by her orders nothing has been touched since she was ten.  Overcome by emotion, she sits down in front of a mirror at a child’s table.  

Meanwhile, the Marx Brothers announce that a great fête is going to take place.  For this, large preparations have to be made. Four acres of desert are cleared of cacti and of all vegatation and flattened out like a tennis court.  The undergrowth that is cleared away is piled around the field to make a barrier, behind which stands are erected for spectators.

There is a competition for the person who can ride a bicycle the slowest with a stone balanced on his head.  All the participants have to grow beards.  In the middle is a tower in the form of a boat’s prow to be used as a judge’s box.

Before the spectacle begins, the vegetation around the fields is set alight.  This prevents the spectators in the stands from seeing anything at all.  From the top of the tower the sight is wonderful, with columns of smoke going up vertically, surrounding hundrds of cyclists – each balancing a rock on his head – threading their way with the sun setting behind.

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In the tower, Harpo is playing his harp ecstatically, like a modern Nero.  By his side, his back to the spectacle, Groucho is lying, smoking lazily.  Nearby, the “Surrealist woman” and Jimmy watch the spectacle, lying side by side.  Behind them, Chico, dressed in a diving suit, accompanies Harpo on the piano.  Scattered across the gangway leading to the tower, an orchestra plays the theme song with Wagnerian intensity as the sun sinks under the horizon.

And lastly, here is part of The Marriage of Buster Keaton, a collage done by Dali in 1926:

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To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And 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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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