Archive for short

On Donald Meek, Whose Characters Matched His Screen Name

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The great (small) character actor Donald Meek was born July 14, 1878. Don’t tell me you don’t know who he is! With that enormous chrome dome and his small statue (5’6″) he seemed almost like a cartoon character, say, Droopy. And so many of the movies he appeared in were classics. Statistically, some were bound to be — he made so many movies: over 120 in 16 years of talkies, which averages to almost 8 a year, or a movie every month and a half.

It is surprising to learn that he was born and raised in Glasgow; he became a world travelling trouper at quite a young age and worked to lose the accent. He started out as a child actor in local pantomimes and the like, and the legend of his early career is wonderful if true, although the many tidbits one comes across seem possibly contradictory: 1) that he acted with Sir Henry Irving by age eight; 2) that he toured Australia, India, South Africa and England in the title role in Little Lord Fauntleroy;  3) that, at age 14 he joined a troupe of acrobats called The Marvells as a top mounter; 4) that, when on tour in the U.S. he fell, breaking several bones; and that, when he recovered, he enlisted and fought for the U.S. in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, where he was not only wounded in action, but also caught a disease that caused his hair to fall out.

Much of this may be publicists’ puffery; I merely report it you because it is entertaining, and I would far rather be entertained than trouble to learn the truth of the matter. What is quite clear is that, starting in 1917 he was cast in the Broadway musical Going Up, and he was to work steadily on the Great White Way for the next 15 years. One of these shows Six Cylinder Love (1921-22) was made into a 1923 movie, Meek’s first screen credit and his only silent one. Another of them, The Potters (1923-24) was later made into a silent movie starring W.C. Fields, whom he would later appear in two films with.

As the liquor drummer Peacock in “Stagecoach”, with Thomas Mitchell as the predatory drunken doctor who dips into his samples

When talkies came in, he had a period of overlap, where he both acted on Broadway, and in films at Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone studio in Queens. It was during this period when he starred in a series of shorts called the Dr. Crabtree Mysteries. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood to concentrate solely on acting for films. Some of his well known pictures include: Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) with Zasu Pitts and W.C. Fields; Top Hat (1935) with Fred and Ginger; Barbary Coast (1935) with Joel McCrea and Edward G. Robinson; Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi; John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939); with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935); Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938); My Little Chickadee (1940) with W.C. Fields and Mae West; Jesse James (1939) and its sequel The Return of Frank James (1940); Air Raid Wardens (1943) with Laurel and Hardy; DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) with Red Skelton and others; and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945) among, scores of others.

As you can see, he made himself useful in EVERY genre. Ordinarily, he played shy, nervous, bookish or officious types: ministers, book-keepers, robbery victims and the like, although it was occasionally effective when he went against type to be a villain, as in the Jesse James films or Air Raid Wardens. His character names tell the tale: “Mr. Frisbee”, “Justice of the Peace”, “Dr. Zimmer”, “Iradius P. Oglethorpe”, “Willoughby Wendling”, “Samuel Peacock”, “Adelbert Thistlebottom”, “Mittelmeyer”, “Professor Birdo”, “Captain Makepeace Liveright”, “Henry Cadwallader”, “Mr. Twiddle”. His last film, William Wellman’s Magic Town was released posthumously in 1947. Meek had passed away the previous year.

 For everything you need to to know about early show business, including possible former child acrobats like Donald Meek, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

 

How Olive Borden Went From Being “The Joy Girl” to an Early Death on Skid Row

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

Beautiful Olive Borden was born on Bastille Day, 1906 in Richmond, Virginia. Through her father, who passed away when she was an infant, she was a distant relative of Lizzie Borden. Borden and her struggling single mother moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager so she could break into movies. It is said that she became a Mack Sennett Bathing Girl in 1922(when she was 15), although her first film credits are a series of Jack White comedies starring Lige Conley. In 1924 she was hired by Hal Roach for his comedy studio, where she was cast opposite comedy stars like Will Rogers and Charley Chase.

Things changed for her in a big way in 1925 when she was named one of that year’s WAMPAS Baby Stars and signed a contract with Fox.  As a star of Fox features she became a major box office attraction and one of the top paid actors in Hollywood. Notable films of this period include the comedy Fig Leaves (1926), directed by Howard Hawks, and co-starring George O’Brien and Phyllis Haver; and the John Ford western Three Bad Men (1926), also with O’Brien as well as Lou Tellegen. The comedy The Joy Girl (1927), directed by Allan Dwan, co-starring Marie Dressler, gave her her nickname.

Foreshadowing

Borden broke her contract with Fox in 1927 over a salary dispute, but continued to appear in pictures for other studios through the early days of talkies, although by the sound era most of her films are for minor independent studios. Her last film was the voodoo horror film Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934).

At this point she moved to New York and attempted a career on the stage and what was left of vaudeville, where she was able to work for a time. But opportunities in the theatre during the depths of the Great Depression were scarce. By the late 30s she had declared bankruptcy and began working a succession of menial jobs. She served as a WAC in World War II (and was even cited for bravery) but she returned to more of what she had left. Attempts to return to films failed. Troubled by alcoholism and other health problems, she was reduced to scrubbing floors at the Sunshine Mission, on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. She died there of pneumonia and other complications in 1947. She was only 41.

For more on early silent film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For everything you need to to know about vaudeville, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Beatrice Blinn: A Comedienne Close to Greatness

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2017 by travsd

Comic actress Beatrice Blinn (1901-1979) was born on this day. While I’d seen her in many, many other films previously, I didn’t take note of her until I saw her in the 1934 Vitaphone short Art Trouble, with Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard, Marjorie Main, Mary Wickes, and — most notably — a very young, early career Jimmy Stewart. Piecing her life and career together has been an interesting puzzle. I’m not all the way there yet but I’m close.

Born in Forest County, Wisconsin, she was the niece of stage and screen actor/director Holbrook Blinn, who directed plays at the Princess Theatre, and appeared in the films McTeague (1916), Janice Meredith (1924), and The Telephone Girl (1927). The elder Blinn undoubtedly could have, would have, and did provide useful introductions for her in the theatre. Yet most of her early publicity describes her as a “Seattle artist” who joined the chorus of the show Gay Paree in 1925 so that she could paint and sketch chorus girls. That may sound like a stretch to you, and it might have to me — but for the fact that I am very close to someone who is fairly obsessed with drawing chorus girls — my wife! At any rate, it is quite possible that both paths are accurate: her uncle was useful and his beautiful niece joined the chorus on a lark. It’s not without precedent. One of the greatest actors of the 20th century, John Barrymore was a visual artist until one day he decided to give the family business a whirl, and it turned out to be the thing for him.

In early 1926 Blinn appeared in the melodrama Nightstick at Werbla’s Theatre, Brooklyn. This show moved to Broadway a year later, but Blinn wasn’t in it. She had already made the move to the Great White Way several months earlier to appear in the 1926 play The Adorable Liar. After a couple more Broadway roles, she married playwright/actor/director Crane Wilbur in 1928, another connection likely made through her famous uncle.

What is especially interesting to me about Beatrice Blinn’s ensuing career is that it is a hodgepodge of roles in prestige Broadway plays, classic Hollywood films (usually in small parts), and low-down slapstick comedy shorts — pretty much all at the same time!

She first went with Wilbur to Hollywood in 1929, and appeared in three talkie comedy shorts. Grass Skirts (1929) was an Educational short, directed by Alf Goulding, and starring Lloyd Hamilton and Ruth Hiatt. She co-starred with Johnny Arthur in the 1929 Vitaphone Stimulation. The Cheerleader (1930) was a drama starring one Tom Douglas. 

In 1933 Blinn and Crane divorced. She returned to Broadway, next appearing in the original productions of three George S. Kaufman shows: The Dark Tower (1933-1934), Merrily We Roll Along (1934-1935), and Stage Door (1936-1937). Note that the aformentioned 1934 Vitaphone short Art Trouble was shot at their Astoria, Queens studio while she was living in New York.

After this she went back to Hollywood for that unusual career, juggling bit parts in classic features and better parts in low down comedy shorts and B movies. The features included Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Holiday (1938), You Can’t Take it With You (1939), Golden Boy (1939), and Mae West’s The Heat’s On (1943). At the same time you can see her in Columbia comedy shorts with Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, and Charley Chase. These comedy “classics” include the Stooges’ Whoops, I’m an Indian (1936), and Violence is the Word for Curly (1938). In Keaton’s Nothing But Pleasure (1940) she gets to play the drunk woman in his umpteenth re-creation of his famous Spite Marriage bit. Her last film was Pick a Peck of Plumbers (1944) with El Brendel and Shemp Howard.

After this, she pretty effectively vanishes, with no mention I have found until she dies in San Diego in 1979. Why she retired at that stage, a relatively young age, can only be conjecture, as would be what it was she moved on to afterwards. Did she return to her art? Did she luck into another line of work that paid more and was more satisfying than the bit roles which seemed to be her permanent lot in the movies business? Did she go back to the theatre in some regional city? We’d be delighted to know the answer and we’ll be sure to share the answer here once we uncover it. One conclusion I feel comfortable drawing from afar: she must had a lousy agent. Beatrice Blinn had many advantages and for a time a promising resume. But these assets were clearly not maximized.

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

 

 

7 Reasons Why 1917 Was the Most Auspicious Year in Silent Comedy

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2017 by travsd
We are now midway through the centennial anniversary of what may have been silent comedy’s most auspicious year. Yes, there were other momentous events in other years. Mack Sennett started Keystone in 1912. Charlie Chaplin made his first film in 1914. The great comedy features by the silent masters were all made during the 1920s. But 1917 is notable for the number and diversity of its comedy milestones, all of which combine for a major league industry-wide wallop. These combined events were transformational, to put it mildly. Granted — the real story of 1917 was happening in Europe: America entered World War One and Russia was wracked by Revolution. But our more modest purview is the revolution in comedy. Consider:
1. 1917 was the second year of Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual period, during which he made four of his most perfect comedies. Easy Street (January), The Cure (April), The Immigrant (June), and The Adventurer (October). With these films Chaplin essentially perfected the form of the comedy short, influencing the work of comedians and directors for decades. People watch these comedy classics to this day. It’s true that his famous features were still ahead of him, but it can be truly said that the Mutual shorts are closer to those in quality than they are to his crude, early efforts. They represent a big leap forward.
2. In April, 1917, Buster Keaton stepped in front of the cameras for the first time, in the Fatty Arbuckle comedy The Butcher Boy. Keaton would come to prove himself silent comedy’s greatest genius (there I said it) within a few years. But the film is doubly significant for being Arbuckle’s first short made by his independent production company Comique, marking a great stride forward for him as well.
3. Stan Laurel (later of the team of Laurel and Hardy) released his first movie in July, 1917. We wrote about that film, Nuts in May, yesterday. 
4. In August 1917, Larry Semon, previously a director and gag man, began to star in his own Vitagraph comedies, becoming one of the top comedy stars of the late teens and early 20s — by some measures the top star during that period.

Before. After.

5. In September 1917, Harold Lloyd introduced his famous “glasses” character, in the short Over the Fence. Prior to this he had played a more clownish character called Lonesome Luke in his films. But it was his more realistic “boy with the glasses” character which would make him the top comedian of the 1920s.
6. In 1917, Mabel Normand (silent cinema’s top comedienne) filmed her first feature Mickey, released the following year. A smash hit, it too marked great strides forward for the early slapstick star. It was the high point of her career.
6. Towards the end of 1917, Mack Sennett  branded and began to hype his famous “Bathing Beauties”. This is what you might call a soft benchmark. He had presented early versions of this innovation in years previous. But from this point forward, he is more focused and aggressive about promoting the concept in his comedies.

Ben Turpin sends up Valentino in “The Shriek of Araby” (1923)

7. Also in 1917, Mack Sennett signed Ben Turpin, the famous cross-eyed comedian, who would become one of his top stars over the next decade.
For more on early silent and slapstick film comedy, including all these comedians, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Joseph Hart: The Original Foxy Grandpa

Posted in Broadway, Impresarios, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by travsd

Performer, producer and songwriter Joseph Hart (Joseph Hart Boudrow, 1861-1921) was born on June 8. Hart was the nephew of Josh Hart, who managed Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. Through his uncle, he played boy’s parts in productions at the Howard, leading to a career in the professional theatre.

Hart started out as an end man in minstrel shows (including Tony Pastor’s), singing, doing comedy routines and playing the banjo. For a time, he performed in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. In 1888 he teamed up with Frederick Hallen, and for six years they toured in the musical comedies Later on and The Idea. After splitting with Hallen in 1894, Hart spent over a decade touring (and performing on Broadway) with a succession of his own starring vehicles. From our perspective, the most notable of these would be Foxy Grandpa (1902), based on a then-popular comic strip created by Carl E. Schultze. Here he is as the rascally old gentlemen:

Why I say his Foxy Grandpa characterization is most notable to us is that Hart made ten silent Biograph film shorts in 1902. Several of these are extant and can be viewed on Youtube. I had seen these little films years ago without knowing the backstory on the performer or the comic strip. 1902 is extremely early in film history; the films are only a couple of minutes long, and contain a single shot from a single angle, and were undoubtedly created to be watched on Nickelodeon machines (Mutoscopes, in this case — “Biograph” was originally the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company”). At any rate, you can watch Hart’s funny performances any time you like — knock yourself out!

In 1904, Hart also made a comedy called A European Rest Cure with Edwin S. Porter.

From 1892, Hart’s wife and co-star was the actress and singer Carrie de Mar. Hart also toured his own vaudeville revues (much as Weber and Fields did), in opposition to the circuit model being established by the big time managers at the same time. A number of color lithographs advertising his shows survive, telling us that some of the acts who performed in his shows were Elizabeth Murray, O’Brien & Havel, The Three Rosebuds, Frank Gardiner, Smith & Campbell, the Van Aukens, and Fleurette de Mar, Carrie’s sister, a dancer, billed simply as “Fleurette”. Many of his posters (see above, which dates from 1899), touts that he is “direct from Weber and Fields’ Music Hall”, although the credit isn’t mentioned in IBDB or in From the Bowery to Broadway, which is the definitive book on Weber and Fields. If I learn what the connection was, I’ll drop it in here.

For more on the history of 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 film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

June MacCloy: Sang Deep

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2017 by travsd

With Groucho in “Go West” (1940)

June MacCloy (born this day in 1909) worked with many of the comedy greats on stage and in the movies, and was noted for her ability to sing in what was essentially the baritone range, making her sound like a man. Originally from Toledo, she started out in vaudeville, singing in a duo with a high school friend. Her first break came when she was cast in Earl Carroll’s Vanities in 1928, but her mother made her turn the job down due to the skimpy costumes. Lew Brown of the songwriting team of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson got her in the 1928 editions of George White’s Scandals; she was hired to sing the team’s “I’m on the Crest of a Wave” — while impersonating Harry Richman. This was probably the most creative use of her unique voice, and essentially her big break.

MacCloy’s Hollywood career began in 1930. She had decent roles in Reaching for the Moon with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Bebe Daniels and Edward Everett Horton, and in the screen version of George S. Kaufman’s June Moon (1931) starring Jack Oakie and Frances Dee, directed by Eddie Sutherland. Most of her films were musical shorts — a notable one was the elaborate color fantasia Good Morning Eve (1934), in which she played Eve to Leon Errol’s Adam. In 1932, she returned to Broadway one last time to appear in Hot-Cha! with Bert Lahr, Buddy Rogers and Lupe Velez. Meanwhile, as she would through the end of her career, she was also singing with big bands in night clubs, resorts and hotels. After a break of six years, she returned to films in 1940 to take two of her best parts, a role in the crime drama Glamour for Sale; and the part of Lulubelle in the Marx Brothers’ Go West, which she is best known for today. In 1941 she married architect Neal Wendell Butler and retired to raise a family. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.

To learn more about vaudeville performers like June MacCloy, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

 

Shaw and Lee: A Crazy Vaudeville Two Act That Lasted for Decades

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Al Shaw (Albert Schutzman, 1902-1985), one-half of the legendary vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee. I’ve uncovered next to zero about their early years in vaudeville, although it’s known that they were good friends with Burns and Allen, who threw them jobs in later years, and whose act bore certain similarities to their own, at least with regard to originality and cleverness. They were far better than most vaudeville two-acts. Shaw was born in Poland; his partner Sam Lee (Sam Levy, 1891-1980) was from Newark.

An error appears on IBDB, BTW: they have Sam Lee as appearing with Cohan and Harris’ Minstrels on Broadway in 1909; the writers have confused him with another Sam Lee from minstrel days. But Shaw and Lee did appear in the 1927 show The Five O’Clock Girl, with songs by Kalmar and Ruby, book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, and a cast that included Oscar Shaw (no relation) and Mary Eaton (known to Marx Brothers fans from The Cocoanuts), and Pert Kelton.  Lee appeared without Shaw in The Scarlet Fox (1928), as a Chinese magician named Ling Foo Loo, a clear parody of Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo. The team also appeared in the 1929 revue Pleasure Bound and the 1931 show The Gang’s All Here. In 1930, they joined Phil Baker, with whom they had worked in Pleasure Bound, on his radio show, and later became regulars on Jack Oakie’s radio program.

But by 1928, they were already prominent enough to be recorded for a Vitaphone short.  Today their notoriety largely rests on that film, ironically named The Beau Brummels, for it is a record of an amazing vaudeville act, both antique and ulta-modern in its deadpan oddness. The pair sing silly songs and exchange strange banter, all the while standing stiffly and awkwardly immobile. Occasionally one or the other will look at his partner with a worried expression. Sometimes they move in unison like dancers. At this writing, you can see it on Youtube. I hesitate to include a link, since they’re always taking things off Youtube and the links go dead on me. But it is worth watching, many many times. They are fascinating and hysterical.

What is anomalous about Shaw and Lee was that they somehow managed to have what amounted to a vaudeville career decades after the death of vaudeville. Almost no one else managed to do this. When you google then, there are reviews for shows at presentation houses (the closest thing left to vaudeville) through the late 1940s. They remained a team. They appeared in one more Vitaphone, called Going Places, in 1930. They appear as as a vaudeville comedy act (essentially themselves) in several films: Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), King of Burlesque (1936), In Paris, AWOL (1936) and The King and the Chorus Girl (1937), Hollywood Varieties (1950) and in the Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom vehicle Skipalong Rosenbloom (1951). They also did a little tv, including a shot on Ed Wynn’s variety show.

And — another rarity — they were often cast as extras and bit players as a pair. As such they appear in the 1933 short Hunting Trouble with Walter Catlett and Louise Fazenda; they appear as piano movers in the 1934 Joseph Santley film Young and Beautiful, , as moving men in Ready, Willing and Able (1937), and as thugs in The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). This is pretty unique, but I can think of something semi-modern to compare it to for a reference. Remember when Cheech and Chong played burglars in the Martin Scorsese comedy After Hours (1985)? A very similar idea. Shaw and Lee’s last movie roles were as repairmen in the 1958 George Gobel comedy I Married a Woman. 

I’m hoping to tease out more about the earlier and later phases of the lives and careers of the incredible team of Shaw and Lee. Lee’s birthday is in next month; perhaps I’ll have some more material to add by then. Today is going to be a very busy blogging day.

To learn more about vaudeville two-acts like Shaw and Lee, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

 

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