Archive for television

Señor Wences: S’Alright

Posted in Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2017 by travsd

Born today in 1896 in Salamanca, Spain: the great ventriloquist Wenceslao Moreno, better known to American audiences as Señor Wences. After having written about a couple of thousand variety artists, actors and other performers over the past 8 years, it seems a shocking lapse that I haven’t written a proper post about this key 20th century performer until today. He fell through the cracks! I had initially made a very cursory post (he arrived in the U.S too late for American vaudeville, my initial focus here), and then afterwards I kept assuming I had done one, but I hadn’t yet. Today we redress the lapse.

Señor Wences was nearly 40 years old and a well-polished veteran of the music halls, cabarets and night clubs of Europe prior to his first arrival in the U.S. in the mid 1930s to perform at New York’s Club Chico. By this time, the American vaudeville circuits were dead, so the word “vaudevillian” when applied to him, while accurate, is true only in the broader sense. He played night clubs and resorts in the U.S.in his early years.

His best known character, Johnny (above) was created by drawing a face on his hand, and then attaching a body below it. A lot of humor was generated by the fast interchanges between himself and the character, as well as by his thick Spanish accent, and his treating of Johnny, with his falsetto voice, as a mischievous young child. In 1936 he created his second best known character, Pedro, essentially just a head in a box, when one of his dummies was destroyed on the way to a gig:

Another favorite bit had him answering a telephone and providing the voice at the other end. As you can see, his act was very original — he had great fun using all manner of offbeat props and “partners” that were quite different from the typical ventriloquism dummies, which probably becoming quite tiresome and “old hat” to audiences by the mid-20th century. He also did juggling and plate spinning.

His great boon was the advent of television in the late 1940s, and he started to become a familiar and regular sight on all the variety shows and talk shows: Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Paar all had him as a guest, and his catchphrase: “S’alright? S’alright!” become universally known. He was still popular on tv in my own time, and I saw him places like The Mike Douglas Show, The Muppet Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and a very popular series of Parkay Margarine commercials.

Señor Wences was still performing well in the 1980s, and passed away in 1999 at the age of 103.

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

Stars of Vaudeville #1038: Gene Carroll

Posted in Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2017 by travsd

The career of Gene Carroll (born this day in 1897) is a really good illustration of what happened to the average working vaudevillian after vaudeville went away. The younger brother of Broadway performer Albert Carroll, he was originally from Chicago, where he dropped out of school to participate in amateur nights. He partnered with Jack Grady in a Chicago based song and dance act in 1924.

Gene and Glenn

When Grady fell in 1929, Carroll teamed up with Cleveland based Glenn Rowell. Gene and Glenn performed in local vaudeville and on Cleveland radio through 1935. Their characters Jake and Lena were so popular that the show went national in 1934 and the team performed throughout the Northeast and Midwest through their breakup in 1943. Rowell left to do war related work; Carroll became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. 

In 1948, Carroll returned to Cleveland, where he was a staple of local television until his death in 1972, on such programs as Uncle Jake’s House, The Giant Tiger Amateur Hour and The Gene Carroll Show. He also ran a talent school. Carroll’s tv show ran posthumously until 1982, hosted by his widow. At one time, it was the longest running show on television.

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

The Crazy Craft of Sid and Marty Krofft

Posted in Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2017 by travsd

Happy Birthday, Marty Krofft, the younger of the duo invariably known by their trade-name Sid and Marty Krofft. While these amazing television creators downright dominated the entirety of my childhood, coinciding almost exactly with the entire decade of the 1970s, it has been interesting to learn that they never ceased to be a going concern, even down to the present day, although Sid is now 87 and Marty now 79. They just were a tad less en vogue in ensuing decades, when entertainment began to get less weird — and I always mean “less weird” in a bad way.

For a country often thought of by Americans as dry, understated, calm, and sensible, Canada certainly has produced a lot of exceptionally trippy, spacey family entertainment: Doug Henning was from Winnipeg; the Kroffts and Cirque du Soleil come from Montreal. What’s the deal, eh? Been smoking the maple leaves?

Henning and Cirque have never been my cup of tea but the off-the-wall products of Sid and Marty Krofft have ALWAYS rung my bell. A good measure of the impact the team has had on my lives is the fact that I have ALREADY blogged about most of their shows and their stars (just follow the links for more). But, man, running down the full list of them is wild — since they average a show a year, it’s almost like scanning a list of all your childhood schoolteachers, grade by grade. To wit:

The Banana Splits (1968-70)

The Kroffts did not produce this groundbreaking and memorable series (it was Hanna-Barbera), but they did design the costumed characters (Fleegle, Blingo, Drooper and Snorky). The idea was that that they were a rock band quartet like the Beatles (who hadn’t yet broken up) but designed especially for young children (a concept not unlike the much later Teletubbies).  The show was also a natural refinement of the concept of The Monkees, which was aimed at older kids and ran from 1966 to 1968. In format, the show also borrowed a lot from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, lots of short black out sketches, songs and other segments, with rapid cross-cutting from one to the other — and a laugh-track. The voices were provided by Paul Winchell, Daws Butler, and Allan Melville (Snorky the elephant, much like Harpo Marx, didn’t speak but merely blew his trunk, which sounded like a bicycle horn). The monster success of this show is what allowed the Kroffts (who’d previously been known for their live shows at theme parks, world’s fairs, etc.) to begin producing on their own.

H.R. Pufnstuf (1969)

The show that started it all. A psychedelic feast in which young Jimmy (Jack Wild, from the recent hit Oliver!) gets blown off course in his little skiff in a storm and winds up on a magical island presided over by the titular character, the Mayor, who is clearly inspired by the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon”.  He was voiced by Lennie Weinrib. The villain of the piece is one Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), clearly inspired by the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, but funnier, who wants to steal Jimmy’s talking magical flute, Freddy. Meanwhile, everything on this Living Island (e.g., the trees) talks. Most of them talk in the form of impersonations of class Hollywood stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Wayne and Mae West.

I believe the Kroffts when they insist that drugs played no role in this show’s creation. Only someone stupid, literal-minded and lacking in imagination can’t conceive that it was created otherwise. I might say that certainly drugs played a role in the popular aesthetics of the times and thus may have exerted an indirect influence. But something else to think about (the elephant in the room, really) was that color television was still a relatively new toy. What would be more natural in the early days for producers to test its limits with EXPLOSIONS of color?

H.R. Pufnstuf was so popular that in 1970 McDonald’s emulated it by introducing its full range of McDonaldland characters in commercials, most notoriously Mayor McCheese, an obvious rip-off of the title character in Pufnstuf. This was easily my first introduction to the concept of a lawsuit, as all tongues wagged about it at the time. As it happens, Paul Simon also sued the producers for stealing a portion of The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) for the show’s theme song — but that’s really just petty. It’s really just a couple of bars of a very simple melody which any child might invent at random on the kindergarten playground — it’s not exactly Mozart. But Simon won and apparently now gets official credit as one of the theme’s creators.

The Bugaloos (1970)

Speaking of theme songs, try and get the one to THIS show out of your head once you’ve heard it! I challenge you! The Bugaloos tends to fall through the cracks of people’s memories, I think the only recognizable star was the villainess, played by Martha Raye. The main characters were an English quartet of flying insects who were also a rock band — kind of a LITERAL “Beetles”, if you will. They lived inside a juke box! The visual effect of the Bugaloos flying through the air unavoidably evokes ancient cultural memories of storybook fairies. The Kroffts were the KINGS of visual symbolism and power in this way, very much plugged into fairy tales, but making them current.

Lidsville (1971)

Lidsville has wound up being almost as well remembered as Pufnstuf , I think because of its stars and because it went back to a formula more like the original. In this one, a now teenage Butch Patrick (who had played Eddie Munster) gets whisked away to a magical land of talking hats, ruled over by an evil magician named Hoodoo (Charles Nelson Reilly) who bore more than a slight resemblance to the popular Witchiepoo. The show had several memorable green screen effects sequences, including the magician’s growing top hat (which the boy falls in and down, in just the same way Alice had fallen down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland), and the giant flying top hat Hoodoo flies around in, saucer style.

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974)

Two full seasons of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were produced, and it aired even longer. In conception, it represents a slight “sea change” if you will, from the earlier shows. It was less “psychedelic” than the previous ones, though it still had lots of humor. It was very much similar in conception to the typical tween literature of the time. Two brothers (Johnny Whitaker from Family Affair and Scott Kolden) have a secret clubhouse where they stow the ultimate secret — the existence of their friend, the good hearted sea monster Sigmund, played by little person Billy Barty in a typical Krofftian costume. The scenario has much in common with magical sit-coms of the ’60s like Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, My Mother the Car etc. The heroes have something exceptionally weird going on in their lives that no one else is privy to, necessitating lots of quick-thinking and fast-talking to devise explanations. Dogging their steps are Sigmund’s mean family — this element seems borrowed from Caspar the Friendly Ghost (Sigmund is nice; his family like to do pranks). The show would have been my first exposure to the perennial Mary Wickes, as a grouchy housekeeper. Margaret Hamilton played a nosey neighbor (conceptually similar to Bewitched’s Mrs. Kravitz). And Rip Taylor played Sigmund’s bumbling magical uncle, another concept seemingly borrowed from Bewitched. 

L-R, Will, Chaka, Holly

Land of the Lost (1974)

Another slight divergence for the team, Land of the Lost was an excursion into straight-up sci-fi fantasy, although still aimed at kids. It was a variation on the old Hollywood “Lost World” subgenre, where a small group of characters find themselves trapped in a “Land That Time Forgot” — full of dinosaurs. Will, Holly and their dad are white water rafting and somehow find themselves in this unknown pocket of the planet. They pass through a narrow gate of rocks, in a concept not unlike the path to Shangri La in Lost Horizon. But with the added twist that it is also a dimensional door — the family is clearly in some other part of the universe. (By the way, several top science fiction writers wrote for, or advised on the series). True to the genre, but not to paleontology, the dinosaurs here live side by side with humanoids as well as completely ahistorical creatures — in this case, the terrifying lizard-men the Sleeztaks. I never met anyone who wasn’t genuinely scared of these creatures as a child. I have no idea why, but it worked. They were nightmare stuff: full of vague malevolence, and nonverbal (aside from hissing) which put that at an even further distance. Another frequent antagonist was a Tyrannosarus Rex which would periodically attack the family’s cave, which was conveniently located at Tyrannosaurus mouth height. They repelled the beast with a log with one sharpened end, which they called “the fly swatter”. As you can glean perhaps, unlike the previous Krofft productions, humor shtick was non-existent on Land of the Lost. The one gentle element is the family’s friend/pet, a talking ape-boy named Cha-Ka. The girl who played Holly (Kathy Coleman) resembled Kim Richards, star of Disney movies like Escape to Witch Mountain in a general way; my memory has tended to lump them together. As I’m sure you’re aware, an obligatory ironic reboot feature film came out in 2009, starring Will Ferrell. 

The Lost Saucer (1975)

Yet another mini-subgenre, The Lost Saucer, Far-Out Space Nuts (below), and Filmation’s The Ghost Busters were all kid’s shows that briefly resurrected the careers of tv comedy stars. In this one, Gomer Pyle’s Jim Nabors and Laugh-In’s Ruth Buzzi are a couple of bumbling space aliens trying to find their way home, much like the family in Lost in Space, with the added inconvenience of an inadvertent child abduction in the mix.

Far Out Space Nuts (1975)

In this one, almost like a book end to The Lost Saucer, Gilligan’s Island’s Bob Denver and kid’s entertainer Chuck McCann are a couple of bumbling janitors who accidentally press a button and wind up in outer space. It’s almost like a different draft of the Lost Saucer idea and they just decided to them both.

The Krofft Super Show and The Krofft Superstar Hour (1976-1979)

At this stage it was almost like the Kroffts decided to go for broke and do every remaining kid’s show idea at the same time. The Krofft Super Show was a kind of anthology program consisting of separate 15 minute long mini-shows, hosted by the fictional glam rock band  Kaptain Kool and the Kongs (led by Michael Lembeck, son of Harvey Lembeck from the Frankie and Annette beach party movies). It seems at least partially inspired by The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, which had premiered in 1974.

Kaptain Kool, Kongs

Later, when it became the Superstar Hour, Kaptain Kool and the Kongs were replaced with the Bay City Rollers, which was very good timing for the bubble gum band, as they’d only recently stopped having hit records. At a certain point, it was renamed yet again to The Bay City Rollers Hour. 

Bay City Rollers

At any rate this monster-mega-multi-show had several mini shows, to wit:

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

Old school superheroes were very much back in during the 1970s, I think ultimately due to the syndicated success of the 60s show Batman with children. Hanna-Barbera launched Super Friends in 1973; Filmation launched Shazam! in 1974; the prime time Wonder Woman premiered on ABC in 1975. Electra Woman and Dyna Girl owed the most to the latter show; the title characters (played by Days of Our LivesDeidre Hall and Judy Strangis of Room 222) were lady reporters by day; high voltage superheroes when duty called. There was a reboot feature in 2016.

Dr. Shrinker

Damn, how I loved and LOVE this show. Jay Robinson played a mad scientist who (much like the villains in films like Dr. Cyclops and Attack of the Puppet People) shrinks a group of friends to the size of dolls for his evil experiments (a simple green screen effect). The leader of the kids was Ted Eccles — when I look at pictures of him, I’m like “Where do I know him from?” But the answer I think turns out to be,”From THIS! I know him from THIS!” Best of all (besides Robinson’s delicious over-the-top performance) is Dr. Shinker’s henchman, played by little person Billy Barty, who’d also played Sigmund the Sea Monster, now unobscured by the extravagant costume.

Wonderbug

Wow, this one was a fun one to unpack…so much had gotten mixed together in my memory. First the live action Wonderbug so much resembles Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 animated Speed Buggy ( a sort of Scooby Doo knock-off), which in turn one can’t help mixing up with the 1967 Japanese anime Speed Racer, which has quite a different concept but a very similar name. Of course the live action sentient bug car concept can be traced to Disney’s 1968 The Love Bug. Here, it’s a dune buggy nicknamed the Shlepcar. But when its magic horn is honked, it can do everything, including fly.

Bigfoot and Wildboy

This segment didn’t premiere until 1977 and I can’t help deducing that it owes its existence to the legendary Six Million Dollar Man episodes we wrote about here. Bigfoot was not only in the air, he was on the ground, on call, to help strangers in trouble. Wildboy was a kid he found and raised in the forest. Essentially, this was every kid’s fantasy — to be raised in the forest by Bigfoot. In reality, that would probably not be so great. Can you imagine? The irony…if you were raised in the forest, you couldn’t watch Saturday morning children’s television!

Magic Mongo

This one had a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Kids find a genie in a bottle, not unlike the concept of I Dream of Jeanie, but also similar to Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. The genie was played by Lennie Weinrib (who’d also played Pufnstuf) in some very uncool brown make-up.

*******

A major shift in the priorities of Sid and Marty Krofft occurred in 1976, but I was was just the right age to stay right with ’em. Essentially, they transitioned from producing children’s entertainment with puppetry and costumes, to family oriented prime time variety shows. The transition was initially very smart; they latched onto performers with heavy name recognition among their kid audience. In essence, they could build an audience that included both kids and adults. These included:

Donny and Marie (1976-79)

My sister and I were crazy about this show, which, after all starred a famous brother and sister. The entire Osmond family had been a constant presence on TV throughout the 1960s. They started scoring pop hits in the early 70s, with Donny, and later sister Marie branching off and having successful singles on their own. The songs were familiar to everybody, but of more moment to kids, Rankin-Bass had starred the Osmonds in their own animated series in 1972. This new show was very much modeled on Sonny and Cher, with songs and comedy skits, and one of the regular cast members was Paul Lynde. 

The Brady Hour (1977)

This one seemed savvier on paper than it actually played out. Like The Osmonds, the fictional Brady Kids had had their own animated kids series, which was produced by Filmation and ran from 1972 to 1973. And the original family sit com The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) was still in syndication and popular with kids. Furthermore that show had occasionally showcased the stars in comedy skits and musical numbers. So there is something logical in a producing sort of way about the creation of the show. In practice though, it seemed unfortunate. It seemed both desperate and desperately unhip — and I was only 12 at the time. They weren’t an actual musical group, nor were they comedians, nor were they even an actual family named Brady. What the fuck were they? What was this? Characteristically, Eve Plumb (Jan) was the only one with the dignity and class to sit this project out, spending these years pursuing real roles in tv movies and such. So in addition to everything else wrong with the show, there was the affront of being presented with Geri Reischl, a.k.a. “Fake Jan”, which was like getting a glass of Royal Crown Cola instead of Coke. We were like, “What do you take us for??? That ain’t Jan!” Cut us some slack, we were children. On the other hand, we are also the audience, and we took our attention elsewhere.

Pink Lady and Jeff (1980)

I wrote about this show in No Applause as “the ignominious death of the tv variety show”. “Comedian Jeff Altman and the Japanese singing duo Pink Lady (who didn’t speak English) were the theoretical draws to this program, which was memorably (even infamously) weird, but it wasn’t precisely “good”, even if it was fairly representative of its times.

Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters (1980)

This was just about where I was tuning out. These lovely country singers had their following, but this show was hardly calculated to appeal to the widest possible swath of the American public.  Grownups in my family liked it, but I had no use for it, and I doubt any other young people did either. Further, the Mandrells weren’t actors and comedians. Hardly a small point when it comes to carrying a tv variety series.

********

They Kroffts had clearly been sliding for a couple of years but this is about where the magic appears to have definitively evaporated and they were no long clicking either with audiences or getting green lights from networks. Their last variety outing during this phase was a 1981 variety special starring Anson Williams (Potsy from Happy Days) and his wife.

This is the end of the Sid and Marty Krofft I grew up with. By the time they returned in the mid ’80s I was an adult and fairly uninterested in anything they were coming back with, although I was vaguely aware of some of it. For example, there was Pryor’s Place (1984), a children’s show starring Richard Pryor! From a certain perspective, in conception it’s not too different from Bill Cosby’s earlier show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. But Pryor is SO associated with profanity, I never thought of the concept as anything other than a punchline.It’s like having a stripper jump out of the cake at a kid’s 8th birthday party.

But mostly the Kroffts seemed to have lost their voice at this stage; there wasn’t much focus to the things they were trying. There was a rock and wrestling show for kids in 1985; a variety special with Patti LaBelle that same year; and a syndicated political satire sketch show starring Fred Willard and a bunch of puppets called D.C. Follies (1987-1989).

In more recent years there have been the re-boot of Land of the Lost (2009) with Will Ferrell, a new series called Mutt and Stuff (2015) and the reboot of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (2016)!

Milberger on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by travsd

We enjoyed the pilot of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a great deal — in fact, enough to write our own review. But we knew someone who could write a better one: multi-talented actress, comedienne, screenwriter/playwright, podcast host, comedy scholar and Gracie Allen expert Lauren Milberger.  Her Gracie Allen guest post here five years ago is in our all-time top 25! I just knew she’d have great things to say about the new show, and she did. I turn you now over to her:

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: A Woman in Redux

Many people would consider the modern Golden Age of Comedy to be the 1950s and 60s, when what we know today as stand-up became all the rage and television was in its infancy. When the comedy from vaudeville finally had its eyes back again (after years of being in the dark with radio) and was able to take its experience to mint legends for the ages. Television turned night club raconteurs into instant celebrities, thanks to the likes of Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan and soon – the king of them all – Johnny Carson. But except for Lucille Ball, how many women from this era have seen their strengths and struggles dramatized, their stories told? For all the plays, films and TV based on Neil Simon, Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner’s fond memories of the 1950’s classic sketch show Your Show of Shows (and later Caesar’s Hour), sporting a writing staff that included most of the comedy legends for the latter part of 20th century (Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, etc.), where are the stories solely about Lucille Kallen or Selma Diamond? Where are the lavish odes to Madelyn Pugg, who wrote most of I Love Lucy’s classic episodes and who was given the moniker of “Girl Writer” because of the oddity of such a thing at the time?  Because for every Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Alan King, Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor, there was a Joan Rivers, a Moms Mabley and an Elaine May. Today, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are household names, but the female narrative of comedy they came from seems mostly forgotten or glossed over. That was until Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino gave us the new Amazon pilot The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells the story of Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), whom we first meet at her wedding reception, doing stand-up (unbeknownst to herself) and regaling her family and friends with the cleaned up version of her 1950’s teen life at Bryn Mawr College. Four years later, Midge has two kids and the seemingly perfect New York Upper-West Side Jewish life of 1958, and one would assume to find her spending her nights in Greenwich Village trying her hand at stand-up comedy. However, this is 1958 after all, and Midge is just a “housewife” making brisket, worried about keeping her figure and beauty for her husband – all while having time to prepare the perfect Yom Kippur break -fast for the Rabbi and for her family. It’s only when a family crisis (which I won’t give away) sends Midge’s “happy life” into upheaval that she finally discovers that she is the talented stand-up in the family, not her wannabe husband. A talent that, based on the synopsis, will take Midge all the way to Johnny Carson’s couch – the pinnacle and seminal moment for stand-ups of her generations.

Within the short pilot, Sherman-Palladino is able to establish Midge as a smart, confident and funny female who knows what she wants, even if it took her 26 years to know that she, as a woman, could achieve it. Midge belongs in the company of other Sherman-Palladino heroines: a witty, fast-talking brunette you want to root for. What the pilot also does well is establish the obstacles Midge will be up against in her upward rise to fame. The fact that Midge didn’t even expect herself to go into comedy, that it was her husband’s job, is a red flag on its own; but what the pilot does best for a layman of this era is to establish this pre-feminist environment Midge will have to push against to succeed. Midge, for example, keeps a journal of all of her measurements, something she has done since she was a child, and even goes so far as to hide her night beauty regiments from her husband to make him believe she wakes up with perfect hair and make-up – behavior that appears to have been passed down from her own mother who in the pilot worries her baby granddaughter has too big of a head and bemuses that her daughter is officially done wearing sleeveless dresses. Even Midge’s own father blames her for her husband’s failings – something that even shocks Midge. Sherman-Palladino’s music choices, as with Gilmore Girls, do a wonderful job to establish mood, tone, and style of the time period. Paired with the vibrant colors and sets of 1958 New York City, it all makes the audience feel like they’ve stepped back in time.  What you ultimately get with Mrs. Maisel is the fast, witty dialogue of Gilmore Girls mixed with the epic scope and social commentary of Mad Men, and a comedy history lesson to boot.

Along the way Midge meets Gilmore Girls alum Alex Borstein who plays a hardened (West) Village bartender Susie at the comedy club “The Gaslight Cafe “ – which appears to be a fictitious stand-in for “The Bitter End”. Susie sees the rare comic talent in Midge, comparing her to Mort Sahl (an icon in his day). Finally at one point Susie tells an unsure Midge, “I don’t mind being alone. I just do not want to be insignificant. Do you? Don’t you want to do something no one else can do? Be remembered  as something other than a wife… a housewife…” – a universal question women, hell, humans ask themselves. It resonates with Midge as it did me and it pushes Midge to take the first steps to go after her own dreams with as much gusto as she put into making a brisket or we can only imagine she put into getting back in her Rabbi’s good graces. It’s fitting that what will one day became one of most important day in Midge’s life takes place on Yom Kippur. It is a day of atonement of sins, yes, but is also a day of starting over. Of re-birth. Of having your sins forgiven and wiping the slate. (In fact, she literally ends the day wearing wearing someone else’s shoes)

Also making an appearance are The Kingston Trio and, in a more substantial role, Lenny Bruce himself (played wonderfully by Luke Kirby), establishing that there are rules to this world (which includes being arrested for indecency) and that being innovative means sometimes you have to break these rules.  Every actor in the pilot is a knockout, led by the adorably charming Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, and (as Sherman-Palladino always does) casting stalwart actors such as Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge’s parents.

For me, what really struck home this piece in my heart was not just that it was about a woman who will pioneer comedy, but that this is the story of a Jewish woman in comedy. See, a short time ago I had a revelation. And hear me out, here. It may sound crazy… but… as a Jewish woman I feel unrepresented within the comic Jewish narrative. No seriously I do. Think about it… 99.9% of what we know as the traditional comic Jewish persona is male driven. And I don’t just mean this in the sense that this narrative is mostly populated by men. What I talking about is the ideas or tropes that are usually identified as the classic heritage of Jewish comedy, or voice, comes from the point of view of a strictly male narrative. The style, the attributes, what consolidates a comic Jewish stereotype – from Alan King to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld. And yes, this is a history that stems all the way from the ethnic comedy of vaudeville to the dining rooms of the Catskills “Borscht Belt,” so of course it comes from a male dominated society.  But for me it was a persona I had adopted as my own, that I thought I was a part of. It wasn’t until I saw more of myself in the works of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh-McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) writing actual Jewish women that I started to notice it more: I wasn’t represented. Where I had previously thought I saw myself in the worlds of Allen and Seinfeld, and even Aaron Sorkin to a degree, I only had to take a step back to see that alongside their “Jewish avatars” were mostly goyisha women.  And that when any token Jewish women actually appeared, they were nags or annoying stereotypes with funny voices for laughs.  And yes, to a non-New Yorker, Midge has a funny voice, but what her voice is in so many ways authentic. Here is a familiar, confident, Jewish woman I recognize. And this is a good thing not just for seeing myself represented in the narrative, but also for what it does to the public at large. To show that we aren’t just jokes and nagging mothers in a punch-line. Or bad dates their mother sets them up with. We are also part of this heritage of comedy. And I think there is no better person than Amy Sherman-Palladino (whose own father was a comedian during this era) to use her own Jewish voice to tell us all about Mrs. Maisel and how she made it to the top of comedy. So I recommend you watch this pilot and vote for it to be picked up for series (or else it won’t, that’s how Amazon works) And if the male in your life or the ones reading this still aren’t sold on  “Mad Men/ PunchLine for chicks” … just tell ‘em there are also tits in it. 😉

 

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. (Some of have suggested an arrest record for prostitution, as well). 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 we 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).

 

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.

The Many Roles of Melvin Allan, I Mean, Allan Melvin

Posted in Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of tv character actor and voice-over artist Allan Melvin (1923-2008). Don’t shout out just yet where you know him from — the odds are quite good that you know him from more than you are remembering where you know him from.

After attending Columbia University and fighting in World War Two, Melvin won first place on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (he was skilled at impressions, among other things.) His break was a role in the original Broadway production of Stalag 17 (1951-1952), which lead to his getting cast as Henshaw on Sgt. Bilko (1955-1959) with Phil Silvers:

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Then he was the voice of Sgt. Snorkle on the short-lived 1963 Beetle Bailey cartoon show (and wrote two episodes!):

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He provided the voice of Magilla Gorilla on various Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows from 1963 through 1994. Can you match the voice with the visage?

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Then he found himself back on another service comedy, as a semi-regular on Gomer Pyle USMC (1964-1969), playing Charlie Hacker, Sgt. Carter’s rival:

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In 1969 he provided the voice of Drooper (the lion) on The Banana Splits:

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Next he was Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), which I’ll just bet is his best known character nowadays:

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And also he was Barney Hefner on All in the Family (1971-1979) and Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983).

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This must be some kind of record for being a series regular, right? (I ask rhetorically, I’m uninterested in learning the factual truth about who the record holder might be). And we haven’t even gotten to all the shows on which he (or his voice) did frequent guest shots (The Flintstones, The Andy Griffith Show, Love American Style), and dozens more. And all the tv commericials.

He just had the perfect face and voice — “ordinary” is what they used to call it, but that’s wrong, because actually his persona was far more memorable than so many so-called “leading man” types.  If you’re bland and forgettable, isn’t that ordinary? Anyway, you know his face and voice. You should know his name: Melvin Allan — I mean, Allan Melvin.

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