Archive for Texas Guinan

On Barbara Stanwyck: Babs of Broadway, Burlesque and the Big Valley

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

Barbara Stanwyck (Ruby Stevens, 1907-1990) is a July 16 baby. I’ve done many smaller articles about her various films as well as a book review  — high time for a full proper post, especially since there are so many aspects of her career that touch on frequent content themes of this blog. By now, I have been thoroughly steeped in her career. My wife is a major fan of hers as well, so with her largely driving the process, I’ve ended up seeing very nearly ALL of Stanwyck’s movies — and it’s a lot of movies. It includes more obscure stuff like pictures from her Pre-Code period and her late western B movies, in addition to all her well known stuff.

While Stanwyck was never in burlesque per se it would remain a part of her image through the first couple of decades of her film career. That’s less well remembered nowadays; I would imagine that, of the minority of the public who remember her at all, their first thoughts are of noir, melodramas and the tv work. (Don’t bother, as some of you will, to protest that Stanwyck has not been forgotten. Author Dan Callahan devotes a section of his Stanwyck book to talk about an informal canvas he made of millennial friends — well-educated, fairly sophisticated New Yorkers — most of whom had no idea whom Stanwyck (the highest paid woman in the U.S. in 1944) was, in even a vague sort of way. You’d be shocked to learn what major figures of the past today’s young people have never heard of. I spoke to a room full of NYU kids in the performance studies department — none of whom had heard of Mae West. But enough with the digressive diatribe.) Stanwyck’s association with burlesque occurred because she started out in a highly related occupation, as a chorus girl in speakeasies and nightclubs and Broadway revues.

Orphaned at age four, a middle school drop out, a brawler, a smoker by age nine, a runaway at 10 and 11, Stanwyck followed into her sister Mildred’s footsteps by becoming a chorus girl. She’d made a study of it, watching her sister’s performances for years, and learning the routines. When she was 16 she got her first job at the club on the Strand Roof. It is said that she was in the chorus of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1922 and 1923, although IBDB doesn’t list her there. She performed and taught dancing in Texas Guinan’s nightclubs. In 1924 she danced in the Paul Gerard Smith revue Keep Kool, which featured Hazel Dawn, Charles King, and Johnny Dooley. Through these years her room-mate and close friend was fellow chorus girl Mae Clarke, also to become a movie star in the early 30s. Both were to be cast in their first dramatic roles in the 1926 play The Noose, which had been stunt cast with real chorus girls. The play was a hit, running for nine months.

Stanwyck in “The Noose” with Rex Cherryman and Ann Shoemaker

It was at this stage that she took the stage name Barbara Stanwyck (having been billed as Ruby Stevens, previously). In 1927 she starred in the hit play Burlesque, which ran for ten months. In this show she played the leading lady of a burlesque company. Going forward she would be playing such characters, as opposed to living the life.

This might be my favorite picture of the pair. He’s trying very hard to be cheerful, and her expression says “Get me the hell out of here!”

In her first film role (and only silent one) she and Ann Sothern, played fan dancers in Broadway Nights (1927). The following year she married big time vaudeville and Broadway star Frank Fay, who was 16 years Stanwyck’s senior.  (For the longest time, I thought Stanwyck hadn’t done vaudeville. But I just came across two items on my own blog! She did a sketch with Fay at the Palace in 1929. And, as a chorus girl, she had danced in Anatole Friedland tab shows in vaudeville and presentation houses).

In 1929, Fay and Stanwyck headed out to Hollywood so Fay could appear as the host in The Show of Shows. Most people anticipated big screen stardom for Fay and a shot in the dark for Stanwyck. The opposite happened. Many folks think their story was at least a partial model for A Star is Born. Fay was an abusive alcoholic. His dreams of being a leading man in movies were dashed by 1932. By that point Stanwyck had already starred in nearly a dozen Pre-Code melodramas, including some by Frank Capra, and she was just beginning her 60 year career at the top. In 1933, Stanwyck did Fay a favor and returned to New York to appear in his self-produced Broadway revue Tattle Tales. It closed after a month. The couple divorced in 1935.

A couple of Stanwyck’s early roles, Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Ten Cents a Dance (1931) seem to hearken back to her chorus girl past, and this is an illuminating period to watch her in. She’s scarcely more than a girl here, 23 and 24, and so as a “bad girl”, there is still an emphasis on “girl”. She is like a wild, adorable, fun-loving kid in these early Pre-Code pictures. But, much like her contemporary James Cagney, who had the same combination of a show biz background and real natural acting ability, she had access to a volcano of emotion she could unleash at a moment’s notice and pretty much blow anybody else out of the water. Frank Capra, who directed her in Ladies of Leisure, was the first to recognize this potential, and starred her also in The Miracle Woman (1931) a thinly veiled expose of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, as well as Forbidden (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), and the much later Meet John Doe (1941). The naughtiest of her pre-code pictures may well be Baby Face (1933), in which she ruthlessly sleeps her way to the top, and there’s nothing subtle about it.

Racy melodrama would grow to be her meat and potatoes, even after the Production Code began to be strictly enforced in 1934. But she did re-visit the chorus girl theme in some notable later pictures. There’s the Howard Hawks-Billy Wilder screwball comedy Ball of Fire (1941) in which she plays chorus girl and gun mall Sugarpuss O’Shea. And the Gypsy Rose Lee murder mystery Lady of Burlesque (1943), in which she plays the heroine Dixie Daisey. This seems like her goodbye to the genre.

The most fatal femme fatale ever

The smoldering sexuality she had access to was channeled into subtler expression as we get into her more mature years. Her performances in The Lady Eve (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) practically cause the celluloid to burst into flames. But as early as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), the balance has begun to tip in another direction. In a lot of her later pictures she plays a tyrannical, overbearing woman, strong-willed and powerful but no longer so attractive. Instead of allure (a gaze, a mysterious smile) she substitutes chains. One wonders: can it have anything to do with her marriage to the fatally uninteresting cigar store Indian of an actor Robert Taylor from 1939 to 1951? One pictures him being not unlike the Kirk Douglas character in Martha Ivers: “Step away from the window, Bob — I wanna look at that man across the street.”

In the 50s, a lot of her movies were westerns; I blogged about them here.  She’d reinvented herself completely. From urban tough to a creature of the great outdoors. The ultimate was Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) — in which she plays a lady rancher who rides at the head of a column of 40 men at her beck and call, and goes around cracking a whip, yelling “Ya!” This wasn’t just some anomaly Stanwyck was forced into, however. She really loved making westerns. When she died in 1990, by her request her ashes were scattered over the wilderness area where she’d shot many of the films during this phase of her career.

I don’t know if anyone has written about the parallelism of Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. Both began as chorus girls. Both compensated for faded beauty by becoming tough and “mannish”. Crawford had even done a western called Johnny Guitar (1954) which compares very nicely with Stanwyck’s westerns. And Stanwyck’s last couple of movies pair VERY nicely with late Crawford vehicles: her performance in the Elvis Presley movie Roustabout (1964) would go excellent with Crawford’s Berserk (1967) which also has circus setting and features a mature woman attempting to bed a handsome young stud. And Stanwyck’s last film The Night Walker (1964) was a psychobiddy hagsploitation film by William Castle, who had also made Straight-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) with Crawford. And both women were lifelong Republicans.

“The Colbys”. Colby is a kind of cheese, isn’t it?

But unlike Crawford and almost every other actor of her generation, Stanwyck managed to add a third act to her long career. Almost every classic studio era movie star tried their own tv series in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Very few lasted beyond a single season. Stanwyck managed to be a staple of television until the 1980s. In fact that was how I first knew her — she was just a contemporary tv star. We saw her in reruns of he western series The Big Valley (1964-1969), and my mother watched her in the prime time soaps The Thorn Birds (1983), Dynasty (1985), and The Colbys (1985-1986.) She’d also had an earlier program The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961). She won three Emmys during this phase of her career.

And above all there is this wonderful discovery, this 1980 back-door pilot for a gender-reversed Charlie’s Angels, called Toni’s Boys. We blogged about that hilarious artifact here.

Even in Toni’s Boys, Stanwyck was not bad precisely. While all was stinking around her, she at least was gamely giving a performance. Could she ever be bad? I can only think of two of her performances I’m not crazy about. In the 1939 Cecil B. DeMille western Union Pacific she is called upon to speak in an Irish accent, and the results are most unfortunate (her English accent in The Lady Eve is also lousy, but as it’s a performance within a performance we can give it a pass). And for the most part, I don’t think comedy was her forte. She’s great overall in The Lady Eve, but Sturges had crafted the whole just for her, and was able to communicate to her just what to do. And she’s great in Ball of Fire. But I’ve always found Christmas in Connecticut (1945) to be fairly dreadful. Some people call it a classic, but I find it fairly unbearably. Largely because of the script — I don’t care about any of what transpires. But also because of the casting. Farces are usually funny because someone who cares what other people think desperately wants to save face, so they run around from pillar to post trying to cover up whatever embarrassments are popping up. That ain’t Stanwyck. Stanwyck was about nature. “This is me. Take it or leave it. Make your decision. The clock’s ticking.” It’s no wonder to me I’d be attracted to a movie star like that.

For more on show biz history, including burlesque, Broadway revues, nightclubs and Hollywood, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

 

Don Ameche: Started in Vaudeville with Texas Guinan

Posted in Broadway, Circus, Hollywood (History), Italian, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today’s is the birthday of Don Ameche (Dominic Amici, 1908-1993). Ameche got his start performing in college theatricals in his native Wisconsin. From here he traveled with a stock company in a play called “Excess Baggage”, and then toured big time vaudeville in an act starring Texas Guinan. (Guinan later let him go, saying he was “too stiff”, which sounds about right).

Not long after (1935), the dashing, gentlemanly Ameche began to get cast in Hollywood movies. Notable films included One in a Million  (1936), In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), The Three Musketeers (1939), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Swanee Riverin which he played Stephen Foster (1939), Lillian Russell (1940), Down Argentine Way with Carmen Miranda (1940), and the original Heaven Can Wait (1943). The Story of Alexander Graham Bell was such a smash hit that for a while “Ameche” was slang for “telephone”, although I guess people quickly realized that it’s just as easy to say “telephone”.

Ameche was also a major radio star, guesting on most of the popular shows of the day, and co-starring with Frances Langford in the sit-com The Bickersons. Today seems to be a big radio day (see today’s earlier Fred Allen post.) I’m a big fan of The Bickersons, I think it’s quite rudely hilarious, and I’m kind of surprised no one has remade it, although in a certain way ALL modern sit-coms are riffs on The Bickersons. Just Google it — there are tons of places to listen to the show online.

Ameche also appeared on Broadway a half dozen times, most notably in the original 1955 production of Silk Stockings. 

From 1961 through 1965 he hosted the NBC television program International Showtime, a show in which he gave play-by-play commentary on European circuses. He continued to act in television and films throughout the films, although work started to dry up in the early 70s. And then (as most readers know, I’m sure) his career enjoyed an impressive third act, when he starred in several successful films, Trading Places (1983), Cocoon (1985), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Coming to America (1988), Things Change (1988), Cocoon: The Return (1988), Corrina, Corrina (1994) and many others.

To find out about the history of vaudeville, and stars like Don Ameche who got their start there, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

Texas Guinan: The Westerns

Posted in Hollywood (History), Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, Movies, Silent Film, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2013 by travsd

Texas Guinan

Today is the birthday of Texas Guinan (for my full squib on that quintessential jazz age entertainer go here).  We think of her primarily today as the legendary hostess of her own speakeasy. But Guinan had an earlier career, one equally intriguing, as a star of silent westerns from 1917 to 1921. So much has changed in so short a time: When writing No Applause I despaired of ever getting to see any of these films; now many of them are available. The Mad Marchioness and I watched a bunch a few weeks ago, and they are incredible, groundbreaking. Essentially Guinan played a female western hero of the type Barbara Stanwyck would embody in the 1950s and 60s: not a damsel, not a schoolmarm, or a dance hall girl (ok, sometimes she was that), but rather she was almost invariably cast as a lady rancher, who could ride, rope and shoot alongside any man. She was cast as that rara ava because that’s what she was: though she was educated, she also acquired all those ranching skills from growing up in Texas. But some of her westerns here. 

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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Texas Guinan: “Hello, Suckers!”

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Westerns, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2010 by travsd

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Most famous for the string of prohibition-era speakeasies over which she presided, in her day Texas Guinan was also a star in films, the musical stage, and vaudeville.

She was born Mary Louise Cecilia “Mamie” Guinan on her parents’ ranch in Waco, Texas in 1884. Her parents sprang for music lessons, but as a young girl, she was equally at home absorbing the skills of the ranch hands: roping, breaking horses, shooting from a mount. She acquired her nickname at age 14 when she performed at a “Frontier Days” celebration. She studied singing at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music for two years on a scholarship, then went back to Waco for a time, trying her hand acting in dramatic companies and working the rodeos.

After an unsuccessful marriage to newspaper artist John J. Moynihan, she came to New York, where in 1906, she was cast in a play called The Snow Man. In 1908 she broke into vaudeville with an act called “The Gibson Girl”, where she applied her well-trained voice to the popular songs of the day while perched on a swing, high above the stage. She was a sort of protégé of Lillian Russell during these years, alternating vaudeville dates with roles in musicals such as Miss Bob White, The Hoyden, and The Gay Musician. While touring in the latter production, she accidentally shot herself. She made the most of the incipient press surrounding the event, declaring “Nothing – not even a bullet – can stop Texas Guinan!”

In 1917, she broke into Westerns, an inevitability given her peculiar talents. Over the next several years, film audiences could catch her in pictures with titles that managed to pack both admiration and condescension into a maximum of three words: The Wildcat, Getaway Kate, The Gun Woman, The Hellcat, The Dangerous Little Devil, and Little Miss Deputy. In the wake of Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, which set the bar higher for realistic acting, Guinan’s melodramatic style gradually became obsolete.

Based on a performance she gave at a party at the Beaux Arts Hotel, she was hired to sing and be Mistress of Ceremonies at the El Fay Club, a New York speak. Her salty tongue and saucy attitude stood her in good stead in the drunken and riotous environment of prohibition era nightclubs. She typically sat on a tall stool in the middle of the floor, rattling a New Year’s Eve noisemaker, blowing on a police whistle, and greeting patrons with the salutation which made her famous: “Hello, Sucker!” Her other popular catchphrase would follow the performance of some singer or chorus girl as she took her bow, “Let’s give the little lady a great big hand!” Guinan was like a burlesque comic, making ribald cracks and encouraging the audience to mayhem, and closely identified with the spirit of the jazz age.

Of course, along with speakeasies came raids. Guinan worked at a succession of clubs, including her own “Texas Guinan Club”, each of which got busted and permanently padlocked. She was closely identified with this ritual that she headlined a Shubert revue Padlocks of 1927, which surprisingly, flopped. In 1929, she played a character based on herself in the early Vitaphone talkie Queen of the Nightclubs.

When prohibition ended she came back to vaudeville, playing the Palace in 1932. She attempted a tour of England and France, but was refused entry into both countries because of her reputation as a criminal. She played the event for all it was worth upon her return to the U.S., calling her new show Too Hot for Paris. She was touring the Western circuits in 1933 when she collapsed backstage after a show. She died hours later of amoebic dysentery. Guinan may have been too hot for Paris…but she ought to have boiled her water nonetheless.

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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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