Archive for theater

Ten Tramp Comedians

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

This weekend is the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I have always been partial both to the hobo ethic itself (I’ve been working on an essay about that very thing for a while now) and the image of the Tramp Comedian or Clown. The first costume I can recall ever wearing was a tramp/clown get-up for a Halloween parade when I was about four years old. It captures the imagination — the rootless wanderer, riding the rails, hitting the road, no ties, bindlestiff on his shoulder. Samuel Beckett put a core of such characters at the center of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the first non-children’s show I ever saw in a theatre. And it’s the theme of one of my favorite terrifically strange movie musicals Hallelujah I’m a Bum

The theme is romantic, sentimental. And, in the hands of the right comedian, it is funny. Here’s a handful of some prominent ones from vaudeville, circus and films (there were scores, maybe hundreds of others besides these). Just click the links below to learn more about the performers.

Charlie Chaplin

Tramp comedians had long been popular in vaudeville and music hall when Chaplin decided to take his screen character in that direction, thus becoming the most popular tramp in the entire world. Not only were there other tramp comics in the world, but there were several that looked like Charlie’s. Chaplin was said (by some) to have taken his took from Billie Ritchie ; in turn Billy West stole his look and act from Chaplin.

Nat M. Wills

Billed as “The Happy Tramp”, Wills may well have been America’s most popular stage tramp from the turn of the century to his untimely death in 1917. He was a star of vaudeville, Broadway, and some of the very first comedy albums.

Harrigan

Harrigan was widely emulated in vaudeville from the late 19th century through the early 20th as the first tramp juggler. 

W.C. Fields

One of the many to emulate Harrigan early in his career was the young W.C. Fields, shown here in his tramp get-up around the turn of the century

Emmett Kelly a.k.a Wearie Willie

Circus performer Emmett Kelly’s sad clown make-up and costume were so much imitated it became a cliche.

Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader

Stage and screen Skelton had a repertoire of many characters; his clown “bum” Freddie may have been the most beloved.

Lew Bloom

Bloom was the first of the tramp comedians, preceding even Wills or Harrigan. He was known as “The Society Tramp”.

George Dewey Washington 

African American comedian George Dewey Washington affected a tramp look in Broadway and in films.

To learn more about vaudeville, including specialties like tramp comedians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

 

 

The Several Stages of Sylvia Sidney

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2017 by travsd

Sylvia Sidney (Sophia Kosow, 1910-1999) was born on this day. I’m an enormous fan of this Hollywood screen actress in all her phases (which we’ll describe), but first, her surprising background.

Perhaps because of the strong impression she makes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), which I first saw when I was pretty young (13 or 14), I’d always formed an idea of Sidney as pretty Anglo, subconsciously anyway. And there are some parallels in her career arc with Bette Davis (see below), who was as Anglo as it gets. But Sidney was in fact the Bronx born daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. As a teenager she began to take acting classes at the Theatre Guild to deal with her shyness. That quality of shyness, sweetness, and apparent modesty was later be a major component of her screen character, something she shared with Olivia de Havilland and Ruby Keeler. If anything, Sidney had it to an even greater degree, even if, off-camera, she could be quite a terror. Her later marriage to Yiddish theatre scion Luther Adler from 1938 to 1946 further points to her origins, as do some of her later screen roles, as in Raid on Entebbe (1976).

Sidney’s professional stage and screen debuts happened simultaneously. In 1927 she was in the Broadway revue Crime (for which she got excellent reviews) and that same year she was also an extra, along with the unknown Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sothern, in the film Broadway Nights. She was a constant presence on Broadway through 1930. After that, she continued to return to the stage sporadically over the rest of her career. Her last Broadway role was in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre (1977).

By the early 30s Sidney was already a movie star, with the apparent help of her benefactor (and lover) B.P. Schulberg. She stepped in as the replacement for Clara Bow in City Streets (1931), which made her a star; other notable pictures of the early years included An American Tragedy (1931); Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1931); Thirty Day Princess (1934), penned by Preston Sturges; the Technicolor western The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the aforementioned Sabotage and Fritz Lang’s Fury (both 1936), and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End (1937).

Sidney’s beauty was of the rarest type; her enormous eyes were both “innocent” and sensuous; her bee-stung lips reinforced the latter impression even as her tremulous voice conveyed the sentiments of a damsel in distress. These traits promised the sort of stardom she’d enjoyed in the 30s far into the future. But she developed a well earned reputation for being “difficult”. She was smart, finicky, and temperamental, and given to passionate outbursts, even given to throwing things at her colleagues. She lost the affections and patronage of Schulberg, who’d lost his stature in the industry anyway. In 1935 she married Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, but the marriage only lasted three months. She starred in only 5 films during the 1940s (contrast this with the single year of 1931, when she appeared in 4).

Starting in the 1950s her main jam was dramatic television, and she was working A LOT. In fact she worked constantly from that point until her death. And this resulted in a very strange phenomenon. Late career Sylvia Sydney was an extremely familiar face to tv and movie watchers: guest shots on prominent tv shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, roles in schlocky horror films like Snowbeast (1977) and Damien: Omen II (1978) (which is why I compared her to Bette Davis above). Tim Burton loved her so much he put her in both Beetlejuice (1988) and Mars Attacks! (1996). I knew her face well, but I never paid particular attention to her name. Thus…it took me years — decades, actually — to match the Sylvia Sidney of the 1930s, whose work I knew well, with the Sylvia Sidney of the 70s, 80s and 90s, whose work I also knew well! And then one day, a few years ago, it dawned on me while watching a film of the later period, “Wait a minute! That’s Sylvia Sidney. THAT Sylvia Sidney!” Isn’t that strange?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, unlike late Bette Davis, she didn’t get star billing in these later performances; she was usually a supporting player in an ensemble. So her name is buried in the credits. And yes, the years had changed her appearance. But also her screen character had changed quite a lot in the intervening years. Once the sweet, innocent damsel, she was now a crusty old, short tempered dame with a husky smoker’s voice. (Ruby Keeler had made a similar evolution). Making the leap would be easier, I gather, by looking at performances from her middle period of the 40s and 50s, when she worked on changing her image to something a bit naughtier, but I remained (and still remain) deficient in seeing her work from this period.

Mid-period, transitional Sidney

Ironically, in light of the hilarious sight gag Tim Burton had employed in Beetlejuice (where she smoked through a hole in her neck), Sidney died of cancer of the esophagus at age 89.

Theda Bara: The Screen’s Premiere Vamp

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

Aw, man, this late in the day this guy can still be properly fooled.

I had never probed too deeply into the background of silent screen actress Theda Bara (Theodosia Burr Goodman, 1885-1955), whose birthday it is today. Or, if I did, it was a long while back and I’d forgotten about it. I’ve long known the basics, of course. Theda Bara was the quintessential screen vamp, one of Hollywood’s top silent stars, who played all the great wicked sirens of literature and history. And she was extremely influential. Many stage and screen actresses emulated her. In my book and a blogpost I’d used a picture of the young Mae West in full Theda Bara drag early in her career. And there are great cultural bellwethers like this:

What I didn’t know — or perhaps forgot — was the extent of the hoodwink at the center of her career. I’d assumed that, much like, say, Nazimova or Pola Negri, she was an exotic foreign female from Eastern Europe or someplace. But, no. While her father was indeed a Polish Jew, Theda herself was a straight-up American girl from Cincinnati. Naturally, the movie flacks of her day put out quite different, more colorful stories about her background, that she was an Egyptian princess or something, and maybe I subconsciously swallowed that over the years. But, no, she’s much more like one of my favorite vaudevillians, Olga Petrova, a big (huge) delightful, imaginative invention, a projection, a fantasy. I love it so much when the pretend spills out beyond the stage and screen to create another dimension in the real world. Technology makes it harder to accomplish, but I think some occasionally manage.

Bara even had a couple of regular old, quotidian years at the University of Cincinnati! She did some local theatre, then moved to New York, where she appeared in the play The Devil in 1908 using the pseudonym Theodosia De Cappet. She then barnstormed with touring stock companies, returning to the New York area in 1914. That year, she got a part as a gang moll in Frank Powell’s film The Stain, made for Pathe Freres. It was Powell who discovered her and made her a star, casting her as “The Vampire” in his next picture A Fool There Was (1915), made for Fox, which was then based in Fort Lee, NJ. She became a contract player for Fox and their top star. Her screen name was adapted from her childhood nickname + a shortening of her maternal grandfather’s surname. Studio p.r. men, however, have out that it was “Arab Death”, with the letters switched around.

Maybe her best known film and the one that caused Theda Bara to relocate to Hollywood in 1917. Today all but a few seconds of it are lost

One would know more about her today if her career had gone longer and if most of her films hadn’t been destroyed in a horrible fire. Only six of her films survive in their entirety out of approximately 40, and they aren’t necessarily representative ones. Her surviving films are The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), An Unchastened Woman (1926), and two very uncharacteristic comedies for Hal Roach, Madame Mystery (1926), and 45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926). Only two of these are from the meat of her career, the Fox period. Gone forever apparently are such tantalizing titles as The Devil’s Daughter (1915), Sin (1915), Carmen (1915), The Serpent (1916), The Eternal Sapho (1916), The Vixen (1916), Camille (1917), Cleopatra (1917), Madame Du Barry (1917), The Forbidden Path (1918), Salome (1918), When a Woman Sins (1918), The She-Devil (1918), When Men Desire (1919), and The Siren’s Song (1919) — although there are plenty of publicity stills and movie posters to raise our curiosity.

“Romeo and Juliet”. Bara as a virgin?

Periodically, she did try to break out of her typecasting, as when she played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1916), and the title character in an adaptation of Boucicault’s Kathleen Mavourneen (1919), one of her last films for Fox. There was public outcry among Irish-Americans when she essayed the latter — it was considered a profanation to have a wicked woman play a part they considered sacred. Back then, it was common for the wider community to confuse screen actors with the parts they played.

Poli’s was a vaudeville circuit — it looks like they made an exception in this lucrative case

Tired of playing the vamp, Bara broke her contract with Fox, and returned to the stage, starring in the 1920 Broadway play The Blue Flame (in which, ironically she played another femme fatale), which then went on tour. She was trashed by critics, though tickets sold like crazy. Despite the financial success, she cut the tour short unwilling to endure the embarrassment any longer. I’ve read some of the reviews; they were truly mean.

In 1921, she married film director Charles Brabin. She next toured vaudeville for a while, presenting herself as a celebrity as opposed to an actress (i.e., she spoke with audiences about her experiences; she didn’t risk acting in a play). In the mid 20’s she attempted a very brief cinematic comeback, starring in The Unchastened Woman for Chadwick Pictures in 1925, and then the two comedy shorts for Hal Roach. It’s not the craziest development in the world. For example, Mae Busch had also been one of the screen’s greatest vamps, and then in middle age she wound up being one of Roach’s most dependable comedy actresses.

After this she retired for the most part, although she did do an art theatre revival of Bella Donna in 1934 (presumably in the Nazimova part), and a few isolated but high profile radio appearances. She died of stomach cancer at age 70.

For more on vaudeville including performers like Theda Bara and Mae West see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold, and 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.

Vivian Vance of “I Love Lucy”: Gave As Good As She Got

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by travsd

Vivian Vance (Vivian Robert Jones, 1909-1979) has a birthday today. I wrote about Vance’s three I Love Lucy co-stars ages ago; there’s a reason I’m only getting around to her now. Her background was quite a bit different than Lucille Ball’s, Desi Arnaz’s or William Frawley’s. Though she did appear in Broadway musicals, unlike the others she was not a creature of vaudeville, night clubs, or dance chorus lines. She was studious, serious about her art.

She was originally from Cherryvale, Kansas, where one of her childhood friends was Louise Brooks. Later she moved to Independence and studied drama with William Inge and Anna Ingleman. Next came Albuquerque, and then finally, New York, where was able to study with Eva La Gallienne. 

Her first Broadway show was Music in the Air (1932-1933); she was in the vocal ensemble. Then came two Cole Porter hits. She was in the original production of Anything Goes (1934-1935) as Babe, and as Ethel Merman’s understudy in the lead part of Reno Sweeney. (See photo above; that is a good match for an understudy). She was also in Porter’s next show Red, Hot and Blue (1936-1937), also with Merman, as well as Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante. She replaced Kay Thompson in Hooray for What (1937), and continued to work steadily on Broadway throughout the next decade, culminating with a revival of The Cradle Will Rock in 1947.

“Hands off, Grandpa!”

She moved to Hollywood after that, getting one tv part and two small roles in movies before she was spotted in a play at La Jolla Playhouse and cast in I Love Lucy (1951-57). Typically this “fourth spot” in a two pair sit-com group dynamic is the weakest one, a “last but least role” (e.g. Joyce Randolph in The Honeymooners). But Vance was bursting with liveliness and personality. To this day she has a huge fan base; she’s certainly as beloved as any of the other three. (Well, to be fair, who’s going to bat for William Fawley?)

A smile to light up a room

There was a certain awkwardness to her casting, however. Lucy was only two years younger than she was; and Frawley was over 20 years older than she. To be named “Ethel” is like a code word for “frumpy friend”. Vance had a matronly appearance and was filling out at this point in her life. Many assumed she was of Frawley’s generation, an impression helped by the occasional allusions on the show to the pair’s “vaudeville days”. Vance’s sharp way with a line, and her hilarious dismissal of Fred’s wishes on most occasion was a key part of the show’s formula, and apparently rooted in some reality. The pair didn’t like each other. He was stung by her cracks about his age, so he decided to cast her as an inexperienced, untalented greenhorn, and berated her on that basis. At that point she had been in show business for 20 years, but Frawley had been performing for over 40. So she called him a dinosaur; he called her “a sack of hammers”. This was offscreen. They disliked each other so much, Vance turned down a chance to co-star in a sit-com with Frawley. She was that glad to be rid of him.

As so often happens to tv stars, the public forever closely associated Vance with the part of Ethel, and most of her work going forward was to be Lucy-based: The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960), The Lucy Show (1962-1968), Here’s Lucy (1968-1972), and Lucy Calls the President (1977), one of her last roles. But she did occasionally get other work. She was a semi-regular on The Red Skelton Hour (1960-1964), she’s in the Blake Edwards comedy The Great Race (1965), and The Great Houdini (1976), the made-for-tv bio pic starring Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch. 

She was only 70 when she died of cancer.

How Faith Bacon, Inventor of the Fan Dance, Leaped to Her Death

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2017 by travsd

Faith Bacon (Frances Yvonne Bacon, 1910-1956) was born on July 19. Bacon started at the top as one of the most famous dancers in Broadway revues, then gradually worked her way down the show business over a period of 20 years until she made headlines one final time for her spectacular suicide.

It is said that she began dancing in Maurice Chevalier revues in Paris during the 1920s. When she came to New York, her willingness to take risks made her a favorite of Broadway showman Earl Carroll, who put her in four shows between 1928 and 1931: two editions of the Vanities, one edition of Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book, and a book musical called Fioretta.

Bacon was willing to do full nudity, an attention-getting novelty at the time. The publicity was increased by police raids and show closings for indecent exposure. Various gambits were tried in order circumvent the law. First she was presented in tableaux, totally still, with shifting light effects (the law stated that you couldn’t move on stage and be undressed at the same time). Then she and Carroll devised a fan dance for her to perform, creating an eternal question for the researcher. For, at around the same time, Sally Rand was creating her own fan dance at the Paramount Club in Chicago. Who invented it first? Did one hear about the other’s and replicate it? Did they both get the idea at the same time, a mere coincidence? Both claimed to have been the originator of the act. They both appeared at the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, each claiming to be the Original Fan Dancer. Five years later Bacon sued Rand for damages and sought an injunction to prevent her from doing the act. The legal action was unsuccessful.

In 1931, Bacon may have made a fatal career mistake by jumping ship from Earl Carroll’s Vanities to the Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld’s was the more prestigious name, but the 1931 edition was to be the last edition of the show while he lived (he died in 1932). If she’d stayed with Carroll she might have been working on Broadway as late as 1935. At any rate, after the Follies, as we said, she worked the Chicago World’s Fair, also a prominent engagement,  from 1933 through 1934.

In 1936 Bacon was dancing in a revue called Temptations at the Lake Theater in Chicago. During the run she fell through a glass platform, cutting herself badly. She sued the theatre, which eventually settled with her for a few thousand dollars.

In 1938, she landed her first and only film role in the low-budget independent feature Prison Train, which also featured Fred KeatingDorothy Comingore (soon to co-star in Citizen Kane, here billed as “Linda Winters”), Clarence Muse and Sam Bernard. The following year she performed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, although she was arrested for disorderly conduct while engaging in a publicity stunt. It is after this that her career appears to dip below the radar.

In 1942, she appeared in a couple of Soundies, including “Lady with the Fans” and “Dance of Shame” (they are presently viewable on Youtube). Through this period of the 40s, she was more what we would call a burlesque dancer, although the old burlesque circuits were a thing of the past. There were still individual theatres and clubs in most major cities devoted to the undraped female, and Bacon worked her various gimmicks, mostly the fan dance and a bubble dance, at these venues. By the end of the decade, she was also reduced to playing carnivals. In 1948, she claimed a carnival manager had placed tacks on the stage floor, and tried to sue him on that basis, but it was thrown out of court.

Now in surroundings less glamorous

According to the book Striptease: The Untold Story of the Girlie Show by Rachel Shteir she also developed an addiction to heroin, which fueled her downward spiral. At some point she was said to have gotten married to songwriter and music consultant Sanford Hunt Dickinson, whose most prominent IMDB credit is Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953). He vanished from her life at some point. According to Leslie Zemeckis in her book Behind the Burley Q, she attempted to start a dance school in Indiana in 1954, but was found unconscious on the premises, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

In 1956 Bacon went to Chicago to seek work, rooming with a grocery store employee. Unable to find employment, she finally leaped from the third floor window of her hotel to her death. She was only 46.

For more on show business history, including Broadway revues and burlesque, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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.

 

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.

 

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