Archive for vaudeville

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Comedies of Wheeler and Woolsey

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by travsd

For Bob Woolsey’s birthday, we consolidate all of our previous posts on the films of the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey into one big monster post. Looked at all at once, RKO’s star comedy team of the 1930s was surprisingly prolific. In fact, I’d assumed I’d pretty much seen all of their films (I’ve seen 15, and that seems like a lot), but I’m astounded to realize this morning that there are still SEVEN of their films together I haven’t seen (full disclosure: They are the short Oh! Oh! Cleopatra! (1931 — actually, I’ve half “seen” this one; the audio track is available on Youtube), Peach O’Reno (1931), and their last five. In light of their truly solid track record, I’ve begun to realize that their standing ought to be reassessed, for, pound for pound, they have a more consistent record of excellence than nearly any similar comedy team I can think of. Laurel and Hardy beat ’em clearly, but in just about any other case there’s an argument to be made for both sides. A topic for another time.

At any rate, herewith their films:
rita1024

Rio Rita (1929)

The cinematic debut of the team. The movie was an adaptation of the 1927 Broadway hit, starring Wheeler and Woolsey and produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The ’29 version replaced the stage Rita (Ethelind Terry) with the box-office insurance of Bebe Daniels, and the original Jim (J. Harold Murray) with John Boles

The plot concerns a bandit known only as “the Kinkajou.”  It’s set in Mexico, just over the border from Texas. Wheeler is supposed to be there to get divorced and remarried, with Woolsey as his friend and advisor. Wheeler learns that his divorce didn’t take though, so he has to avoid his new sweetie Dorothy Lee. Then the two get drunk and there’s a funny drunk scene. Then the first wife (Helen Kaiser) shows up and she’s inherited millions of dollars so now Woolsey wants her. Meanwhile Rita (who has suspected  her brother of being the Kinkajou) makes to marry a Russian general…who turns out to be the real Kinkajou, so she is able to marry her true love (Boles).  Got all that? As always there’s far too much of the dull romantic plot and far too little comedy. Fortunately future Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles nip that drawback in the bud.

Among the pleasures of this early talkie is that the last act is in two strip Technicolor, in a scene set on an implausibly large sailing ship travelling up the Rio Grande.  Like all fantasies, it’s silly, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rio Rita was later remade in 1942 as one of the first film vehicles for Abbott and Costello.

url

The Cuckoos (1930)

Ironically, this film began life as a Clark and McCullough vehicle, the 1926 Broadway hit The Ramblers. But Clark and McCullough were committed to their series of shorts for Fox — I’m sure they kicked themselves for this missed opportunity, for The Cuckoos ended up being the making of Wheeler and Woolsey, cementing their nebulous beginnings in Rio Rita into a proper screen team.

The Cuckoos is one of my favorite and one of the best Wheeler and Woolsey comedies, bringing to the table a joke-crammed script by Guy Bolton, and one of the strongest Kalmar and Ruby scores. Its only drawback is that (much like the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, which it much resembles) it is rather statically filmed and stage bound. However, unlike those films, but like Rio Rita and Dixiana, it has a two strip Technicolor sequence. Wheeler and Woolsey are terrific in their parts (even if you can’t stop yourself from imagining Bobby Clark doing the role that became Woolsey’s).

Wheeler and Woolsey play a pair of con artists who are down and out in Mexico just south of the border. Dorothy Lee is a girl whom Wheeler loves, though for some mysterious reason she is a member of a family of Gypsies. What a band of Gypsies are doing in Mexico, goes just as unexplained as why the American girl is among them. Jobyna Howland is very funny as one “Fanny Furst” (a play on the name of socialite novelist and suffragette Fanny Hurst), a rich dowager for Woolsey to romance. The show also has an obligatory pair of lovers and rivals, but the three actors are so perfunctory and stiff you can just go ahead and put them out of your mind. The real thing is the musical numbers and  the comedians, and sensing their big chance, they bring their “A” game to this film.dixiana-lobbycard

Dixiana (1930)

Dixiana was my first Wheeler and Woolsey film. W & W are the comic relief in this standard period musical, set in ante-bellum New Orleans, the main plot of which concerns the star-crossed romance between a young aristocrat (Everett Marshall) and the titular Dixiana (Bebe Daniels), the performing ward of travelling showmen Peewee (Wheeler) and Ginger (Woolsey). As he often does in their films, Wheeler gets a romantic interest of his own in the shape of shapely Dorothy Lee. The comedy and music of this film are fairly forgettable. What tends to stand out is its visual beauty, especially the film’s final third (the Mardi Gras scene), which was shot in two strip Technicolor. Joseph Cawthorn plays a stern, slave-owning plantation father; slave Bill Robinson gets to do his famous stair dance. It’s scarcely the most progressive film in the world, but at the time there was very little that would answer that description .

Poster - Half Shot at Sunrise_01

Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, the boys are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

1363940735_1

Hook, Line and Sinker (1930)

Directed by Eddie Cline. Though the comedians are in fine form, the plot of this one is very run of the mill…the sort of thing that would be remade many times over by Joe E. Brown, the Bowery Boys etc. Wheeler and Woolsey play insurance salesman who help heiress Dorothy Lee spruce up an abandoned hotel and make a resort out of it called the Ritz de la Riviera (some echoes of Cocoanuts?) Wheeler and she are sweet on each other. Her mother wants her to marry the family lawyer, who talks a good line, but is secretly a crook. He hires a bunch of murdering gangsters and a femme fatale named the Duchess to get W & W out of the picture (and steal jewels and money from the safe). But the movie contains lots of really funny lines and situations. Woolsey romances the girl’s mother. The gangsters keep trying to kill them. The moll keeps entrapping Wheeler. Hugh Herbert plays a funny hotel detective, who’s always sleeping. At the climax, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights and they confront the crooks in the dark. Machine guns, hand grenades, dynamite. In the end all is exposed, the crooks are vanquished and the heroes get rewards.

url

Everything’s Rosie (1931)

One of Woolsey’s few solo vehicles, directed by Clyde Bruckman.  Early in their careers, Wheeler and Woolsey were each tried as solo stars by RKO as an experiment and to bolster their box office value in case the team didn’t work out. Everything’s Rosie was so interesting and enjoyable to me I was tempted to store it in my DVR queue in perpetuity. I found it hilarious; I wanted to steal every joke. Yet, though it was a modest box office success in a year when the Depression caused almost every other Hollywood picture to flop, its panning by the critics was near universal.

Intellectually, I can see why. It is an almost total rip-off of W.C. Fields’ Poppy: Woolsey plays a shady but lovable circus carny with a young female ward (Anita Louise) and the plot arc is near identical (the girl falls in love with a young local rich boy, and she and Woolsey are persecuted and framed because they are showfolk.) While Fields’s film Poppy wasn’t made until 1938, he had starred in the original Broadway play of it in 1924, and a silent screen version Sally of the Sawdust in 1925. Woolsey had been in the Broadway version.  Even today, Woolsey can’t help but seem derivative, with his echoes of Groucho Marx, Walter CatlettGeorge Burns and the now equally obscure Bobby Clark (though Woolsey was much bigger star than the latter two at the time). And I can imagine that, in that day, its barrage of vaudeville one-liners (Al Boasberg was one of the writers) must have seemed passe and corny. Vaudeville was dying an agonizing death at that very moment.  But from the perspective of distance, I see only charm and hilarity. Everything’s Rosie is a film I aim to own and steal from copiously.

1364529324_2

Cracked Nuts (1931)

Directed by Eddie Cline. The film is interesting for many reasons. One is that, much like Burns and Allen’s 1939 Honolulu, the two comedians are kept separate through a great deal of the picture, to test whether they could work separately outside the context of the team. Secondly, it is the first of the zany satires set in a mythical European kingdom, setting the template for later comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). Released in trhe depths of the Depression, Cracked Nuts was RKO’s biggest grossing film of the year.

The plot? Young millionaire Wheeler falls in love with debutante Dorothy Lee during a transatlantic voyage. Her mother (Edna May Oliver) doesn’t think much of him, so he arranges to finance a revolution in her native country of El Dorania (she is vocal in her dislike of the President). Meanwhile, back in El Dorania, Bob Woolsey wins the crown of the king of El Dorania in a crap game. You do the comedy math! Also in the cast is a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff as a Revolutionary. And a sight gag by Ben Turpin!

imgres

Caught Plastered (1931)

In this one, the boys play a couple of failed vaudevillians who decide to help a little old lady named “Mother” save her drug store by having performances (including a radio show) on the premises. Unfortunately, Mother owes money to a man named Harry (Jason Robards, Sr) who convinces them to sell a certain”lemon syrup” which he supplies. The syrup is a big hit, but is laced with alcohol, which gets them in trouble with the authorities, this being the Prohibition era and all. This plot twist also explains the now obscure title of the film. It’s a play on “court plaster”, an item then found in most drug stores, and “plastered” — which everyone gets when they drink the lemon-syrup. As usual Dorothy Lee plays Wheeler’s love interest, and look for Lee Moran in a bit part as a drunk.

Oh! Oh! Cleopatra (1931, short)

An interesting beast, co-produced by RKO and The Masquers, which was like Hollywood’s equivalent to the Lambs. Apart from assorted cameos, Wheeler and Woolsey almost exclusively made features; shorts were Clark and McCullough turf. But apparently The Masquers had their own series of shorts, and Wheeler and Woolsey agreed to star in this one. For some reason, just the audio portion is available to listen to on Youtube, but it gives a flavor. A professor develops a pill that allows a person to go back in time. W & W, experience what it is like to Marc Antony and Julius Caesar (if Antony and Caesar behaved like Wheeler and Woolsey) and they cavort with Cleopatra (Dorothy Burgess). It was directed by Joseph Santley, who co-directed the Marx Brothers’ The Cococanuts. 

Peach O’Reno (1931)

I really love the title of this one. There’s the obvious wordplay, but I can just hear Bob Woolsey use that expression in reference to a pretty girl: “Man, is that a Peacherino!” Further, the film sounds like a hoot: the boys play a couple of divorce lawyers, each of whom are separately advising an estranged husband and wife (Joseph Cawthorn and Cora Witherspoon), telling them each to dally with decoy correspondents. On top of this, their law office converts into a gambling casino at night; there are some clips of this process on Youtube. I’ve seen it copied in later comedies, like Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid. And naturally, some mean guy wants to kill Woolsey for helping his wife to divorce him. Wheeler has a drag scene in the film.

girl-crazy

Girl Crazy (1932)

The film was adapted from the hit Broadway show from a couple of years earlier which boasted a book by Guy Bolton, songs by the Gershwins, and Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers among its stars. Considerable changes were made to the film version. Here it has morphed into a much zanier vehicle appropriate for this team, no date largely through the influence of adapted Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’d also had a hand in such madcap madness as Million Dollar Legs, Meet the Baron and several Marx Brothers movies (before of course his epochal contribution to Citizen Kane). Girl Crazy lost money when it was released, but I found it mighty funny.

It’s set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. At any rate, I really go for the high absurdity in these early 30s comedies. This version of Girl Crazy is one of those happy surprises that your correspondent lives to find.

It was later remade in 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

10839799_det

 

Hold ‘Em Jail (1932)

In this one, one of their funnier ones, the boys get their turn at a funny football game, in a feature directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” Here, the boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna May Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!

url

So This is Africa (1933)

Directed by Eddie Cline, written by Norman Krasna. Esther Muir plays a lady entrusted by a movie company to make a nature documentary in Africa, but there’s one hitch: she’s afraid of animals. To complete the picture ,the company hires Wheeler and Woolsey, a couple of out-of-work vaudevillians with a lion taming act (the lions are aged and toothless). They are on the verge of jumping off a ledge when we meet them. Then they try to steak a donkey for horsemeat to feed their lions. Finally the producers catch up to them. Then there is a nightclub number and FINALLY they are off to Africa for the obligatory Tarzan gags, guys in gorilla suits and Wheeler’s hook-up with the unspeakably sexy jungle woman Miss More (Raquel Torres, from Duck Soup. That’s not the only Marx Brothers borrowing. The movie contains a Strange Interlude parody notably similar to the one in Animal Crackers.). Then they are all captured by a murderous tribe of Amazon babes, but the boys are only too glad to be captured. (Amazingly, this movie avoids overt racism — sort of — by completely omitting depictions of dark-skinned people. Africa is populated by leopard-skin wearing Caucasians.)  A total eclipse of the sun arrives and the women go into their usual night time frenzy. Our heroes disguise themselves as native girls until a tribe of randy men come to seize the Amazons as their “wives”. Unfortunately Wheeler and Woolsey are taken in the dragnet. A year later they are doing laundry and we assume they have become these native men’s bitches! But in a reveal we learn they are the happy husbands of Muir and Torres.

imgres

Diplomaniacs (1933)

This crazy comedy was penned by Herman Mankiewicz who had written Million Dollar Legs and would produce the Marx Brothers early vehicles, including the similar Duck Soup. The plot starts out with Wheeler and Woolsey operating a barber shop on an Indian reservation. Since the Indians wear their hair long and generally don’t have much facial hair the shop has no business. When one of them utters the phrase “foreign relations” the boys are sent off to meet the Chief, who rides around in a limousine and has an Oxford accent. The Chief is going to make them delegates to the international peace conference on behalf of his tribe, to try to engineer world peace. There is a shipboard segment (as there always seems to be in 30s comedies) and then the last act is at the conference. The most tasteless bit has an exploding bomb blacking the faces of all the delegates – so they do a minstrel number! Contains a few likable songs.  Louis Calhern plays a scheming delegate (just as he would later in Duck Soup).

220px-Hips,_Hips,_Hooray!_FilmPoster

Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)

In this musical comedy, one of the team’s better remembered ones, (co-written by Kalmar and Ruby) the boys become salesmen for beauty magnate Thelma Todd’s new flavored lipstick. Dorothy Lee, as usual is Wheeler’s romantic interest, and Ruth Etting has a musical number (reduced from a much larger part). Numbers include “Keep Romance Alive” and “Keep Doin’ What You’re Doin'”. Check out the pre-code outfits on those Goldwyn Girls!

cv200806

Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)

Directed by Mark Sandrich. This is rated one of the team’s best comedies, and just like their previous film Hips, Hips, Hooray it pairs them with the double whammy of Dorothy Lee and Thelma Todd. And, as in the previous film the boys are masquerading as somebody they’re not. In this case it’s the king’s physicians (they’re just a couple of country bumpkins). Oh, did we mention the Medieval setting? That’s what makes it special and the movie gets much mileage out of the history gags, which put it in a league with films like Roman Scandals, The Court Jester and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. 

kentucky-kernels-movie-poster-1934-1020196987

Kentucky Kernels (1934)

This is an extremely funny movie, written by Kalmar and Ruby, and featuring Spanky McFarland from Our Gang and Margaret Dumont. It’s essentially The Kid meets The Little Colonel meets Our Hospitality meets Duck Soup meets any number of Depression Era stories. A guy tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He is caught in a fishing net by W & W. They convince the guy—who is despondent over the loss of his girl – to adopt a kid. They go to pick up the kid from the adoption agency (it’s run by Dumont). Spanky is a perfect child, except he has a compulsion to break glass. This results in much hilarity and embarrassment throughout the picture. Unfortunately the guy gets back together with his girl, leaving W & W to look after Spanky. This turns out to a blessing when it emerges that Spanky is heir to a fortune in the form of a Kentucky estate. They go down to claim it but quickly learn that Spanky’s family and another are locked in a bitter and violent feud. They are able to forestall violence for awhile until Spanky sets off the powder keg by exploding a light bulb. The last scene has the heroes trapped in the manor surrounded by scores of the enemy family. In the end they are rescued by a telegram informing them that Spanky is not a relative at all. In addition to innumerable funny lines and bits and songs, the film features the stereotypical comedy stylings of Sleep N Eat

url

The Nitwits (1935)

Directed by no less than George Stevens. In this middling caper comedy, the boys work at a cigar store. Woolsey is an inventor who has created a machine that makes anyone tell the truth. Bert is a songwriter who wants to marry his girl Mary (Betty Grable). Meanwhile a killer named the Black Widow is murdering people all across town, and  the head of a music company that employs Wheeler’s girl is being threatened by the same killer. The man is murdered, and Mary is suspected. The boys have to solve it.In the end they trick the private investigator into sitting in the truth machine—he reveals that he is the culprit.  Sleep n Eat (Willie Best) has a couple of turns. The movie feels like a precursor to endless similar comedies of the forties starring, well, everybody…

Okay here are there last few, none of which I’ve seen — once I have I’ll add to this post. Some are available on DVD, so at point I’ll get to ’em:

The Rainmakers (1935)

Drought was a topical story idea during the years of the Dust Bowl. Here, the boys take on a crook whose swindling honest folk with a phony rainmaking scheme.

Silly Billies (1936)

A western comedy, with the boys as frontier dentists!

Mummy’s Boys (1936)

A mummy comedy — two full decades before Abbott and Costello’s!

On Again-Off Again (1937)

A musical comedy in which the boys are partners in a pharmaceutical firm, who keep quarreling and want to split up but really need each other. Eventually they decide to determine the fate of the company with a wrestling match. Woolsey was already physically ailing by this point.

High Flyers (1937)

The pair’s last film teams them up with Lupe Velez, almost like a passing of the torch to the Mexican Spitire, whose own comedy series started just two years later. W & W plays a couple of phony pilot who get tricked into doing some illegal smuggling. Wheeler also does his Charlie Chaplin impression, which had been a highlight of his vaudeville act prior to teaming with Woolsey.

There are also these Bert Wheeler solo vehicles, none of which I’ve seen, but are on my to-do: Too Many Cooks (1931), The Cowboy Quarterback (1939); Las Vegas Nights (1941); and then two shorts a decade later two Columbia shorts: Innocently Guilty (1950) and The Awful Sleuth (1951) . Wheeler worked in tv til 1962.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out 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. 

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 Courtney Sisters (featuring Florence, Georgie Jessel’s First Wife)

Posted in Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

300px-grismer-4

August 11, 1892 was the birthday of Florence Courtney (Florence Grismer). With her sister Fay, she was one half of the vaudeville singing duo The Courtney Sisters. Joe Laurie, Jr. called them “one of the first great harmony sister acts”. Originally from Texas, the Grismer family moved to Missouri, and then finally to New York, where their mother pursued a career as a model and the daughters tried to break into show business.

They’re already making a noise in vaudeville by 1912; by that point they were already popular enough to feature on sheet music, like this immortal classic from that year:

In 1914, Florence married ragtime piano player Mike Bernard, a rake who had previously had an affair with Blossom Seeley, fathered children out of wedlock with a Ziegfeld girl, and was to marry two other times. Not surprisingly, they divorced two years later.

The Courtney Sisters made it all the way to Broadway, appearing in the shows The Little Whopper (1919), Blue Eyes (1921), and Snapshots of 1921. 

In 1919, Florence met and married Georgie Jessel.

1c7713c327a0d36919a38081f122114b

One gets Jessel’s side of their rocky romance in his typically self-serving autobiography So Help Me. The Courtney Sisters were big time when the Florence and Jessel got together, whereas Jessel was still kind of second tier. But that was the year his own career broke out as well. The way he paints it, everything conspired to undermine the marriage. First both husband and wife were too busy. Fay was against her sister’s marriage, afraid it would break up the act. Then Jessel was out of work and not bringing in dough. Then he was working again. Then there were affairs because they were apart. They separated almost immediately, then got a formal divorce in 1921. Then they got back together, then broke up again, then remarried in 1923.  Meanwhile, the Courtney Sisters had broken up; Florence appeared solo in five Broadway shows through 1925. Then she did retire from show business and became intensely religious, which further alienated Jessel. So they were frequently separated, she didn’t like to go out and party more, and had lost the “whoopie” energy that had attracted him in the first place. There were plenty of affairs. Still, they didn’t get divorced again until 1932. Perhaps out of spite she kept “forgiving him” which was pretty clearly what he didn’t want. He had begun seeing Norma Talmadge during their marriage; she was to be his second wife in 1934.

When Florence passed away in 1989, she had remarried; her surname was then Mayehoff.

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

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.

Charles Butterworth: Hilarious Hoosier, Sad Suicide?

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), MEDIA, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by travsd

Charles Butterworth (1896-1946) was born on this day. This low-key, subtle comic actor was sort of the quintessential screen Hoosier, playing dry, mild-mannered, vaguely distracted midwesterners at a time when that was very much in vogue in the writings of guys like George Ade, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and countless others. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, he got a law degree from Notre Dame, but immediately dropped the law to become a newspaper reporter. His circle of friends would come to include a large number of important humor writers, including Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, Cord Ford, and Frank Sullivan.

In 1924 he turned his own talents as a humor writer to the stage, becoming a comedy monologist in vaudeville. Within two years he was on Broadway, performing his act in the revue Americana. This was followed by Allez-Oop (1927) and Good Boy (1928-1929). In 1929, he performed one of his vaudeville monologues in an early Paramount comedy short called Vital Subjects, his first film.

For the rest of his career Butterworth would divide his time between Broadway and Hollywood. He appeared in Sweet Adeline on Broadway from 1929 through 1930. Then it was back to the movies. He’s little more than an extra or bit player in a couple of Barbara Stanwyck precode pictures Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Illicit (1931), but he’s used to much better effect supporting fellow vaudevillian Winnie Lightner in The Life of the Party (1930) and Side Show (1931). He’s in the John Barrymore horror picture The Mad Genius (1931), and in a killer ensemble in the highly entertaining Lee Tracy vehicle The Nuisance (1933) along with Frank Morgan, Virginia Cherrill and David Landau. From 1932 to 1933 he appeared in the Broadway revue Flying Colors with Patsy Kelly, Clifton Webb, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen and others. But mostly Butterworth worked in film constantly throughout the 30s. Directors especially prized him because, due to his writing ability, he was able to ad lib better lines than had been written for him, enriching the script.

One of his few starring vehicles (and many think his crowning achievement) is Baby Face Harrington (1935), in which he plays an easy-going, irresolute small town book-keeper, who through a series of misunderstandings, gets mistaken for being a hardened gangster. A cast that includes Una Merkel, Eugene Pallette, Nat Pendleton and Donald Meek keep the comedy moving. That same year he was 3rd billed in the classic melodrama Magnificent Obsession with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunn. He’s in the 1937 Mae West vehicle Every Day’s a Holiday (that’s the first movie I ever noted him in). Other notable films included The Boys from Syracuse (1940), the old barnstorming classic Sis Hopkins (1941), This is the Army (1943) with George Murphy, The Sultan’s Daughter (1943) with Ann Corio, and many others. His last film was Dixie Jamboree (1944).

He appears to have hit a dry spell here. In late 1945 he returned to Broadway to appear in Brighten the Corner, which ran until early 1946. Six months later, he died in a car crash on Sunset Boulevard; he’d skidded off the road and smashed into a lamp post. Some have speculated that it was a suicide, either because of his faltering career, or because he was blue over the death of his close friend Robert Benchley. I find the latter idea tough to credit. The men weren’t romantically involved; neither was gay. Butterworth had been married before and at the time was seeing Natalie Schafer (best today as Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island). On the other hand, if he was a close friend of Benchley’s there’s a good chance alcohol was involved, although that’s just speculation on my part. He was not yet 50 when he died.

To learn more about vaudeville, including monologists like Charles Butterworth, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Althea Henley: Almost a Star

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 23, 2017 by travsd

Chorus girl and actress Althea Henley (Althea Heinley, 1911-1996) was born on this day. As a girl, Henley trained as a dancer in her native Allentown,Pennsylvania. Encouraged by a teacher and a local theatre promoter, she auditioned for a chorus part in a tab musical, and began touring the Publix vaudeville circuit in 1926. Ned Wayburn spotted her and put her in his touring revue New Buds of 1927, which then led to a chorus part in Ziegfeld’s touring production of Three Cheers with Will Rogers and Dorothy Stone. This led to small roles in Ziegfeld’s Show Girl (1929) on Broadway with Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Foy, Jr. Probably through Foy or Stone, she was then cast in 1930’s Ripples, featuring Foy and the Fred Stone family.

That is she, paired with Curly on the left

Scouted while she was appearing in Ripples, she was given a contract at Fox and moved to Hollywood — where she only got bit roles and chorus parts, although she did appear in notable movies. She’s in the chorus in Eddie Cantor’s The Kid from Spain (1932), as well as International House (1933), George White’s Scandals (1934), and Redheads on Parade (1935). In 1931 she co-starred with Mary Mulhern, Jack Pickford’s last wife in a stage production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, but not much seems to have come of it.  In 1935 she signed with Columbia, where she had roles in three Three Stooges shorts: Three Little Beers (1935), Ants in the Pantry (1936) and Movie Maniacs (1936).  She then had a walk on role in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

In 1936, she got her first decent feature role in the British film Find the Lady with Jack Melford and George Sanders. While in London she married her second husband, British auto manufacturer Arthur Markham. Markham died of a brain tumor, but Henley remained in London through the war years, returning to the U.S. to marry Hollywood agent William J. Begg in 1947. 

For more on vaudeville including performers like Althea Henley,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold, and for more on classic screen comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Irene Delroy: A Star That Twinkled Briefly

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2017 by travsd

A few notes about performer Irene Delroy (Josephine Sanders), born this day in 1900. She was originally from Bloomington, Illinois; the McLean County Museum of History has a comprehensive collection of her correspondence, photographs, and newspaper clippings.  It is said that Adlai Stevenson was her senior prom date, although that has the whiff of studio p.r. puffery.

Delroy started as a dancer with the Chicago Opera. Later, she was Tom Patricola’s partner in vaudeville; the two were romantically involved. Her invented surname was arrived at by joining the first part of her mother’s first name (Della) with that of her father (Royal). In 1920 she began her Broadway career, mostly appearing in revues and a few musicals: Frivolities of 1920, The Greenwich Village Follies of 1923 and 1925, Vogues of 1924, Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, and others. She is also said to have been in an edition of Raymond Hitchcock’s Hitchie Koo series, although this credit doesn’t appear on IBDB; it may have been a touring version.  Her last New York stage show was Top Speed (1930), which was later adapted into a Joe E. Brown screen vehicle.

Delroy starred in her first film for Warner Bros., Oh, Sailor Behave! that same year (1930), with Olsen and Johnson, Charles King, Vivien Oakland, and Noah Beery. Later that year, she was second billed to Winnie Lightner in The Life of the Party, with Jack Whiting, and Charles Butterworth. Then came Divorce Among Friends (1930) with Lew Cody and her last film Man of the Sky (1931).

Believe it or not, that seems to be the end of her brief career trajectory. She retired in 1931 to marry a real estate millionaire named William Austin. Sadly, she’d sacrificed her career for nothing tangible. The couple divorced in 1937, at which time she appeared in one comedy/ musical short called Sound Defects in 1937 with the Frazee Sisters. For a few years she did radio, regional theatre, and commercials. She remarried in 1972, and died in Ithaca, New York in 1985 following a 40 year retirement.

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

%d bloggers like this: