The Year Was 1938 – May 24th

Alice Faye with Buster Keaton in 20th Century Fox’s Hollywood Cavalcade from 1939.
  • Buster Keaton was brought in to work with Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice on their MGM film ‘Fast Company.’ He instructs them “how to take painless comedy falls.” [The silent comedian was an expert. Though I would be concerned because he once broke his neck on a stunt in one of his films and did not know it until years later].
  • French actors (like Danielle Darrieux and Annabella) are demanding dialog coaches on their films so that their accents won’t make them unintelligible to US audiences.  Charles Boyer has done so.
  • Midgets in Hollywood have formed their own guild the Tiny Town club. [Just in time for The Wizard of Oz].
  • More than 5000 extras were employed at Paramount last week due to a heavy run of mob scenes. ‘If I Were King’ led the list with 1600.
  • Fanny Brice takes the top comedienne spot in the upcoming film from MGM, ‘Honolulu.’ Eleanor Powell and Allan Jones are the stars. [The film was released in 1939, but without Fanny Brice or Allan Jones aboard. I believe the columnist (or whomever they were talking with at the studio) confused this production with ‘Everybody Sing’ since “Funny Girl” Brice and Jones starred in this film with Judy Garland, released in 1938].
  • Rumors are circulating that Walt Disney is looking for a new mouse house [er, studio] for his cartoon characters. Studio officials state that the idea is too nebulous to even be considered as a plan.
  • Mark Sandrich ends a 9 year director hitch at RKO in August, currently directing his 6th Astaire-Rogers musical. He intends to freelance next. [The film is ‘Carefree,’ see next item].
  • Franklin Pangborn was signed today by RKO for a role in the currently shooting Astaire-Rogers film. [The fussy Pangborn had a total of thirteen films for 1938, but only two for 1939. Perhaps there was little call for Maitre’Ds and put-upon hotel managers that year].
  • Bob Burns, film and radio comic salary increases. In 1934 $1500; in 1935 $9000; in 1936 $100,000; in 1937 $400,000. [And he had invented his own musical instrument that he used in his vaudeville act and on the radio – he called it the Bazooka. The anti-tank weapon in World War Two was named after it, due to their resemblance. He had three film credits in 1938; followed by two in 1939].
  • An assistant director at Selznick-International Eric Stacey solves a problem of what to do with an old car – (a British model) – rent it to a film studio – he got more in rental for it last week than he paid for it 10 years ago. [Stacey was busy in 1939, filling in as assistant director on ‘Made for Each Other’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’].

ON THE MOVE

  • Left LA for NY – Billy Halop, Larry Fine, Moe Howard, Curley Howard, Dashiell Hammett, Al Jolson, Pat O’Brien, Joe Louis.
  • Left NY for LA – Roy Disney, Leland Hayward, Henry Travers.

Hoorah for Vaudeville #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Hoorah for Vaudeville

There is a large section in the first edition of Variety for January 1939 given over to the discussion of vaudeville. Unlike their reports on the state of film and radio which floated a generally upbeat prognosis, the future for vaudeville was looking rather bleak. Yes, it had been pronounced down and out before, but it was still with them – with even signs of a tiny resurgence. Emphasis on ‘tiny.’

Many performers in vaudeville had and were translating themselves into careers in film and/or radio. For example, Buster Keaton, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and George and Gracie Burns.

But as history has proved vaudeville as they knew it did pass from the scene.

[Aside – I have had the thought lately that it has reappeared in our age under the form and content of the reality talent shows].

One of the articles in this section entitled ‘Firsts’ by Joe Laurie jr.  enumerates for us milestones and first time acts in the world of vaudeville.

Several caught my attention and I now bring them to yours.

Michael Leavitt is generally credited to have first used the term “vaudeville.” Originally a blackface minstrel show singer in the mid 18th Century, he rose to become a theatrical entrepreneur by touring the country with US and European acts with his variety shows.  In France such entertainments were called “vaudeville.”

An early reference had a Civil War connection that captured my Civil War geekiness. “Nick Norton and Bill Emmett did the first ‘double-dutch’ act in 1864.” A double dutch act was a skit acted out by two people speaking an ethnic English, in this case German (called at the time dutch, springing from the name of their language Deutch). Humor arose from their fractured application of the language arising from their mother tongue. They would close with a song – in this instance “Going to Fight Mitt Siegel,” a reference to the Union general Franz Sigel, who led other German immigrants into battle against the southern armies in the Civil War.

Al Jolson was the first to sing on his knees. (Needing no further explanation).

Then, this oddity – “Harper & Stencil were the first and about the only double one-legged song and dance men. Harper had his right leg off while Stencil had his left. They wore the same size shoes and would buy a pair for both of them, one wearing the right and the other the left.”

“Lumiere’s motion pictures were first shown at Keith’s Union Square in July 1895.” The French brothers, inventors of the motion picture in France were here used as filler between the acts in this vaudeville house. Increasingly, this would be the case until the matter flipped topsy-turvy as vaudeville acts were used as filler in cinemas. RKO studios – (Radio Keith Orpheum) was put together with the old Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit making up its exhibition wing.

“Lew Randall the first buck and wing dancer.” I couldn’t find much on this individual, other than acknowledgements that he was first. The buck and wing is a particular tap dance style. The first time I became cognizant of the form was my viewing of “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor left me breathless with astonishment in their “Fit as a Fiddle” number early on in that film. The scene in this 1952 film is a flashback to when the pair were a couple of barnstorming vaudevillians, prior to landing in Hollywood where they landed work at the studios.

Many vaudevillians will be making appearances in this series. So, stay tuned and Watch This Space.

1928 San Francisco Stage Screen and Radio

San Francisco 1928

1928 San Francisco Stage Screen and Radio

Sometimes when you research you come up with more than you were looking for; some little fact that is odd or interesting and usually completely off topic.

Recently I was trying to find out what film titles were gracing the marquees of the movie theaters in 1928 San Francisco. I found a San Francisco publication that covered the weekly cultural events in the city. A treasure trove.

Garbo, Jolson, and Barrymore (Lionel) were some of the big names on the marquees in that time period. Jolson was in the Jazz Singer, of course. Vitaphone is listed prominently for it, so you knew it was a sound picture (the first as you may know). Gloria Swanson was in Sadie Thompson (try saying that three times fast, and try not to say that Sadie Thompson was in Gloria Swanson). And Rin Tin Tin was starring in the film “Dog of the Regiment,” and also making a personal appearance with his trainer Lee Duncan.

And speaking of personal appearances I was blown away to see that Fanny Brice was performing on stage in San Francisco that year. (Barbra Streisand portrayed the entertainer twice, once in Funny Girl [1968] and the other time in Funny Lady [1975]). And I was amused to see that the Marx Brothers were on the boards, cutting up in their play Cocoanuts.

But there I’ve went and gone off-off topic.

What I wanted to get around to was this, the publication included schedules for the radio stations broadcasting in the area. So I have a list of these stations and their call letters [KFRC, KPO, KFWI, and KJBS] should I need them for my writing project. But what was really surprising were the two radio stations that were completely out of the area, yet received in San Francisco.

They were KJR in Seattle, Washington, and KGW in Portland, Oregon. I knew KJR as a Top 40 station from my high school and college days. Back in 1928 it carried dance orchestras and concert music. I am familiar with the KGW call letters as I live near Portland. Its call letters have disappeared from the radio scene, having morphed into KPOJ (operating now as a sports radio station, a fate that KJR has also suffered).

I am wondering if the denizens of 1928 San Francisco tuned in to KGW Portland to catch Mel Blanc on air in those days before Warner Brothers snatched him up to do voices for their Looney Tunes (Bugs, Daffy, et al).