A FEW FORGOTTEN AMERICAN IDOLS
gives nemesis Jack Benny
a playful kiss in a scene
from "Love Thy Neighbor,"
a 1940 comedy inspired
by their mythical "feud."
Allen, one of radio's
most original comic voices,
is virtually unknown to
Time is leaving behind
these once-famous names
By GERALD NACHMAN
As we sink deeper each day into the nations increasingly junk pop culture, where American idols are anointed weekly and timed to self-destruct a week later, were neglecting the true American idols of the not-so-distant theatrical past. Today, of course, the past is 2005 and 20 years ago was a now swiftly melting Ice Age.
To kick things off, I thought Id mention a few criminally neglected legends, true American idols that have been relegated to near oblivion. My charter candidates for desperately needed restored glory are: Eleanor Powell, Maurice Chevalier, Molly Picon, Robert Benchley, Jimmy Durante, Ida Lupino and Fred Allen. But thats just a sampler.
For anyone my age (late 60s), most of those names may have dimmed a little but theyre not forgotten, yet mention any of them to somebody under 40 and youre likely to be met by a blank stare--unless that somebody has a show business connection. To the average American, formerly giant figures like Powell, Chevalier, Picon, Benchley, Durante, Allen and Lupino are not just dead, they never lived. Each has been consigned to the celebrity ash heap, living on, not in deserved posterity but in showbiz oblivion.
If pop idols and megastars can be manufactured out of nothing, it figures that the true legendary figures of yesteryear are doomed to an equal fate, despite their vast and demonstrable talent and a lifetime of not just mere fame but measurable artistic greatness. Todays American pop life is cheap.
To you and me, of course, its crazy and depressing to think that Durante and Chevalier no longer flicker in vivid memory, but the sorry fact is that, generally, they dont--even though Durante had a blip of renewed recognition on the sound track of Sleepless in Seattle. Durante then slid back into benign neglect. Chevalier resides in the mass memory, if at all, as that old guy in Gigi.
Those are the two best known of my seven discarded idols, hanging on for dear life to their once huge legend when they were as at least as big as most big stars today. Think of a mighty contemporary name--Tom Hanks, Britney Spears, Chris Rock. Now multiply it by 10 and you have Fred Allen, Eleanor Powell or Robert Benchley in 1943. A few savvy Americans under 40 might know the references but chances are they wont know the work of these legends during their long, prolific and remarkable careers.
At left, the young Molly Picon; at right, Fred Astaire with Eleanor Powell in their only picture together, "Broadway Melody of 1940," featuring their classic "Begin the Beguine" dance.
Molly Picon was a special case--a megastar in the Yiddish theater and too few films--but she twinkled like the North Star in that long-gone galaxy on New Yorks Second Avenue. Stage stars who failed to stake out a claim in movies are the most fragile commodities of all, for all we have are glowing memories, and when the people with those memories are gone--poof! go all of these once formidable stage presences doomed to lie dormant in still photos and library archives, not much of a legacy. Film and TV seem to be our only national memory.
What ignited my own probably futile reclamation effort to resuscitate a few forgotten idols was a recent screening of a new documentary by Rachel Talbot, Making Trouble, about six legendary Jewish women in comedy, one of whom was Molly Picon, whom I knew little about and had seen even less, glimpsed only in fleeting old film clips.
I was not prepared to be so enchanted, indeed infatuated, by the young Molly, an incredible charmer in her youth with big dark mischievous eyes and a sweet antic persona--a beguiling imp of enormous charm you simply fall in love with on first sight, even before she opens her mouth. Out of curiosity, I checked out a CD, From Avenue A to Broadway, an album of Yiddish-American music hall standards from the 1920s. Picon sings two songs, one of which, Hot Dog, captures her infectiously jaunty vocal style, but you really need to see her to get the full amusing Molly.
I only (barely) knew Picon from her middle- and twilight years, as Yenta the matchmaker in the film of Fiddler on the Roof and a few TV appearances way past her prime, when she was a singing, dancing dynamo, a sort of girlish Yiddish Charlie Chaplin--cute, funny and incredibly engaging, a more winsome Fanny Brice. Brice is also featured in Talbot's film and still recalled as a legend by the world, mainly because of Barbra Streisands version of Brice in Funny Girl, but Molly Picon, alas, is just gone.
The sad truth is that, if a stage or TV star--or even a recording star--is not also a movie star, their legend is doomed to vanish soon after they do. Many a mediocre movie star is granted homage in perpetuity because theyre in movies, while others twice as much worth remembering--Picon and Fred Allen, say--languish in oblivion. She made a few modern Hollywood films, but is wasted in Frank Sinatra's Come Blow Your Horn and Barbra Streisand's For Petes Sake. On stage, she had a late-life revival in Milk and Honey, A Majority of One and How to Be a Jewish Mother on Broadway (her son was played by Godfrey Cambridge!), and in a Boston company of Hello, Dolly! she could still strut her considerable stuff.
And even if a forgotten idol made a lot of movies, like Powell and Lupino, if the movies were not legendary, the stars have labored in vain, longevity-wise. Powell and Lupino starred in very few films that live on in Alzheimer-afflicted public memory.
At left, the young, very pretty Ida Lupino. At right, Lupino had begun to play dangerous
women in "They Drive By Night" (1940), playing a role rejected by Bette Davis: A two-timing woman trying to vamp trucker George Raft.
Ida Lupinos series of solid B, mainly noir, movies, are well known only to cultists and film noir fanciers. Lupino, one of the first American woman directors for major studios (she only directed six movies but inspired women directors-to-come, like Lee Grant), seemed to wind up with the movies that the A-list stars--Davis, Crawford, Stanwyck--declined. Lupino was the thinking mans sex kitten, a woman of not just clingy sweaters and a challenging gaze but clear intelligence and a tough sensitivity. Like Davis, Crawford and Stanwyck, Ida was not a woman to be trifled with lightly.
Lupino made a dozen or so movies highly prized by film mavens, but very few are in the American Film Institutes pantheon. Its hard to think of a famous movie starring Ida Lupino (maybe High Sierra and They Drive by Night), but she always delivers a compelling performance and could play almost anything--from a hardboiled dame to a stuttering country girl.
In June, Turner Classic Movies featured Lupino, a superb chance for movie dilettantes like me to catch up with one of the great neglected screen actresses. She had a lengthy TV career, both acting and directing, plus a series with husband Howard Duff, Mr. Adams and Eve, as Nick-and-Nora-like sleuths; Lupino made her last TV appearance on (yes) Charlies Angels in 1977.
Eleanor Powell is another all but forgotten movie star, but at one time--the late 1930s and early 1940s--she was the best female dancer in movies despite formidable competition from the far more glamorous Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse contingent. Powell wasnt much of a singer or actress, and she was only teamed once with Fred Astaire (in "Broadway Melody of 1940") but, for me, she steals the spotlight even in her Astaire duets; you actually watch her, not him (I do, anyway).
If youve not seen Eleanor Powell, shes a revelation in the Broadway Melody series, where she shines, whether clicking out a Tommy-gun tap sequence in rehearsal shorts or later gliding across an Art Deco set with Astaire in a slow, romantic, sensuous version of the same tune.
Astaire is brilliant, for sure, but Powell sparkles with a natural vivacity other female screen hoofers lack. Rogers, Hayworth and Charisse may be more theatrical, but Powell is more real, more basic, effortless. She and Ann Miller were rivals, but Miller is an automaton while Powell is an adorable titan of tap, with girlish head tosses and a joyous abandon that makes her unique. She exudes sweetness and understated charm.
At left, humorist and comic actor Robert Benchley; at right, a young Maurice Chevalier
with voluptuous Jeannette MacDonald in the 1932 musical classic "Love Me Tonight."
It was said that the studios couldnt find a male dancer in Powells league so she wound up with lots of partners--often George Murphy. Astaire may well have felt she equaled, even overshadowed, him. She and Gene Kelly would have been a perfect pairing. Powells moment passed quickly after World War II. She married Glenn Ford and had a brief TV career hosting a religious program, her shining hour come and gone.
Fred Allen had, as they say, a great face for radio, where he was a comic legend along with Jack Benny, his famous mock-feuding rival. Allen made a few films, including two with Benny, but his hangdog, pickle-puss countenance wasnt as amusing to moviegoers as his dry, twangy radio voice and sardonic, wisecracking on-air persona. Apart from hosting several major radio variety shows, he also wrote all of his own weekly radio scripts.
FRED ALLEN, right, plays a
scene with Ginger Rogers and
Victor Moore in the 1952
all-star comedy "We're Not
Married." Allen and Rogers
play a feuding husband-wife
radio team who discover
their marriage by rookie
Justice of the Peace Moore
To me, Allen had a sublime funny face that perfectly suited his satirical wit, but he couldnt act. In his best-known movie, O. Henrys Full House, hes cast opposite Oscar Levant in one of five O. Henry classic short stories, The Ransom of Red Chief--inspired casting. His other films are forgettable, and he loathed television, which he failed to master, but some of his best zingers were directed at TV (the box vaudeville was buried in; he called a fruit basket atop a hotel TV set the best thing I ever saw on television). His sole TV impact was as a panelist on Whats My Line? - his last gig, by which time his legend had begun to diminish.
To radio babies, however, Fred Allen was a giant whose sharp-tongued satirical take on American life in the 1930s and `40s was as incisive as anything in print or celluloid, but the TV generation has absolutely no memory of Fred Allen, who has all but evaporated into radios thin air, an American broadcasting idol reduced to dust. Its as if one of the faces on Mt. Rushmore were to gradually erode over time.
Robert Benchley had an iconic career as a humorist and comic actor equaled only by Woody Allen in our time. Few today under 50 know his name, though hes invariably included in any account of the Algonquin Round Table, where he was a regular member, indeed a founding diner in the hallowed luncheon group that met to eat, drink and toss off bon mots that turned up in gossip and show biz columns. (Two of the regulars, Franklin P. Adams and Alexander Woollcott, were columnists, and it was later said that some of those ad lib witticisms were written and rehearsed for publication.)
Like Woody Allen, Benchley was a brilliantly funny essayist and actor who made a series of movie shorts (How to Sleep won an Oscar) he adapted from his pieces, and he pops up in all sorts of screen comedies, usually holding a drink. He never directed, like Woody Allen, but was otherwise as celebrated in his day as Allen, even appearing in advertisements. He had a radio show and was a constant guest on other programs until his much-too early death in 1945 at 55, after which Dorothy Parker said, The partys over.
Parker, his lifelong pal, lives on in anthologies and The Portable Dorothy Parker, yet Benchley is almost forgotten--his work, anyway, despite a dozen collections with titles like The Benchley Roundup, perhaps still in print. His earlier stuff is brilliant, collected in books like My Ten Years in a Quandary, Chips off the Old Benchley and The Early Worm. Apart from all that, he was a longtime theater critic for The New Yorker and the originator of the magazines Wayward Press department that A.J. Liebling inherited and made much of his reputation writing.
One reason Benchley has been forgotten as a major American humorist is that, unlike Parker, James Thurber and S.J. Perelman, he never wrote fiction, and his gentle essays are rarely read now even though he had an enormous influence on nearly every humorist who came after him. He had a gentle, whimsical touch (Woody Allen called his pieces as delicate as souffles), too gentle for our own far rowdier, raunchier comic era. The pieces are both topical and universal, satirical and incisive, all of them tossed off nonchalantly. In his wry theater reviews, he can be cutting without drawing blood, somehow able to denounce lousy plays and actors in a tone of rueful disappointment.
Long before Thurber, Benchley created the comic everyman, the Little Man who is inept at nearly everything but muddles through somehow. But he elevated the archetype beyond Walter Mitty: his everyman wasnt a schnook or a nebbish but an intelligent guy simply unable to cope with modern life. Benchley dealt with everyday trials and tribulations but was equally deft at lampooning the pompous and fatuous. He was a devastating, pitch-perfect parodist (of opera notes, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Life magazine expeditions, you name it). Nearly all of which, alas, has been lost. Nobody much reads Benchley anymore, but its not his fault.
Maurice Chevalier, along with Jimmy Durante, is the only one among my seven legends with even a vestige of his original renown. Both made scores of movies but few are still remembered--Chevalier in Gigi and his best movie by far, Love Me Tonight, playing a French tailor opposite Myrna Loy and Jeanette MacDonald in one of the most winning all-time black and white movie musicals, but known to few except film mavens. Love Me Tonight is easily the best use of a Rodgers & Hart score in any movie, directed with style and wit by Rouben Mamoulian; its a screen musical jewel.
Chevalier hangs on now, but just, his mesmerizing presence fading by the day, yet there was no more charming singer of stage or screen. For Americans of a certain age, he personified all that was French before that became a loaded word. Younger Francophiles mocked him as a cliché--and maybe he was but he was an enchanting singer and gifted showman whose sunny presence is impossible to resist even today--especially today.
I saw Chevalier toward the end of his career, in his 80s at San Franciscos Masonic Auditorium, and he had the audience eating out of his hand in moments. Even the simplest gesture--he was a performer of great economic efficiency--brought you pleasure and made you grin when he doffed the trademark straw hat, stuck out the famous lower lip and rolled his lover-boy eyes. Chevalier embodied a performing credo now rare to find anywhere--in the words of Kander & Ebb, he gave `em the old razzle dazzle.
Jimmy Durante was of that same vanished school of knock-their-socks-off performer, maybe the most indelibly etched of my seven faded American idols. Durante had the misfortune to make scads of forgettable movies--hes never forgettable but the films are, even the best of them, like It Happened in Brooklyn, where he sings a duet with Frank Sinatra, The Songs Gotta Come from the Heart, the Durante mantra.
JIMMY DURANTE plays
a wacky radio star in
the 1934 comedy film
Here he does a bit
with Lupe "Mexican
Spitfire" Velez in
Durante, whom I also saw toward the close of his collossial career, was--even more than Chevalier--a one of a kind showman who never failed to charm the birds out of the trees, if not the trees themselves. Durante, then in his mid-70s, deserves to be far more prominently enshrined in the public consciousness than he is. Among those who saw him, he remains an indescribable presence, a lovable comic anarchist who lived by his own performing rules. In the words of his longtime partner, Eddie Jackson, You could warm your hands on this man.
Jackson--the original member of the Clayton, Jackson & Durante team that broke up clubs in their heyday in the `30s and `40s--actually did a few numbers with Durante in the show I saw, strutting with snappy top hat and cane opposite his beautifully disheveled partner in rumpled suit and battered fedora. You truly had to see Durante to believe him, but he even carved out a niche in radio as well as in nightclubs and movies.
The clubs are gone, his movies largely lost (with titles like Two Girls and a Sailor and Blondie on Broadway), but the raggedy voice lives on in CDs, as much a part of his personality as his mythic nose, snaggle teeth, bald head, tiny eyes and penguin walk, flapping his arms against his thighs or waggling his head in profile. Whether belting comedy songs or crooning ballads (Try a Little Tenderness, As Time Goes By), his sandpaper voice is as endearing as George Burnss or Louis Armstrongs.
Durante was a marvel to behold, whether breaking up a piano or breaking up the language with his malapropisms (Its a ca-tas-tra-stroke!), his trademark phrases, still quoted (Everybody wants to get into da act!, Im surrounded by assassins! and I got a million of `em--a million of `em!) and his nonsense songs--most famously his theme song Inka Dinka Doo, not to mention, I Ups to Him and He Ups to Me, Im Jimmy the Well-Dressed Man, I Can Do without Broadway but Can Broadway Do without Me? (make that, I kin do widdout Broadway ), I Read a Book and Umbriago.
George Burns said Durante had the best finish of any act on TV, strolling into the distance, stepping from spotlight to diminishing spotlight, then doffing his hat as he uttered his famous mysterious farewell, Good night, Mrs. Calabash--wherever ya are. Nobody ever figured out who Mrs. Calabash was, but it didnt matter; she was all of us who adored Durante, who in his prime was a glorious, never-to-be matched life force.
Hard as it is to realize, and to accept, the reputations of these magnificent seven now gather dust despite long, rich, varied careers reduced to three-second film clips on retrospective shows, unrecognized by generations born too late to enjoy their legacies unless they stumble on an old film or an ancient recording. For anyone curious who has little or no memory of these vivid American idols, here are a few good starting places:
For Molly Picon, begin with Trouble Makers, the new documentary that features her--and, if you can find it, Yiddl mit a Fiddl, a Yiddish classic in which Molly plays a young boy decades before Streisand stole the idea in her embarrassingly bad version, Yentl. Picons songs dont require translating and youll be transfixed by this Jewish Shirley Temple). The aforementioned Love Me Tonight recaptures the essential Chevalier; any of Fred Allens old radio shows, available from Radio Spirits.com or in comedy box sets at Borders, memorabilia shops and Web sites.
Ida Lupino did some of her best work in The Big Knife, High Sierra, They Drive By Night, Out of the Fog, and The Hard Way, a savvy, little-known gem about backstage life in which she plays a conniving sister pushing her sibling to the top; shes also a cunning villainess in Ladies in Retirement. Robert Benchley is funnier than the cameo comedy stooges he played in films like Foreign Correspondent (look instead for the movie shorts he wrote and starred in, like How to Sleep and The Sex Life of the Newt, maybe available from Netflix or Amazon.com. Durante doing anything is beguiling but hes best in The Kid from Brooklyn, Jumbo and Little Miss Broadway, or even funny not singing in The Man Who Came to Dinner as a wacky Harpo Marx type he makes his own. His last film was Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, a pretty bad bad bad bad comedy but he brings his few lines to life.
©2007 by Gerald Nachman. The Nachman caricature is ©2000 by Jim Hummel. The photos are from internet sources and the collection of Ron Miller. This column first posted July 2, 2007.
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