Friday, January 25, 2013

5-Star Time Capsule: "The Show of Shows"

Once upon a time, sound and dialogue were added to movies, and “silents” fell to the cutting-edge “talkies”.  Studios were suddenly falling all over themselves trying to come up with the best way to feature their players with the new technology – and what better way than to have your most popular stars chatting, singing, and frolicking their pretty selves in a slam-bang celebrity variety show?

(image courtesy

MGM drew first blood with The Hollywood Revue of 1929, but Warner Bros. answered right back with The Show of Shows.  Almost their entire star roster was featured in skits, comedy shorts, and musical numbers – lots of glitter and glamour.  The extant print available for viewing today is sadly missing the glorious two-strip Technicolor (aside from the “Chinese Fantasy” number, starring a very young Myrna Loy), but it’s not hard to appreciate the effort Warner Bros. put into making this a shiny and entertaining spectacle.

You can read a full list of all the skits/numbers and their performers here, so I make no apologies for the very subjective gushing about to follow.  Without further ado:

Jennifer's Completely Biased List of Best Parts 

• Lord Almighty and Christ on a cracker, I love Winnie Lightner.  If I had a time machine, I’d totally go back to see her on the stage.  She sings “Ping Pongo” and “Singin’ in the Bathtub” …actually, she doesn’t sing.  She belts.  She shakes the rafters with that voice, loud and glorious in the Sophie Tucker/Fanny Brice vein. 

(photo courtesy Find A Grave)

Lightner was an extremely popular vaudeville star who parlayed her success into some pre-Code films (not enough!).  Plus, she was from Long Island!

• The “Meet My Sister” number is chock-full of pretty, well-costumed cultural stereotypes posed by famous sisters.  Cute, but among the expected suspects (Dolores and Helene Costello, Alice and Marceline Day, Loretta Young and Sally Blane) were two pairs that made me ridiculously happy:

Alberta and Adamae Vaughn 

(photos courtesy Find A Grave and

Cute-as-a-button Alberta started as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty and appeared in some 130 films before leaving the screen in 1935.  She worked with Harry Langdon and Stan Laurel, and was a 1924 WAMPAS Baby Star (the same year as Clara Bow).  

Her sister, Adamae, was a Baby Star herself in 1927.  Her career was much more limited, lasting only nine films, and she died at age 37 from undisclosed causes.  Strangely enough, she was in pictures first; it was only after a casting call needed a brunette that she brought along her sister.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Armida and Lola Vendrell 

(photo courtesy

The beautiful and diminutive Armida Vendrell (she was barely 4'11") started in a vaudeville dancing act with her two sisters, Lola (sometimes billed as Lolita) and Lydia.  Her talent and natural vivacity got her noticed; she started in short subjects, and by age eighteen was handpicked by John Barrymore to be the gypsy dancer in General Crack.  She was in 29 films, mostly dancing or playing typical "Mexican" roles, but never reached the big time.  

Sadly, I can't find any further info about Lola; her IMDb page only lists one Spanish-language film after her appearance in Show of Shows, and an image search only brings up photos of her more-famous sister.  

• John Barrymore doing a scene from Henry VI (Part III).  It’s Jack.  Doing Shakespeare.  Enough said.

(photo courtesy IMDb)

• The crazy, frenetic, brilliant dancers of the “Lady Luck” segment.  I tried looking them up everywhere, and I can’t find names – even IMDb only lists first names with vague “dancer” tags.  I can’t even describe how marvelous they were…oh here, just watch for yourself:

The shimmy dancer and the pseudo-breakdancing and the completely over-the-top parading around of Betty Compson (Mrs James Cruze, remember?and the chandeliers made of WOMEN!!!   In color, this would’ve been breathtaking; rainbow streamers even rain down at the end.  Sigh!

I taped this off of TCM, so if they ever show it again, run to set your DVR.  You need to see this.  (Yes, even with Frank Fay as emcee.)  You will love it!

I give this one (as if you needed to ask by now): 

1 comment:

Lauren said...

Would you believe it? I am in the middle of this movie right now (started watching it with my lunch). So far, I've enjoyed the sister number, Winnie Lightner and Lupino Lane. The number wasn't all that impressive, but Noah Beery was pretty darn perfect as a pirate captain. I was a bit disappointed that they didn't actually perform "Tell Me Pretty Maiden" during the Floradora number, though. Amazing to think that the world changed so much in the 30 years between 1899 and 1929!