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): 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Million Dollar Mystery: James Cruze

Say the name James Cruze, and directing immediately comes to mind: The Covered Wagon, The Great Gabbo, I Cover the Waterfront.  While he’s best remembered for his work behind the camera, his career started long before, in front of it - and not just as daring newsman Jim Norton in The Million Dollar Mystery.  He was the most famous of all the Thanhouser actors...

…and, more than a bit of a bastard.

image courtesy Thanhouser

Born James Vera Cruz Bosen in 1884, his story was memorable (and questionable!) from the get-go:

According to a note in The BillboardOctober 1921, "Cruze is a quarter-breed Ute Indian and was born in the Uintah Indian Reservation near Vernal, Utah. His grandmother on his mother's side was burned at the stake for giving birth to a pair of twins. The Indians of the tribe considered this the performance of a witch and took those extreme measures to rid themselves of what they considered a malignant influence." It was said that James Cruze had 17 siblings. He was fond of telling different stories to different interviewers, and over the years many diverse versions of his childhood and early career appeared in print. [courtesy Thanhouser]

He left home by age 16, and began working with the Lubin company in 1910.  By 1911 he had switched to Pathe, and subsequently joined Thanhouser.  In 1913, he married Marguerite Snow, and if you’re a reader of this blog you know what a heavenly match that was.  (Hint: click the link – it wasn’t.)  Their marriage produced his only child, daughter Julie Jane Cruze.

image courtesy Thanhouser

By 1915 he’d been let go from Thanhouser:

When Edwin Thanhouser returned to New Rochelle in early 1915, he made it clear to James Cruze that his services were no longer needed with the firm, and by that time the actor was seeking a change anyway. On May 15, 1915, he and Sidney Bracy, also formerly of the Thanhouser studio, left New Rochelle with mechanic Abraham A. Meltzer and a cameraman, and headed west on a self-arranged publicity tour. [courtesy Thanhouser]

Late 1915 found him deep in debt and needing work, so he met up with Snow in California, and began a stint at Metro.  He did a lot of studio hopping, endng up at Fox in 1917.  Besides Pathe, Metro, and Thanhouser, he had also done time at Kinemacolor, Kimberley, Palo Alto, and Lasky.

Skip ahead a little to 1923.  Cruze, divorced from Snow for a year,  had just directed The Covered Wagon, which brought him much acclaim and the highest salary in the business ($6k per week).  If only his personality had been as great as his work; cameraman Karl Brown gives us a peek:

Karl Brown [stated] Cruze was a drunken, obscene, lecherous individual worthy of little more than contempt…”[he] was now completely free to indulge his own natural urges…he not only did as he pleased, he over-did every chance he got to thumb his nose at whatever is considered polite behavior among civilized people.”  [courtesy Thanhouser]

[image courtesy]

Cruze married actress Betty Compson in 1925, and by all accounts this marriage was just as wonderful as his first; the drinking, parties, and general debauchery of which he was so fond didn’t even slow down, much less stop, and the police were frequent visitors at their household.  They often split up, but always got back together.

[photo courtesy Silent Ladies & Gents]

From 1927 through 1929, Cruze started his own production company, was subpoenaed in a proceeding concerning one death and several injuries surrounding one of his films, was jailed for refusing to pay an artist for his wife’s portrait, and legally separated from Betty Compson.  By 1930, they were officially divorced, and Cruze was bankrupt.  The rest of the 1930s brought him more debt, more dead-end projects, a real estate court battle with his daughter, and heart problems. His career was officially over by 1941, which also found him married (for the third and last time) to Alberta Beatrice McCoy.  (Happily, he, Marguerite Snow, and Julie Jane were able to mend fences enough for them to be frequent visitors before his death.)

James Cruze died, almost completely broke, on August 3, 1942.  He was 58.

[Richee photo, courtesy LA Times]