Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fanny Brice



Note: I’ve been embroiled in moving to new digs these past couple of weeks, and have been unable to devote as much time to my blogging as I would have liked.   My apologies to those hoping for more frequent updates,  next month should see the regular 4 or 5 posts.




Today, most people know of Fanny Brice though the highly fictionalized -but Academy Award winning performances - of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and Funny Lady.   A pity, since Brice was a major star of her era, with performances worth remembering.

Brice was the stage name of Fania Borach, who was born in New York City in 1891 to Hungarian immigrants.  At the age of 17, Brice dropped out of school to work in a burlesque revue, and within a couple of years was headlining in the Ziegfeld Follies.


Brice in 1910 (age 19)

The Ziegfeld Follies were lavish musical comedy revues that featured many of the big name stars of the day (including W.C. Fields, Ed Wynn,  Will Rogers,  Eddie Cantor, Eve Arden, Buddy Ebsen, Ray Bolger, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and Sophie Tucker) along with the famous Ziegfeld Girls (which included such future stars as Marion Davies, Paulette Goddard, Joan Blondell, and Barbara Stanwyck)


For more than 20 years Brice was often one of the stars of the Follies, although she worked other venues as well.  She was a successful recording star (most famous for Second Hand Rose, and My Man), and was a staple on radio from the mid-1930s until her death in 1951.


Along the way she appeared (often as herself) in a handful of movies, including Ziegfeld Follies of 1946 and the winner of the best picture of 1936, The Great Ziegfeld.


Brice died in 1951, and appeared only once on the fledging entertainment medium called television.  Had she lived longer, and done more TV, perhaps she’d be better remembered today.


Her best known character was `Baby Snooks’, and it would pretty much define the last 15 years of her performing life.  According to Brice, she developed the character as early as 1912 in Vaudeville, and performed in `baby clothes’ on Broadway in the Follies.

The story (or at least the legend) goes that in 1936, while scheduled to appear on the Ziegfeld Follies of the Air radio show, Brice forgot her dentures and couldn’t talk without a major lisp.   Under the gun, the writers quickly adapted a public domain sketch about a boy and his father to fit Brice’s Snookums character, and she went on in character.


The piece - about a mischievous little girl and her exasperated father – proved very popular, and soon Brice was performing new bits in the Snookums character on the the Good News Show in 1937, and later as a regular character on Maxwell House Coffee Time.

Brice would perform the character in costume (incongruously playing a little girl nearly 50 years her junior) even though she was only being seen by a small studio audience. 


In 1944, Brice got her own weekly radio series, which was eventually called Baby Snooks and Daddy.  Lancelot “Daddy” Higgins was memorably played by Henley Stafford. Other cast members included Lalive Brownell, Leone Ledoux, and Danny Thomas.


We’ll come back to Baby Snooks in a minute, but first some early recordings by Brice available from the Internet Archive.

Fanny Brice - My Man (1922) ver1 3.4 MB

Fanny Brice - My Man (1922) ver2 3.2 MB

Fanny Brice - Second Hand Rose 1921 1.5 MB

Fanny Brice - Cooking Breakfast For The One I Love
2.3 MB 

Fanny Brice - I'd Rather Be Blue Over You 1928 -  2.2 MB



Okay, so she wasn’t a Streisand.


Her main claim to fame was comedy, after all, but these highly stylized early recordings are not dissimilar from what you might have heard from the likes of Billy Murray or Ada Jones in the early 1920s.


Which brings us to well over 100 Baby Snooks sketches (mostly from Good News & Maxwell House Coffee Time), including dozens of full Baby Snooks and Daddy  shows from the 1940’s.


Since there are far too many to list, I’ll simply give you the link to listen to/or download these shows from.


While it is easy to dismiss Baby Snooks as a one-joke show (Baby Snooks drives Daddy to distraction with constant questions), Brice managed to turn in nuanced performances that allowed the Snooks character to be exasperating, without being malicious or `bratty’.  


Certainly worth giving a listen to, if for no other reason than to actually hear the real Fanny Brice, not the Hollywoodized version from the Funny Girl/Lady Movies.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Fatal Glass Of Beer




While neither of us were born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatello, Idaho . . . my brother and I did spend a fair amount of time growing up backstage of a  local community theatre where our parents sometimes performed (among other duties).

Dad also directed the summer show one year, built sets and designed a collapsible Gazebo for the finale of the play by the same name.



Over the years he and Mom appeared in various productions.  

The impact of those early, formative years was profound and evident to this day.

Brother Jim went on to a sucessful show business career  while I’ve been failing to set the literary world on fire for several decades. 

But I digress . . .


One of the staples of the `summer shows’ put on by this theatre group was the melodrama. 


I’m not sure how many times I saw Wm. H. Smith’s `The Drunkard’ from the wings, but it was often enough to indelibly etch the song `Supper was waiting for Daddy . . . ‘ in my brain.


This was the first, and arguably the most famous of the more than 100 temperance plays that were produced in American theaters between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s.


So in memory of those bygone days, I offer up an absolutely hilarious film staring the irrepressible W.C. Fields;


`The Fatal Glass of Beer’


By the time W.C. Fields made this comedy short in 1933 (the year prohibition was rescinded), these hoary tales of woe were decidedly outdated and laughable.


And so, masterfully, that’s exactly how Fields and company portray it. 

This 18 minute send up of old fashioned melodramas is an absolute hoot, and was every bit as much a parody of the genre as AIRPLANE! was of airline disaster movies of the 1970s.

The running gag, where Fields opens the door and exclaims "it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast!", followed by getting a face full of fake snow (obviously hand tossed from off stage) is classic Fields deadpan, and not to be missed.


This is quite possibly my favorite Fields short, so sit back, relax, and enjoy 18 minutes of pure comic genius.




Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Don Quixote: A Classic NPR Radio Mini Series




A bit of a quickie today.


During the 1980s, the Globe Radio Repertory on NPR’s (National Public Radio) Playhouse produced a series of radio mini-series based on classics works of fiction from such literary giants as Anton Chekov, Nikolai Gogol, and Gustav Flaubert.   


The first of these was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, and it played not only on NPR, but on many English speaking radio stations around the world over the next decade. 


It was also offered for purchase on audio cassette.


Comprised of 13 30-minute episodes, Don Quixote de la Mancha is extremely entertaining fare.   A faithful adaptation of the original work, but with dialog updated to be more familiar to the ears of the modern listeners.


You can find a  listing of the shows available  by the Globe Radio Repertory on the Internet Archive  at this link.



Next, I plan to give the 16 stories by Anton Chekov a listen, and after that, Madame Bovary.

Thus far, I’m very impressed with this series.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Askey, and Ye Shall Receive





For most Americans, their knowledge of British comedians begins with Monty Python and ends with Benny Hill. 


A pity, since the British Isles have produced a plethora of terrific music hall comedy performers such as Spike Milligan, George Formby, Morecambe and Wise, and Arthur Askey (to name just a few).


Many moved from the music hall stage into movies, radio, and television which gives us an opportunity to share in their unique brand of humor 50, 60, and even 70 years later.


Arthur Askey was one such versatile performer.  Born in Liverpool in the summer of 1900, he served in WWI and occasionally performed in entertainments. 


At the age of 24 he joined a concert party and began touring the music halls . . . essentially the British version of Vaudeville.  There he performed silly jokes, funny songs, and even sillier dances.


But it was in 1938 that he made his big splash as co-star (along with Richard Murdoch) of BBC radio’s first regular comedy program, called Band Waggon.  Unfortunately, very little of the pre-war BBC  broadcasts were preserved, and so there isn’t much to direct you to. 


The Internet Archive has one small collection of 1940s BBC radio programs which includes a single episode of Band Waggon  HERE.  This collection includes several episodes of It's That Man Again and Much Minding in the Marsh.



Band Waggon propelled Askey and Murdoch into the movies during the late 1930s and early 1940s with such offerings as:


  • I Thank You (1941) .... Arthur
  • The Ghost Train (1941) .... Tommy Gander
  • Charley's (Big-Hearted) Aunt (1940) .... Arthur Linden-Jones
  • Band Waggon (1940)  Arthur Askey




We’ve several of Askey’s movies to choose from on The Internet Archive, including: 



The Ghost Train (1941)

A strange mix of comedy and suspense, as travelers stranded overnight in a train station learn of a `Phantom Ghost Train’ that plies the rails at night.




King Arthur Was a Gentleman (1942)


In which Askey joins the Army to impress his girlfriend.  His mates trick him into believing a sword he finds is Excaliber, and it prompts him to go boldly into battle.  

Silly?   Well, yes.   But that’s Askey’s stock in trade.




Miss London Ltd. (1943)

Lastly we have a fast-paced and frenetic musical comedy with Askey involved in an Escort Service.



Okay, so he’ll never be mistaken for Noel Coward.   Still, these movies are great fun.


Despite moderate success, Askey’s movie career dried up in the late 1940s and he returned to the music halls from whence he came.  TV, however, would provide him with a whole new audience in the decade to come.

We’ve an example from his show, Before Your Very Eyes broadcast in 1956.   The elements of this sketch comedy show will be familiar to many American viewers, as the format is similar to the early variety shows in the US.



Before Your Very Eyes, Episode Aired 20 April 1956



This show even features a Dagmar-like sidekick (see The Original Late Night Variety Show) named Sabrina – whose real name was Norma Ann Sykes.  Famous more for her figure than her acting ability, Sabrina became somewhat of a phenomenon in England in the 1950s.


Aircrews of the 1950s dubbed some versions of the Hawker Hunter fighter plane, "Sabrinas" due to two large protuberances on the underbelly of the aircraft . . . a tribute not unlike the Dagmar bumpers on American cars of the 1950s.


As with Dagmar, fame did not persist for Sabrina, although she would appear in a few  low budget movies during the 1960s.


The Before Your Eyes show, however, translates quite well for American audiences.   Viewers may detect a hint of Skelton, Abbott & Costello, Jerry Lester, and even Groucho Marx in the antics of Askey and company.


The show ran from 1953 to 1958. Hopefully more episodes will surface on the Archive.   During the late 1950s Askey would make few more movies, but never matched his earlier TV success.


Askey would work more sparingly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, mostly doing guest shots on other people’s shows.   He is fondly remembered as a pioneer in radio, film and television.


Askey died in 1982.