Virginia O’Brien: An Appreciation

There have been many entertainers in Hollywood’s long history who, for one reason or another, and despite their talents, weren’t quite able to achieve or maintain the kind of first-tier stardom that our most famous show business legends have enjoyed, even decades after their heyday. It could be said that Virginia O’Brien was one of those entertainers, and who could have been an even bigger star than she was in her prime.

She possessed one of the most distinctive–and funniest–singing styles of all popular singers throughout the 1940s and beyond, and carved a unique niche for herself as a comic performer, known for maintaining a deadpan, unblinking expression as she sang, regardless of a song’s lyrics or tempo. It earned her nicknames such as “The Diva of Deadpan” and “Miss Frozen Face” early in her career.

Born in 1919 in Los Angeles, she first made a name for herself while appearing in an L.A. production of the musical Meet The People.  As legend has it, her opening night jitters grew into full-fledged stage fright, to the point where she could do little more onstage than sing with a completely blank, frozen expression on her face.  It was a hit with the audience, who assumed she was doing it as a gag.

Soon afterward, she got her big break when MGM signed her as a contract player in 1940.  Just before beginning her stay at studio, she appeared on Broadway in the Jimmy Durante review Keep Off the Grass. Variety described her as “a deadpan singer who convulses the audience by removing the ecstasy from high pressure music.”

However, MGM either didn’t know quite what to do with Virginia, or simply chose to use her in a severely limited capacity.  Her sole requirement, more often than not, was to sing a novelty song or two in her trademark style, and perhaps toss a few pithy one-liners, without having much involvement in the plot.  But she never failed to shine with the limited screen time she was given, and succeeded in making a name for herself among movie-goers with the opportunities she had.

She appeared in 17 MGM films between 1940-48, averaging two or three per year, with a high of four in 1946 alone.  She played alongside the likes of Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, and Lucille Ball. One of her earliest appearances came in the 1941 Marx Brothers film The Big Store.  The brothers’ film career was on the downward slide at the time, but O’Brien, young and strikingly beautiful, shined in her brief role as a department store salesgirl. As part of an overblown production number,

“Sing While You Sell,” she gives one of her funniest “frozen face” singing performances of her career, performing a swing version of “Rock-a-bye Baby” (while rather forcefully rocking a small cradle at her side). At the end of the number, Virginia and Groucho enter an elevator, and as the door closes it’s clear that she can’t restrain herself, and lets out a smile.  When asked years later what Groucho said to her, she thought for a moment and said, “Probably something dirty.”

The following year, she appeared in the first of five films throughout the ’40s that served as vehicles for Red Skelton, in which Virginia wisely moved beyond her “frozen face” routine. Some of her more memorable singing performances from the Skelton films include “Did I Get Stinkin’ at the Club

“Salome.”

Savoy” (from 1942’s Ship Ahoy), and “Salome,” (from Du Barry Was A Lady, the following year), a number in which she gracefully glides her svelte figure across a nightclub dance floor while singing with considerable (and amusing) expression–confirming that her talents weren’t limited to her deadpan schtick.

In 1942, she married Kirk Alyn, who would become best known for being Hollywood’s first actor to play Superman on film, beginning with a 15-part serial in 1948. They had two daughters and a son together, but divorced in 1955 (Virginia had two more marriages since, and had another daughter).

The spooky fade-out shot of “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again.”

The 1944 film version of Meet The People features Virginia performing “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again,” a song with some of the most bizarre and gruesome set of lyrics ever written.  In it, she serenades her absent lover (by singing to an empty chair at the kitchen table), and lightheartedly speaks of his rather vicious homicidal tendencies toward her. Virginia manages to make it delightfully comical despite the cringe-worthy lyrics.

When given the chance, she displayed her comic acting skills well. Merton of the Movies, a 1947 Skelton picture set in the silent film era, gives Virginia considerable screen time as Phyllis Montague, an actress who takes bumpkin actor Merton (Skelton) under her wing, as the film studio struggles to make him a silent picture star.  As his chaperone of sorts, Phyllis teaches Merton the ropes of moviemaking–and, in the process, also teaches him how to kiss.

The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was less than impressed with the film overall, but conceded that Skelton “does manage to massage one’s funnybone in the kissing lesson sequence with Virginia O’Brien…Miss O’Brien, by the way, provides competent support as the sympathetic actress who takes the gullible Merton in tow in Hollywood.” Variety went several steps further:  “Virginia O’Brien proves herself a capable leading lady without recourse to deadpan vocaling [sic].  The erstwhile canary doesn’t have a number to chirp throughout and sells herself strictly on talent merits in the romantic lead opposite Skelton.  The manner in which she delivers should further her career.”

MGM decided in not to renew Virginia’s contract in 1948, after which she continued performing live, and ventured into television.  On December 8, 1949, she made her TV debut on The Ed Wynn Show (the first TV stop for many top entertainers of the time).  After engaging in a bit of banter with Wynn,  she launched into “Bird in a Guilded Cage.” Her friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were reportedly in the studio audience, watching from their balcony seats (they would also be Wynn’s guests just two weeks later).

Virginia appeared in only two more films, nearly 20 years apart: Francis in the Navy (1955), and Gus (1976), while continuing to perform in nightclubs, nostalgic revues with others from an earlier era, and in an occasional musical.

Entertainment historian and author Bill Cassara, member of the Laurel & Hardy fan organization Sons of the Desert and founder of its “tent” in Monterey, California, recalls a time when Virginia was a guest at one of the tent’s anniversary banquets.

“This was in the mid-80s, and every year we’d try to get celebrities—someone meaningful to Laurel & Hardy or the old-time movies.  In 1988, we were able to get Virginia O’Brien up, along with the producer of her latest LP collection of her hits. He drove her up with her husband. The night before the banquet, we received them and the other special guests at my house in Monterey. At some point in the evening, we put on her newly-pressed album. Everyone was in a good mood, and she started belting out simultaneously with her recorded vocals—it was a special moment.”

Virginia passed away at age 81 in January of 2001, leaving behind an often overlooked but fun-filled legacy of music and laughter.  Not many stars of any era have been able to do produce both, and at the same time.

Until next week…

Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?

 

Comedy teams don’t really exist anymore–and that’s a mystery of sorts. They were quite plentiful throughout most of the 20th century–on the stage, in films, on radio, and TV. But they’ve become virtually extinct. It could be argued that the style of comedy that teams once offered has become outdated, but what’s to keep a new team today from collaborating and performing with a fresh approach?

Vaudeville and burlesque provided the training ground for most comedy teams in the early decades of the century, even those we associate more closely with films or radio. Many teams from that time would not likely ring a bell: Weber & Fields (phenomenally popular at the turn of the century) or Smith & Dale, and their brilliant “Dr. Kronkite” sketch, for instance.

And teams came in a variety of guises. Some consisted of two partners (such as Abbott & Costello), some had three (the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, the Marx Brothers–not counting Zeppo). Some were married to each other (George Burns & Gracie Allen). One team, created to star in their own series of comedy shorts, consisted to two women (Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts, discussed in an earlier blog of mine). Most teams also clearly identified the straight man and comic, but with others, that distinction  wasn’t so clear, or didn’t exist

at all. With Laurel & Hardy, the greatest comedy team of all time (not opinion, just simple fact), there were no set straight man/comic roles, because each made their audiences laugh, if for different reasons. Stan might accidently demolish a piece of Ollie’s furniture, which would be good for a big laugh, but then we’d see Ollie’s exasperated look to the camera, which would provide another laugh. Or, he might retaliate by throwing an object at Stan in anger, only to have said object bounce off the wall and hit Ollie in the head. No straight man per se, but twice the laughs.

Bert Wheeler (left) and Robert Woolsey.

Other teams were popular on stage and in films in the 1930s, but are scarcely remembered today, which is a shame. But on YouTube and elsewhere, you can still discover the likes of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey (Wheeler as a somewhat naïve but good-natured lad, Woolsey as the fast-talking schemer),  and Bobby Clark & Paul

Bobby Clark sported painted-on eyeglasses, much like Groucho’s greasepaint moustache.

McCullough (Clark as the chatty, boisterous instigator, McCullough as his amused follower). Both teams flourished into the mid-’30s, until McCullough took his own life in 1935, and Robert Woolsey died in 1938.

The post-World War II years brought us Martin & Lewis–and a few poor imitations–whose energetic nightclub shows often bordered on delirium. Dean crooned as good as he played straight for Jerry, who could be relied upon to

interrupt Dean’s songs in the most outrageous ways, such as bounding onto the stage mid-tune dressed as a waiter carrying a tray full of dishes (which might soon be reduced to rubble). They first teamed in 1946, made a number of films that sent them to the top of the box office mountain, and hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC in the early ’50s, before parting in 1956,exactly ten years after forming the team–and the same year Abbott & Costello also called it quits.

Speaking of Abbott & Costello, it behooves us (and I don’t use the word “behooves” lightly) to not only praise their chemistry as a team, but to appreciate Bud Abbott in particular as the greatest straightman who ever lived. By the time he and Lou first teamed up in 1936, Bud already had an encyclopedic knowledge of vaudeville and burlesque comedy routines, many of which he taught Lou in their early days. And, to show how skilled a

straight man he was, consider the immortal “Who’s On First?” routine. It’s still up to debate as to whether the team wrote it themselves (with their longtime writer, John Grant), or more likely developed it as an amalgam of other routines that indulged in varying versions of “who” and “what” wordplay. But the next time you watch or listen to Bud & Lou perform the routine (again, easily seen on YouTube), consider this: For years, audiences enjoying the two banter back & forth at breakneck speed about the players’ names on a baseball team, were laughing mostly at Bud without even realizing it. Notice that it is Lou who is asking the questions, while Bud, explaining the players’ names, provides the answers/punch lines. Of course, Lou’s growing confusion and exasperation throughout is wonderful, but don’t underestimate Bud Abbott’s talents as a straightman. There was none better. Lou got the laughs, but Bud served them up on a silver platter.

The later decades of the century produced more comedy teams, most often seen on television. The Smothers Brothers’ unique blend of folk singing and onstage arguments–with child-like Tommy deliberately causing a song to veer off-course, causing an interruption during which Dick would brilliantly berate his brother’s behavior– earned them not only an avid following in clubs, but also a short-lived sitcom in 1965. Their variety show, beginning in 1967, became a hurricane of controversy on more than one occasion, as the brothers themselves, plus an assortment of their musical and comedy guests, dared to include political commentary in their performances (mostly in protest against the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration), which eventually led to the team’s dismissal from CBS.

In the same era, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hit it big as the hosts of Laugh-In, after having struggled for years in small-time clubs before eventually breaking into the big time. Dick’s imbecilic, girl-chasing persona was swiftly challenged by Dan’s calm, knowledgeable demeanor (talk about a great straight man. Dan, like Dick Smothers, was severely underrated).

Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber also made a number of memorable appearances on TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s, mostly with variations of their “Taxi Driver and Passenger” routine, with Schreiber as a weary cab driver who always seems to get irksome chatterbox Burns as a passenger. The team did well as guests on programs like The Flip Wilson Show, as well as on their own summer replacement variety show in 1973. They also recorded “The Watergate Comedy Hour” album that year.

The era of the comedy team pretty much ended when the Smothers Brothers retired from show business in 2010. Again, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why comedy teams have died out. But it’s also satisfying to acknowledge, and still enjoy, those teams who contributed so much to the history of great comedy in the past century.

Until next week(?)….

 

 

 

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” 10th Anniversary

This month marks ten years since the release of my book “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” (Santa Monica Press). It’s an oral history of Beatlemania, as told by over forty fans from across the country whom I had the pleasure to interview, and hear their stories. I’ve always felt a little odd referring to myself as the “author” of this book, since most of the words are those of the interviewees, who told me of their first-hand experiences as teens during the Beatlemania era and the years beyond. They are the true stars of the book.

It’s not easy to come to grips with the fact that our collective, personal memories of the Beatles have surpassed the fifty-year mark. Ringo joined the group in 1962, Beatlemania hit the U.S. in early ’64, and the group’s astonishing evolution took place over the next six years. We’re even fast-approaching the 50th anniversary of Apple, the Beatles’ own recording label and studio. The famous address at 3 Savile Row in London  attracted loyal fans known as “Apple scruffs,” who lingered on the steps of the building to await the Beatles’ arrivals and departures–and who have been immortalized in a song by George.

I managed to find the contributors to “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” through a variety of means, and had a wonderful time hearing them relate their memories of what it was like to be young and delirious with excitement over the Beatles at that time. Some told me about the record parties they held in their basements, others recalled going to great lengths just to catch a glimpse of the group at airport terminals, hotel lobbies, or press conferences, or remembering they were and what they were doing when they heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio.  And, of course, there were stories of the concerts themselves that Beatles performed across the country between 1964 and ’66. Those young fans, who were lucky enough to attend a Beatles concert, still consider it a highlight of their lives to this day.

The book was born out of an article I wrote for Beatlefan magazine in 2005, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the legendary Shea Stadium concert in New York. After finding a few attendees of that historic event in music history, I decided to keep going, with the hope of turning this into some sort of book, and I continued my search for others who had similar memories of being Beatles fans throughout the group’s existence. It wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet, that’s for sure. Web sites and message boards about the Beatles led me to many fascinating stories.

Displaying the scrapbook on TV for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, 2014.

I also found people by examining original newspaper articles from the height of Beatlemania, and managed to track down some the very same people who were who were interviewed and/or pictured at the time. I also have a “famous” scrapbook, kept by a teenage girl in the Boston area throughout the Beatlemania years. She managed cut and paste (the old-fashioned way) just about every newspaper and magazine clipping about the Beatles from the Boston and New York newspapers, and lovingly set them onto black construction paper pages. Sometime in the 1980s, my parents bought the scrapbook in an antique store in New York State, or Massachusetts, and brought it home.

Discussing the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

As I searched through the pages and pages of articles, I noticed that, in many instances, the stories in which the fans were interviewed actually included their full names and home addresses! I’ll never forget having the scrapbook sitting open on my lap, with the online white pages on my computer screen. More than once, I entered in the family name and address mentioned in the article, and found the same name at the same address in an online white pages listing, forty years after the fact. I sent out letters, asking the whereabouts of the person in the article, and managed to get in touch with one or two that way.

With hours and hours of phone interviews recorded, I transcribed each conversation virtually intact, and assembled them in the chronological order of the events and stories each participant had related to me.  The finished work, then, tells the story of the Beatles from the fans’ point of view, beginning with the first word about them reaching America, to their break-up, and the years afterward. Many of the participants sent me photos of themselves as teens, in the stands at the concerts, and/or beside their own beloved Beatles collections. Those are, of course, included in the book.

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” had its debut of sorts at the 2008 Beatlefest in March of that year. I also arranged, with Fest promoter Mark Lapidos, to invite the contributors to the book to attend and take part in panel discussions, during which they could tell their stories in person to an audience. About a dozen of the contributors were able to make the journey from near and far, and took part

in two panels throughout the weekend. Even though they hadn’t met each other before, their common love for the Beatles, and the accompanying memories of the Fab Four, made them fast friends. And, a decade later, I still keep in touch with several of them fairly regularly.

There have been times in the past ten years when I’d try to think of a possible new book I might be able to write about the Beatles, only to see an ongoing flow of Beatles-related books continuing to land on the bookstore shelves and online retailers, focusing on just about every possible aspect of the group’s existence, no matter how narrow the topic as it might relate to their career. Obviously, the well has yet to run dry, but to me, it’s getting pretty close. I’m glad I managed to find the right approach to the Beatles’ unique career in a way that suited me, and, it seems, a good number of their lifelong fans.

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of We’re Going to See the Beatles! just leave your favorite Beatles memory in the comment section here. One entry per person. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. on March 11. Winners will be announced in next Monday’s blog!