Saturday, March 15, 2008
Before perversely re-entering the dark world of the prohibition era nightclubs on this sunny Saturday (at least in Hollywood, California) practically a century away, a couple of pressing tidbits. First a long overdue thank you to reader Vance Durgin for supplying me with the photo of the Movies 'Til Dawn logo (from the original KTLA airing) which you see at your right. Second, if you're interested in acquiring one or more of my two CD's of original music either click here or go to the right column and look for the new heading "Buy Raymond De Felitta's Music...Please". FYI--the first, titled "Movies 'Til Dawn" is all-original, all-swinging "new saloon" vocal/big band stuff that I composed and recorded in the mid 1990's. The second more recent CD, "Fatha Land", is a solo piano tribute by me honoring the great Earl "Fatha" Hines.
Next: if you're interested in credit sequences to films as I am (I wrote about two Saul Bass created Otto Preminger title sequences--see 11/26/07 in archives if you dare) then you must go to the always excellent Self Styled Siren for her very well written take on why credit sequences matter. In the interest of relentless self-promotion, it appears that I'm to be quoted in Marc Myers indispensible JazzWax tomorrow re: a meeting I had many years ago with the great pianist Jess Stacy. If you dig jazz you must visit Marc's extremely entertaining and handsomely mounted blog. Finally, if you're Jason, the goofy spammer who keeps sending me comments about your stupid site, I ask you: have you no sense of decency, sir? Please stop--because I'm too busy trying to live life, have a career in show-biz and write this blog to figure out how to block your sorry ass from my comments section. Enough said.
On the night of July 21, 1933, gossip columnist, man about Broadway and true, stone-hearted son-of-a-bitch Walter Winchell was knocked on his ass by singer, entertainer, blackface performer and exhaustingly self-consumed star of stage, screen and radio Al Jolson at the Hollywood American Legion stadium, where the fight matches were then held (boxing at that time occupying roughly the same place in Hollywood entertainment society that Lakers games do now). The reason? A film that had just been released which Winchell had provided the story line for called "Broadway Through A Keyhole" and which Jolson considered--not without valid reason--to be an invasion of privacy (and thus an attack) on him and his young wife Ruby Keeler.
The plot of the film--as authored by Winchell--revolves around a young nightclub singer, played by Constance Cummings, who is involved with the club's gangster owner Frank Rocci (played quite well by an actor named Paul Kelly about whom more needs to be known). But she falls in love with a singer--played by the increasingly fascinating (to me) Russ Columbo who finds himself facing down her gangster boss from the wrong end of a gun. I won't reveal the ending in part because I can't remember it--I haven't seen this movie in years but I remember enjoying it when I did. The point though is that this was precisely the story of Jolson and his wife Ruby Keeler, who began as a dancer in Texas Guinan's "Club 300" and with whom Jolson became smitten even though she was..."involved" with gangster Larry Fay at the time.
Who was Larry Fay? He was a seriously mobbed-up twenties gangland figure who seems to have been tight enough with the heat to keep his place, the El Fey Club, operating during the Prohibition era despite numerous raids--as well as allowing his chum Texas Guinan's "300 Club" to continue to operate after similar raids. Fay and Guinan were involved on a number of complicated levels and Fay certainly couldn't have been happy about Jolson--a mere song-and-dance man--horning in on Keeler, his barely legal action. Nonetheless the two men seemed to have ironed things out--I like to think that Texas' good-natured boozy earth mother act softened the blow to her sometime boyfriend Fay's ego and prevented Jolson from winding up in the East River. The story became Broadway lore--Fay being cast as a gangster with a heart of gold for letting young Ruby go off with her "true love" etc.--but for some reason Winchell's absorption and re-telling of it for the movies infuriated Jolson enough to hit him on that long-forgotten night at the American Legion Stadium. Why? Well, Jolson's ego--always massive and touchy--might be a good place to start. Having been famous for years for his stage and screen accomplishments, I would imagine that Jolie, by the mid-thirties, might have been sharp enough to see that the end of his prime celebrity years were now at hand; he had a young wife who was equally if not more popular than he at the time...he was more talked about for this lurid love triangle incident than for any of his recent movies...and damn it, if it was his life story up there on screen, why wasn't he credited? (Jolson put his name on any number of songs he didn't write but perhaps couldn't see the justice in having events of his own life credited to somebody else). And Walter Winchell was, let's face it, eminently punch-out-able.
Nor was this the only occasion on which this particular tale of Times Square After Dark--gangster spurned by girl he loves and comforted by boozy nightclub mistress--was fictionalized for the movies. In 1939, the tale was rehashed again in Raoul Walsh's very good "The Roaring Twenties"this time as seen from the point of view of the gangster, brilliantly played by James Cagney. Indeed, "The Roaring Twenties" provides something of a window on the relationship between Guinan and Fay--in the film the Texas character is played by Gladys George and called "Panama Smith" and the Ruby Keeler figure--the girl who Cagney loves but who can't love him in return--is portrayed by the treacly Priscilla Lane. Curiously, the author of the screen story (not the screenplay) of "The Roaring Twenties" was Mark Hellinger, a fellow Broadway columnist of the Winchell era who first resuscitated the Fay/Keeler/Joslon/Guinan tale for a short story he wrote called "The World Moves On", which he sold to Warner Brothers and which then became the basis for the script of "The Roaring Twenties". Did Jolson sock Hellinger too? Or did Winchell sock him first for ripping off "Broadway Through A Keyhole"?
So why have I given Texas Guinan, in my title for this post, the dubious distinction of being the toastmaster/auteur of this particular movie? Because it only could have come about due to the various intersections of people, places and events as provided by Guinan. BTAK is virtually a six-degrees-of-Texas Guinan event--her nightclub featured Keeler, her relationship with Fay brought him in to see her, her no doubt chumminess with Jolson opened that trap-door, her soothing words to Fay averted tragedy (although murdering Jolson might have made "The Jolson Story" a tad more interesting--it also would have kept Winchell from getting knocked on his ass) and her friendship and kinship with Broadway columnists Winchell and Hellinger insured that the story was properly aggrandized to the point of it being turned into two Hollywood movies--in one of which she appears as herself! Most importantly, BTAK features Texas in a screen performance--given in the last year of her life--that gives us the clearest look at this legendary figure and how she actually came off as a hostess; she's quite funny and salty and it's not hard, from this distance, to get a taste of the attutude that she purveyed that seemed to welcome everybody to the party at the same time as putting them all in their places.
Below are two superb clips from BTAK. Both contain songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Ravel (love that name--how about Eddie Shubert? Jack Chopin?), one of the hottest songwriting teams of the thirties. First up is "Doing The Uptown Lowdown", as sung by the fabulous Frances Williams, now mostly forgotten but in her heyday a very hip and sexy Broadway singer/showgirl (more about her soon in an upcoming post). You'll see Texas Guinan herself introduce the number--which Williams performs Marlene Dietrich-ishly clad in white tie and tails and accompanied by a decidedly sapphic all girl chorus. The second clip I've chosen because it features Russ Columbo doing two songs: "You're My Past Present and Future" which features a marvelously clever lyric by Gordon; and, after some by-play with Ruby Keeler--er--Constance Cummings--the charming duet "I Love You Pizicatto". (Both clips, by the way, are courtesy of the invaluble youtuber Stjn00 who appears to have cornered the market on "Broadway Through A Keyhole"). Columbo I've written about already--he deserves a real re-evaluation (but in lieu of that see my post of 1/13/08). The extremely appealing Constance Cummings was a young, singing Broadway star--originally from England--who Samuel Goldwyn brought to Hollywood at the dawn of sound and who was making a name for herself when, shortly after this movie, she decided that she didn't like Hollywood and went home to England. She's best remembered for her role as Ruth, the non-ghost wife, in David Lean's film of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit"--Coward, by the way, was of course "enchanted" by Guinan's club when he visited New York in the twenties. To round off the six-degrees-ness of it all, the actual script of BTAK was written by the team of Grahme Baker and Gene Towne--whose antic behavior (screenwriters as manic personalities?) inspired the play "Boy Meets Girl", which was filmed with Pat O'Brien and James Cagney playing the role the screenwriters of BTAK the year before Cagney was in Hellinger's "Roaring Twenties" which was based on what had originally been Winchell's screen story for...stop me, stop me, stop me!