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.
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 (pictured above) 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 squeeze. 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 wearing cement shoes in the East River.
"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 Schubert? 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". 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!
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