Tag Archives: Sophie Tucker

Happy Birthday, George S. Kaufman!

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915.

George S. Kaufman was born on this day, November 16, one hundred and twenty-five years ago. Kaufman has been a hero of mine since my Sophomore year in high school. During a run-through of a school production of “Born Yesterday,” I changed the wording of one line I’d been struggling with. The director/drama teacher, Mr H[orton]. B[urbank]. Rideout, objected: “Speak the author’s words, not your own.” “But I can’t make it sound natural the way it’s written. Why can’t I say it my way?” Mr Rideout replied, “For several excellent reasons, which you’ll find in Moss Hart’s ‘Act One.’ That’s your homework assignment: read ‘Act One’ by next Friday. Then we’ll talk.” I was indignant: he was totally unreasonable; I was damned if I’d read it. We had a copy of the book at home, but what of that? The following Friday, he asked if I had finished reading it. I gave him a choice piece of air: “Haven’t even started.” The way I remember it, steam shot from his ears. “Do you think I’m playing games with you? I demand that you read that book! If you don’t, as God is my witness, I’ll flunk you! That’s not a threat: that’s a promise.” When I got home that afternoon, I snatched my mother’s paperback copy from the bookshelf and, feeling every inch the martyr, began to read. After three pages, I was engrossed; halfway through, when George S. Kaufman made his first appearance, I became completely besotted. By the last page, Kaufman had become my idol. In my Senior year, Mr Rideout told me he had predicted my reaction: “I didn’t know how you’d feel about Hart, but I knew in my bones that Kaufman was the fellow for you.” After “Act One,” I read everything I could find about George S. Kaufman — to the exclusion of everything else, I’m afraid — until about five years later, when I decided to check out William Shakespeare, to see if he was up to anything.

Though George S. Kaufman is not a household name, his plays are still regularly performed all over the world (his Pulitzer Prize winning collaboration with Moss Hart, “You Can’t Take It with You,” is currently on Broadway), and his influence on the Broadway theatre and American comedy cannot be overstated. His first hit, “Dulcy,” opened in 1921; his last hit, “Silk Stockings” (music and lyrics by Cole Porter), closed in 1956. In the intervening thirty-five years, Kaufman wrote seventeen hit shows, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and directed many more, including the original “Of Mice and Men” and “Guys and Dolls” (for which he won the Tony Award). Yet the sad fact is that little of his work has aged well. Today, his craftsmanship and wit continue to be held in the highest regard, but many of his best jokes require a fairly intimate knowledge of the personalities and events of a long ago era. Unless you’re a student of the social, political and entertainment history of New York City from the years 1921 to 1955, you’re liable to miss at least half of the first-rate gags in Kaufman’s plays. Urbane, sophisticated comedy is nearly always loaded with topical humor; as a rule, it ages about as well as fish.

June Moon

Kaufman couldn’t bear to be praised, and I’ve no wish to offend his dust. I only want to remember him on his birthday. Perhaps another time, I’ll post a collection of his witty remarks (e.g., he hated to fly: “I like terra firma: the more firma, the less terra.”). For now, here are three clips from a 1974 television production of “June Moon,” which Kaufman wrote with Ring Lardner. The play opened on October 9, 1929, and was a solid enough hit to survive the stock market crash. It’s a satire about Tin Pan Alley (the term itself now belongs to antiquity). Both Kaufman and Lardner had a weakness for writing humorous verse; “June Moon” gave them plenty of opportunity to scratch that itch. Though not Kaufman’s best work, it’s a fine example of the sort of hit comedies he wrote. What it lacks in greatness, it makes up for in amiability.

These clips also let you see how Stephen Sondheim fares as an actor. Sondheim, apparently, was somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing (he owed a favor to the producer, Burt Shevelove). Possibly a first-rate comic actor would do better, but Sondheim’s pretty damn good, certainly no worse than the other actors, including Jack Cassidy, Estelle Parsons, Austin Pendleton, Kevin McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. In the forties, Sondheim’s part would have been played by Oscar Levant; he’s much better than Levant; his deadpan delivery is often exactly right. The hero of the piece is a rube from Schenectady named Fred (Tom Fitzsimmons), who comes to New York City to pursue his dream of writing lyrics for hit songs. Fitzsimmons has a nice innocent face and a sweet manner, but he overplays the naïve saphead shtick; his over-emphatic delivery reminds me of Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed,” and his gait, of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Had Kaufman been alive to direct this production, Fitzsimmons would have never been allowed to get up to such nonsense. When an actor goes this far overboard, I blame the director. Here Fred meets Maxie (Sondheim), a professional pianist, at the home of Fred’s collaborator, Paul (Jack Cassidy). When Fred begins to sing, see if you agree that Maxie’s accompaniment sounds like about ninety percent of the tunes John Kander wrote for “Chicago.”

Every one of Maxie’s lines has Kaufman’s voice in it. Kaufman’s critics and admirers often refer to his humor as being cynical; to my ear, it’s a bit sterner, truer and less sunny than cynicism. Cynicism has an element of hope cringing within it, it’s a way of lowering one’s expectations, while secretly hoping for the best. Cynics are usually optimists who try to forestall misfortune by predicting it, like the sort of people who superstitiously carry an umbrella so that it won’t rain. Kaufman’s wit isn’t cynical; it’s pessimistic: the weariness he expresses is not cynicism but gloom, based on hard experience; unlike a cynic, he’s sure to be right. When Fred says “I haven’t got the second verse yet,” Maxie’s gloomy prediction, “You won’t need one,” is funny not because it’s cynical, but because it’s true.

This next clip is from the beginning of Act II. Fred and Paul have completed “June Moon.” Fred is at the music publisher’s office with Maxie, waiting to audition the song for the head of the company, Mr Hart.

The short exchange about “Swanee River” is characteristically Kaufman — Sophie Tucker in “Strange Interlude” is unmistakably Kaufmanesque humor — and would have gotten a huge laugh back in 1929. (If the line hadn’t gotten a laugh, Kaufman would have replaced it with one that did.) But there are a few things you need to know for the joke to land. First, you have to know who Sophie Tucker was. (I heard a wag sum up Tucker’s career this way: “First she could no longer hit the high notes. Then she could no longer hit the low notes. Then she told dirty jokes. Then she waved the flag.”) You have to know that “the woman [girl, in the script] . . . that sits on the piano” refers to Helen Morgan, and you have to know who Helen Morgan was. You have to know that Helen Morgan played Julie in “Show Boat,” and sang “Bill” while sitting on a piano. You have to recognize that “Swanee River” is not from “Show Boat,” and consider it to be a preposterously stupid error to make. You have to know that “Strange Interlude” is an extremely long, serious, experimental psychological drama by Eugene O’Neill (the characters speak their subconscious thoughts aloud in long, disjointed monologues), and is therefore the last show that Sophie Tucker would ever appear in. The joke’s even better if you know that “Strange Interlude” was still running on Broadway when “June Moon” opened, and that it starred Lynn Fontanne, whose first big hit was in Kaufman’s first big hit, “Dulcy.” (The line is Kaufman’s way of kidding his old friend Fontanne; years later, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” made an entire evening out of such inside gags.) It also helps to know that “Strange Interlude” was treated with enormous respect in 1928-1929 (even though it must have bored the brains out of nearly everyone); everyone, between yawns, hailed it as a milestone in American Drama. It’s entirely possible that “June Moon” was the first time anyone poked fun at “Strange Interlude,” which would have given a lot of bite to the gag. One year later, when Scribners published “June Moon,” the line had already been changed — it was too topical. Nobody in the hinterlands knew anything about “Strange Interlude” and audiences in New York had long since forgotten about it. In the Scribners’ edition, the line reads “You’re thinking of Ruby Keeler in ‘The Wild Duck.’ ” Keeler and the Ibsen play are perhaps slightly more familiar to modern audiences, but the original gag is echt Kaufman and ten times funnier. The revision is probably Kaufman’s, but I’d say his heart wasn’t in it.

Now we hear the result of the first collaboration between Paul the tunesmith and Fred the saphead lyricist. Lardner wrote the music; Kaufman collaborated on the lyrics. I think you’ll agree that Fitzsimmons is better when he’s singing, because he stops overdoing the yokel bit.

The tune is decidedly second-rate, and the lyrics are idiotic, almost brutally awkward, but their ineptitude is matched by their earnestness, which is a nice touch, and surely not accidental. It allows us to have little respect for the songwriters’ abilities, but to be beguiled by their ambition and sincerity. Unlike the appalling stuff that the rival composer (played by Austin Pendleton) writes, “June Moon” is not beneath contempt. And when it becomes a huge hit, it’s easy to think of hit songs that have been much worse.

In this next clip, the music publisher, Mr Hart (Kevin McCarthy), is about to hear “June Moon” for the first time, but there’s one interruption after another. This clip begins after the second or third interruption.

A Night at the Opera

Kaufman is not well represented in Hollywood. He directed one picture, “The Senator Was Indiscreet,” but it’s not good: Kaufman didn’t know enough about pictures to do a first class job. The screen adaptations of his stage plays are almost without exception terrible. “A Night at the Opera” must certainly be Kaufman’s best Hollywood effort, but it’s not adapted from a stage show. I selected the three short clips below for two basic reasons: (1) they strike me as being the most representative of Kaufman’s sense of humor; and (2) they contain some of my favorite lines in the picture. You won’t find the famous stateroom scene below. Kaufman didn’t write it, but he whole-heartedly approved. Al Boasberg wrote it, without credit.

Otis B. Driftwood Doesn’t Quite Dine with Mrs Claypool


Mrs Claypool is Margaret Dumont, of course. My favorite line in the scene is Groucho’s: “Waiter, have you got any milk-fed chicken? Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.”

Otis B. Driftwood Asks il Signor Lassparri a Friendly Question


Walter Woolf King plays the swinish tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri (which name was lifted, many years later, for comic purposes in the Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando vehicle “The Freshman”). Favorite line: “Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?”

Otis B. Driftwood Speaks with Mr Henderson


Henderson is played by Robert Emmett O’Connor. Favorite line (in answer to “I’m Henderson, plainclothesman”): “You look more like an old clothesman to me.”

All three of these lines are exemplars of Kaufman’s style of humor. The adjective most frequently used to describe Kaufman’s wit is acerbic. He certainly said many acerbic things, but I don’t think it’s the most distinguishing characteristic of his style. It’s his ability to inject absurdity in places where you least expect it. He had a long, rancorous feud with producer/director Jed Harris, of whom he once said “When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Jed Harris’ face.” That’s an acerbic remark, but the more interesting aspect is the weirdness of the image. It’s an acerbic remark to tell Henderson he dresses badly, but to call him an “old clothesman” puts language to an eccentric use — that’s what makes it sound like Kaufman. Of course, Morrie Ryskind may have written any one or all three of them: the point is they all sound like Kaufman; they don’t sound like anybody else (except Groucho, who idolized him); they match his personality and temperament. Kaufman never claimed authorship of any individual line or gag when he worked with collaborators. Partly, it was modesty; partly, it was because he was a true collaborator, which means that every line was likely to bear traces of Kaufman and his collaborator — except for love scenes, which Kaufman revised, but didn’t write. He was never at home with romantic scenes: he understood their importance, but hated to write them. It was one reason he nearly always worked with a collaborator.

Good Songs in Cruddy Pictures

I’ve never been any good at finding treasures at flea markets, thrift stores or junk shops. Some people have a remarkable talent for detecting a Rembrandt in the midst of a clutter of paintings of poker-playing dogs and gloomy clowns. Not me: all I see is junk. The same was true about motion pictures until DVDs came along. Only then did I begin to realize that a lot of great songs and routines are to be found in some of the worst musicals and TV shows. Here are seven examples of numbers that I think are much better than their surroundings.

Thank Your Lucky Stars 

Original poster.

Original poster.

“Thank Your Lucky Stars” is one of Warner Bros.’ many wartime morale-boosting revues. This one features an exasperating storyline and Eddie Cantor at his most tiresome, twice:  he plays himself and a schlemiel who looks just like him. Oy. Yet there are several good numbers in it that make it worth knowing. Here’s the one I like best, featuring va-va-va-voom Ann Sheridan.

Love Isn’t Born (It’s Made)

Till the Clouds Roll By

1946 Advertisement.

1946 Advertisement.

“Till the Clouds Roll By” is an almost unbelievably bad picture. It purports to be a biography of Jerome Kern, and stars that legend of the Jewish Rialto, Robert Walker. It is possibly the worst of all the A-list Arthur Freed musicals (“Yolanda and the Thief” is equally bad, and it’s creepy in a way this one isn’t, but it at least has a certain demented imagination). “Till the Clouds Roll By” . . . Clouds? What clouds? This picture is devoid of dramatic tension of any kind. Will the nice young lady marry Jerry Kern? Why, yes! Will his music find favor in England? Why, yes! Will he find success on Broadway? Why, yes!  On his very first time out? Why, yes! Will Jerry’s fictional loser friend be jealous of his great success? Why, no! As far as I can remember — it’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit through the whole wretched mess — the biggest drama occurs in the scene that begins with Jerry’s astonished voice-over: “I never thought I’d ever keep . . . a scrap-book!” He gives his no-talent, no-count goddaughter (Lucille Bremer, for once in a part that fits) a break — a small part in a show — then has to take her song away from her — but it’s Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland) who does the dirty work for him.  The girl kicks up a rumpus and Jerry has to scold her: “There’s a little thing called . . . ‘the Good-of-the-Show,’ ” etc.  That’s it. The girl cries, then repents. So much for turmoil.  Even the names of his shows are free of drama: “Hitchy-Koo” . . . ! “Toot Toot!” . . . ! “She’s a Good Fellow” . . . ! “Night Boat” . . . !  “Good Morning Dearie” . . . ! But it has several wonderful numbers in it. This one’s my favorite, and it’s the only time I’ve ever heard anyone sing the verse, which is lovely.

Look for the Silver Lining

It Happened in Brooklyn

TCM Promo.

TCM Promo.

An appalling picture, very nearly unwatchable. Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford play a pair of sadsacks just back from World War II, whom no girls want to date. They’re bashful, you see . . . Jimmy Durante is Cupid. Why go on? Yet about forty minutes in, Sinatra introduces one of Jule Styne’s best songs; his performance, in my opinion, is the best of his career.

Time after Time

Small Town Girl

Original poster.

Original poster.

One of the sticky sweet concoctions from the Joe Pasternak unit at Metro. Pasternak went in for the cotton candy operetta white picket fence Americana-style kitsch. In this one, there are several bizarre elements. In the first place, it’s directed by Busby Berkeley, who incorporated a few lunatic ideas into it — as for instance, the Ann Miller number “Gotta Hear That Beat,” in which all the musicians are under the floor, with their arms extending through holes and holding onto their instruments. It’s very weird . . . and pointless. Miller taps around them like crazy. Apparently, this was a difficult number to film and the ordeal of extending one’s arms through the holes while sweltering below was an excruciating torture. At any rate, the effect, though bizarre, isn’t arresting enough to make the torture seem worth the trouble and agony.

Another oddity is the following number, in which Bobby Van, having just received some excellent news, gleefully hops across Metro’s backlot Connecticut village in three or four very long takes. Along the way, he’s a public nuisance: he forces his attentions on nearly everyone who crosses his path, shakes maracas at a baby in a pram, rattles a parrot’s cage, upsets a horse, robs a fruiterer, sets loose a pack of strays from the dogcatcher’s paddy wagon, etc. The townspeople seem to think he’s adorable, so it’s easy to find his misdemeanors charming and commendable — but it’s awfully strange to see such wanton outlawry being winked at in Old Man Mayer’s law-abiding backlot.  Pay close attention to the little dog in the final seconds — at approximately 2:53. On cue, he jerks himself up onto his hind legs, then skips unsteadily across the street with Bobby, but loses his balance short of the opposite curb and lands on his fore-paws.  When he rises up again, he strains to catch up to the action, executes a sweet little hop over the curb, only to fall down on all fours again . . . then turns miserably in the wrong direction, his back to the camera, tail wagging like mad and scampers awkwardly out of frame — no doubt toward his irate master, who you just know is waiting for him round the corner, brandishing a rolled-up newspaper.  It’s terribly poignant, the way his tail curls down, still wagging, just as he totters off to his doom — I’ve been laughing about it for years. See for yourself.

Take Me to Broadway

Yet there’s an even weirder number that made its way into the picture. First, you must understand that the small town where the action takes place is the Whitest place on the planet.  It’s the coyest, whitest, most virginal little hick-town ever to be incorporated on the lily-white backlot of MGM. Yet smack in the center of the story, a judge’s daughter (Jane Powell), in cahoots with the local turnkey (Connecticut Yankee Chill Wills), lets a man (handsome eunuch Farley Granger) out of jail and accompanies him to an after-hours nightclub where Nat “King” Cole sings this sultry song. The following day, she stays in her pink bedroom in her pink flannel nightie and listens to the song on her nightstand radio. All by itself, this song doesn’t seem as weird as it does in the context of this parallel Whites Only Universe of MGM Small Town America.  What is the blackest man in America doing in the whitest girl in America’s bedroom on the backlot of All-White Metro? The only thing lost out of context is its weirdness. But in or out of context, Nat “King” Cole is fantastic.

My Flaming Heart

And here’s another Bobby Van number. I make no claim that it’s great, only that the energy and pizzazz are remarkable. André Previn conducts, and the Metro orchestra is on fire.  And even if there were not all that great hoofing to make it memorable (the first time I saw it on TCM, I couldn’t get over it), there is Bobby Van’s awesome wasabi-colored jacket, which is the greatest sports jacket I’ve ever seen. I also get a kick out of the girl at the beginning who sings/croaks “We wonder how we ever let the fella get away” . . .

Fine Fine Fine

The Judy Garland Show

This one is cheating a bit, since this song isn’t from a movie, but “The Judy Garland Show,” which was usually quite terrible.  This episode, in particular, was atrocious — Steve Allen did nearly ten minutes about his new musical concerning the life of Sophie Tucker (the show ran exactly eight performances — April 15, 1963 – April 20, 1963:  good riddance to bad rubbish); Mel Tormé, in a tuxedo with ruffled shirt and high-water slacks, sang the Ray Charles’ hit, “I’m Comin’ Home,” on a set filled with white motorcycles; female dancers vogued about him in elaborate hairdos and white gowns, while he was all finger-poppin’ and “with it” — perhaps the funniest (unintentionally) number of all time. (You can find it for yourself on YouTube; I won’t have it here:  to quote the aggrieved elevator-man, Clancy, from Cheever’s “Clancy in the Tower of Babel”: “I’m not taking that up in my car!”) Then at the end of the show, Judy Garland belted out this song by corny old Vincent Youmans, and it’s unforgettable. It always makes my hair stand on end, no matter how often I hear it. Every single atom of her is committed to the material. It has been said that “Through the Years” was her favorite song.  And why not?

Through the Years